The best college movies don’t just happen to take place on a college campus, they capture the feel of college. The parties, the all-nighter studying sessions, the parties, the intense pressure to succeed, the parties, coming of age surrounded by friends going through the same things you are, and did I mention the parties? And while some of these are genuinely insightful flicks worthy of critical praise, some are just lots and lots of fun. In that respect, these movies represent both the wild and the serious, the fun and the sober and in the process manage to be the 50 best college movies of them all.
50 ’21 & Over’
There are no award winners here, just a good old fashioned wholesome tale of some college dudes getting debauched. Sure, it’s kind of uneven, loud and ultimately kind of disappointing, but hey, so are most college parties and like most college parties, you can still have a good time with this movie if you go into it in the right mood.
49 ‘The House Bunny’
Is it dumb? Yes. Is it at all realistic? No. Is it pretty much a chick flick? Yup. Does it also feature Playboy Playmates, Emma Stone and Anna Farris’ bare ass? Yes. Yes it does.
48 ‘Fifty Pills’
This is a movie that understands that college is expensive and sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to pay the bills, even if that means slinging pills. Besides, it also promotes the message that in the end it will all be worth it because you’ll get to bang Kristen Bell. Truly, a message we can all get behind.
47 ‘School Daze’
Spike Lee’s take on college is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you, but what can’t be denied is that School Daze represents a rare look at the black college experience from the perspective of someone who, you know, actually experienced it.
46 ‘Love Story’
Yes, it’s incredibly cheesy, maudlin and sentimental and all that nonsense and you’ll spend 90% of the movie rolling your eyes, but it also sums up the ridiculous puppy-dog love of the college relationship better than just about any movie ever. Also, Ryan O’Neal’s character is based on an amalgamation of Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones (no, really… ), which if nothing else should give you something to laugh about while you watch.
45 ‘Glory Daze’
Featuring Ben Affleck just before he hit mega-stardom, this flick is actually surprisingly decent. It manages to capture the feel of the hedonistic let’s just get drunk and bone nothing else matters feel of college with the underlying anxieties and pressures that come when you know that ride is rapidly coming to an end and that the real world, and all its attendant miseries, awaits.
Like School Daze before it, Drumline gives a voice to a whole segment of the college populace that too often goes unheard. It helps that the movie is also entertaining, with a ton of energy that manages to make up for the fairly formulaic plot.
This movie is weird as hell, surreal and kind of disturbing but hey man, so is college. Drugs, sex, strange dreams, secret cults, witches… all part of any normal freshman’s routine.
42 ‘American Pie Presents Beta House’
There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this movie. It is incredibly filthy, despicably depraved and celebratory of the worst instincts of the American male. So why is it on this list? It’s also a lot of fun, the cast clearly is having the time of their lives and let’s face it, there was nothing redeeming about you in college either.
41 ‘Legally Blonde’
Okay, so it’s a chick flick. While you’re rolling your eyes, maybe take a second to consider that it’s also a clever takedown of the whole dumb blonde cliché and that yes, ladies are capable of having just as much fun as the fellas without having to sacrifice their brains or ambition.
40 ‘Fast Break’
This is one of those movies that comes on TV and causes you to just drop whatever you were doing, toss the remote and watch with a dumb smile for an hour and a half. In real life, Gabe Kaplan’s character would be barred for life by the NCAA and his school would be put on probation for a thousand years, but to hell with all that, there are fictional basketball games to win here.
39 ‘Blue Chips’
Speaking of fictional basketball games to win, Blue Chips takes a slightly more seriously look at the pressures of big-time college athletics and what people will do to win. I say slightly more because let’s face it, this movie is still pretty ridiculous, with cameos from everyone from Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway to Larry Bird and Dick Vitale. Still, it’s a lot of fun and at the very least the idea of Nick Nolte shaping the lives of impressionable young athletes should be enough to make you laugh.
38 ‘Bickford Schmeckler’s Cool Ideas’
Saddled with an unfortunate title, this movie still manages to be a fun take on a unique idea with likable characters and an offbeat plot that manages to be quirky without being too weird. And even if none of that manages to grab you, Olivia Wilde is ridiculously hot in this movie. Does that work for you? I figured as much.
