Back to IndieWire

‘Admission’ Granted: 20 Great College-Set Movies

'Admission' Granted: 20 Great College-Set Movies

Ah, the college experience. Success through opportunity! Or uh, something like that. For many, it’s the first real taste of unchaperoned freedom, mixed in with girls, guys, sex, parties, experimentation and if you’re lucky, a bit of higher learning, too. Like the high school film, the college movie is a tried and true genre, and ironically, generally less mature than high school pictures which are mostly centering on coming-of-age, outsider blues and the like. These themes can be similar in college movies, but with much less adult supervision, the genre tends to get wilder, crazier, more vulgar and more unhinged. Though that’s obviously relative depending on the era.

“You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”  J.D. Salinger wrote in his novel “Franny and Zooey,” and that sounds about right. While college is supposed to be about education, the movies that chart this rite of passage are generally anything but.

With “Admission” hitting theaters this weekend — a college-set comedy starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, albeit a not crazy good one — we decided to use the excuse to delve into some of our favorite college films, most of them comedies of course.

“Damsels in Distress” (2011)
Whit Stillman‘s first film in over a decade, “Damsels in Distress” is set at a pseudo-Ivy League college, with seemingly recognizable character-types, a hipster-pop soundtrack and the usual accoutrements of an indie campus comedy, but the angles just never quite seem to add up. Stillman’s previous movies “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona” and “The Last Days of Disco” were both talky and populated with proto-Fitzgeraldian urbanites, and “Damsels in Distress” is similarly anachronistic, with the girl-gang the film centers on dressing like forties and fifties WASPs, obsessed with soap and fragrances, and trying to cure the suicidal students of Seven Oaks University with Fred Astaire-style tap-dancing. A new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who they adopt, turns out to be something of a rebel and causes a significant loss of mojo for their leader Violet (Greta Gerwig). Around this paper-thin plot are the variously eccentric boys competing for the girls’ attention, who are all engaged in their own bizarre and/or ridiculous personal quests. At times the movie amounts to little more than a collection of quixotic vignettes, but what really makes it stand out is the oddball-chic which has long been the director’s hallmark. Stillman’s attention to aesthetics is more pronounced here than in any of his other films; from the crisply photographed classicism of the campus to the immaculate wardrobes and vintage score, which offers more than a few nods to Hollywood’s Golden Age. To explain the plot of “Damsels in Distress” is very much to miss the point. Even to call it a comedy is to yoke it to a somewhat easier-to-swallow label than it deserves; it is funny and it does have a plot, but its sheer outlandishness suggests that there is something else entirely going on in this timewarped-oddball curio.

“The Freshman” (1925)
Though the image of him hanging off a clock face in “Safety Last!” is one of the most famous in cinema, Harold Lloyd doesn’t quite have the reputation today that some of his silent slapstick contemporaries like Chaplin and Keaton maintain. Which is a shame, because it means all too many are missing out on the little comic gem “The Freshman.” The bespectacled star plays one Harold Lamb, who enrolls at a university and swiftly falls in love with Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), his landlady’s daughter. He joins the football team to impress her, but is demoted to water boy, only to go on to to lead the team to triumph, and win Peggy’s heart in the process. It’s a simple story (essentially remade, or homaged, by Adam Sandler with “The Waterboy“), but then the story was hardly really the point of a film like this; instead, it’s all about the comic set pieces, and there are some killer ones, not least a literally bruising scene where Harold steps in for the team’s tackling dummy, taking the kind of punishment that you’re pretty sure would kill a lesser man. But there’s a sweetness to the film, and even a kind of naturalism, that makes it more than just a string of gags, and it holds up remarkably well today.

