In Honor of the Oscars: The Best (and Worst) Education Movies of All Time
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This year's crop of Academy Award nominees for Best Picture didn't include any films set in schools, but that doesn't mean filmmakers always avoid educational settings. From an unscientific poll of the GOOD editorial team, here are some of the must see—many are Oscar nominated—as well as absolutely skippable movies set in schools. This list mostly sticks to films about the public high school experience, but there are a few outliers we simply couldn't resist including. Happy viewing!
In the 1997 flick 187, Samuel Jackson portrays science teacher Trevor Garfield who hightails it from New York City to Los Angeles after surviving a brutal attack by a gangster student. Guess what he finds in LA? Yep, students in gangs with names like K.O.S.—Kappin' Off Suckers. The school district is the typical bureaucratic mess that won't help him, so Garfield ends up capping one of the students—and then things quickly spiral downhill. Unless you're really jonesing for a stereotype-filled movie experience, this is one to skip.
When you drop out of school for the guy who ends up being too good to be true, make sure you have a caring teacher like Miss Stubbs from 2009's An Education in your corner. Miss Stubbs helps heartbroken dropout Jenny Mellor get back on the right track and into Oxford. The drama is nominated for three Academy Awards and Rotten Tomatoes critics rate it 94 percent fresh.
photo (cc) by Flickr user Wolf Gang
In the 1995 comedy Billy Madison, Adam Sandler plays 27-year-old Billy Madison, a neer-do-well scion to a hotel chain. His father confesses that he bribed all Billy's teachers into giving his son good grades, so before he'll turn over his hotel empire, Billy has to go back and learn all the first through 12th grade content in a mere 24 weeks. Along the way, he falls for third grade teacher Miss Vaughn. But don't worry, since Billy's of age, Miss Vaughn doesn't get arrested. Best of all, Billy discovers he wants to go to college and become a teacher too.
If there's one movie that expertly promotes the stereotype of the white teacher going to the hood and saving children of color, it's 1995's Dangerous Minds. From Michelle Pfieffer's portrayal of Marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson, we learn that 1) kids will respect you if you show up in a leather jacket and give them candy bars, and 2) even the toughest gang member will soften after being exposed to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' "Do not go gentle into that good night."
The 1993 cult classic comedy Dazed and Confused portrays the last day of high school in a small Texas town in 1976. The bored seniors haze the incoming freshman, smoke weed, drink and try to hook up with each other. It's rated 98 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and is known for its cast of stars-before-they-were stars, including Matthew McConaughy, Ben Affleck and Milla Jovovich. Although it's a funny movie, would America find the film so endearing if the stoned out students were all from minority backgrounds?
Thanks to the 1989 Academy Award nominated drama Dead Poets Society, a whole generation knows what carpe diem means. Indeed, Robin Williams portrays prep school English professor John Keating who unorthodoxically encourages his students to "seize the day". Keating's everything most students want in a teacher—he's funny, creative, challenging and not condescending. His methods foster both the student's love of poetry and their questioning of the status quo, which, of course, gets him fired. The modern version of Keating would probably encourage his students to opt out of standardized tests.
1960's era parochial schools and the Catholic sex abuse scandal are central to 2008's Academy Award nominated Doubt. Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius Beauvier crosses swords with Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Brendan Flynn over Flynn's special relationship with the school's only black student, Donald Miller. Interestingly, teachers union advocates would probably argue that the suspicion of impropriety leading to a teacher being forced out of a school is a big reason teachers still need due process rights.
The never-ending battle between teens and teachers is expertly portrayed in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. What would cinema be without Sean Penn's famous portrayal of stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli facing off against uptight history teacher Mr. Hand? And, don't you wonder if this generation's Cameron Crowe is undercover right now at a KIPP charter high school and writing a screenplay about his experiences?
Did your high school adventures include skipping school, cruising in a Ferarri, attending a baseball game and posing as the "Sausage King of Chicago"? If they didn't, that's because you're not Ferris Bueller. The 1986 John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off features boyishly charming Matthew Broderick in the title role, Ben Stein as the world's most boring economics teacher—who doesn't recognize "Bueller? Bueller?" when they hear it?—and Jeffrey Jones as the hard-nosed principal you love to hate, Mr. Rooney.
Given that auto shop classes have gone the way of the manual typewriter, would a modern era Danny Zuko even be able to get a job after graduation? Still, 1978's Grease is a fun escape into the fantasy of the 1950's American high school experience.
