Films

The 30 best high school movies

As kids we were routinely told by our parents and other, no doubt, well-intentioned adults that school time would be the best days of our lives. Thankfully, they weren’t – last Tuesday, for instance, was pretty special.

However, with the merciful distance of time – and having allowed the relentless taunts from Mark Trevelyan to subside – we can recognise they were unique.

It’s this distinctive theme that the Silver Screen has been drawn to time and again. The classic high school film – and, yes, more often than not it is the American high school experience that we see at the cinema – is a Hollywood staple.

Here are the 30 best school movies of all time. No arguing. Ok, you can argue for any omissions/glaring errors below…

(Images: All Star)

  • The 30 best high school movies

    Dazed & Confused

    Yes, it’s set in a very definitive place and time – Austin, Texas; 1976 – but this archetypal high school film speaks to everyone who has ever passed through the school gates. So, nigh on everyone then. Rebellion, sex, drugs, sports, dictatorial authority, bizarre initiation ceremonies and, erm, woodwork all feature in this iconic Richard Linklater picture.

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    Grease

    School is not about education, feeding the imagination or providing children with the skills necessary to succeed in life. No, it’s about music, fast cars, looking sharp and copping off with the opposite sex. And for this Hollywood truth, Grease is still very much the word. And as for Olivia Newton John in that leather suit…

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    Carrie

    Has any film ever captured the agonising pain of being the scorned outsider whilst at school better than Carrie? The violent carnage that takes place at that most American of institutions – the school prom – is most definitely a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Sissy Spacek excels in this chilling adaptation of Stephen King’s memorable tale.

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    Back to the Future

    The classic high school movie collides with the outlandish principles of the science fiction adventure flick in this superb 1985 film. Michael J. Fox bagged the role of a lifetime, as he goes back in time to ensure his parents actually do get together in school. While there he discovers the mechanics of school haven’t changed dramatically in 30 years. Something that still exists today no doubt.

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    Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

    John Hughes could have had umpteen films in this list (Weird Science, Sixteen Candles and Some Kind of Wonderful all missed out), but that just goes to show that he was a master of his art. In this spellbinding outing, Matthew Broderick goes left-of-centre for his striking turn as Ferris Bueller, a young man just struggling to take it easy in high school.

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    Scream

    Life as a teenager has always been inextricably linked with serial murder on the big screen and Wes Craven's razor sharp 1996 slasher movie managed to combine them with more wit and invention than most of its peers. A group of pop culture-savvy youths find themselves at the mercy of an equally knowledgeable killer and another three movies later and the rest is history. Simultaneously funny and scary, Scream was a seminal horror film.

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    Fast Times At Ridgemont High

    In 2005, the venerated US Library of Congress declared that Fast Times at Ridgemont High be preserved in its nation’s National Film Registry due to its cultural, historical or aesthetical significance. And you thought it was a comedy that held a very risqué mirror up to high school politics! Trivia alert: three actors who appeared in Fast Times – Sean Penn (twice), Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage – went onto win Best Actor Oscars.

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    The Breakfast Club

    Until one has succumbed to the terror that is detention one has not experienced school in all its desperate glory. Not our words, but those of Oscar Wilde. Ok, they’re ours. This quintessential high school film – from the genius that was John Hughes – stars Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall as the five youthful stereotypes brought together for a Saturday morning detention they’ll never forget.

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    Kes

    Before John Hughes and the Brat Pack, there was Kes. A slice of Northern life so gritty you can almost smell the coal and taste the bread and dripping, it works in many ways as a proto E.T.. Billy Casper – whippet thin, borderline inarticulate - has few friends at school so when he starts to care for a kestrel he finally begins to find a sense of self. We won’t share the tragic ending, but this film from the righteous Ken Loach demands to be seen by all.

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    Pretty In Pink

    The final John Hughes pick, and while Pretty In Pink might not attract the plaudits as readily as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club it can certainly hold its weight in such vaunted company. Molly Ringwald stars as Andie, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks when it comes to stepping out with preppy Blane (Andrew McCarthy). Social prejudice is explored in this cracking film that also stars Harry Dean Stanton, James Spader and Jon Cryer. It also possesses one of the best Eighties soundtracks to boot.

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    Heathers

    Christian Slater and Winona Ryder might not have built upon their early promise, but they were in their element in this late Eighties classic. Exploring the notion of cliques and popularity in school, Slater (the intentionally named James Dean homage J.D.) and Ryder (Veronica) team up to destroy Westerberg High School’s time-honoured social equilibrium. Comedic and hard-hitting – just like school.

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    Mean Girls

    Lindsay Lohan was once regarded as a young actress to watch for her thespian talents, rather than her talent for self-destructing. Nowhere was this better exemplified than in her standout film to date, Mean Girls. An updated version of the high school clique movie, Lohan stars as Cady, a well-adjusted teenager who vows to take the Plastics (led by Rachel McAdams) down a few pegs.

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    Clueless

    Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless, much like Mean Girls and Heathers, explores the notion of popularity in high school and the toxic repercussions of that influence. Alicia Silverstone shines as the vapid Cher, as she takes on her pet project of transforming new pupil Tai (Brittany Murphy) into one of the hippest girls in school. A typically Hollywood ending ensues, but the tongue is firmly in the right place during the course of this classic Nineties flick.

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    Election

    A brief perusal of (high) school movies will testify to the politics – both real and metaphorical – that plague the educational years. This controversial and comedic topic is deftly explored by director Alexander Payne in Election, one of the best films of the late Nineties. Reece Witherspoon stars as ambitious Tracy Flick, a determined schoolgirl who wants to use the post of class president as another bonus on her collegiate application. Teacher Matthew Broderick (who had come a long way since Ferris Bueller) vows to halt her seemingly inexorable rise to power.

