September 8, 2006

High grades


A few years ago, for reasons I'm still struggling to fully understand, I made a list of the 10 best high school movies ever. (But you knew that, didn't you). Now Entertainment Weekly offers its list of the top 50, and much to my surprise, every one of my 10 is somewhere in there. I don't know if this reflects well on EW or poorly on me, but given how much thought I've put into this, I'm going to go with the former. Hell, they even found one great one that I'd forgotten (Gregory's Girl, #29).

For the record, here's my 10 best, and where they fell on EW's list:

1. Election [9]. The ultimate high school as metaphor for modern American life movie. Brilliant filmmaking too, as the director's commentary on the DVD helped me appreciate.

2. Fast Times at Ridgemont High [2]. If you haven't seen this in a while, you may be alarmed at how dark and emotionally honest it is. I enjoy pop confections like Clueless and Mean Girls [EW's 7 and 12 respectively; Clueless almost made my top 10] but they don't pack a funny-because-it's-true punch like this. Another one where the commentary track is worth a listen. You won't learn much, but Crowe and Heckerling are hilarious.

3. Last Picture Show [19]. I don't know how EW rated this below Rock N Roll High School, which I couldn't even finish. Don't they know the difference between a time capsule and a timeless classic? The still above (indeed, the whole scene) is the distillation of everything that makes high school movies great: thrills, vulnerability, insecurity, daring, self-invention, humiliation and sex.

4. Rushmore [24]

5. Dazed and Confused [3]

6. High School [13]. This is one of the two I was sure EW would overlook. Hard to find, but worth it if you can. Anderson obviously studied it before he made Rushmore.

7. Heathers [5]. My favorite movie when it came out, now slipped a little. It doesn't hold up quite as well as you'd like.

8. Say Anything [11]. Then again, I haven't seen it in many years, and it did come out the same time as Heathers.

9. Flirting [46]. The other one I thought EW would miss. It just barely made the magazine, but at least it placed higher than Napoleon Dynamite, which I kind of feared would be in their top 10.

10. Breakfast Club [1].

So again, kudos to EW for a well-considered list. Sure, I'll quibble with some of their placements (I'd put Ferris Bueller much lower than 10 and Can't Hardly Wait a bit higher than 44; I'm not sure how I feel about Harry Potter being there; and where's Saved?) but the only serious flaw in the list is a fondness for shlocky dramas: Rebel Without a Cause [4], Boyz N the Hood [8], Dead Poets Society [20].

Confidential to MI: Just One of the Guys comes in at 48 -- above Sixteen Candles! I saw it recently on your insistence and all I can say is, 48 sounds about right. There's a great story lurking in there somewhere (I think Shakespeare wrote it) and it's entertaining as a look back at 1985 (or rather, at what bad high school movies thought 1985 looked like), but it's fatally flawed by the horrible dialogue (I only laughed at one joke, although it was a nice big laugh) and the atrocious acting. This was even more of a problem than it would have been in another movie, because it was impossible to tell whether our heroine was supposed to be convincing as a guy, given how unconvincing she was as a girl. Also, I'm permanently scarred from the big reveal at the end.

Now for the movies on the list I haven't seen. Feel free to recommend or warn me off: Lucas, Cooley High, Get Real, Brick, Bye Bye Birdie, Can't Buy Me Love (actually I'm pretty sure I saw this in the theater, but I have no memory of it), Splendor in the Grass.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


I saw Bye Bye Birdie in Bryant Park a couple years back. It's fun for a setting like that, but probably wouldn't work well at home. Unless you like dated musicals with cheesy dialogue and mediocre songs.

heh. no male ever appreciates Just One of the Guys. maybe you should cross-dress as a girl and watch it and see if you like it more.

lucas: adorable. very young winona at her most fetching.

splendor in the grass. so claustrophobic and hothouse-y and distressing. really does capture that teenage feeling of lusting so much you think you might die. and warren beatty's lips are like delicious pillowy gnocchi.

