Top 10 Road Movies: His vs Hers, Why Not?

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Summer is when a lot of us hit the highway, so a round-up of Road Movies makes sense. But how do you assess the genre when the freeway as backdrop has been the purview of men traditionally? Easy, just compare two Top 10 His & Hers Road Movie Lists. First a few rules for the trip we are about to take: 1) the type is Oxford-dictionary defined as a movie “in which the main character is traveling, either in flight or on a journey of self-discovery;” 2) this excludes pure racing films (read: Fast & Furious ilk), driver biopics (e.g.; Heart Like a Wheel (1983) on drag-race “first lady” Shirley Muldowney); and 3) this list is culled from the universe of English-language movies, mostly American films. Icon-making movies like Easy Rider (1969) get a biker exclusion, while Convoy (1978) gets a trucker pass, and Smokey & The Bandit (1977) is out since the road is secondary to the caper. TOP  TEN MALE-DRIVEN ROAD MOVIES So start your engines, as we look first at the Top 10 Road Movies for Men, followed by the Top 10 Road Movies for Women… TwoLaneBlacktop 1) TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971): Probably the quintessential gearhead flick, Two Lane Blacktop stars the unlikely combination of crooner James Taylor in cahoots with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. While you may shake your head at the songbirds as road buddies, Taylor and Wilson turn in the most compelling performances in American Road Movies, ever, hands down. This doesn’t mean that it’s the most badass, violent, or savage use of a vehicle. Between Wilson and Taylor, as they race across the country to win the pink slip to a brand new GTO, they reach this state of grace, a sense of total completion during the incompleted race against the mind of the other driver. In the final frame, director Monte Hellman, who was schooled by Roger Corman, actually lets the frame-burn stand as the exit sequence, further catapulting this film from cult classic to cinema gem, worldwide. WhiteLightning73 2) WHITE LIGHTNING (1973): Who else but Burt Reynolds had that “haw, haw, haw” American trademark hick guffaw? You see him in Deliverance, and that puts any idea that he may be a Hillbilly to rest. In White Lightning from 1973, Reynolds blasts on screen as a con who must infiltrate a corrupt Southern Moonshine town run by an sadistic Sheriff to find out who killed his younger brother. “You ain’t running Moon, are ya?,” is a typical line from this picture. White Lightning elevates itself from a crime story to a road movie as Burt Reynolds, named Gator, lives by the freedom the road gives him. Even today, the execution scene of the college brother, by none other than Ned Beatty from Deliverance as a wicked Sheriff here, is barely ratable by MPAA. A gift from the FBI, his car is a super-charged 1971 Ford Custom 500 that becomes a symbol of this ex-con’s strength and willingness to endure anything to avenge his family. When he has no friends in the snake-ridden swamp of humanity, the car is his only (and true) ally. ThunderRoad 3) THUNDER ROAD (1958): Bob Mitchum, known professionally as Robert, made headlines in the Forties with “The Mitchum Pot Bust of 1948” which at the time was so shocking it almost ruined his career. The worst part of it was that burning the “weed” revealed a passive, mellow side to the screen headbanger known for fast cars and even faster women. And in Thunder Road from 1958, our badboy Bob is at it again as a Korean war veteran who comes home to run the family moon-liquor business. And he is on a fast path of destruction even though he is trying to keep his brother out of the mayhem of bootlegging. It’s a classic for the vintage He-Man attitude of Mitchum, as it is for the stunning array of classic cars on display. Later we see echoes of Thunder Road in many other movies, from a shadow cast in 1960’s Wild Ride, starring early-career Jack Nicholson, to modern-era car thunderers that used the likes of the legendary Bill Hickman, one of the greatest stunt drivers who ever lived. DirtyMaryCrazLar 4) DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (1974): You really have to see Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to believe the nutty kidnap, terrorizing, death-defying couple of yahoos, portrayed by Peter Fonda and Susan George, exists on film at all. Chased by helicopters, almost