Many films don’t get the recognition they deserve, get overlooked or forgotten. Few offer the charm or delight to reward tracking them down.
Some years ago I made an appointment with my doctor, announced myself to reception on arrival, was told to take a seat and immediately experienced that annoying emotion I feel all too often of wishing I had remembered to bring a book to read while I waited. The waiting room was typically filled with women’s and celebrity magazines but amongst this I did find an Empire to flick through.
It was one of those end-of-year editions were they asked their various critics to name their best and worst films of the year, plus some fun categories; best onscreen duos, best fight scenes, etc. A sort of boring mix of Academy nods, MTV high-fives and Raspberry buckets over the head. In amongst this was one category that did pique my interest; Empire asked their critics to name the best movie no-ones heard of, and their pick was Interstate 60.
Interstate 60 is the story of Neal Oliver (James Marsden), a young man at the crossroads of his life. He works the night shift at a warehouse to pay bills while he tries to make it as an artist. But as rejection letters mount, his father gets him an acceptance to an academy that will set him on a path towards becoming a lawyer, just like his father.
Neal is the sort of guy who indulges in a bit of superstition. He refuses to believe in coincidences, looks for the meaning behind things, believes in signs and prefers to roll the dice and see what fate has in store for him. Now he finds himself torn between making the safe choice, as his father and girlfriend expect, or pursuing that which makes him happy.
After a head injury starts messing with his perception he is given a mysterious assignment. He is to head west along Interstate 60, which does not exist, to deliver a package. It’s a chance to get away, enjoy the open road and think about his future for a few days before he has to make his big decision.
On the road he meets O. W. Grant (Gary Oldman), an immortal being who has the power to grant wishes but mostly likes messing with people. Neal asks for the one thing he wants most – the answers to his life. What he gets is a magic-8-ball that will always give him the right answer.
As Neal travels down the mythical Interstate 60, he meets others who have had the fortune, or misfortune, of meeting Grant. “Some people just don’t know what to wish for” as Grant says. He meets people whose lives have been lead astray by money, sex, drugs and other pleasurable pursuits. Or people fooled simply by their perceptions or long-held convictions. As his journey moves along, Neal feels more certain about what he needs to do about his life.
Interstate 60 is written and directed by Bob Gale, best known for co-writing Back to the Future, and it shares that film’s charm and life-affirming themes. It is a frame-story, filled with eccentric characters, of a journey through a magical, metaphorical land. It sports cameo appearances by Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Kurt Russell, Chris Cooper, Ann-Margret and Amy Smart. Lloyd and Oldman in particular look like they had great fun with this film and their roles.
Does Interstate 60 truly deserve the title of ‘best movie you’ve never heard of’?
Maybe not. That was a few years ago. It is not that hard to find anymore, I would not say it is easy, but I see it around often enough. Mention such an accolade to your average film-snob and they will no doubt provide a number of films that may better fill that space. And you know exactly what sort of films they would be.
Foreign? Check. Subtitled? Check. Brilliantly written, acted and directed? Check. Plot structures and character development that go against all the clichés of Western storytelling? Check. A story and themes that highlight some forgotten aspect of the human condition; that destroy your preconceptions of morality, faith and love; that will have you leaving the theatre wondering who you are, what you believe in and where you parked your car? Check.
You know those sorts of films, you know what to expect from them, you know who to ask if you want to find them. I’m not dismissing them, frankly I’d like to hear about more of them, but you need not worry that Interstate 60 is one of those.
It is a movie to be enjoyed on a Friday night in with some pizza and beer. It is a film about road-trip odysseys, frontier adventures and the eccentric strangers and monsters you meet on the magical island stops; about not being fooled by your perceptions or that life follows a planned course but embracing its unexpected turns; about betting on your own dreams and taking the roads less travelled by. It is feel-good without being preachy, cheesy, self-helpy or religious. It is funny, it is clever and it will surprise you by being surprising. It will leave you feeling either pretty good about your life or pretty sure about how you are going to change it. Enjoy.