Some films are great because of brilliant cinematography, attention to the play of light and shadow, or powerful acting. Other films burrow deep into our collective psyche and reveal to us something of ourselves in the telling. Road movies belong to one of the oldest and most powerful genres of storytelling there is: the adventure of the hero, going there and back again, finding themselves and telling us about it. Here are ten of the best:
10. Wild Strawberries
Displaying Ingmar Bergman’s signature interest in laying bare the depths of the human soul, Wild Strawberries builds from a simple premise – a professor’s road trip from Stockholm to Lund to collect an honorary degree – to weave an artful exploration of past and present, dreams and reality. The professor’s travelling companions, his daughter-in-law and a succession of hitchhikers, tie him to the present while the road and the journey take him deep into himself and back out again.
9. Rabbit-Proof Fence
Featuring Australian actor David Gulpilil’s finest portrayal of the Aboriginal bush-tracker before his role in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia turned it to farce, this early-2000s epic was a film very much of its time. It tells the story of Australia’s forgotten generations: the government-sponsored removal of Aboriginal children from their families and their forced resettlement in white society, in the belief that this would speed up racial assimilation. Director Phillip Noyce establishes the road, the site of the child protagonists’ kidnap by car-driving officials, as a space of danger. Our heroines therefore make their journey home across country – by following the rabbit-proof fence.
8. You Only Live Once (1937)
Although a pioneer of the road movie, Ingmar Bergman wasn’t the first to get there. This 1930s film noir classic from Fritz Lang set many of the hallmarks of man-on-the-run movies later employed by Hollywood. Henry Fonda plays a man on the run from false accusations of murder while he tries to put his convict past behind him. Hailed on its release for its pace and powerful acting, You Only Live Once has stood the test of time as a road-movie classic.
7. Y Tu Mamá También
This Mexican coming-of-age drama from 2001 (released for English-speaking audiences in 2002) was a student cult classic for much of the 2000s. Set against a backdrop of the real political and economic conditions of late-1990s Mexico, Alfonso Cuarón’s Academy Award-nominated film tells the tale of two young men travelling with a woman in her twenties. This apparently simple plot, along with a healthy dose of scenes with sex and drug-taking, might make the film seem less than heavy. In reality, with its complex explorations of Mexico, often the life inside the car is interestingly at odds with the life going on outside of it.
6. The Motorcycle Diaries
Gael Garcia Bernal’s second movie on this list tells a different coming-of-age story: the epic, trans-South American journey of Ernesto “Che” Guevara as a young doctor in the 1950s. Setting out from his home in Buenos Aires along with his friend Alberto Granado and his trusty motorbike La Poderosa, young medical student Guevara encounters in others a sense of the unfairness of society that eventually impels him toward his later radicalisation. Bernal’s performance earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor and the film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
5. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
The second Australian film on this list is rather different from the first and perhaps better known, having gained a huge cult following and inspired a long-running stage musical, plus recently attracting the attention of legendary documentarist Werner Herzog. Priscilla follows three friends – two drag queens and one transsexual woman – as they cross the Australian outback from Sydney to Alice Springs in their tour bus named Priscilla (“as she’s known to her friends”). The film’s story arc centres on the tension that simmers between our ultra-camp heroes and the conservative, macho “ockers” they encounter. Needless to say, our heroines win their respect, and the day, by the end.
4. Two Lane Blacktop
Two Lane Blacktop is director Monte Hellman’s poem to the ‘60s and in particular to American roads before the rise of the interstate system. His focus on the peculiar mixture of romance, machismo and the mythos of the road (with much of the film’s action taking place on California’s Route 66) didn’t take off with audiences at the time. Yet this tale of two itinerant drag-car racers, mooching their way across America, has since become a cult classic for film fans looking back on the now-distant era of ‘60s counterculture and rebellion.
3. Thelma and Louise
Ridley Scott’s tale of best friends, whose innocent road trip becomes complicated by the actions of men (and the consequences when the women fight back), took critics and audiences by storm on its initial release in 1991, earning six Academy Award nominations and one win for best screenplay. Thelma and Louise go on the run across America after Louise kills a man named Harlan Puckett, in an argument following Harlan’s rape of Thelma. Famous now for its oft-parodied final cliff-edge sequence, this movie found itself a lasting place in the affections of cinema fans.
2. Easy Rider
The words ‘cult’ and ‘classic’ are perhaps too repetitive in this column, yet given the greatness of the films we are talking about the sentiment has to stand. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider checks both these boxes. The breadth of penetration into wider culture that this film has achieved since its release in 1969 can likely be ascribed to a sense of nostalgia for the counterculture era that Easy Rider’s tale of a motorcycle roadtrip through America’s south and southwest provides. Throw in Nicholson’s alcoholic attorney as representing all those city-slicker moviegoers who dream of getting away from it all, and the recipe for a place in road-movie Valhalla is complete.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
An unstoppable, almost indescribable tour-de-force of lights, motion and a fire-breathing guitar, Mad Max: Fury Road brought the 1980s Australian desert action movie storming into the 21st century. Equal parts solemn, nightmarish, pacey and silly, this film grabbed audiences’ attention from the outset and refused to let go until its madcap antics were spent. Unlike many of the movies on this list, Mad Max: Fury Road is a road movie to its bones: there are no picaresque encounters, no pit stops, no tall stories to tell – only the road: haunting, punishing, unending.
What do you think of our choices? Have we forgotten your favourite film? Tell us in the comments.