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best high school movies of all time

Making the grade: The 25 best high school movies of all time

Grease, Fast Times, and Ferris Bueller are just some of the classics that earn a spot on our Honors List of films that nail the fun and fears of high school

Few things are more nostalgic than a high school movie to bring back all those frightful and fraught memories of cliques, crushes, mean teachers, dressing for gym class, and nasty cafeteria food. Whether your high school experience was painful or pleasant, we can all remember the emotions and situations we went through as teenagers.

Movies about high school have been a Hollywood staple for decades, covering pretty much all genres from comedy to musical to horror. And with hundreds to choose from, we did our homework and narrowed down our picks for the 25 best high school movies to titles that hit us in the feels or the funny bone. From John Hughes’ 1980s classics like The Breakfast Club to modern comedies like Booksmart, we give you a chronological look at genre-defining high school movies that made us laugh, cry, and cringe—sometimes all at once. Consider it your new must-see syllabus.

Cooley High (1975)

The oldest film on this list stars Garrett Morris of Saturday Night Live fame, who was a teacher in real life when he was cast as Mr. Mason, a history professor trying to guide his students to success in 1964 Chicago.

High school senior Preach and his best friend, Cochise, a basketball player with a college scholarship, are enjoying life during their last few weeks of school when they sneak out of class with their crew—and incident after incident leads to a terrible (and avoidable) tragedy.

With authentic performances and classic Motown hits, Cooley High is one of Black cinema’s most influential films.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie, the Brian De Palma classic based on Stephen King’s first published novel, is less about scary supernatural events than about the horror of being abused by one’s family and bullied in school—with some telekinesis and lots of blood thrown in.

Combine a can’t-look-away story about what happens when a shy, repressed teen gets pushed too far with terrific performances by Sissy Spacek (as Carrie) and Piper Laurie as Carrie’s deranged mother (both were nominated for Oscars) and you have a movie that still finds a spot on many critics’ lists of the top 10 horror films of all time.

Grease (1978)

If we’re going to be honest, Grease (based on a Tony-nominated musical from 1971) doesn’t really hold up—some of the plot points are problematic by today’s standards, and if you believe these actors are “high schoolers,” then get ready to pull out your money for that beachfront Arizona property we’re selling.

That said, it hits all the right notes when it comes to nostalgia and the bygone era when John Travolta and Olivia Newton John were all the rage. Plus, there’s no denying that the soundtrack everyone was playing in 1978 brings back memories of happier times.

Rock ’N’ Roll High School (1979)

In Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, producer Roger Corman wanted Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren to play a disco act. What he got instead was a joyously juvenile love letter to 1970s punk rock featuring the Ramones—even though none of the four in the group could act their way out of a paper bag. Still, it’s impossible to imagine the movie without them.

Cult film star Mary Woronov shows up as the rock-loathing school principal, and how can you not love P.J. Soles (Stripes) in what would be her only lead role? As the high school cheerleader and the Ramones’ ultimate fan, her love for “Blitzkrieg Bop” makes for a pretty great joke in itself.

Fame (1980)

Forget the 2009 PG-13 remake and teen-friendly TV series and go back to the O.G. of ’80s musicals, Alan Parker’s R-rated Fame. It’s a five-time Oscar nominated classic that—despite all the singing and dancing (who can deny the infectious joy of kids pouring into the streets as Irene Cara belts out “Fame”?)—doesn’t shy away from tough issues.

It follows students at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts from audition to graduation, with the pain of rejection and the struggle to “make it” on top of the usual angst that comes with being a teenager.

Gritty and moving, Fame is darker and more shocking than you remember. Irene Cara, you are gonna live forever.

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My Bodyguard (1980)

When the rich new kid at a Chicago school finds himself in the crosshairs of a gang of bullies, he does what any of us would do if we had the money—hire himself a bodyguard. Not just any bodyguard, but a legend, a big kid with a reputation for every bad deed you could imagine.

This turns into a friendship that reveals some unexpected secrets. Though it’s an unrealistic setup and familiar underdog story, My Bodyguard’s high school dynamics and kids like ones you probably knew recall those memories we all share.

Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982)

There isn’t a more iconic high school movie than Fast Times At Ridgemont High starring a young Sean Penn as stoner surfer Jeff Spicoli. But his spot-on performance isn’t the only reason Amy Heckerling’s classic has held up all these decades.

Quite possibly the first movie about teenagers to perfectly capture the essence of being one, the screenplay by Cameron Crowe “gets” the language of his characters as they have frank (and funny) discussions about sex without being crass or talking down to a teenage audience.

And while smoking in your van and writing a phone number on paper may be lost on young, modern moviegoers, the film speaks to the drama and trauma kids have faced in the four decades since it was made.

