I couldn’t let the month of September pass by without commemorating the traditional start to the American school year. While I haven’t been a student myself for a few years now, I do appreciate the occasional school themed movie. Or a movie where school is the location wherein most of the action occurs. This turned out to be a bit of a challenge to compile. For some reason, school is something that folks like to make movies about and it’s also a popular setting. It’s like school is some sort of common experience for many people. Who knew? So, here’s a list of some of my favorites. As always, they are arbitrarily ranked based on whatever random criteria floats my metaphorical boat. Feel free to tell me about some of your favorites in the comments.
11. School of Rock (2003)
I have a love hate relationship with Jack Black. Sometimes, he’s really entertaining. Sometimes, he’s one of the most irritating people on the planet. One of the movies that actually made me start liking him was School of Rock. He plays an unemployed schlub who thinks that being a substitute teacher like his friend is easy, so he takes his place to earn some money for his music career. Thus, he is introduced to a classroom full of bright youngsters in a private school. He gets the idea to teach the kids music and start a rock band to compete in a Battle of the Bands against his old band. Hilarity and music ensues. While he teaches them music, he also teaches them to let loose a little and he learns a bit of responsibility. It’s a win-win.
10. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
I’ve never seen the original 1939 adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a tale about an English schoolmaster’s decades-long career, but I’ve watched its remake with Peter O’Toole and Petula Clarke many times. It’s one of my mom’s favorite movies. When a bookish school teacher meets a showgirl, they don’t get along very well. He’s disapproving of her career and lifestyle and she thinks he’s stuffy. They meet up again in Pompeii and sparks finally fly. Eventually, they marry and he brings her home to the school with him. The film follows their life and his career. It’s got some nice songs (I’m a sucker for musicals), and, seriously, it’s hard not to love Peter O’Toole in this movie. He was just such a talented actor.
9. Fame (1980)
Fame was a movie I grew up watching long before I understood the implications of some of the scenes. As I grew older, I dreamed about going to a performing arts school like the one featured in this movie. I never did, of course. I went to public school and everything. Anyway! I love watching the stories of these kids with talent and dreams. Sure, things don’t go the way these kids intend, but it all manages to work out in the end. It also had one kick-ass theme song.
8. Heathers (1988)
Heathers is a black comedy with a high body count. When Veronica (Winona Ryder) meets JD (Christian Slater), she decides that being the whipping girl for the popular clique, The Heathers, is just not what she wants to be any more. She didn’t really anticipate murder, though. Then again, who really does? Well, besides people who plan and commit them. It’s a story about bullying and friendship and trying to create a better world. Or a more chaotic one. It’s a movie that always makes me laugh and then occasionally feel bad about laughing. That’s the way a black comedy should be.
7. Pitch Perfect (2012)
Beca (Anna Kendrick) is not the kind of girl who joins clubs. A cynic who just wants to skip the whole college thing and go off into the world to pursue a career in music, she ends up being convinced to join her school’s all-girl a cappella group. She ends up disagreeing with the focused leader of the group but their friction ends up leading to some beautiful music. No, not that kind of beautiful music. Perverts. Anyway! I love Pitch Perfect. I love the characters, the music, and I also love the fact that I went to high school with one of the actors in it, Utkarsh Ambudtkar. I always knew he’d go places. He’s a great guy.
6. Legally Blonde (2001)
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in Legally Blonde is an inspiration. After getting dumped by her boyfriend for not being serious enough, she decides to win him back by joining him at Harvard Law School. She studies hard and gets accepted. Her plan to reclaim him hits a few snags. With hard work and determination, she is able to achieve something far better than just an ambitious boyfriend. That’s what makes this movie so awesome. Sure, she gets a guy, but that isn’t her achievement. That’s not what the movie ultimately celebrates. That’s remarkable.
5. Mean Girls (2004)
There are a lot of movies that explore how mean girls can be to each other. Mean Girls is one of those movies, but there’s more to it than that. It’s an exploration into the motivations behind the occasionally catty interactions between girls and a condemnation of such behavior. It’s also witty and hilarious. Beyond that, it’s the movie that everyone looks back at to wonder what happened to Lindsay Lohan‘s career. Regardless, it’s a movie that shows that there is a market for smarter school movies aimed at girls.
4. Matilda (1996)
Like many of my compatriots, there were times when I felt like the weird kid. Let’s face it, I was the weird kid. You should have seen the amount of fringe I wore in elementary school. I know it was the 90’s, but still. So much fringe. The 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel, Matilda, about a girl with special powers was one of those movies that made me feel better. I could wear my weirdness as a super power or wear it with pride. She was a kid whose parents didn’t understand her and for whom school was an outlet despite the crazy headmistress. It makes me happy and has a fantastic ending.
3. The High School Musical Trilogy (2006-2008)
I am going to get so much flack for this, but I love these movies. I love the songs and the cheerful cheesiness. Yeah, they’re formulaic. There’s friendship friction. Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) get together, break up, and then get back together again. They sing a lot about friendship. They make me happy. That’s all that matters. So, yeah, I’m a teenager at heart. It’s just how I am. I wish people would break out into song more often. Yes, I wish life was a musical.
2. The Harry Potter Films (2001-2011)
When I mentioned making this list to my parents, my dad suggested the Potter films. I don’t know why they hadn’t occurred to me before. They’re all about Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) adventures in school. Well, that and trying to save the wizarding world from the wiles of the wicked Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). They’re classic movies in their own right and they’re fantastic. They were well cast and pretty darn good adaptations of the novels.
1. John Hughes’ 1980’s Classics (1984-1987)
Growing up, John Hughes‘ movies were what high school was actually going to be like. Okay. Maybe I didn’t exactly think that high school was going to be like that. I couldn’t pick just one of the movies. Sixteen Candles is a movie that makes me live in fear that my birthday will someday be forgotten. Weird Science made me seriously wonder about how movies treat science. The Breakfast Club is just a landmark film that spoke to a ton of kids and their experiences. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off inspired a bunch of kids to live a little while they’re young. In hindsight, Ferris (Matthew Broderick) is a bit of a jerk, but let’s keep going. Pretty in Pink spawned some of the earliest ship wars. I mean, seriously, are you Team Blane or Team Duckie? (TEAM BLANE ALL THE WAY!) Some Kind of Wonderful was a movie I’d only get to see when I was over at this one friend’s house for sleepovers and it allowed Hughes to have the ending he really wanted for Pretty in Pink. So, yeah, those few years gave us some great school movies that will be remembered for decades to come.