February 25, 2020 | 9:00am ET
This feature originally ran in February 2015.
Shermer, Illinois isn’t a real town, but it might as well be given its place in the pop cultural consciousness. It’s an amalgamation of a lot of Chicago suburbs (really, any suburb anywhere), and it’s the place that so many of John Hughes’ characters called home.
The late director left behind a body of work that defined America in the ‘80s, one that told a generation of adolescents and their parents and all those who followed them that it’s okay to be weird and uncertain, that living off the beaten path is often the best way to live.
With no shortage of deliberation, our staff broke down all of Hughes’ work that he either directed, wrote, or both. (That is, aside from Reach the Rock, that weird 1998 dramedy he wrote that not a single one of us had seen or could find in a timely manner. Soundtrack’s cool, though.) We took a trip through his highs, his lows, and some of his weird experiments that didn’t quite work but still linger in memories just because they came from him.
Hughes was as empathetic a filmmaker as you’d ever find. He believed that everybody’s story mattered and that even though life gets harder when you get older, that doesn’t mean that being a teenager is any easier. Sometimes his characters were the butt of the joke, sometimes the ones telling it, but they were always treated with a warmth and respect that few comedians have ever truly been able to manage.
And so, as The Breakfast Club turns 35 this month, here’s the best and worst of John Hughes. If that’s not enough, Consequence of Sound Radio is celebrating the late auteur this week with a new Greatest Hits playlist featuring sounds straight outta Shermer, Illinois. From The Breakfast Club to She’s Having a Baby, the brat pack’s all there.
To top it off, Netflix’s new series I Am Not Okay With This also debuts this week. Based on the 2017 graphic novel by Charles Forsman, the show is billed as a John Hughes superhero story, and that’s not an oversell. It’s filled with a number of Hughes’ quirky hallmarks, and this week’s Relevant Content will be discussing all of them with showrunner/director Jonathan Entwistle and star Sophia Lillis. Don’t miss it via Consequence of Sound Radio.
Okay, that covers it all. Continue on to Shermer…
23. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982)
Before he came to define teen movies of the ‘80s, Hughes wrote a screenplay about a group of people looking back at their teen years, albeit with considerably less feeling than that implies. In National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, Lizzie Borden High’s class of 1972 celebrates its 10th anniversary only to be terrorized by a killer who is believed to be the vengeful victim of a traumatizing senior prank. Yes, it’s funnier than it sounds. The cast includes inherently comedic characters like the blind nymphomaniac Iris (Mews Small) and the amusingly forgetful stoners Chip and Carl (Barry Diamond and Art Evans, respectively), plus faculty like a stereotypically unpleasant lunch lady (Anne Ramsey, best known for playing The Goonies’ Mama Fratelli three years later). Following his breakout role as Flounder in 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House, Stephen Furst is also here, playing the rampantly horny Hubert Downs.
Laughs aside, though, Class Reunion has turned out to be one of Hughes’ least beloved works, settling for gag after gag and a corny ending instead of aiming for the generational commentary he would churn out later in the ‘80s. There’s just no depth to these characters; it’s amazing they get as excited for Chuck Berry’s surprise performance as they do. Still, the fact that Hughes would be entrusted with writing 1983’s more commercially and critically successful National Lampoon’s Vacation (based on his short story “Vacation ’58”) is evidence that he was onto something. Unfortunately, the future was less kind to director Michael Miller, whose subsequent filmography largely consists of made-for-TV movies. –Michael Madden
22. 101 Dalmatians (1996)
This film has 101 problems, but Dalmatians ain’t one. In fact, the animal actors are the only things worth watching in 101 Dalmatians, an unnecessary live action remake of the animated Disney classic. The dogs are well-trained, adorable, and, with a few CGI exceptions, real. I can’t say the same for the human cast.
The bipedal actors are bumbling, unbelievable, and cartoonish even by children’s movie standards. As the dalmatians’ owners, Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson seem to exist only to imperil their dogs and propel the animal action forward. As Cruella De Vil, Glenn Close seems to be having a blast; it’s just a shame that when the script isn’t prompting her to describe murdering puppies and endangered tigers in graphic detail, it’s forcing her character to wallow in pig shit. Literally. And then there are the Wet Bandits, uh, I mean, the British thieves (Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams) whom Cruella hires to kidnap the pups.
