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Boston movies: a cinematic study of 10 college-town characters

Forget gangsters and gun-toting revolutionaries—the best Boston movies are the ones that unfold on its college grounds.

1/10

The Lovebirds

Love Story (Arthur Hiller, 1970)

Before The Fault in Our Stars jerked a whole new generation's worth of tears, Love Story had the market in love-and-leukemia romantic tragedy cornered. If the movie has any faults, it's not in its stars: Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw as the infatuated undergrads (at Harvard and Radcliffe College respectively) convey just the sort of doe-eyed, quick-witted charm that Erich Segal's sharp script demands. On the downside, the crew wrecked the Harvard lawns by blanketing them with fake snow, thus ushering in the university's draconian rules against allowing filming on campus. When pressed for an official apology the crew's spokesman is said to have replied, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

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2/10

The Underdog

The Great Debaters (Denzel Washington, 2007)

Almost four decades later, these rules were finally relaxed for Denzel Washington's well-intentioned if somewhat staid account of the real-life Wiley College debate team's achievements. The historically black college sent shockwaves through southern society, then still under Jim Crow law, when its debaters defeated those of the University of Southern California in the '30s. The Great Debaters is a David-and-Goliath sports movie in all but discipline, mining every twist and turn of its fascinating story for sentimental value. By substituting Harvard for USC, it also demonstrates an axiom of moviemaking: academic brilliance equals Harvard.

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3/10

The Wunderkind

Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997)

If the central message of this feel-good flick is that you can fulfill the American Dream without putting in the hours, its execution is a lot sharper than its fuzzy anti-elitism would suggest. The script, a joint effort by buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, isn't short on trite college film tropes: closet genius (Damon) masquerading as humble lad, shots of unfathomable equations on blackboards and the like. Yet the improbable story, which sees a sympathetic shrink (Robin Williams—who else?) coax Damon into realizing his latent potential, is given legs by some all-round strong performances and engaging dialogue.

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4/10

The Sorority Queen

Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001)

Ditzy sorority girl (Reese Witherspoon) attempts to win back intellectually snobbish ex by enrolling in Harvard Law School alongside him. Cue a ragtag mix of caustic parody ("semester" derives from "semen" and should be changed to "ovester," declares an obnoxious feminist) and inadvertent stereotyping. In a way, Legally Blonde shares with Good Will Hunting an earnest belief that the American Dream can be realized without hard work—all you need is charm, chutzpah and a streak of admirable non-conformism. And a pretty face doesn't hurt.

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5/10

The Frat Boy

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

David Fincher's breakneck account of the founding of Facebook is full of bravura scenes of Harvard kids speaking fast and acting wild. But the most memorable of all is an early sequence that juxtaposes an inauguration party at the über-elite Phoenix – S K Club with Mark Zuckerberg's (Jesse Eisenberg) attempt to dismantle the college website's security system. As suave frat boys invite lissome girls into their shiny clubhouse, Zuckerberg sets about creating the website that will undermine their code of social exclusivity. A movie about the breakdown of privacy couldn't have made its point better.

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6/10

The Stoner

How High (Jesse Dylan, 2001)

Sometimes the appeal of a movie can be summed up in a synopsis. Full-time stoners Silas and Jamal (Method Man and Redman in their first joint cinematic effort) inadvertently grow a batch of green that summons the ghost of their dead pal when smoked. When it turns out that the ghost knows all the answers to their college entrance exams, the horizons of their humdrum lives suddenly expand. Before long they're at Harvard. How high-concept?! From there, the movie is propelled by a string of absurd puns (including a few references to taking THC—"Testing for Higher Credentials") and surreal set pieces, culminating in the revelation that Benjamin Franklin was a fan of bongs. A suitably silly outing for America's most blunted.

7/10

The Dweeb-turned-Big Shot

21 (Robert Luketic, 2008)

While the cream of the Oxbridge crop get headhunted by the British secret services, their New England counterparts are handpicked to defraud Las Vegas casinos. Slotting into the noble lineage of movies that try to glamorize maths, 21 tells the true story of a bunch of MIT geeks who stung Vegas with an elaborate card-counting scheme. It shows scant interest in the attendant moral issues, or in the fact that most of the real-life participants were Asian-Americans; but it's an enjoyable romp nonetheless, zipping through two high-octane hours magna cum loudness.

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8/10

The Tyrannical Professor

The Paper Chase (James Bridges, 1973)

"Mister Hart, here is a dime. Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer." This withering line, delivered by steely Harvard Law professor Kingsfield (a magisterial John Houseman) to underperforming student Hart (Timothy Bottoms), will strike a chord in anyone who's ever been taught by a sadistic martinet (i.e. all of us). Kingsfield's unshakeable faith in the "Socratic method" will appear old-fashioned today, but the stock characters that populate Hart's class—the drones, the rebels, the losers—ring as true as ever.

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9/10

The Tortured Genius

A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)

A beautiful mind makes for an ugly caricature in Ron Howard's biopic of John Nash, the brilliant schizophrenic mathematician who worked at both Princeton and MIT. As the intricacies of game theory don't exactly make for edge-of-your-seat narrative, the drama stems from the (inaccurate) conceit that Nash's mental problems caused him to hallucinate complete persons, including a creepy roommate (Paul Bettany). But while a more nuanced depiction of schizophrenia would have been welcome, the movie gives a very good sense of the immense pressure piled on academics, and of the damage that it can inflict.

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10/10

The Mad Scientist

Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

As bold and bizarre a "mainstream" production as 2001 or Under the Skin, Ken Russell's paean to psychedelia still makes for bracing viewing today. Quite what's going on plot-wise is beside the point—suffice to say that Harvard psychology prof Edward Jessup (William Hurt in his movie debut) takes peyote in a floatation tank, after which things get worse before they get better. Altered States works above all as a riotous mescaline-fuelled mess of sound and special effects, horror and high camp, where narrative plays second fiddle to sheer visceral impact.

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From gritty Southie to swanky Beacon Hill, fulcrum of the Revolution to bastion of sport, Boston juggles multiple identities—each of which has fired the imagination of filmmakers over the decades. Yet it's the city's mighty academic tradition, the sweeping quads and stately bricks of its college campuses, that have come to define its cinematic character above all. Even as Harvard's authorities continue to deny entry to film crews, the university remains a byword in cinema for "very brainy people," while MIT specifically designates "very brainy scientists." To celebrate this strand of Hub-set cinema, we take a look at ten of the best Boston movies through the prism of ten stock characters from the world of academia.

Have we missed any out? Assess our performance in the comments box below.

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