37 ‘Lloyd the Conqueror’
Featuring nerd comic god Brian Posehn, Lloyd the Conqueror is naturally about as nerdtastic as it gets. It’s also a lot of fun. Is it maybe a little too nerdy? Possibly, but lighten up, nobody’s gonna give you a wedgie if you watch this. Probably not, anyway. Okay, maybe.
36 ‘Necessary Roughness’
Somehow, a movie starring Scott Bakula and Sinbad ended up being one of the most cherished of my childhood. Sure, it’s kinda dumb – Kathy Ireland is the team’s ace field goal kicker – and the plot is formulaic as hell but if you can’t enjoy this movie then it’s possible, and maybe even likely, that you have no soul.
This is a movie about friendships (and sex) and about the things that get in the way of those friendships (sex) and ultimately end up driving people apart (sex) as college comes to an end and the real world (and sex) intervenes. Also, sex. Did I mention sex?
34 ‘Scream 2’
It’s not as good as the first one, but Scream 2 still works. And one of the reasons it works is because it combines all the typical Scream elements with those of a college movie. You’ve got the parties, the new and exciting relationships, classes, roommates… and you’ve also got a psycho killer (or two) running around trying to disembowel you, which is still better than that chem lab you stupidly decided to take on Friday mornings.
33 ‘How High’
How High takes an insightful and delicate look at what happens when you try to combine the rigors of academia with smoking all of the weed in the world. Now, I’m not saying that this is an issue that probably resonates with a lot of you but I’m not not saying it either. To sum up… wait, what were we talking about again?
32 ‘Dead Man on Campus’
This movie basically answers the question of what would happen if that sociopath Zack Morris went to college. (Saved by the Bell: the College Years never happened. You hear me? It never happened.) It also takes a delightful look at the hilarious issue of suicide, last made funny by noted comedienne Sylvia Plath. Frankly, if they could have found a way to get Screech to hang himself I would have put this in the top 10.
31 ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’
This is as about as ‘80s as a movie can get, featuring just about the entire Brat Pack in all their infamous ridiculousness. The highlight is probably Rob Lowe as the tortured heartthrob who, because it’s the ‘80s, totes around a saxophone. Absurdity and general campiness aside, this movie still manages to resonate when it comes to the pressure and anxiety everyone feels as their campus lives come to an end, their friendships drift apart and the real world commences with crushing their spirits. But really, the dude plays a saxophone. It’s amazing.
30 ‘Getting Straight’
Sure, it’s hilariously dated but when it first came out, Getting Straight was considered almost dangerously radical. Conservative critics denounced the film as “intolerable” which makes sense since it was one of the first to take on the issue of what happened to Vietnam Vets returning home from the front and trying to get on with their lives. And even if the movie is basically a farce, sending up both academia and radical student groups of the day, it still hit too close to home for a lot of people, which is always a sign that you’re doing something right.
29 ‘Orange County’
Tom Hanks’ kid wants nothing more than to attend Stanford, but following a road trip filled with hijinks along with his brother Jack Black he comes to realize that college kids – even the classy Stanford types – are just as vapid and ridiculous as his high school peers. Also, John Lithgow and Catherine O’Hara are ridiculously good as his screwed-up parents and Egon from Ghostbusters has a scene stealer as the tripping balls Dean of Admissions.
28 ‘Spring Breakers’
Spring Breakers is a satire which… I can already tell you’re getting impatient, so let’s just cut to the bonered chase, shall we? Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson spend 168% of the movie in bikinis reveling in utter hedonism. That work for you? Thought so.
27 ‘Art School Confidential’
Let’s get one thing straight, this isn’t just a dark comedy, this is a daaaark comedy, like you’ll kind of hate yourself for laughing at parts of it and the rest of the time wondering whether or not it’s even supposed to be a comedy or a vicious lynching of the art school cliché. In the end, it’s both and while it might not be aligned with everyone’s tastes, if you’re in the right kind of cynical mood, you will absolutely revel in its disdain for, well, everything.