“The Freshman” (1990)
He’s forever associated with high school (or more accurately, not going to it) thanks to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but Matthew Broderick also went on to star in one college comedy which, while not as unimpeachable a classic as the John Hughes film, is definitely one of the better examples of the genre. In “The Freshman” (unconnected to the earlier Lloyd film) Broderick plays a sheltered Vermont native who comes to New York to study film, only to end up falling in with Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando, in an extended riff on his legendary performance from “The Godfather“), a mob boss who seems to make his living by smuggling endangered animals to be eaten at a secret dining club. On paper, it sounds like the sort of thing that someone like David Spade might star in, but it’s in the hands of underrated comedy hand Andrew Bergman (who co-wrote “Blazing Saddles” and “Fletch,” and penned “The In-Laws“), so it’s infinitely more charming and funny than it sounds. Broderick is perfect, and Brando appears to be having a lot of fun, doing the same kind of thing that De Niro would later make hay with in “Analyze This,” to much greater success. There’s a fine sense of farce throughout, the supporting cast (including Bruno Kirby and Penelope Ann Miller as Brando’s right-hand-man and near-psychotic daughter) are ace, and it zigs where you expect it to zag. Brando dissed the movie soon after filming wrapped, only to later retract, but the damage was done, and the film tanked in the U.S. It’s a shame, but if you can dig it up, it’s well worth a watch.

“Good News” (1947)
This sanitized, “American as apple pie” remake of the 1930 pre-Code original is about college life in the Roaring Twenties and went on to be an inspiration for the satirical tone of many college comedies and parodies to follow. Originally meant to be a Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney vehicle after the success of “Babes in Arms”, “Good News” is chock full of schmaltz and corniness, with an old chestnut of a story, even by 1947 standards. Tommy Marlowe (Peter Lawford) is the college BMOC and football star who starts to forget to tackle his studies when he falls for the town vamp, a stock character seen throughout many college movies (see Thelma Todd’s “college widow” in “Horse Feathers”, the bookstore owner’s wife (Vivien Leigh) in “A Yank at Oxford”, and the dean’s wife (Verna Bloom) in “Animal House”). June Allyson plays the wholesome and bookish Connie Lane, who helps him study and ultimately wins his heart. Oh, did I mention there’s music? Song titles include “Be a Ladies’ Man”, “Lucky in Love”, and “Varsity Drag” but the tunes haven’t quite stood the test of time, unfortunately. With great Technicolor, catchy albeit dated tunes, and old-timey values, it was a hit for MGM and is a great watch with the grandparents.

“Higher Learning” (1995)
After “Boyz N The Hood,” which made John Singleton the youngest nominee for the Best Director Oscar in history, and “Poetic Justice,” expectations for “Higher Learning” were up there. And while the film was perceived as a disappointment — though the notices weren’t dreadful — time’s been fairly kind to it, particularly in comparison to Singleton’s more recent work. Set at the fictional Columbus University, it’s an ambitious and sprawling piece of work that focuses on three students: Malik (Omar Epps), a track scholarship student who finds new racial awareness, Kristen (Kirsty Swanson), who’s raped by another student, before being drawn to a lesbian classmate (Jennifer Connelly), and Remy (Michael Rapaport), who falls in with a group of skinheads, led by Scott (a terrifying Cole Hauser). There’s a strong cast (also including Ice Cube, Tyra Banks, Busta Rhymes, Adam Goldberg and, only a few years after he played a student in Spike Lee‘s “School Daze,” Laurence Fishburne as a professor), and while the material verges on soapiness, it’s mostly powerful and intelligent stuff, if a little heavy-handed at times. Singleton’s direction is impressive too, and his take on race at college is complex and nuanced in way we haven’t seen from him in a long time, with nary such intelligence in his various gigs-for-hire. It’s not a classic like ‘Boyz,’ but there’s still a lot in “Higher Learning” to be impressed by.

“Hoop Dreams” (1994)
Hoop Dreams” is an absolute heartbreaker. Steve James’ seminal documentary was only supposed to be a thirty minute short, and ended up following the two aspiring pro-ballers for five years. Neither of its subjects, Arthur Agee or William Gates, ever made it to the NBA, but watching them progress through the basketball program on their way to college is as agonizing a lesson in the vicissitudes of American life as you could ever wish to see. The dispassionate camera of James, who has since gone on to build up a powerful body of work including “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” and 2011’s “The Interrupters,” does a superb job in absorbing all the fine detail and drawing a full and nuanced picture of the boys and their Chicago neighbourhoods. Few films manage to bring home as effectively how seismic a sea change university life can be for young, impoverished African-Americans. The film was a huge success, winning the audience award at 1994’s Sundance, bringing in well over ten times its budget at the box office and winning film of the year from critics Siskel and Ebert, the latter of whom called it “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen” (they later said it was the best film of the decade). “Hoop Dreams” remains the standard by which all sports documentaries are judged, and marked the beginning of a genre and created a template which continues to produce documentary gold year on year.  But “Hoop Dreams” isn’t just a sports documentary. Its enduring quality lies in the way the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of Agee and Gates are laid helplessly bare, the way the viewer can see what’s going to happen before it actually does. It’s a sobering lesson in humanity; inspiring, terrifying and utterly essential cinema.

