Americans have a special relationship to their high school years.
For a considerable number of Americans, high school was the zenith of their entire lives. Especially if, like Matt Dillon’s character in “Beautiful Girls,” you were the star quarterback, who ended up plowing snow for a living.
But if one wasn’t popular, high school was the nadir of life. So all in all, Americans tend to either have hated high school, or loved it. Either way, we’re passionate about it. Few are indifferent. But most, like Napoloean Dynamite’s uncle (another high school quarterback), have some obsessive memory about high school. In his case, to the point of wondering whether a time machine’s been invented yet that can take him back, so he can complete that missed pass.
Yet Another List
There are lots of these all-time best high school movie lists, and they vary a bit, but most of them have most of the following movies. So what makes this list special? Reading about your favorite high school movie is like going to a retro-candy store, and having some Fireballs, some banana-flavored, cigar-shaped bubblegum, or whatever it was you used to send freshman to the corner-store to buy for you at recess, with the incentive of avoiding getting duct-taped to their lockers.
Or maybe you were that freshman gopher, and your favorite memory is of checkmating your opponent at the state chess championship. Ah, high school. Love it or hate it—we all wish we could go back for a couple of days knowing what we know now.
Freaks and Geeks
Let’s get this out of the way right now since it wasn’t a movie: “Freaks and Geeks” starring the Judd Apatow crew of Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco, is definitely in the top 3 of all-time great tales told about high school.
See above video for a sense of who Seth Rogen was in high school—not the chubby, funny mensch he seems to be now, but that angry, army jacket-wearing kid who wasn’t a jock, but who had enough attitude, sarcastic wit, and fearlessness to not be messed with.
James Franco was probably not as nice in high school as he is now either; probably a total player. But who knows? If you’ve not seen the series, you should go and Netflix yourself a couple of weekends worth of “Freaks and Geeks” binge-watching.
Without Further Ado
The following best 10 high school movie list is a random number/order list, not a best to worst, or worst to best. All stand on their own merit, and lean more towards entertaining than serious (which is why “Dead Poet’s Society” wasn’t included, though that was an awesome film).
‘Friday Night Lights’
The book of the same name started a movement. The author, wanting to capture the essence of American Friday night high school football fever, picked a quintessential American team to follow around—the Permian Panthers from Odessa, Texas. The kids from that shriveled, dessicated landscape, were slightly undersized, but tougher than untreated cowhide and beat the pants off much bigger teams. It’s no coincidence Navy SEAL Chris Kyle of “American Sniper” fame, went there.
It was turned into a TV series, and now many kids all across America make a pilgrimages down to Texas to watch the Panther games. It’s become America’s team.
This is the granddaddy of all high school movies, an early ’60s high school experience, featuring one of the best movie soundtracks of all time, and fantastic sound engineering. The young George Lucas, future director of “Star Wars,” raced cars in high school, dangerously, and captured the whole California teen-racing scene decades before the “Fast & Furious” series.
The scene where the young Richard Dreyfuss, under pressure from the local gang of leather jacketed Pharoahs, must crawl across a parking lot and attach a steel cable to the axle of a cop car inhabited by the unpopular local cop (or get tied to the Pharoah’s ’51 Mercury, and dragged). Once it’s attached, the Pharoahs go joy-riding by the cops, over the speed limit, flipping birds and hollering. Holstein the cop hits the gas—and “ka-boom!” goes the axle.
The sound engineers came up with what they called a symphony of rail-yard noises for the parking lot scene. It captures all the romance of America’s train sounds. That, the doo-wop heavy soundtrack, the best revving of muscled-up engines ever, and the young Mackenzi Phillips’s (daughter of Mommas and Poppas rockstar John Philipps) hilarious performance as Carol, a homely 14-year-old who gets to ride around with the local hot-rod hero, John Milner, makes “American Graffiti” an absolute classic.
‘Dazed & Confused’
If you graduated high school mid-1970s this movie nailed your experience, like no other movie nails a time, place, and the music that went with it. It’s a “Graffiti” update, with ZZ Top, Foghat, Alice Cooper, Kiss, and Aerosmith on the soundtrack. And, ahem, Seals & Crofts. But hey—the ’70s had it all—the best and the worst.
