Pop culture has had a impact on the concept of the roadtrip. Road trip movies are a genre unto themselves; not only do they share themes of travel, but many follow a common pattern: that originally, an end destination or goal is important, but through the course of the journey, discovers lessons or relationships more important than the original destination. This transformative narrative is arguably more important to the road trip movie than the presence of any roads. And often, the mode of transportation itself becomes a character in the story as well, its health and wellbeing is as important as that of any family-member. Any list of road movies is going to be incomplete, so rather than attempt any sort inclusive or 'best-of' list, I'll simply tell you some of my favorites:
Hard Core Logo
If you're not a Canuck, you might not be familiar with the work of Bruce MacDonald, who made a trio of rock-and-roll road-trip movies in the 1990s: Roadkill, about a record-label employee dispatched into northern ontario to find a band that has gone missing on tour; Highway 61, about a naive blues enthusiast and pop-historian who gets conscripted (or seduced) by a roadie to transport a drug-stuffed corpse down to Louisiana; and Hard Core Logo. It's a dark and ruthless story of an aging punk band trying to hold together a reunion tour across the Canadian prairies.
Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
While it's almost entirely set at sea, it's uses every wonderful device of the road trip comedy. Zissou starts out as a modern-day Captain Ahab, a man who takes a crew on his own mission of revenge, but unlike Ahab, finds that the relationships with those who travel with him are more important than his own anger. The soundtrack of Seu Jorge's samba covers of Bowie classics are an unusual and brilliant fit with the film. While Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are front and center, the colourful supporting characters (Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum) are the most memorable in the movie.
The Straight Story
This is the story of Alvin Straight—played by the incomparable Richard Farnsworth—who makes a journey to see his dying, estranged brother. Because Alvin's fading faculties have left in unable to obtain a driver's license, he makes the journey on his garden tractor. All of this is based on a true story, and David Lynch guides the film along with an unusually understated hand. On the surface it's similar to the more will known 'About Schmidt', as both are about a reflective journey toward the end of one's life, but there's a slow, beautiful pace to the journeys (both personal and physical) in The Straight Story that the best road films have.
Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Here's the other end of spectrum: a madcap story of manic, flawed characters all motivated only by greed, unleashed upon on America's highways like rats running through a crowded diner. The comedy is often little more than letting dozens of comic actors interact with one another, yet it captures another side of driving. It always seems like there's a tremendous number of jerks out there on the highway; in some ways, this movie is their story. When I'm tailgated or cut-off by someone who seems to have no regard for other drivers, I can be calmed a little by envisioning them as Ethel Merman, Buddy Hacket, Jonathan Winters, or one of the other incredibly self-centered personalities from this movie.
O Brother Where Art Thou
I love this Coen brothers retelling of the Odyssey myth set in the depression-era Deep South. George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson form a trio of escaped convicts trying to get to buried treasure before the land is flooded. The bluegrass music of Ralph Stanley perfectly matches the landscape of this film: cornfields, dusty, deserted crossroads, beautiful slow rivers, and glorious old forests.
Planes Trains and Automobiles
Its not the only 1980s movie that focuses on the madness of modern travel (see National Lampoon's Vacation), but the combination of Steve Martin, John Candy, and the direction of John Hughes make this an absolute classic with so many unforgettable scenes. It perfectly frames those classic roadtrip themes (of realizing that our rush for the end destination has caused us to lose sight of what's important) around the holiday season.
So what are your favourites? Again, use the comments section to share with us and with other readers.