I am a firm believer in journeys rather than destinations. There’s something about being a body in motion, of actively making my way from one place to another – even when I’m not sure where that other place might be – that I find endlessly appealing.
And while I do find real pleasure looking at the landscape from a plane or train, my preference, like any good American, is the automobile. We are a nation of highways and byways, and there’s real pleasure in slipping behind the wheel, picking a point and taking off.
Perhaps it’s residual Wagons Ho enthusiasm or perhaps our cultural affection for the automobile. It doesn’t matter, because our road trip madness extends into all aspects of our lives. It’s the reason we can cruise through a drive-thru during lunch. It’s the reason population centers thrive or fail to survive. It’s also provided premium inspiration for filmmakers. As soon as it became practical to pack a camera in a car, road trip movies became an industry staple. Here are a few favorites.
MIDNIGHT RUN (1988): Robert De Niro is a bounty hunter and Charles Grodin is a bail-jumping mafia accountant who just might be smarter than he looks. The result is one of the more surprising, and surprisingly endearing, thrillers ever produced. Calling it a thriller, in fact, might be an injustice. It certainly has the core components – crime and redemption, fast chases and sudden violence – but it’s also wildly funny and built around very human characters. Check it out.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934): One of the very first Academy Awards was handed out to this charming road comedy starring Claudette Colbert as an heiress on the run and Clark Gable as the journalist looking to bring her home and for an exclusive scoop. Not only does this comedy boast crisp writing and great performances, but it’s a fascinating look at life on the road as it existed almost 80 years ago.
BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967): For career criminals, home is often the open road. I mean, there’s nothing like a mailing address to clue the law as to where you might be holed up. Perhaps the most famous criminal road royalty, both historically and cinematically, were Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. This violent, complicated and exciting portrait of the duo’s short career was derided on initial release, but has since been rightfully recognized as an American classic.
THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999): Although director David Lynch has built a career on unapologetically odd movies such as Blue Velvet, Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, this true-life tale of a man who hits the road on his riding mower only sounds weird on paper. In reality, it’s a stunning character study and love letter to an America that can only be observed at less than 10 mph.
THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979): The road to fame and fortune has many twists and turns for the famous foam troupe of entertainers. Along the way they encounter frog assassins, rough roadhouses and literal forks in the road. It’s impossible not to be charmed by the Muppets’ original big screen journey.