AN ANCIENT ZEN koan has it that in order to discover ourselves we must first get truly lost. Actually I just made that up, but you get the picture.
Road movies can be quests, pilgrimages, chases, crime sprees, spiritual journeys, whatever, but mostly they’re about the need to escape the routine and, more often than not, the “tiresome self”. New landscape, an unreliable conveyance, eccentric characters encountered, and before you know it you’ve invented a whole new you – rootless, convivial yet mysterious, and glamour-tinged.
Some like to claim the road movie is the quintessential American art form, but that’s just ethnocentrism: road movies belong to the world, they explain to us how we got here and why, and when we’re sick of here, we should get up and go on over there. They are “Celebrations of the Eternally Restless Self.”
The 25 movies below aren’t meant to be comprehensive, definitive or even vaguely well-reasoned. I’m sure I’ve left out your favorites, overlooked your gems, ignored your hidden treasures. Just as I’m sure you’ll tell be about it, somewhere along the road.
Near Dark (1987)
Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker made history at this year’s Oscars when she became the first woman to win both Best Picture and Best Director.
Her little-known road movie, Near Dark, features a roving “family” of vampires searching for love and prey in the American West. This phantasmagorical film, almost entirely shot at night (for obvious reasons) is due for a revival.
The Vanishing (1988)
Not to be confused with the inept Hollywood remake of the same title, the Dutch thriller Spoorloos (The Vanishing), is the most chillingly claustrophobic of road movies. A young couple, deeply in love, head off on a carefree vacation, but the young woman inexplicably disappears when they stop at a roadside service station. Her husband spends the next three years trying to find out what happened to her. The wonderful Dutch actor Johanna ter Steege plays the missing woman.
Wendy and Lucy (2009)
Michelle Williams gives a meticulously modulated low-key performance in Wendy and Lucy as a young homeless woman who lives out of her car as she heads for Alaska with her dog Lucy, hoping to find a job there. The car breaks down, Lucy disappears and the ending is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking. From American indy director Kelly Reichardt, the film deftly mixes real actors with non-professionals.
Last Train Home (2009)
The largest human migration in the world occurs every year in China when 130-million Chinese leave the country’s teeming industrial cities to return home to the provinces for the Lunar New Year. The Last Train Home, an extraordinary documentary directed by Chinese expat Lixin Fan, focuses on a young couple who try to keep their family together across time and space. A brilliant, harrowing film.
La Strada (1954)
The Italian grandmother of all road movies, La Strada is vintage Fellini (before pyrotechniques and freakshows hijacked his style), a barebones parable about life on the road.
Three ill-matched traveling circus performers – a strongman, his assistant and a tightrope walker – make for a combustible love triangle as they wander from village to village. Giulietta Masina’s Gelsomina, the much-abused assistant, is the sad, luminous center of La Strada, or “The Road.”
Alice in the Cities (1974)
In Alice in den Städten (Alice in the Cities), a jaded German journalist meets up with a beautiful young German woman and her 9-year-old daughter Alice. The woman disappears, the journalist is left with Alice. Together they wander Germany, in unlikely pursuit of Alice’s grandmother (Alice can’t remember the name of the city where her gran lives). This 1974 classic is Wim Wender’s unforgettable modernist take on Alice in Wonderland.
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
Who can forget River Phoenix as the young narcoleptic hustler Mike Waters, who lies down in the middle of an empty Idaho road and wakes to find himself in a totally new and risky place? Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film, My Own Private Idaho, sets Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One in modern-day Portland, Oregon, with Keanu Reeves along for the ride as Scott Favor, Mike’s rich and fickle friend. The title comes from the B52s song.
Latcho Drom (1993)
Nobody’s been longer on history’s road than Gypsies. Latcho Drom follows Romany groups from Rajasthan, Egypt and Turkey to Romania, Hungary and Spain and allows them to sing – in their heart-piercing way – their history of nomadism, exclusion and persecution. French director Tony Gatlif is himself of Romany descent. The title means “safe journey,” for the Romany a fervent wish more than a likely prediction.