What more do you need than tasty waves and a cool buzz?

Sixteen Candles (1984)

The first in beloved writer/director John Hughes’ ’80s high school oeuvre, Sixteen Candles was praised at the time for being an “honest” portrayal of teenagers—one could shrug off the film’s issues that are so obvious today as “a different time, man.”

Problematic material notwithstanding, Molly Ringwald is so delightful as the long-suffering Sam, pining away for personality-free heartbreak kid Jake (come on, we all had that crush).

Anthony Michael Hall plays the geek Ted with a kindness and relatability that keeps him from being the insufferable character he was written as. And when it’s funny it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Despite its cop-out ending, The Breakfast Club is probably the best of the John Hughes “Brat Pack” movies.

It may also be one of the best high school movies ever made as it portrays members of various school cliques that normally mix like oil and water (“a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal,” we’re told) but turn out to have more in common than they expected.

The actors give it their all during a Saturday detention that ends up more like a group therapy sesh, and the superb performances still mesmerize decades later. Mess with the bull, get the horns.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

If any movie beats The Breakfast Club for iconic high school movie status it’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which may be the pinnacle not only of John Hughes movies but of the genre entirely.

Cutting through the sentimentalism of his previous movies with themes of escapism, hedonism and bucking the system, Ferris perfectly encapsulates the ’80s—enough can’t be said about how well Hughes meshes music with his many big set pieces, from the museum scene to the parade to Ferris’ race to get home.

Ultimately Ferris might be an unlikeable jerkface, but he’s our hero anyway.

Hoosiers (1986)

Still making top 10 sports movie lists after all these years, Hoosiers so expertly works the underdog trope that it’s impossible not to be happily manipulated by this story of a ragtag high school basketball team and its unconventional new coach.

Gene Hackman as the blustery, aw-shucks coach turns in career-best work, but it’s Dennis Hopper (totally sober in real life at the time) as one player’s alcoholic dad, struggling to maintain sobriety and impress his son, who captivates on-screen with a performance that would earn him his only Oscar nomination.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

Once upon a time Kathleen Turner was everywhere, and she earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Peggy Sue Got Married, as an unhappy wife questioning her life choices.

When suddenly Peggy Sue is transported back to 1960 and given the chance to go a different way, Turner shines, especially in quieter moments: picking up the phone to speak to her dead-in-the-present grandmother and longingly remembering that her mother had ever looked so young.

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Francis Ford Coppola boils down big, existential concepts of time travel and destiny into a humanistic, personal film we can all identify with. You’ll just have to get past a nasal-voiced Nicolas Cage’s big fake teeth and strange hair—you’ve been warned.

Heathers (1988)

“Dear diary: My teen angst bullshit now has a body count.” Teenage nihilism is on full display in this pitch-black classic starring Winona Ryder as the non-Heather who’s liberated from her snotty clique of croquet-playing Heathers by the strange yet charismatic new kid at school. (Christian Slater, in the high point of his career).

Director Michael Lehmann and scriptwriter Daniel Waters maintain the perfect level of dark humor and surrealism throughout, making Heathers an endlessly quotable and always watchable tour de force in the high school movie genre.

How very!

Dazed And Confused (1993)

The cult classic Dazed And Confused was Richard Linklater’s answer to the monologue-filled sentimentality and dramatic setups of John Hughes’ films, that instead revealed the driftless triviality of it all.

You’ll recognize the roster of now-familiar faces: Matthew McConaughey (in his breakout role), Ben Affleck, and Milla Jovovich among them.

A near-perfect example of hangout cinema, it nails the shaggy 1970s high school vibe: the kids aimlessly wander in and out of fast food joints and the local arcade, gather for keggers, and get stoned to what might be the best high school movie soundtrack ever—you’ll wish you could relive these days, even if you weren’t around for them the first time.

Clueless (1995)

With its phat ’90s fashion and glorious teenspeak, you might not have known that Clueless was Fast Times director Amy Heckerling’s take on Jane Austen’s Emma.

Alicia Silverstone as Cher wouldn’t dare wear unstylish clothes or hang out with losers (as if!)—she’s too busy playing matchmaker with her teachers and using her popularity for a good cause, like making over a flannel-shirted transfer student.

But while Cher is a superficial rich girl, she’s also kind and intelligent; writer/director Heckerling walks a line of satire in a way most directors could never manage, gently poking fun at her absurdly wealthy characters while making you fall in love with them.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

10 Things I Hate About You is Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew grafted into a late-’90s high school setting.

It tells the story of a new kid (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who pays the school bad boy (Heath Ledger) to date the antisocial sister of the girl he likes (Julia Stiles).