All of it. All the archetypes are here: the Jimmy Page-lookalike/everybody’s-buddy-quarterback, who hangs with jocks/nerds alike, the horn-dog jock, the bully jock, the gnarly fascist coach, the good-looking, wishes-he-was-still-17 assistant coach, looking incredibly stupid in ’70s polyester shorts/knee socks, the reigning cool couple (he’s the rich boy with the hot yellow Pontiac GTO, she’s the hippiechick-model who writes songs about aliens), the long-haired stoner-dealer who’s cool enough to hang with the footballers because he’s quick with a come-back and doesn’t back down, the neophyte freshman who gets paddle-initiated into the jock crew after pitching the baseball game, the pack of junior high boys with croaking voices who want in on the upperclassmen action (“Party at the Moontower!”) and drive around illegally in an older brother’s Caddie, the “townie” former gridiron hero who graduated five years ago and takes classes at the local c.c., but hangs around the pool-hall still trying to pick up high school girls in his Chevelle, the greaser with the muscled-up Trans-Am, the angsty, philosophizing nerd-pack, the mean-girl seniors hazing the freshmen girls with eggs, ketchup, oatmeal, and drive-thru-car-washing, the jock seniors paddling the freshman boys with wooden paddles made in shop class (along with surreptitious bong manufacturing). You will know all of these people; probably multiples of each character, and Matthew McConaughey rose to stardom as the townie, Wooderson. “Alright, alright, alright …”
‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’
This was the quintessential ’80s high school experience. On of our greatest actors, Sean Penn, put surfer-speak on the map as Jeff Spiccoli. The movie sparked the careers of Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates, Eric Stoltz, and Anthony Edwards (“Top Gun’s” Goose). Jennifer Jason Leigh became America’s sweetheart for a time, due to her role as an innocent girl who gets in a bad way due to one of the greatest high school idiots of all time—Mike Damon (Robert Romanus).
Speaking of idiots: Judge Reinhold as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s older brother, grinning like an fool at a traffic stoplight at the girl in the next car over. When she snickers at him, he realizes he’s still in his fast-food restaurant costume/work clothes, by looking the rear-view mirror. Fuming, he throws the pirate hat out the window, then the whole pizza box, all the rest of his car trash, and vows to get a new life.
“Ridgemont High” captured the rise of the mall as the huge presence it became, for years, in the lives of American teens.
“Bueller … Bueller.” Everybody’s seen it. Apart from Matthew Broderick’s performance of a lifetime, it had overall top-notch comedy.
Principle Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) really stole the show in terms of what’s known as “taking the hit” in comedy. His arrogance and obsession with nailing the ultra-sneaky/lucky Beuller are pure comedic gold.
Rooney’s painful ego-deflation by way of getting kicked in the face by Bueller’s sister (Jennifer Grey) while snooping in their house, splitting his pants, getting mauled by the Bueller rottweiler, and his bloody, limping, shredded-socks, dejected defeat, at having to take the school bus back to the school whilst sitting amongst the awed, highly curious students was beyond brilliant, not to mention the basso-profundo, “Bow! Bow!” soundtrack.
The vicious flicking away of the probably e.coli-infested gummi-bear, proffered to Rooney by the coke-bottle-glasses-wearing girl, out the window, and the reaction of the kid the next seat over. High school memories of the finest sort.
‘Back to the Future’
“Back to the Future” usually comes under the heading of sci-fi, but it doubles as a great high school movie.
When Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox in the role of his lifetime) having traveled back in time, climbs into his dad’s room (Crispin Glover as super-geek George McFly) in the middle of the night, dressed in a full-on hazmat suit, puts 1980s Walkman headphones over dad George’s 1950s sleeping ears, and blasts him awake with some high-decibel Van Halen, saying he’s from the planet Vulcan and will fry George’s brain if he doesn’t take Marty’s future mom to the upcoming high school dance.
