Two-Lane Kings: The 15 Best Movies on the Road

“A lot of my films start off with road maps instead of scripts. Sometimes it feels like flying blind without instruments,” says iconic German director Wim Wenders. “You fly all night, and in the morning you arrive somewhere. That is: you have to try to make a landing somewhere so the film can end.” And as one of the most beloved and acclaimed masters of cinema, the majority of his early films fell into the grand and expansive category of the Road Movie. Whether it’s a drama about the fruitless search for the intangible American dream, the journey to sacrifice yourself and reunite the ones you love, or the act of running away from that which you’ve committed on the other side, throughout cinematic history, the road movie has served a vast array of narrative genres—spanning from violent pop-art thrillers to tranquil languid dramas.

As a place where the chaos of the world is forced to tame itself and adhere to the graceful restrictions of a parallel world, the road allows one’s mind to detach from the constant anxieties outside the blacktop. Wenders would describe it as a place of discovery, with travel as a “circular form” where there’s always “something of a waltz at the end of the road.” And throughout cinema, some of the most cherished works of art and some of the most influential films of the last hundred years have taken the form of the classic road picture. So as we wind into summer, the greatest time for long and winding endless trips across new borders and exploring into the abyss of the soul, let’s take a look back on some of the greatest  road movies to ever make their way onto the screen. From Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider to Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, here’s looking into the vast stretch beyond.

EASY RIDER, Dennis Hopper

After Easy Rider’s cross-country journey—with its radical, New Wave–style editing, outsider-rock soundtrack, revelatory performance by a young Jack Nicholson, and explosive ending—the American road trip would never be the same.

TWO-LANE BLACKTOP, Monte Hellman

But no summary can do justice to the existential punch of Two-Lane Blacktop. With its gorgeous widescreen compositions and sophisticated look at American male obsession, this stripped-down narrative from maverick director Monte Hellman is one of the artistic high points of 1970s cinema, and possibly the greatest road movie ever made.

MY OWN PRIVTE IDAHO, Gus van Sant

Visually dazzling and groundbreaking, My Own Private Idaho is a deeply moving look at unrequited love and life at society’s margins.

STRANGER THAN PARADISE, Jim Jarmusch

With its delicate humor and dramatic nonchalance, Jim Jarmusch’s one-of-a-kind minimalist masterpiece, Stranger Than Paradise, forever transformed the landscape of American independent cinema.

DETOUR, Edgar J. Ulmer

Detour is an example of material finding the appropriate form. Two bottom-feeders from the swamps of pulp swim through the murk of low-budget noir and are caught gasping in Ulmer’s net. They deserve one another. At the end, Al is still complaining: “Fate, for some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.” Oh, it has a reason.

ALICE IN THE CITIES, Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders’s 1974 black-and-white road movie that marked the first installment of his Road Movie Trilogy and mirrors similar themes as his 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas. The film tells the story of a German journalist traveling in the United States who becomes responsible for a nine-year-old girl as they travel through back through Europe to her grandmother. Filled with existential yearning and melancholic beauty this is a truly beautiful watch.    

PIERROT LE FOU, Jean Luc-Godard

This is no normal road trip: genius auteur Jean-Luc Godard’s tenth feature in six years is a stylish mash-up of consumerist satire, politics, and comic-book aesthetics, as well as a violent, zigzag tale of, as Godard called them, “the last romantic couple.” With blissful color imagery by cinematographer Raoul Coutard and Belmondo and Karina at their most animated, Pierrot le fou is one of the high points of the French New Wave, and was Godard’s last frolic before he moved ever further into radical cinema.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, Terry Gilliam

Director Terry Gilliam and an all-star cast headlined by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro show no mercy in bringing Hunter S. Thompson’s excoriating dissection of the American way of life to the screen, creating a film both hilarious and savage.    

PARIS, TEXAS, Wim Wenders

What makes Paris, Texas and all of Wim’s work so special is that it is filled with so much yearning and so much restlessness; people aching so badly to find what it is they’re looking for. They’re all so hungry for love and connection and something to make them feel alive. Some of them find it in others and then some of them realize even if they did—would it even make them feel better? Or are they destined to eternally feel that hole inside? 

