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While the road movie has thrived through many decades, it perhaps reached its zenith in the 90s, capitalizing on Generation X’s restless wanderlust spirit in films as varied as ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘Natural Born Killers’, ‘My Own Private Idaho’ and ‘Dumb and Dumber’.
These travelogues reflected all of the anxieties and obsessions of the era: combustible young romance, slacker misadventures and fascination with serial killers, fueled by alternative rock soundtracks full of angst-ridden anthems.
In addition to the aforementioned good road movies, let’s look at some underrated oddities that make for intriguing and unconventional detours.
“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”
This fever dream romance starred Nicholas Cage and Lauren Dern as Sailor and Lula, two red blooded lovers reunited after Sailor’s prison stint for murder in self-defense.
Looking to make a fresh start, they take off to California, but Lula’s domineering mother puts out a hit on Sailor, bringing out a slew of lowlifes to take him out.
The love-struck duo are too enraptured with each other to acknowledge danger, until Sailor reconnects with the sleazy Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), who requests his help on a robbery. Things do not go as planned.
Following on the success of Lynch’s critically acclaimed ‘Blue Velvet’ and cult classic TV show, ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘Wild at Heart’, was a critical and commercial flop, ravaged by critics for its graphic sex and violence. But it’s a surreal, psychosexual crime thriller that only Lynch could deliver.
“Just… give ’em a buzz, tell ’em I’m stuck in the middle of the desert with an asswipe and a frozen cat.”
The weirdest comedy you’ve never heard of stars Crispin Glover as Rubin Farr, an awkward, antisocial young man pressured to make friends by his domineering mother.
He crosses paths with Ed Tuttle (Howard Hesseman), a down-on-his-luck pyramid scheme salesman desperate to find a candidate to bring to a sales meeting. At first, he is delighted when Ruben agrees, but there’s a catch: Ruben will only oblige if Ed helps him bury his frozen dead cat in the desert.
And if that task wasn’t unappealing enough, the duo must contend with Ed’s unhinged ex-wife (Karen Black), and an elusive and abusive Andy Warhol critic. Hallucinations and hijinks ensue.
Simply explaining the premise of ‘Ruben and Ed’ doesn’t do the film justice. Its charms must be witnessed firsthand, for a truly mind-altering cinematic experience.
Its oddball aesthetic even rubbed off on Glover, who was kicked off ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ after staying in character and attacking the host!
“You know what they say, conquistador… stick with the one who can see the truth of your soul. Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
In this quirky indie comedy, John Doe stars as Joe, a biker who travels to a desert casino to spread the ashes of his recently deceased co-worker. Along the way, he meets Sam (The Beastie Boys’ Adam Horowitz), another biker searching for a motel where his parents committed suicide.
The duo forms an unlikely bond, encountering many colorful eccentrics along the way of their offbeat road trip.
‘Roadside Prophets’ is one of those gentle offbeat tales that could only have existed in the 90s, featuring cameos from John Cusack, David Carradine, Flea, Don Cheadle and drug guru Timothy Leary, among others. It won’t change your life, but it has an infectious charm nonetheless.
“How are you going to write a book about something you know nothing about?”
Writer Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) is taking a trip cross-country with his photog girlfriend, Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes) for research on their travelogue book, chronicling serial killer murder sites.
In an effort to save cash, they carpool with a pair of strangers: Earl Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend, Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). But their downhome, salt-of-the-earth demeanor is deceiving: Grayce is a serial killer himself.
Soon, Brian and Carrie must move beyond academic fascination with their subject matter and try to stop Early’s murderous reign. But will they and the morally-conflicted Adele survive in the process?
‘Kalifornia’ has an interesting, philosophical take on the serial killer genre, standing in contrast to more well known 90s murder tales that featured Lewis (‘Natural Born Killers’) and Pitt (‘Se7en’).
“It’s better to be dead and cool, than alive and uncool.”
One of the strangest buddy action pics of any decade, ‘Harley’ features Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson playing the title characters, two lovable miscreants bemoaning the foreclosure of their favorite bar in the year 1996.
In an effort to help out the owner, the duo plans to rob a bank truck. But rather than containing cash, it’s filled with a deadly designer drug.
Soon, they’re pursued by a corrupt banker (played by Tom Sizemore), who will stop at nothing to get back his shipment, regardless of who dies in the process.
While it bombed with audiences and critics, ‘Harley Davidson’ is the definition of a guilty pleasure, a weird hodgepodge of road, shoot’em up, heist and sci-fi film, full of scenery-chewing one-liners and high adrenaline action.
If you’re up for a campy cult classic equal part ‘Road House’ and ‘Easy Rider’, you’re in for a fun time.
As the films I mentioned illustrate, the 90s proved a hallmark for independent film: a decade of soul-searching that recalled the 70s in its focus on celebrating the underdog and non-conformists.
The road movie remains the heart of the Gen-X slacker movement, helping to define a decade that bristled at being defined at all. It’s a refreshing era to revisit in our current landscape of sequels, prequels and reboots.
Now, you take the wheel: what 90s road films do you think deserve inclusion on this list? Be sure and sound off in the comments. And also be sure to check out my list of Good Road Movies From 1971-1975, 1975-1980, 1980-1985 and 1985-1990 in addition to the honorable mentions below.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Natural Born Killers’, ‘True Romance’, ‘Tommy Boy’, ‘Until the End of the World’, ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’, ‘Highway to Hell’, ‘The Doom Generation’, ‘My Own Private Idaho’, ‘Dumb and Dumber’, ‘Dead Man’, ‘The Living End’, ‘Gas, Food, Lodging’.
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