Top Ten Roadtrip Films
Filmmakers flock to the road film, time and again. Perhaps it’s because we seldom have the power to control our grasp of time – how we spend it, and who we spend it with. While ideating stories for my film, I asked myself, when was a purely happy moment in my life? Most moments that came to mind were moments while I was in transit, traveling from one place to another – the act of going somewhere, but not necessarily the destination itself.
In my preparation for New World, I discovered and re-watched many films. Here are a few of my favorites, along with some anecdotes that I’ve gathered about the making of these films from the directors or actors involved. I’m a sucker for those Q&As, and hope you find these insights as illuminating as I did.
This summer, I completed a month-long theatrical road tour of my feature. The act of taking the film on the road was also a very self-reflexive one and provided incredible, absurd moments that only road trips can create.
Please check out There Is a New World Somewhere, now available on iTunes and other on demand channels in the US and Canada. We also have some theatrical screenings left, so see if our film might be playing at a theater new you. Here is our trailer:
Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) drifts back to me every few years, and each time I see it, it illuminates something new.
The film follows a drifting oil rig worker, Bobby, who has spent his entire adult life running away from his privileged youth as a piano prodigy. When he learns that his father has had a stroke and might pass, he reluctantly goes home to see him with his ditzy but loyal girlfriend, Rayette. But when Bobby gets romantically involved with Catherine, his brother’s fiancée, he feels the clutches of his former intellectual life invading his rootless freedom.
The script, penned mostly by the brilliant Carole Eastman (who also wrote the cult classic The Shooting) celebrates quiet drama while giving us some of the most joyous moments in cinema. Rafelson seems to love this juxtaposition of still and chaos. In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Bobby climbs onto the bed of a moving truck and plays the piano within it. What a moment of pure cinema – Jack Nicholson violently striking the keys of a piano amongst the cacophony of the traffic around him.
I was lucky enough to meet Bob Rafelson once. The (now defunct) Avignon/NY Film Festival held a retrospective in 2007, and he gave a rare talk. He said that he didn’t like watching his own films. After he introduced the screening of Mountains of the Moon (1990) he rushed to leave, but as the film started, I overheard him whispering to the festival organizer, saying that he’ll stay “for just the first few minutes.” He ended up watching the whole film. I’ll never forget the look on his face – deep in contemplation, lost in memory. What a private, powerful moment.
Directed by Bob Rafelson
Written by Carole Eastman, Bob Rafelson
Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach, Sally Struthers
There are some films that are so flawless, so divine, that I almost want to stop making films, so that the world can be spared of my inferiority. This is one of those films.
The Edge of Heaven (2008) intertwines a multitude of characters and storylines, but the central journey in the film is focused around Nejat, a Turkish professor of German literature, who travels to Istanbul to find the daughter of his father’s former girlfriend. Throughout the film, we enter the lives of these central characters, who are all traveling and searching for someone or something: Ali, Nejat’s father, who falls in love with Yeter, a prostitute; Ayten, Yeter’s daughter, who travels to Germany to find her mother after her anti-government group is disbanded by Turkish police; and Lotte, a German student who falls in love with Ayten and rebels from the wishes of her mother, Susanne.
Sounds convoluted? Well, it is, but the film will never confuse or frustrate the viewer. This film has the emotional purity of mountain snow, and reveals itself like a magic trick. Even though I’ve seen how the illusion works – how dir. Fatih Akin has woven these narratives – the film still takes my breath away every time I see it. Ensemble films can be clumsy and uneven, but this film has the grace of a symphony.
Akin is a modern master. He makes many films about his Turkish background, but his German, punk rock upbringing is just as apparent through his work. His camera work is incredibly inventive and most of all, trusting to the performances. He provides his actors with the space to shine. Consider me a lifelong fan.