BADLANDS, Terrence Malick

The film introduced many of the elements that would earn Malick his passionate following: the enigmatic approach to narrative and character, the unusual use of voice-over, the juxtaposition of human violence with natural beauty, the poetic investigation of American dreams and nightmares. This debut has spawned countless imitations, but none have equaled its strange sublimity.

NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Oliver Stone

Stone is not making a geek show, with closeups of blood and guts. Like all good satirists, he knows that too much realism will weaken his effect. He lets you know he’s making a comedy…Stylistically, the film is a cinematic bazaar, combining color and black and white, film and video, 35mm and Super 8, sitcom style and animated cartoons, fiction and newsreels. They’re throwing stuff at the screen by the gleeful handfuls.    

DOWN BY LAW, Jim Jarmusch

Described by Jarmusch as a “neo-Beat noir comedy,” Down by Law is part nightmare and part fairy tale, featuring sterling performances and crisp black-and-white cinematography by the esteemed Robby Müller.

TASTE OF CHERRY, Abbas Kiarostami

Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry is an emotionally complex meditation on life and death. Middle-aged Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) drives through the hilly outskirts of Tehran—searching for someone to rescue or bury him. 

BOTTLE ROCKET, Wes Anderson

Bottle Rocket is a charming, hilarious, affectionate look at the folly of dreamers, shot against radiant southwestern backdrops, and the film that put Anderson and the Wilson brothers on the map.

WILD AT HEART, David Lynch

This is my road picture, except there isn’t a role for Bob Hope.

A Look Back on the Brilliantly Wild Life and Work of Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper was a lot of things. Wildly notorious for his dangerous antics and erratic behavior, he was also unfathomably talented and brilliant—not only as an actor but as an artist in the purest sense. As one of the most important counter cultural icons of the last century, he helped usher in new wave of American cinema that would change the scope of film forever. “Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had created an anthem for a generation,” Peter Biskind once said, “but they had also imagined its apocalyptic destruction, which many of the decade’s directors did their best to emulate.” And whether he was stealing the screen, creating havoc behind the camera, or inspiring a world of independent filmmakers just to break all the rules and go for it, it’s his manic energy and passion and the stunning results they produced, that he will always be remembered for. And as today is his birthday, here is a look back on some of the incredible filmmaker, artist, and actor’s best moments. Enjoy.

 

Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper on Fishing with John

Dennis Hopper on Merv Griffin

Speed

The Last Movie

Blue Velvet

The American Friend

Apocalypse Now

The Trip

Dennis Hopper on Late Night with Letterman

True Romance

Dennis reads a Poem on the Johnny Cash Show

Revisiting the Culture of Bob Rafelson’s ‘Five Easy Pieces’

Tonight, as part of their The Works: Karen Black retrospective series, Nitehawk Cinema will be showing Bob Rafelson’s 1970 classic Five Easy Pieces. The film was not only one of the greatest cinematic achievements of New Hollywood but also provided the perfect vehicle for Jack Nicholson to showcase what frighteningly rich talent was lurking inside him—"I had bagged into a guy who didn’t even know he was a fuckin’ actor," Rafelson has said. So in honor of the film’s screening tonight, we’re giving you another look at our Cinematic Panic article from January that dives into the world of Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

It was amidst the pre-production for the Vincent Minnelli picture, On a Clear Day Your Can See Forever, when producer Robert Evans was at a loss. He could not find a single person who seemed to fit the role of Tad, the brother of Barbara Streisand’s Daisy. In one of the final casting sessions, Evans claims to have finally said, "Hold it!" Thinking he was speaking of the young man they were watching act, his head of talent said, "I think he’s terrific too, could be the next Jimmy Dean," to which Evans replied, "No, not him. The other guy. The one who didn’t talk. The smile." And after weeks of tracking him down, Evans finally met with “the smile;" all he wanted was to hear the guy talk. He asked the kid what he’d been working on: Just finished a flick that could be a real winner. Been in the can for just a month. Somethin’ about it’s real interestin’…it’ll turn ya upside down. Evans didn’t understand "a fuckin word the guy was saying," but he thought he was original. Not even knowing if he could act, he was cast—signing him, off nothing more than a flash of that devilish grin. "It sure in hell was a first for me, mesmerized by another guy’s smile."

