Eric’s Top 10 (Non-John Hughes) School Life Movies

by Eric Melin on August 28, 2007

in Top 10s

Despite what massive reruns on TBS might lead you to believe, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “The Breakfast Club” are not the only movies out there that encapsulate the school experience. In honor of everyone returning to school this fall and the recent success of the high school-centered “Superbad,” we would like to present our lists of the Top 10 (Non-John Hughes) School Life Movies.

It should be noted that these are films that center around college or high school life rather than just having a couple of school-aged characters in them. For that reason, movies like “Good Will Hunting” are excluded, but “Back to School” would have been eligible. Also, since there are too many of them, all of the “Harry Potter” movies are excluded.

My Top 10 is as follows, but if it peeves you to no end, don’t forget to check back next Tuesday for J.D.’s Top 10 (Non-John Hughes) School Life Movies

Eric’s List

spicoli hand

1. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)

Still the best high school movie ever made, this Cameron Crowe-penned film has it all. Classic turns by Sean Penn (as good-natured stoner Jeff Spicoli), Jennifer Jason Leigh (everygirl Stacy Hamilton), and Judge Reinhold (stand-up guy with a string of bad luck Brad Hamilton) anchor a movie whose characters feel as real now as they did in the 1980s. Director Amy Heckerling (“Clueless”) dealt with serious subjects like abortion, masturbation, and drugs without ever getting heavy-handed, and there are way too many memorable scenes to recall in this short space. It also jump-started the careers of Forest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, Eric Stoltz, and Nicolas Cage.

Mr. Hand: Why are you continuously late for this class, Mr. Spicoli? Why do you shamelessly waste my time like this?
Jeff Spicoli: I don’t know.
Mr. Hand: I like that. ‘I Don’t Know.’ That’s nice. ‘Mr. Hand, will I pass this class?’ Gee, Mr. Spicoli, I don’t know! You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to leave your words right up here for all my classes to enjoy, giving you full credit of course, Mr. Spicoli.
Jeff Spicoli: All right! heathers j.d.

2. “Heathers” (1989)

We didn’t name our team on the “World Series of Pop Culture” after this movie for no reason. In this pre-Columbine twisted revenge fantasy/satire, Christian Slater plays Jack Nicholson crossed with James Dean (and named J.D.) as a tortured high school outsider hell-bent on making the popular kids pay for their bad behavior—by killing them! No kidding. High school kids actually murder high school kids, but it’s all in good fun because it’s so over the top. Winona Ryder is the other attractive outsider, lured into the popular Heathers clan and forced to participate in such classic teen rituals as picking on geeks and cow-tipping. Only in our not-so-recent innocent past could a movie actually get away with blowing up the school like this one did. We won’t see this twisted of a high school film again in our lifetime.

J.D.: Our love is God, let’s go get a Slushie. election witherspoon broderick

3. “Election” (1999)

He didn’t detonate a bomb in the school, but Oscar nominated writer/director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) blows up some other high school sacred cows in this daring and hilarious satire. Frustrated teacher Matthew Broderick has a love/hate relationship with his ultra-motivated and annoying student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). This causes him to motivate a popular jock (Chris Klein) to run against her as school president and results in some unwanted sexual fantasies about the perky little go-getter. The razor-sharp unpredictable script, adapted from Tom Perotta’s novel, is a real balancing act, spotlighting the human side of its characters despite all their outrageous behavior.

Tracy Flick: Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things, but now, I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn’t, as you well know.

donnie gyllenhaal

4. “Donnie Darko” (2001)

Here’s some more teen angst, this time represented as a real life-and-death situation by way of some vaguely defined sci-fi time travel elements. Despite its fantasy-laced story though, Richard Kelly’s breakout DVD hit (it was barely shown in theaters) is about the alienation and loneliness one can feel in their most vulnerable of years. It may be set in the 1980s, but this film is the modern template for all emo kids and goth rockers today, thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal’s soulful turn as the confused title character who sees an evil bunny rabbit that talks to him. The best sci-fi tales are able to illuminate some larger truth about the human condition, and this movie gets at the core of the high school identity crisis in the most unique possible way.

