To understand the mark left by writer-director John Hughes look no further than this: One of the 1980s’ most influential film genres simply carries his name: the John Hughes movie. A prolific writer since his days at the National Lampoon, Hughes practically took over ’80s pop cinema, tapping into an unserved audience which connected with suburban teen confusion, unrequited love, near-absurd humor, and Anthony Michael Hall. Hughes’s work became so popular that fans often assumed he directed films that he hadn’t (Some Kind of Wonderful, a Hughes production, is a perfect example). Here at Filmcritic.com, we couldn’t ignore that kind of effect, or our collective admiration, so we did what film folks do: Create a top ten list. Here are the ten best John Hughes movies and what makes them essential John Hughes movies.
1. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) (written, directed and produced by Hughes)
Given Hughes’s premature death, it’s poignant to recall Ferris Bueller’s credo: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” For Ferris, that means faking illness so he can skip school on a glorious spring day in Chicago to take his pretty girlfriend Sloane and excessively nervous best friend Cameron on a serious of amazing adventures, committing petty crimes and outsmarting stupid adults all along the way. The question isn’t ‘what are we going to do,’ the question is ‘what aren’t we going to do?” Wrigley Field. The art museum. The Sears Tower. Lunch with ‘Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago.’ The German Day parade. And of course the borrowed Ferrari. What a day! Is Ferris ultimately a jerk or a ‘righteous dude?’ He’s both actually, and he’s unforgettable. It’s fun — and humbling — to look back as an adult and ask yourself, ‘Am I living my life the way Ferris would want me to?’ Imagine a teen flick inspiring that much introspection. Such was the John Hughes way.
2. The Breakfast Club (1985) (written, directed, and produced by Hughes)
Is Hughes’ detention-hall-as-confessional comedy the “best” high school movie ever made, as suggested by Entertainment Weekly‘s editors in 2006? Perhaps, though classifying a movie that’s all about avoiding classification misses the point. Hughes wrote for teenagers, but his astute observations crossed generational lines. The Breakfast Club is his most earnest picture, notable for its comprehension of five eclectic teen archetypes, frozen in time thanks to the way they’re portrayed in this film. Judd Nelson walks away the winner — or, more appropriately, marches away with his fist pumping in the air — because Hughes handed rebellious John Bender a locker full of memorable lines. But it was outstanding work by the full ensemble that exposed the vulnerable truth behind high school’s judgmental labels of Princess, Brain, Criminal, Jock, and Basket Case. As Hughes points out, no matter which personality fits you best, everyone is a member of the same Club.
3. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) (written, directed, and produced by Hughes)
This was billed as Hughes’ “grown-up” film, with nary a Broderick or Ringwald to be found. Instead, it follows the efforts of two harried businessmen (Steve Martin and John Candy) trying to get home for Thanksgiving. Martin’s the straight man: a slightly elitist big wheel whose utter exasperation gives the actor an outstanding platform for his physical skills. Candy’s the boor: a well-meaning purveyor of shower curtain rings who manages the exquisite feat of being both sweet and obnoxious in equal measures. It may have been the late comedian’s finest performance, augmented by Hughes’s gift for dialogue and the overdone but always potent use of travel as a source of humor.
4. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) (written by Hughes; directed by Harold Ramis)
While Vacation is identified more closely with Chevy Chase and the National Lampoon franchise it spawned, Hughes was really the mind (the writer) behind the Griswolds’ ill-fated road trip to Hell. Seeking some summer family bonding, Clark, Ellen, and their two grumbly teenagers hit the highways in the world’s ugliest station wagon, en route to the nostalgic theme park called Wally World. The path is fraught with challenges, redneck cousins, and Christie Brinkley. But Clark demonstrates the fortitude of a frontier explorer in his quest to have family fun, dammit! Before redefining teenagerdom in the mid-’80s, Hughes created what still stands as one of the decade’s best-loved comedies.