That incredible mug happened to be the now legendary and iconic man of many talents, Jack Nicholson—who, at the time was beginning to garner attention from audiences with his minor but stand-out role in Dennis Hopper’s ode to a generation lost in the search for the American Dream, Easy Rider. Having left his home in Neptune, New Jersey, to pursue an artistic career after hearing he had "the face of an actor," Nicholson began earning his chops, studying meticulously on his craft in acting classes. And it was there that he met lifetime friend and collaborator, the master of B-movie schlocky brilliance, Roger Corman, with whom he would go on to write, direct, and star in pictures for throughout the ’60s. [Sidenote: If you’ve seen last year’s documentary Corman’s World, it’s impossible to forget the exposed and tender moment in which Nicholson tears up and begins to cry talking about Corman’s importance to him and how their relationship changed his life.]
 
But it was a time when a host of young actors, writers, and directors were on the precipice of something huge, about to take over Hollywood and lay their bones as the frontiersmen of New Hollywood, a movement that would shake a generation. Influenced by everything from Charlie Parker’s jazz, Marlon Brando’s performances, andthe writing of Camus and Sarte, Nicholson and his friends—Hopper, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Robert Towne, Warren Beatty, and Monte Hellman—were "the first people in America who weren’t buying the American Dream," recalls Nicholson. The "accent was on Holden Caufield-style iconoclasm, Beat intellectualism, and going to parties, but the focus was always on film acting and directing," as noted by Seth Cagin and Phillip Dray in their 1984 book Hollywood Films of the Seventies. 
 
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But before he became the smooth-talking, charismatic wise-guy we consider one of the cinema’s greatest personalities—hell, the studio heads at Paramount during the casting of Chinatown weren’t even sure if they  could sell him as a romantic lead—he was known around town as a versatile character actor. But even throughout his early career—solidifying just how wrong those producers were—he still managed to tackle an array of diverse roles in every genre. He dug his hands into every aspect of filmmaking, working as a writer, director, and actor while a part of BBS (previously Rayburt Productions), an independent American company formed in the ’60s by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, who together developed The Monkees. BBS went on to put out some of the most prolific films of the early 1970s, including Peter Bogdonovich’s now-classic black and white drama The Last Picture Show. BBS launched the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars but most notably that of Nicholson with the Rafelson-directed film, Five Easy Pieces—an amalgamation of American road movie, in-depth character study, and European art film. 
 
Made for under $900,000 in 1970, Five Easy Pieces was the first Columbia-financed BBS release and worth every dime. Written by Carole Eastman, the film drew on Rafelson’s own life and the collective unconscious of the time. The leading character Bobby Duprea (played by Nicholson) represents an anonymous American existence. He’s a man who hides in the culture of others, never having to face the permanent sense of indecision that plagues him. Bobby is a volatile and aggressive man who rejects his intellectual, upper-class background, preferring to disappear in the life of an everyday man. He’s a classically trained pianist who chooses the life of a hard-hat—working in the oil fields and living modestly with a big-haired, Tammy Wynette-singing, truck-stop waitress, Rayette (played to perfection by Karen Black). Bobby doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. This sense of displacement echoes the anxieties of the time, not knowing where the world was heading or how to deal with the onslaught of social dissonance. 
 
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Bobby represents a post-1969 frame of mind, when it wasn’t only the youth culture that was feeling the social and political afflictions of society. The "hippies" of the previous generations weren’t the only ones going through upheaval and anger but "could now be seen in any American." Easy Rider served as the ultimate symbol for that previous generation of youth counter-culture, and now Nicholson was here with that same sense of ill-ease and disillusionment, but in the character of an everyday man’s own identity crisis. Bobby wanted to escape the confines of his own upper-class background by assimilating into the blue-collar working class, a place where he would be free from pretense; he feels "alone in his ordeal," but that sense of isolation reflects the culture at large. 
 