1989's Lean on Me stars Morgan Freeman as the bat-wielding principal of Paterson, New Jersey's Eastside High. Although some might find the film inspiring, film critic Roger Ebert sums it's problems up best when he says, "But it is true that tough schools need mad-dog teachers? One of the sneaky, uneasy feelings I got while watching "Lean on Me" is that the movie makes a subtle appeal to those who are afraid of unruly, loud, violent black teenagers."
What happens when a group of New York City students are fed up with the run down classrooms in their high school, the dismissal of effective teachers and police brutality? In 1999's Light it Up, the students take hostages and stage a protest. The film stars Forest Whitaker, Vanessa L. Williams, Judd Nelson, Rosario Dawson and singer Usher as Lester, the leader of the rebellion. The film is full of stereotypes and bad acting, but it does raise the question, does education reform need more student protests?
With the national education conversation dominated by talk of dropout rates and kids reading below grade level, it's easy to forget about the needs of gifted students. 1991's Little Man Tate stars Jodie Foster in a fantastic depiction of single mom Dede Tate trying to find the best school for her brilliant, gifted son, Fred.
1995's Academy Award nominated Mr. Holland's Opus stars Richard Dreyfuss as a frustrated composer who takes a teaching job at the local high school. The movie keeps it real—Mr. Holland's teaching job is eliminated when budget cuts axe the music program. In real life, composer Michael Kamen was so inspired by the story told in the film that he started a non-profit organization dedicated to providing musical instruments to underprivileged students.
Meryl Streep stars as another inspiring music teacher in 1999's Academy Award nominated Music of the Heart. Although the film does venture into stereotype territory—a newbie white teacher grappling with problem-filled inner city kids in a Harlem school filled with burnt-out teachers who have lowered their expectations—it is saved by Streep's sincere portrayal of the real-life Roberta Guaspari. An interesting bit of trivia: Madonna was originally tapped to play the role of Roberta.
The 1999 romantic comedy Never Been Kissed stars Drew Barrymore as 25-year-old journalist Josie Geller who decides to go back to high school undercover for a story. The film spotlights the insane amounts of bullying that goes on in high schools and also shows Josie falling for teacher Sam Coulson who's portrayed by Michael Vartan. Thankfully, Josie writes a well-received story about the bullying and Sam is off the hook for his feelings for what he thought was an underage girl. Whew, the To Catch a Predator crew won't be showing up at his house!
1992's School Ties A Jewish boy goes to an elite prep school in the 1950's and hides his religion until another student forces it out in the open. puts the spotlight on antisemitism when Brendan Fraser plays a Jewish teen who transfers from a Pennsylvania public school to an elite prep school in the 1950's. He hides his religion until another student exposes his secret. The film's also notable because it was one of the first big movies for Fraser as well as Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris O'Donnell.
The 1984 John Hughes teen coming of age classic Sixteen Candles never gets old in its portrayal of the trials and tribulations of the teenage years and high school. There are all the cliques to deal with, the nightmare of the high school dance, and the angst of teen crushes. Molly Ringwald's character Samantha spends most of her time at school daydreaming about Jake Ryan and passing notes. Don't you kinda wonder what kind of grades she gets?
Edward James Olmos' portrayal of East L.A. math teacher Jaime Escalante in 1988's Stand and Deliver garned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Instead of being a hardcore disciplinarian, Escalante believes in his student's potential and gains their attention and trust through his innovative teaching techniques. The film is truly inspiring and well-acted.
In the 1987 comedy Summer School, Mark Harmon stars as a slacker high school gym teacher Freddy Shoop who's forced to abandon his planned trip to Hawaii and teach an English class to the misfits of the school. Although Freddy has no clue what English standards even are, he connects with the kids and inspires them to achieve.
1985's John Hughes classic The Breakfast Club is notable not just for its Brat Pack ensemble cast of Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy as a group of high schoolers from different cliques. The film convincingly spotlight's how teachers—like the film's Mr. Vernon—stereotype kids and often behave harshly to students they perceive to be from the wrong side of the tracks.
1996's The Substitute stars Tom Berenger as Shale, an ex mercenary who heads home to Miami only to discover that his teacher fiancee's kneecap has been broken by students who are part of the local gang, the "Kings of Destruction". Shale becomes his fiancee's substitute and the film turns into what one critic described as "Rambo Goes to School."
Teens tend to think at least some of their teachers are from another planet, and in the 1998 sci-fi flick The Faculty, they really are. The film follows six student's efforts to save their school and town from the alien parasites and, in a not to be missed performance, Jon Stewart plays science teacher Mr. Furlong.