Written and Directed by Fatih Akin
Starring Baki Davrak, Tuncel Kurtiz, Nursel Köse, Nurgül Yeşilçay, Hanna Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkovska
Chantal Akerman is my idol. Her films are labeled as sparse or bleak, but to me, Akerman has given the audience a rare gift within her work: time. With roots in experimental cinema, Akerman’s narrative films invite you, the viewer, into the film itself. Her themes are deeply personal, but contain very little “plot.” The magic by doing this is that the viewer then has the time to reflect on his/her life within the running time of the film.
In the hyper-connected world that we live in, we rarely have a chance to mute the world and reflect on our lives without distraction. When I watch an Akerman film, forgotten memories float back, induced by a scenario or feeling from the film. This is personal filmmaking of the highest form, and it is what I love so dearly about Akerman’s view of the world. Perhaps this is because I find so many similarities with her life and mine – both of us have been drifting our entire lives, belong to multitude of cultures and modes of being. We are professional chameleons.
Les Rendezvous D’Anna (1988) follows Anna, a filmmaker, as she travels from city to city by train, screening her latest film. Although she is intensely lonely, she interacts with several characters along the way – a handsome fan, a loner on the train, her on again off again lover, and even her own mother. Anna drifts, from dark town to dark town, trying to connect, but never staying long enough to do so.
Naturally, I have a lot of similarities with this film. I made a point to re-watched it before going on my own theatrical tour, and many of the scenarios in the film have manifested themselves in real life. As I was waiting for my ride at the Houston airport, a luggage cart worker sat next to me and started to tell me about how he wanted to quit, go back to college, and find a new line of work. It was as if we were in a confessional. He poured his heart out as I silently listened, nodding.
Akerman tragically passed this year. The world will miss her and her cinema.
Written and Directed by Chantal Akerman
Starring Aurore Clément, Jean Pierre Cassel, Helmut Griem, Magali Noël
Told in several parts, Happy Together (1997) follows Ho and Lai, a gay couple from Hong Kong, who decide to go on a trip to Argentina after seeing the country’s Iguazu Waterfalls on a lamp. They hope this vacation can mend their tumultuous relationship, but things fall apart. Violently. They soon create their own hell – a cyclical pattern of abuse and reconciliation. Lai, victim to Ho’s destruction, falls in love with another man, Chang. But this new love is unrequited. Lai, lost in the folds of reality and illusion, has to find a way out, to save what little part of himself that he still finds pure.
This kind of love is fatal. Doomed. At its best, this love shines brighter than a million suns. At its darkest, it is an existence that you would not wish upon your worst enemy. But at the end of it all, it’s your choice whether or not to pass the cigarette. It’s your choice to open the door or walk away.
Wong Kar Wai’s films reach out from the screen and cloak the viewer in a heavy, dark velvet. His images can make you drunk with a melancholy that is not yours. Or perhaps it is. The Academy did a wonderful retrospective honoring Wong in 2016. Showing clip after clip, they mused on his visual style, use of color, etc. But when presented with all of his work in one sitting, I found that Wong’s best gift was how he makes you, the viewer, fall in love with the characters onscreen. When I think of Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love, I think of him as I do an old lover. Someone that I know so well, that I care for.
Wong is a filmmaker born from the audience. As a child, his mother would take him to every cinema in Hong Kong. They had emigrated from Shanghai, and felt alienated by the Cantonese language. The theater was their hiding place. So from the very beginning, his understanding of emotion, of human interaction, was based in the perceived reality within films. So, his emotional currency is directly cinematic. His cinema is pure.
Written and Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Chang Chen
What Top Ten list of road films would be complete without Paris, Texas (1984)? Wim Wenders loves to create grand illusions. But within these absurd realities, he focuses on the most personal and humanist of themes.
A man walks out of the desert. His name is Travis, and he pushes forward, drawn by an otherworldly force. After collapsing of thirst, a doctor tracks down his brother, Walt. Walt soon locates the elusive Travis and tries to unlock the mystery of his quest. Travis is persuaded to travel to Los Angeles to reconnect with his young son, Hunter. Terrified of planes, he forces Walt to rent a car instead. After father and son reconnect, Travis takes Hunter away to embark on a roadtrip through the Southwest to track down his long-missing wife and Hunter’s mother, Jane.