Donnie: Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?
Frank: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit? rushmore murray schwartzman

5. “Rushmore” (1998)

Trying to describe this offbeat Wes Anderson prep school comedy is not easy, but here it goes. When chronic extracurricular overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) becomes disillusioned with his academic career, he meets a detached wealthy industrialist (Bill Murray), and both men learn about love in an awkward romantic triangle with Max’s teacher (Olivia Williams). “Bottle Rocket” introduced the world to Anderson, but this movie cemented his auteur status and revived Bill Murray’s career. No jokes here, just odd observational humor and a deep sense of longing that both characters share.

Max Fischer:: So you were in Vietnam?
Herman Blume: Yeah.
Max Fischer: Were you in the shit?
Herman Blume.: Yeah, I was in the shit.

hulce animal house

6. “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978)

This remains the prototypical party animal movie of all time, and I just watched it again recently and realized something. “Animal House” has been copied five million different ways. The party scenes are kind of tame now, but the spirit of rebellion and flying your freak flag in the face of authority absolutely remains intact. The Delta house was the first fraternity to fight for their right to party against all the square do-gooders, military types and campus crooks. Amidst all the chaos, believe it or not, director John Landis managed to have some sweet coming-of-age storylines around touchy subjects—one involving an underage girl and the other a professor. It is easy to remember John Belushi’s outlandish behavior, but you may have forgotten how funny and smart the dialogue was as well. Even “Fast Times” aped its final scene, where we learn what happened to the Deltas after college.

Dean Wormer: Who dropped a whole truckload of fizzies into the swim meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets explode.

detroit rock city

7. “Detroit Rock City” (1999)

“Fast Times” and “Dazed and Confused” tie rock n’ roll closely into the high school experience, but no movie brings it so close to home as this totally underrated gem. Having tickets for a rock concert was the most important thing ever when I was young, and this film captures the excitement of going to school on that fateful day, knowing that you’ll be screaming at the top of your lungs to your favorite guitar gods later that night. A parent’s misguided attempts to understand her son manifests itself in the anti-devil worship sentiment that was so hilariously prevalent in the late 70s/early 80s. Parents, bullies, and religion all try to hold the four dedicated rockers in “Detroit Rock City” down, but these institutions are no match for the kids’ steadfast dedication to the “hottest band in the world.” And what could better than a teen losing his virginity in a confessional booth and giving his mother her comeuppance in front of a festival crowd?

Lex: You know, your clothes may say disco, but your eyes say rock n’ roll.
Christine: Yeah? Well, your belt buckle may say rock n’ roll, but your breath says pepperoni, baby.

wooderson dazed

8. “Dazed and Confused” (1993)

The last day of school in 1976 is the backdrop for Richard Linklater’s even-handed and nostalgic examination of growing up and being scared. There are the graduating seniors worried about what to do after football ends and whether they’ll end up like townie Wooderson (a dead-on Matthew McConaughey in a career-making role). Then there are the entering freshmen who are worried about social cliques, girls and bullies. All are given a fair shake in a sentimental and funny look back at a time when getting in trouble was a big deal and school shootings were absolutely unheard of. Like “Fast Times” 11 years before it, this film launched a million careers. McConaughey , Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Rory Cochrane, Joey Lauren Adams, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Jason London and Nicky Katt all starred here in early roles.

Wooderson: Say, man, you got a joint?
Mitch: No, not on me, man.
Wooderson: It’d be a lot cooler if you did.

weiner dog dollhouse

9. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Is there a more pathetic teenage misfit than the unfortunately-named Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) in this heartbreakingly funny Todd Solondz flick? Not only is her pretty younger sister more loved by her parents, but her uber-geeky and smart older brother is even cooler than her, playing in a garage band with the dreamy long-haired Steve Rodgers. Uncomfortable moments are aplenty in this disturbing tale, told from Wiener Dog’s point of view, from her fumbling attempts at flirtation with Steve to lonely school thug Brandon’s fumbling attempts to frighten her with violent sex talk.