Second favorite moment:
Crispin Glover-as-George McFly’s over-the-top performance in general, but in particular when he musters up his courage by swigging down a malted shake, goes over to a table full of girls, and beatifically tells his future wife that he’s her destiny. Only he says, “I’m your density!” And he says it with a lisp: “I’m your denthhhity!” “Awwww!” she says, and promptly falls in love. To this day, Crispin Glover’s fans call him “Mr. Density.”
“Napoleon Dynamite” immediately struck a chord in America. Everyone knew some version of this guy. Napoleon’s the quintessential nerd/geek/dork/loser who got picked on in high school all the time, except it’s funny because he’s got a tremendous amount of attitude, and is so safely contained in his sleepy, gerbil-like, half-lidded, white-noise mind-space that he can’t be brought low for too long.
“What are you gonna do today Napoleon?”
“I’ll do whatever I feel like doing. Gosh!“
Second Favorite line:
(looking at his buddy Pedro’s new bike) “It’s got shocks … pegs … you ever take it off any sweet jumps?”
Amy Hecklering’s “Clueless” is an update of Jane Austen’s Emma. Although Heckerling sat in on actual classes at Beverly Hills High School, just like Cameron Crowe did when he screenwrote Heckerling’s directorial debut, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Heckerling created most of the slang used in the film herself, like “going postal,” and, “As if!”
Alicia Silverstone had no idea how to pronounce “Haitians,” during her speech on why “all oppressed people should be allowed refuge in America.” Silverstone said “Hate-y-ins” Heckerling left it in; funnier that way. However, Alicia’s character Cher was right about the fact that it does not say R.S.V.P. on the Statue of Liberty.
Cher’s only clueless by choice. She’s actually quite brilliant. When her erstwhile stepbrother Josh drives Cher home, along with a particularly pretentious date who nags Josh, at one point quoting Shakespeare: “As Hamlet said, ‘To thine owe self be true.'” Cher says, “He didn’t say that.” The date says, “Tsk—I think I know my Hamlet.” Cher says, “Tsk—I think I know my Mel Gibson, and he didn’t say that. That Polonius guy did.” And Josh snickers, and his date looks daggers at him, and he immediately wipes that grin off his face.
“American Pie.” Four teenage boys enter a pact. That’s all I’ll say. Suffice it to say, “Pie” is hands down the raunchiest high school movie ever, which accounts for the wall-to-hall hilarity. Not that raunchy automatically equals funny.
The caught-red-handed-by-parents, Clinton-esque lip-biting shame of the lead character played by Jason Biggs, who gave new meaning to the term “in flagrante delicto.”
This movie was responsible for introducing the character of Stifler, or rather, the concept of an extreme hormone-addled high school character like Stifler, into the American consciousness, as well as the acronym “Milf,” the phrase, “And then this one time, in band-camp…”, and “Say my name.” Actually, there was a proto-Stifler in 1981’s “Porky’s:” Dan Monahan as “Pee Wee.” Same deal. Hormones are funny. “American Pie” is hormones gone wild.
‘Bring it On’
High school is about many things. One of those things is cheer-leading. This was actually an exceedingly watchable, fun movie. Which is why four more of them got made. That’s five movies that made $90,449,929 U.S. dollars.
The credit roll sequence with Toni Basil’s 1982 one-hit-wonder song, “Hey Mickey” on the soundtrack, with cast bloopers. It wraps the whole movie in an essentially American teen high school bubblegum pop nostalgia atmosphere. Which is why “Bring it On” was such a hit.
Of course, one really needs to do a top 30 high school movies list, so nobody’s favorite gets left out. Ones that came close: “Heathers,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Mean Girls,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Say Anything,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Carrie,” “Grease,” “Risky Business,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” and “Easy A.”
All the possibilities of a beautiful life were still open in high school. The world was our oyster then. Many who continued to live in the village compound ended up like Wooderson, Milner, and Napoleon’s uncle. Those who went on the “Heroes Journey” found their “bliss” and never looked back.
Luckily, it’s never too late to discover our bliss.