_Brick_ uses its high school setting as a gimmick -- kind of like _Bugsy Malone_, actually. You may like the gimmick, but there's not really any insight there. There's no way it deserves to be at 36.

I seem to recall _Can't Buy Me Love_ kicking ass, but I haven't seen it in years. Looking at where it sits on the EW list, putting it in the vicinity of _My Bodyguard_ seems about right -- although there is a lot of schlock near the top, as you note. (At least _School Ties_ isn't on there.)

And saying _High School_ is difficult to find is an understatement. Doesn't Wiseman control all the prints of all his movies? He certainly hasn't authorized any DVD releases I'm aware of (and I'm going to make that comment before checking Amazon, dammit). It would be easier to tell you to keep an eye out for Maryjane -- no insight into high school, but plenty of insight on how to be the hip (excuse me, hep) new art teacher in school.

You know, there's all this cult love for _Cruel Intentions_. Can't recall it well enough to say that it deserves to be on the list.


Rose and I enjoyed Brick a lot. The dialogue is a little mannered (though not as egregiously so as it seemed in the trailer), and I don't know if you could really call it a high school movie (it's really more of a noir thriller that happens to be set in high school) -- but it's worth watching.

Coming across this discussion of the same EW list, I would have to suggest _October Sky_ -- sentimental, and more focused on Gyllenhaals family than on high school, but still insightful about our high school ambitions, I think, and a nice pair with _Hoosiers_. Over my shoulder my wife assures me that _Some Kind of Wonderful_ also deserves consideration.

I'm stumped on _Valley Girl_, _Porky's_, _Ghost World_ and _Footloose_ -- I'd generally lean against them really being high school movies, but I can understand why people might want to argue about it. I couldn't imagine any of them making your list, regardless.



the Sure Thing..?

About Last Night..?

Some Kind of Wonderful..?

oh wait one more...

the forgotten classic:

3 o'clock high...

Ever see that one Daniel?

Well, I'm not sure about the other two, but The Sure Thing is definitely not a HS movie, since the characters are in college.

I think a greater distinction should be made between movies that are about HS and movies in which the characters happen to be in HS. Scream, for example is a good movie, but doesn't really have much to say about the HS experience. And if I'm not mistaken, Say Anything takes place after graduation so should it really even be included? Same with Ghost World, which is not included, but was a better movie.

If you like musicals, you have to watch Birdie, if for no other reason than Paul Lynde.

My personal favorites would be Rushmore, followed by Clueless, Election, and Mean Girls.

Oh, and The Breakfast Club is one of the most overrated movies of all time.

If Say Anything qualifies, I think it's number one. The script is flawless: it's funny and sad and earns its romantic payoff. It's one of the few teen movies that is neither breezily cynical nor cloying; it's wise about its subjects (in contrast, say, to the eye-rolling pandering of The Breakfast Club, a movie that ages terribly as its audience ages), and is fundamentally generous and decent in its view of people.

Election is nearly the opposite in its attitude about people, and it's also brilliant, of course, though it isn't as much about the actual high schoolers as Say Anything is. One thing that still impresses me about Election is how they seem to have convinced almost everyone, through point of view, that Tracy Flick is the story's big villain rather than the predatory, lying, hypocritical, self-justifying, thoroughly loathesome Jim McAllister.

I'm not going to click through EW's ten slow-loading pages on my dialup connection, so I don't know whether they included The Last American Virgin, but that's another surprisingly dark one.

Look at that: The Onion gets in on the act, too. 'Tis the season.


Fast Times really should be #1, it's just ridiculous to rate any high school movie higher. Not election, and certainly not The Breakfast Club, sheesh.

There's a bunch of stuff on that Onion list I haven't seen. Some already in my Netflix queue, some totally off my radar. Looking forward to checking them out.

Say Anything may be set after graduation, but it's still very much about high school social structures. Sure Thing and About Last Night are post HS, both chronologically and emotionally. Never seen 3 O'Clock High, but will put it on my list.