John Hughes actually recycles about half a dozen of the same stunts he used for Harry and Marv in the Home Alone movies on these two nimrods. They plummet not once, but twice through rotten floorboards, they fall on ice, they slip on a magazine covered in dog piss — okay, so Kevin McCallister never tried that one, I guess. This whole project just seems like it was a way for every A-lister involved to score some quick cash. –Adriane Neuenschwander
21. Baby’s Day Out (1994)
Sigh. When we set out to do this project among our staff and had to organize our thoughts as to what Hughes’ best and worst films were, Baby’s Day Out was a consistent worst. Setting aside the reckless child endangerment of which Baby’s Day Out is almost solely composed, it’s also just as inane as Hughes’ writing has ever been. While some of the films higher on this list are very much aimed at adults, they still crossed over to every audience via edited television rebroadcasts over the years because there’s a quality and timelessness to them — a universality to the stories.
Baby’s Day Out is neither timeless nor of particular quality. It hails from that weird period in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s when movies about babies doing cute things were all the rage. That, and those Anne Geddes calendars. Why were we so into babies doing adult things at one time? Babies aren’t dogs. There’s nothing unique about babies sitting in flowerpots or almost crawling off skyscrapers.
Sorry. The mind wanders, particularly when talking about Baby’s Day Out. Basically, Hughes cashed in on the baby craze of the time with a story about Baby Bink, a baby. Just a baby. A baby from a rich family, but a baby nevertheless. Kind of an average baby with weird teeth. Anyway, Joes Pantoliano and Mantegna are criminals who kidnap Bink, but after he crawls out a window, he goes on lots of big adventures as three grown men high-lariously try to reclaim him for a ransom. That’s it. A baby avoids getting killed for 90 minutes. Should’ve been one of his pseudonym screenplays. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
20. Dennis the Menace (1993)
It’s the funniest thing, but I’m pretty sure this is the first movie I remember seeing in theaters and not particularly liking. I was six. You should love everything at six. You should love life and going to the movies at that age. But Dennis the Menace? It’s coming back now: the feelings of disappointment. No, worse: It was mild disdain. The love of the Saturday morning cartoon and bafflement over the disparities. The fact that Walter Matthau looked like a cantankerous, no, scary and about-to-burst old man. The sense of discomfort just from looking at Christopher Lloyd, the very same feeling one gets watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. The realization that the kid wasn’t Macaulay Culkin and the sight gags were straight out of Home Alone.
Oh God, what a breakthrough.
Yeah, Dennis the Menace was a bad movie. Still is. It’s a startlingly hollow and repetitive kid’s film that doesn’t even work as a kid’s film. These were the days when Hughes had given up on directing and was all about the big, fat paycheck in the name of a studio cash grab.
The most amusing thing to be said about Dennis the Menace? The child terrorist was played by Mason Gamble, a young kid who tested among 20,000 other child actors for the glory of nearly killing Walter Matthau. Interestingly, no one remembers him from this. What you will remember him for is spitting on the hood of Bill Murray’s car in Rushmore. That’s right, Dirk Calloway was Dennis the Menace. And that was the world’s shortest E! True Hollywood Story. —Blake Goble
19. Home Alone 3 (1997)
Five years after that rascally Kevin McCallister got lost in New York City, John Hughes produced and penned this follow-up. Don’t get me wrong, Home Alone 3 is bad. But given the fact that it didn’t feature any of the characters that made the first two films so memorable — no Kevin, no Wet Bandits, no bed-wetting cousin Fuller — it could have been much, much worse. Hell, Roger Ebert even preferred this installment to the first two.
Of course, the fact that Home Alone 3 is still mildly watchable is a testament to John Hughes, who infuses the script with his trademark mixture of comedy and sweetness and sticks with the narrative formula that made the film’s predecessors so successful. Likeable-enough child actor Alex D. Linz stars as the Macaulay Culkin surrogate, who finds himself home sick — and alone — with the chicken pox. In between itching bouts, he must defend his neighborhood from a quartet of thugs who are looking for a top-secret computer chip they want to sell to North Korean terrorists. Take that, The Interview!
