Animal House (1978)
Animal House is THE college movie; anything that came after it is merely a footnote. Animal House changed the landscape of the comedy genre; and the talent present in the film and filmmaking is staggering (John Belushi’s performance evokes notes of the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, etc.). Check out the “Five Ways Animal House Changed the World.”
Back to School (1986)
I think I watched this movie on loop one summer--although it’s entirely possible that a particular cable channel just played it on loop one summer. Either way, this rich old man goes to college comedy has a number of things going for it, like the writing of Harold Ramis (who was also a writer for Animal House, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, etc. etc.), Oingo Boingo, a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Cameo, and Robert Downey Jr. before he became RDJ.
Real Genius (1985)
Second only to Animal House, Real Genius features a great 80s soundtrack, a young Val Kilmer (Chris Knight) as the genius slacker hero, and a unique comedic tone that comes from blending the optimism of the 80s with the darker cultural issues of the cold war and military research--as a professor tries to hijack his students’ work and weaponize it. Unlike Animal House, which focuses almost exclusively on the party scene, Real Genius manages to hilariously capture the stresses and strains of collegiate life.
Dead Man on Campus (1998)
This movie is hilarious in the best/worst possible way. Starring Tom Everett Scott (I loved him in That Thing You Do) and Mark-Paul Gosselaar (I loved him in Saved by the Bell) the movie centers around the roommate suicide urban legend--where if your roommate commits suicide, then you get straight As for the semester. While morbidly inappropriate, the movie, replete with its 90s comedic sensibilities, manages to capture the frantic desperation that permeates college-life.
Pitch Perfect (2012)
Full disclosure, I was a total music geek in high school. We’re talking participated in several choirs, took private lessons, went to competitions, and first majored in vocal music performance. So, I could totally watch this movie on loop. Seriously, what’s not to love about this movie? It has a strong female cast, it’s witty, it has much music; it’s a rom-com for the musically inclined. And it’s not an entirely inaccurate depiction of music cliques...from what I remember.
Higher Learning (1995)
Higher Learning, perhaps a particularly topical movie for our current socio-political landscape, is a movie that deals with difficult subjects, such as racism/racial tension, sexual assault, cultural differences, etc., and tends to elicit polarizing responses. In his review, Roger Ebert said, “Singleton’s film is interesting for a lot of reasons, but especially because he stands outside the campus system and looks at it with a detached eye.” While the film is not without its problems (both cinematic and socio-cultural/socio-political), it’s worth checking out.
The Great Debaters (2007)
Based on a true story, The Great Debaters chronicles Professor Melvin B. Tolson’s time at Wiley College, a historically black college in Texas, where he organizes and then coaches the college’s first debate team which, undefeated, goes on to compete against Harvard’s debate team in the national championship. The acting in this film, from Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Nate Parker, is remarkable--and I’ve never met a Denzel Washington movie I didn’t love. It’s a truly emotional and inspiring film.
This was one of my favorite films of 2014. The performances given by Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons were outstanding and I loved that the film largely revolved around their characters, which created and illustrated the, often, intimate relationship between student and teacher. While the film’s tagline is, “The road to greatness can take you to the edge,” for me, the film is much more about negotiating greatness and who you let define it.
Need Some More???
There are a number of solid back to college films; if you're looking to keep the movie party going checkout:
Goodwill Hunting (1997)
The Paper Chase (1973)
Van Wilder (2002)
Legally Blonde (2001)
The Social Network (2010)
Mona Lisa Smile (2003)
Larry Crowne (2011)