Skip to main content

The 15 best college movies of all time, from Legally Blonde to The Social Network

future-u
(Image credit: Universal)

College. Ah, the first taste of freedom. Whether it be through a beer bong, a keg stand, or via less intoxicating means, like… uhh… studying? The best college movies tap into that feeling, that glorious sweet spot where youth is still on your side and the promise of a bright future beckons. The college experience is fertile ground for screenwriters, who have for decades transformed this wild and wacky time into cinematic gold. 

As the best college movies show, being at university is the one time you can really let rip and indulge every whim. There’s no lasting repercussions, no consequences to your tomfoolery... well, except for the rest of your life, that is. That’s what makes filmmakers return to the campus time and time again. With that kind of hubris on your side, what better time to experience anything your little heart desires, right? 

15. The Rules of Attraction (2002) 

(Image credit: Lions Gate Films)

Desperate to smash his matinee idol image to smithereens, James Van Der Beek signed up for this vomit-drenched, drug-fueled, sex-crazed adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. Gone is Dawson, and in his place? Sean Bateman, a narcissistic sociopath and younger brother to American Psycho’s Patrick. It’s not entirely his story, but more of a split-view shared alongside earnest freshman Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) and her bisexual ex Paul (Ian Somerhalder). 

Forming a deranged, self-indulgent love triangle of sorts, their exploits take the place of any plot. It works well to establish just what a mess college life really is. That scrappy, unfocused angle also earned the pic a hard R, what with its brazen depictions of drug taking, sexual assault, and watching Van Der Beek straining on the toilet.

14. Wonder Boys (2000) 

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Having dedicated most of his career to swaggering lothario alpha males, Michael Douglas changes pace, giving one of the performances of his life as Grady Tripp, a fifty-something oh-so-cool professor. While he once had the world at his feet, a hugely promising debut novel, and the possibility of tenure, things have crumbled. His wife has left him, he’s having an affair with the department head’s wife, and he’s trying to tame the towering manuscript for his second novel. 

Wonder Boys follows him over the course of a weekend, gifting us one of cinema’s best-ever depictions of campus living through the lens of a man on the edge. 

A local writing festival acts as the movie's backdrop, with Tripp sending his agent (a never-better Robert Downey Jr.). Alongside one of Tripp’s most promising students (Tobey Maguire), they drink, get high, and accidentally steal one of Marilyn Monroe’s jackets. Charming as hell, with a hint of wintry warmth to the proceedings, this is a modern stab at screwball that’s also a fantastic ode to the college experience.

13. St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) 

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

St. Elmo’s Fire blazed onto screens at the height of the Brat Pack’s reign. Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham, Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez star as recent Georgetown University graduates. Are they snotty, entitled, and a smidgen obnoxious at times? Sure. That’s partly what makes it all ring true, the arrogance of the group navigating those first steps into adulthood… and completely bungling it. 

However, they’re not alone: they have each other. And that’s what truly makes it one of the best college movies – its depiction of friendship. While each of the group grapples with the Big Things in life – bosses, money, direction – they’ve got one another to lean on. At the time of release, this Joel Schumacher-directed flick was savaged by critics, who lambasted it for focusing solely on straight, white rich kids. Now it’s a cultural document to be looked back on, that’s undoubtedly a little self-indulgent, but packed with charm and nostalgia for a bygone era.

12. Night of the Creeps (1986) 

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures)

"The good news is your dates are here. The bad news is: they’re dead." Possibly the best tagline for a college movie, ever? Right off the bat, Night of the Creeps makes no bones about its influences. It mixes together sci-fi, horror, and the college comedy for a gloriously thick genre soup. In the first sequence alone, every component is covered: you’ve got alien bugs, axe-wielding lunatics, and a couple trying to find a quiet make-out spot. 

Director Fred Dekker calls on the 1950s invasion trope to prompt the chaos as two fraternity pledges, J.C. and Chris, are tasked with stealing a cadaver from a university medical center. The thawed corpse, infected by cryogenically-frozen alien parasites, attacks the pair, leading to a plague of parasitic slugs descending on the college campus. Packing every single B-movie trope into a college flick is a tall order, and yet, it’s one that Dekker wanted to achieve with his debut. As a result, we get to witness the glory that is a downtrodden wannabe taking a flamethrower to a bunch of slug-infested frat boys. Yeah, not a lot of college movies do that.  

11. Legally Blonde (2001) 

(Image credit: MGM Distribution Co.)