Harry Dean Stanton has a face that has seen all the love and cruelty in the world. Nastassia Kinski and Dean Stockwell give career-topping performances. Aurore Clement, who plays our heroine Anna in Les Rendezvous D’Anna, graces us with a delicate performance as Anne, little Hunter’s Aunt.
Based off of “Motel Chronicles,” a collection of short stories by Sam Shepard, Wenders and Shepard worked together on the film’s story. In the summer of 2015, NYC’s IFC Center had a retrospective of Wenders’ films, and at the talkback, he dropped a couple of fantastic bombs. Apparently, Shepard was supposed to play Travis. He was committed until the very end, but when he fell in love with Jessica Lange, he dropped the project and signed onto a film with Lange instead. When Wenders started shooting, the script had no ending. That’s right – it did not have the peep show club scenes. Wenders and Shepard spoke during production, and one night, Shepard had the ending in mind. He called Wenders and over the telephone, Shepard dictated the last scenes to Wenders, furiously scribbling on the other end. That is the stuff of legend.
What was at first a disaster turned out to be the saving grace of the film. Perhaps this is a lesson to all filmmakers. There is no Travis without Harry. I still imagine Harry with his red hat, his face dripping with a thousand words, walking in the endless abyss of the desert.
Directed by Wim Wenders
Written by Sam Shepard, L. M. Kit Carson
Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clément, Hunter Carson
The Continent (2014) follows a group of best friends – a nerdy geography teacher, a hopeless romantic, and a punk rocker – all from a small island located on mainland China’s East Sea. Bored by their picturesque but dead end town, they plan a road trip heading West, across China, seeking to reconnect with past flames and picking up fellow adventurers along the way.
I watched this film on the plane back from Shanghai. Drawn in by its pretty poster, I was curious to find out what a Chinese road trip film might look like, or be about. And I saw that the juggernaut Chinese auteur Jia Zhang-Ke had a cameo. I was in.
This was a film about young men saying goodbye to their boyhood and idyllic fantasies. Those fantasies include the roadtrip itself, as well as their farfetched hope that they can reignite every lost love that each of them has experienced. The hopeless romantic meets his childhood pen pal and first love, and over a masterfully covered game of pool, the two unravel their mismatched history.
The film has some major flaws, but overall, I found it refreshing. I was surprised that a film like this could be made in the commercial chaos that is modern Chinese cinema. I appreciated its contemplative pace, absurdist story points, and the understated acting of its ensemble cast. The film has a couple of hilarious one-liners and chase sequences too, so it’s not just brooding melancholia.
Yes, it’s an “art film” for modern consumption, (the director Han Han is a famous blogger/novelist in China) but at least this is encouraging. This has the standard elements of a reflexive roadtrip film, but is a very rosy adaptation. The boys drive in a nice, new Volkswagen, and their depiction of beautiful, smog-less China is definitely not the China that exists in reality. Despite its hipster-like tendencies, I still very much enjoyed the film. Its mood lingered with me for a few days, but then it might have just been the jetlag. See for yourself.
Written and Directed by Han Han
Starring Feng Xiaofeng, Bolin Chen, Wallace Chung, Wang Luodan, Yuan Quan, Joe Chen, Jia Zhang Ke.
In Wendy and Lucy (2008), Wendy is traveling to Alaska with her dog, Lucy, in hopes of landing a lucrative job at a cannery over the summer. But in Oregon, their car breaks down, and Wendy struggles to gather the funds to fix it and head back on the road. At her breaking point, she attempts to shoplift dog food to feed sweet Lucy, and is caught and apprehended. Unsure of Lucy’s whereabouts, Wendy reaches rock bottom and has to make a tough decision about her future.
