Alexander Payne’s Nebraska opens in theaters this week. I have been anticipating this movie for a long time; I’m not a particularly huge fan of Payne’s, but I am a big fan of road movies. I’ve been tracking this project back when it was suppose to star Dave Matthews. Yes, that Dave Matthews. The final incarnation of this project is a black and white film starring veteran actor Bruce Dern, as a cranky old man who believes he won a million dollars in Nebraska, and SNL alum Will Forte, as his son who begrudgingly takes his dad to collect his “winnings”.
I’ve always been interested in road stories. The open road fascinates me and I’ve had some great times with great friends inside a car, watching as mile after mile passes us by. There are obviously the classics (Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, Paper Moon), but there’s a whole class of films that get lost in the shuffle. Here are just five of those lesser-known films that you should seek out if you’re a fan of the genre.
5. Paris, Texas
Slow, meandering and haunting, Paris, Texas is a moving film that asks Harry Dean Stanton to shoulder the load of emotional weight for two-and-a-half hours. Written by actor/playwright Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff), the movie tells the story of Travis, a man who has been wandering around the American Southwest for the better part of four years. When his estranged brother Walt (Dean Stockwell, Quantum Leap) tracks down Travis, he is disoriented and aloof. As he starts to piece his mind back together, a sad story of a failed love doomed from the start begins to take shape.
To call Paris, Texas understated is not saying enough; it says more in its twangy soundtrack than it does in its naturalistic dialogue that permeates the film, but what makes the movie an absolute masterpiece is the lone scene Travis has with his ex-wife, played by Nastassja Kinski. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and well worth the long runtime.
4. Two-Lane Blacktop
What do you get when you pair a Beach Boy with a young James Taylor and ask them to say about three minutes of dialogue across 100 minutes of a film? You get Two-Lane Blacktop, the little brother film of the slightly better known Vanishing Point.
This film is the quintessential counterculture movie and it is such an odd addition to this pseudo drama that it can almost barely be called a movie. It closer resembles compiled stock footage of a 1955 Chevy and a GTO, but that shouldn’t be viewed as a slight. Two-Lane Blacktop works in its minimalism, in much the same way Gus Van Sant’s more experimental films do. They are cathartic, beautiful, and existential in their quietness.
Gene Hackman and Al Pacino each have a filmography of undeniable classics, but this is a little film that seems lost in the shuffle, which is weird, as this is the only time the two have ever acted in a film together. These two heavyweights teamed up in this oft-forgotten film from 1973, playing two drifters that travel America looking for work and a place to call home.
Scarecrow almost plays like a companion piece to the more revered Midnight Cowboy; it’s undeniable how similar the relationship between the two leads play out and the ending is equally as tragic.
It’s an interesting film to watch as the relationship develops from strangers to travel companions to an undeniable codependence; by the end of the film, the two occupy such complimentary aspects of human psyche that it is impossible to imagine them last long without the other by his side.
2. Smoke Signals
It’s a rare instance to see a film in which the main character is a Native American, but such is the case for nearly the entire cast of Smoke Signals. Starring the recognizable Adam Beach as Victor, Smoke Signals tells the story of a trip by two friends, as they take their first extended trip off the reservation to collect the remains of Victor’s estranged father.
Smoke Signals is one of the perfect examples of a road movie that chooses the road as, well, a road for a character’s self-discovery. Adam Beach’s character harbors a lot of resentment towards his father; it’s a seething disdain and a fine performance by Beach, who may be most recognizable for his role as Kickin’ Wing in Joe Dirt. He’s actually a very good actor, as seen in Flags of Our Fathers, and this performance is right up there with that one. This isn’t a movie about Native American-American politics; in fact, very little has to do with the character’s ethnicity. The themes are much more universal, as Victor learns a lot about himself, his relationship with his tag-a-long friend Thomas, and coming to grips with his past and his father.
1. The Straight Story
In some alternate universe, Disney tapped professional weirdo David Lynch to direct a live-action movie, you’d think you’ve gone through the looking glass where Mr. Lynch can harness his own bizarre tendencies to create a story that makes sense and pull at your heartstrings at the same time. Well… that’s exactly what we have with The Straight Story, a movie with such a literal title that it begs the question if all Lynch ever needed to tell something coherent is someone else’s money and script.
The Straight Story is almost a modern day fairytale. It centers on an old man traveling hundreds of miles via his John Deere tractor to visit his estranged brother who is dying of cancer. The premise brings visions of Don Quixote: the idea that both this frail man and this tractor could make the journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin seems as unbelievable as the notion of fighting windmills, but to learn that this is based on a true story makes the film that much more remarkable.
This is essentially a one-man-show, played understated by the late Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth had a long career as a bit player and stuntman and this film is obviously his crowning achievement (he was nominated for Best Actor in 2000), and it’s a film that is beautiful in its matter-of-factness and its casual pace makes it all the more endearing.