John Hughes: 10 essential films

Some of the finest places to sample the Midas touch of John Hughes, who as writer and often director too was responsible for some of the most fondly remembered comedies of the 1980s.

17 February 2017

By Nikki Baughan

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Born on 18 February 1950 in Lansing, Michigan, John Hughes became an influential producer, writer and director, and the driving force behind the teen-comedy boom of the mid-1980s. With a light touch and sharp eye, Hughes wrote and directed colourful films that both celebrated and dissected the American adolescent experience. A prolific filmmaker until his untimely death in 2009, Hughes’ back catalogue is a mix of enduring nostalgia and timeless comedy. Here are 10 of his best.

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

Director: Harold Ramis

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

After sharpening his pen on episodes of late-1970s TV sitcom Delta House, and as a writer for National Lampoon magazine, Hughes turned his own biographical short story, ‘Vacation ’58’, into the screenplay for this Harold Ramis-directed comedy. Hughes had previously written the far less successful National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982), but here delivered the winning blend of slapstick humour and family drama that would become his trademark. It’s crowned by a memorable lead performance from Chevy Chase as the everyman on the American road trip from hell with his family. Six years later, Hughes returned the Griswolds to the screen with his script for brilliant follow-up National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).

Sixteen Candles (1984)

Director: John Hughes

Sixteen Candles (1984)

Hughes’ first foray into the American high-school experience, and his directorial debut, came with this mid-80s classic, which laid the groundwork for the modern teen comedy. Original brat-packer Molly Ringwald – who, along with co-star Anthony Michael Hall, would become a frequent Hughes collaborator – stars as Samantha, whose sweet-16 birthday party becomes a catalogue of embarrassment. With wayward crushes, a dysfunctional family and emotional revelations, it paved the way for a new generation of hapless adolescent comedy.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Director: John Hughes

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Along with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), this is one of the defining American films of the 1980s and, with its story of a disparate group of students brought together for detention, forces the pleasure, power and pain of adolescence into a confined space, with dramatic consequences. The eclectic roll call spans the high-school class system – a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal – but, brought together under the sadistic rule of teacher Mr Vernon (an excellent Paul Gleason), friendships are forged, love blossoms and often bitter truths are revealed. Like so many of Hughes’ films, it also boasts an overwhelming message of inclusivity; more welcome now than ever.

Weird Science (1985)

Director: John Hughes

Weird Science (1985)

While Weird Science is likely best remembered for star Kelly LeBrock in that tight red dress, it runs far deeper than adolescent fantasy – although, admittedly, that its the hook on which this story hangs. Blending the age-old Frankenstein’s monster narrative with the prescient idea of young computer enthusiasts writing world-changing programmes in their bedrooms, this story of a pair of friends who create a seemingly perfect woman – who is also refreshingly no-nonsense – via a primitive version of 3D printing is as much a celebration of unfettered ambition as it is a wink to the universal proclivities of the teenage mind.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Director: John Hughes

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

While he may be name-checked in the title, and played in larger-than-life style by Matthew Broderick, Hughes’ masterful film is actually the story of teenager Ferris’s best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck). Behind the run-of-the-mill story – Ferris fakes an illness to get off school, and drags Cameron and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) on a madcap adventure round Chicago – lies a nuanced and intelligent study of adolescent angst and the onset of adult responsibility. Cameron’s journey from miserable sap to outspoken individual, with the strength to stand up to his bully of a father, lends the film a dramatic backbone rarely seen in the genre but often found in Hughes’ work.

Pretty in Pink (1986)

Director: Howard Deutch

Pretty in Pink (1986)

Don’t let the saccharine title fool you; Hughes’ love triangle comedy is a sharp look at the hierarchical makeup of American high schools and, by extension, the country. Molly Ringwald is teen Andie, who finds herself the object of the affection of both her childhood friend Duckie (Jon Cryer) and the far more monied Blane (Andrew McCarthy). While the ending may be disappointingly obvious – Ringwald has said that two were shot, and test audience reaction determined the outcome – their journey is wrought with genuine emotion, and it’s a tale of loyalty and friendship as well as love. Cryer’s Duckie is a particular highlight: a flamboyant straight man who was way ahead of his time. 

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Director: John Hughes

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Combining common Hughes’ themes of unlikely pairings, family values and slapstick comedy, Planes, Trains & Automobiles coaxes two masterful comic performances from John Candy and Steve Martin. The premise sees Martin’s stranded family man forced into a hellish homeward journey with Candy’s slobbish salesman one Thanksgiving eve, and the sparkling odd couple dynamic between these two veteran performers is a joy to watch. It’s bolstered by a blistering screenplay that both mines the frustrations and pleasures of human connection.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

Director: Howard Deutch

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)

Another of Hughes’ films to feature love triangles, teen romance and adolescent angst, this stars Eric Stoltz as the high-school student whose determination to win the heart of the most popular girl makes him blind to the fact that his tomboyish best friend is actually his soulmate. Once again, the dialogue, characterisations and situations are smartly and authentically drawn, with a standout emotional moment in which Stoltz’s character admits to his father that he feels he will always be an outcast.

Home Alone (1990)

Director: Chris Columbus

Home Alone (1990)

As was so often the case with Hughes’ screenplays, Home Alone sees a simple premise lifted by colourful characterisation and genuine, heartfelt humour. Protagonist Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin, who also appeared in the Hughes-written Uncle Buck) may be far younger than most of Hughes’ protagonists, but he more than holds his own when he is left behind after his family heads off on Christmas vacation and must defend his home from two hapless burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern). It all makes for an endlessly watchable mix of childhood fantasy and inventive slapstick, with a heartwarming ending.

Reach the Rock (1998)

Director: Bill Ryan

Reach the Rock (1998)

While Hughes remained staunchly loyal to the comedy genre throughout his career, his screenplay for this 1998 thriller was a standalone dive into rather more sombre territory. While this story of a young man (Alessandro Nivola) who returns to his hometown years after the death of his friend is admittedly not as successful as Hughes’ other work, it’s worth seeking out as an intriguing, and rare, exploration of the darker side of his storytelling.

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