running into a speeding train, these swingers know how to party. Not to mention, they grab the tiger by the tail so many times, you will find yourself gawking not only at the language, incidental abusiveness, but the raw, gutsy depiction and screen presence that is Dirty Mary. Fonda definitely holds up his end, and his role in Easy Rider had already made him an icon, yet to see him get outfoxed here and there by Mary is a rare treat. Luckily he has a mechanic along to keep his machine in tip-top shape for high-speed pursuit. And the director is British, the clothing is ultra-mod, plus Peter Fonda is so cast-iron incorrigible that he convinces a whole generation to go bad after seeing this movie, just kidding. Bullitt68 5) BULLITT (1968): San Francisco Police Honcho Frank Bullitt is singled out by a powerful politician to guard Johnny Ross, brother of a gangster from Chicago, who the authorities want to spill his guts to a US Senate subcommittee on organized crime. What happens in the next 48 hours, the time Bullit is on the job, turns into a road movie, complete with chases, near misses, hits, and gun fire. Guess if he makes it to the trial on Monday. Look forward to a high-speed pursuit to watch several times on playback for the stunt choreography alone. Bullit’s car is a 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2-plus-2 Fastback. As referenced earlier, Bill Hickman would come in to do some stunt work on Bullitt, although McQueen was famous for pushing the envelope in moving vehicles. In his backstory, McQueen was a speed racer on motorcycles growing up, as well as a dare-devil in anything with wheels. Today there are even desert races that still bear his name. That said, Bullit was really an excuse to floor it in a 1967 Mustang Fastback, which drove sales of this car as a collectible through the roof. While Bullitt has a judicial premise, the minute the man steps in the vehicle, all you want to see is the pedal to the metal and McQueen burn rubber on it. (Side note: Bill Hickman was James Dean’s stunt driver in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and was utterly devastated in October when Dean killed himself in the desert in the 1955 Porsche Spyder 550.) VanishingPt716) VANISHING POINT (1971, ORIGINAL VERSION): Sadly the remake of Vanishing Point some three-plus decades later with Viggo Mortensen was an absolute travesty, turning the knuckle-biter original  into a soft-soap sell for mass audiences. The original Vanishing Point pits Kowlaski (Barry Newman), our driver, against so many forms and formations of Law Enforcement, it is jaw-dropping to watch the hopped-up hotfoot on the run across many states and jurisdictions. All the while, ordinary folks and even Native American tribes, aid, abet and root for him to the bitter end. Describing the plot, which is drawn from true story, takes the magic away from this road-rage relic. But, for the record, the gambit here is that he must drive a Dodge Challenger from Denver, Colorado, to San Francisco in an impossible 24 hour period, to drop this car off to the new owner and get paid a bonus. What Kowlaski, who by the way never has a first name in this movie, is trying to escape is his bad past, of course. DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little), a blind DJ for a soul/R&B channel, tips off Kowlaski in code to help him skip the police, as his wild past rapidly catches up. Getaway727) THE GETAWAY (1972): Steve McQueen will even end up seducing co-star Ali McGraw away from movie-executive husband Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in The Picture, biopic based on his bestselling book) on the set of this humdinger. Directed by blood-n-guts legend Sam Peckinpah, and screenwritten by Walter Hill, who goes on to become a director on this list, The Getaway is moving madness at its finest. McGraw, made famous by Love Story with Ryan O’Neal, plays the doomed half of a power crime-couple, who will get behind the wheel to get out from behind the eight ball, so to speak. McGraw will be called upon to “man-up” in this sleek thriller, but ex-con husband Steve McQueen is no doubt the marquee draw for his verisimilitude, a spitting image of a man on the run from his DNA as a childhood hoodlum. (McQueen claimed to have been raised in a brothel, the son of an actual “prostitute,” by his own admission, who became a Hollywood Legend.) DriveGosling8) DRIVE (2011): While Ryan