When the heat hits and the bliss of summer sinks in, it’s easy to imagine packing up everything for three months like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in the British documentary Long Way Round (2004), and traveling via motorcycle throughout the world. There’s a restlessness in the air, a wanderlust, and a hunger for new adventure that the advent of summer brings.
Thus, to celebrate summer’s arrival, we’ve concocted a list of the 12 best road movies for the summer to spark that adventurous and exploratory spirit. Alice Cooper iconized this seasonal sensation with his hit “School’s Out for Summer,” but the characters in the following films are anything but “bored to pieces,” as Cooper sings. So climb in the ol’ caravan and shift that gear stick forward – it’s time to ride, Sally, ride.
12. Rolling Family (2004)
With an assortment of close-ups and persistent shallow depth of field, Pablo Trapero’s Argentine drama, Rolling Family, visually evokes the claustrophobia Emilia’s family experiences on a trip to her niece’s wedding. Emilia is 84 and the matron of honor, so her daughters, their husbands, and the children and grandchildren, pile into a motor home and brave the washed out roads, blistering heat, and building tensions in order to fulfill Emilia’s wish.
The luscious scenery of the Argentine countryside is reason enough to watch this summer family film. The rutted roads are red as rust, and the mountainous regions are swarming with of the sounds of insects and birds.
Trapero’s biological grandmother plays Emilia, and in behind the scenes footage she revels in her ability to be an actress in the twilight of her life. Trapero also notes how personal this project is to him as a montage of family photographs spans the screen, chronicling his own summers spent traveling in his family’s caravan. This movie is a labor of love, and it wears its nostalgia and sentiment on its dusty sleeve.
It’s like the Argentine equivalent of Little Miss Sunshine that premiered two years later, albeit with a matriarch (rather than Alan Arkin’s patriarch) at the center, and sans beauty pageant for tween girls. There are infidelities, secrets spilled, and budding teenage passions. A family member will be sent packing back to the city, another will have to have a tooth extracted, and a few hearts will be broken – there are thus enough detours along this family’s travels to keep the audience engaged.
11. The Daytrippers (1996)
For anyone who drooled over Parker Posey’s ‘90s penchant for oversized coats, neon tights, and platform shoes in features such as Party Girl (1995) or Kicking and Screaming (1995), Greg Mottola’s 1996 The Daytrippers won’t disappoint. In bright red lipstick, Posey’s Jo is the wisecracking, sarcastic sister of Hope Davis’ square Eliza. The film begins with Eliza discovering a love letter addressed to her husband, played by Stanley Tucci, and, mistakenly, she tells her mother who piles the whole family in the station wagon, including Jo’s painfully bumbling boyfriend Carl (played by a delightful Liev Schreiber).
A majority of the film takes place in the station wagon as the family drives from Long Island into New York City. Carl eagerly shares the details for his novel with Jo and Eliza’s enrapt mother, Rita. This mama is played by Anne Meara, who is perhaps best known for her recurring role as Steve Brady’s mother on HBO’s Sex and the City.
In Mottola’s comedy, she’s controlling and kind, acerbic and anxious. As Eliza wrestles with the implications of this love letter (and who its mysterious author might be), Rita provides no breathing space in which to think. The confines of the car become as claustrophobic to the audience as it is to the family, as tensions run high. But, at the film’s heart are the bond of the two sisters who struggle for their autonomy and voice under their matriarch’s control. Even if we don’t get a traditionally happy ending, you’re still smiling with the sisters at the film’s end.
10. Holy Motors (2012)
2012 was the year for road movies within the sleek confines of a limousine. First, there was David Cronenberg’s strict adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, Cosmopolis, and then Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. While the dialogue of its characters largely drives Cosmpolis’ narrative, Holy Motors is a surreal and strange foray into performance, disguise, comedy, murder, musicals, and a meta-commentary on filmmaking (and viewing). The film begins within a man’s bedroom – he cautiously draws his hand across the wallpapered walls (perhaps a nod to Delphine Seyrig stroking her mirrored walls in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad?) before fitting a key into a lock and entering a movie theater.
No explanation is given for who this character is or where we are, and that unease and uncertainty continues throughout the almost two-hour feature. We travel with Mr. Oscar throughout the streets of Paris in his limousine, driven by Édith Scob’s Céline. Mr. Oscar has nine “appointments” to make throughout his work day and each involves him transforming himself physically into another person, whether he’s in a motion capture suit or a crazy eccentric who kidnaps model Eva Mendes and drags her into the sewers of the city.
