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Head of the Class: 10 Great College Movies

Written by on April 6, 2016 

Everybody Wants Some 6

There is something inherently frustrating about the prospect of university life. As a college student, you can feel as if you’re stuck in limbo. You’re obviously no longer a child as sex, drugs and alcohol pervade your everyday world, yet you’re not really an adult — totally free of the burdens of the 9-to-5 rat race for at least a few more years. A feeling of unease can fall over you, as there’s always a kegger or a party to attend while lovers change partners more often than bed-sheets.

Everybody Wants Some!!, the long-awaited spiritual sequel to Richard Linklater‘s classic comedy Dazed & Confused is now out in theaters. In the film, a college freshman (Blake Jenner) arrives at school to find that his new baseball teammates are an out-of-control, alcohol-fueled army of irresponsible party-dudes.

To celebrate, we compiled ten of the finest college movies, all ranging wildly in style and tone. We hope you enjoy, and feel free to recommend your own favorites in the comments.

Animal House (John Landis)

Animal House

Arguably the most enduring and certainly the ultimate college movie, John LandisAnimal House was the film that taught a generation that “fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.” How true. The anarchic and subversive cultural phenomenon that first brought the embarrassingly inconsistent brand known as National Lampoon’s to the big screen remains an ageless and seminal comedy classic. Light on story, it follows two newly recruited pledges to Delta House, a boozy frat on the conservative campus of Faber College. It’s interesting to recall that John Belushi had never before appeared in a film, having just found his star on Saturday Night Live. It never shows. Belushi’s Bluto feels like a cross between Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil, a largely mute character whose few lines are still quoted today, ever reverberating through our culture decades later. It’s easy to forget where the film’s narrative concludes: unlike such inferior imitators (e.g. Old School), the film ends with our heroes expelled from college, their fraternity house dismantled. “They confiscated everything. Even the stuff we didn’t steal!” Their rebellious attack on the parade that climaxes the film is merely a final knee in the administration’s groin, payback for a truly unforgivable sin: “They took the bar. The whole fucking bar!”

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)

Damsels in Distress

A transfer student ends up rooming at her new East Coast college with a four-woman super-clique in charge of running the campus suicide-prevention office. Their mission is to cure depression among the student body with bad coffee, stale donuts, and good, old-fashioned tap dancing. Whit Stillman‘s hilariously offbeat and madcap return to filmmaking after a 13-year absence feels like the comedic equivalent of a tight-rope walk. The screenplay’s satiric tone is so dryly specific that we watch the ensuing narrative with genuine suspense, almost daring them to make a false step. Featuring another powerhouse performance from everyone’s favorite actress, Greta Gerwig, the film lives and dies by a stunning cast that includes Analeigh Tipton, Carrie MacLemore, and Aubrey Plaza. Bizarrely structured with cryptic title cards and a charming attempt to create an international dance craze, Damsels in Distress is the most carefree and playful of Stillman’s work.

Frat House (Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland)

Frat House

As engrossing as Todd Philips and Andrew Gurland‘s Frat House is, the hilarious, disturbing, and sometimes infuriating glimpse inside the puke-splattered walls of ’90s campus fraternities feels like a condemnation of the exact lifestyle Philips’ seems to celebrate in comedies such as Old School and The Hangover. Morbidly billed as the only banned HBO documentary, it goes behind the closed doors of college fraternities to reveal the process of pledging, which often includes hazing, bordering on torture. Narrated by Phillips as if he’s channeling Matthew Modine’s Joker from Full Metal Jacket, the filmmakers agree to join the pledge process, receiving their hazing with understandable grief. As we watch the pledges undergo brutal hazing, we wonder what these men hope to get from this. We see why Phillips refused to quit, despite Gurland’s departure due to hospitalization halfway through filming: he’s making a documentary. The other pledges seem to earnestly strive for the loving embrace of their frat brothers, as dumb and cruel as they may be. A fascinating document, Frat House stumbles upon a yawning chasm of male insecurity by illuminating the unbelievable depths to which some men will sink to be accepted.

The Freshman (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)

The Freshman

It’s a shame that movie fans often celebrate the stunning works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton without giving mention to the comedy of Harold Lloyd. He’s best-known for the iconic image of his bespectacled Glasses Character hanging from a clock tower in Safety Last!, but Lloyd starred in hundreds of comedic shorts before making the jump to features. One of his finest works, The Freshman, focuses on Harold Lamb, a new student at Tate University who aspires to be the big man on campus. The film moves from hilarious set piece to hilarious set piece, the best of which finds Lamb at a party in a poorly tailored tuxedo, which repeatedly rips as he moves. The poor tailor is stuck following Lamb around the ball room with a needle and thread, fixing the suit as it continues falling apart. Note that, after the tuxedo sequence concludes, Lamb is suddenly and conveniently provided with fresh new suit pants. Why not? The joke is over, and we’re on to the next one. A hopeless movie fan himself, Lamb models his new college persona on the heroic lead character of a film he’s seen about university life, a wryly post-modern choice which may prove to be the earliest example of movie geekery in cinema.

Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach)

Kicking and Screaming

Noah Baumbach‘s sad and dryly funny take on post-college life follows a group of professorial graduates who balk at the notion of entering adulthood, resigning themselves to life as perpetual students. On grad night, Grover and Jane break up, an inevitability apparently triggered by her acceptance into a school in Europe. After Jane’s departure, Grover and his friends drift through the next six months of their lives, some returning to school and delaying their first step into the real world, while Grover ambles from one misguided freshman girl to another. The film may not contain the same visual elegance as Baumbach’s later works, but Kicking and Screaming is a beautifully scripted look at the fears of impending change and adult responsibility. Fittingly, the cover art of this film’s Criterion edition features no images of the cast, instead incorporating many of the screenplay’s most memorable dialogue quotes. Without a doubt, Kicking and Screaming‘s screenplay remains among the best work of Baumbach’s career.

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