It Happened One Night (1934)
The screwball comedy It Happened One Night became the template for hundreds of subsequent comedy-romances based on mismatched partners. Here it’s an on-the-lam heiress – a staple of 30s comedies – on a Greyhound bus who links up with a cynical hard-drinking newspaperman. The stars are Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, the original rogue. A rough and tumble and extremely likable road movie, in which the performers appear to enjoy themselves almost as much as we do.
Mystery Train (1989)
In Mystery Train, a modern-day Canterbury Tales, three pilgrim narratives converge in Memphis, seeking the holy martyr Elvis. The most affecting tale features a young unilingual Japanese couple – she’s all sunshine, he’s an ultra-hipster who prefers Carl Perkins to Elvis. The supporting cast includes the late but immortal Joe Strummer of The Clash along with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as the night clerk in the hotel where the pilgrims put up for the night. Directed by Jim Jarmusch.
The Headless Woman (2008)
La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) is Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s third and eeriest film. I’m cheating a little in including it as a road movie, since it’s really a brief drive along a country road that gets obsessively repeated, but it’s my list, so there.
A well-connected middle-aged middle-class woman thinks she may have killed a peasant boy in a hit-and-run accident. All her friends and family conspire to convince her she has not. This film makes for an uneasy and enigmatic look at class warfare fought in the most discreet way, while also highlighting the historical amnesia that so often affects Argentinian culture and politics.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The continuing sub-prime mortgage crisis makes John Ford’s stately adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath feel timely again. Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, son of an Oklahoma sharecropping family driven off their land by the banks (sound overly familiar?). Hearing there may be work, they head for California. Fonda won an Oscar for his quietly lyrical performance. Superb black and white images by Gregg Toland, who also shot Citizen Kane.
I suspect that “Wendy and Lucy” (see above) was more than a little influenced by Agnès Varda’s searing portrait of a homeless young woman in Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond). She’s dead at the movie’s start; then the filmmaker reconstructs her (fictional) past through brief interviews with people she met along the way, as well as longer flashbacks of life on the road. French actor Sandrine Bonnaire was 18 when she played the young woman; she is by turns opaque, enraging and scarily naked.
Paper Heart (2009)
Conceptualist comedian and anti-Hollywood actor Charlyne Yi, like the song says, “wants to know what love is” in Paper Heart, an uber-quirky mumblecore mockumentary that sends her on a circuitous road from Vegas to Atlanta. Along the way, she interviews an odd and often touching cross-section of American talking heads – one defines the perfect date as “Applebee’s chicken wings.” She’s accompanied by Arrested Development’s Michael Cera and some very DIY stop-action animation.
9 Souls (2003)
The Japanese movie 9 Souls is clearly in the running for strangest road movie ever made. Nine escaped convicts go on the lam together in a big old van – they’re searching for the key to the universe – but it’s hard going on the lam in such a small and mannerly country.
The first half is goofy comedy as we get to know the guys, the second is bizarre, abruptly violent and unexpectedly moving. Directed by the wickedly talented Toshiaki Toyoda.
Jia Zhang Ke is one of mainland China’s greatest and most daring filmmakers. Born in 1970 as a child of the Cultural Revolution, he presents us with a Maoist itinerant theatre group, extolling the Revolution in a distant province. But as 70s fervor gives way to 80s capitalist rumblings, the group eventually become “The All Stars Rock’n'Breakdance Band.” At 154 minutes, Zhantai (Platform) will test your patience and your glutes – sometimes it feels like an entire decade shot in real-time – but ultimately it’s a remarkable look at a contradictory and tumultuous period in recent Chinese history.
