Talking to some people over dinner this weekend, I got into a conversation about what movies a student should see before going to college. A couple were debating whether Animal House does or doesn't count as a "must-see" movie.
It's hard to even know what we mean when we talk about "movies a high school student should see." Do we mean movies you should see so you'll get the references that have become part of normal educated conversation? Movies that are somehow instructive about the transition to college? Movies that are "iconic" and so good they should be seen by as many people as possible?
The server came around with our beef tenderloin, and the conversation moved on before we reached any conclusions.
I got curious, so I did a basic search for "movies to watch before going to college." There were a lot of lists, and they had different approaches. But a few movies showed up again and again:
Legally Blonde. It's full of completely unrealistic stereotypes, but it does take place at a famous university. It's funny, it's about living up to your full intellectual potential, and it has a strong message against harassment. So that makes sense.
Mean Girls. Because...nothing's a better motivator to go to college than being reminded of how much high school can suck?
The Breakfast Club. A John Hughes classic that begins with high school stereotypes only to tear them down. A coming-of-age story packed into a single day. A great soundtrack.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Also by John Hughes. Also a great soundtrack. This happens to be pretty much my favorite movie ever. It's the only movie I've seen more than Star Wars. It has my favorite line about high school--"it's a little childish and stupid. But then, so is high school"--and my favorite conversation about college: "I don't know what I'm gonna do." "College." "Yeah, but to do what?" "What are you interested in?" "Nothin'." "Me neither."
Pitch Perfect. Like a college sports movie, but without the sports. And it's about women singers, not men football players. And it's funny. What's not to like?
The Roommate. I have to admit I'd never heard of this movie. It looks incredibly like Single White Female. We make horror movies about what we're most anxious about, so a college roommate who turns out to be literally the worst seems like it could be the basis of a good movie.
Those are the six that seem to have consensus. And I'd like to recommend 10 movies that I think you should see before going off to college. I'll give you some flexibility, though.
2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. To be honest, I never made it through the first 20 minutes. It doesn't really appeal to me. But you're going to have a hard time making friends with theater majors or any other artsy/nerdy person at college without at least a passing knowledge of this movie.
3. Pick a Stanley Kubrick movie. Kubrick, considered one of the best, most influential directors ever, made some of the world's best movies. Thoughtful, weird, and entertaining. Try 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, or Barry Lyndon.
4. The Matrix. "The red pill" is a term that's definitely made it into common usage, in several contexts. You could, I suppose, just watch the scene where Neo is given the choice between the red and blue pills. If you watch the whole movie, though, you get a that and a nice illustration of The Allegory of the Cave, and a nice illustration of Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation," and fight scenes from Yuen Woo-ping, one of the world's most saught-after martial arts choreographers. So just watch the whole thing.
5. Pick a Spike Lee Joint. Yes, they're called "joints," not "films." No filmmaker deals with race--even in the movies that aren't "about race"--as expertly as Lee. Watch Do the Right Thing. Watch Malcolm X. Watch BlacKkKlansman. Watch He Got Game. Watch Bamboozled. Watch them all.
6. Pick a Shakespeare film. You have so many to choose from. So many. My favorites are Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, Loncraine's Richard III, Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, and Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, which is loosely based on Henry IV.
7. Pick a Jane Austen movie. Don't fall into the "chick flick" trap. I assigned Pride and Prejudice for nine years, and the biggest fan each year was always a guy. Austen is for anyone who has to deal with weird social expectations and flawed class structures--which includes everyone in college. If you don't want to watch a straight-up period costume, six-hour miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, fine. You're missing out, but fine. At least watch Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, Heckerling's Clueless (based on Emma), or Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (heavily influenced by Pride and Prejudice).
8. Pick a Sofia Coppola movie. The Virgin Suicides is on a number of those lists for movies you should watch before going to college. Lost in Translation is also really amazing, as is Marie Antoinette. Coppola is often mentioned in the same sentence as Wes Anderson. They're both very successful, quirky, independent filmmakers in their 40s. Coppola has a wider range, especially emotionally, than Anderson, though her movies aren't quite as fun.
9. Watch a great documentary. I like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Hoop Dreams, and The Smartest Guys in the Room. Errol Morris is the master. Here's a list of documentaries that won the Oscar. Non-fiction films don't have to be associated with boring classes, though they often are.
10. The Godfather. Everything you might want to know about power--how to get and keep it, how not to get it and keep it, the benefits and perks of power, the consequences and obligations of power, the costs of not having power--are in this movie. The first time I watched it all the way through was for an American Politics class my first semester in college.