If you could describe your college experience in one word, what would it be?
Summarizing those four years is like writing the SparkNotes version of Moby Dick. While Melville bloviates about harpoon technology and what life is like on the high seas, we just want to know if Ahab kills the damn whale. Similarly, when it comes to college, all anyone cares about is if you graduated. If you walked, as they say. But what about the stuff that led to your diploma?
That’s why we need movies: to fill in the gaps and remind us of the details. As the school year approaches, it’s time to look back on the films that best captured the college experience, particularly the wonder and wantonness of freshman year.
Here is our list of the 10 Best College Movies About Freshman Year:
7 Back to School (1986)
In one word: Raucous.
During his heyday, Rodney Dangerfield was one of the greatest comic actors alive. His turns in Caddyshack and Easy Money will be long remembered, and his performance as the elderly freshman in Back to School deserves equal recognition.
As the hard-partying Thornton Melon, Dangerfield heads to campus to show his disinterested son that college is a worthwhile endeavor. Bringing his knowledge of women and business to the uninitiated underclassmen, he changes the culture of the school.
In one of the movie's signature lines, Dangerfield receives a Sex-Ed textbook, flips through it and says: “They left out the most important thing: where to get it!”
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
In one word: Lust.
Director Mike Nichols began his career with a hat-trick of masterpieces, opening with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate and Catch-22. For a young director, Nichols established himself as a master of capturing interpersonal drama in intimate spaces.
With Carnal Knowledge, Nichols continued his hot streak by putting Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel (of Simon & Garfunkel fame) and Anne Margaret to work in a movie about sex and love across a continuum of time. We meet Jonathan (Nicholson) and Sandy (Art) during their maiden college voyage, talking about the ideal women who will take their virginity. Jonathan wants a buxom, sexually-experienced woman, while Sandy simply yearns for a companion. It’s clear the two men are wired differently, and as they encounter more and more women, we watch their inhibitions and insecurities unfold.
As Sandy says early in the film, “I feel the same way about getting laid as I do about going to college. I’m being pressured into it.” This is a must watch film with a truly incisive script.
6 Whiplash (2014)
In one word: Grit.
Set at an ultra-competitive music conservatory, wherein its protagonist attempts to be the drummer of the school's highly regarded jazz band, Whiplash is at heart a college story. Stripped of fraternities, boozing and womanizing, this college is a Darwinian battle.
As a first-year student at Shaffer Conservatory, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) experiences the survival of the fittest by pursuing his dream to become a top jazz drummer. As Neiman quickly learns, however, great academic and artistic gain in college can require blood, sweat and tears... literally. This is an expensive bill to pay, requiring consistent emotional down payments and the sacrifice of healthy relationships for the pursuit of some nebulous concept of "greatness" in the future.
Neiman attends Shaffer with something to prove. He could have chosen a less prestigious school to become a big fish in the small pond, but a larger question burns at his core: does he have the talent and mettle to become someone great? This can only be answered through the prism of Professor Fletcher, the antagonistic teacher played by JK Simmons in his Oscar-winning role.
5 Animal House (1978)
In one word: Drunk.
Harold Ramis’ legendary comedy proved so influential that the title itself is synonymous with college. With its merciless mockery of the fraternity system (“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”), Animal House highlights the social obstacles freshmen face when going Greek.
Upon arriving at Omega House for the first fraternity rush mixer, Kent Dorfman (Stephen Furst) and Larry Kroger (Tom Hulce) are immediately brushed aside to the couch of rejects, consisting of nerds, foreign exchange students and a blind man.
In contrast to those in loser corner are the yuppiest frat boys in American history: Doug Neidermeyer and Greg Marmalard, with whom a young Kevin Bacon discusses his fraternity future at Faber College. Double secret probation or bust, Delta House is by far the superior choice for freshmen.
The Social Network (2010)
In one word: Ruthless.
Mark Zuckerberg’s story is remarkably human. For a techie who founded the social media revolution, his impetus for doing so has deeply emotional roots, at least according to Aaron Sorkin's script in The Social Network.
