EDITORIAL: An honor roll of the best movies about college
With the back-to-school season in full swing, an editorial initiative came down the pipe my way from Examiner.com (where my work gets published) to write about a guide to college. As a movie guy, my brain went straight to the indelible and unforgettable lines, images, and scenes of the great college movies that Hollywood has produced. When I closed my eyes on the idea, I heard a Lewis Skolnick laugh, Otis Day and the Knights music, and "We're going streaking!" Ah, college. To put my creativity to use and honor both the gods of education and beer, I've arranged three "honor roll six-packs" of the best college movies. If I say "Dean's List," WGN's Dean Richards is liable to hunt me down. Enjoy!
SUMMA CUM LAUDE
We could talk about academics and the wonderful learning that takes place in college to shape young and eager minds into contributing and successful members, but we would be fooling ourselves. For most of us, college was a party. It was our first freedom from home and the setting for many bad (and some not-so-bad) choices. When you think of college movies, you don't think of Mona Lisa Smile. You think of Jon Belushi. Here's the six pack of the best of the best.
1. Animal House-- It simply doesn't get any better than this. The gap from #1 to #2 is sizable. Animal House is the unquestioned best college movie ever made. This movie is simply an American right of passage that all prospective college students should take in and appreciate. It has too many iconic performances, lines, and scenes to list. Let the montage take you back. (big speech)
2. Old School-- Though no slouch itself in second, Old School has stood the test of time in the decade since its release and has risen above a lot of imitators. It's strength is the cast from top to bottom. This might still be Will Ferrell's best movie and we all still hear him saying "You're my boy, Blue!" (trailer)
3. Van Wilder-- I may be showing my youth to put Ryan Reynolds over the Lambda Lambda Lambda bunch from 1984 at #4, but I find this movie to be simply funnier and better. It launched Reynolds's career and is infinitely more quotable than Revenge of the Nerds. In a showdown, give me the cool guy over the nerds. (trailer)
4. Revenge of the Nerds-- A classic in its own right, Revenge of the Nerds makes the Mount Rushmore of college movies with ease. Great characters, memorable moments, and maximum shenanigans keep all of us coming back to this 80's treasure. What a collection of talent! (extended fan-made trailer)
5. Accepted-- The last two on this list are good ways down the mountain from the college movie Mount Rushmore of the Top 4. Accepted was, for many, our first glimpses of Jonah Hill ("Ask me about my wiener!" clip) and Blake Lively and got Justin Long out of his Apple ads on TV. Thanks to that infusion of youth, the movie does a nice job with a unique college setting for the modern day. (trailer)
6. Dead Man on Campus-- Alright, now I'm stretching this a bit. Every six pack has that last bad beer that you have get down to finish. That's Dead Man on Campus. It's dumb, predictably so, but gives us Zack Morris/Mark-Paul Gosselaar with an R-rating. He's fine, but Lochlyn Munro's character, Cliff O'Malley, steals the show and should get his own movie. (best of Cliff)
MAGNA CUM LAUDE
Now that the holy six pack of college shenanigans have been laid out, it's time to take the topic of college movies seriously with another six pack. That first one was Natty Light. This one is Stella Artois.
1. Rudy-- I'm a sucker for this movie. Rudy makes my famous "guy-cry" list. While it's obviously revered more as a sports movie with its underdog football story, Rudy does an extremely admirable job of showcasing the student part of student-athlete. The dedication and high regard for not only getting into college, but making something of yourself, adds to the admirable qualities that bled through every minute of this movie. (extended fan-made trailer)
2. The Great Debaters-- Denzel Washington makes every editorial I write and this is his spot. His second directorial effort (which he also starred in) follows the Wiley College all-black debate team struggling for equal footing in competition against other colleges in the 1930's Jim Crow South. Outstanding college topic and film! (the final debate)
3. Mono Lisa Smile-- Alright, I need an obligatory nod to the ladies. While the Summa Cum Laude six-pack had a lot of frat guys and male-centered casts. The ladies of college get the respect they deserve with Mona Lisa Smile, from director Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the upcoming Great Expectations). Set in a time when women weren't taken seriously, their growth as people through Julia Roberts's inspiring art professor is a great allegory that so many women can attest to. (trailer)
4. Higher Learning-- John Singleton's movies (Boyz n the Hood, Rosewood) always tend to strike a potent chord or two and this college-set one is no different. Higher Learning is a sharp discourse with racial overtones on how three incoming freshman (Omar Epps, Kristy Swanson, and Michael Rapaport) at a fictional California college get their eyes opened and their lives changed trying to fit in. Co-starring Ice Cube, Jennifer Connolly, a young Tyra Banks, and Laurence Fishburne, this movie packs a scary punch of realism. (trailer)
5. Good Will Hunting-- The last two movies of this Magna Cum Laude six-pack have college more as a backdrop and catalyst to bigger stories than as a setting. Matt Damon's genius janitor starts trumping MIT math students and is head-over-heels for Minnie Driver's soon-to-be Harvard grad, who's out of his league and eyeing Stanford for medical school. At the same time, Robin Williams's Oscar-winning psychologist works out of Bunker Hill Community College. (Harvard bar scene)
6. The Social Network-- Like Good Will Hunting, college is only the backdrop. In David Fincher's biography of Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, Harvard is the site of the social network's inception (and deception). The college life doesn't get a big focus, but it's an important piece to the story. (trailer)
These movies are good college movies, but occupy the bottom rung below the serious nature of the Magna Cum Laude category and the iconic greatness of Summa Cum Laude. Call this the honorable mention category. These are plain old Keystone Light or Busch Light.
1. Wonder Boys-- From Curtis Hanson, the director of L.A. Confidential and 8 Mile, Michael Douglas gave a fun performance in 2000 as a one-hit wonder author struggling to finish his length second novel for his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) who now slums it as a pot-smoking creative writing professor to the likes of Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes. (trailer)
2. School Daze-- Spike Lee loves a good racial argument. Calling upon his own college experiences, he loads School Daze, a musical, in fact, with black-on-black racism and divide set during a homecoming weekend of fraternities and sororities at a historically black college. (trailer)
3. Back to School-- The gang from Old School was the first overly-aged adult to go back to college with a leg up on youth and an instinct to party. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield plays a wealthy father who tags along with his son to college (filmed at University of Wisconsin in Madison) and, naturally, his kind of hijinks ensue. Cult film fans follow this movie for the young Robert Downey, Jr., Sam Kinison's role, a Kurt Vonnegut cameo, and the Oingo Boingo music fronted by Danny Elfman, who's now a prominent film composer. (trailer)
4. Real Genius-- Before Top Gun, people forget that Val Kilmer got his career started in comedy. Coupled with Top Secret!, his work here as a too-cool-for-school science student fits this level of fun college movies and will surprise you with his comedy chops. (trailer)
5. The Program-- That last two college movies in this six pack skew to the football lover in me. While Rudy is an all-time great story, to me, the most realistic depiction of college football occurs in The Program, following the crooked back door dealings and shady player experiences that take place at big-time programs. Mainly, I just want to watch Lattimer and Mack f--k things up! (melodramatic motivation)
6. Necessary Roughness-- Finally, and for pure cheesiness (check out this referee) of college football, give me rag tag bunch from Necessary Roughness. This is the Miester Brau of the list. The movie you forgot you drank, but still remember. Yeah, it's dumb, but this is what would happen if Brett Favre went back to college. It gets bonus points for including supermodel Kathy Ireland and any movie with Sindbad and Rob Schneider, can't be bad, right? (trailer)
Welcome back to school everyone! Go enjoy college, kids! It's the best time of your life! Take it in while you can.