Brandon: Yo Wiener, you better get ready, ’cause at three o’ clock today, I’m gonna rape you!

three o'clock high

10. Three O’Clock High (1987)

Casey Siemaszko, the one “Young Gun” nobody remembers, is an average kid who accidentally touches the wrong bully (Richard Tyson) in this strangely funny high school send–up of “High Noon.” The school clock is the real villain, ticking down to his inevitable after-school confrontation with a thorough beating, and he does everything in his power to avoid it. The showy camera moves (from Barry Sonnenfield, who would later direct “Men in Black”) and sound-effect heavy soundtrack add to the mounting tension, adding weight to what seems like a life-and-death situation for our poor hero. Early small roles for Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall and Mitch Pileggi add to the fun.

Buddy Revell: Today. After school. Three o’clock. In the parking lot. You try and run, I’m gonna track you down. You go to a teacher, it’s only gonna get worse. You sneak home, I’m gonna be under your bed.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 awas1980 August 28, 2007 at 3:33 pm

Nice list! Heathers is one of my favorite movies, period.

The Karate Kid

Brick (It’s new but I liked the approach it took with High School life)

Rock ‘n Roll High School (Big PJ Soles fan)

Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College (Duh!)

Pump Up the Volume (bad movie, great soundtrack; Sonic Youth, The Descendants, Pixies…)

PCU and Summer School (guilty pleasures)


2 Randall August 29, 2007 at 3:27 pm

If I were to make a list like this, it would have to include Rock ‘n Roll High School, Buster Keaton’s College, Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love, and maybe Rebel Without a Cause. And if it could include documentaries, I’d have to try to find room for Spellbound, Hoop Dreams, and OT: Our Town.


3 Eric Melin August 29, 2007 at 5:03 pm

awas1980 and Randall-

I considered “Rock and Roll High School” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” but hadn’t seen either of them recently enough to rank among my faves here. “Pump” is a fun, cheesy flick for sure. Radio free USA! And i’m not even familiar with “Show Me Love.” What’s that all about?



4 Dana August 29, 2007 at 6:02 pm

This list rocks, I think you should talk Screenland into showing them all some time (Especially Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Welcome to the Dollhouse)! Is it sad that most of the movies on this list are just my favorites, not just the best “School Life Movies”?


5 Alan Rapp August 29, 2007 at 9:58 pm

Overall a good list, though I wonder at Detroit Rock City? Are you a KISS fan? I’d agree that Pump Up the Volume deserves to be on the list (also on the short list of movies starring Christian Slater which are any good). I’d also include The Virgin Suicides and seriously consider films like Stick It and Bring It On. But my real beef is the absence of Say Anything… Okay, so it takes place the summer after high school graduation, but it’s about that high school love, about growing up and becoming an adult and has many of the same themes from other flicks on this list. And it has one of my favorite lines of any film:

“I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen”


6 Eric Melin August 30, 2007 at 8:14 am


“Say Anything” has very little “school life” in it, so I excluded it altogether. It’s one of my all-time faves, but this is not the list for it to appear on…”Virgin Suicides”….maybe qualifies, great movie! “Bring it On” and “Stick It”…no. “Mean Girls” is the closest new movie out to actually take the feelings of high schoolers into consideration. “Bring it On” was fun, but it’s a formula sports movie and not a great “school life” film.


Yeah, these are some of my favorites, too. Every one of these would make great late-night viewing at the Screenland!


7 awas1980 August 30, 2007 at 11:04 am

A screening of Heathers would be so much fun! They could give out BBQ Cornuts and Diet Cokes to the audience…


8 Randall August 30, 2007 at 1:08 pm

Eric, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen Show Me Love, but I really loved it when I saw it. It’s about a couple of high-school misfits living a boring, miserable existence in a small town in Sweden (yeah, the movie is Swedish). It’s also a love story. It’s a realistic, sometimes depressing, but ultimately winning portrayal of high-school life. In tone, it’s probably most similar to Welcome to the Dollhouse (of those on your list), but better and less contrived, in my opinion. It cries for a spot on your Netflix queue. I’m sure you can look it up and find better descriptions than mine.

