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The 10 Best College Films

Hollywood's Take on Higher Learning


College campuses have been the setting for a diverse array of films ranging from MGM musicals (Good News) to gross out comedies (Old School), slasher flicks (Sorority House Massacre) to intellectual dramas (The Great Debaters). To keep this list manageable it will only include English language films where the college setting is significant to the story. So films such as The Graduate, The Visitor, The Group, and The Sure Thing won't make the grade. Nor will nostalgic reunion films such as The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus Seven. Here's the honor roll for college films.

1. 'Animal House' (1978)

Animal House
© Universal Studios Home Video
At the head of the class is John Landis' Animal House. That might be the predictable choice but there's really no way to avoid it – this is THE quintessential college film complete with frat boy pranks, crude humor, hot babes, and most importantly a distinct lack of respect for authority. The film made Toga Parties all the rage, and John Belushi, as John 'Bluto' Blutarsky, made famous the rallying cry of "Food fight!" If you're counting degrees this was Kevin Bacon's first film.
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2. 'Horse Feathers' (1932)

Horse Feathers
© Universal Studios Home Video
The Marx Brothers wreaked havoc on the fictitious Huxley campus as Groucho assumes the duties as the college's new president. Among the hilarious gags is the final football game between Huxley and Darwin with Harpo and Chico taking to the field. Sample play from Chico: "Hey diddle diddle the cat and the fiddle this time I think we go through the middle." Groucho sings "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It," and the lovely Thelma Todd plays the college widow.
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3. 'The Paper Chase' (1973)

The Paper Chase
© 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
You have to love the film that introduced the arrogant Professor Kingsfield played by the imperious John Houseman. Who can forget his assessment of his incoming class of freshmen: "You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer." Ouch! Houseman deservingly won the best supporting actor award for his performance, and reprised the role for the TV series of the same name.
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4. 'Educating Rita' (1983)

Educating Rita
© Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Willy Russell adapts his own play about a vibrant working class British woman with a thirst for knowledge and the smart, alcoholic English professor who finds himself stuck teaching her. Julie Walters is smart, sassy and down to earth while Michael Caine conveys the boredom of a man who's lost interest in both life and his work. Each changes the other and their dual transformations make this film a delight.
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5. 'Butley' (1974)

© Kino on Video
Butley is the best of the college professor films (Finding Forrester, The Wonder Boys, Smart People, The Squid and the Whale). Simon Gray's articulate play, Harold Pinter's sharp direction, and Alan Bates' savagely funny performance combine to deliver an acerbic portrait of a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis. A typical Butley quote: "You know how it exhausts me to teach books I haven't read."
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6. 'Real Genius' (1985)

Real Genius
© Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Val Kilmer is hilarious as a young genius who's more into partying and pranks than proving scientific theories. As with Revenge of the Nerds, this is about getting even. Martha Coolidge provides the savvy direction, and Neal Israel and Pat Proft the surprisingly witty script.
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7. 'Back to School' (1986)

Back to School
© 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Rodney Dangerfield plays a rich, tactless but fun-loving businessman who becomes a student again just to help his hapless son through college. Dangerfield made this film a riot with one-liners like "the high school I went to, they asked a kid to prove the law of gravity, he threw the teacher out the window." You can almost hear the rim shot after each joke.
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8. 'School Daze' (1988)

School Daze
© Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
A serio-comic portrait of contemporary black college life from Spike Lee and based in part on his experiences at Atlanta's Morehouse College. Laurence Fishburne and Giancarlo Esposito are students who clash over the value of Greek frat system while the Wanna-be's and Jigaboo's on campus argue over notions of self identity. Lee plays a young man who's willing to endure any humiliation in order to pledge.
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9. 'Revenge of the Nerds' (1984)

Revenge of the Nerds
© 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
"It's time for the odd to get even" proclaimed the poster for Revenge of the Nerds. Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards lead a group of abused nerds who finally stand up for themselves and form their own fraternity. The film mixes gross out comedy with sweet sympathy for the underdog. Led to one sequel and two TV movies.
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10. 'Black Christmas' (1974)

Black Christmas
© KOCH Entertainment Distribution
Steer clear of the remake but the original Black Christmas is the best of the campus based horror flicks (Sorority House Massacre, Cry Wolf). The story involves a sorority house that's terrorized by a stranger who makes creepy phone calls to the girls and then starts killing off the sorority sisters during Christmas break. The beautiful Olivia Hussey stars.

Bonus Pick: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes deserves a mention simply because it has an 18 year old Kurt Russell as college brainiac Dexter Reilly. Walt Disney made two sequels: Now You See Him Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World. It's good to remember that the actor who gave us such badasses as Snake Plissken and Stuntman Mike began as a cute Disney star.
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