Gosling plays a mechanic who moonlights as a stunt driver in this Nicolas Winding Refn instant classic, he is emotionally in a road movie because he never lays down roots. Carey Mulligan and Oscar Issac, with heavies Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks, and Ron Perlman, as well as the unbreakable, transcendent Bryan Cranston, complete an ensemble that is flawless in casting. In the spirit of Two-Lane Blacktop and other road traditions, Gosling is never referred to by name. Like James Taylor in Blacktop, Gosling is billed as “Driver” to Taylor’s “The Driver.” Mostly eyes are drawn to one breathtaking mash-up, whereby Gosling in a late model Ford Mustang 5.0 drives backward in a race against a brutalizing Chrystler 300 that will blow your mind. He also does a stunt rollover that’s pretty impressive, plus plows into a Lincoln Town Car on a beach cliff in the swirl of gorgeous sudden plot twists that this brilliant movie contains, before our hero departs for parts unmapped, unplanned on unknown roads, with gunshots on board, bullets still lodged in his manly body. (Side note: DRIVE had the same stunt coordinator, Darrin Prescott, for the 1973 Chevy Chevelle SS that The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, had in a movie called Faster (2010). In Faster, The Rock was named only as the Driver, but it crossed a genre line in that it is really a revenge bounty-hunter beatdown movie and not so much a road movie.) RyanONeal9) THE DRIVER (1978): Though Gosling follows years later as a “freelance getaway driver,” Ryan O’Neal had that gig decades before. Installed in a Pontiac Firebird, the symbolism for this Driver is palpable. O’Neal does something unusual in this movie, he is not the dubious character of conflicted moral values that he often has played throughout his career. He does journeyman work here, inhabits the role as eponymous Driver in The Driver. Written and directed by the inimitable Walter Hill (The Warriors), this film puts guts into the idea that bad intentions can be pared down to a few decisions by a couple of desperadoes in a moment of despair — but can these tiny moments that break the hardest men be reversed? Or maybe just made more exciting by car chases? Either way, Hill also “labels” rather than “names” his characters, alerting the audience this is a road genre. This is curious as a vintage glimpse of actor Ryan O’Neal on screen before he became somewhat of a tabloid cliche, patriarch to a damaged vocal clan. HBHalicki10) GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974, ORIGINAL VERSION): Before you wonder if this fits as a caper movie, crime movie, or road movie, it is a two-banger on genre, but there is a backstory to this film — actually a future-story — that cements its place in the Top 10. The future history will be written by the man behind this picture, which will later become a lukewarm remake with Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Duvall and pals. Who is the man behind this movie franchise? A strange, interesting, and curious real-life character by the name of H.B. Halicki. At 17, this guy already owned an auto parts store, as the story goes, and H.B. became known as “The Car Crash King,” for his stunt-man days, but also because in his Gone in 60 Seconds from 1974, he literally racked up 100 cars in the production. Eventually, trying to pull off a sequel, Gone in 60 Seconds 2, Halicki would end up crushed to death on August 20, 1989, when a 161 ft. water tower that was supposed to cave in during a stunt, collapsed too soon. This man, who went by the nickname “Toby,” literally died for his road movie and although the franchise devolves into international theft rings, the original was very much a road movie in spirit. BadlandsTMRUNNER-UP: BADLANDS (1973), starring a baby-faced Martin Sheen and a little-girl-lost Sissy Spacek, that redefines the potential horrors of a road trip. (Side note: Warren Oates who plays GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop, also plays Spacek’s father in this ripped from the headlines version of a true crime/road movie about the Badlands of Montana.) TOP TEN FEMALE-DRIVEN ROAD MOVIES Before we enter the final lap on car-driven road movies piloted here by women, a caveat is required. Writer Lois Pryce of UK’s The Independent was the first source to bill WILD (2014), starring Reese Witherspoon, as a pure road movie, despite there being no vehicle