5. Weird Science (1985) (written by Hughes; directed by Harold Ramis)
For a young and impressionable geek, the idea of turning a computer, a Barbie doll, and a few bras worn on the head into a DIY woman was almost too much to bear. Weird Science may be Hughes’s most fanciful movie — it’s hard to argue that a film in which one character is metamorphosed into a giant, talking mound of human poo has any grounding in reality — but it’s also one of his pure-and-simple most fun films. Studded with quotable one-liners (“It’s Chet.”) and, of course, the unforgettable Kelly LeBrock as the ultimate dream girl, Weird Science is that rare film that everyone from the nerds to the jocks could — and did — enjoy.
6. Sixteen Candles (1984) (written and directed by Hughes)
Staring into the mirror, gangly redhead Samantha Baker says, “You need four inches of bod and a great birthday.” She gets neither thanks to Hughes, who puts his muse, Molly Ringwald, through the ringer of embarrassment before she’s finally able to blow out all Sixteen Candles. This was Hughes’ directorial debut, and his fascination with his own sarcastic dialogue results in a few pacing problems (which he solved by the time he filmed The Breakfast Club the following year). The humor’s also more juvenile than Hughes’ other films — even the sex-charged Weird Science — as his view of high school drips more with disdain than compromised understanding. But every filmmaker must walk before he can run, and the steps Hughes took in Candles continue to affect screenwriters and directors to this day.
7. Mr. Mom (1983) (written by Hughes; directed by Stan Dragoti)
One of the first films — and still the best — that humorously follows a man who isn’t effeminately taking over the “woman’s job” of stay-at-home parent, Mr. Mom remains a classic. As Jack (Michael Keaton) slowly realizes how much work it really takes to keep up with everything, his newly career-focused wife Caroline (Teri Garr) also gains an appreciation of the stress involved in maintaining parenthood and payments. A uniquely equal journey of a couple re-learning how to be true partners on the path to a well-run household, Mr. Mom gently but brilliantly defies gender stereotypes and manages to make everyone laugh in the process.
8. Home Alone (1990) (written and produced by Hughes; directed by Chris Columbus)
This movie is the reason why some kids set traps all over the house and try to sled down the steps to the living room as a kid. Home Alone is THE family holiday smash of the early ’90s. It was the perfect family blend of every kids’ dream — having free rein over the house — and great physical comedy from the two wet bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). Throw in Macaulay Culkin’s charm, a few John Hughes coming-of-age situations — Kevin defeats his fear of the basement, shops for his own groceries, and defends his house — and a whimsical John Williams score, and you have yourself a classic.
9. Uncle Buck (1989) (written, directed and produced by Hughes)
In every family there’s the uncle everyone stays away from. You might call him Uncle Weirdo, Uncle Pervert, or Uncle Felon, but to John Hughes it was Uncle Buck. When Bob and Cindy Russell leave town due to a family emergency, the only person they can find to watch their three kids is the infamous uncle (John Candy). He might smoke too much and spend his free time at the track, but Uncle Buck puts the kids first. Whether it’s making a gigantic pancake for Miles’ birthday, telling off the elementary school principal for Maizy, or getting rid of Tia’s loser boyfriend Bug, Uncle Buck is more than just a babysitter, he’s family.
10. Pretty in Pink (1986) (written by Hughes; directed by Howard Deutch)
Released smack in the middle of Hughes’s major hot streak (six months after Weird Science, about three months before Ferris Bueller), Pretty in Pink is one of the writer’s most dramatic stories about teen life. Molly Ringwald is broke but happy, Andrew McCarthy is rich but confused, and the two are falling in love. Unfortunately, peer pressure and class differences get in the way, creating conflict on both sides of the tracks. The leads are solid and sincere, but the star turns come from James Spader, giving a unique, supremely snooty performance and Jon Cryer, as the unforgettable Duckie. The film is rounded out by a notable cast — Harry Dean Stanton, Annie Potts, and appearances by Gina Gershon and Andrew Dice Clay — and a can’t-miss 1980s soundtrack.