What is it about the road trip that lends itself so well to cinema? Looking down the entries to the genre, some of our very favorite films of all time qualify as part of one of the oldest tropes in the movies, and today's release of Todd Phillips' "Due Date" confirms, if confirmation was needed, that the style is still alive and kicking.
It's partly that the filmmaker gets to include as many cinematic locations as they can get their protagonists to visit, it's partly that the nature of a chase, or a journey, is inherently filmic, and it's partly that there are few better ways to create drama than sticking a group of characters together and forcing them to travel in the same direction.
In honor of Phillips' movie (which as we'll see, is dividing the staff here as much as it's dividing critics around the world), we've picked over twenty of our favorite big-screen journeys. Not all are perfect, but all are worth adding to the Netflix queue.
"Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001)
Returning home to Mexico after 1998’s less-than-triumphant “Great Expectations” adaptation, Alfonso Cuarón turned his camera’s eye on a clearly beloved country, and one engulfed in a tempest of clashing traditions and social classes. The result is “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, an elegiac look at youth in bloom, evidenced here by Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal), who are unsympathetic and seemingly permanently overtaken by adolescent lust. Their mindless roaming through upper crust circles leads to a fateful meeting with Luisa (Maribel Verdú, equally distinguished, though perhaps not as alluring, in del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth"), a confident and sexy older woman. Their hormones in furious flux, the boys and Luisa take to the backroads of Mexico on a road trip to get away from their personal demons -- only Luisa’s seem to cut a little deeper and as she veers the boys into a world of sexuality as of yet unknown to them (save for their equally excitable but seemingly effervescent girlfriends, who appear briefly and in mid coitus). Cuarón paints the poverty of Mexico lovingly and curiously (aided by DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s immense skill behind the camera), well aware of the incongruousness of the cast with the silent, serene beauty that rings so far off from the lavish appearance-making parties of their lives. Perhaps it is that slow burn, the dissonance that echoes louder and louder with each passing scene, that makes the final reveal of the film so effortlessly heartbreaking, a gasp caught in the throat and two men reminiscing in silence about who they were -- and who they might have been. [A-]
"Wendy and Lucy" (2008)
As silly as it sounds, Kelly Reichardt's third film is really more of a detour movie, consisting of what happens when a naively planned life changer of a trip hits a bumpy road. These pictures tend to be minimalistic as it is, but "Wendy and Lucy" really strips the genre bare, focusing on an occurrence that any other film would probably spend a mere ten minutes on and never give a second thought. In doing so, it unearths the strange, dismal, and ultimately probable (whether you naysayers believe it or not) situation of everything falling apart in succession. It manages to hit most of the same notes that other road movies do, but by restricting the traveling to pre-movie and ending, it deals with the various unseen and frightening limits of the country, the system, and humanity in a very enclosed space. It's also one of the few to really capture genuine and profound kindness, illustrated by Wally Dalton in a key end scene: something that its colder brethren often overlook. [A-]
"Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)
A commercial flop on release, “Two-Lane Blacktop” was championed by Esquire as 1971’s movie of the year, and went on to acquire a cult following back when that meant something other than a marketing strategy, but the fact is it’s so completely a product of its time that it doesn’t really have much to say to modern viewers. The undeniably hip cast features Peckinpah favourite Warren Oates (the film’s strongest performance by far) and a certain “HD” Stanton, while the leads, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and singer James Taylor mumble their way through the terse dialogue, displaying absolutely no surprise at anything that happens, not that much does: a couple of drifters have a couple of street races and a hitchhiking girl sleeps with them both, then runs off with a biker. It’s a bit of a drag (pun intended), if a very pretty one, with the same streak of self-indulgence that, for this writer’s money, mars other films of this period and this genre, notably “Easy Rider” (ooh! Controversial!) which is similarly cooler than it is enjoyable. But whatever you feel about ‘Blacktop’‘s worth, it’s certainly a road movie - one of the purest expressions of the form on this list, and director Monte Hellman exerts a huge influence to this day, even executive producing “Reservoir Dogs.” Which, to be honest, this writer would recommend you enjoy for the umpteenth time rather than sitting through this one, unless you’ve a great deal of patience, an enormous passion for cars, or a large baggie of marijuana and 100 minutes to kill, 70s-style. [B-]