“Horse Feathers” (1932)
A madcap Marx Brothers comedy, “Horse Feathers” takes four out of the five brothers (no Gummo) and sets them loose on a college campus. Groucho plays Huxley College’s new president, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff. Harpo and Chico play “icemen” who moonlight as a part-time dogcatcher and bootlegger, respectively. Zeppo plays Professor Wagstaff’s son who convinces the professor to recruit professional football players to build up Huxley’s team and beat rival Darwin College. In one of its most memorable sequences (considered one of the greatest football scenes in cinematic history, even making it onto the cover of Time), the four brothers drive the football into the end zone in a horse-drawn garbage wagon and win the big game. As a variation of the town vamp featured in a few films on this list, Thelma Todd plays the “college widow” with all four brothers pursuing her, each wooing her with a variation of the very same song “Everyone Says I Love You” – Zeppo singing a “straight version”, Harpo whistling on a horse and later playing it on a harp, Chico playing the piano and singing comically in his standard Italian accent, and Groucho singing sarcastically in a canoe while strumming a guitar (“Everyone says I love you / But just what they say it for I never knew / It’s just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who / Says I love you”). It’s everything you’d expect from the Marx gang, and well worth catching.

“National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978)
In college (or in
life), which Delta brother were you? Bluto (John Belushi), the absolute
legend of any frat or dorm downing a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and smashing
that acoustic guitar to smithereens while maintaining a 0.0 GPA in his
seventh year of college? Otter (Tim Matheson), the suave ladies man who
could get out of any jam and into any bed (including that of the dean’s
wife)? Flounder (Stephen Furst), the awkward overweight freshman who was
the butt of everyone’s joke? Or were you Neidermeyer (yeesh!)? We
challenge you to not be able to find a relatable character amongst the
array provided by Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis and John Landis in their classic comedy. Even with the
strait-laced rival frat the Omegas (including Kevin Bacon) and Dean
Wormer (John Vernon) out to get them (double secret probation!), the
Deltas have a grand old time at a toga party, sneaking over to the
girls’ dorm, smoking pot with the ‘hip’ English professor (Donald
), and so much more. “Animal House” is a masterpiece of
collegiate comedy, paving the way for a decent chunk of the other films
on this list. From its iconic soundtrack, including now party standards
“Louie, Louie” and “Shout” to its gross-out humor (John Belushi’s
impression of a zit), “Animal House” has become a landmark in comedy cinema and
a must-see for every college student, past and present.

“Old School” (2003)
As Richard Roeper summed it up, “Old School” “is a raucous frat-school comedy that’s dopey, degrading and disgusting — and consistently hilarious.” Three thirty-something men decide to relive their college experiences by starting a fraternity. After Mitch (Luke Wilson) breaks up with his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), stumbling into one of her anonymous orgies, his friend Bernard (Vince Vaughn) throws the massive “Mitch-A-Palooza” (featuring Snoop Dogg, and 300 college-age extras) to cheer Mitch up. Unfortunately, Dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven), as the typically villainous college dean, threatens to kick Mitch out of his house through some technicalities. After brainstorming, Bernard comes up with the idea of turning Mitch’s house into a fraternity open to all, meeting the zoning requirements and providing them with a chance to relive their college heydays. Frat-themed shenanigans abound, including Mitch discovering his one-night-stand was actually his boss’s underage daughter (Elisha Cuthbert), a mild-mannered Frank (Will Ferrell in a career-making role) becoming his notorious college alter-ego “Frank the Tank” (beer bongs and STREAKING!), and elderly pledge “Blue” dying in a KY Jelly wrestling match with two lubed up female wrestlers. Predictably, the dean tries to shut their fraternity down through legal and illegal means. A modern college movie classic, at this very moment there are “Old School” drinking games occurring all around the world. Interestingly, according to director/writer Todd Phillips, the “Old School” script was written as a comedic take on “Fight Club and there are references scattered throughout the film, so it’s definitely worth another watch, just to see if you can spot ’em.

