Risky Business (1983). Over the years Hollywood has suggested a number of innovative ways for applicants to get into their schools of choice: make a large donation to the college (Back to School); pose as a minority (Soul Man); burn down the admissions office (Orange County); systematically bribe or murder those ahead of you on the waiting list (Getting In). But few have had the commonsense elegance of the advice offered by Risky Business: make your admissions officer happy. Darker and more vividly rendered than all but a handful of coming-of-age comedies before or since, the movie made Tom Cruise a star. But it is the mysterious, magnetic performance by Rebecca De Mornay that lingers.
Animal House (1978). Though movies have associated higher education with the lower pleasures going at least as far back as the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers (1932), it wasn't until 1978 that director John Landis took dipsomaniacal debauchery to a new level and invented the modern college movie, for better and (mostly) worse. "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son," a dean counsels one of his charges—guidance that, while sound, has been duly ignored by subsequent generations of movie collegians. A lowbrow gem, Animal House has in its own way been as influential as Star Wars: upon its release Roger Ebert called it "an end run around Hollywood's traditional notions of comedy"; now it pretty much defines them.
The Paper Chase (1973). There is perhaps no aspect of college life in which Tinseltown has shown less interest over the years than academics. Even The Paper Chase, which imagines itself as having something to say about the nature of learning and the relationship between teacher and student (and which is set not in college but in the relatively sober atmosphere of law school), is more notable for the don'ts than for the dos it illustrates. To wit: Don't sleep with your professor's daughter, especially not in his own house. Don't break into the library to rifle through his old papers. And most important, don't under any circumstances loudly accuse him of being a "son of a bitch" in the middle of a lecture. (His response is unlikely to be the one John Houseman offers Timothy Bottoms: "That's the most intelligent thing you've said today.") Dated as the movie now seems, the awkward blend of rebelliousness and careerism that it captures goes a long way toward explaining how the hippies of the 1960s evolved so seamlessly into the yuppies of the 1980s.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). When the rigors of undergraduate existence seem too much to bear, Mike Nichols's Taylor-Burton spittlefest can serve as a useful reminder that the lives of college faculty members are probably worse. Like its stars, the film did not age as gracefully as one might have hoped, and its concluding revelation now seems more hokey than heartrending. Still, it offers its share of shocks, along with a fictionalized glimpse into one of the most famous (and famously turbulent) marriages of the twentieth century.
Kicking and Screaming (1995). The transition from high school to college is often described as the most dramatic of a young person's life—and for many it is. But for others the shock of adulthood truly hits home after graduation, when sixteen years of education are over and the future is suddenly, terrifyingly, wide open. Writer-director Noah Baumbach's debut feature (not to be confused with this year's Will Ferrell soccer-dad movie of the same name) neatly captures this anxious transition, and the fear that whatever life choice you make—go to grad school? follow your girlfriend to Prague?—may turn out to be the wrong one. By turns very funny and surprisingly tender, the movie follows a group of recent graduates (played by Josh Hamilton and the woefully underutilized Christopher Eigeman, among others) who can't quite bring themselves to leave campus.