involved. “Female characters in road movies tend to occupy either the role of love interest or the moll along for the ride,” she noted, “which makes WILD such a refreshing experience.” For the sake of argument, to underscore the contrast in His vs Hers flicks, let’s allow WILD on the basis of our quest-focused, female-driven parameters. Sometimes it is a quest that will cost a “girl” her life before it all gets worked out in the end. Incidentally, Ridley Scott’s 1991 classic Thelma & Louise was written with an alternative ending, where Susan Sarandon bails at the last moment leaving Geena Davis to die alone on the solo car-cliff jump. DriveAngry2011 1) DRIVE ANGRY (2011): Amber Heard is Piper, a smack-talking waitress who, on the same day, quits a job, finds her boyfriend in bed with a “skank,” steals his car, and ends up in a road movie with a proverbial Dead Guy from Hell “looking for his baby girl.” Over-the-top plot-wise, this film is written by Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier. Lussier, who also directs, surely barely passed the censors, likely even stutter-shocked a typical MPAA rating committee. But what this movie does for Heard’s character is catapult her into a whole new class of female pros in a road picture. She is armed, dangerous, and a caregiver, who manages to outsmart the devil’s righthand man on her way to becoming a foster parent. It’s not for the feint of heart, but talk about female empowerment. This one is a celluloid thrill-ride, complete with the outstanding William “Bill” Fichtner as “The Accountant” and Billy Burke as Hell’s Pitchman “Jonah King.” Replete with crazy-cliche busting scenes, this flick rocks the block with barrier crashes, explosions, and is finally the topper that knocks Thelma & Louise down a peg. Plus, Amber Heard not only lives, she outlives 90% of the cast. ThelmaLouise91 2) THELMA & LOUISE (1991): Need we rehash the Ridley Scott doomed-duo game-changer? This is the one that dumb-struck audiences to become a road classic. Well, to add to its legacy, a little-known piece of trivia from inside the Dream Factory is that none other than George Clooney auditioned a reported five times for the part of J.D., the sexy but thieving love interest in the motel room. He didn’t get the part, instead it launched the career of his buddy Brad Pitt, from the sticks of Oklahoma, now on a rocket ride through the box office to the yellow bricks of Hollywood. And the fact that Susan Sarandon vetoed the great Scott on saving her life at the last moment just makes this movie even more of a beloved anthem for women at the wheel. He proposed to have her “roll out” and be rescued before Geena Davis’ Thelma buys it. Sarandon is such a pistol, that in May, she and James Corden, filmed a parody “Thelma & Louise Alternate Ending #1, Ending #2, Ending #3.” Corden is Thelma in this for The Late Show With James Corden. Sarandon deadpans in #3, “to be clear, I only kissed you cause we were going over a cliff.” Then she literally bails out of the vehicle when Corden’s fake Thelma asks Louise if she wants to kiss again since the car is miraculously suspended in the air for “too long.” T&L’s legend continues. SugarLandExp 3) THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974): Is there any female lead today with the ball-breaking charm of Goldie Hawn, who makes you love her exactly for her stubborn resistance to authority, and can play a ditz crazy-like-a-fox while selling you a storyline? The answer is “No.” In The Sugarland Express, which is spun from a version of a true baby-hunt incident from Texas in 1969, Hawn ramrods this quirky plot for all it is worth. Directed by a budding Steven Spielberg, she even manages to steal our sympathy as audience even though her character behaves a little like a moll riding shotgun. Until you’ve watched Goldie Hawn’s performance as  Lou-Jean Poplin in Sugarland, it doesn’t sink in how much she blew the doors off every kind of stereotype for women, from “good mothers,” to “baby daughters,” to “hippie chicks.” Off-screen, Hawn remains one of the last unflinching adventurists in real life. At the time of Sugarland, she was famously quoted as saying “my eyes were too big, my ears were too big,” but that she could care less. (Side note: Hawn’s autobiography “A Lotus Grows in the Mud” was published in 2005. This movie, directed by Spielberg at age 26, is one of her