You kids just starting college don’t know how good you have it. In my day, bit torrents weren’t so popular, and they were primarily used for music. Downloading a film on Kazaa is about as worthwhile as waiting for toilet-tank wine to ferment, so movie night meant a trip to an actual video store. Worse, Napoleon Dynamite came out, ensuring I’d hear “Your mom goes to college” at least three times a day until graduation. Gosh!
Fortunately for you, the Obama administration has declared a moratorium on Napoleon quotes (accuse someone of “staying at home all day and eating all the chips,” and you’ll be drawing ligers in Gitmo), but there’s a more permanent canon of movies that’s pretty much guaranteed to come up, whether you’re talking about films, pop culture, or sex and alcohol and where you might obtain some (you may also go to class sometimes; it’s a free country). If you’re getting ready to start college, add these to your Netflix Q or stream them telepathically from your cellphone or whatever the hell you kids do these days, or you’ll have a lot of trouble figuring out what’s going on. You’ll still have no idea what’s going on after you’ve seen them all, of course, but with any luck you won’t figure that out till you’re much closer to 30.
Animal House (1978)
Dir. John Landis; feat. John Belushi, Tim Matheson, John Vernon, Verna Bloom, Tom Hulce
We’re starting with this one for a reason. Watching the Deltas fart and screw their way through higher education won’t give you any insight into what an actual Greek experience entails (hint: less sabotaging the dean’s parade and more driving senior brothers or sisters to class in the rain), but it might clarify why your roomate is letting a roomful of toga-clad pre-meds gang spank him with a wooden paddle (or it’s one explanation, anyway). Most every scene without John Belushi, of which there are far too many, has aged pretty poorly, so feel free to substitute 2003’s Old School for the exact same effect.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Dir. Joel Coen; feat. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston
In terms of brilliance, Lebowski probably ranks somewhere below Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men in the Coen brothers’ filmography, but this stoner noir is definitely their funniest. That’s not why you’re watching it, though. The word “college” may very well not appear anywhere in the film, but the university experience is much more confusing and scary if you don’t know why the guy with questionable facial hair in your psych class is always bragging about how easily he could obtain a human toe (with nail polish), complaining that he can’t “roll on Shabbos,” and cryptically warning, “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!”
How High (2001)
Dir. Jesse Dylan; feat. Method Man, Redman , Obba Babatunde, Mike Epps, Anna Maria Horsford
Pop quiz: You’ve got a monster test in the morning, and you’ve spent all semester rolling blunts and chasing ass with your roommate. What do you do? Answer: Dig up the corpse of John Quincy Adams and smoke his remains, hoping to gain his knowledge through osmosis. (It works for earthworms.) If you’d seen Method Man and Redman’s opus, you’d have passed.
Dir. Dewey Nicks; feat. Devon Sawa, Jason Schwartzman, Jaime King, Jason Segel, Michael C. Maronna
The cheating methods Jason Segel and co. use to make the grade are ridiculous and unduplicatable, but Jason Schwartzmen’s creepy antagonist offers an important lesson for the ladies: The weird dude who always sits behind you and sniffs your hair is also probably collecting it to make a doll.
Office Space (1999)
Dir. Mike Judge; feat. Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader
Some people will argue that you need to have a full-time, soul-crushing job to really appreciate the humor in this movie, but I disagree. Milton’s stapler, Lumbergh’s voice, and the “O face” guy are all a hell of a lot funnier before you discover firsthand the film’s sad truth: A lot of this shit’s practically a documentary.
8 1/2 (1963)
Dir. Federico Fellini; feat. Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale
Much like Office Space (Can you hear Fellini turning in his casket?), this is a film I’m guessing you need to be middle-aged to fully understand. Hell, some parts, you’d need to be Fellini to understand. But professing a fondness for 8 1/2 is shorthand for “I have refined taste, and I’m not afraid of subtitles” if you’re talking to a cute film major at a keg party. Incidentally, it’s also brain-exploding awesome, possibly the best movie anyone’s ever made.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Dir. Richard Kelly; feat. Jake Gyllenhaal, Katharine Ross, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle
Whether Donnie’s really repairing a rift in the space-time continuum or subconsciously justifying his desire to get it on with his sister, this film has probably inspired more poorly informed philosophical arguments than any since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Discussion question: Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino; feat. John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth
Hopefully, a fondness for Tarantino still translates to “I’m sophisticated and cool,” but either way, this is one of those films everybody expects you to have seen already. I once took a writing class in which the students compared everything, everything, to Pulp Fiction. Then again, I also took a grad-level literary-theory class in which people kept trying to relate Foucault and Baudrillard to Britney Spears or whatever rom-com they’d watched the previous weekend. I guess the real moral is that most of the people you’ll meet in college aren’t any smarter than the people you’d meet in the checkout line at Big Lots.
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)
Dir. Alan Parker; feat. Bob Geldof, Christine Hargreaves, James Laurenson, Eleanor David, Kevin McKeon
The album’s a masterpiece, but if you’re planning to spend your college career straight and sober, feel free to skip this elongated, way-too-literal music video, which director Alan Parker famously called “the most expensive student film ever made.” Have fun graduating on time, kiss-ass.