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Bobby is "terminally ambivalent" as Kent Jones puts it: "watching the film is like being compelled to sit down with a stranger and hear the tale of an unresolved life." He wants to be free of class distinction, but no matter what world in which he exists, he finds himself devoid of feeling or ability to truly connect with those around him. He’s affected by them and will occasionally show a hint of passion or wild sexual impulse, but can never commit to a feeling or place, let alone a person. There’s a nonchalance about the poor way in which he treats the people in his life, namely, Rayette. Around her, he acts hostile, as if he’s held captive by her oppressive love for him. His distain for her is palpable, and you can feel the anxiety he has just being in her presence. He acts on his need for freedom by sleeping with other women and lying to her while still feeling possessed by her feelings towards him. In a brilliantly acted scene, Bobby tells Rayette he needs to leave for a few weeks, to which she responds with despondence and desperation. At first he doesn’t invite her with him, but as he gets in his car to leave, he begins flailing his body around, banging the steering wheel, knowing the right thing to do is to bring her along, but the thought makes him want to put his head through the windshield. But she comes along, and thus begins the road movie aspect of the film.
 
His father is dying. At the request of his sister, Bobby agrees to travel to his family’s home, which represents the antithesis of the life he’s been living with Rayette. While traveling between these two worlds, the road serves as a place where Bobby’s disaffected psyche can really hit its stride, adhering to no one and nothing. Vast highways and open roads have always served as a romantic metaphor for personal expansion and possibility, or opportunity and the promise of something better lying just beyond the next stop. When you’re in transit, you’re unknown and the world feels free of consequence. Even though Raynette is with him, he drops her off at a hotel and heads to be with his family alone. While there, he has an affair with passionate woman who attempts to pull some feeling from Bobby, but his lack of desire to pick a side—even to his emotions—turns her away. In the end, he chooses that anonymous life, a "self-exile," as Kent Jones put it.
 
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J. Hoberman said that Five Easy Pieces is "predicated on the non sequitur," making it similar to the European art films of the time. It takes our expectations of cinematic convention and flips them on their head. It’s like traveling down a long road that keeps veering off in different directions, with pit stops on the way that never provide anything but momentary enjoyment and brief revelation, only to disappear before the next sudden turn. There’s one scene in which Bobby is stuck in traffic in the passenger seat of his friend’s car. He sees a piano sitting on the back of a flatbed truck in front of the them and simply exits the car and hops onto the truck to play some Chopin—as if the world is watching. The truck drives off as we see it disappear in the distance, and Bobby continues to play, unruffled. The next scene is at the diner where Rayette works; there is no mention of the flatbed experience again. In a similar vein, Rayette’s pregnancy is hinted at once, but never mentioned again. It’s a novelistic film with flourishes of the absurd set in the vivid and dust-filled American landscape of the time. 
 
But what the film does best is provide a vehicle for Nicholson, showing the strength of his acting abilities. Five Easy Pieces is Bobby’s world and thus Jack’s world. His character’s wise-cracking attitude and outbursts established Nicholson’s maniacal acting style that would characterize him throughout the rest of his career. His performance is truly the work of someone completely dedicated to his craft and able to disappear into his characters without losing sight of himself. Although he did receive an Oscar nomination for Bobby Duprea, he lost to George C. Scott in Patton. But awards are no matter; what’s important was how, after 43 years, the film still feels important. Not only does it encapsulate a bygone generation, but it speaks to the questions of identity and the desire to escape that we hold onto, regardless of time.
 

From Dennis Hopper to Terrence Malick, Here Are the Films You Should Be Seeing This Weekend in NYC

I don’t know about you, but I fully intend on spending my weekend curled up with a box of Junior Mints in a darkened theatre. It’s been a long week thus far and with the myriad premieres and screenings going on over the new few days, you really have no excuse to not get yourself into a cinema. From Antonio Campos and Shane Carruth’s stunning sophomore efforts to Terrence Malick’s latest poem of emotions, to the wonder of Dennis Hopper and the debut of Darren Aronofsky, there’s a certainly a diverse mix of films to see. So to get you ready, I’ve compiled the best of what’s playing around the city this weekend—take a look and go buy yourself some candy and/or popcorn. Enjoy.