“PCU” (1994)
This parody of the overly politically-correct ’90s, set on a quiet New England campus, manages to be both a perfect satire of PC culture and a platonic ideal of a college comedy. Based on the experiences of co-writers Adam Leff and Zak Penn at their alma mater Wesleyan University, which in real life carries the nickname Diversity University and is known for its tradition of enthusiastic activism, the film is a loving send-up to its progenitor. The film follows pre-frosh Tom Lawrence (Chris Young) on his visit to Port Chester University, where he finds all sorts of R-rated adventure and campus controversy with his host, Droz (Jeremy Piven at his absolute Piven-iest). Piven lives in a dilapidated house called The Pit (loosely based on Wes’ alt- “forority” Eclectic), with his motley crew of college burn outs, including Jon Favreau, sporting short dreads, as a gentleman named Gutter (you gotta start somewhere, right?). Tom and Droz make enemies of everyone on campus, from the Republican frat Balls and Shaft (led by a smarmy David Spade) and the Womynists, to the vegans and the Port Chester President Garcia-Thompson, played with gusto by Jessica Walters. Piven has never been better as the strung out Droz, rattling info off to Tom at a fast and furious pace, his manic energy oozing from every pore and off the screen. The lines and quips fly fast and furiously, and the film requires repeat viewings to catch them all. When The Pit crew are threatened with eviction, what else is there to do but throw a rager complete with George Clinton and the P-funk All-Stars? Of course, as with everything at PCU, it ends in protest, and the film culminates in a group chant of “We’re not gonna protest” (what these students do best) at the ceremony to install the endangered whooping crane as the campus mascot. Surely, many of these jokes ring more true if you have familiarity with Wesleyan (play spot the library in the opening credits!) but it’s still a stalwart classic of the college genre– capturing every aspect of the sociology of college life in biting detail. Directed by “Die Hard” actor Hart Bochner, “PCU” races along at an energetic clip, propelled by the sheer energy of Jeremy Piven. He’s never been better. “PCU” is an overlooked classic but a timeless gem of the college comedy canon.

“Real Genius” (1985)
Thanks to his offbeat Twitter feed and Harmony Korine collaborations (not to mention “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang“), Val Kilmer is finally breaking out of the self-serious, moody roles that made him an A-lister in the mid-90s, and nearly derailed his career in the process. But a move into comedy isn’t so much a left turn as a return to the kind of movies that made his name, like 1984’s “Top Secret,” and more importantly for our purposes, 1985’s college-set “Real Genius.” Directed by “Valley Girl” helmer Martha Coolidge, and produced by a pre-Imagine Entertainment Brian Grazer, the film stars Kilmer as Chris, an offbeat slacker who also happens to be a physics genius. His corrupt professor (William Atherton) has recruited Chris and some of his other students — fifteen-year-old Mitch (Gabriel Jarret), the broken Lazlo (Jon Gries) and hyperactive lady-nerd Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) — to work on a laser while he uses the CIA paycheck to remodel his house. When they find out that it’s intended for use as a weapon, they set out to sabotage their own project, and have fun while doing it. As college comedies go, “Real Genius” is one of the better ones; effortlessly funny (thanks to Kilmer’s charismatic turn), well-researched in its science, and unexpectedly well-crafted (the score is from Thomas Newman, and the great Vilmos Zsigmond is the DoP). The film hardly reinvents the wheel, but as campus hi-jinks go, you could do an awful lot worse.