Though the narrative is not always lucid, nor the role of Mr. Oscar clear, this is a film that revels in the power and magic of cinema. When Céline dons a rubber mask toward the end of the film, it’s a visual homage to her most iconic performance in Georges Franju’s 1960 horror film, Eyes Without a Face. Cinephilic details such as this abound in Carax’s feature, and we’re ready to get carried away into whatever genre or whatever character Mr. Oscar assumes next.
9. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
The epigraph to Walter Salles’ film The Motorcycle Diaries notes that this is not a film of heroic feats, but of two lives “running parallel for awhile.” The film opens with Gael García Bernal frantically packing for a trip on a 1939 single-cylinder Norton 500 (which gets nicknamed “the Mighty One”) to explore a continent he has hereto now only known in books. There’s an urgency and organization to this forthcoming trip, evidenced in the rapid cutting and montage that introduces us to Gael’s young Che Guevara, and Rodrigo de la Serna’s Alberto Granado. As Guevara says in voiceover, “What we had in common was our restlessness, our impassioned spirits, and a love for the open road.” And, thus, they hop on their motorcycle with ceaseless abandon (and shaky coordination), and leave Buenos Aires far behind.
Upon their travels they crash, lose their tent, scavenge for ducks in an ice-cold lake, brave sickness and bad weather. But throughout it all they never lose their friendship, charisma, or desire to do good. There’s also dancing, drinking, and thinly veiled flirtations that lead to a dance hall riot. But the constant visual in the film is Salles’ long shots of the luscious, snow-capped, mountainous landscape that surrounds the men throughout their travels. The film is as much an ode to the Latin American landscape, as it is to celebrating these two altruistic adventurers.
Director Salles’ seems to have a penchant for road movies. His 1998 fourth feature film Central do Brasil (Central Station) follows the travels of an older woman Dora who befriends the young boy Josué and accompanies him to find his absentee father via bus, and then truck throughout Brazil. Additionally, his most recent film, On the Road (2012), is an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel.
8. Lolita (1962)
Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of Lolita is both a love letter to Lo and a celebration of the roads of America. Authors such as Vladimir Nabokov or Jack Keroauc, or Rick Moody with his more recent Hotels of North America, revel in the intricacies of our interstates, the mysteries of our motels. When Humbert Humbert (played by a woeful and earnest James Mason) scoops Lolita up from camp to travel across the country, it’s an opportunity for new beginnings, freedom, and unfettered (i.e. pedophilic) passion. During their drives, Kubrick often favors medium close-ups where audiences can see both the protagonists’ faces, as well as the landscape surrounding them, allowing us too to travel alongside this doomed couple as the landscape alters and wends.
Sue Lydon’s Lolita is at once sly, pouty, peeved, and grief-stricken throughout their travels, eating voraciously and alternating between tolerating her legal guardian and eschewing him the next. Unlike Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation with Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain, Kubrick delicately steers away from overt sexuality or eroticism (though the first shot of Lydon in a paisley bikini and heart-shaped sun glasses is nothing if not flirtatiously coy) of the titular character.
Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty provides a comedic edge to the plot with his various accents and disguises. It’s a niche he’s famously cornered, particularly two years later in another Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb where Sellers has four different central roles.
7. Gun Crazy (1950)
When Annie Laurie shoots a blank gun at Bart in a POV shot (reminiscent of the concluding shot in the 1903 short “The Great Train Robbery”), she might as well be Cupid piercing him with a bullet of desire. The two share a love of guns and meet at a Carnival where Annie Laurie is performing as a sharp shooter. In childhood, Bart attempted to steal a gun from a store and is sent to the army as a means of rehabilitating him. He’s just gotten out when his friends take him to the Carnival, and it doesn’t take long before Bart’s challenged Annie Laurie to a shooting duel. Though ‘gun crazy,’ Bart isn’t violent, and he and Annie Laurie soon wed, settling into marital bliss.
But the honeymoon doesn’t last long. Almost immediately, they’re hard up for money, and Annie Laurie convinces Bart to rob a bank. In an extended long take, the camera perches behind the couple as they cautiously drive up to the bank’s front door. Annie Laurie engages a cop in conversation as Bart gets the money, but bludgeons him with the butt of her gun once Bart runs out. It’s a slippery slope of crime and the violence escalates beyond Bart’s comfort zone, shaking the foundation of their marriage. But their love of each other (and guns) is strong, and they stubbornly persist in robbing banks for food and shelter.
Joseph H. Lewis’ film noir is a sobering look at obsession and life on the road as an outlaw. Flitting from one stolen car to the next, Annie Laurie and Bart ultimately cannot maintain their criminal lifestyle, and the consequences are tragic and fatal.
6. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Last summer, moviegoers around the world lauded George Miller’s ultimate action adventure road movie Mad Max: Fury Road. Men’s rights groups damned the fast and furious feature while feminists applauded badass Charlize Theron for her complete embodiment of Imperator Furiosa, complete with shaved head, piercing cobalt eyes, and oil-streaked face. While Quentin Tarantino eschewed CGI and special effects in Death Proof, Miller’s film revels in them. But we’re willing to suspend our disbelief when there are epic dust storms and when a heavy metal guitarist provides thrumming accompanying music to Immortan Joe’s posse pursuing Max and Furiosa’s cohort.
Although impressive automatic feats and special effects are what ultimately won this movie accolades, one would be remiss not to examine the way in which this film contributed to the breakdown of gender barriers in action road movies.
In an interview, Theron noted that, “I was inspired by a woman with this kind of primal drive in a genre like this and in a movie where this iconic character has always taken charge of that… I think women in our society are tired of being portrayed as standing in the back and having the guy do everything for us.” While Tom Hardy’s Max still does just as much if not more than Theron’s Furiosa to combat the evil Joe, she gives Max a run for his money, engaging in a fistfight with him while also ushering a group of Joe’s wives to the eternal safety of utopias like the “Green Place” and its ilk.
5. Badlands (1973)
Terrence Malick’s first feature film Badlands is a gorgeous exploration of young love, irrevocable violence, and the flat plains of South Dakota. Sissy Spacek’s Holly narrates the story and the plight of her romance with Martin Sheen’s Kit. She’s 15 and easily impressionable, twirling her baton as Kit flirts with her on the street at dusk. But Holly’s father is protective (rightfully so) and disinclined to let his only daughter run away and wed. As a result, Kit kills him and thus begins their life of crime on the road.
The two lovers hide out in the woods, making a fortress out of tree limbs and leaves, hunting in streams, and picking wildflowers. It’s an idyllic if transient time; soon, the police are on their trail, and Kit’s trigger finger gets the better of him. The murders Kit commits stand in stark contrast against the singsong lilt of Holly’s young voice. Between the two, there’s both innocence and aggression, and the melding of the two has an unsettling effect.
As in later Malick films like Days of Heaven (1978) and The New World (2005), Malick favors long shots of landscapes and shooting at the golden hour to capture the musky hues of sunset. It’s beautiful, both visually and narratively – a classic story of crime and love that lingers with you long after it’s over.
4. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Six years before he was outlaw Clyde Barrow, Warren Beatty was good guy Bud Stamper in the coming of age drama Splendor in the Grass (1961). Yet, Beatty carries that charisma from Elia Kazan’s teenage drama to Arthur Penn’s violent film. Clyde Barrow woos bored beauty Bonnie Parker (played by a gorgeous and troubled Faye Dunaway) with his amateurish antics as a robber. Though Barrow fumbles as much as he finesses, Parker is so desperate to escape the confines of her sleepy town and waitressing job that she leaps at the opportunity to hit the open road, even if it comes at the price of breaking the law.
Soon, Clyde’s older brother Buck joins them (played by a goofy and spry Gene Hackman), as does his prim and proper wife Blanche. Bonnie struggles with Blanche’s moral pretentions and Clyde’s inability to provide her the physical love she needs, despite having won his heart.
Bonnie and Clyde was inspired by film noir movies such as Gun Crazy and ends with a moral tinge of judgment, just as Lewis’ film does. As their escapades escalate, Bonnie and Clyde are eventually cornered by the cops and meet a violent and fatal end, just like Bart and Annie Laurie. The increased volume of the police’s guns accentuates the graphic conclusion so that sound and image coalesce for the sobering and somber end.
3. Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (the accompaniment to his and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature Grindhouse) opens on the open road, a pair of feet with a perfect red pedicure perched on the car dashboard, languidly tapping to the song’s beat. The song playing, as the credits roll, is “Last Race,” an appropriate ditty that foreshadows the motorized action and terror to follow.
Shortly thereafter, a gaggle of women pull up to DJ “Jungle” Julia’s apartment complex to celebrate her birthday. Over salted margaritas, Julia confesses to her friend Arlene that on the radio she announced Arlene would give a lap dance to anyone tonight who recites part of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to her. Frost’s poem, about the longevity and the love of travel, is a precursor to the travel another group of women will eventually undergo after Julia’s rainy birthday night. But, in this opening sequence, Julia, Arlene, and the rest of their cohort, are drinking, dancing, and slightly deflated after being stood up (Julia) by a potential boyfriend.
