It is that time of year again! Yes, it is time for that ever-anticipated Back to School season (at least in the United States). For most schools, the last two weeks in August and/or the first week of September serve as the beginning of a new year for teachers, faculty, students and parents. So as we are steep in the middle of this (often) chaotic time, I wanted to do something that would celebrate it. And what better way to celebrate it than to devote an entire 10 FAVORITES to films about school?!?! When I was putting my list together (with the help of my Father, who is an Elementary school principal and an avid film buff!), I decided that I would limit the films that I chose. First of all, I felt College films shouldn't count (I mean, I don't need a list to share with everyone any appreciation I have for Good Will Hunting and Animal House!). Second, I wanted the films to mainly feature the school in a primary way (not just as a setting, but as a plot point or even a character within the film!). And lastly, and probably most importantly, I wanted the films to be good. Now I realize that when you put a qualification like that on any movie or TV show, it is completely subjective. But it's my list so get over it. However, that does not necessarily mean that a film that doesn't make the list is bad or horrible, it is just a distinct possibility. With that said, on with the list.
THE BEST "BACK TO SCHOOL" FILMS
I'm not a huge fan of this film. I don't hate it, but I don't necessarily love it. Why is it here then? I just cannot deny the popularity of this musical phenomenon. Wherever you go, people have seen Grease and they have strong feelings about it (be they positive or negative). It is performed everywhere from High school to College to Broadway (the musical has endured two hit revivals and constantly tours!). It is a freakin' juggernaut that cannot be ignored.
MOVIE #10 (TIE)
Mr. Holland's Opus AND Dangerous Minds (both 1995)
I put these two movies together because they came out in the same year and they had both had a similar premise. Yes, Dangerous Minds is about Michelle Pfeiffer inspiring her students in an inner-city school through poetry and literature, while Mr. Holland's Opus is about Richard Dreyfuss inspiring his students (each different in their own way) through music and art. But the major point is that both films were about the effect a teacher can have on their students, especially if they care in the way both Pfeiffer and Dreyfuss' characters do. Both films were received well and Dreyfuss even netted an Oscar nomination for his work. And Pfeiffer featured prominently in Coolio's hit music video for the film, "Gangsta's Paradise."
John Patrick Shanley adapted is riveting Pulitzer Prize-winning play into a sublimely acted film that keeps the audiences talking. Screen icon Meryl Streep takes on the polarizing role of principal Sister Aloysius Bouvier as she tries to discover the truth about the new priest at the parish, dynamically played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The film also features brilliant performances from Amy Adams (as the innocent schoolteacher Sister James who is placed in the middle of Streep and Hoffman's battle) and Viola Davis (as the mother of a boy who has problems but may have a "protector" in Hoffman's character). Shanley's smartly written dialogue is played to full effect by this enigmatic cast.
Mean Girls (2004)
Yes, it may very well have been the last "good" film Lindsay Lohan ever made. And when you have Tina Fey as a co-star and writer, you really can't go wrong. What this film has, besides a delicious performance from Rachel McAdams, is a sharp-tongued look at the way girls (in particular, High school girls) behave towards each other. This film is so popular and well-liked that the whole "Mean Girls" idea has become its own thing. I mean, go to any school and you can spot the group of "Mean Girls" right off! You don't even need a school to find the "Mean Girls" in life. They're everywhere!
The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
In a sequel to a film I've already spoken about, Bing Crosby dons the collar again as Father O'Malley and this time he plays off of a great performance from the amazing Ingrid Bergman as a strict yet extremely understanding nun who serves as principal of St. Mary's School. The two give equally good performances and their scenes with the children make the movie funny and extremely poignant.
Like Mean Girls above, this film has a following that at times surprises me. Not only does this movie cleverly satirize school politics, High school stereotypes and popularity, but it also serves as a kind of cautionary tale. Reese Witherspoon's over-ambitious and hyperactive Tracy Flick is a character we've seen before and since (look at Glee's Rachel Berry!), but she's also a Type-A personality we see in many of the people in Pop Culture (and dare I say Politics!). That being said, I did get a kick out of this film when I first saw it and I knew that this role would make Reese Witherspoon a star.
Growing up in the 80s, I knew several kids who wanted to go to the school featured in Fame. They wanted to be one of those kids dancing on taxi cabs or playing synthesizers. The film represents what kids do best and that is dream. And the kids featured in this movie have big dreams.
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
This film certainly was the most controversial in its debut. Its subject matter and its use of Rock N Roll music certainly put several people up in arms over it. But the film is a classic and it is pointed to as the beginning of a change in the way films were presented and the way youth are portrayed in films. It also came out the same year as the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause and the two films combined caused a stir that is still felt in Hollywood to this day.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Some of the best movies are about a year in the life of a group of people. And when you're dealing with school as your primary setting, you have a plethora of characters to showcase. This film features some of the most memorable characters and it has one of the most interesting ensembles in film history. The (mostly young) cast features Sean Penn (as the iconic Spiccoli), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Ray Walston, Forrest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates and (in smaller roles) Eric Stoltz and Nicolas Cage. That's a pretty impressive list when you compare it to the likes of Dazed and Confused (which really only has Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck in small roles!).
Stand and Deliver (1988)
When it comes to films about inspiring teachers, this film was a must in my house. Edward James Olmos dynamically plays Math teacher Jaime Escalante as he readies his East L.A. students for an important Calculus exam. He is met with obstacles at every turn, including the reluctance of his students (which include a powerful performance from Lou Diamond Phillips as a rebellious teen). Olmos' Oscar-nominated performance drives this film to its inspiring end and makes you want to go out and try something new. Which is exactly what teachers are supposed to do.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
This film is a great favorite in my family. It features great performances from (at the time) young talent. It has some great 80s music. But its story and characters are entirely relatable. The school not only serves as a setting, but it serves as another character in the plot. The way the kids interact is because of the school. The effect that each of the students' roles has on themselves and on each other plays an integral role in the plot. In a way, it basically IS the plot. The late John Hughes certainly captured a generation with this film and for those of us who grew up with this generation, it makes for great entertainment.