 

 

IFC Center

Simon Killer
Beyond the Hills
Gimme the Loot
Leviathan
Room 237
The We and the I
Upstream Color
2001: A Space Odyssey
House (Hausu)
The Shining

 

 

Landmark Sunshine

Spice World (in 35mm!)
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Sapphires
Stoker
My Brother the Devil

 

Nitehawk Cinema

Easy Rider
Room 237
Spring Breakers
Inside
Pat Garrett and Billy
Bad News Bears

 

 

Film Society Lincoln Center

Room 237
From Up on Poppy Hill
No Place on Earth
Stones in the Sun
Death for Sale
Toussaint
My Fair Lady

 

 

 

Museum of the Moving Image

To the Wonder
The Face You Deserve
The Headless Woman
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

 

 

BAM

Somebody Up There Likes Me
Castle in the Sky
My Neighbor Totoro
Princess Mononoke
Renoir

 

 

Angelika Film center

Trance
No
Blancanieves
No Place on Earth

 

 

Village West Cinema

On the Road
6 Souls
Lotus Eaters
Starbuck
Ginger & Rosa

 

 

MoMA

Pi
Amateur
Me You and Everyone We Know
Laws of Gravity
Viktor und Viktoria
Winter’s Bone

Sacre Bleu! The Ten Most Infamous Moments of Cannes

The Cannes Film Festival, now in its 65th year and currently underway (it wraps the 27th), is known for red carpet fashion, parties, unjust Palmes, and outrageous accusations and statements made by auteurs against either the system or other directors. We’ve compiled a timeline of the most outrageous moments in Cannes history. 

1954:  Breast in Show
B-movie actress Simone Silva (who died when she was 29, we learned while reading her sad Wikipedia page) posed topless in photographs for her honorary title “Miss Festival 1954” with Robert Mitchum. To a world unfamiliar with breasts or Robert Mitchum, this was quite a scandale.

1969: Easy Riders
Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, and Co. showed up at Cannes and pretty much peed and drank their way through the town. Hopper, who was in the heyday of his hard-living, took home Best First Work, thereby legitimizing both independent cinema and doing lots of drugs. 

1985: A French Witticism!
It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last time that an international director gets a faceful of pie. But when New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was pied in the face by a Belgian journalist, he simply licked his pie off his cigar and said, "C’est ce qui arrive quand le cinema muet rencontre le cinema a textes," which translates to, "This is what happens when silent movies meet talking pictures."

1989: Do the Wrong Thing
When Spike Lee didn’t win the Palmes d’Or for Do the Right Thing (which went to Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape)he blamed jury president Wim Wenders. Mr. Lee left the festival saying that at home he had a Louisville Slugger with Wenders’s name on it.

1991: Europoops
Lars von Trier brought his film Europa to Cannes, which won the Jury Prize. Upon the realization that he did not win the Palme d’Or (which went to the Coen Brothers for Barton Fink) and actually shared the Jury Prize (with Maroun Bagdadi for Out of Life), he stormed out of the festival brandishing his middle finger and publicly called jury president Roman Polanski a midget.

2001: Real Life Bloodsport
To celebrate the screening of 24 Hour Party People, the four actors portraying members of real-life punk band Happy Mondays took to the beach, where they pelted each other with dead pigeons.

2007: Unbeelievable
Jerry Seinfeld arrived at the festival mid-air dressed as a bee to promote Bee Movie, that year’s computer-animated clunker.

2009: The Triumph of the Balls
A herd of naked cyclists, led by Belgian director Felix van Groeningen, descended upon Cannes to promote La Merditude Des Choses (The Shittiness of Things). It didn’t win.

2011: The Great Hitler Debate
Lars von Trier, no stranger to Cannes controversy, created a fury when he suggested that he sympathized with Hitler. If anything, he managed to get powerful performance out of Melancholia star Kirsten Dunst as she fidgeted uncomfortably next to him at his press conference