By Melissa Agar
A busy schedule kept me from the multiplex to check out the new releases. (And I’m sure my $8 would have helped save Machete Kills from being a total bomb.) This weekend, I’m celebrating my 20th reunion at Knox College. This weekend will be spent reliving adventures my group of friends and I had over our four years in school. While no film will ever capture the craziness that we all experienced, there are a handful of great college movies out there, and now seems like as good a time as any to recognize the 10 best.
1. Animal House – There is no denying that this is the gold standard of college movies. Yes, there were college movies made before Animal House, and there were most definitely college movies made after Animal House, but no film has managed to so perfectly portray college life as we would all like to remember it. Sure, there is nary a scene of all-night cram sessions in the library, but there are the colorful characters, the questionable choices, and the parties. Oh, God, the parties! The film is also one that tends to cross generations. As a kid, I loved this movie and dreamed of someday being as intellectually perky as Karen Allen’s Katy, and the only people I knew who loved it more than I did were my parents, for whom this film was hilarious nostalgia. (More than once, my mother would watch a scene and say, “I can remember when a group of us did THAT at NIU.”) There may be a slew of imitators over the years (and a couple of them are probably on this list), but there will never be a film that captures that irreverent memory as well as Animal House.
Best Scene: The film is filled with iconic scenes, but my personal favorite has always been the scene where John Belushi’s Bluto goes through the cafeteria line and wreaks havoc, culminating in the food fight. Click here to see it.
2. Real Genius – Unlike Animal House, Real Genius does seem a bit dated as Val Kilmer and his posse of nerdy outcasts try to outsmart their oily physics professor (William Atherton). The technology that Kilmer’s Chris Knight and his pals use seems charmingly antiquated now as does the military weaponry the kids realize they are unwittingly working on, but the joy child genius Mitch (Gabe Jarret) experiences upon finding a group of similarly talented people who accept him for who he is will never go out of style. Plus, it’s just so nice to remember what a fresh and funny talent Kilmer once was.
Best Scene: To get revenge on the weaselly Kent (Robert Prescott), the “gang” plants a radio transmitter in Kent’s braces and have “God” pay him a visit.
3. The Social Network – And now for something completely different. David Fincher’s brilliant portrayal of the birth of Facebook probably should be number one on this list, and were it not for the nostalgic value the top two hold for me, it would be. With a terrific script by Aaron Sorkin and solid performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield (among others), this film is a college film in only the most tenuous sort of way since a large point the film has to make is how little Mark Zuckerberg needed college on his way to billions. The opening portion of the movie that is actually set at Harvard, though, perfectly demonstrates the meat market mindset that college students can often adopt as they navigate the waters of limited independence. Plus, really, what is more collegiate than Facebook?
Best Scene: The opening breakup scene between Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright is a terrific two-person scene and a classic example of Sorkin’s dialogue writing skill at its best.
4. The Sure Thing – This is one of two films on this list that you have probably not seen, but that’s something I urge you to rectify as soon as you can. This was Rob Reiner’s follow up to This Is Spinal Tap, and it is a sweet and charming love story about Gib (John Cusack) and Alison (Daphne Zuniga), two college freshmen who end up sharing a ride across country from their college to California. Alison is an uptight intellectual addicted to her day planner and on her way to see her boyfriend. Gib is a horndog slacker who is going to visit his buddy (Anthony Edwards) who has set him up with a “sure thing” (played by Nicollette Sheridan). The early scenes with Gib and Alison on campus in the same Intro to Fiction class rings remarkably true in this sweet and funny romantic comedy.
Best Scene: I’ve always been fond of an early scene when Gib and Alison embark on their journey, sharing a ride with the perky but annoying Gary and Mary Ann (played by Tim Robbins and Lisa Jane Persky).
5. Back to School – I’m not a fan of Rodney Dangerfield. I’ve always found his humor sort of tired and predictable. I always found him the weakest part of Caddyshack, a film I typically love. This film, however, manages to find the sweet spot in Dangerfield’s humor and use his crass schtick to its best effect. Here, Dangerfield is Thornton Melon, a plus-sized men’s clothing magnate who is dealt an emotional body blow when his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) leaves him. He heads off to visit his son Jason (Keith Gordon), who is a freshman in college. Upon visiting sad-sack Jason, Melon realizes that he missed out on the college experience and decides to enroll as a freshman along with Jason. Although his classless dad and the way he throws money around to buy friends frequently embarrass Jason, the boy is also encouraged by Dad to man up and try out for the diving team and lure cute co-ed Valerie (Terry Ferrell) away from campus bully Chas (Billy Zabka, of course). The clash of Dangerfield with higher academia is comic gold, as is an early role for Robert Downey, Jr., as Jason’s weird pal Derek.
