Confucius, Deepak Chopra…Ferris Bueller?!? Turns out, the gurus in John Hughes flicks can be just as influential. Real Simple asked an expert panel of cinephiles to share their favorite movie teachings—and Principal Ed Rooney plays a starring role.

By Rebecca Webber
Updated October 07, 2013

1. Dare Yourself

I was a pretty serious student, studying economics at the University of Chicago, when I saw Federico Fellini’s and La Dolce Vita. They’re set in Rome around the 1960s, and I was overwhelmed by the beauty and sexuality and excess. After seeing those movies, my head exploded with what art could do, and I let go of other people’s expectations. I took time off from school, packed up with my boyfriend, and moved to Japan. This was before cell phones and e-mail—we were really off the grid. I bought a camera, I got a darkroom, and I photographed throughout Asia. When I eventually came back to the university, I knew I had to go into film. I realized art could be as exciting as life and life could be as exciting as art, especially if you live it to your absolute fullest.

Kimberly Peirce is the director of the new remake of Carrie, due out this month, and the acclaimed film Boys Don’t Cry, which garnered Hilary Swank an Academy Award for Best Actress.

2. Believe in Karma

Back in elementary school, I was pretty stressed-out—always thinking about how others’ actions might affect me. Then, when I was 11, I saw Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and that made all the difference. Ferris is carefree because he operates under the notion that the universe will make good things happen for him. And without his even trying, people who attempt to bring him down (his sister, the principal) get their comeuppance. Ever since then, if someone has done me wrong, I haven’t fretted about it. I’ve just held tight to the belief that what goes around comes around. Miraculously, that’s almost always what happens.

Michelle Lee is the senior vice president of the film and pop-culture news site

3. Appreciate the Ordinary

It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that we think of as a sentimental Christmas classic, and it’s certainly one of the great feel-good movies ever made. At the end, its official message is that George Bailey had a wonderful life because he made a difference in other people’s lives. The film’s real message, however, is richer and deeper: It’s about how hard it is for all of us, like George, to see the magic of life as we’re living it. What George comes to realize is that even the things he took for granted or the things he didn’t like (like that pesky banister knob that keeps coming off his stairway) are part of the transcendent texture of the everyday. And that’s a lesson we all have to keep relearning, because life seems almost designed to make us forget it.

Owen Gleiberman is the film critic for Entertainment Weekly (which, like Real Simple, is a Time Inc. publication).

4. Don’t Back Down

My parents first showed me To Kill a Mockingbird (based on the classic Harper Lee book) when I was a kid, and I later bought the videotape and watched it over and over. I was struck by how the main character, Atticus Finch, stands up for what he believes in, even though it’s very unlikely that he will win. He fights for his beliefs as hard as he can. From him, I learned that you should behave according to the values you hold, regardless of what the world around you deems right or wrong. Often there are shortcuts or ways to compromise values to achieve a goal, but they may not be the right thing to do. This often came up for me when I was running film productions. If moving a deal forward requires a decision that goes against my values, I’ve learned it’s better to walk away.

Keri Putnam is the executive director of the Sundance Institute, where she oversees all programs, including the Sundance Film Festival.

5. Embrace Your Neuroses

In college I went by myself to see Take the Money and Run and was blown away by Woody Allen. His character is so out-there, and his antics are so incredibly absurd. But as funny as the film is, it is also incredibly sophisticated. He plays up his neuroses—which I really identified with as a city kid—and showed me that by being true to your unique self, you can create something unusual. It even gave me the courage to become a comedy writer. I recently watched the movie with my daughter, who’s in film school, and she thought it was funny, too. Apparently she’s a chip off the old block.

David Isaacs is a professor of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles. He has also written for many TV series, including Cheers and M*A*S*H.