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The 25 Best Road Trip Movies

by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2010 6:55 AM
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What is it about the road trip that lends itself so well to cinema? Looking down the entries to the genre, some of our very favorite films of all time qualify as part of one of the oldest tropes in the movies, and today's release of Todd Phillips' "Due Date" confirms, if confirmation was needed, that the style is still alive and kicking.

It's partly that the filmmaker gets to include as many cinematic locations as they can get their protagonists to visit, it's partly that the nature of a chase, or a journey, is inherently filmic, and it's partly that there are few better ways to create drama than sticking a group of characters together and forcing them to travel in the same direction.

In honor of Phillips' movie (which as we'll see, is dividing the staff here as much as it's dividing critics around the world), we've picked over twenty of our favorite big-screen journeys. Not all are perfect, but all are worth adding to the Netflix queue.

"Y Tu Mama Tambien" (2001)
Returning home to Mexico after 1998’s less-than-triumphant “Great Expectations” adaptation, Alfonso Cuarón turned his camera’s eye on a clearly beloved country, and one engulfed in a tempest of clashing traditions and social classes. The result is “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, an elegiac look at youth in bloom, evidenced here by Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal), who are unsympathetic and seemingly permanently overtaken by adolescent lust. Their mindless roaming through upper crust circles leads to a fateful meeting with Luisa (Maribel Verdú, equally distinguished, though perhaps not as alluring, in del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth"), a confident and sexy older woman. Their hormones in furious flux, the boys and Luisa take to the backroads of Mexico on a road trip to get away from their personal demons -- only Luisa’s seem to cut a little deeper and as she veers the boys into a world of sexuality as of yet unknown to them (save for their equally excitable but seemingly effervescent girlfriends, who appear briefly and in mid coitus). Cuarón paints the poverty of Mexico lovingly and curiously (aided by DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s immense skill behind the camera), well aware of the incongruousness of the cast with the silent, serene beauty that rings so far off from the lavish appearance-making parties of their lives. Perhaps it is that slow burn, the dissonance that echoes louder and louder with each passing scene, that makes the final reveal of the film so effortlessly heartbreaking, a gasp caught in the throat and two men reminiscing in silence about who they were -- and who they might have been. [A-]

"Wendy and Lucy" (2008)
As silly as it sounds, Kelly Reichardt's third film is really more of a detour movie, consisting of what happens when a naively planned life changer of a trip hits a bumpy road. These pictures tend to be minimalistic as it is, but "Wendy and Lucy" really strips the genre bare, focusing on an occurrence that any other film would probably spend a mere ten minutes on and never give a second thought. In doing so, it unearths the strange, dismal, and ultimately probable (whether you naysayers believe it or not) situation of everything falling apart in succession. It manages to hit most of the same notes that other road movies do, but by restricting the traveling to pre-movie and ending, it deals with the various unseen and frightening limits of the country, the system, and humanity in a very enclosed space. It's also one of the few to really capture genuine and profound kindness, illustrated by Wally Dalton in a key end scene: something that its colder brethren often overlook. [A-]

"Two-Lane Blacktop" (1971)
A commercial flop on release, “Two-Lane Blacktop” was championed by Esquire as 1971’s movie of the year, and went on to acquire a cult following back when that meant something other than a marketing strategy, but the fact is it’s so completely a product of its time that it doesn’t really have much to say to modern viewers. The undeniably hip cast features Peckinpah favourite Warren Oates (the film’s strongest performance by far) and a certain “HD” Stanton, while the leads, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and singer James Taylor mumble their way through the terse dialogue, displaying absolutely no surprise at anything that happens, not that much does: a couple of drifters have a couple of street races and a hitchhiking girl sleeps with them both, then runs off with a biker. It’s a bit of a drag (pun intended), if a very pretty one, with the same streak of self-indulgence that, for this writer’s money, mars other films of this period and this genre, notably “Easy Rider” (ooh! Controversial!) which is similarly cooler than it is enjoyable. But whatever you feel about ‘Blacktop’‘s worth, it’s certainly a road movie - one of the purest expressions of the form on this list, and director Monte Hellman exerts a huge influence to this day, even executive producing “Reservoir Dogs.” Which, to be honest, this writer would recommend you enjoy for the umpteenth time rather than sitting through this one, unless you’ve a great deal of patience, an enormous passion for cars, or a large baggie of marijuana and 100 minutes to kill, 70s-style. [B-]

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  • Patty | December 8, 2010 7:38 AMReply

    Okay, let's not get carried away. You are quoted as saying "It’s entirely possible that without Frank Capra‘s “It Happened One Night,” none of the films on this list would exist at all."

    As if brilliance and reference to one's own personal experience (like road trips we've all been on) don't come into play and operate freely and independently of previous attempts to convey just such brilliance and experience on film?

    In saying "THIS wouldn't have been possible without THAT" (one of the oldest cliche ideas in art) you risk dismissing ANYBODY'S ability at having an original idea.

