The Best College Movies Of All Time

party scene from real genius
In a college movie, school amphitheaters get turned into beach parties (this one from Real Genius).

It’s the time of year when college freshmen are packing their cars, waving their good-byes, buying their textbooks, and learning their way around campus. If you’re feeling the school spirit, join me on this cinematic jaunt through the top ten all-time best college movies. This list comprises the classic movies that capture collegiate life. With that goal in mind, only movies that are primarily set on campus have made this list—hence no movies that focus on the summer before college like The Graduate or Breaking Away. Likewise, I stayed away from movies that center on a campus competition. Flicks like Pitch Perfect and Drumline may perfectly capture the college experience of singers or drummers, but for most people the university experience is more broad than a single club or sport. I think the ten movies below do the best job conveying what college is like. But hey, I matriculated many years ago, so what do I know? Maybe college these days is more like The Hunger Games. If I got it all wrong, let me know in the comments.

Read through to the end to find out how you can win three of the movies below on Blu-Ray.

Get Van Wilder  new or used on DVD, VHS or Blu-ray10. Van Wilder

It seems every generation has its college romp flick and in 2002 it was National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. Van Wilder is a terrible student, but he has college mastered. He knows how to prank and how to party. Too bad he can’t figure out what his life is supposed to be about. That’s what makes Van Wilder easy to root for. Sure, he’s a rich kid who’s spent way too many years in college. But most kids spend the first year just trying to figure out who they are and what they want to be, so I think most of us can identify with his antics. No matter how long it took us to figure out what to major in and how to be a grown up, we can feel smug in comparison to Van Wilder who in this screwball comedy finally figures it all out in his seventh year in college.

Get A Beautiful Mind new or used on DVD, VHS or Blu-ray9. A Beautiful Mind

This story is probably a more accurate portrayal of college life than it is of the mathematician John Nash. In the first twenty minutes A Beautiful Mind shows the typical struggle of the college freshman. For many first-year students, it’s the first time they’ve ever had complete autonomy over their own lives. No parents are there to make sure freshmen turn in their homework, eat their vegetables or go to bed on time. There’s no parent to step in when things go terribly wrong, as they do for John Nash. At the same time, his early freshmen embarrassments don’t keep him from rising through the ranks once he’s hit his stride—and don’t worry that’s not a spoiler! Bonus for this well-written story: it has a terrific cast too.

Get The Rules of Attraction new or used on DVD, VHS or Blu-ray8. The Rules of Attraction

To be honest, I’m not a fan of Bret Easton Ellis, not even the book this movie is based on. His writing is a little too cynical for my taste, a little too transgressive for the sake of being transgressive. But the movie does a better job of being funny without being completely bleak. Most college students have the misfortune of having recently been high school students. High school is a narrow world. Because there are only so many social circles to mix in, status competition results in pettiness and cruelty. In The Rules of Attraction the camera follows the tragedy of people who are too young to know how to love or when to let go. It’s funny and dark and it perfectly captures the heartbreak of being young and foolish.

Get With Honors new or used on DVD, VHS or Blu-ray7. With Honors

Brendan Fraser plays the typical over-achiever who is determined to graduate summa cum laude. Through a series of events, a bum (Joe Pesci) gets hold of the only copy of his precious thesis. Hilarity and pathos ensues. Not only is the world a lot bigger than high school, it’s a lot bigger than a college campus, and in this story a homeless man teaches the protagonist how to see the world and think for himself. An important lesson for twenty-something humans.

6. Monsters University

When I first researched this list, there were some movies I hadn’t seen that I thought likely should be included. Get Monsters University  new or used on DVD or Blu-rayOne of those was Revenge of the Nerds. I’m glad I took the time to do my due diligence and watch it! Let’s just say the movie hasn’t aged well. I honestly found it offensive, and I think a lot of today’s college freshmen would feel the same way. But let’s put that aside because Revenge of the Nerds has another big problem that nixed it from this list. The plot for Revenge of the Nerds is that the nerds must win the Greek Week competition to become the best frat on campus. Based on that movie, one would think that if a nerd is troubled by some person or group, that they must defeat them at their own game in order to find any happiness—in this case, defeat the fraternities at their own Greek system. But this is a completely wrong assessment of the college experience.

