My article on road movies appeared this past summer in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Here it is, reprinted for your perusal:
Summer is a great time to gas up the family truckster and hit the road, whether you want to travel cross country or simply dash up to WinStar for a little gambling or down to Austin for some primo live music.
If you want an adventure closer to home, you could take the short drive to your local theater and watch the newly released Road to Paloma, which tells of a Native American named Wolf (Jason Momoa), who travels the American West via motorcycle, looking to unleash some vigilante justice on the man who raped and murdered his mother.
Or you could take the alternate route and check out a road picture in the comfort of your home. Here are 10 such films—all available on DVD and through various streaming services—listed in chronological order:
Road to Singapore (1940)
The year 1940 is nowhere near as revered as 1939 in terms of famous film releases, but it is certainly no slouch, giving cinephiles such classics as The Philadelphia Story, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, and Pinocchio. One of the funniest films from 1940 is Road to Singapore, the first of seven “Road to…” pictures starring Hollywood legends Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
The comedic duo, who exchange witticisms throughout and sometimes break into song and dance (and fight) numbers, vow to give up women until they happen upon the lovely Mima (Dorothy Lamour), whom they adopt as a caretaker. For good, old-fashioned entertainment with a dash of exotic island irreverence, Road to Singapore is hard to beat.
Easy Rider (1969)
Most great hippie movies from the 1960s are music documentaries—Woodstock and Monterrey Pop immediately come to mind. However, there are a handful of interesting hippie dramas from the flower power era, most notably the counterculture classic Easy Rider, in which Peter Fonda (as Wyatt) and Dennis Hopper (as Billy) hit the open road on their motorcycles, heading from Los Angeles to New Orleans.
Their destination is Mardi Gras, but as with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (as documented in 2011’s Magic Trip), their true journey is to discover America. In addition to meeting likeminded folks—they hang out at a commune and are joined by comic relief in the form of ACLU lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson)—they encounter nasty, hate-filled rednecks.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
Every late 1970s-era teenage male wanted—make that craved—the black, gold eagle-decorated Pontiac Trans Am Burt Reynolds (as Bo “Bandit” Darville) drove in Smokey and the Bandit. A dated but still enjoyable comedy, the film also starred Sally Field as the runaway bride, Carrie. Who can forget Carrie, riding shotgun, changing out of her wedding dress while Bandit speeds down the highway?
Acting as a “blocker” for a truck hauling an illegal beer shipment from Texarkana to Georgia, Bandit is chased by a very funny Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), a profane, short-tempered sheriff who chews every word of his southern-fried dialogue to pieces. And, of course, there’s the infectious theme song sung by Jerry Reed (who drives the aforementioned truck): “Eastbound and Down.”
The Muppet Movie (1979)
If you grew up watching The Muppet Show during its original run, you were likely excited by the release of The Muppet Movie, which revealed Kermit the Frog’s origin and his feet—watching him ride a bicycle is a hoot, not to mention a nifty special effects trick. One day, while Kermit is perched on a log in a Louisiana swamp, singing “Rainbow Connection” and playing the banjo, an agent (played by Dom DeLuise) tells him he ought to be in pictures.
Thus, “Kermie” sets off on a cross-country trip to Hollywood, meeting many of his Muppet buddies along the way, including Miss Piggy, who immediately falls in love with the amiable amphibian. Seven theatrical “Muppet” movies have followed, but the original remains a distinct pleasure and a rollicking good time.
National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
If you’ve ever looked at a famous tourist destination, briefly nodded your head and walked away, you’ve probably seen Vacation more times than you’ve been on vacation. If you’ve ever served a casserole and said, “I don't know why they call this stuff Hamburger Helper; It does just fine by itself,” you probably need a vacation from watching Vacation.
In short, Vacation is one of the most copied, most quotable comedies ever released, nailing the agony and the ecstasy of the family road trip like no other movie before or since. As played by Chevy Chase, Clark Griswold’s sincere desire to provide his wife (Beverly D'Angelo) and kids with “family fun” is truly infectious.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
The road movie subgenre is ideally suited to the comedy film. Nowhere is this more evident than in John Hughes’ Plans, Trains and Automobiles, a laugh-out-loud odd couple story in which uptight marketing executive Neal Page (Steve Martin), trying to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, pairs with Del Griffith (John Candy), a loud, obnoxious, overly optimistic salesman. Griffith would make for a great crazy uncle, but he’s a terrible (if sympathetic) travel companion, telling bad jokes and setting fire to the quarrelsome couple’s rental car.
Filled with heart and humor, Plans, Trains and Automobiles is most fondly remembered for the burned up (but drivable) car, Page’s F-bomb tirade and the embarrassing snuggle buddy wakeup line, “Those aren’t pillows!”
Thelma & Louise (1991)
The ultimate female empowerment film of the 1990s, Thelma & Louise proves that women can hit the road and get into trouble with as much gravitas as any man. Housewife Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) and waitress Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon), both frustrated with their lot in life, head out in a ’66 Thunderbird convertible for a mini-vacation in the mountains.
Unfortunately, the world is a cruel place, and their two-day dash for temporary freedom is corrupted by theft, murder and attempted rape. Look for Brad Pitt as J.D., a cowboy hat-wearing hitchhiker and “gentlemanly” robber whom Thelma takes a liking to.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
There’s a scene in Little Miss Sunshine—an engaging, character-driven, satirical ode to non-conformity—in which the dysfunctional family at the center of the film gets pulled over by a police officer while they are driving to California. The dad advises, “Everybody just appear to be normal.” This is impossible given the makeup of the family, which includes a failed self-help guru (Greg Kinnear), a heroin-addicted grandfather (Alan Arkin), a suicidal Proust scholar (Steve Carell), and a Nietzsche-reading teenager who has taken a vow of silence (Paul Dano). The reason for the road trip is so the bespectacled, somewhat awkward daughter (Abigail Breslin) can enter a beauty pageant.
Released in 1999, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace was a terrible movie, hampered by wooden acting, a bland plot and easily the most annoying character in the series: Jar Jar Binks. Fanboys, set in 1998, is no masterpiece (The Big Bang Theory does a better, more intelligent job of poking fun at nerds), but it is an amusing (if far-fetched) film in which a quartet of Star Wars fanatics and their female companion (Kristen Bell) scheme to break into Skywalker Ranch, steal a rough cut of The Phantom Menace and see it before it hits theaters. Prior to screening Fanboys, you should set phasers on fun (oops, wrong franchise).
The Road (2009)
One of the bleakest stories ever put on film, The Road is based on Cormac McCarthy’s dense, post-apocalyptic book of the same name, which was released in 2006 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Unlike most of the other movies on this list, The Road is deeply depressing, offering only the slightest glimmer of hope as a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) travel south (toward the ocean) through a ruined gray wasteland harboring few survivors, including some who have resorted to cannibalism. At various points, the boy asks his dad (and the viewer, perhaps?) if they're “still the good guys.” For the sake of humanity, let’s hope so.