The 10 best movies about high school to watch this graduation weekend
Let these movies remind you what it’s like to be in high school all over again
Special to the Daily
Now that graduation is here, it’s the perfect time revisit your teenage years by counting down the 10 best high school movies of all-time. Bob Newhart summed up high school best at the end of “In & Out” when he recited the school’s motto to that year’s graduating class: “Studiare. Imparare. Partire…Study. Learn. Leave.”
While the first two tenets of that motto are shaky at best, the third is all but guaranteed. Whether you loved every minute of high school, or loathed every second, eventually your time there will come to an end.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t go back and relive it, and thankfully, this list of movies is a great resource for doing just that. There’s no shortage of terrific films to choose from, and many that didn’t make the list could easily replace several that did (“Just One of the Guys,” “Rushmore,” “Election,” or “The Breakfast Club” to name a few).
While no top 10 list will ever be definitive, finding the movies that do the best job conveying high school’s recurring themes is a good place to start. Things like rebellion, insecurity, debauchery, experimentation, angst, parental conflicts, sexual exploration, and friendship, all play a significant part in figuring out who we are as we come of age, and all of these films do an excellent job of expressing these concepts.
Like every top 10 list, there will be essentials missing, and “whatabouts!” and “you should have included…” and “seriously, no John Hughes!?” This list is meant to be a distillation of the best the genre has to offer.
So sit up straight, spit out your gum, and let these movies remind you what it’s like to be in high school all over again.
10. “American Graffiti” (1973)
Before he created one of the biggest movie franchises of all-time, George Lucas scraped together enough money to make a low-budget, coming-of-age film based on his own experiences growing up in Modesto, California. The result is a classic transitional tale about two high school graduates spending a final night out in the only town they’ve ever known.
As they make plans for their future, they discover that leaving adolescence behind might not be as easy as it seems. The movie features a colorful cast of characters, including a drag-racing Harrison Ford, and a car gang called the “Pharaohs” that show us what happens to the people that never grow up and hope that everything will just stay the same.
For all of the nostalgic callbacks in the film, from the ‘60s jukebox soundtrack to the way Lucas fetishizes vintage cars, the movie still manages to feel timeless with its youthful energy and sense of adventure. Its themes about growing up and moving forward resonate as much today as they did when the movie was released, and its legacy as a bona fide classic remains as strong as ever.
9. “Heathers” (1989)
The best dark comedies are willing make audiences uncomfortable, even if it means offending them. Addressing difficult subjects like bullying, eating disorders, and teenage suicide is never going to be easy, so why not make a comedy about them instead?
“Heathers” takes on teenage taboos with a vengeance, scorching just about every sacred subject in its path. Set in an Ohio suburb in the 1980s, a clique of ruthless “Heathers” stands atop the social order at Westerburg High and mercilessly bullies anyone that gets in their way. The only non-Heather in the group, Veronica, decides she no longer likes her friends and heads down a dangerous path with a mysterious teen that has penchant for the macabre.
From there, all hell breaks loose, putting the teenage psychosis on full display and revealing how deeply irrational kids’ behavior can be. As Veronica notes in her diary, “my teenage angst has a body count.” “Heathers” remains one of the most nihilistic high school movies ever, but that’s also what makes it bite like few other coming-of-age movies do (I’m looking at you, “Mean Girls”). If anything, it’s even more divisive today than it was when it was originally released, and the controversy surrounding it is why it still matters.
8. “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955)
One of the biggest adjustments in your teenage years is figuring out how to be an adult while still having to answer to your parents. As the urge to break free from their influence grows, their involvement in everything you do remains unchanged, creating a highly charged battle of wills that can turn downright explosive.
“Rebel Without Cause” is the ultimate teenage/parent conflict movie, telling the story of an emotionally volatile high school student named Jim Stark who desperately wants to show everyone that he’s nothing like his parents, even if it means participating in death-defying acts of rebellion to prove it.