Agree that Scream and Ghost World are not enough about high school to qualifiy, despite the ages of the protagonists.

Valley Girl is probably in my top 20. Last American Virgin and Some Kind of Wonderful would be in my top 50 at least. I hated Cruel Intentions. Breakfast Club deserves credit for cementing many of the genre conventions that successors have played with. It's not in and of itself a great movie, but it deserves to be on the list the same way Stagecoach would have to be on a list of greatest Westerns.

Possibly the two best high school films ever were actually TV series. I think you know what I'm talking about.

"90210" and "Saved by the Bell"?

Welcome Back Kotter and Degrassi High

Wow -- no BETTER OFF DEAD on any of these lists?

Give me that film over any other early John Cusack film -- *especially* the grotesquely overrated Crowe's SAY ANYTHING. Talk about a "shlocky drama"!

I'd also suggest that STARSHIP TROOPERS and THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE deserve spots on the list, for presciently nailing the experience of post-9/11 teenagers avant la lettre.

And nationalism aside, there's no good reason to leave off HEAVENLY CREATURES.

I haven't seen Better Off Dead in years. I remember liking it, but it didn't stick in my head as anything special. It would probably make my top 50, if I had such a list.

Heavenly Creatures is about teenagers, but it's not about high school. The foreign aspect is interesting. The high school movie is a quintessentially American genre, but I'm sure that just as there are great Italian Westerns, there can be great foreign high school films. From Japan, maybe? (I have yet to see Battle Royale). Amarcord was elementary school, right?

if netflix has 3' oclock high,

you must get it.

Dan, I hear what you're sayin' about HEAVENLY CREATURES -- and, yes, it certainly isn't about "the high school experience" per se -- but it is about the experience of persons in high school as much as SAY ANYTHING is. S.A., IIRC, isn't especially concerned with the secondary-school mileu, or with "high school" as a social institution (as, say, R'N'R H.S. is).

You should definitely revisit BETTER OFF DEAD. It ages better than HEATHERS, and it really contains the quintessential Teen John Cusack character -- Lane Meyer is the kid who grew up to be Martin Blank.

I don't remember the exact age of the kid in Amarcord, but he's at least an adolescent (the boys are old enough to be obsessed with masturbating and seeing naked women). But Amarcord isn't a high school movie. Isn't about the experiences of the town as a whole, and the kids are just one part of that. In fact, I can't remember a single scene that takes place in the school (though that may not be a requirement for the list).

Going back a few comments, About Last Night isn't high school either. Though many of the characters are pretty juvenile (especially Jim Belushi's and Elizabeth Perkins'), they're all adults.

>I can't remember a single scene that takes place in the school

You're right that the movie wouldn't qualify because it's not school-centric, but I had in mind the scene of the kid in the back row using the funnel to piss on the floor in front of the teacher.

Except for _Chain Camera_, which I would guess lies somewhere between _High School_ and RJ Cutler's _American High_ but which I haven't seen, I don't think the more obscure entries on the Onion list are really good movies about high school. I don't know enough about boarding schools to say if _If..._ works on a non-allegorical level, but my guess is no.


Well, when I say a high school movie should be about high school, I don't mean to imply any sort of fidelity to the real-world high school experience, any more than a Western must be *about* the settling of the American West. I simply mean that the movie should use the high school environment (physical, social, emotional) as the way in which it tells whatever its story actually is.

Over the Edge. "Surrender", Van Halen, and a twelve year old androgynous huffer, all before they burn down the high school. How could you not love it?

"If..." perfectly depicts every boarding school boy's deepest, most secret fantasy (even if you're not British) while "Toy Soldiers" (1991) is a typical post-Reaganite despoiling and repurposing of the rebellious spirit of the 1960s. "If..." should be on every list.

Thanks for reminding me about Last American virgin and Toy Soldiers.
Two excellent movies I'd forgotten about..

I remember really liking Can't Buy Me Love, although it is probably because I sat in the back row and my girlfriend gave me a (discreet) blowjob.

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