best.) CharlizeMadMax4) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015): Charlize Theron has played a serial killer, Snow White’s evil step-mother (twice since the Huntsman franchise is shooting now), even a Young Adult for Diablo Cody. But she never nailed the road picture until this year, and Charlize blasts her way onto this list for some very good reasons. The first woman to helm the Mad Max franchise, made famous by Aussie Mel Gibson, Theron doesn’t just take up where he left off; she pilots entirely new territory. As crack-driver Imperator Furiosa, she excels in defiance, resilience, and feminist derring-do in a dystopian future. With Tom Hardy’s “blood bag” clean blood donor by her side, she hijacks the pregnant favorite of the Ruling Man, even so far as to lose said lady as road kill to save the rest of her flock. But she is no mother hen, Charlize Theron is white-knuckle steady in this blaster boost to save the next generation, with something to live for, and something to live on, meaning she not only saves the world, but its water, food, and clean blood supply. (Side note: For the sticklers, the reason Theron gets a pass on vehicle type is because Mad Max is a car-based road movie, and in the future the thing she drives is the car-equivalent… if it ate a lot of other cars, and ended up on steroids.) UmaThurman5) KILL BILL (2003): Much has been said about Quentin Tarantino, but he did launch stunt woman Zoe Bell atop the marquee, and no one can accuse him of not writing some banging women in major roles. His muse Uma Thurman, the darling of paradigm-shifter Pulp Fiction (1994), became the canvas on which he penned the phenomenal revenge-seeking Martial Arts trained, weapons fanatic in the yellow and black tracksuit. He wrote this in no less than 200-pages in the original script, which then had to be broken into Vol. I and Vol. II. The Bride is Uma’s character, who is out to execute the lover who tried to take her life, while she was pregnant, then buried alive, of course. Remarkable as survivor, The Bride then ends up car-jacking  her way to revenge in a yellow and pink monstrosity, a Chevrolet Silverado SS named “The Pussywagon.” The Tarantino-esque signature amoral and violent plot embellishments can not diminish the essential road movie that is Kill Bill. Thurman must have wheels, not for the sake of wheels, but to ferry her to from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, where she harries, harasses, and Hiroshima’s (read: goes nuclear) anyone who ever crossed her.  (Side note: An Italian rarity, a sportscar of brand De Tomaso Mangusta, is Bill’s car; The Pussywagon featured in the movie is actually Quentin Tarantino’s vehicle in real life, which he could not face blowing up in Vol. 2 as he had planned.) WILD20146) WILD (2014): If the concept of a vehicle-less road movie is integral to the distinction between men’s and women’s road movies, how does this theory play out? Like so: If a man loses his wheels, gone is the mojo, sexual prowess (bye-bye “chick magnet”), feelings of invincibility, and general coolness factor which was a direct benefit of getting a flash ride to begin with. Ironically, for women, being without wheels may indicate freedom (she bailed on a bad ride), is part of her make-up as passenger, a role she quits on exit, or just business as usual for some marginalized femmes. On her feet, under her own steam, the female lead reaches a state of grace. In other words, the stranded or transportation-lacking lady is never without a way to transcend her circumstances in order to complete a journey on her own emotionally. Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed does just this, takes to the road to go back to the Starting Line inside her personal history and figure out where the gun went off that led her on the race to hit bottom in her life. When the road finally spits out this woman, she is quite capable of getting her own ride. Even having a car seems possible. BoysOnTheSide7) BOYS ON THE SIDE (1995): Whoopi Goldberg’s famous line from this movie is “I’m not going over a cliff with you two, so just forget it” as a direct hit to the “Thelma & Disease” Syndrome where the “chicks” die in the end. It’s also a slap at the notion that ‘good girls who go astray end up with what they deserve,’ which is always something horrible and possibly disfiguring to their femininity. The insanely complex Mary-Louise Parker teams up with Jane (Whoopi Goldberg), whose friend