Jim may come off as cool and collected around his peers, but internally he’s suffering from the emotional toll of having parents that project their own problems on to him, and their blatant disregard for the fact that they’re tearing him apart! The teenage years are already difficult enough without parents getting in the way, so having to take on their problems in addition to your own can make for a pretty miserable experience.
“Rebel Without Cause” is one of the few coming-of-age movies that gets to the heart of the teen/parent psychology, making it an unforgettable film that not only cements James Dean’s legendary status as an actor taken from us far too soon (his performance is extraordinary), but also serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of bad parenting.
7. “21 Jump Street” (2012)
The wish-fulfillment storyline of going to back to high school a second time and “doing it all over again” has been used in countless movies over the years, but few have done it as hilariously as “21 Jump Street.” Starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as two untested police officers recruited by an undercover drug unit that infiltrates high schools, they’re assigned to go back to school and relive the highs and lows of their teenage years and hopefully correct some of the mistakes they made the first time around.
Whether it’s “Molecule Mondays” or an uproarious school production of “Peter Pan,” the movie never falters in its ability to remind us how ridiculous these years can be. Featuring a stellar supporting cast that includes Ice Cube as a cantankerous police captain, Chris Parnell as an unhinged drama teacher, and Dave Franco as an eco-conscious, socially progressive drug dealer, everything about “21 Jump Street” clicks in a way that few reboots based on decades-old TV series do. You may not to be able to go back and relive your high school years, but you can always rewatch “21 Jump Street” (or “Peggy Sue Got Married” for that matter, which just as easily could have made this list).
6. “Cooley High” (1975)
Set in 1960s inner city Chicago, “Cooley High” follows four friends in their final year of high school as they spread their time between chasing girls, taking risks, and doing just about everything else they can think of except actually going to school. As the main character “Preach” points out, they live in the moment of each day, rarely looking ahead to the future, and unable to remember the past.
The movie is funny and heartfelt, offering an authentic look at high school life in the Chicago projects without ever feeling cliché or exploitative (it’s based on the real-life childhood of screenwriter Eric Monte). The dramatic moments are especially effective because they show how the daily struggles of the kids are exacerbated by the larger problems facing the community at large.
This creates a unique set of challenges that a lot of other high school kids never have to experience. Yet even with these environmental factors working against them, the film’s greatest strength is its unbounding optimism, its message about the importance of friendship, and its ability to express how much fun these kids are having despite the uncertainties that lie ahead. It reminds us that these years don’t have to be terrible if we’re willing to forget about the past and the future, and just focus on the moment instead.
5. “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979)
They’re called our “formative years” for a reason, and a lot of that comes from the discovery of new things, especially music. Music provides an outlet from the daily drag of school life and can even serve as a springboard of self-expression and discovery. It makes us who we are, and its impact is arguably never felt more strongly than in high school.
Today’s graduates will have a different group that they universally respond to, but for the kids at Vince Lombardi High in 1980, it was a leather-clad punk band from Queens called The Ramones. Early in the film, heroine Riff Randell throws “Sheena is Punk Rocker” on to a record player and creates an uproar among the entire student body as they explode into a rapturous dance party.
Unfortunately the moment doesn’t last, and the oppressive school principal shuts down the music because rock ‘n’ roll is the source of all evil (obviously). This sets the stage for an epic battle of wills between Riff and Principle Togar, and Riff won’t rest until the walls of Vince Lombardi High have been brought down by the rebellious punk rock music of The Ramones, who happen to be playing a concert in town that very week. “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” is equally inspiring and ridiculous, but it’s always upbeat and its message about self-expression and the need for kids to discover the arts without censorship or restrictions remain as important as ever.
4. “Three O’Clock High” (1987)
We all have those days when everything in the universe seems like it’s conspiring against us, and when you’re in high school, those days always seem so much worse. “Three O’Clock High” reworks the brilliant countdown-of-the-clock structure of “High Noon” (1952) into a single, nightmarish school day where one unlucky teen experiences the worst day imaginable.
