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'Admission' Granted: 20 Great College-Set Movies

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 21, 2013 at 3:59PM

Ah, the college experience. Success through opportunity! Or uh, something like that. For many, it's the first real taste of unchaperoned freedom, mixed in with girls, guys, sex, parties, experimentation and if you’re lucky, a bit of higher learning, too. Like the high school film, the college movie is a tried and true genre, and ironically, generally less mature than high school pictures which are mostly centering on coming-of-age, outsider blues and the like. These themes can be similar in college movies, but with much less adult supervision, the genre tends to get wilder, crazier, more vulgar and more unhinged. Though that’s obviously relative depending on the era.
9

Hoop Dreams
"Hoop Dreams" (1994)
"Hoop Dreams" is an absolute heartbreaker. Steve James’ seminal documentary was only supposed to be a thirty minute short, and ended up following the two aspiring pro-ballers for five years. Neither of its subjects, Arthur Agee or William Gates, ever made it to the NBA, but watching them progress through the basketball program on their way to college is as agonizing a lesson in the vicissitudes of American life as you could ever wish to see. The dispassionate camera of James, who has since gone on to build up a powerful body of work including "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson" and 2011’s "The Interrupters," does a superb job in absorbing all the fine detail and drawing a full and nuanced picture of the boys and their Chicago neighbourhoods. Few films manage to bring home as effectively how seismic a sea change university life can be for young, impoverished African-Americans. The film was a huge success, winning the audience award at 1994’s Sundance, bringing in well over ten times its budget at the box office and winning film of the year from critics Siskel and Ebert, the latter of whom called it “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen” (they later said it was the best film of the decade). "Hoop Dreams" remains the standard by which all sports documentaries are judged, and marked the beginning of a genre and created a template which continues to produce documentary gold year on year.  But "Hoop Dreams" isn't just a sports documentary. Its enduring quality lies in the way the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of Agee and Gates are laid helplessly bare, the way the viewer can see what’s going to happen before it actually does. It’s a sobering lesson in humanity; inspiring, terrifying and utterly essential cinema.

Horse Feathers
"Horse Feathers" (1932)
A madcap Marx Brothers comedy, “Horse Feathers” takes four out of the five brothers (no Gummo) and sets them loose on a college campus. Groucho plays Huxley College’s new president, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff. Harpo and Chico play “icemen” who moonlight as a part-time dogcatcher and bootlegger, respectively. Zeppo plays Professor Wagstaff’s son who convinces the professor to recruit professional football players to build up Huxley’s team and beat rival Darwin College. In one of its most memorable sequences (considered one of the greatest football scenes in cinematic history, even making it onto the cover of Time), the four brothers drive the football into the end zone in a horse-drawn garbage wagon and win the big game. As a variation of the town vamp featured in a few films on this list, Thelma Todd plays the “college widow” with all four brothers pursuing her, each wooing her with a variation of the very same song "Everyone Says I Love You" – Zeppo singing a “straight version”, Harpo whistling on a horse and later playing it on a harp, Chico playing the piano and singing comically in his standard Italian accent, and Groucho singing sarcastically in a canoe while strumming a guitar ("Everyone says I love you / But just what they say it for I never knew / It's just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who / Says I love you"). It's everything you'd expect from the Marx gang, and well worth catching.

Animal House
"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978)
In college (or in life), which Delta brother were you? Bluto (John Belushi), the absolute legend of any frat or dorm downing a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and smashing that acoustic guitar to smithereens while maintaining a 0.0 GPA in his seventh year of college? Otter (Tim Matheson), the suave ladies man who could get out of any jam and into any bed (including that of the dean’s wife)? Flounder (Stephen Furst), the awkward overweight freshman who was the butt of everyone’s joke? Or were you Neidermeyer (yeesh!)? We challenge you to not be able to find a relatable character amongst the array provided by Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis and John Landis in their classic comedy. Even with the strait-laced rival frat the Omegas (including Kevin Bacon) and Dean Wormer (John Vernon) out to get them (double secret probation!), the Deltas have a grand old time at a toga party, sneaking over to the girls’ dorm, smoking pot with the 'hip' English professor (Donald Sutherland), and so much more. “Animal House” is a masterpiece of collegiate comedy, paving the way for a decent chunk of the other films on this list. From its iconic soundtrack, including now party standards “Louie, Louie” and “Shout” to its gross-out humor (John Belushi’s impression of a zit), “Animal House” has become a landmark in comedy cinema and a must-see for every college student, past and present.