    And how do we know "It Happened One Night" didn't reference something the director or writer or actors saw or read previously?

    How about saying "Without the great morality play 'Everyman,' (perhaps the ORIGINAL road-trip bit of literature) 'Thelma and Louise' might have not come into existence"?

  • lewis | December 8, 2010 7:26 AMReply

    seriously? no mention of "the sugarland express"? not even once? you did say road trip movies, right? but no mention of "the sugarland express."
    doesn't make sense.
    great road trip movies.
    no "sugarland express."

  • Nuv | November 8, 2010 4:29 AMReply

    Also, I would probably add that Tim Burton, in my opinion at least, didn't really go off the rails until Planet Of The Apes...Beetlejuice rules and, I know it's not popular to feel this way, but I liked the flawed but fun 1989 Batman...Oh. Forgot about Mars Attacks. That sucks too...never mind. Ed Wood probably was the last excellent Tim Burton film. You win, dammit!

  • Nuv | November 8, 2010 4:21 AMReply

    Long-time reader (since before The Playlist came to Indiewire) first-time commenter...Great article! That's a lot of good cinema up there.
    I'm glad to get an alternate take on Due Date. I can't really see how I wouldn't be entertained by that duo!

    Anyway, here's a different twist on the same subject over at my website:
    (Basically it's road trip films, but all drug fuelled...)
    Check us out, I think you might like our site too!
    Keep writing 'em, I'll keep reading 'em!

  • ken | November 7, 2010 11:28 AMReply

    contempt wasn't godard's first color film either, that's "a woman is a woman"

  • Oliver Lyttelton | November 6, 2010 12:21 PMReply

    I hadn't seen Flirting With Disaster since I was 13/14, but rewatched yesterday after Erik's piece. Holy shit, it's funny.

  • Trent Club | November 6, 2010 9:54 AMReply

    Bette Midler is one of the producers (not lead) of the Stage production of ”The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert”, which already got rave reviews in the London and Toronto productions, next stop Broadway. Why would anyone have mixed feelings about that?

  • jimmiescoffee | November 6, 2010 5:24 AMReply

    did you watch due date? the film was a catastrophe on every level. i love the opinions but that is easily the biggest load of shit opinion i've seen on this blog.

  • N. | November 6, 2010 4:01 AMReply

    Lovely list! I agree with some additions in the comments and would definitely add Araki's THE LIVING END. Not everyone's cup of tea, but distinct and applicable in such a grab-bag of a list.

  • Dan S | November 6, 2010 2:58 AMReply

    I'm really surprised that Clouzot's "The Wages of Fear" isn't mentioned in this article. I would consider that an A+ road movie.

  • Kevin Jagernauth | November 6, 2010 2:22 AMReply

    Oli, you should also give "The Daytrippers" a whirl. A very good road movie I was reminded of by a friend. Really good.

  • Uh | November 6, 2010 1:33 AMReply

    No, actually, that "award" goes to Une femme est une femme, and his "first" step towards post-modernism happened wayyyyyy before Pierrot. But you're totally right, Pierrot le fou is exactly as good as Due Date if you're fourteen years old

  • theoC | November 6, 2010 1:03 AMReply

    fantastic feature this week, definitely given me some new movies for my net flix (illegal downloads list) I cannot believe two lane black top got a B- that movie bored me to tears, (and the forgotten arm Aimee mann's album inspired by this movie is one of my favourite albums of the last 10 years) but yep it still bored me much like this post but it's always been a C with added cute James Taylor. But a great list thank you for the education.

  • Christopher Bell | November 5, 2010 10:06 AMReply

    I really don't understand the love for Sean Penn's "Into the Wild." I found it a little forced, with a number of silly cinematic devices that modern day film-makers should be smart enough not to use. Respectfully, though, to each his own.

  • Bryan | November 5, 2010 9:23 AMReply

    I second keeping up with more lists like this. Great job.

  • Robert Merk | November 5, 2010 9:04 AMReply

    Shame you couldn’t find room for Jerry Schatzberg’s “Scarecrow” (with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino). For my money one of the finest road picture ever made.

  • jonathan | November 5, 2010 8:43 AMReply

    The Sure Thing was the first movie to pop in my head when I saw the artlice, but didn't think it would be on your list. Very nice. More lists like this please.

  • Ryan | November 5, 2010 8:30 AMReply

    Pierrot le fou was not Godard's first color film. That award goes to Contempt.

  • Victron | November 5, 2010 8:23 AMReply

    Great read, but I'm missing Into The Wild. Not only a fantastic road movie but one of the most moving and beautiful films of the last decade.

  • J.R. Williams | November 5, 2010 8:02 AMReply

    I was a bit surprised that Cuaron's "Children of Men" didn't make the list as you guys gave the movie a ton of love and it's undeniably a road movie.

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