26 ‘Higher Learning’
Who knew college was such a warzone? Higher Learning might be a tad on the melodramatic side (or a lot), but it still dares to address a lot of issues that most college movies won’t. The cast is top-notch and while the movie certainly has its faults, it’s got balls and you have to respect that.
25 ‘The Program’
The Program is utterly ridiculous. It is also ridiculously entertaining. It takes every college athlete cliché and turns it up about one million percent. The highlight is probably the steroid freak Lattimer, with his crazy roid rages and wild face paint. And since both this movie and Higher Learning star both Omar Epps and the dude who played Lattimer, it’s fun to imagine that this is basically the football team for the school in that movie.
24 ‘With Honors’
There’s more to life than college. That’s basically the message behind With Honors. But really it’s an excuse to watch Joe Pesci school the shit out of Brendan Fraser. Also, this will actually remind you that there was a time when Brendan Fraser was a viable leading man. I know, the ‘90s were weird.
A coming of age tale which gave Kevin Costner his first big break, Fandango is one of the most underrated college movies out there. Set in Vietnam era America, it touches on the terrifying fears of both growing up and getting shipped off to fight and die in a strange land. It’s also wryly funny, and makes you realize that for all his faults, Costner can absolutely kill it when given the right role.
22 ‘The Great Debaters’
A college movie starring Denzel Washington? Yes, please? Even though the story – about a black school debate team that has to pull together to win it all, which is basically every sports movie you’ve ever seen – is ridiculously formulaic, the acting and energy involved manages to make it worth your while anyway. I mean, come on, it’s Denzel!
True, 21 is probably more Ocean’s 11 than a typical college movie, but lying behind the entire story is the idea that the protagonist has to do all this crazy shit just so he can pay for college, something that every one of us who has to look at a student loan statement every month can sympathize with. Of course, it also helps that the cast is pretty kick-ass, and hey, who doesn’t like watching people swindle the swindlers?
20 ‘The Freshman’
This movie stars Matthew Broderick, still basking in the Ferris Bueller afterglow, as a college freshman who gets mixed up with Marlon Brando basically doing an impersonation of his role in The Godfather. Look, just read that sentence again. At the very least, the premise alone is enough to earn this a decent place on this list.
Justin Long and Jonah Hill start a fake college after getting dumped by all the rest, which sounds pretty funny, right? It is. Add into that Blake Lively running around being all, well, Blake Lively and you have the recipe for a pretty damn good college flick.
18 ‘The Waterboy’
Adam Sandler plays a complete idiot who also happens to be really good at playing football because he, uh, watches wrestling? I don’t know either. Don’t think about it because it doesn’t matter. Just watch and laugh. This is Sandler at his absolute peak. It also helps that the rest of the cast, led by Henry Winkler as Sandler’s completely nuts coach and Kathy Bates as his long suffering mama, bring it right along with him.
17 ‘Road Trip’
This was Todd Phillips’ preamble to Old School and The Hangover so right away you know it pretty much has to be funny. And it is. The cast fits together perfectly with Breckin Meyer as the straight man, Seann William Scott basically playing Stiffler, DJ Qualls as the weird dude, and Tom Green as the, uh, other weird dude.
16 ‘Pitch Perfect’
I know, I know, you see ads for this and immediately think Glee and then shiver in terror, but the truth is that it’s actually pretty funny and entertaining. It’s got a great cast and while the story is pretty formulaic, it’s a winning formula and if you just chill and let yourself enjoy the ride, you’ll walk away from watching this with a smile on your face.
15 ‘The Sure Thing’
This is one of those ‘80s movies that made every Gen-X girl fall in love with John Cusack. He was basically the perfect template for the everyman character you just want to root for, and this movie showcases that as well as anything else he did. As for the plot, it’s about a college freshman traveling across the country just so he can laid. Can’t go wrong with that.
14 ‘Kicking and Screaming’
That moment when you’re making that transition from college to the real world can be utterly terrifying, confusing and chances are you’ll handle it like an asshole, and perhaps no movie understands – or depicts that – better than Kicking and Screaming. Sure, the mood is probably a little too Gen-X which might make it feel a little dated, but the themes are pretty timeless.
