You Only Live Once (1937): The best way to explore a foreign land is to hit the road. For his second film in Hollywood, Fritz Lang—fresh from fleeing Nazi Germany—did just that, sending his ex-con hero (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Sylvia Sydney) on America’s highways in search of peace. Instead they find persecution, judicial laziness and an unwillingness to forgive past deeds, with enough pockets of humanity to still keep you delusionally believing in the dream.
Detour (1945): “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you,” muses Tom Neal’s luckless musician as his trip to Hollywood turns into a nightmare of cheap motel rooms, copious rear projection and Ann Savage’s monstrous performance. Filmed in four days, this no-budget gutter noir is a reflection of its maker, Edgar G. Ulmer, who went from working with the German Expressionists to manning sly Poverty Row programmers.
Stroszek (1976): Werner Herzog has fared far better in his American travels than the German immigrants of his darkest film, and he’s even been shot here. Playing a version of himself, the incomparable Bruno S. leads a trio to the Midwest, where they’re oblivious to the bankers and capitalists who undo them, albeit politely. By journey’s end, all that’s left of America’s promise is a dancing chicken.
Paris, Texas (1984): Wim Wenders, the poet laureate of wanderlust (see: Kings of the Road), turns his cameras on the big skies of Texas and California, in turn making the familiar seem positively alien.
Twentynine Palms (2004): French philosopher-turned-filmmaker Bruno Dumont (Humanité, Hadewijch) hangs with a couple as they fight and fuck through the area in and around Joshua Tree National Park—a great road movie with a miserably inane conclusion.
Paul (2011): Journeys should be about discovering the new, yet Simon Pegg and Nick Frost appear to have constructed their version of the South through movies: it’s all rednecks, creationists and the E.T.s of Steven Spielberg. Though, unlike Pegg and Frost, Spielberg wisely refrained from making his E.T. and Close Encounters aliens nearly as “biz-zay” as The Simpsons’ Poochie.