“Revenge of the Nerds” (1984)
For the wrong social sect, college is even worse than high school in the hierarchy of the social strata, and can be even more painful and alienating. Especially if you’re attending the fraternity-obsessed, football-dominant university, Adams College. A hilarious and yet surprisingly heartfelt look at outsiders, misfits, community and trying to find one’s place in the universe (not to mention a striking look at persecution and maltreatment of the meek), “Revenge Of The Nerds,” is not only one of the quintessential college movies, it’s also a touchstone of the ’80s. Starring Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards, Tim Busfield, Ted McGinley, Bernie Casey and John Goodman among many others, this raunchy coming of age tale centers on a motley crew of poindexters who receive a rude awakening when they arrive in college and learn that no fraternity will accept them (the central fallacy being they all apparently had a wonderful high school experience, but it’s easy to forgive). Ostracized and tormented by the jock fraternity Alpha Beta, and ignored by the comely blondes sorority, Pi Delta Pi, the nerds create their own safe haven with the fraternity Lambda Lambda Lambda. Their bright futures are tested though when the mean-spirited jocks burn their fraternity home down the nerds realize they must win control of the Greek Council by winning the annual intramural sports Greek Games during homecoming in order to set things right and achieve their own form of vengeance. Featuring one of the greatest original song musical sequences of all time – The Tri-Lamb Rap — ‘Nerds’ has it all: Laughs, drama, stakes and heart, making a blueprint of unimpeachable comedy. It also boasts an incredibly undervalued soundtrack of ‘80s also-rans and uses music to fantastically comedic effect (see Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller” and the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” to name a few). If you don’t shed tears at the triumphant finale scored with Queen‘s “We Are The Champions” you have a heart of coal. Extra pleasurable is the R-Rated humor which is very un-PC and juvenile, but hysterically vulgar and wrong. But do yourself a favor and skip all the sequels, as they possess no spark of what makes ‘Nerds’ so endearing and special.

“Rudy” (1993)
Based on the true-life story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (played by future hobbit Sean Astin), a plucky, perennially benched football enthusiast that attended University of Notre Dame and dreamed, one day, of actually playing football, “Rudy” has become shorthand for rousing sports movies of any shape. Somehow its meager beginnings (it was a sleeper hit but no smash, with a critical consensus of “okay, not great”) gave way to an even bigger legacy, with the film regularly cited as one of the greatest, most inspirational sports movies of all time. “Rudy” mixes authenticity (it was the first movie the Notre Dame higher-ups allowed to film on campus since “Knute Rockne, All American” in 1940) with sugary sentimentality, both of which are heavily augmented by Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettably rousing score. In terms of college movies, “Rudy” perfectly captures that feeling of displacement that everyone, no matter how cool or rich or popular, feels for at least part of their collegiate experience (and Astin hits all the notes perfectly). Also, there’s a scene where Jon Favreau is incinerated in a mill explosion, which should fulfill the fantasy of countless moviegoers who had the misfortune of watching “Cowboys & Aliens.”

“Rules of Attraction” (2002)
Roger Avary, for years overshadowed by writing partner Quentin Tarantino in the fallout from “Pulp Fiction,” finally established his directorial credentials with this witty adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ campus novel. Receiving a decidedly mixed reaction upon release, its reputation has improved in the decade since, and Ellis himself has said that it comes the closest of all the adaptations of his work to accurately capturing the world he creates. It’s a glossy, sickly and decidedly tricksy affair, with reverse sequences, jumbled chronology, a jump-cut travel montage and a soundtrack that plays like a late ’90s hipster mix tape. Much of the film’s hyperactivity may be attributable to Avary’s desire to prove himself as a talent in his own right, after allegedly getting shafted for the credit on “Pulp Fiction,” but “Rules of Attraction” is a film that could easily be called “Generation X: The College Years,” so it just about works. The intertwining trajectories of the three protagonists as they struggle to negotiate the druggy fish-bowl of Camden College form a kind of dark triptych of post-modern picaresques; each of them is miserable and frustrated in their own special way. James van der Beek plays totally against type as the nihilistic, coke-dealing Sean Bateman, with Shannyn Sossamon and Ian Somerhalder rounding out a solid ensemble cast (look out for a striking cameo from Fred Savage as a heroin-injecting recluse). Avary said he wanted to offer something that subverted the usual rules of the campus movie, and didn’t want “’American Pie‘ and ‘Road Trip‘ to be the barometer by which a generation is judged”. If college is usually seen as a ribald, chaotic, but ultimately life-affirming place, then Camden College is just the opposite, irredeemably nasty in almost every way you can imagine. It’s populated by vapid narcissists and the strong prey constantly on the weak. In this world, even when people try to be nice they end up being cruel, and only the very worst come out ahead.