It was a breakthrough movie for all three stars, and their performances elevated an already clever script that could have easily gone wrong. You don’t need to be a fan of the Bard, or a teenager, to enjoy it.

Election (1999)

Reese Witherspoon had a few hit movies in the 1990s, but with Election, she grabbed onto stardom and never looked back.

Her performance as ruthlessly single-minded Tracy Flick, determined to be class president at any cost, is sheer perfection (and Matthew Broderick brilliantly portrays Tracy’s nemesis, a passionate teacher with dubious morals).

Director Alexander Payne skewers politics with savage glee and caustic wit, as we watch these characters dig their own holes with bad behavior and questionable motives in a movie that seems as relevant today as it did then.

Bring It On (2000)

A movie about cheerleading would seem little more than fluff designed to lure audiences with teens in short skirts, but Bring It On bares its fangs with snarky cheers and biting lines (“She puts the whore in horrifying”) while treating the sport as the athletic challenge it truly is.

There was never a more perfect role for sunny, all-American Kirsten Dunst then as the school’s new squad leader.

She’s backed up by supporting performances from Eliza Dushku as her teammate BFF and Gabrielle Union as the leader of the competition.

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Actor turned director Peter Berg deftly helms Friday Night Lights, which is based on the true story of a small town in the heart of Texas, where people care a little too much about high school football.

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As the team’s coach, Billy Bob Thornton ad-libbed his famous final speech about not being perfect, and if he wasn’t already known for so many great roles people might say this one was his best.

Berg went on to create the beloved TV show of the same name that ran for five years (two on NBC and three on DirecTV’s 101 Network).

Mean Girls (2004)

Welcome to the jungle that is high school, where catty insults and behind-the-back scheming are the name of the game when it comes to survival of the fittest—and nobody does it better than teenage girls.

Tina Fey’s so fetch tale follows a homeschooled teen (Lindsay Lohan) who falls in with a snobby popular group called the Plastics at her new school. Intending to take them down, she ends up transforming into just the thing she hates.

Lohan’s good, but Mean Girls belongs to breakout star Rachel McAdams, who steals the show as the Plastics’ queen bee-yotch.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

With its gorgeous shots of Idaho, timelessly weird fashion, oddly stilted dialogue and catchy soundtrack, Napoleon Dynamite is its own friggin’ baffling universe, a geeky world you either love to live in or run from screaming.

Seemingly plotless at first glance, Jared Hess’ bizarro high school flick teaches us that everyone has a place in the world and a story to tell.

Even if that story is just to get up the courage to ask a girl to play tetherball and “Vote for Pedro.”

Superbad (2007)

Superbad, Judd Apatow’s super smutty yet super side-splitting high school comedy, is a sex-seeking day in the life of a pair of dweebs played to perfection by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Together with their dorky friend Fogell, who’s trying to pass himself off with a fake I.D. to buy beer (“I am McLovin!”), the kids give us an authentic high school realness along with hilariously vulgar lines that would make a porn star blush. As a high-water mark of R-rated teen comedies, it’s kind of too bad, but understandable, that the cast said 100 percent no to a sequel—it would be nigh impossible to recapture this magic.

Easy A (2010)

Emma Stone (who made her feature debut in Superbad!) proved she was a star to be reckoned with in Easy A, a sassy yet heartfelt teen comedy that lands somewhere between Mean Girls and John Hughes movies of yore.

When news gets around that she lost her virginity (a lie that gets out of hand), she’s branded the school tramp.

Instead of denying it she leans into her new reputation as a floozy in a female-empowerment move that highlights our old-fashioned notions of what a “lady” should be.

Fun fact: Stone never attended high school; she was home-schooled from age 12.

21 Jump Street (2012)

Whether or not you watched Johnny Depp’s ’80s TV drama, 21 Jump Street, is neither here nor there; the only resemblance Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s movie version has to the small screen version is the title and the hook: two cops infiltrate high school to investigate and control illegal substances, in this case a synthetic drug called HFS (“Holy F***ing Shit”).

Thanks to the brotastic chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum (plus Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson in an early breakthrough role) and an effective balance of penis jokes and self awareness, the resulting comedy is funnier than it had any right to be.

Booksmart (2019)

 

Just when you thought the high school movie had been done to death, Olivia Wilde picked up the directing reins to give us Booksmart, a fresh, funny, and occasionally filthy movie that for once (it took until 2019?) focuses on a couple of unpopular, nerdy teen girls determined to break the rules and go out in a blaze of glory the day before graduation.

To call it “Superbad with girls” is to do it a disservice: winsome leads Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever give sassy yet heartfelt performances in a film about what happens when you and your ride-or-die must eventually go your separate ways.

 

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