As that plot summary might suggest, this version of Home Alone is a bit broader than the others. All the pieces are still there, including the cartoonish pratfalls and the requisite befriending of a crotchety senior citizen, but Hughes clearly wrote this movie for a young, new audience, not fans of the originals. But regardless of whether fans of the franchise despise this entry or quietly tolerate it, one thing they can all agree on is that at least it’s not the Hughes-free, made-for-TV abortion of its fourth installment. —Adriane Neuenschwander
18. Curly Sue (1991)
Curly Sue just shouldn’t work. John Hughes’ Paper Moon–style tale about a pair of homeless grifters bombards you with sweetness, from a precocious kid (Alison Porter as Sue) singing the national anthem to a hard-nosed lawyer (Kelly Lynch) learning that the love of family is more important than money and power. Barf. And then there’s Jim Belushi, who stars as Sue’s father figure, Bill Dancer, and spends at least a third of the film wearing filthy, skintight long underwear. Double barf. I should hate John Hughes’ final directorial effort with every ounce of my being, but I don’t. It got under my skin. It almost — almost — made me find Jim Belushi charming. God help me, I think I like Curly Sue. Someone organize an intervention, please.
I honestly can’t explain this movie’s appeal. But, like all John Hughes films, there’s nothing ironic or tongue-in-cheek about Curly Sue. Every heartfelt monologue and dewy-eyed closeup is completely sincere, which was as refreshing in the ‘90s, when ultra-hip movies for Gen Xers reigned, as it is today now that films like The Room and Sharknado dominate the Twitterverse. This was, perhaps, one of John Hughes’ greatest gifts as a filmmaker. He had the rare ability to create sympathetic characters and heartwarming scenarios that hit you square in the gut, completely bypassing whatever part of the brain controls harsh judgment and eye rolling. More than anything, his movies just want you to like them, and so you do. —Adriane Neuenschwander
17. Career Opportunities (1991)
Underused slacker hero Frank Whaley and the indomitably gorgeous Jennifer Connelly are locked up in a Target together for one night. Why? Well, Frank works there as the store’s late-night custodian — it’s his first night on the job, mind you — while Jennifer’s attempting to run away from her abusive father. Together, they run amok through the store, exploiting its many spoils, from toys to garden equipment to clothing, and y’know, they start having feelings for each other, blah, blah, blah. It’s all very John Hughes, a late-era attempt of his to connect with Generation X, and the ensuing bond is strong.
What isn’t so strong, however, is the unnecessary subplot involving two idiotic crooks played by brothers Dermot and Kieran Mulroney. Whatever claustrophobic romantic comedy Hughes was cooking up for director Bryan Gordon essentially boils down to a grown-up Home Alone, which is unfortunate because the first half is comfortably adorable with enough chemistry between the two leads to make similar suckers like Whaley believe they have a chance with a hot girl next door like Connelly. There’s a sly cameo by John Candy, too, but it’s more or less inconsequential.
Basically, come for the Whaley, stay for the Connelly. –Michael Roffman
16. The Great Outdoors (1988)
If it weren’t for John Hughes’ scripts, why, Howard Deutch wouldn’t have had the unusually healthy career for a mediocre director that’s he been allowed. Mid-level hits like The Great Outdoors and Pretty in Pink enabled the non-auteur to bring us such non-masterworks like Grumpier Old Men, The Odd Couple II, The Whole Ten Yards (sir, that’s an awful lot of unwanted comedy sequels, what’s going on here?), and a butt load of TV show episodes. He’s still here. Still churning out the crap. One can only imagine him visiting Hughes’ tombstone every day and kissing it in thanks.
Where were we? Oh yeah! The Great Outdoors, aka the one where John Candy faces off with nature, raccoons, family, a man-eating bear, and, most dangerously, a late-period Dan Aykroyd hamming it up. John Hughes wrote this summer comedy and it has all the hallmarks of a Hughes comedy. The nuclear family is in peril and tested every chance Hughes gets. The glib, ironic sense of humor (Just look at the title!). Classism and clashing between new and old-fashioned fun. Boy, it’s funny to think that Hughes bragged about being a family man when he so clearly liked to torture the familial unit.
This was a summer vehicle elevated by the strength of its leads and a series of decent, obnoxious gags. Where else are you going to see a baldhead bear get shot in the ass by a panicked John Candy? Hehe, John Hughes, you card. –Blake Goble
15. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
Rarely has there been a sequel that cuts and pastes from its predecessor as much as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. Young Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin, ICYMI) is once again on his own for Christmas (mixed-up plane ride this go-round), has to fight off Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern’s Wet Bandits (who have escaped from prison), is afraid of a mysterious elderly person (female this time), and even plays a sequel to Angels with Filthy Souls to frighten off people at the door (the admittedly funny title, Angels with Even Filthier Souls).
