Fetch Me Gently With A Chainsaw: Grading 20 Classic School Movies
If you are between the ages of five and eighteen, know someone who is between the ages of five and eighteen or have used context clues to figure out why Target has way more notebooks for sale than usual, you are aware America is currently knee deep in back-to-school season. Because all of the writers at Cinema Blend fit into at least one of those categories, all of our meetings for the last week have devolved into unnecessary, yet extremely topical arguments about our favorite school movies.
So, in an attempt to get some real work done and more importantly, to prove each other wrong, we decided to come up with a formula to try and accurately pit school films against one another. The result is what you’re about to read. Twenty films were selected and each of the Cinema Blend writers were asked to rank them in the following categories: sexiness of the hot girls and guys, awesomeness of the cool kids, relatability of the main characters, overall quoteability and overall rewatchability. The five scores in the aforementioned categories were then averaged together to produce an average Hughes. Why an average Hughes? Because no one has ever or will ever do a school movie quite as well as John Hughes.
The formula was downright disrespectful to a few films, but in general, the list turned out pretty well. You can take a look at it below and then get your bitch on in the comment section…
20. Summer School
Ah, 1987. When NCIS captain Mark Harmon was considered a bankable leading man, Kirstie Alley was a convincingly sexy love interest, and a male teacher could take a legitimate interest in the well-being of a gorgeous, bleach-blonde teenage classmate without raising half-a-million red flags. Welcome to Summer School, Carl Reiner’s nearly-forgotten comedy about a slacker conned by his principal to “babysit” the outcasts forced to attend an after-semester program. It isn’t as inspirational as Dangerous Minds or Stand and Deliver. But the likeable Harmon makes a legitimate connection with the sarcastic kids in his summer school, and horror-movie fanatics “Chainsaw” and Dave were an early indicator of the “geeks shall inherit the Earth” mentality that would help film nerds seem cooler than most in 2012. Looking for a sleeper heading into the fall semester? Find Summer School.
Final Score: 4.1
19. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone
Though at home he was an outcast forced to slumber under the stairs, scarred and bespectacled Harry Potter—AKA the Boy Who Lived—entered his new school (Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) already a legend having thwarted the evil Voldemort while still in nappies. So, unlike many of the other protagonists featured on this list, he and by extension his devoted buds, overachiever Hermione and dirt-smudged goofball Ron, were the cool kids. And even though their classes had more to do with spells and potions than algebra and composition, these magical adolescents took cliques and schoolyard bullying to new heights with the cruel kids of Slytherin, making Harry’s first adventure pretty relatable. However, since none of the students here had yet hit puberty, the cast understandably lost points in the “sexiness” department. And as one of the franchise’s lesser and therefore less re-watchable selections, it’s score likewise suffered there.
Final Score: 5.2
Poor Rushmore, the most overt casualty of our ranking system. Wes Anderson’s quirky 1998 film touches on many of the same topics we expect from school movies (feelings of alienation, lust, wild rumors), but it does so with characters that are utterly bizarre. Many of them aren’t even school-aged themselves, and those who are, like Schwartzman’s Max Fischer, don’t really act it most of the time. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a single person who isn’t at least fond of the film, but because of its almost pathological weirdness, it got buried in the sexiness, coolness and relatability departments. Were it not for the incredibly high rewatch score, it would have wound up cozying up beside Summer School and all of us would have wound up with tampered breaks, bee stings and broken marriages as revenge.
Final Score: 5.7
One of the original high school musicals, Randal Kleiser’s Grease was based on Casey and Jacobs's ‘71 broadway show and features, shockingly, a bunch of late-twenty somethings playing teenagers but this time with perfectly melodic angst. Spanning the entire year at Rydell High, the 50s set picture features all the staples of the era - diners, drive-ins, dances, races and even a school fair - that makes it at once far removed from our experience and yet the perfect place for a fanciful musical. Not to mention the birthplace, uh birthtime of cool. Danny and Sandy fall for each other over the summer and I suppose the pair, plus their T-Birds and Pink Ladies, maybe aren’t the sexiest or full of memorable lines, but the songs sure are quotable and one of many reasons that Grease is pretty rewatchable. Check your local listings, it’s bound to show up. And the main titles remain incredible.
