There is no shortage of high school stories, but there doesn’t seem to be as many great stories told of characters who are attending college. Despite this belief, I have a few college movies that I love to watch. Here’s my top 5 list of movies worth the old college try.
- Good Will Hunting (1997)
This is my favorite movie of all time. Although the protagonist, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), doesn’t attend college, he is a genius and works as a janitor at MIT, where he solves a complex math theorem on a hallway chalkboard. On the brink of facing prison time, Will instead has the opportunity to work with Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), the renowned MIT professor who created the theorem, under the condition that he has to attend therapy sessions with Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Will’s love interest in the film, Skylar (Minnie Driver), is a Harvard student who later leaves Boston to attend medical school at Stanford. The film tells the story of Will overcoming his feelings of abandonment and learning to reach his full potential, both academically and romantically. This movie will make you laugh hysterically, cry, and wish you had a Boston accent. To this day, I think it’s Matt Damon and Robin Williams’ greatest work. Gus Van Sant does a beautiful job of depicting all neighborhoods of Boston, specifically “Southie” and the city of Cambridge. The film won two Academy Awards: Robin Williams won best supporting actor, while Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won best screenplay. Side note, this is one of many movies (#4, included) that have characters who write on things like mirrors and windows…do people actually do this in real life?
2. Love Story (1970)
If I remember correctly, Ali McGraw’s character in this film was the subject of one of my first posts on GITNB. The film tells the love story of two college seniors, Oliver Barrett (Ryan O’ Neal) and Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali McGraw). Oliver is a privileged Harvard hockey player turned broke law student and Jenny is a sassy ‘Cliffie’ (RIP Radcliffe College) turned music teacher who comes from a working class family. In many ways, the two are polar opposites, but they love one another unconditionally, flaws and all (after all, this is the story that is famous for coining the phrase, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”). The film can best be described as “super 70s,” from Oliver’s tendency to wear tweed blazers down to the hokey music played in the background of the film, certain aspects of Love Story haven’t exactly stood the test of time. Despite the fact that the film is dated, I love the scenes where the couple walks through Harvard’s campus and the streets of Cambridge. Yes, the characters are somewhat cliche on the surface, but their personalities and depth develop as the film progresses. Unlike romantic dramas made more recently (*cough* Nicholas Sparks film adaptations *cough*) in which the characters are just as cliche and shallow as each film’s plot and dialogue, there’s actually a smooth cinematic progression throughout Love Story. Overall, thumbs up. By the end of this movie, you’ll have used up a half a box of Puffs Plus and will convince yourself that pairing a plaid J. Crew Regent Blazer and a wool turtleneck needs to come back in style. Also, you’ll see a young Tommy Lee Jones, who made his acting debut as one of Oliver’s college buds. In other words, it’s a must see.
3. Animal House (1978)
What do Donald Sutherland, John Belushi, Kevin Bacon, and that chick from Raiders of the Lost Ark have in common? They all starred in the hilarious film Animal House. The film is set in the early 1960s on the fictitious campus of Faber College (it was actually filmed on the University of Oregon’s campus), where members of Delta Tau Chi fraternity frequently play pranks on their rival fraternity and the tight-ass Dean Wormer. If you were to ask any self-proclaimed frat star, current or graduated, their thoughts of Animal House, they would probably say it’s one of their all time faves and that it is/was a squad goal to throw a rager like the legendary Delta Tau Chi toga party. There are so many great parts of this movie; in fact, my parents were so inspired that they named our lake house after the bar where Otis Day and the Knights performed (The Dexter Lake Club). Animal House is truly a laugh and a half. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, there are certain pop culture references we all know of, thanks to the goons from Delta Tau Chi. To further elaborate, you can’t attend a wedding reception without hearing (and I hope dancing to) the song Shout. The movie also was a source of inspiration for the 80s band Twisted Sister, as the chap who played Doug Niedermeyer appeared in two of the band’s music videos where he reclaimed his iconic role and line, “what do you want to do with your life?” John Belushi brought so much physical humor to the movie, it’s understandable that it continues to be a comedy classic almost 40 years after its initial release.
4. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
I’m mystified, stupified…by how anyone thought Russell Crowe could pass for a college student in this movie, but to quote his character John Nash, “What is logic? Who decides reason?” This movie is just as brilliant as the real life mathematician John Nash. A Beautiful Mind begins when Nash is a student at Princeton University, where he meets Hansen (Josh Lucas), Bender (Anthony Rapp), Sol (Adam Goldberg), and his college roommate, Charles (Paul Bettany), who the audience later learns is actually a fixture of Nash’s imagination as a result of schizophrenia. During his time at Princeton, he develops the Nash equilibrium. This advancement of the game theory excels Nash’s career and later takes him to MIT, where he conducts research and teaches. There, he meets his student turned future wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly). Director Ron Howard is no stranger to making biopics, but A Beautiful Mind is hands down his best to date. It’s a compelling story about a man who is so brilliant, yet has a mental illness that nearly makes him insane. Similar to Good Will Hunting, this film will make you think and will also make you feel 10 times smarter after you finish watching it. Also, shoutout to any Dazed and Confused fans who noticed that the guys who play Tony and Mike are friends in A Beautiful Mind, too.
5. Legally Blonde (2001)
If it isn’t clear already, I have a slight obsession with Harvard. This love for the veritas slogan and The Crimson all began on a fateful August afternoon in 2001, when I begged my dad to take me to see a matinee showing of Legally Blonde. I was only 8 years old and the minute I saw the aerial shots of Harvard’s campus, I fell in love. I worshipped this movie for most of my adolescence, to the point where I asked for the same orange iBook Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) buys at the campus bookstore every year until I was twelve (unfortunately, Santa wasn’t as generous in the technology department). To this day, my friend Jeff and I still text each other movie lines from Legally Blonde. But I digress. Legally Blonde tells the story of Elle Woods, a smart, hyper feminine sorority girl who attends the fictitious college, CULA. After being dumped by her boyfriend Warner, she tries to win him back by also enrolling in Harvard Law School, where she’ll prove to him that she can be the serious woman he wants to marry. Despite the lack of encouragement she receives from her friends, parents, and academic advisor, she kicks booty on the LSAT (she scores a 179, nbd), submits a memorable admissions tape, and is admitted to the school. After overcoming ridicule from her peers and doubt from her professors, Elle learns that she is just as smart and capable as others around her. I love how the film plays with light humor and deep feminist themes—this dichotomy makes the story extremely compelling and fresh. Elle’s monologue in the final scene of the movie also makes me laugh/choke up every single time I watch it:
“On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise Professor quoted Aristotle: “The law is reason free from passion.” Well, no offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law — and of life. It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering that first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself. Congratulations, Class of 2004—we did it!”
Honorable Mention Worth the Old College Try: The Paper Chase (1973)
Post Grad Movies that Everyone Thinks are About College Life: The Graduate (1967) // St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)