It’s a movie that delights pre-teens looking for more adventures with little, resourceful Kevin, though its repetitive nature brings out more than a few eye rolls as one gets older. Home Alone 2 gets by on its relocation to the Big Apple, good performances, and discovering new ways to wreak havoc on the Wet Bandits. In the case of Hughes and returning director Chris Columbus, it was truly a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While not as commercially successful as Home Alone, the sequel still grossed over $350 million at the box office, critics be damned.
One great addition to the sequel is the trio of hotel employees led by Tim Curry’s head concierge, who are suspicious of their young, new guest. That slow fade from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas to a smirking Curry is a unique piece of humor in a film full of recycled material. –Justin Gerber
14. She’s Having a Baby (1988)
It’s the closest we’ll ever get to a John Hughes autobiography. And it’s the closest he ever got to making a film for grown-ups (besides Planes, Trains and Automobiles). But unlike the rest of the Hughes oeuvre, this muddled “mind of a married man” tale never earned its VCR tenure because there are no speechifying teens, big laughs, instantly quotable quotes, or John Candy (save for the insipid Hughes all-stars cameos during the credits).
But if you truly love Hughes, you gotta let this movie come to full term, because most of the trimesters are fascinating … even when it kicks too hard. Relentlessly told from the point of view of Jake Briggs (Kevin Bacon, pre soul-patch and shitty band), the film follows our faux Hughes from his wedding day with Kristy (a pudding-soft Elizabeth McGovern) through the birth canal with an abundance of style, yet another good soundtrack, and some decent insight about men (they get weird and horny, and then fatherhood makes them grow up). The fantasy sequences, illustrating Jake’s paranoia about commitment, in-laws, sperm-count troubles, and suburban settling, often flop.
But when the movie is honest and grounded, such as the love-at-first-sight scene set to “More Than a Feeling”, caddish Alec Baldwin’s come-on to McGovern, and Bacon’s near cheat with the mysterious Frenchy lady, you feel what could have been. In the end, it all boils down to that climactic breach, where Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” screams at your tear ducts until they give up a drop to make her go away. –Roy Ivy
13. Mr. Mom (1983)
You’d think Mr. Mom would feel more dated than it is. The idea of a husband staying home to take care of the kids while the wife goes to work happens all the time nowadays, but in the early ‘80s it was as fantastical a plot as Tron. Hughes’ script turns the Reagan-era family dynamic upside down with game performances from Michael Keaton, Teri Garr, and a slimy Martin Mull (the role, not the actor).
Keaton plays Jack Butler, a recently laid-off car engineer. Unable to find a job, his wife Caroline (Garr) goes back to work, leaving Jack in charge of getting the kids ready for school, keeping a clean house, and just learning to be more present in his kids’ lives. Hijinks ensue, including a humorous montage of Jack getting sucked into daytime soaps, seduction by another stay-at-home mom, and household appliances run amok. What’s a Regular Guy’s Guy to do?
Mr. Mom isn’t Hughes’ finest hour, but the heart he gives his stories can still be found here. There is never a sense that Jack didn’t love his kids before he had to be there for them 24/7; he just has to shift gears. The notion of cheating on his wife may cross his mind, but we know he’ll never go through with it. Keaton, in his first lead role, kills it. His chemistry with Garr is great, and their kids get a lot of great one-liners. Not one of them is annoying, which makes Mr. Mom a minor miracle all its own. –Justin Gerber
12. Dutch (1991)
Directed by Peter Faiman (“Crocodile” Dundee), this 1991 road trip dramedy follows the titular blue-collar hero (Ed O’Neill), who offers to pick up his wealthy girlfriend’s son, Doyle (Ethan Embry), at a Georgia private school in an effort to bond with him as they drive back home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when the kid winds up being a living nightmare. Immediately, the two play pranks on one another — some mild, others dangerous, all mostly illegal — until they both hit rock bottom.