Final Score: 5.9
Saved! is a little wild and can be treated as wildly offensive. The movie doesn’t go for the typical teen tropes, and it doesn’t rely on any hotness or coolness factor to intrigue audiences. The film’s pre-Juno pregnancy plot set in a Christian school makes it one of the more unique school environments to hit this list, but its success derives more from the film’s many hypocritical characters and the general wackiness of the plot than the setting, although being able to knock down a giant Jesus statue due to the backdrop is pretty top notch. In around an hour and a half, Saved! tackles teen pregnancy, gay daddies with straight moms, hypocrisy in the faith, shallow churchgoers, and intermixing faiths. It’s not serious, but it’s serious enough to matter, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch over and over again.
Final Score: 6
15. Billy Madison
As a comedy, Billy Madison appeals most to those who appreciate Adam Sandler in his goofier characters, telling the story of a rich guy who has to return to school after his original grades are called to question. Billy Madison was once the "cool kid" (likely due at, at least in part, to his father's fortune than his personality) who got a taste of his own medicine when he returned to school and wasn't so popular the second time around, so there is an emphasis on social hierarchy, especially as Billy is often on the receiving end of the many O'Doyles' bullying tactics. But Billy's efforts to defeat his father's company's executive vice president Eric Gordon, takes some time away from the school side of the movie, which is why this one falls a bit on the lower end among school-set films. Still, O'Doyle Rules!
Final Score: 6.2
The world of Rian Johnson's Brick is pretty much nothing like any real high school, but that's the hook that makes this modern noir-- and Johnson's first-ever feature-- so fascinating. Taking all the familiar high school cliques-- the popular jocks, the burnouts, the drama geeks-- and layering them into Brendan's investigation into his ex-girlfriend's death, it takes high school seriously enough to be the setting of a grown-up mystery, just the way actual high schoolers do. It doesn't have any of the usual landmarks of a school movie, like prom or pep rallies or even teachers, which is why it ranks a little low on our list. But more than any of these others it might inspire you to see high school differently, with the kind of high stakes it had when you were there, and the potential to tell a story much bigger than most high school movies ever attempt.
Final Score: 6.8
13. Dead Poets Society
There’s nothing particularly sexy about the unkempt boys in Dead Poets Society, unless coupling Holden Caulfield’s look (sans the red hat) with T.S. Eliot’s outlook is your thing. Dead Poets Society reminds us there was a time when even Ethan Hawke looked gangly and unattractive, but it makes the annals of best school films because its plot transcends that awkward period to tell a story of a few dudes just trying to make their way in the world. Still, in many ways, the tale of boys growing up in boarding school in the late 1950s is more atmospheric than it is relatable. Regardless, when it reaches its poetic “O Captain! My Captain!” climax, it’s too inspirational to make a lick of a difference.
Final Score: 6.9
Featuring Reese Witherspoon at her most detestable and Matthew Broderick at his most bumbling, Alexander Payne’s foray into the cutthroat game of high school politics is clever and fast-paced. We’re given three remarkably different student body president candidates. The first (Tracy Flick) tries way too hard at everything. The second (Paul Metzler) is naturally likeable and good at sports, and the third (Tammy Metzler) tries really hard to pretend she’s not trying. All three, while exaggerated slightly, feel familiar and honest, as does Broderick’s Jim McAllister who starts out trying to do the right thing and winds up despised by everyone he knows. Election definitely features less sex appeal and fewer snappy one-liners than most high school films, but it’s still brilliant and very rewatchable.
