By Gerald Peary
In Covid-days, among the most lethal places to be is strolling about a university campus. So let’s experience college nostalgically and vicariously, with my pick of the best college movies of the last 35 years.
Back to School (1986) — Rodney Dangerfield is a dynamo force as a zillionaire businessman off to college for the first time. There’s a dim-witted Hollywood lesson that Dangerfield must learn, that “not everything can be bought.” But it’s balanced by super performances from Ned Beatty as a servile administrator and Sam Kinison as an insane professor. Plus there’s a cameo by Kurt Vonnegut.
School Daze (1988) — Spike Lee based his fictional film set at a Black college on his own days at Atlanta’s Morehouse University. In contrast to the apolitical agenda of most studio college films, Lee’s feature is an audacious insider’s critique of the African American university, starting with fraternity-sorority prejudices against darker-skinned students.
Berkeley in the Sixties (1990) — Mark Kitchell’s excellent documentary about campus politics on the University of California campus, from the Free Speech Movement through antiwar protests and the Black Panthers, with Joan Baez and Huey Newton on the left, and then California governor Reagan leading the unapologetic right.
Higher Learning (1995) — Boyz in the Hood director John Singleton masterminded this sinfully overlooked tale about race relations at a contemporary university. Singleton segues between white and African American students, showing their glaringly different perspectives on the same issues. The beautifully choreographed cast includes Omar Epps, Ice Cube, and Jennifer Connelly.
Wonder Boys (2000) — Curtis Hanson’s classy adaptation of Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel. Michael Douglas is a floundering creative writing professor whose love life is complicated and messy, and he just can’t quite finish that essential book. Katie Holmes is his gorgeous, willing student. Can the indulgent Douglas resist sleeping with her?
Old School (2003) — Todd Phillips’s practice film for The Hangover puts in motion his key mantra: married men want to be boys, pining for the dude camaraderie and chicks of bachelorhood. Three post-30 amigos — Will Ferrell, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughan — set up a faux fraternity house on the edge of a campus so they can party like undergrads. Sexist and retrograde, yes, but Ferrell and Vaughan sure are funny.
Accepted (2006) — Eccentric, intelligent kids rejected from college open their own noncredited university in a painted-over mental institution. Steve Pink’s winning Hollywood satire has teeth and a philosophy, as the fake campus is part Rousseau, part ’60s hippie, and the students teach/take whatever classes interest them. To heck with formal education when you can have comedian Lewis Black teaching a course in which he rails against big business.
The Great Debaters (2007) — Denzel Washington directed this important saga of African American history, celebrating the brilliant debating team of Wiley College in ’30s segregated Texas. Too bad the film culminates in a fictional debate against Harvard. In real life, there was a clash between Wiley and the University of Southern California, formidable enough.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008) — Kevin Rafferty’s documentary reminiscence of a legendary 1968 football game, with the pigskin participants from both Ivy League teams providing wry, savory commentary. Even nongridiron folks will relish the stories of the now-60ish players, including ex-Harvard lineman Tommy Lee Jones.
Elegy (2008) — This smart adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal, directed by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, is the winner among professor-beds-his-student flicks. A proud academic (Ben Kingsley) can’t resist when an enticing Spaniard enters his classroom. It’s Penelope Cruz as his sexy, adventurous, adult pupil.
The Social Network (2010) –A major filmmaker, David Fincher, does well with Aaron Sorkin’s best screenplay, setting his sights on a gaggle of snarky, genius Harvard lads vying for financial control of cyberspace. Facebook is the future. Here’s where the Best Picture should have landed instead of the leaden The King’s Speech.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.