Monsters University has much the same plot as Revenge of the Nerds (it’s fair to call it an homage): our heroes must win at Greek Week in order to be let into the coveted scaring program. But again and again in Monsters University, when something isn’t working in the narrow space where they are competing, our protagonists think bigger, finding their solution in some other part of campus. Sure, it’s only a cartoon, but Monsters University hits all the typical college experiences from walking the quad to cramming for finals. Most importantly, this movie holds an important lesson every college student must learn: there are a million different ways to follow your dream, so never give up.

Get Higher Learning new or used on DVD or VHS5. Higher Learning

While the college movies above teach us that life is bigger than the clique you mix in, that doesn’t mean that cliques don’t exist. The diversity of most universities allow many people who’ve always felt like outliers to find others like themselves. It also allows people who’ve come from a homogenous environment to befriend people different from themselves. In John Singleton’s Higher Learning the story focuses on the racial tensions on college campus. College kids are still defining who they are, and part of that experience is choosing what social groups they want to belong to—and which ones to reject. Higher Learning is the first movie on the list to really show how this process can be political, even revolutionary. As one of my favorite professors put it, “college is where you stop living your own personal narrative and start living history.”

Get Good Will Hunting new or used on DVD, VHS or Blu-ray4. Good Will Hunting

There are people who live in every college town who see the college as little more than a mascot to cheer for at football games. It’s a different world that exists right along side the college world. Even at Harvard, the same college bars have working class kids from South Boston. Will Hunting (Ben Affleck) is one of these Southies…and also a genius. Robin Williams won an Oscar playing the psychiatrist whose job it is to make Will into collegiate material. But Will is content to be a janitor who solves complex equations for fun. Good Will Hunting explores the notions about what makes a man extraordinary. Does a genius have an obligation to use his gifts to help society?

Get Animal House new or used on DVD, VHS or Blu-ray3. Animal House

This one’s a no-brainer. Animal House is the quintessential college parody flick, for most people it would be number one on a “best college movies” list, and it’s the grandaddy of college flicks that made the rest possible . The plot of Animal House isn’t particularly involved. It’s more about watching the college freshman get high with his college professor (Donald Sutherland), watching who’s going to get lucky with the dean’s old lady and watching Belushi go gonzo in every scene. While most college students aren’t this debaucherous, it must be admitted that most students get up to considerable hijinks. After all, part of the fun of being a grown up is getting to make your own decisions, even terrible ones.

Get Real Genius new or used on DVD or VHS2. Real Genius

One important difference between university and high school is that in college brains beat brawn, just as in Real Genius it’s the smartest guys who lure the ladies. Even the nerds have their own hierarchy, and our heroes must finish building a super space laser to come out on top. But in college students work on projects with real-world consequences and the dramatic irony in True Genius is that we know this graduate project is a super weapon.

Real Genius has everything a college movie should. You have the ambitious, naive freshman, the senior who parties more than he works, the mysterious and crazy graduate, and plenty of parties and pranks. In fact the movie all ties together beautifully ending in an epic, world-saving prank that makes Animal House look like amateur hour. Val Kilmer gives a fantastic performance and Michelle Meyrink is adorable as the hyperkinetic geek. There’s a deliciously synth soundtrack, and this movie is so eighties that every other scene has a laser. 

Get PCU new or used on DVD or VHS1. PCU

PCU stands for Port Chester University, but the implied acronym is Politically Correct University. It’s 1994 and the burnouts have taken over the frats while all of campus fights it out over who’s the most oppressed group. PCU is both a parody of the college movies and a parody of what college has become. It manages to make fun of political sensitivity without crossing the line to become offensive itself. Jeremy Piven’s performance made me into a lifelong fan and the whole movie was, for me anyway, the closest any move has gotten to capturing the college experience. Of course it all ends in a huge party. Remember kids, always exhale, so you can help an old lady when she says, “Can you show me where the campus is?

Win Three of Our Favorite College Movies on Blu-Ray

We’re running three contests in honor of the back to school season, and the first is going on right now. It’s three pounds of assorted books of advice and tips for college students, as well as three of the movies above. Go here to enter our College Primer Prize Pack.

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: College Survival Tips