Final Score: 7.0
11. American Pie
The American Pie teens weren’t off-the-charts sexy. (No offense, Jason Biggs.) Nor were they the coolest kids in the school (though Seann William Scott’s Stifler certainly had an inflated sense of self). No, they make our back-to-school list because of their relatibility … especially when high-schoolers reach that age where all they want to do is hump the nearest inanimate object. A warm apple pie on the kitchen counter? Sure, stuff your junk into it. The Pie movies gradually went off the rails when it came to sexually-charged humor – giving National Lampoon’s a run for their money in the cheap-and-easy joke department – but Paul and Chris Weitz captured the camaraderie of childhood friends in the first Pie, and that why we continue to look back at it with affection.
Final Score: 7.1
10. Easy A
In its numerous attempts to pay homage to the John Hughes era of high school-set movies, Easy A becomes the epitome of movie-teen stereotyping, complete with an array of especially good-looking teens filling the cast, and a noticeably high cool-factor among the characters (including teachers and parents). Relatability falls short as a result, but the nostalgic factor makes up for that, as does Olive's narration as she repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in an effort to guide us through her journey, which has her playing up a "loose" reputation she earned when a rumor circulates that she cashed in her V-card with a guy from a community college. The film is short on amazing quotes (excluding Mr. Griffith's irritated commentary on adolescent Facebook usage), but it makes up for that with references to 80s movies ("Never had one lesson.") In the end, Easy A borders on parody, but because it never quite crosses the line, it wins points for every movie it modeled itself after, which is why it's earned relatively high marks across the board here.
Final Score: 7.2
9. Dazed & Confused
Given its time period and the whole paddling plotline, the characters in Dazed & Confused might not be super relatable to many of us, but the feelings of boredom the teens feel is universal. There’s about twenty-five characters and all of them are desperately rooting for anything to come along that might pass the time. By the end, they fuck around, they fight, they get drunk, they talk about football and most importantly, they begrudgingly plan to wake up the next morning and do the same thing again. Featuring arguably the most famous school quote in history (“That’s what I like about high school girls…”), some really cool seniors, though not super-seniors (sorry Ben Affleck) and a very good rewatch value, Dazed & Confused scored high in a lot of areas, but since it didn’t come close to winning any single one, it only wound up barely cracking the top ten.
Final Score: 7.3
8. 10 Things I Hate About You
10 Things I Hate About You mixes Heath Ledger with dark hair, Julia Styles’ youthful dimples (hey, that’s some people’s thing), an even younger Joseph Gordon Levitt, and that cute chick from The Secret World of Alex Mack. Together, that makes for an arguably sexy teenage cast, even when the characters are sometimes a bit wanting for coolness—think medieval costumes for prom and talking about Sarah Lawrence College like its their job. If some of the best lines in the flick weren’t saved for the adults in the film, including Larry Miller as the girls’ dad or Allison Janney as the feisty principle-turned-novelist, 10 Things I Hate About You could have topped this list, but as it stands, it’s still nice to know words like “tumescent” will live on in teen vocabularies for years to come.
Final Score: 7.4
7. Can’t Hardly Wait
Taking place at an epic house party immediately following high school graduation, this ‘90s classic focused on teens trying to break down the walls four years of cliques and peer pressure had constructed in pursuit of their fantasy future, be it getting the attention of a long-pined for dream girl, getting revenge on a bullying jock, or getting laid at last! Rocking some serious late ‘90s style, the cast that includes a love-struck Ethan Embry, sassy Lauren Ambrose, prom queen Jennifer Love Hewitt, meat-headed jock Peter Facinelli, and overeager poser Seth Green is decidedly hot. Yet it was the relatability of the ensemble’s storylines that scored highest here. Who among us hadn’t wished to transcend our high school status? It’s this ardent desire captured with such gusto—not to mention quotable one-liners—that makes this teen feature totally worth revisiting again and again.