When Stuntman Mike (played by a chillingly charismatic Kurt Russell) recites Frost’s poem for Arlene, she’s reticent to fulfill Julia’s promise. “There are as few things fetching as a bruised ego on a beautiful angel,” Stuntman Mike pontificates. But Arlene, undeterred, claims she’ll have to take a raincheck. When Mike calls her “chicken shit,” Arlene caves in, though Tarantino cuts to several hours later instead of indulging both Mike’s (and the audience’s) fantasy… at least within the theatrical cut.
Mike offers Rose McGowan a ride home at the evening’s conclusion and she’s wary about the setup of this stunt mobile Chevy. Sadly, she has every reason for reluctance because she’s told to “start getting scared right now.” Mike’s dangerous driving pitches her against the glass panes until she’s bleeding, bruised, and, eventually, dead. He later hunts down the rest of the women on a lonely road, crashing into them full force.
Later on, we’re introduced to a new quartet of women including Rosario Dawson, Zoë Bell, Tracie Thoms, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. They’re driving through Tennessee and while eating in a diner, Bell reads in the classifieds that a Stock 1970 Dodge Challenger with a 440 engine and a white paint job is for sale. Bell and Thomas are stuntwomen and leap at the opportunity to test drive the vehicle. On the road, they play “ship mast” where Bell rides the hood of car while clutching seat belts. Lo and behold, Stuntman Mike catches sight of the women’s feats and crashes into them repeatedly while Bell holds on for dear life. When Mike finally peels off after being shot, the women pursue him, wheels ablazin’, and beat him to a bloody pulp after crashing his beloved car.
2. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and this road movie takes audience members for both a joyride and a self-empowerment journey. At its heart are two close friends, our titular characters, who weather bad partners, abusive men, and dead-end jobs. While catching up with Thelma in-between waitressing, Susan Sarandon’s Louise snatches the phone from a male colleague who teasingly implores, “Thelma, when are you going to run away with me?” “Not this weekend, sweetie,” Louise quips, “She’s running away with me.”
And run away they do. They’re buddies on a vacation, and Thelma’s “had it up to [her] ass with sedate, and hair is coming down.” They stop off at a bar for celebratory drinks and what starts as an evening of fun ends with Thelma beaten and almost raped. It’s still a tragically topical moment for viewers today in the midst of cases like perpetrator Brock Turner. After confronting the man with a gun, Louise shoots him dead. Determined not to go to jail for protecting her friend, Louise decides to head for the Mexican border, assisted by her Jimmy, played by a smiling Michael Madsen.
Madsen’s Jimmy is a far cry from his more recent turn in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight – no one’s coffee is getting poisoned in this ‘90s classic, though his proposal to Louise is dispassionate at best. And before Magic Mike was Channing Tatum, making women everywhere feel beautiful, he was Brad Pitt brandishing his six-pack and golden tresses, the man who sweetly romances Thelma and revs her libido louder than any car ever will. Sadly though, Pitt may have the bluest of eyes, but he’s got shifty hands (for wallets, not below Thelma’s belt), and bilks the women of their hard earned cash.
Even as times get tough with no money and the cops hot on their dusty trail, the montage where the women drive through the desert at night while Marianne Faithful sings “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is a moment of shared solace. The women, though financially and legally burdened, smile serenely in the moonlight, and we’re rooting for them mile by mile.
1. Easy Rider (1969)
No one speaks for the first several minutes in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, but there are motorcycles, cocaine, and blank, semi-contemplative stares between co-stars/co-writers Hopper and Peter Fonda. We have a vague sense of their distinct personalities before they even open their mouths when Fonda delicately snorts his cocaine with a rolled up bill and Hopper goes in full hog, dusting his handlebar ‘stache white.
They’re Wyatt and Billy, travelling via choppers to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. They pick up hitchhikers, smoke grass, and appreciate the benefaction of others, especially at a commune that offers food, and the companionship of two beautiful women who swim naked with Wyatt and Billy in a nearby lake. There are often long shots of the expansive wide west that surround our ambling bikers. And in the deserts, with their distantly ice-tipped mountains, it feels like something out of a Hudson River School painting; as if our protagonists are in the process of discovering this unadulterated landscape like a virgin touched for the very first time.
Karen Black from Five Easy Pieces (1970) has a brief cameo as a prostitute, as does Jack Nicolson who plays George – a smooth talking, alcohol-swilling lawyer, who dons his high school football helmet when he decides to join the duo on the open road. In a time in America’s history where the culture was both exploratory and explosive, the soundtrack complements this tension with bands and performers like Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and Steppenwolf; additionally, the proliferation of drug use, from the tranquil opening sequence to the phantasmagoric LSD sequence in the graveyard, showcases a generation that’s loud, fast, and out of control.