Palm Beach Story (1942)
This wackiest of Preston Sturges comedies (he’s known for putting the ‘screw’ in screwball comedies), Palm Beach Story features a married woman going on the road, or at least on a New York to Miami overnight train, in search of a millionaire sugar daddy so she can raise money for her husband’s loopy inventions. Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrae in an elegant sexy turn, ably supported by foxy Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) as a ravenous millionairess.
Caro Diario (1993)
Not quite a documentary yet not a fictional film either, Caro Diario (Dear Diary) features Italian cult director Nanni Moretti riding about Italy on his faithful Vespa. Fragmentary diary entries range from funny – he decides to kill a film critic whose rave for a movie caused Moretti to see and loathe it – to grave (brain tumor, anyone?), all united by the director’s off-kilter take on the world.
Thieves Like Us (1974)
The late Robert Altman’s downbeat answer to Bonnie and Clyde, this particular Thieves Like Us follows a pair of decidedly unglamorous Mississippi thieves named Keechie and Bowie, who rob banks more out of a failure of the imagination than a desire for great wealth and fame. When they do become famous, they bicker about how the radio and newspapers get the details of their exploits wrong. A surprisingly un-violent movie (the camera frequently stays outside during the bank jobs) with note-perfect performances by Keith Carradine and Shelley Duval.
The Hitchhiker (1953)
British-born actor Ida Lupino played dames both hot and cool in film noirs like “They Drive By Night” and “High Sierra.” In 1953 she helmed the only noir ever directed by a woman, the classic B-movie The Hitchhiker.
In this terse study in psychological terror, a psycho ex-con carjacks a pair of respectable middle-class men; over the course of their journey he tortures them by describing the gruesome ends he has planned for them. The low-key black-and-white cinematography turns empty highways into a dark metaphor for American loneliness.
Marlene Dietrich, on first sighting John Wayne on the studio lot, said to her companion, “Oh, Daddy, get me some of that!” And when Wayne first strides out of the sagebrush, shotgun cocked at a priapic angle, in Stagecoach, you fully empathize with Dietrich. This is one of director John Ford’s most enjoyable westerns, a stagecoach full of mismatched characters riding through dangerous Apache territory. Claire Trevor gives an affecting performance as the prostitute Ringo befriends, defends and finally loves.
Happy Together (1997)
Two gay guys from Hong Kong are on the road in Argentina in Wong Kar Wai’s hot and crazy Chun gwong cha sit (Happy Together) – a love-hate affair set to a Buenos Aires beat. Their affair is as stormy and passionate as the tango they sometimes dance. Featuring two of China’s greatest stars, Tony Leung and the late Leslie Cheung, the movie was shot in sequence over six weeks, and reportedly had no script, which makes it an improv masterpiece.
Road, Movie (2009)
In New Dehli-born director Dev Benegal’s 2009 feature, a dissatisfied young man named Vishnu, eager to escape his family’s hair oil business, agrees to drive a 1942 Chevy truck on a six-day journey through parched terrain.
The truck used to be a traveling cinema, the films are still in the back. Vishnu picks up fellow travelers along the way – a pesky kid, a Gypsy woman, a much-needed old mechanic – and soon Road, Movie turns into a contemporary Sheherazade, as Vishnu and company end up showing old Indian movies to save their hides.
The Wages of Fear (1953)
Speaking of trucks, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s tense film Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) focuses on four men, working for an unscrupulous American oil company, who drive two trucks of nitroglycerine over washboard mountain roads in South America. Yves Montand’s startlingly vivid performance as one of the drivers turned the character as well as the movie into a touchstone for 50s existentialists.
The Passenger (1975)
As he’s aged Jack Nicholson has become a lovable parody of himself. For a Jack you’ve never seen before, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Professione: reporter (The Passenger) will prove a revelation. A war correspondent who can’t find the African war he’s meant to cover, Nicholson’s character ends up exchanging identities with a dead man and along the way finds something like freedom. Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) is along for the ride, and the color cinematography dazzles.
What road trip movies did we miss? Share them below!
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Will Aitken is a novelist and travel journalist. He lives in Montreal.