Of course, there’s more to the young boy than meets the eye, and, yes, it gets all gushy and lovey dovey, but getting there is half the effort, and that’s where Mr. Hughes has always shined. There’s so much pathos to both characters, no doubt bolstered by an unshakeable chemistry between O’Neill and Embry, that it’s rather hypnotic watching them work their way up to Chi-town. Brief moments of respite also allow for some gripping humanity amongst the chaotic, ribald comedy.
What’s more, there’s a not-so-subtle, Dickensian focus on America’s lower class that proves quite revelatory for the spoiled Doyle. Throughout his insufferable travels, he encounters veteran truckers, small town benevolence, and struggling homeless families, who all offer helping hands despite their own obvious hurdles. In fact, it’s this particular facet of the film that should resonate quite well today, making Dutch an indisputably underrated gem in Hughes’ back catalog. –Michael Roffman
11. Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
You can call it a gender-reversed Pretty in Pink, because that’s certainly what it is. It’s almost as if Hughes woke up one morning, moved a few of his “Teen Romance” refrigerator magnets around, and called it a day. But Some Kind of Wonderful holds a place in my heart above Pretty in Pink for three simple reasons: Elias Koteas as Duncan the loveable skinhead, the soundtrack, and Mary Stuart Masterson’s delivery of my favorite line of the ‘80s: “The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me, my drums, and you.”
Same story, new teens, and they all have Rolling Stones names. Eric Stoltz (who actually looked better as Rocky Dennis … so much bronze makeup) plays Keith, the working-class grease monkey who pines for rich girl Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson). Stupid, stupid Keith doesn’t realize that true love is right before his stupid eyes in the fetching form of his best friend Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson, singlehandedly spurring sad boys of the ‘80s to fall for butch girls). Sure, he wants to prove his self-worth and make some point about class warfare by snaring the richie (who already looks like she’s in her 30s), but Watts drums, smokes, wisecracks, melts your crotch with her kisses, and is named “Watts.”
The moral of the story: Go ahead and withdraw your college fund to waste it on earrings for a rich girl, and always be embarrassed of your poor dad. And the teens-figuring-shit-out dialogue sometimes stinks like a clove cigarette tossed in a school dumpster full of discarded scenes from The Breakfast Club. But the earnest performances and awesome soundtrack (including Flesh for Lulu’s earworm “I Go Crazy” and The March Violets’ excellent “Turn to the Sky”) make it so much better than it is, as does skinhead sidekick Elias Koteas. You can’t help but root for Keith, although he’s just a selfish, ginger asshole like Andie Walsh. And it’s fun to hate preppy king Craig Scheffer, although the man is no Spader. Still, I’ll take Watts over Duckie any day. –Roy Ivy
10. Pretty in Pink (1986)
I’m the wrong guy to write about Pretty in Pink. As an 11-year-old boy, I saw it seven times in theaters (always with my 14-year-old, McCarthy-smitten sister), wore out the VHS and my cassette of the soundtrack, and mastered every step of Duckie’s Otis dance. There’s no way to talk about Pretty in Pink without wallowing in nostalgia.
Most of what you love about it has stayed intact. It’s still a compelling melodrama about a girl from the poor side of the tracks who falls for a very rich and sensitive sack of flour. It captures, and respects, the misguided and overly earnest emotions of high schoolers whose lives revolve around popularity and proms. The soundtrack makes the movie play like a good record, and it gave millions of un-hip kids their first tastes of New Order, The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and OMD. Plus it marks the debut of James Spader in his role as James Spader, the prick. And his performance only grows nastier and more attractive over time. Oh, the way that young creep says “low-grade ass.”
But if you’ve viewing it for the first time (congrats on getting out of that coma), there are major obstacles to enjoying Pretty in Pink. First of all, the color doesn’t really suit the freckled heroine. In fact, she mutilates that perfectly good dress that Iona gave her. But she’s Andie Walsh, and she does what she wants. In fact, she’s quite the selfish asshole. Always ashamed of her dad (poor Harry Dean), ashamed of where she lives, and never getting the prom she wants, there’s really not much to like about this whiny wannabe fashion designer. Same goes for Blaaaaaaine, the blase object of her affection, whom McCarthy plays with two distinct facial expressions: constant smirking and irritable bowel syndrome.