On the surface Legally Blonde appears much like its lead character. Pretty, shallow, and lacking in the brains department. And yet, like the strong-willed and relentlessly chipper Elle Woods, this 2001 comedy classic has much more to offer. When Elle is dumped by her long-term beau Warner Huntington III, citing her ditzy image and lack of smarts as a reason he cannot marry her, she strives to win him back by earning a place at the same college. Harvard. 

Setting out to prove both Warner – and the audience’s – perception of her by winning him back, she soon lands a prestigious internship spot. Beneath its frivolous sheen, this fish-out-of-water tale is heart-warming and very funny. Reese Witherspoon is excellent, imbuing Elle with both passion, wit, and intelligence. Her triumphant Ivy League experience is unlike any other you’ll see in a college movie. 

10. Higher Learning (1995) 

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Nearly 25 years after its release and the issues at the core of Higher Learning continue to reverberate today. John Singleton’s approach to race relations, sexual assault, and moral responsibility on campus isn’t light-handed by any stretch. This is a dark, heavy drama investigating whether or not diversity can be a peaceful endeavor. 

The fictional Columbus University, populated by white supremacists, afrocentrists, gays and feminists, is presented through the experiences of three freshmen. Remy (Michael Rapaport) is a shy, white kid who falls in with neo-Nazis, Kristen (Kristy Swanson) doesn’t know who she is, or who she wants, and Malik (Omar Epps) struggles to balance his track career with academics. It’s a bracing snapshot of mid-90s campus life that’s eerily prescient of recent events. 

9. Rudy (1993) 

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures)

Look, you can call it “that football tearjerker” all you like and it’s… oh, who are we kidding? This is Rudy, after all. A true rags-to-riches tale from the same creative team behind that other Indiana sports movie, Hoosiers. Not only is it one of the best college movies, Rudy is easily the most inspirational football film ever made. Sean Astin stars as the scrappy Daniel Ruettiger, a small-town star with dreams of playing at Notre Dame for the Fighting Irish. 

Despite his social status, lack of money, short stature and mediocre athletic performance, he refuses to take no for an answer. It’s that fightin’ spirit, along with help from a local priest (Robert Prosky) and a former Notre Dame player (Charles Dutton), that helps him secure a place at the prestigious school. While some of the fictitious flourishes taken by the screenwriter (the scene where the rest of the team dump their jerseys on the coach refusing to play unless Rudy does was made up!) might have jarred the real-life people depicted, you can’t deny the powerful message at its heart. 

8. Animal House (1980) 

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The benchmark against which all of the best college movies are measured. Simply put, a comedy classic. Low-brow, moronic, and at the same time, quite brilliant. Its success, the madcap blend of idiocy and gross-out humor, down to clever scripting and great performances, making space for further campus tomfoolery in the decades to come with the likes of Old School. 

Led by John Belushi’s Bluto, the movie’s bunch of misfits don’t particularly aspire to anything other than securing booze and drugs and trying to have as much sex as possible. From the opening scene, when we meet the two frat pledges eager to join the Delta house, the film’s aspirations are clear: come to college to get loaded and have a good time. If you learn something? It’ll probably involve how to get stains out of a toga. No surprises then that it went on to inspire a whole generation of students to party.

7. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) 

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

It’s hard to imagine how Richard Linklater could direct a film to match Boyhood. Somehow he did, with this cracking period piece, that turns to his own youth as inspiration. Everybody Wants Some!! is one of his funniest, warmest films that – unlike the verbose wit of his Before Sunrise series – embraces a broader type of humor. Showing the breezy, carefree feeling of the early days of college, this pic unravels in '80s Texas, where we meet a group of freshmen about to embark on their first year on the college baseball team. 

This gang are led by Jake (Blake Jenner) who arrives at the team’s frathouse to meet his new teammates, who are, pretty much copies of him: they’re all impossibly handsome, effortlessly cool, and, well, not massively smart. The film’s not really concerned with that, and more excited to capture the laid back mood of what it means to be young, brimming with potential.

6. Old School (2003) 

(Image credit: DreamWorks Pictures)

Subtlety is off the table here, folks. From Will Ferrell drinking and streaking his way across campus to elderly pledge Blue getting into a lube bath with two bikini-clad coeds, this is a raucous ode to collegiate life. Clearly influenced by the bawdy likes of Animal House, 2003’s frat pack comedy Old School is driven solely by the amount of sex, drugs, and pranks it can pile into a scene. 