Final Score: 7.5
6. Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Ridgemont was not only written by Cameron Crowe but was also based on his book, the research for which was conducted in a full on Never Been Kissed style situation. The excellent ensemble story spans several grades, offering a slice of exaggerated yet recognizable high school life that holds up on multiple viewings. And the Phoebe Cates pool sequence doesn’t hurt. Starring Sean Penn as surfer Jeff Spicoli, Fast Times also features bit parts from then unknown Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and Nic Cage. “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine...”
Final Score: 7.7
Heathers is one of the ultimate high school-set dark comedies, with its emphasis on the social dictatorship that high school can be for some, while being a torture sentence for others. The story follows Wynona Rider's Veronica, a popular girl who's dragging her feet behind the rest of her A-group friends, when Christian Slater's J.D. arrives to snap her out of it and wreak havoc on the social structure of their school by offing the popular kids one by one. Its extreme portrayals of high school archetypes - from the jocks and teen beauties who went out of their way to make the lower-ranked kids' lives hell - to its dark twist of murder, the movie turns humor to horror, treading the line between dark and disturbing right to the end. So it loses points on relatability on that front, but what it lacks there, it makes up for in quotability (e.g. "How very." "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw," "Greetings and salutations…") and rewatchability.
Final Score: 7.9
4. The Breakfast Club
The stereotypes of high school always start to break down in small groups. Once teenagers are stripped away from their friends and away from the prying eyes of the social hierarchy, common ground can be found with just about anyone. It’s a universe truth everybody who has gone through high school has learned firsthand, and it’s the central message behind John Hughes’ classic film. Andrew, Claire, John, Brian and Allison might not think or want to speak to one another on a Monday morning, but forced to share the same space, a connection can be forged in just a few hours. Twenty-five-years later, the bonds the five students forged are just as touching, which is probably why the film didn’t receive a single score below 7.3.
Final Score: 8.0
This marks undersung writer-director Amy Hecklerling’s second appearance of this list, proving no one short of John Hughes better understands the plights and passions of American teens. 13 years after making one of the defining ‘80s teen comedies with Fast Times, this savvy filmmaker with an ear for dialogue and a comprehensive understanding of the ways of a teenager’s heart captured lightning in a bottle once more with her spirited re-interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Alicia Silverstone became the idol of girls everywhere as kindhearted but clueless matchmaker Cher…even if she was “a virgin who can’t drive.” Elevating plaid from grunge and spouting outrage with “as if” and “whatever,” Cher and her gal pals were enviably chic, and untouchably cool, though painfully naïve. With this balance, Heckerling both celebrated and commiserated with the teen experience, making Clueless one of the best high school comedies ever made.
Final Score: 8.5
2. Mean Girls
Mean Girls isn't the kind of modern classic that usually makes all-time top 10 lists, but as one of the most quotable and consistently hilarious films of the last decade, maybe it ought to be. At the very least it's one of the all-time best depictions of high school, as groups of cliques ("Unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don't eat anything…") who both worship and loathe the social structure that makes people like Regina George queen bee of them all. With killer performances from everyone, but especially Rachel McAdams as Regina and Lindsay Lohan at her most witty as the hapless Cady, Mean Girls gets away with both subtly sharp cynicism (Regina's little sister dancing to "Milkshake"after school) and knee-slapping silliness ("Oh my God, Karen, you can't just ask people why they're white!") that somehow sums up the ridiculousness of high school, just much funnier than it was when we all went through it.
Final Score: 8.6
1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
It’s telling that our favorite “school” movie centers around a kid who moves Heaven and Earth so that he won’t have to attend. Yet John Hughes reminds us why Ferris (Matthew Broderick) risks it all by routinely looking in on the classroom hell our hero is avoiding, from the monotonous teachers to the principal who’s dying to bring him down. Hughes knew there was a little bit of Ferris in all of us. And we can practically guarantee that teenagers around the world who are heading back to school this week are faking stomach cramps, licking the palms of their hands, and moaning and groaning so they can have one last day of summer vacation. Godspeed, little Ferris disciples.
Final Score: 8.7
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