Do you really care if she overcomes her poor shame to be with a rich boy? Do you really care if he overcomes his rich shame by dating a poor girl? And what’s to love about Duckie? This braying ass, who always refers to himself in third person, was a hero to all of us enamored geeky boys. But then we grew up and discovered that he’s way too loud, his jokes suck, he just won’t shut up, his “cheap” wardrobe is actually quite expensive, and that whole “I’m sad and sitting in my sad shanty moping to the Smiths” joke isn’t funny anymore.
Sorry, that was the Steff talking. Pretty in Pink holds up remarkably well. You’d be hard-pressed to find another teen drama that captures the calamity of young romance with such cool. It’s got a tight rhythm, everyone acts their hearts out, and even Andrew Dice Clay is likable. If it doesn’t suck you into world of geeks and snoots, then maybe Ally Sheedy was right: you got old, and your heart died. –Roy Ivy
09. Weird Science (1985)
Yeah, in some ways, Weird Science feels a little weird by modern standards. After all, it’s the fairytale story of hyper-nerds Gary (Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) and Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), the woman they build using a supercomputer and a little bit of magic. A woman they specifically built for sexual and intimidation-based purposes. But because it’s a Hughes movie, Weird Science turns its icky premise into a weirdly sweet story of guys realizing their own courage in the face of the unexplainable and how sometimes the only way you can stand up to your shitty brother is to turn him into literal shit.
Like Sixteen Candles, here’s a movie that eventually nosedives all of its many running stories into one wild party, but Weird Science takes the party so much further that the film eventually lapses into the fully surreal. As the night burns on, Gary and Wyatt attempt to prove themselves worthy of their respective crushes while dealing with ballistic missiles, mutant bikers, and the usual awkward moments of puberty. Sure, in its weirdness it ends up hitting its themes on the nose with prejudice, over and over, but Weird Science is Hughes at his weirdest and loosest, and the joy is palpable.
It’s as quotable as Hughes has ever been (“You told me you were combing your hair!”), it features Bill Paxton in his most hilariously showy performance this side of Twister, and it’s one of the most outright comedies Hughes ever made at the peak of his powers. Have anything bad to say? You’re stewed, buttwads. –Dominick Mayer
08. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
“Can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and … leave you for dead?”
Christmas Vacation is easily one of Hughes’ most quotable flicks. It was his return to the series he helped launch after not having much to do with European Vacation, a film from which Hughes told Entertainment Weekly, “I got dumped. I’ve always had the dumb luck to get the hell away from crap.” He gets sole writing credit for this sole Griswold adventure that takes place at home, throwing wrenches into Clark’s plans for a nice holiday break with the family.
The return of crazy Cousin Eddie (played again by the arguably crazy Randy Quaid) also adds a spark that was missing from its predecessor. The passive-aggressive attitude Clark has towards his cousin-in-law is twice as potent here as it was during their first encounter and thankfully sans incest humor. The Griswold kids are played by Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki this time around, making them the most famous of the actors to play the roles (I’ll hear arguments for Anthony Michael Hall).
In the end, you can’t say enough about Hughes’ choice to break away from the formula of earlier Vacations. Why couldn’t they have done something similar for Dumb and Dumber To or even Hughes’ own Home Alone 2? Chevy Chase was one of the funniest actors on the planet for a good 15 years, with Christmas Vacation being his unintentional send-off. Great stuff. –Justin Gerber
07. Home Alone (1990)
Christmas movies have it easier in the legacy department. There’s no reason, say, The Santa Clause should persevere as it does, but it’s achieved iconic status by simply being inoffensive enough to air during the holidays. Home Alone is different, though, if only because its plot doesn’t hinge on Christmas so much as reap its innate emotional resonance.
And Jesus, does this movie make me emotional. It’s more than just the nostalgia, the memories my generation shares of Kevin McCallister’s scream lulling us to sleep on Christmas Eve. It’s the fantasy of the thing, the indelible sense of possibility that accompanies a parent-less existence. Home Alone’s most thrilling sequences aren’t the ones where Kevin brutalizes Harry and Marv; it’s those first few hours, when Kevin rifles through Buzz’s trunk, scarfs ice cream, and shoots a BB gun indoors.
Or at least they were when I was a kid.
By this point, Hughes had proven he knew how to write teenagers: Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But with Home Alone he broadened his palette, eschewing the indecision of early adulthood for the openheartedness of youth. Sometimes lightning strikes but once, however, as his subsequent pre-teen opuses (Curly Sue, Dennis the Menace) allowed the pathos to drown in precociousness.