I love director Kelly Reichardt’s work, including Old Joy (2006) and Meek’s Cutoff (2011). Her cinema is pure but stern, almost forcibly simple. She challenges the viewer to focus on the smallest of moments, but rewards them with an emotional gut punch that is real and unnerving. The intensely talented Will Oldham returns for a small role, but also composed the film’s haunting theme – a simple melody that I find myself humming in times of uncertainty.
John Robinson, who graced us briefly in my film as Ethan, is also in this. I asked him about working with Reichardt, and he said that her advice to acting was the most minimalist that he’s ever gotten. She would tell to him to do nothing – to not think about what you are doing. To just do it. The effect is stunningly human – no artifice, no melodrama.
In my research for There Is a New World Somewhere, I dug and dug for female roadtrip films (that weren’t overt comedies or star Britney Spears), and Wendy and Lucy and Manny and Lo were the some of the few shining examples I could find. There’s been a plethora of road films with men – and I wondered why women weren’t given the same space in the genre for introspection and discovery. Let’s hope there will be more to come.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt
Starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Walter Dalton, Will Oldham, John Robinson
In Taste of Cherry (1997), Mr. Badii drives through Tehran looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. He has dug a hole on top of a mountain in a nearby desert suburb and is offering all of his possessions to whoever agrees to bury him. Badii interviews a carousel of candidates as he drives them to the site of the hole, but many flee as he reveals his grim plans.
This minimalist film is an allegory, a fable. Mr. Badii, in his aged Land Rover, climbs a mountain of dust, each time with a new suitor, coaxing him to help with his dark task. He is almost happy when he happens upon a construction site, thinking that if no man will help him fill the hole, these soulless machines might. He sits amongst the machines as the dust engulfs him, his shape disappearing in frame. But when the men operating these machines tell him to leave, Badii’s brief moment of resolution is over. One after the other, Badii’s passengers reveal themselves through their reasons for not wanting to help. A young solider bolts from the car after Badii relentlessly pleads with him. A devout man in seminary quotes the sins of suicide from the Koran. An old man shares a deeply intimate story about his own attempt at suicide, and how a single mulberry saved his life.
Badii’s car becomes a confessional – a safe space for conversations about the most sensitive of topics. In this space, we learn that each passenger has found something to life for. Badii, however, has nothing. The audience never learns why, but we don’t really care. When someone digs a hole to die in, we can trust that the reasons are strong enough. This is a unique kind of roadtrip film – one where the car literally drives in circles and up and down this heap of desert sand. Mr. Badii becomes Sisyphus, doomed to push his heavy boulder up a mountain for all of eternity.
Master Abbas Kiarostami passed this year. He’s left us with an incredible catalog of films, all deeply rooted in the light and dark of humanity in us all. When a filmmaker has passed, I try to save a few of their films for later in my life. Watching all of his films would be like eating too many sweets – there are only a few in the tin, so when the time is right, I’ll come and have another.
Written and Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Starring Homayoun Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi
Teenagers Tenoch and Julio meet the older, seductive Luisa at a wedding. Abandoned by their girlfriends for the summer, the boys invite Luisa to join them on a roadtrip to find a secret beach, called Boca del Cielo. They head out of the congested metropolis of Mexico City and into countryside. As they grow closer, attraction becomes inevitable, and the boys both vie for Luisa’s attention. The road grows long, and relationships between the three become more convoluted as we learn why Luisa had agreed to go on this adventure.
Alfonso Cuarón makes incredible, soulful films. He gives you the rock and roll, glamorous rough and tumble that we crave so much in films like this, but never shies away from the most uncomfortably intimate moments between human beings.
The long takes and master coverage in the film is a true testament to the talents of these incredible actors. Lens by the one and only Chivo, one scene unravels as the camera floats in from a wide of the car traveling down the road to a three shot of the happy bunch. It zooms into close ups of the two in the front seat, then captures a moment of the one left in the backseat, then floats out of the car again, to the establishing wide to show the car amidst the landscape they are traveling through. It’s mesmerizing coverage, and gives you an illusion of not only being on the journey with these charming people, but almost a god’s eye view of each of their private sorrows and little joys.