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    Donnie Darko

    School years are a vexed time for kids and teenagers – this much is clear from the films dedicated to such an integral part of ones life. But it’s doubtful most kids are as troubled as Donnie Darko: his school is plagued with hypocritical teachers; boorish bullies and the usual moral vicissitudes. Thankfully, Donnie has a plan…

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    The Last Picture Show

    The end of school can be an unsettling experience – what was once solid has now melted into air. It’s this emotion that Peter Bogdanovich captured memorably in his 1971 opus, The Last Picture Show. Starring Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd, the film explores the end of an era through the closing down of a small town’s cinema. Can the friendships made at school endure beyond the gates?

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    Dead Poets Society

    Inspirational teacher movies are a timeless Hollywood staple –Dangerous Minds, Mr Holland’s Opus, Conrack and Freedom Writers are a few of the films that didn’t quite make this list. Dead Poet’s Society ranks highly not just because of the attention lavished upon it, but because its central performance from Robin Williams is so compelling. O Captain! My Captain!

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    American Pie

    Because sometimes the entire preoccupation with school can be reduced to one simple obsession – losing one’s virginity. Shame the franchise had to sully the rambunctious excellence of this first hilarious outing.

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    Rushmore

    A suitably offbeat Wes Anderson film starring the oddball charms of Jason Schwartzman and that helped kick-start Bill Murray’s ‘second career’? What’s not to like? Schwartzman stars as intriguing student Max Fischer of the prestigious Rushmore Academy as he battles the institution’s traditional values – with a little assistance from bored industrialist Herman Blume (Murray).

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    Gregory’s Girl

    If one were to go solely by the film’s featured on this list, parents would think twice about sending their darling little rug rats to school. Not only are all educational establishments home to vicious little cliques, there’s an undercurrent of latent violence simmering just below the surface. Praise be then for the comforting ordinariness of Gregory’s Girl. Yes, Gregory has to suffer all the indignities that every awkward teenage boy has to endure (plus lose his place in the school football team to a girl) but it’s all done with a remarkable stoical attitude. Decidedly realistic, and all the better for it.

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    Napoleon Dynamite

    Quite possibly the high school outsider movie to end all high school outsider movies. Gangly, awkward, sullen and with a natural proclivity towards daydreaming, the titular Napoleon is something of an oddball. But he has a steely determination running through those peculiar veins – not least when he vows to guide his friend Pedro (the anti-Tracy Flick) to the post of class president, with the help of one memorable dance routine.

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    To Sir With Love

    Watched through contemporary eyes this somewhat clichéd tale of a black teacher (Sidney Poitier) taming a bunch of rough and unruly East London school kids is overly sentimental. But in 1967 when the film was released the film must have ruffled a few feathers with its portrayal of a teacher attempting to engage with his students in a non-dictatorial fashion.

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    School of Rock

    Because the three Rs should really mean Radiohead, the Rolling Stones and Run-D.M.C.. Jack Black shines, in his definitive performance, as the hapless musician who dreams of rock’n’roll stardom, yet by a twist of fate finds inculcating receptive students with rock mythology more fulfilling.

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    Goodbye, Mr Chips

    Goodbye, Mr Chips might not be widely known today, but thanks to his lead performance actor Robert Donat beat the likes of Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney and James Stewart to the Best Actor Oscar. Donat stars as the eponymous Chips, a retired teacher who recalls his long and distinguished career just before his death. A moving and gripping film that works to endorse teaching as a legitimate noble calling.

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    The History Boys

    The late great Richard Griffiths is mesmeric as kindly teacher Hector in this superb adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play. Starring Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Russell Tovey and Andrew Knott, among others, director Nicholas Hytner depicts the honour, pain and good times that encapsulate friendship at school. Friendships that, after all, can last a lifetime.

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    if….

    The manifold inadequacies of the British public school system – and, by extension British society as a whole – are laid bare in this iconic counterculture Sixties classic. Malcolm McDowell, in his first starring role, shines in Lindsay Anderson’s expertly observed satire of public school life.

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    The Class

    Entre Lurs Murs (literally translated as Between the Walls, but released in the UK as The Class) won the feted Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. A hard-hitting adaptation of Francois Begaudeau’s semi-autobiographical account of his time spent teaching in a troubled school in Paris, The Class comes across like a gritty documentary but manages to temper this with dramatic licence. Not content with penning the source material, Begaudeau excels as, erm, himself in the film.

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    Blackboard Jungle

    Perhaps best known as the 1955 film that introduced the nascent form of rock’n’roll onto an unsuspecting populace (Bill Haley & His Comets’ Rock Around The Clock features heavily), Blackboard Jungle also comes recommended as a significant high school movie. Glenn Ford stars as the teacher trying to reach out to a class of juvenile delinquents including, ironically enough, Sidney Poitier.

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    The Belles of St Trinian’s

    Comedy capers galore in the first of the St Trinian’s films, dating from 1954. Alastair Sim stars (in two roles) in this riotous tale of the anarchic all-girls school St Trinian’s. George Cole pops up as the classic spiv who is just one of many thwarted by the headstrong girls. The less said about the recent ‘reboot’ the better – apart from Sarah Harding’s appearance natch.

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    Superbad

    Popping your cherry is clearly one of the major themes of anyone’s school days (see American Pie) and such an obsession is the stuff of Superbad. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera pair up as best buddies about to graduate from high school and go to separate colleges. Can they retain their friendship in the face of sexual anxiety and some much needed partying?