Somewhere between his freshman and sophomore years at Harvard University, Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) gets dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and, out of anger, dedicates his energies to building Facemash, a website that pits women against each other in an either/or battle of aesthetics. This breaks the Harvard server and lands Zuckerberg on campus trial, probation, and in contact with the Winklevoss twins, who look to the taciturn nerd to help bring “The Facebook” to life.
Still a teenager at the time, Zuckerberg’s scorned love and technological prowess caused a revolution in the way humans interact with each other online.
4 Monsters University (2013)
In one word: Alternative.
Pixar is to movies what Aesop was to fables. Their constant exploration of morality and virtues makes Pixar more than an animation company; they're more like a cinematic parent to masses of children and adults alike.
In Monsters University, we meet Mike and Sully in their formative years before they were friends. Even green, walking eyeballs and big blue monsters pledge fraternities, though for much of the film, the pair reminds sworn enemies. At college, they compete to become “scarers,” but stumble in doing so, ultimately get expelled from the program altogether.
The moral of the story? Success isn’t linear and there are other routs to the top. At Monsters, Inc., Mike and Sully start off in the mail room and work their way up. It’s an encouraging message that also provide a relatively pragmatic take on the American work ethic.
3 Pitch Perfect (2012)
In one word: Liberation.
Shakespeare put it best: “If music be the food of love, play on.” In Pitch Perfect, it takes an artsy, motivated freshman to kick the upperclassmen into gear.
Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) has no desire to attend Barden University, but would rather move to Los Angeles to pursue her musical dreams. Her father, a left-brained and bossy teacher, tells her to join an on-campus club, and if she still doesn’t enjoy the college experience, he promises to personally finance her west coast endeavors.
Beca joins the Barden Bellas and finds her calling, taking the slightly repressed acapella group to new heights with her aggressive and passionate vocals. Pitch Perfect is a coming of age story that sees the Bellas break from their emotional and physical confines, experiencing the liberation that college is known to provide.
2 Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
In one word: Payback.
In 1984, when Revenge of the Nerds hit the silver screen, geekdom was at fever pitch. With the rise of computers, a whole new subset of the American population was cornered. The “nerd” epithet held so much vitriol back then that the majority of the film’s cast refused to tell people that they were in the movie.
Regardless, actors Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards, Curtis Armstrong, John Goodman and others forged a comedy for the ages and a hero’s tale to bolster the confidence of the most bespectacled computer nerds. As freshmen at Adams College, the geeks put their skills to the test and got payback for their perpetual persecution.
As the old adage goes, “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”
1 22 Jump Street (2014)
In two words: Spring Break.
If the average person received a wish, a la a genie in a bottle, it’s highly possible he or she would ask for another chance at college. It makes sense. As the capital city of mistakes and missed opportunities, college often makes more sense in hindsight than in the moment.
For Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), new members of the 22 Jump Street program (conveniently across the street from the old 21 HQ), college redux brings back all of their adolescent insecurities in one hot second. Their raucous behavior begs the question: is being a freshman a once in a lifetime experience or is it a state of mind?
Schmidt and Jenko struggle to find their footing like everyone else, even if it’s their second time in the ring.
The Freshman (1990)
In one word: Business.
The Godfather remains one of the most enduring films in cinema history, so when Marlon Brando decided to essentially reprise his role as Vito Corleone for The Freshman, he gambled with his Hollywood legacy.
In Andrew Bergman’s 1990 film, Clark Kellogg (Matthew Broderick) arrives in Grand Central Station for his first year of NYU film school and has his luggage stolen by a manipulative limo driver. After chasing down the thief, Kellogg meets Carmine Sabatini (Brando) and is immediately thrust into the seedy underbelly of New York crime.
It’s more of an education than Clark hoped to have, boosting his street smarts faster than anything the teachers at NYU could offer.
What’s your favorite movie about freshman year? Let us know in the comments below!
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