College is one of the most formative and exciting times in many people’s lives, representing the transitional stage into adulthood. Similar to many coming-of-age films set in high school, college movies focus on the new responsibilities of the young students and the pitfalls that they encounter only these events are blown up to magnified proportions due to the increased freedom of the setting.
The professors in colleges also make interesting subjects for films, showing the role of institutions in the formation of the young people’s identities. Setting film in college allows for an effective analysis of one of the most influential ages in a person’s life.
Another important facet of the college film is the wild, party filled atmosphere that has become linked to the experience. This debaucherous side of high education has become an extremely prevalent theme in the genre of film, influencing pop culture to similarly view college this way.
In fact, the majority of college movies made now are mostly nothing but empty, frat-comedies, but once in a while an entertaining and well made film comes through. There are also, of course, more serious film that focus less on the fun party aspect and more on the formative life experiences.
The following list compiles films from many different eras showing many similarities and differences over the years. The films on this list also take many different approaches to the portrayal of the experience, ranging from social criticism, the development of youth and many wild comedies.
15. Accepted (Steve Pink, 2006)
This film follows recent high school graduate Bartleby Gates, played by Justin Long, who has been rejected from every college he applied to and subsequently creates a fake acceptance letter to show his parents. Some of the other rejects from his high school also join, like a girl who only applied to Yale and an athlete who lost his scholarship in an injury.
Bartleby’s plan quickly grows out of hand, and he is forced to hire a fake dean and buy a building when hundreds of students enroll. To complicate matters further, the local prestigious college Harmon is out to destroy Bartleby’s college and they try to abuse Bartleby’s friend Sherman, played by Jonah Hill, who is a student at Harmon in order to get to him.
There are many clever and funny moments in this goofy college comedy. Performances from comedians like Lewis Black and upcoming stars like Jonah Hill deliver consistently funny material. Despite being a silly movie, it has a clear message which criticizes the strict structure of collegiate education with Bartleby’s new college acting as a haven for students who don’t conform well to stuffy classrooms and practices.
The film is by no means a masterpiece, but its colorful stock of characters and its unique approach to the college setting make it a worthwhile, funny watch.
14. Rudy (David Anspaugh, 1993)
Sean Astin stars as Daniel “Rudy’ Ruettiger, the son of an industrial worker who dreamed of playing football at the University of Notre Dame. After the death of his friend, he was determined to achieve his dreams, attending a junior college nearby Notre Dame and attempting to transfer in. After many applications, he is finally admitted and makes it onto the practice squad on the football team.
Despite lacking the talent and size necessary to play for the team, Rudy has determination and convinces the coach to let him dress for a game, to show his friends and family that he succeeded. When a new coach arrives, however, he does not want Rudy to suit up, leading to an extremely heartwarming showing from his teammates, culminating in one of the most inspiring moments in movie history.
Rudy is filled with classic movie cliches and Hollywood cheesiness, with an extremely predictable plot and basic characters. While generally this does not constitute a good film, Rudy does not try to be anything more than an inspiring sports drama and the predictable nature of the film fits well.
With solid performances from Astin, Ned Beatty and Jon Favreau, the film still feels grounded in fact even if the schmaltz detracts from its realism. A powerful and uplifting story of determination, Rudy is an entertaining and touching film.
13. 22 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014)
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill return as undercover cops in this sequel to 21 Jump Street, the 2012 film based on the 1980s television show of the same name. Whereas in the first film the pair of officers, Schmidt and Jenko, infiltrate a high school to bust a drug ring, in this film they go to college.
While solving the crime, the two experience the trademarks of college life such as fraternities, partying and most importantly discovering themselves. As the two branch different ways, their partnership is challenged as they become distracted by other life goals. Eventually, however, Schmidt and Jenko settle their differences and unite to fight the dangerous gangsters.
The film is quite similar to its predecessor in both style and story, with minor variations here and there. This structure, while a little stale, sets the stage for the greatness in this film which is the chemistry between Tatum and Hill. Developing their roles and friendship even further from the first film, Tatum’s dumb jock personality mixed with Hill’s smart-ass dork make for the perfect comedic balance.
Together they grow, facing the transformative, and sometimes overwhelming, collegiate life. Also starring Ice Cube and Peter Stormare, 22 Jump Street is a laugh-out-loud comedy that captures the modern college experience.