Old School
"Old School" (2003)
As Richard Roeper summed it up, “Old School” “is a raucous frat-school comedy that's dopey, degrading and disgusting -- and consistently hilarious.” Three thirty-something men decide to relive their college experiences by starting a fraternity. After Mitch (Luke Wilson) breaks up with his girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), stumbling into one of her anonymous orgies, his friend Bernard (Vince Vaughn) throws the massive “Mitch-A-Palooza” (featuring Snoop Dogg, and 300 college-age extras) to cheer Mitch up. Unfortunately, Dean Pritchard (Jeremy Piven), as the typically villainous college dean, threatens to kick Mitch out of his house through some technicalities. After brainstorming, Bernard comes up with the idea of turning Mitch’s house into a fraternity open to all, meeting the zoning requirements and providing them with a chance to relive their college heydays. Frat-themed shenanigans abound, including Mitch discovering his one-night-stand was actually his boss’s underage daughter (Elisha Cuthbert), a mild-mannered Frank (Will Ferrell in a career-making role) becoming his notorious college alter-ego “Frank the Tank” (beer bongs and STREAKING!), and elderly pledge “Blue” dying in a KY Jelly wrestling match with two lubed up female wrestlers. Predictably, the dean tries to shut their fraternity down through legal and illegal means. A modern college movie classic, at this very moment there are “Old School” drinking games occurring all around the world. Interestingly, according to director/writer Todd Phillips, the “Old School” script was written as a comedic take on “Fight Club and there are references scattered throughout the film, so it's definitely worth another watch, just to see if you can spot 'em.

PCU
“PCU” (1994)
This parody of the overly politically-correct '90s, set on a quiet New England campus, manages to be both a perfect satire of PC culture and a platonic ideal of a college comedy. Based on the experiences of co-writers Adam Leff and Zak Penn at their alma mater Wesleyan University, which in real life carries the nickname Diversity University and is known for its tradition of enthusiastic activism, the film is a loving send-up to its progenitor. The film follows pre-frosh Tom Lawrence (Chris Young) on his visit to Port Chester University, where he finds all sorts of R-rated adventure and campus controversy with his host, Droz (Jeremy Piven at his absolute Piven-iest). Piven lives in a dilapidated house called The Pit (loosely based on Wes' alt- "forority" Eclectic), with his motley crew of college burn outs, including Jon Favreau, sporting short dreads, as a gentleman named Gutter (you gotta start somewhere, right?). Tom and Droz make enemies of everyone on campus, from the Republican frat Balls and Shaft (led by a smarmy David Spade) and the Womynists, to the vegans and the Port Chester President Garcia-Thompson, played with gusto by Jessica Walters. Piven has never been better as the strung out Droz, rattling info off to Tom at a fast and furious pace, his manic energy oozing from every pore and off the screen. The lines and quips fly fast and furiously, and the film requires repeat viewings to catch them all. When The Pit crew are threatened with eviction, what else is there to do but throw a rager complete with George Clinton and the P-funk All-Stars? Of course, as with everything at PCU, it ends in protest, and the film culminates in a group chant of "We're not gonna protest" (what these students do best) at the ceremony to install the endangered whooping crane as the campus mascot. Surely, many of these jokes ring more true if you have familiarity with Wesleyan (play spot the library in the opening credits!) but it's still a stalwart classic of the college genre-- capturing every aspect of the sociology of college life in biting detail. Directed by "Die Hard" actor Hart Bochner, "PCU" races along at an energetic clip, propelled by the sheer energy of Jeremy Piven. He's never been better. "PCU" is an overlooked classic but a timeless gem of the college comedy canon.

This article is related to: Features, Admission


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