If you can’t root for Droz and the dudes (and lady dudes) of the Pit then you need to look in the mirror and accept that you’re probably an asshole. Also, to get the maximum amount of enjoyment from this movie, marvel at the fact that Jeremy Piven somehow has less hair here than he does over a decade later in Entourage.
12 ‘Van Wilder’
Who didn’t want to secretly stay in college for a couple of decades? Van Wilder works because Ryan Reynolds’ character basically acted the way most people wish they had the balls to behave – completely carefree and with the world on a string. It’s basically a representation of most people’s perfect college fantasy experience.
11 ‘Starter for 10’
It’s rare for a college flick to be both smart AND funny, but Starter for 10 manages to be both. It features James McAvoy just before he broke big and has a killer mid-‘80s soundtrack. Also, this is the movie that introduced everyone to Alice Eve, so… yeah, let’s not pretend like that doesn’t matter here.
10 ‘Back to School’
Rodney Dangerfield was always at his best when he was allowed to basically play himself as a super-rich wiseass (also see: Caddyshack), which he does here to perfection. Ignore all the nonsense with his lame kid and just marvel at Rodney being Rodney, inventing the Triple Lindy and teaching a young Robert Downey, Jr. the ways of the college world.
9 ‘The Rules of Attraction’
Arguably the best adaptation of one of Bret Easton Ellis’ books, The Rules of Attraction is delightfully hedonistic and doesn’t pull any punches. Its surreal nature lends it an air that separates it from just about every other college movie. Also, James Vanderbeek AKA Dawson plays the sociopathic younger brother of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and amazingly completely pulls it off.
8 ‘Real Genius’
This movie is just plain fun. It will appeal to the inner geek in you and the part of you that loves rooting for the underdog. This movie will make you believe that there was actually a time when Val Kilmer might have been the coolest dude on Earth. Also, the dick from Ghostbusters and Die Hard is the lead dick in this movie too, so you know it has to be quality.
7 ‘Breaking Away’
This late-‘70s masterpiece about bike racing in and around the campus of Indiana University is ridiculously good. It’s one of those rare movies where the story and the cast and everything just comes together perfectly and takes off. There’s no way someone could watch this and not enjoy themselves. It’s that good.
6 ‘Wonder Boys’
Wonder Boys offers a slight twist on the usual college tale, telling the story from the perspective of a burnt out professor at a small liberal arts college. The cast is amazing, featuring Michael Douglas in maybe his last great role, Robert Downey, Jr. as his gay book editor, Tobey Maguire as his brilliant, but incredibly screwed-up student and Katie Holmes pre-Xenu as the young ingénue who threatens to dynamite his whole life. Just a great movie.
5 ‘The Paper Chase’
No movie has ever done a better job exploring the pressures of an Ivy League education and the tension that often exists between a demanding professor and his students better than The Paper Chase. Sure, it’s 40 years old, but it’s just as relevant thematically today as it was when it first came out.
4 ‘The Social Network’
The Social Network perfectly captures how campus computer networks were basically the Wild West back in the day. Of course, the movie is more than just a college movie. It’s also part biopic, part human tragedy and part comedy. But at its heart, it’s a movie about a frustrated college kid with big dreams just trying to pull it together, and who can’t relate to that?
3 ‘Revenge of the Nerds’
Now we’re into the Mt. Rushmore of college movies, and don’t even try to argue that Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t belong. It’s an absolute classic, almost absurdly debauched and seriously politically incorrect in a way that would probably keep it from even getting made today. There are just too many classic scenes and if you have never watched it then I don’t think we can be friends.
2 ‘Old School’
Old School was so good and so funny that it basically set the standard for a whole new wave of comedies to come in the decade that has passed since its release. It brought the whole Will Ferrell/Vince Vaughn comedy style into the mainstream and paved the way for the success of virtually every big comedy star out there right now. So yeah, I think it probably belongs here.
1 ‘Animal House’
Like anything else could be number one. This is the godfather of college movies, the one that is still, over 35 years after its release the standard by which every other college movie is judged. It almost singlehandedly transformed the comedy genre into what we still know it as today. It’s iconic and important in a way that very, very few movies, regardless of genre, have ever been. It’s not just a college movie, it’s the college movie.
(Previously published August 21, 2013.)
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