12. Good News (Charles Walters, 1947)
Adapted from the stage show of the same name, this classical MGM musical stars Rat Pack member Peter Lawford as the football hero Tommy Marlowe who is a popular womanizer. When a beautiful new girl Pat comes to school, Tommy falls in love and, in order to woo her, he takes french lessons from the bookworm Connie.
A complex love triangle forms but Tommy keeps blowing off Connie for the more beautiful Pat. When Tommy fails french class on the eve of a big rivalry game, Connie has no choice but to help him study for a re-test, and in the process the two fall in love again.
In many ways, Good News is extremely predictable and follows a formulaic plot. The music is also quite basic, sounding similar to every other musical of the era. Due to the censorship of the time, it even removed the sexual innuendos and more racy material of the original musical.
That being said, it a polished and thoroughly entertaining film, well produced, acted and choreographed. It is also memorable for it being one of Lawford’s breakthrough performances and for providing a look at what the classic experience of the early 20th century looked like.
11. Monsters University (Dan Scanlon, 2013)
A prequel to Pixar’s hit film Monsters, Inc, this movie follows the main characters Mike and Sully, voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, through their college days where they trained to be professional “scarers.” The story begins with Sully being a popular frat boy and Mike as a lonely nerdy kid.
After an unfortunate incident that upset the dean of the scaring school, however, both find themselves kicked out of the program. They then must work together and team up with an unpopular fraternity to win the scaring competition, which will get them back into the scaring school. While competing against the popular jocks, the group participates in the typical college antics of partying and rebelling against authorities.
From the success of the first film, Pixar wanted to explore the monster world further and thought the university setting would be a good place to explore the development of their characters. In addition to Mike and Sully, many other characters from Monsters, Inc also make appearances, including the villainous Randall, voiced by Steve Buscemi, and many new colorful personalities are introduced.
Despite taking place in the monster universe, the adventures of the characters closely mirror human interactions in college, providing a relatable viewing experience. While Monsters University is not quite as emotional as the original film, the movie is witty fun for both kids and adults.
10. Real Genius (Martha Coolidge, 1985)
This wacky, satirical coming of age comedy is very much a product of its time, capturing the bizarre culture of the 1980s. The film follows Mitch Taylor, a high school prodigy, who is accepted into the prestigious Pacific Technical University to work on a new chemical laser.
Taylor is teamed up with the famous whiz kid Chris Knight, played by Val Kilmer, who has turned into a party animal and practical joker. Taylor is then forced to grow up fast, working on advanced physics and getting introduced to partying and other aspects of college life.
When Taylor and Knight are almost finished with the laser, they discover that Professor Hathaway who assigned them the project, played by the classic sleazy 80s actor William Atherton, is developing the laser for government assassinations. With the help of their friends, the two plan revenge on the evil Hathaway.
A goofy mixture of political satire and effective development of Taylor’s character, Real Genius is an extremely unique film all the way up until its explosive ending. The atmosphere of this film is both critical and nostalgic for the freedom of youth and college. Characters like Chris Knight show how people can lose motivation in college, but their teamwork and actions against Hathaway show the power and spark of the young generation.
Although somewhat dated by the zany characters and strange thematic mixture, Real Genius is an inventive and socially aware college movie.
9. The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973)
Based on John Jay Osborn Jr.’s novel of the same name, the film follows James Hart, played by Timothy Bottoms, as he struggles through his first year at Harvard Law School. He and his study group try to stay mentally stable as they are bombarded with massive amounts of readings and assignments. The most stressful of all is the Socratic in-class questioning by the ruthless Professor Kingsfield, played excellently by John Houseman, the former creative partner of Orson Welles.
In addition to his studies, Hart starts up a romantic relationship with a local woman Susan, who wont commit to the relationship because she is still married to another man. His life is complicated further when he discovers that Susan is the daughter of Professor Kingsfield causing added tensions all around.
The Paper Chase is different from many films on this list because it focuses on students’ experiences in graduate school instead of undergraduate, featuring more emphasis on academics than partying. The characters are also much more mature than in other films, some even being married with real responsibilities.
Despite a slightly predictable plot, the film shows how the pressures of school, especially in the Ivy League, can cause people to panic and lose their composure, leading to fits and even suicide. The Paper Chase is an intriguing look at the education system and an exploration of the important things in life, carried by Houseman’s powerful performance.