Home Alone is so much more than cable TV fodder on Christmas, but still, come Christmas it’s pretty much the only movie I want to see. –Randall Colburn
06. Sixteen Candles (1984)
“No more yankie my wankie.”
“Ohh … sexy girlfriend! Banzai!”
That was a quick cleanse. Because listen, if you can just get past the insanely racist Long Duk Dong character (no small task), Sixteen Candles is a sassy and silly teen flick. It’s one of John Hughes’ most loved efforts, in spite of that one big, fat freaking problem. Actually, there’s sleazy mobster and period and drinking and teen sex humor in here, but let’s not kill all the fun. Molly Ringwald’s undies in front of a bunch of hormonal, horny teens is still funny stuff. Dong might be the pop cultural burn mark lingering on Sixteen Candles, but at the end of the day, this is Samantha Baker’s story. And it’s an infinitely relatable one. Everyone remembers Sam’s bad birthday.
Sixteen Candles could be about any teen in the U.S.A. You know that defeating feeling when you’re a teenager. No one likes you, no one knows you, and nobody pays any attention to you. It’s your sweet 16th, and not even your parents seem to remember. So what does Sam do? She doesn’t have an outburst over the color of some Jeep Liberty given to her by her parents. She goes to school, worries about boys, tries to put on an honest face. She’s proud, and she will just have to get a little love when the time is right. What a brave teen (like how we all imagined ourselves). Molly Ringwald gets such points for being an overly articulate teenager, and Hughes put some snappy, funny, and all-around memorable stuff in to his youth cinema debut. Sixteen Candles would be the beginning of his many chipper high school nostalgia trips, and it’s still among his funniest. Hold the Dong. —Blake Goble
05. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
It doesn’t get more American than National Lampoon’s Vacation. The sprawling highways, the clunky station wagon, the roadside attractions, the backseat bickering, and the obsession with theme parks — Hughes really tapped into the nation’s ludicrous spirit. Based on a popular short story of his that ran in National Lampoon Magazine, the blockbuster comedy featuring a Chicago family driving cross-country to visit Wally World was rooted firmly in Hughes’ upbringing. He based the remarkable story on his own family’s disastrous voyage to Disneyland, which is why there’s such an uncanny heart to the screwball adventure.
As such, the Griswolds have forever been a proper tongue-in-cheek encapsulation of our country’s nuclear families: the go-getter father (Chevy Chase), the trophy wife (Beverly D’Angelo), and the two bratty, rock ‘n’ roll kids (Dana Barron, Anthony Michael Hall). It’s that timeless accessibility that has made the 1983 comedy a staple of cable television and VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray collections for decades to come. Though, to be fair, much of its success is owed to the many career-defining performances that blanket the film, specifically Chase, who added a particular hubris to his image at a time when he was a sexual icon.
There’s also a barrage of iconic moments — from the pit stop at Uncle Eddy’s (Randy Quaid’s divine role) to Clark’s rainy meltdown (“I think you’re all fucked in the heads”) to Christie Brinkley’s recurring cameo in a Ferrari (have you ever danced to June Pointer holding a sandwich?) — that continue to pester our funny bones no matter how many times we’ve seen ’em and despite us being able to recite each one from memory. Granted, the same could be said about a number of Hughes’ films, especially the four coming up, but like that old country road-trippin’ song your pops sings, it feels like tradition. –Michael Roffman
04. Uncle Buck (1989)
You can give Buck Russell all the cigars, alcohol, and gambling issues in the world, and that still wouldn’t prevent him from being the most lovable character in the Hughes’ filmography. Reading that sentence may cause one to scream out “Blasphemer!”, much like Maizy’s teacher does in the film, and that’s fine. But I stand by my belief.
This is down to the late John Candy’s unique likeability. The SCTV alum had appeared in earlier Hughes films such as Vacation, The Great Outdoors, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but Uncle Buck is his vehicle. In addition to the vices listed above, the title character is irresponsible and at times clueless, but Hughes writes him as though he’s Mr. Mom XXL — much like his 1983 hit, you never doubt the lead’s heart. Candy has a field day trying to use the urinal at an elementary school, negotiating with kids, fighting off washing machines, and telling off authority.