After being assigned by the school paper to do a write-up on a new student that everyone is terrified of named Buddy Revell, Jerry Mitchell makes the mistake of touching Buddy on the arm which sets in motion a calamitous series of events that leads to a showdown at three o’clock, when Buddy plans to pulverize Jerry in front the of entire school. Jerry desperately tries everything he can to avoid the showdown, from hitting on his English teacher, to paying someone else to fight for him.
Eventually his self-respect and the need to prove himself prevail as he confronts Buddy, and his insecurities, head on. With its dazzling direction and camerawork, “Three O’Clock High” has an energy that few high school movies come close to achieving. From the class lectures that act as metaphors for Jerry’s impending demise, to the anxiety inducing countdown on every clock, everything about “Three O’Clock High” is magnificent.
3. The Last Picture Show (1971)
Easily the biggest downer on the list (hey, the high school years can’t be all fun and games) “The Last Picture Show” looks at life in a small Texas town where hope and opportunity have been replaced by uncertainty and hardship. The teenagers in Anarene do their best with what little the town has to offer, splitting their time between a rundown pool hall and a single screen movie house.
Add to that their raging hormones and sexual curiosity, and everything the town has to offer can be experienced in just a few hours. Their time spent at school is characterized by apathy, and when locals regularly ridicule them for losing football games or not having any school spirit, they’re completely indifferent. They don’t really care, and why should they?
Every day they look at the adults in town and see the bleak future that awaits them. The promise of opportunity is closing its doors all around them and all that remains is the prospect of marrying too young and repeating the same mistakes their parents made a generation before them. “The Last Picture Show” may be the opposite of a feel-good movie, but that doesn’t make it any less important. It’s commentary on the teenage experience in small town USA shows audiences how insurmountable a lack of opportunities can be. It also features a terrific cast and stunning black and white photography that ranks among the very best to come out of the 1970s.
2. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)
As one of the newest additions to the Criterion catalogue, there’s never been a better time to revisit “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” or if you’re lucky, see it for the very first time. Set at a Southern California high school in the early 1980s, it follows multiple teenagers over the course of the school year as they go through ups and downs and everything in between. It’s a movie that will have you laughing uncontrollably one minute, and abruptly recoiling in horror the next.
Like the best high school films, it fearlessly explores some of the most difficult issues that teenagers face, but never comes across as overly didactic or critical of their behavior. Instead, it presents their world exactly how it is, without judgment. It recognizes how messy these years can be and the struggles that come with making the right decisions and ignoring our worst impulses.
As teenagers with seismic hormones and an understanding of the world that’s still developing, this can feel like an insurmountable task. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” understands this and treats those challenges with respect, offering a teenager’s perspective that should be just as important as any adults. And after all, “if you’re here, and I’m here … doesn’t that make it our time?”
1. Dazed and Confused (1993)
“Dazed and Confused” may be approaching its 30th anniversary, but its generation-spanning appeal and endless rewatchability still make it the best high school movie ever made. Spread out over concurrent storylines in a single day – no doubt influenced by the No. 10 film on this list — the movie effortlessly weaves between every group and clique imaginable, including seniors and freshmen, jocks and nerds, burnouts and prudes, and even the creepy old guy that graduated several years before everyone else, but still likes to hang out with the younger crowd.
The movie touches on every theme mentioned on this list, and it even goes a step further with its portrayal of recreational drug use and the hazing rituals that are passed down from one class to the next. It’s the undisputed No. 1 because it sums up just about everything that high school has to offer. It’s a mosaic of the entire experience brought to life on screen, and it taps into that rarefied cinematic space where truth and fiction intersect, and you completely lose yourself in the movie.
Amazingly, almost 25 years after its release, writer and director Richard Linklater followed up his magnum opus with the “spiritual sequel” “Everybody Wants Some!” (2017) which almost achieves the same levels of greatness (no small feat, all things considered). But, I guess we’ll have to save that one for the top 10 college movies list.
Anthony Manzi is a longtime film enthusiast living in Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.