Headed back to school? Looking for a movie to get you in the mood, or bring you closer together with your new class or roommates? No worries, we’ve rounded up the best “back-to-school” films of all time:
What’s It About? A student and teacher go head-to-head for control of an Omaha High School.
Why It’s Great: The film stars two great actors – Matthew Broderick plays Jim McAllister, a level-headed high school history teacher while Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, a human dynamo with ambition to burn – and features some of the funniest high school moments you’ll ever see on screen. Ranked by critics and entertainment publications alike as one of the funniest film based around high school, it’s perfect for back-to-school. The story? Tracy Flick is running unopposed for the high school student election. McAllister, who wants to see Tracy face a challenger (and then some), talks popular varsity football player into running against her. The rest of the film follows Flick and McAllister as they go head-to-head, again and again.
Trivia: Look for the Apples, which foreshadow major events. Matthew Broderick’s role reversal; in Election he plays a teacher while Broderick skipped school as a student on the lam in the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Back to School (1986)
What’s It About? A millionaire goes back to college and ends up teaching the students and teachers a thing or two.
Why It’s Great
Iron Man’s Robert Downy, Jr. stars as a New Waver with a multi-colored “Flock of Seagulls” haircut. But what really makes Back-to-School great: Rodney Dangerfield. Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, a successful clothing store chain owner. Upon a visit to his son’s university, Melon begins worrying that junior is bombing out, so Thorton decides to enroll. Want to shake up your university? Then watch how it’s done, by a pro.
“Yeah, I took out an English teacher. That didn’t work out at all. I sent her a love letter… She corrected it!” BMOC (Big Millionaire on Campus) Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) talks with fellow classmates.
Dangerfield turns the entire university system upside-down. He hires NASA scientists to help him with his Astronomy homework, he gets help from author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (who makes an actual cameo) with a book report. From renovating his dorm room into a luxury pad to the epic parties he throws, Thornton Melon is a master at work. Dangerfield, who was one of stand-up comedy’s all-time greats, also co-wrote the story for Back to School, which ensures the one-liners never stop.
Trivia: Dangerfield helped mentor young comics, like Sam Kinison who plays Professor Terguson – but up-and-coming Jim Carrey, also was considered for the role. He was ultimately considered too young by casting directors.
National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978)
What’s It About: A college fraternity stirs up trouble at college.
Why It’s Great: It features one of the greatest all-time comedy scripts and director John Landis’ Animal House still slays audiences whenever it plays. It is the ultimate college comedy – just as Caddyshack is the ultimate golf comedy.
John Belushi plays Bluto. Belushi flew between Oregon (where Animal House was shot) and New York during filming, as he was still a key player on Saturday Night Live.
The story? It’s 1962 at Faber University and fraternity rush is in session. But this year, university dean Vernon Wormer wants to shut down the loudest, most obnoxious frat house on campus: Delta house. However, the Deltas won’t go quietly or without a fight, even after the evil dean places the house on “double-secret probation.” John Belushi achieved instant screen immortality as “Bluto” Blutarsky, the loudest and most obnoxious Delta of them all. More classic comic moments than can be inventoried in an entire blog. “This situation requires a really stupid and futile gesture,” says Otter (Tim Matheson). Bluto: “And we’re just the guys to do it.” Boy, are they ever.
Trivia: Harold Ramis (Egon from Ghostbusters), co-wrote the film, and based many of the jokes on his own college experiences. When it debuted, this early National Lampoon-branded feature broke the bank (earning $141 million). It was made for only $2.7 million.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
What’s It About: Napoleon Dynamite, what’d you think it was about? Gosh!
Why It’s Great: Long before Glee started making high school misfits feel warm and understood, this film celebrated the King Kong of nerds. Preston (Idaho) High School student Napoleon Dynamite…his name all the funnier because it sounds like it should belong to a double agent out of a James Bond film…oozes nerdiness from every pore.
A nerd for the ages: Napoleon Dynamite has skills. “You know, like nunchuku skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.”
With his perpetually dulled expression, monotone voice and must-have school accessories (Trapper-Keeper notebook, a pants pocket full of cafeteria tater tots and the action figures he dangles from a string off the back of his school bus), Jon Heder was born to play this role. As Napoleon Dynamite progresses, it’s revealed that he’s surrounded (both at home and at high school) by others who are just as goofy, although sometimes in different ways. It’s incredibly quotable (“I’ve caught you a delicious bass,” “Pedro offers you his protection”) and has a unique Rogue’s Gallery of wigged-out characters. And just when you think Napoleon has been out-nerded by his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), then his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) appears and the competition really begins.
Trivia: Napoleon Dynamite showed nerds have box office muscle; this modest $400,000 film earned $46 million.
What’s It About: A pair of students who fell in love over the summer come to grips with seeing each other daily in school.
Why It’s Great: Grease is the original high school musical. And must be considered among the best back-to-school movies, because it’s set during one complete school year in 1959, starting with the end of summer vacation and plowing forward until graduation in late spring. Beyond that, Grease remains a blast of pure energy, still fun to watch more than three decades after its massive box office run.
Audiences continue to bond with Grease, the Grease Sing-A-Long is now a yearly standard at many outdoor music festivals.
The story? Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton John) fall in love during summer vacation, then find each other attending Rydell High that fall. Will Danny and Sandy stay together? Few expected the screen version of the hit Broadway musical (which ran for nine consecutive years and numerous revivals) to hold up as well as it has, but director Randal Kleiser’s movie perfectly captured the show’s infectious energy and all the cameo appearances from actors and actresses who were actually TV and movie stars during the movie’s time period are a hoot.
Trivia: At least three money-making hit songs came from the catchy soundtrack, including Frankie Valli’s title song.
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