If Ghost World took place during the school year instead of right after high school, I’d argue for its inclusion here too. I know it’s not strictly about “school life,” but most of the concerns it explores are those of someone stuck between high school and college (or the “real world”).


9 ChrisKnudsen August 31, 2007 at 2:48 am

Where is High School Musical ass-monkey? That movie rules!


10 Dana September 5, 2007 at 11:55 pm

Okay, after seeing both Eric and JD’s lists it started making me think about all the movies I used to watch on USA. Does anyone remember “Private School” or “Vision Quest”? I just remember watching them on USA’s “Up All Night”, I can not remember if either films were good or not.


11 Charles September 6, 2007 at 6:22 pm

Kudos for including Donnie Darko on the list, as well as Welcome to the Dollhouse and Rushmore. Knudsen is right about High School Musical, but the sequel is even better…I’m assuming you and J.D. haven’t seen it yet, ’cause otherwise it would definitely be #1 on both lists.


12 Eric Melin September 7, 2007 at 2:19 pm

I didn’t know it before, but after seeing sexy Zac Efron on the cover of rock ‘n roll’s most respected magazine, Rolling Stone, I am now a HUGE fan of High School Musical!


13 Eric Melin September 7, 2007 at 2:20 pm


I remember Matthew Modine’s wrestling skillz to hot Journey tunage in VisonQuest, but what was Private School? Is that Johnny Depp? Or was that Private Resort? hmmm….


14 Dana September 9, 2007 at 2:01 am

“Private School” also had Matthew Modine in it. His character in the film is dating Phoebe Cates, and I can’t remember the whole plot but there are guys dressing up as girls sneaking into the private school that Cate’s character attends and ridiculous nudity (very 80′s cliche)! I didn’t know Johnny Depp did much between Nightmare On Elm Street and 21 Jump Street, I’m totally adding “Private Resort” to my netflix queue.


15 Eric Melin September 10, 2007 at 6:48 am

Somehow that reminds me of “Young Nurses in Love,” which I don’t think I ever saw with the sound turned up, but which I think might have had female nudity. My memories of the early 80s are a bit hazy sometimes….


16 Guitargrrl73 September 29, 2007 at 3:04 pm

Bravo, Eric! As I commented on J.D.’s list, too many people overlook the satirical genius “Election,” one of my all-time favorite movies ever. Kudos also for “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Dazed and Confused,” which totally get the anxieties of school life right. Poor little Dawn Weiner actually made me feel like my life in school wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. I have to say that other than appreciating Bill Murray’s performance in it, I don’t get “Rushmore,” but then I don’t generally get Wes Anderson’s films…And to Alan Rapp, “The Virgin Suicides” shouldn’t count because almost the entire movie takes place at the Lisbon girls’ house or the neighbor boys’ houses, so it doesn’t take place at a school–it centers around school-aged characters. I think of it more as a psychological drama, anyway. What it did get right, though, was the insecurity pubescent boys have around girls, especially hot girls.


17 Eric Melin October 1, 2007 at 6:08 pm


Poor little Dawn Weiner. It’s a shame she had to die in “Palindromes.”


18 Jesse October 3, 2007 at 1:04 am

Where the hell is the Robert Downey/James Spader classic Tuff Turf?


19 Shawn October 24, 2007 at 8:48 pm

How is it that no one ever remembers the greatest (and most realistic) high school movie of all time – “The Last American Virgin”?!? And even though it just came out “Superbad” is an easy pick for the top ten. And as much as I hate Tom Cruise, “All the Right Movies” deserves a nod as well.


20 Steve October 24, 2007 at 10:03 pm

Revenge of the NerDs?

Come on guys!!!!!

Classic school flick.


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