"Stagecoach" (1939)
Is “Stagecoach” the first road movie? Let's see, band of strangers, bonding over the circumstances of a treacherous Western journey... sounds like it! This stone cold classic cemented into immortality three of the most influential grandfathers of the Western: John Wayne, John Ford and Monument Valley. Ford keeps his narrative tight, his pace at breakneck, and his vistas sweeping in his first sound film. Ford smartly makes the landscape and setting as much of a character in the film as the rest of his mismatched bunch, setting in stone this treatment of location that would inform road movies forever. John Wayne establishes his everlasting Western character with the Ringo Kid-- sassy, knowing, and never giving an inch. Claire Trevor is saucy and lovable as the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, and the rest of the cast is spot-on in their nuanced treatments of typical characters. The scene in the stagecoach, during the Apache siege, where the doctor points his gun with a lone bullet at the pregnant white woman became an established story element in many other Westerns to come, and the “save the last bullet” trope persists to this day, although mostly in zombie movies rather than Westerns. “Stagecoach” is the most influential Western to date, and it set off a whole century’s worth of road movies with its treatment of characters and location, not to mention its style and energy. [A]

"Rain Man" (1985)
While superficially a mental-illness picture, the type that earns actors Oscars for playing 'special' -- as it did in this Barry Levinson film for Dustin Hoffman -- for all intents and purposes, “Rain Man” is a road trip film that has several layers and dynamics to it. While it follows the tried-and-true American road trip arc -- an alpha male is burdened with a lesser creature, but learns to love him regardless, not to mention learns a little somethin,' somethin' from him -- in 1988 maybe it wasn't as quotidian as it sounds (Todd Phillips admits "Due Date" is highly influenced by "Rain Man"). Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbit, a successful douchebag who's become apoplectic with rage when he discovers his rich asshole dad -- who has just passed away -- has given his millions away to someone he didn't know existed: his autistic older brother sent away from the family at a very young age. Indignant that he is being denied what he believes is his natural birthright, he kidnaps his sibling Raymond (Hoffman) as a way to ransom the money back from his father's attorney at will. Raymond is nothing but a burden at first, but soon after endangering the impaired man's life a few times, the ignorant and self-involved Charlie starts to realize just how much his brother needs special care. During their road trip (Raymond can't fly), which leads them to Vegas, and then eventually L.A., the brothers bond and we see that the vapid Charlie does have a soul despite his insufferable cool-guy exterior. Kudos to Cruise and the script for not fully redeeming the character of Charlie (seeing Josh Hartnett play the role on stage in London only reemphasized how good Cruise is here), and Hoffman is obviously and iconically great as the tic-filled autistic man. [B]

"The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert" (1994)
“I'll join this conversation on the proviso that we stop bitching about people, talking about wigs, dresses, bust sizes, penises, drugs, night clubs, and bloody Abba.” If cackle-filled chatter about the aforementioned topics isn’t your (sequined) bag, then “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” might just make for the trip from hell. For the rest of us, Stephan Elliott’s Australian disco-filled comedy is a campy classic that was sadly overshadowed, at least in the States, by the similar (and inferior) "To Wong Foo." Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp may not have then had the star power of Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo, but they’re each uniquely wonderful in their roles as two drag queens and a transvestite who make a cross-continent road trip from the city to the country (and there’s something to be said for seeing Agent Smith, Leonard Shelby, and General Zod be so entirely convincing in dresses and heels). Outback vistas are nicely shot, but it’s Lizzy Gardiner’s Oscar-winning costume designs that really make this a glittering visual stunner. Bette Midler's taking the lead in a Broadway musical version of the show next year -- something we have decidedly mixed feelings about... [B+]

"Planes, Trains & Automobiles" (1987)
The contemporary standard for road trip comedies, the tag is certainly deserved and really, its one that directors could stand to study a bit more carefully as an idea of how to do it right. Written and directed by John Hughes, the film follows stuffy ad executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) and shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) as they try to make it back to Chicago after their flight is grounded on Thanksgiving weekend. But what makes the film work -- and makes it a go to staple every holiday season -- is that beyond its impeccably contrived comedic set pieces, there is a real (and yes, admittedly corny) heart beating in these characters. Del is just a big old bear, a warm, giving people-person who gradually defrosts the frigid core of Neal. Hughes is an old fashioned sentimentalist but it's easily forgiven when the film’s frequently big laughs are equally generous and spirited. And c’mon, don’t tell us you still don’t well up just a little bit at the film’s climatic subway station scene because it still sort of gets us every time. Now something of an annual ritual, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is a trip we look forward to taking every year. [B+]