With spring gently settling on the East Coast, I feel once again I've emerged from a confining cocoon of my own making.
I don't like cold, I don't like snow, I don't like winter sports. For me, everything goes decidedly downhill (no pun intended) after New Year's.
But now, I'm renewed.
I raise my face to the sun, and movie fanatic that I am, I hear Groucho's voice ringing in my ears: "Sing ho! For the open highway! Sing ho! For the open road!" (Anyone remember the movie?)
Now seems like just the right time to talk about road movies, that bounteous staple of film that almost warrants its own subgenre.
It all stems from something basic in our human nature: the instinct to move, roam, and explore. Being evolved, reasoning creatures, our desire to travel only increases in more pleasant weather.
Going all the way back to Homer's Odyssey, some of our finest stories take place on voyages or quests of some kind, where our hero (or heroine) not only experiences new sights and adventures, but also some transformation in thinking, circumstance, or attitude as a result.
The road movie is the cinematic equivalent.
Here then are my own 10 favorite road movie entries, which you can read more about (and rent) by clicking on the title(s). All these films have offered me particularly memorable and exciting travels from the comfort of my La-Z-Boy:
It Happened One Night (1934) -- Down-on-his luck reporter (Clark Gable) gets scoop of a lifetime when he meets an heiress on the lam (Claudette Colbert) on a bus excursion. Then -- as usual -- romance complicates things. The first film to sweep the Oscars in all major categories.
Sullivan's Travels (1941) -- Well-meaning hack Hollywood director (Joel McCrea) wants to make a serious, important picture for a chance, profiling the plight of the impoverished masses. He takes a trip to find them with just a dime in his pocket and gets much more than he bargained for.
The Wages of Fear (1953) -- Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic white-knuckle thriller follows four broke, desperate men (including Charles Vanel and a young Yves Montand), stranded in a dusty Latin American town, who agree to transport two trucks of explosive nitroglycerine along bumpy, rarely traveled terrain.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967) -- Arthur Penn's bloody crime picture profiles two mythic outlaws from the '20s and '30s, Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway). At first Warners soft-pedaled the movie so that it almost sank on release, but Beatty -- and word-of-mouth -- eventually made it fly. Made Faye an overnight star, and no wonder.
Easy Rider (1969) -- Dennis Hopper's anti-establishment, stoner classic about two hippies on a motorcycle trip from the West Coast to New Orleans was a surprise hit in 1969, resonating with a deeply divided country. All these years later, it still earns its cult status, and is buoyed by Jack Nicholson's breakout performance.
Midnight Run (1988) -- Martin Brest's hilarious road movie has Robert DeNiro's bounty hunter taking former mob accountant Charles Grodin back to custody on the West Coast. Let's just say the trip is eventful. The two stars have terrific comic chemistry, and look for Joey Pants!
Rain Man (1988) -- Dustin Hoffman won his second Oscar playing an autistic savant who gets reunited with his slick younger brother (Tom Cruise) when their father dies and inheritance issues arise. The two brothers make a trip that will change them both forever. A winner from director Barry Levinson.
Thelma and Louise (1991) -- Irresistible feminist buddy movie with Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon taking a one-way journey away from the lousy men in their lives. Geena and Susan are both aces, and look for a young Brad Pitt in a most unsympathetic role. Also -- that ending is unforgettable.
The Straight Story (1999) -- Quiet, absolutely wonderful sleeper from (of all people) David Lynch stars Richard Farnsworth as a senior citizen who can no longer drive. When he hears his estranged brother is ill in another state, he ventures off to care for him -- driving a tractor! Sissy Spacek costars as his understandably awestruck daughter.
Transamerica (2005) -- Felicity Huffman deservedly got an Oscar nod for her performance as Bree, a pre-op male-to-female transsexual who discovers she fathered a son years back, and that the boy is in trouble. Posing as a Christian social worker, Bree claims her son (without telling him who he/she really is) and transports him to L.A., with some illuminating stops along the way. Clever, funny, touching, and different -- in a good way.
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