The Best Road Movies by Far

Spring has sprung (or is springing), and like squirrels in the forest, once again we peak our heads out of our warm places of hibernation, and drink in a more hospitable and welcoming outside world. Suddenly we feel eager for adventure, excited to explore all the countless teeming, unpredictable places around us, both near and far. With Homer’s “The Odyssey” setting the gold standard from ancient times, tales of epic journeys have always fascinated people. Whether they take place on the open road or an unpaved trail, these stories let us cover unfamiliar geography, and delve into the human transformations that inevitably occur, however subtle, with most every major quest we undertake.

The heroic quality of this kind of experience seems to magnify the scope and meaning of our lives like virtually nothing else. What we call “the road movie” represents a direct descendant of Homer’s enduring, universal epic. Delving into this sub-genre, I was astonished at how many of our finest pictures actually fall into this category…in fact, you can break down road films into other discrete segments, like “friends on the lam” movies (with 1991’s “Thelma and Louise” being the most obvious example). Given the immense number and variety of these features, any “watch” list I compile will seem incomplete, so feel free to share your own favorites as well.

It Happened One Night (1934) – Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), a mixed-up heiress, hits the road incognito to escape a loveless impending marriage and a chronically over-protective father (Walter Connolly). Riding with the common folk on a bus, she meets reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). Warne grudgingly befriends this unusual creature, who appears curiously oblivious to the ways and customs of real life. When Peter discovers her true identity, he knows he’s got hold of the story of the century, but by this time, he’s also started to have feelings for Ellie. What’s a desperate, smitten newsman to do? Frank Capra’s sublime romantic comedy swept the 1934 Oscars, and it’s still easy to understand why. Colbert makes a charming, deft comedienne, and Gable was never more appealing, winning his only Oscar for this role. “Night” is often cited as the first real screwball comedy, and it’s certainly one of the best.

Out Of The Past (1947) – Private detective Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is hired by high-ranking mobster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), to find the crook’s runaway mistress, Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer). Apparently, the young woman got into some serious mischief and ran off with $40,000. Tracking her south of the border, Bailey meets and falls for Kathie’s seductive charms, setting off a chain of events that drags him ever deeper into a world of lies, treachery, and betrayal. Replete with expressionistic lighting, ominous atmosphere and cynical dialogue, Jacques Tourneur’s “Past” is quintessential film noir. In a star-making performance, Mitchum cements his image as a laconic, world-weary fatalist while the radiant Greer makes one of the most sensual entrances in film history. These powerful ingredients combine to make this hard-boiled beauty damn close to perfect.

The Searchers (1956) – Three years after the Civil War, missing veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his frontier home, where he’s greeted by his jubilant family, including Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), a part-Cherokee adoptee who owes his life to Ethan. Tragedy strikes when a local tribe attacks the farm, brutally murders Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law, and carts off their young daughter Debbie (Natalie Wood). Ethan and Martin immediately saddle up and set out to search for her, with no idea that the journey will take them as far as Canada–and last seven years. Monument Valley never looked as breathtakingly beautiful as it does in this exquisite, elegiac Western from the master, John Ford. Wayne gives the performance of a lifetime as the obsessed, enigmatic Ethan, while young Natalie is indelible in a brief role as Debbie, the kidnapped girl caught between two worlds. Ford described his ambitious masterwork as a “psychological epic,” and this gut-twisting, picturesque adventure does seem to grow more nuanced with each viewing.

Two For The Road (1967) – The ups and downs of matrimony are deftly explored via vacations past and present in the lives of affluent couple Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) and Mark Wallace (Albert Finney). We see the bloom of early passion recede as over time the couple adjusts to new life priorities and struggles to maintain their intimacy and affection. This smart, knowing romance projects director Stanley Donen’s signature style, with Hepburn the essence of sixties chic, and Finney (in his prime) the epitome of a salty, rugged leading man. European locales and a memorable Henry Mancini score add the requisite zing to this mature, nuanced love story. William Daniels and Eleanor Bron are also memorable as another married couple who cause Joanna and Mark to examine the state of their own union.

The Last Detail (1973)– Hal Ashby’s seminal ’70s film has career sailors Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) escorting a younger convicted enlistee named Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Virginia to New Hampshire for an eight year sentence in the stockade. Taking pity on the naïve, benumbed young man, the two older men resolve to show Meadows a wild time en-route, in order to make his upcoming incarceration more bearable. But are they really doing it for Meadows, or is to ward off their own feelings of imprisonment? This gritty, wildly profane entry is equal parts funny and tragic, a tricky balance director Ashby sustains throughout. Quaid is wonderfully dim and pathetic as perennial loser Meadows, but Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated performance as Buddusky is a revelation, easily up to his more widely recognized work in “Carnal Knowledge” and “Chinatown”. Rain Man (1988)- Slick, self-involved car salesman Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) discovers he has an autistic older brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) when their father leaves a $3 million fortune Charlie thought he’d inherit in trust for his older sibling. Locating his mentally disabled (but strangely gifted) brother at the institution he’s called home for years, Charlie impulsively abducts Raymond, and the two embark on a cross-country trip that becomes a voyage of discovery for them both. Barry Levinson’s ingenious, slightly off-kilter road picture is also genuinely moving, offering a warm-hearted, humane look at disability. Though Cruise sometimes grates in an unsympathetic role, Hoffman’s Raymond, a routine-oriented math genius with no coping or social skills, makes the movie. The actor is totally credible as an idiot savant with unexpected life lessons to impart to his younger brother, and this bravura performance earned Hoffman an Oscar, while the movie itself won for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.

The Straight Story (1999)– Senior citizen Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), living in a small Iowa town with daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), hears that his estranged brother Lyle has suffered a stroke. Alvin’s short of money, and his failing eyesight has robbed him of his driver’s license, but he still wants to visit his sibling to make amends. He climbs on his old John Deere lawnmower and starts his trip to see Lyle in Wisconsin, over two hundred miles away. Director David Lynch is atypically restrained in rendering this deceptively simple, touching story, one you wouldn’t believe if it weren’t true. Oscar-nominated Farnsworth gets the role of his career, inhabiting the weathered Alvin like a favorite old work-shirt. Alvin’s life is written all over his face; his folksy openness belies a hard-won wisdom. As we see him touch those he meets along his route, we get to know this humble man, and root for him to make it to his brother. This unadorned triumph, celebrating the power of forgiveness and human perseverance, makes for great family viewing.

Transamerica (2005) – Just a week before pre-operative transsexual Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, is about go under the knife to complete her male-to-female transformation, she learns she has a 17-year-old son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who is currently in trouble with the law. Encouraged by her therapist (Elizabeth Peña) to confront her past, Bree bails Toby out of jail (without divulging his/her true identity), and takes him on an eventful road trip to Los Angeles. Expertly handled by first-time director Duncan Tucker, this funny, inventive film belongs to a tradition of beautifully observed movies about non-traditional American families. Huffman is riveting to watch, especially in the scenes with her disapproving mother, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan). But it is her rapport with Zegers, perfect as the troubled, miserable Toby, that gives the film its heart and soul. Their trip, so often the arc of growth in great road films, is mutually nourishing and eye-opening. Settle in with “Transamerica” for a frank, heartfelt outing.