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12 classic Texas films to ease your wanderlust

From comedy to horror to action, Texas has played a central part in movies across the decades.

Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla Perez in the film "Selena."
Jennifer Lopez as Selena Quintanilla Perez in the film "Selena." (CBS Studios Inc.)

If the bottoms of your feet have been itching, that could be your wanderlust calling.

Though it’s tempting to scratch that itch by hitting the road, that’s not a good option right now. Thankfully, you can trek through Texas and live vicariously through the heroism, villainy, romance, adventure, and tribulation of the state’s big-screen legacy. Here’s a collection of Texas movies to watch in the comfort of your own home. Buckle up, you’ve got some sightseeing to do!

Comedy: Reality Bites, 1994

Helen Childress, a native of Missouri City, wrote this ode to 20-something Houstonians when she was in her early 20s. One of the most celebrated movies about Generation X, the film served as Ben Stiller’s directorial debut and starred him alongside Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn. Childress’ script is a keen balance of comic sensibility, a love triangle, and an anthropological study on how the so-called slacker generation faced the burden of adulthood. Filmed predominately in Houston, Reality Bites features scenic views of the city, like Wortham Fountain in Tranquility Park.

Also see: Office Space, Never Goin’ Back, Dazed and Confused, True Stories

Drama: Paris, Texas, 1984

Paris, France, is known around the world as an epicenter of the arts. Some of the world’s greatest artists—Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Magritte, Blanchard—worked and played there. It makes sense then that Wim Wenders’ and Robby Müller’s (the director and cinematographer, respectively) Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas is one of our state’s most beautifully shot films. Despite the title, we never quite make it to Paris. Each frame of this road-tripping family drama transports you from one gorgeous locale to the next—ranging from West Texas to Houston—each one worthy of its own ornate room at the Louvre.

Also see: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Tender Mercies, Apollo 13

Western: Hud, 1963

In Texas, it could be considered a crime to exclude Larry’s McMurtry work on any sort of list of literature and cinema. McMurtry, perhaps most famous for his novel Lonesome Dove, is the foremost literary interpreter of this infinite expanse we call Texas. Hud, an adaptation of McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By was filmed across the Panhandle, chiefly in Claude. Hud, the eponymous leading character is a lothario and a boozehound with a heart of mercury played by none other than Paul Newman. For all of Hud’s many faults, he’s charismatic to no end.

Also see: The Searchers, Giant, The Alamo

Crime: Hell or High Water, 2016

Two brothers rob banks in a plot to save their land as a pair of Texas Rangers nip at their heels. Part of what makes Bosque County native Taylor Sheridan’s expertly written caper so compelling is a one sentence summary already tells such a provocative story. Tension and suspense are the driving force behind this tale about home, family, right and wrong, and the wide open spaces in the middle of it. Though this movie was filmed in New Mexico, you can hardly tell the difference when the Howard brothers rob banks in Archer City and Olney.

Also see: Bottle Rocket, No Country For Old Men, The Getaway, Bonnie and Clyde

Independent: Thunder Road, 2018

Based on what some call the greatest short film of all time, Thunder Road is a showcase of the talents of the formerly Austin based director, actor, writer, and producer Jim Cummings. And he has many. This SXSW Grand Jury Prize-winning micro-budget feature drops you in the throes of an Austin police officer’s extravagant nervous breakdown. It’s funny, tender, and ever-so-slightly sadistic. There may be more important Texas indies out there, but this shoestring-budget flick, which was filmed throughout Austin, just might be the best.

Also see: Blood Simple, El Mariachi, Slacker

Coming of Age: Boyhood, 2014

Texas’ most decorated director, Richard Linklater, turns the coming-of-age story up to 11. Boyhood, filmed chronologically over the course of 12 years, without a concrete script, is a monumental feat in filmmaking. The result of this ambitious idea is a hyper-realistic film that perfectly captures the texture of not only what it’s like growing up in Texas, but what it’s like raising a child in Texas. The movie takes place in Austin, Houston, and in between, so you’ll probably recognize a few landmarks: Antone’s, Minute Maid Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Dart Bowl & Cafe. Be forewarned—Boyhood is tender; it’ll break your heart.

Also see: The Last Picture Show, The Tree of Life, Rushmore

Horror / Action: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974

Few horror movies are as iconic as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Viewed 50 years later, this movie might come off as a bit campy, but this slasher is truly macabre. Leatherface is one of the most frightening movie monsters of all time because his crimes and fetishes, loosely based on a Nazi obsessed cannibal from Wisconsin, aren’t supernatural. The gritty realism is what’s so disturbing about it all. The original farmhouse featured in the film was located in Round Rock before it was replaced by the La Frontera development. Gore hounds need not fret. The house was cut up and moved to Kingsland and repurposed into a restaurant called the Grand Central Cafe.

Also see: From Dusk Til Dawn, Machete, Death Proof

Sports: Varsity Blues, 1999

There may be better sports movies based in Texas—Friday Night Lights, in particular—but as a view of Texans’ obsession with football and teenage comedy in general, Varsity Blues is quite possibly a masterpiece. Varsity Blues isn’t as bad as The Room or Troll 2, but if there’s any Texas movie worthy of the Mystery Science Theater 3000treatment, it’s this one. Varsity Blues takes place in the fictional town of West Canaan, which is in reality an amalgam that includes scenes filmed in Coupland, Elgin, Georgetown, and Austin’s Top Notch Burgers and the Landing Strip.

Also see: North Dallas Forty, Friday Night Lights, Everybody Wants Some, Whip It

Biopic: Selena, 1997

The legend of Tejano star Selena Quintanilla endures. Droves of Texans still celebrate her life and music. Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez, chronicles the singer’s meteoric rise and tragic death at the hands of a close friend. There’s no movie that comes close to being as important to so many Texans, particularly the Latinx community, as Selena. The fact that the movie was shot entirely on location in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Port Aransas, and Poteet makes our heart go “bidi bidi bom bom.”

Also see: Bernie, Charlie Wilson’s War

Documentary: Raise Hell: The Life and times of Molly Ivins, 2019

Your documentary intake need not be all blood, guts, and crime. Raise Hell: The Life and times of Molly Ivins tells the story of Texas’ most incisive and fearless political journalist—one who absolutely raised her fair share of hell. Ivins, who was raised in Houston and eventually settled in Austin after stints in New York, Minneapolis, and Dallas, will forever be remembered for her searing wit. This documentary puts some of her best quips on full display.

Also see: The Tower, The Thin Blue Line, American: The Bill Hicks Story

Family: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985

Pee Wee Herman’s odd case of arrested development and poorly tailored suit captivated the nation in the 1980s. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Tim Burton’s feature directorial debut, finds Pee Wee on a quest to recover his stolen bicycle. He travels across the country and ultimately winds up at The Alamo. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is full of wacky fun and gags for the whole family.

Also see: Holes, Glory Road

Romance: Days of Heaven ,1978

Terrance Malick is the elder statesman of the essential, canonical Texas movie directors. Days of Heaven, his second feature, is a lyrical meditation on pastoral life in the Texas Panhandle in the early 1900s. Though the story has its share of drama—murder, a love triangle, a police shootout—the true prize of this film is its lush cinematography, most of which is shot under natural light and entirely in Canada (of all places). As such, Days of Heaven went on to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. After Days of Heaven, Malick absconded to Paris and disappeared from public life and didn’t make another movie for 20 years.

Also see: Jason’s Lyric, Urban Cowboy

This article first appeared on Texas Highways. Click here to view the article in its original format.