If you love traveling, it’s a bitter pill to swallow: The continuing COVID-19 outbreak means limiting summer travel plans to the thrilling jaunt from the living room to the kitchen. And if you were dreaming of a summer road trip, I am sorry.
But if you’re stuck at home, fear not: Here are some virtual odysseys for the armchair traveler — road movies that think outside the “Man vs. Wild,” Kerouac-worshipping box, from the contemplative corners of the French New Wave to the loud, post-apocalyptic universe of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Ridley Scott’s feminist-adjacent answer to a cowboy movie.
Besides, even as states reopen, some of us have good reason to stay right where we are, whether we’re quarantining, caring for a loved one or managing an illness of our own, living in proximity to an immunocompromised family member, or just generally reluctant to head out the door as a pandemic continues to rage around us. We might as well be entertained while we wait it out.
“Thelma & Louise”
A road movie with a ride-or-die approach to female friendship, “Thelma & Louise” is an iconic feminist film for a reason. As he did in 1979’s “Alien,” director Ridley Scott melds terror and violence, heroic women and a lived-in sense of the everyday, into a cinematic atmosphere that’s easy to love. If you don’t already know the dialogue by heart, Thelma (Geena Davis), a put-upon housewife, and Louise (Susan Sarandon), a put-upon waitress, escape their stultifying patriarchal hell for a vacation that turns into a run from the cops after an act of self-defense. It also features a very young Brad Pitt in a small but crucial role.
Whether you see “Thelma & Louse” as a gold-standard rape-revenge film, a violently feminist rejection of traditional gender roles or simply a queer subtext-laden masterpiece starring Davis and Sarandon at the height of their collective powers, it’s a mordant, cheering romp that earns that ending with verve, camaraderie and real pathos. Watching it is a transporting journey, a meditation on surviving — or not surviving — sexism, and a reminder of the desperate inner reserves real friendship can bring to even the worst situations.
Where to watch: Hulu, Amazon, Tubi, Scarecrow Video
“Vagabond” & “Faces Places”
French New wave foremother Agnes Varda’s most road-trippy work is arguably “Vagabond” (“Sans Toit Ni Loi”), the groundbreaking 1985 film about a woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) living on the road alone. A movie that raises questions about community, interdependence and the social context that makes a man on the road an adventurer and a woman in the same position an anomaly, “Vagabond” is an iconic piece of feminist cinema. It’s also a challenging, meandering watch at times — one well worth the effort.
For something somewhat lighter, pair it with “Faces Places” (“Visages Villages”), the delightful film Varda made with visual artist J.R. in 2017. It’s a documentary that also functions as the most highbrow buddy comedy you’ll ever see, as aging, whimsical Varda and young, broody, dark glasses-clad J.R. travel to French villages to take large-format portraits of ordinary people and install them in highly visible spaces. “I didn’t realize the picture would be so big,” says one subject. The documentary is like that, too: Though it’s a lighthearted journey between two very different friends, it addresses the complexities of memory, aging, art and community — all with humanity and charm.
Where to watch: Criterion Channel (“Vagabond”), Amazon Prime or YouTube (“Faces Places”), Scarecrow Video (both)
“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”
Before “Pose” and “Drag Race,” there was “Priscilla,” a movie partially funded by the Australian government, about a pink bus (the queen of the title) operated by three drag performers traveling across the desert to a gig in Alice Springs. Along the way, Tick (Hugo Weaving), Adam (Guy Pearce) and Bernadette (Terence Stamp) deal with homophobic violence in rural areas and anxieties over aging and parenthood.
But “Priscilla” is also a comedy, packed with wonderfully campy swagger, as its heroes work out the intricacies of choreographing and costuming their upcoming performances to a steady, delightful soundtrack of ABBA, Gloria Gaynor, Lena Horne and Peaches & Herb. Released ahead of his roles in “The Matrix” and The Lord of the Rings franchise, “Priscilla” contains one of Weaving’s best performances in a fierce, effervescent celebration of kinship in its many forms.
Not everything about “Priscilla” has aged well: Though Stamp delivers a tender, respectful performance as Bernadette, she’d likely be played by a trans actor if “Priscilla” were made today, and in a scene that feels like a jarring departure from the rest of the movie, a minor character is reduced to a troubling stereotype. Still, in a 1990s cultural landscape that often depicted LGBTQ+ characters as anomalous or tragic, “Priscilla”’s unapologetic portrayal of queer joy set it apart — and still does. For an American answer to “Priscilla,” follow it up with “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and John Leguizamo.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Scarecrow Video
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
This one feels like kind of a cheat — is it really a road trip movie if it’s actually a film-length car chase? But I’ve been finding action and horror movies weirdly (or obviously) soothing lately, and “Fury Road” is a little of both, set in a frustratingly resonant world ravaged by climate change, its decay catalyzed by a corrupt warlord with the temperament of a toddler, Immortan Joe. Immortan Joe forces women into sex slavery and men into service (and all-but-guaranteed death) as “war boys.” Also, everyone is ill.
Luckily, we don’t spend much time with Immortan Joe — or even Max Rockatansky, for that matter — but with Charlize Theron as the stoic, chrome-smudged Imperator Furiosa, charged with rescuing the women Immortan Joe has enslaved and transporting them to her maybe-no-longer-extant birthplace, assisted by a biker gang of old women carrying a (literal) seed of hope, like the plant in “Wall-E.”
Directed by George Miller and beautifully edited by Margaret Sixel, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is an improbably hopeful film that takes sexual violence seriously without needing to depict it on-screen. It also bucks action-movie convention, maintains a thrilling chase for nearly two hours, and includes a character known as the Doof Warrior, who plays a flame-throwing guitar. Witness it.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Scarecrow Video