“School Daze” (1988)
Almost the platonic ideal of cinematic second-album syndrome, Lee’s big-studio coming-out party (he was snapped up by Columbia after the success of “She’s Gotta Have It“) is a messy, overstuffed, incredibly uneven film that falls well short of its enormous ambitions. Which is not to say to that it’s not worth watching. Set at the mostly-black Mission College, it follows a number of students, including the politically engaged Dap (Laurence Fishburne, looking like the world’s oldest college student; he was only 27 when the film was made, but still looks older), his cousin Half-Pint (Lee himself), who’s pledging into the Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, and Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the head of the fraternity. And against this canvas, Lee tackles a whole host of issues: the African-American middle-class, sexual politics, the battle against apartheid, the frat system and, most of all, the clash in African-American culture between, as the film puts it, Wannabees (those trying to fit into white culture) and Jiggaboos (who are prouder of their own heritage). Given that it tries to deal with all of this and more, while essentially using the form of both a college movie and a full-blown musical, it’s not entirely surprising that the film doesn’t quite work: the performances are too inconsistent, the ideas not quite fully developed. But it’s much more interesting to watch an ambitious failure than an unambitious success, and compared to the vast majority of college movies, Lee’s second joint is a feast, even if his filmmaking skills had yet to catch up with his imagination.

“The Social Network” (2010)
Before the first trailer dropped, the prospect of a “Facebook movie” was not at all appetizing for many moviegoers, with much of the general public assuming it would just be an earnest ‘”origins flick” for a website nobody really wanted to hear about anymore. But David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, canny as they are (and working from Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires“), twisted the angles a bit to produce a knockout; a tense legal procedural, digital-age heist movie, singular character study (although Jesse Eisenberg also deserves huge credit for that) and classic piece of Hollywood myth-making all rolled into one. The first hour of the film focuses on the social bubble of Harvard University, and in many ways the true nature of “The Social Network” can be seen in the way it represents the Harvard experience. Zuckerberg is presented largely as an outsider, someone who found the rules and strictures of the university an unnecessary inconvenience; his classes were too easy and the fusty, bureaucratic old faculty lack the imagination to see Zuckerberg for the radical thinker he really is. This Harvard is a place where the privileged and connected few enjoy the same old advantages and seek to preserve the status quo. In many ways “The Social Network” is an anti-college movie, but perhaps it is also a necessary counterweight to the enormous tide that flows from Hollywood selling the other side, where college is the embodiment of success  and the only possible route to a better life. In fact, a huge number of youth-oriented films have college acceptance as a major part of the plot, and show not getting into college as abject failure, as the end of ambition, as consignment to a menial life. Fincher didn’t go to college, so it is no surprise that what he and Aaron Sorkin did was remake the Facebook story as an entrepreneurialist myth wrapped up in a legal drama. The Winklevoss twins, the velvet-jacketed “Harvard men” through and through, are the villains of the piece, and the college dropouts are the heroes. In many respects it’s a Hollywood play as old as the hills, only with an ultra-modern twist. In the end, the cretinous Winklevoss’ get their money, but by that time Facebook has become a giant, and Zuckerberg’s colossus merely shakes off their hundred-million dollar lawsuits like a couple of pesky insects, as it rises to claim its rightful place amongst the global elite.

“Starter For Ten” (2006)
In Britain there are two types of universities — there are the dreaming spires of the Oxbridge universities, which are almost a thousand years old and look down upon the world from a position of impossible wealth, power and influence, and then there are the rest, which is where normal people go. Tom Vaughan’s “Starter for 10,” based on the bestselling novel by David Nicholls (who also wrote “One Day“), is a nostalgic paean to the latter of these. It’s particularly notable for the roster of British acting talent that it gave early outings to, with James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall, Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve all putting in sterling work as 1980’s Bristol Uni students. The fairly predictable romantic comedy aspects of the plot are elevated by charismatic performances from a cast that seven years later would likely cost ten times as much to put together. The world they show is one of free universities with cheap, cheap pints of beer, terrible haircuts, incredible music, plentiful protests, general laziness and extreme squalor.  While the Oxbridge universities get their “Brideshead Revisited” and their “True Blue,” there are surprisingly few films about the more usual student experience at the modern universities. “Starter for Ten” is low key, but few films manage to portray the embarrassment, lust, new experiences and heady intensity of college friendships with such charm.