Best Scene: How rich is Thornton Melon? Rich enough that he can have Kurt Vonnegut write his paper on Vonnegut – a paper that is apparently pretty bad since it leads the professor to comment that whoever wrote it “knows nothing about Vonnegut.” (Yeah, I’m an English teacher. I geek out over Vonnegut appearing in a silly 80’s comedy.)
6. Legally Blonde – When her boyfriend breaks up with her for lacking substance, bubbly sorority girl Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) decides to win him back by enrolling at Harvard Law School. Hilarity ensues as this superficial California girl enters the world of the Ivy League and her sunshine outlook on life is met with snark and rejection. The film teaches us, though, that looks can be deceiving, for under Elle’s bubblegum personality lies a brilliant legal mind, a fact proven as Elle is chosen to assist with the defense of an aerobics guru (Ali Larter) accused of killing her husband.
Best Scene: The montage of Elle’s video application to Harvard is a scream, particularly her use of Days of Our Lives as a reason to admit her to the most competitive law school in the nation.
7. Good Will Hunting – It’s a movie that seems a little bit clichéd now, but once upon a time, this was a pretty terrific film. Forget all the spoofing, and go back and watch the moment when a star (or two) was born. Sure, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had some decent film credits under their belts before convincing Gus Van Sant to direct their script, but this film marks the line between working actor and movie star for both. Damon’s Will Hunting is a working class genius whose brilliance is discovered when he solves a seemingly unsolvable math equation left on a Harvard blackboard where he is a janitor. The film blends humor and pathos with a deft touch and showcases the two actors at their best before at least one of them got lost in the trappings of celebrity (at least for a little while).
Best Scene: Again, it’s become sort of cliché, but Will’s take down of an arrogant Harvard creep is pretty darn classic.
8. Revenge of the Nerds – For kids of the 1980’s, this was our Animal House. It’s not nearly as classic or influencial, but it’s a delightfully raunchy comedy that helped introduce “nerds” to our pop culture existence. Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) head off to college, sure they are heading for an intellectual oasis where their intelligence will be celebrated rather than mocked. Instead, they run afoul of the preppy, cretinous Alphas, led by handsome Stan Gable (Ted McGinley). Lewis and Gilbert find a group of similarly “afflicted” freshmen and decide to form their own fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda. The Alphas continue to taunt the guys, forcing them to fight for their survival at the annual Greek carnival.
Best Scene: The realization that Lambda Lambda Lambda is a traditionally all-black fraternity is pretty priceless.
9. The Freshman – There are two college-based films with this title – a classic 1925 silent film starring Harold Lloyd and a 1990 comedy featuring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando. Both are worthy of inclusion here, and so they will share the #9 spot on this list. In the earlier film of this title, Lloyd stars as Harold Lamb, an eager young geek who arrives at college desperate to fit in and become “big man on campus.” He goes to all sorts of lengths to help make his dream come true, with hilarious results. In the later film, Broderick is Clark Kellogg, a young film student at NYU who falls under the wing of apparent Mafia don Carmine Sabatini (Brando). The first is filled with Lloyd’s infamous fearless physical comedy. The second is notable for Brando’s meta wink at one of his most infamous cinematic roles.
Best Scene: In Lloyd’s The Freshman, it would have to be the epic and hilarious football scene. In Brando’s The Freshman, it would have to be the moment you realize that Clark’s film class is analyzing The Godfather Part II. Click here to see the entire 1990 film and here for the full 1925 movie, while they last.
10. Love Story – Like Good Will Hunting, this is a film that quickly became a victim of spoof and cliché, but upon revisiting it, it’s still a pretty moving love story (thus the title) about a rich Ivy League preppy named Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) and poor scholarship student Jenny (Ali McGraw). Even though they are from opposite sides of the tracks and despite his family’s disapproval, Oliver and Jenny fall in love with Harvard as a beautiful backdrop and get married only for it all to fall apart when Jenny’s health fails. (It’s not a spoiler alert. Voice over narration tells us Jenny’s fate in the very first line of the film.) It’s one of those films that gets to me every time. No matter when I turn it on, I start crying within minutes. It’s sappy and maudlin and completely engaging.
Best Scene: Whenever I think of this movie, I think of the scene of Oliver and Jenny frolicking in the snowy Harvard yard.