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) shows us a permanent vacation that we wish we could live in. Here are three incredibly vibrant people, filled to the brim with joie de vivre and charm. And for a moment, the audience can live vicariously through them, to touch the sand and taste the salt of a beach hidden away from the entire world.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Written by Carlos Cuarón, Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna
Retired doctor Isak Borg travels from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree from his alma mater. He is with his pregnant and unhappy daughter-in-law, Marianne, and along the road, they encounter a series of hitchhikers that each remind the doctor of people and events in his long life. Most notably, a beautiful young woman Sara brings back the bittersweet memories of the doctor’s first love. Complete with surrealist sequences and dreamy realities, this is one of Bergman’s most human and tender films.
There is ample writing about Ingmar Bergman and I am beyond terrified of writing any critical musings about him or his work. But I’ll share what I can.
What I love so much about Wild Strawberries (1959) is that is a story derived only from the immovable pillars of time and experience. The last close ups on the doctor, played by the mastro Victor Sjöström, are so effective because in his eyes, you see a lifetime of memory. What if, in our own twilight years, we were to be taken on this reflexive journey of our own lives? Would we be proud of the way we chose to live? Were we cruel to others, and others cruel to us?
Years ago, the Academy had an exhibit with clips and trinkets from Bergman’s life. They had some fantastic clips of the documentary Bergman Island and other interviews with Bergman near the end of his life. There was one clip where he, as an older man, gave commentary about an interview he did immediately after releasing Cries and Whispers. The younger Bergman boasted about his use of light and color, especially the color red. The older Bergman, upon viewing this interview, laughed. “I had no idea what I was talking about,“ he said. “I was trying to sound deep and interesting.” That is a statement of humility that only an old man can make.
Some filmmakers are able to grow not just their craft within their work, but their wisdom and humanity as well. Perhaps this is why cineastes love auteurs so passionately – it is because we feel as if we know them, understand them, and can befriend them through their cinema.
Written and Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl
Within the context of these masterworks, I will humbly write about my first feature, There Is a New World Somewhere (2016).
Sylvia, a troubled young woman, returns to her Texas hometown for a friend’s wedding. There she meets Esteban, an electrifying stranger, who dares her to join him on a road trip through the Deep South. She agrees, seduced by unknown adventure to come.
The film is centered around a misguided young woman searching for distractions of every kind to evade facing her internal demons. When I was aspiring to make this film, I felt I was experiencing a great conundrum. I had boundless energy and passion, but lacked the connections and resources to make my creative goals a reality. This story was a way for me to try to fight my own self-doubts. I think anyone who has tried to express anything creative can relate to these fears.
I hope the film aims to capture not only the thrill of love and adventure, but also intense moments of introspection that road trips can create. As a reaction to our frenzied culture, I wanted to make a film that focuses on moments of powerful stillness, and to be unafraid to linger on the precious moments of pause in one’s life.
And as another offering to this genre, I wanted to make road film with a female character that reflected both the beauty of wanderlust but also capture the claustrophobia of what road trips can feel like. It’s not all just stars in your eyes – anyone who’s been on a road trip with friends or lovers can tell you that by day ten, all you want is a shower, a hotel, and to get as far as you can from whoever you are traveling with.
To those that will watch our film, I sincerely hope you enjoy it. It’s a quiet film, but it’s been a deeply polarizing film as well. Even now, it’s hard to make a film about a complicated “unlikable” female protagonist and expect audiences to follow through. And as a Chinese American filmmaker, I’ve gotten flack for not making an “Asian film” as my first feature. Although the discussions around diversity have been groundbreaking and overdue, there has been an interesting counter-conversation about what stories we “diverse” filmmakers are allowed to tell. And frankly, I have every right to go “off the reservation.” Film is a medium for exploring something new. And that exploration has no rules, no definition, and definitely no limits.
I hope this is the first of many adventures, and I’m looking forward to all the roads ahead.
– By Li Lu