“A Woman of Distinction” (1950)
Probably the most similar in plot to “Admission” on this list, “A Woman of Distinction” is about a college dean (Rosalind Russell) who finds love with a British astronomy professor (Ray Milland). Dean Middlecott is a career woman who feels there’s no room in her life for romance, so when the newspapers hint at something between her and Professor Stevenson (who she’s never met), she flips her lid. In typical romantic comedy fashion, more hijinks ensue as the two meet and squabble (portrayed in the papers as a lovers’ spat) and the publicity gets out of hand when rumors circulate that Stevenson is the father of Middlecott’s adopted daughter. Not only is her icy reputation at stake, but also her job. “A Woman of Distinction” may be cheesy, but it’s the right kind of cheese, that will leave you laughing and smiling with every pratfall (comedienne Russell falls out of chairs, gets sprayed with water, and is smeared with mud). With Russell rivaling Lucille Ball in physical comedy and Milland being rather dashing, who wouldn’t enjoy? On a casting trivia note, you may recognize the actor playing Middlecott’s father. Yes, that’s Edmund Gwenn, aka Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street.”

“Wonder Boys” (2000)
Starring Michael Douglas as an underachieving English professor and Tobey Maguire as his slightly off, albeit promising student, “Wonder Boys” follows Professor Grady as his young wife leaves him, through his never-ending struggle in writing a second novel, when his editor (Robert Downey, Jr.) takes a shine to a promising student’s manuscript. The antithesis of Douglas’s famous Gordon Gekko, Professor Grady is disheveled in a way only a tenured academic can be, and his main hobby appears to be smoking pot when he’s not schtupping his boss’ wife (Frances McDormand). This is a side of academia that has not been shown often on the big screen, let alone by such a stellar cast up to the task. A world of understated pretensions and creative rivalries, there is just as much chaos and dysfunction here as in other work environments. Based off of the Michael Chabon novel, the film is littered with an appreciation for the finer (dare I write it – academic) details, including a very specific sequence involving a dead dog and the jacket Marilyn Monroe wore on the day of her wedding to Joe DiMaggio. A critical darling, “Wonder Boys” continues to charm.

“A Yank at Oxford” (1938)/ “A Chump at Oxford” (1940) /”Oxford Blues” (1984)
Oxford University might not quite be the oldest institution of higher learning in the world, but it might be the most famous, which is why it’s surprising that it’s not been central to more college-themed movies. But there are a few exceptions, most notably the 1938 MGM production “A Yank At Oxford,” and its subsequent parody, Laurel & Hardy‘s “A Chump At Oxford,” and its remake, 1984’s “Oxford Blues.” The original, MGM’s first British production, which featured a script polish by F. Scott Fitzgerald, stars Robert Taylor as a brash American who gets a scholarship to attend Oxford. He doesn’t make many friends at first, particularly afer falling for the sister (Maureen O’Sullivan) of another student, but he’s eventually able to win them round with his rowing prowess. It’s pretty rote and highly moralistic stuff, but decently acted, especially by Vivien Leigh as a married women who nearly leads to Taylor’s downfall (the part here led to her being cast as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind“). The film was successful enough to inspire Laurel & Hardy to parody it two years later with “A Chump At Oxford,” which sees Stan & Ollie enrolled at the university after stopping a bank robbery (it’s a long story). It’s not quite the duo’s best effort, but has its funny moments, and it’s worth keeping an eye out for a young Peter Cushing as another student. It’s certainly better than “Oxford Blues,” a direct, if loose remake, which sees Rob Lowe come to Oxford to pursue an aristocratic girl. Lowe’s somewhat unlikable (and a bit stalky) in the film, and neither the comedy or the drama are especially effective.

Honorable Mention: Other films that either didn’t quite feel college-set enough, weren’t quite good enough, or that we didn’t have the space for include: dark Matthew Lillard comedy “Dead Man’s Curve,” smash hit “Love Story,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Paper Chase,” Rob Reiner‘s “The Sure Thing,” “Drive He Said,” “Legally Blonde,” “Mona Lisa Smile,” “Smart People,” and of course, more recent comedies like “Van Wilder,” “Sorority Boys” and “The House Bunny,” plus perplexing DTV franchise-starter “The Skulls.” 

– Diana Drumm, Oliver Lyttelton, Kieran McMahon, Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Drew Taylor

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox