Nobody makes bus movies.
As we all know, buses aren’t sexy, not like streetcars, trains, planes, or cars. Buses are mundane, banal, impersonal, and claustrophobic. If you want to make a sweeping dramatic film, they’re terrible settings, like a submarine without any of the high-pressure stakes. That’s why there are a hundred train films for every movie about a bus.
But that said, there have been bus films! They are rare as Minnesota orchids, but every once in a while some director gets it in their head to make a movie centered on a bus.
Since so many of us are sheltering in place, watching too much television, and longing for the halcyon days of urban transit, here’s my list of the five best bus films I’ve ever seen. Queue these up, sit back, and enjoy the rare pleasure of these great (and terrible) bus films.
Before I get to the rankings, some ground rules. First, I did not include films with private chartered buses, such as the baseball team buses in Bull Durham or Major League or band touring buses like the one in Almost Famous. When it comes to bus films, the ones I really care about are public buses, the kind that run on a schedule and where strangers coexist and sometimes interact.
Second, there are plenty of movies that have a single short bus scene, like Eminem composing lyrics on the bus in Eight Mile, the catbus from My Neighbor Totoro [see above], the horrible serial killer bus kidnap plot in Dirty Harry, the delightful Spock-and-Kirk-on-the-city-bus scene from Star Trek IV, the ending of Midnight Cowboy, or the ending of The Graduate. (Weirdly enough, both featuring Dustin Hoffman.) All wonderful scenes, but marginal. You cannot honestly say any of those films are about buses.
Then, of course, there are countless wonderful school bus scenes, as the school bus legitimately is a central experience of any childhood education. Great examples include Chris Farley’s bus driver character in Billy Madison and Forrest Gump riding the bus to school, but there are dozens more. But none of these films are about buses, and the school bus scenes aremostly incidental to the plots.
So here you go.
Special mentions for: The Big Bus (1976)
Airplane meets Snowpiercer. Not good, but surely a curiosity.
And: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
So buses aren’t in the title. But John Hughes’ film is absolutely about intercity transportation, and the bus scene is delightful, so I’m going to count it.
Best Bus Documentary: La Camioneta (2012)
The documentary is all about the afterlife of a school bus which is reused in Guatemala. A lovely look at how the things we throw away in the United States, even an old bus, can be a lifeline for people elsewhere.
#5. The We and the I (2012)
First off, this is not a good film, but Michel Gondry’s experimental crowd-sourced project about high school kids riding the bus in the Bronx is probably the most ambitious bus film ever made. Ambitious, but terrible. The sound design alone makes it unwatchable, even if the claustrophobic plot was not tedious.
I’ve been on crowded buses full of teenagers in New York, and no driver would let kids get away with the stuff they pull on here. But on the other hand, it really captures — in a precise and manic way — the feeling of being in somebody else’s social world while riding on a bus. I’m talking about the moment when a critical mass forms around a group on transit: sports fans, college kids, halloween goers, or any other relatively homogenous bunch that can descend suddenly on a bus or train and take up all the oxygen.
Don’t watch this unless you really miss being shouted at while you’re trying to mind your own business.
#4. Speed (1994)
Jan de Bont’s Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock action vehicle was a smash hit, and to this day it remains the quintessential bus film. It’s a good thriller, but I’m not sure it’s aged all that well. The bus driver getting shot is pretty stupid. There’s no way you can drive on LA freeways like that. Dennis Hopper chews on every phone booth he can find. And the transit experience is not really part of the plot, other than the very first moments.
But it’s fun and it’s a bus, so here you go.
#3. The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Atom Egoyan’s beautiful drama looks at how a school bus crash affects a small town in Canada. This is a incredibly sad film, but it reveals how important buses are, how like it or not, we depend on so many strangers every day.
I once had breakfast at a diner in Finlayson, Minnesota, and was eavesdropping on a couple locals talking about how the school bus driver had just been laid off — someone they both knew — because he’d had another DUI. Watching this film, you realize that so much depends on the big yellow school bus. I just keep thinking about how little we pay drivers, or invest in school transportation, despite the fact that each one of them holds the lives of dozens of children inside.
#2. It Happened One Night (1934)
This is a great screwball rom-com directed by Frank Capra and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. The plot revolves around a rich heiress escaping her controlling father, who is pursued by a journalist looking for a scoop. Of course they fall in love, but in the meantime, they travel north up the Atlantic Coast on a long-distance bus. The bus scenes are great, and form the backdrop for when the couple falls in love.
Not only is this film great fun, it’s wild in retrospect to see how inter-city buses worked in the pre-freeway era. Guys waving lanterns in the middle of the night to stop traffic, roads seemingly made from mud… It must have taken weeks to get from Florida to New York.
#1. Paterson (2016)
It turns out that Jim Jarmusch made the best bus film ever, which is great because I loved his work already. Paterson is wonderful in the way it develops routines and patterns to create an anti-climactic suspense out of everyday life.
Adam Driver’s main character drives a bus, and is someone who loves his habits. You spend time with him walking around Paterson, New Jersey and develop a keen sense for small bits of noticing that make cities worth living in. The film works in just the same way that you might ride the same route every day to work, saying “hi” to the driver, making small talk about the weather, remark on a neighborhood character standing by the corner store. For example, Driver’s character ties up his dog outside his local bar each time he goes for his nightly beer. You always suspect that something bad will happen to the dog, but then nothing ever does.
This film captures the best parts of the city bus, the poetry of living and traveling with others safely and reliably, every day. Don’t miss it.
What did I miss? Add your favorite in the comments.
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