Holly (Drew Barrymore) joins the road trip. The importance of Boys On the Side is not that it is a road classic, but that it messages back to the damage done by T&L, and requires viewers to look at a multicultural perspective on the genre. Whoopi is our go-to for this, also at the height of her career at the time, having scaled even her own initial identity as Caryn Johnson (her real name), bank teller by profession. Boys is a must-see for the spectrum of emotions possible in a rigid genre like the road flick. Oh, and this movie was way ahead of its time as Whoopi plays a lesbian, and Barrymore along with Parker have their own secrets along the route. LilyTomlin158) GRANDMA (2015): Not released yet, Lily Tomlin will pinch your cheeks with her acerbic and petulant but wise Grandma in the title role. And what is she doing in this road movie with her granddaughter? Trying to raise enough money for an early-stage abortion, naturally. Tomlin lays it on the line as a contrast to conventional Marcia Gay Harden, in a parental role where she wants to deny reality for as long as possible. Leave it to Lily Tomlin, a pioneer in comedy and in so many ways as an impersonator, a character modeler (e.g.; Edith, Telephone Operator). She does it all to reflect the eras she has lived through to help us live through it too — by inventing personas who either don’t get it, or get through it, or get over it. In Grandma, Lily Tomlin embraces not only aging, multi-generational reconfigurations of the traditional nuclear family, but also pioneers the concept of Friendma. Meaning a hip older lady who refuses to go out to pasture as society would prefer, not to mention this dame can save your ass in a pinch. Look forward to Aug. 21 release date. ToniColletteJP9) JAPANESE STORY (2003): Though much less famous than her Australian compatriot Nicole Kidman, Toni Collette has become more familiar to American audiences through United States of Tara, TV series. Now cancelled, Collette’s backstory includes The Sixth Sense, where she played mom to Haley Joel Osment’s “I see dead people” kid. But forget all that for a moment, because Japanese Story from 2003 is perhaps some of her best work, and likely the most unusual and memorable female-centric road movie you will ever see. Without the big spoilers, suffice it to say that Collette plays a software engineer who takes a Japanese businessman into the Outback, only to have fate intervene and create one of the most poignant examples of adventures on the open, uncharted road. It is a must-see. Plus, this is a segue to her role in Little Miss Sunshine, where Collette again stars, with Steve Carell, in what could be called a Family Road Trip movie with a dead relative. She followed that with a Carell reteam for The Way, Way Back, which is by way of saying, there may be a new genre emerging, The Family Road Trip Movie. LeavingNorm10) LEAVING NORMAL (1995): Okay, so Christine Lahti plays a waitress. Wait, this is another waitress who hits the road with a pal? But they don’t end up killing anybody or really changing the game in a huge way. A lot of critics and fans would count this as a T&L rip-off. Wait, it has Meg Tilly in it, so it is bound to at least feature one of her unique lisping charmed performances, right? Let’s be more generous than that because there are some surviving elements of this film that do not suffer from copycat hallmarks. And while many of you may want to throw the Coen Bros. film Raising Arizona in here instead, that movie falls under the exception rule that the road element is secondary to a sensational plot. Leaving Normal is a message picture rolled into a road movie. They leave Normal, Wyoming for Alaska, so already we have left the urban edge of T&L territory. The weather is now a character on this car trip as this duo is soon to run into a menagerie of interesting people along their way to self-discovery. And it is directed by Ed Zwick (Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire), a very happening helmer, who ends up doing great things in the movies himself. STARMANRUNNER UP: STARMAN (1984), a three-banger genre mash-up (Sci-Fi, Road Movie, Romance). (Side note: CROSSROADS (2000), starring Britney Spears, is probably the worst-ever, female-driven road movie, but stays true to the genre.) And with that, find your keys, pack the car, and go on Summer Vacation…   # # #

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