Buck has been called in to watch his nephew and nieces after his brother and sister-in-law need to leave due to an emergency. What should be a simple task proves difficult for the bachelor and made even more difficult by his moody niece. Along the way, Buck learns to become a better man, and, yes, a better uncle. It’s still hard to believe that we live in a world without John Hughes and John Candy, but the laughs they left behind won’t soon be forgotten. –Justin Gerber
03. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a comedy for anybody and everybody who ever wanted to just ditch school for a day and do literally anything else in the world besides sit in class for another day and listen to Ben Stein-style teachers drone on about one thing or another. But it’s particularly affecting if, like a lot of us here at CoS, you grew up in the Chicagoland area. Sure, you can say that about a lot of Hughes’ films, but the city is never a more integral character than it is in Ferris Bueller.
After Ferris (Matthew Broderick), his gorgeous girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara), and his melancholically suffering best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) decide to spend a spring day enjoying tourist activities instead of going to school, there’s no force on earth that can stop them, not even Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) or Ferris’ sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey). The point isn’t that Ferris gets away with murder; to those who find him insufferably smug, just remember that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is really about a guy who genuinely cares about people and just wants life to be more fun than it is. There are worse ideals.
Plus, if you can’t appreciate the heartbreak of Cameron’s stare-down with Seurat or the Ferrari joyride or Jeanie’s police station makeout sesh with a rarely funnier Charlie Sheen, there’s the simplicity of one of Hughes’ most enduring messages: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Like any great teen comedy, this is a movie as true as it is funny. –Dominick Mayer
02. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
John Hughes had two very different muses over the course of his career: Molly Ringwald, who made his movies hip and appealing to teens, and John Candy, who gave his movies heart. When you think about it, John Candy was the perfect embodiment of everything fans loved about John Hughes. He was goofy and sincere, able to tickle the funny bone and pull at the heartstrings with equal aplomb. Candy starred in three Hughes films and made cameos in a handful of others, but he was never better than he was as Del Griffith, the sad-sack shower-curtain-ring salesman in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
With Del, Hughes and Candy create a timeless character, one that resonates with just about everyone. We all know a Del or two — that family member or acquaintance that irritates the hell out of us, that tries too hard, that mistakes our ass cheeks for pillows. Well, maybe not that last one. But still, everybody has a Del in their life, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles makes that annoying archetype an unlikely hero. He may not have a family and a fancy career like his traveling companion, Neal (Steve Martin), but he’s still comfortable with who he is as a person.
And when Del finally, tearfully defends himself against Neal’s verbal abuse in the film’s final act, he’s giving a voice to loveable losers everywhere. Screw the dry turkey, this movie will always be the greatest part about celebrating Thanksgiving. —Adriane Neuenschwander
01. The Breakfast Club (1985)
There isn’t one fat kid in The Breakfast Club. This bothered me as a portly 6th grader in the mid ’90s, though hardly enough to push me away from the VHS, which I rewound and rewatched multiple times before returning to Blockbuster. In the end, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t physically relate to the film’s rebel (Judd Nelson), its princess (Molly Ringwald), its outcast (Ally Sheedy), its brain (Anthony Michael Hall), or its jock (Emilio Estevez), because emotionally, each character teased and pummeled and coddled my heart with their inner demons for a good 97 minutes — it was very therapeutic. That’s the power of John Hughes’ coming-of-age film, and that’s why it remains an institution among teenagers of today and yesteryear.
The whole production works like some lucid, Kafkaesque dream. The way the five students are corralled into the library on a Saturday morning, under the strict supervision of the late-and-great Paul Gleason, feels so realistic and yet also so far-fetched at the same time. Some of it is: Who ever pulled a John McClane and fell though the ceiling of their high school? How many of you ever danced to Karen Devito’s “We Are Not Alone”? And have you ever known anyone to shatter glass by screaming? Hughes admittedly embraces a little of his trademark surrealism here — elevated by a hip new wave soundtrack, specifically Simple Minds’ juggernaut hit, “Don’t You Forget About Me” — but it’s all made proper through a handful of gripping themes.
High school sucks, and it’s a crap life feeling misunderstood as a confused teenager. Perhaps no American writer understood that better than John Hughes, and it’s his hindsight that speaks at a high volume throughout the film’s many revelatory discussions. Yet Hall’s closing words say it all: “…we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us — in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” In an age where stereotypes and labels continue to plague our lives, could there be a more appropriate resounding statement? –Michael Roffman