Packing a bag isn’t the only way to cure a travel bug; you can keep it at bay with a really good travel book or film. ‘Road movies’ combine my two greatest loves – film and travel – and account for many of my favourite films.
The joy of road movies is that the destination is irrelevant. It is the journey itself which provides all of the action and the lessons learned. I have compiled a list of my favourite road movies of all time. What gives these films their power, for me, is their characters’ search for meaning, or for something more than what society has taught them to expect. Often the trip or journey is ill-fated, but the strength of the characters and their relationships stands out.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
Thelma and Louise is the ultimate road movie. It involves two women who dare to hope for something more than the lot they’ve been given. The film ends somewhat tragically, but there are euphoric moments of freedom throughout, and the vistas are emblematic of the North American landscape which features so frequently in these types of films.
There are comments on gender here, and much has been written on that, but the most prominent theme in Thelma and Louise is its exploration of friendship, and of two people who will quite literally go to the ends of the earth for each other.
Easy Rider (1969)
Possibly the most American road movie of all time, Easy Rider speaks poignantly of its time, and the disillusionment of the American people. Wyatt and Billy career around the country in a drug-fuelled haze, searching for the ultimate experience. But they are left feeling cold.
Despite a brief appearance, Jack Nicholson’s performance stands out as a highlight, and a rock-and-roll soundtrack contributes towards making this film a classic of its genre.
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in this film that begins as a fun tale of two buddies setting out on an adventure, and ends on an uncomfortable and insistent note. It intelligently and subtly conveys the injustices and the hypocrisies that led to a boy called Ernesto becoming an internationally-known revolutionary.
It’s a fascinating story and an unflinching look at South America with its breathtaking natural beauty and varied population, as well as the wrongs they have endured.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
While waxing lyrical about Gael Garcia Bernal, it’s impossible to ignore Y Tu Mama Tambien. This film is unique because it directly addresses the latent homosexuality that exists between men in many road movies and buddy films; two genres which frequently overlap.
Young men Tenoch and Julio are united in their admiration of an older woman, who joins them on their trip, leading them on a journey into adulthood.
Into The Wild (2007)
Into The Wild differs from other films on this list as it tells the story of an individual rather than a couple or group. In the style of ‘The Graduate’, Emile Hirsch’s Chris is fresh out of university when he decides to veer off-course. He cuts all ties and heads into the wilderness, but rather than recognising that he may have found what he is really searching for in the people that he meets, he heads off alone into Alaska. The narrative is based on a true story, and is an exploration of human relationships, both familial and formed.
Of the ‘romantic couple go on a killing spree’ sub-genre, opitimised by Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands is my favourite. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek are electrifying as Kit and Holly. They’re creepy and unsympathetic, yet I can’t keep my eyes off them. They float around nonchalantly and self-consciously in an immoral world, with the dusty, red landscape of the Dakota desert as their backdrop.
Natural Born Killers (1994)
A modern take on the murderous couple theme, Natural Born Killers is a post-modern, hyper-real blur. It’s somewhat gratuitous in its violence, but that is sort of the point – the entire film acts as a comment on the modern world, and the concept of celebrity specifically.
Mickey and Mallory Knox demonstrate a love that appears more genuine than that of Bonnie and Clyde or Kit and Holly, despite the dysfunction of it. You can’t help but sympathise with them to some extent. This is perpetuated by the repulsiveness of the other characters who appear in the film, particularly Robert Downey Junior’s reporter and Tommy Lee Jones as a prison warden.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
On a more upbeat note, Little Miss Sunshine puts an entire family into a road trip scenario. The innocence of the youngest child, Olive, brings the family, with their myriad of issues, together.
Once again focused on a cross-American road trip, this time necessitated by a beauty pageant, the film relies less on vistas and landscape shots than is typical of the genre, but it wins a place in this list for its touching representation of family and its delicate interweaving of comedic and dark themes.
It Happened One Night (1934)
As well as a road movie, It Happened One Night is the perfect romantic comedy. One of the best of the screwball comedy sub-genre popular in the 1930s, this film is smart, funny, sweet and packed full of sexual tension.
Peter and Ellie squabble their way across the US to reunite Ellie with her fiance, and inevitably fall in love. An exceptional leading cast with heaps of chemistry, memorable costumes and a heartwarming sing-along on a bus are just a few of It Happened One Night’s best bits.
Stand by Me (1986)
Stand by Me is slightly unusual in that it is a road movie that takes place on foot. The journey is undertaken by a group of adolescent boys who learn more about each other, their pasts and their uncertain futures as they travel along a railroad track in search of an adventure. What they find at the end is a frightening reality check.
Stand by Me is an expert coming-of-age story, illustrating loss of innocence within the space of one, significant journey. River Phoenix’s stand-out performance makes it even more poignant.
Road movies conjure up images of hair streaming in the wind, classic convertible cars, motorbikes and an – often American – expansive wilderness that is beautiful and free, yet dangerous. The films on this list combine comedy with hard-hitting truths about personal growth and relationships, as well as wider national and societal issues. Has your favourite film made the list? Do you have a favourite road movie that I’ve missed? Do films about adventures and journeys inspire you to travel? Let me know in the comments below.