Ferrell stars alongside Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson. The thirty-something trio, eager to recapture the glory days of their youth, open their own frat house close to their old university. When Mitch (Wilson) catches his girlfriend in the midst of an orgy, his pal Bernard (Vaughn) throws him a huge party to cheer him up. Mitch-A-Palooza, with 300+ students, attracts the ire of the college dean who threatens to evict Mitch. Luckily, his friends cook up a cunning plan to transform the home into a fraternity to avoid eviction. 

5. Happy Death Day (2016) 

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The horror genre proves, once again, that it’s never out of new ideas with Happy Death Day. Groundhog Day reworked as a slasher? Sounds too good to be true. This campus-set horror comedy from writer-director Christopher Landon, however, is a playful treat. Suffering from the world’s worst hangover Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes in a stranger’s dorm and goes about her day as normal until, that is, she’s brutally murdered by a masked killer… and finds herself curiously unharmed back in that same dorm. 

Rothe deserves all the awards for putting her heart and soul into the role of Tree, a funny, caring, and badass college kid who will stop at nothing to find her killer. Even if that means subjecting herself to some elaborate deaths. Bringing the day-on-repeat conceit to the table, the movie feels fresh while still capturing the same atmosphere as modern campus slashers like Scream 2 and Urban Legend. It packs in a tonne of genuinely creepy set-pieces alongside some hilarious one-liners.

4. Pitch Perfect (2012) 

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Collegiate acapella receives the comedy treatment. Anna Kendrick stars as Beca, a too-cool-for-school wannabe DJ whose father promises to fund her actual dream (moving to LA) if she doesn’t like freshman year. Aside from having that sweet plan to fall back on, she finds her calling when she’s introduced to The Bellas, Barden University’s all-girls acapella group. Her initial reaction? She doesn’t want any part of their ragtag gang. 

The girls eventually win her Beca over, and she brings in through her own songwriting mash-up skills to the group’s lackluster, tired routine. Sparks fly during the group’s legendary “sing-offs” against the boys, providing more action, zest and one-liners than you’d expect from a movie about singing, friendship, and yes, following your dreams. Not everyone’s college experience includes this many costume changes, which is a pity. 

3. Scream 2 (1997) 

(Image credit: Dimension Films)

This is how you do a truly solid sequel. Taking what made the first one strike a chord with horror hounds, Scream 2 raises the stakes (or should that be blood-soaked knife?) considerably, adding loads of memorable nail-biting sequences that will stay with you… and make you really never want to join a sorority. 

Two years after the events of the first Scream, and Sidney Prescott is Ghostface’s crosshairs again. Relocating to college doesn’t stop the masked killer with a penchant for horror movie trivia and senseless slaughter, who targets Sid, Randy, Dewey, Gale and her new school pals with glee. Director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson effortlessly combat sequel fatigue by packing Scream 2 with even more scares, gloriously tense stalk sequences, and some of the finest back-and-forth banter between killer and victim that rivals Scream’s Drew Barrymore cold open.

2. Neighbors (2014) 

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Depending on how old you are, the idea of living next to a frat house either fills you with a) hope that you’ll get invited to sweet, debauched parties or b) utter dread at the thought you’ll wake to a toilet paper-covered house. This 2014 comedy somewhat straddles the line between the two. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play parents Mac and Kelly, whose idyllic suburban life is thrown into disarray when a raucous fraternity moves in next door.

Their attempts to assuage the situation by buddying up to frat bro leader Teddy (Zac Efron) fall short, so, on the evening of a major frat blow-out they call the cops. It’s from that point onward that director Nicholas Stoller really lets the silliness lets rip, as the adults go up against the college kids in a turf war. The Robert De Niro party also earns this flick some serious bonus points and inspiration for your next kegger.

1. The Social Network (2010) 

(Image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

The one about Facebook. Before he became a billionaire tech giant, Mark Zuckerberg was a nerd. Albeit, a nerd with skills, who puts his wizardry to play to create a social network – The Facebook. What’s often referred to as the Facebook origin story is also one of the best college movies, showing a different side to the campus experience. Less interested in wild parties and hazing sequences, David Fincher’s dive into the world’s most powerful CEO is kind of a sad expose… that’s Fincher through and through. 

It’s a dark, twisted, and highly-stylized story of Zuckerberg’s rise to fame. No stone is left unturned as the boy wonder goes from college nobody to billionaire, which is why the subsequent shoddy treatment of his pals on the way up makes for some essential viewing. While Zuckerberg’s tale isn’t a rags-to-riches tale it’s nevertheless fascinating to see how, despite having more money than sense, life isn’t any easier for him.