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The 25 Best Road Trip Movies

by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2010 6:55 AM
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"Thieves Like Us" (1974)
Considering Robert Altman tackled pretty much every existing genre in his 57-year-long, 36-films-deep career (ok, he never tackled horror, and his sci-fi contribution was the fairly obtuse "Quintet," but still), it was only a matter of time that he broached the "Bonnie & Clyde"-like lovers on the run trope (actually the novel of the same name was also the source material for Nicholas Ray’s fantastic 1949 film, “They Live by Night,” which many have rightfully called the proto-“Bonnie & Clyde,” and one of Truffaut’s all-time favorite films -- he obviously almost directed ‘B&C’). Starring Keith Carradine and a young and oddly beautiful Shelley Duval, much like Terrence Malick's "Badlands" and Steven Spielberg's "Sugarland Express" -- other road movies we decided to bypass in favor of this lesser traveled one -- the depression era film centers on doomed lovers on the run. Sticking close to the script and what was already seen in “They Live By Night,” Altman’s 1974 pic centers on three bank robbers who take refuge in a small town, with the youngest of the three (Carradine) injured on the job, he falls in love with a girl he meets at their hideout (Duvall). But unlike “Bonnie & Clyde,” Altman’s take on the honor, or lack thereof, among thieves is much more undynamic, unglamorous and emotionally distant (not to mention physically distant, the camera seems to be far away from the heist action at times, creating a quiet introspection not seen in most bank robberies on screen). Ultimately, Carrardine is no Farley Grainger, whose angst and anguish makes “They Live By Night” so tremendously engaging, and there’s a reason this Altman picture isn’t as recognized as his other '70s classics "MASH," "Nashville," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "The Long Goodbye." But as laid-back and matter-of-fact as “Thieves Like Us” is -- there’s no score for example, just diegetic sound -- it’s still a fascinating piece of work in Altman’s not-always-perfect, still-interesting ouevre. [C+]

"Thelma and Louise" (1991)
You can either big up Ridley Scott’s 1991 road movie as a landmark, genre-mashing celebration of two of the best-drawn female characters ever, or you can lament the fact that nearly two decades later it still stands pretty much alone as a believable, yet cool, depiction of the awesomeness that can be female friendship, when it has nothing to do with shoes or cosmopolitans. Either way, what sets this film apart from the tearjerker dramas and fluffy romcoms that usually constitute mainstream ‘women’s film’ is the depth of the characterization (props to writer Callie Khouri) - and not just of our titular heroines: Michael Madsen and Harvey Keitel, in particular, play sympathetic menfolk in contrast to the sexists, violent partners, thieves and would-be rapists elsewhere. But still, this is a film about women, women with complicated lives, who make stupid mistakes and yet face adversity with resourcefulness, humour and, for want of a less 1950s word, moxie. It’s actually kind of thrilling to see so many of the things we’re typically told are male aspirations - freedom, adventure, even danger and risk and a glorious death - being ascribed to two downtrodden lower-middle class women; and the result, in this writer’s case, is an unembarrassed, absolute identification that has rarely been inspired since. Of course Scott’s upcoming Alien prequel will see him create another heroine, so here’s hoping he gives us another Thelma/Louise/Ripley after what now seems like decades of growly Russell Crowe performances. Hopefully these ladies will live beyond their well-earned Butch-and-Sundance freeze frame, in spirit if not in fact. [A]

"The Passenger" (1975)
Michelangelo Antonioni's near-perfect collaboration with Jack Nicholson (during his true heyday) takes a rare step in the road movie formula, with the protagonist achieving change within the first act. The rest of the film finds him indulging his new identity while escaping the old, offering a bizarre chase/road film hybrid. The free spirited life beckons Nicholson throughout the entire film in Antonioni's richly detailed exterior framing, but he instead feeds off of the excitement of his new job as a gunrunner for the rebel cause. Antonioni's somewhat cynical view on the generation and the uselessness of change is apparent, but we'll be damned if there was ever a better, singular scene reflecting that time era than the one between the two main characters. The girl, waking up from a nap, asks Nicholson what he's actually running away from, to which he relaxingly orders her to face her back to his seat. Cut to a POV shot, the car speeding away from the very road its hugging, with little in the distance other than the surrounding trees. Any other director would've hammed it up, but the Italian genius's slight touch makes it goddamned penetrating. [A+]

"The Sure Thing" (1985)
If you’re worried that Rob Reiner’s 1985 comedy about a misfit college-age couple who fall in love on a cross-country trip might be one of those films that you remembered enjoying but then saw again and ended up thinking less of the person you once were that you ever could have liked such drivel (this writer is still burned from a recent run-in with “Cocktail”), don’t fear - it actually holds up pretty well, due in no small part to the ever-charming John Cusack, some genuinely funny scenes, and a heart firmly in the Right Place. If some elements are unnecessarily telegraphed (her English writing assignment needs loosening up, his needs buttoning down; she has a filofax, he has a six pack of beer etc) it really doesn’t matter - subtlety is not the order of the day here. With able supporting cameos from Tim Robbins as the mercilessly chipper showtune-singing rideshare driver, and Anthony Edwards as the hard-partying West Coast best pal with the connection to the luscious (and ludicrous) Sure Thing of the title, (a practically mute Nicolette Sheridan) this is an amiable, if not essential entry into the road movie canon: comedy division, and a film that, like its main character, is obsessed with the idea of sex, but is all the more likeable for never actually getting any. [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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