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The 25 Best Road Trip Movies

by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2010 6:55 AM
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"Stagecoach" (1939)
Is “Stagecoach” the first road movie? Let's see, band of strangers, bonding over the circumstances of a treacherous Western journey... sounds like it! This stone cold classic cemented into immortality three of the most influential grandfathers of the Western: John Wayne, John Ford and Monument Valley. Ford keeps his narrative tight, his pace at breakneck, and his vistas sweeping in his first sound film. Ford smartly makes the landscape and setting as much of a character in the film as the rest of his mismatched bunch, setting in stone this treatment of location that would inform road movies forever. John Wayne establishes his everlasting Western character with the Ringo Kid-- sassy, knowing, and never giving an inch. Claire Trevor is saucy and lovable as the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold, and the rest of the cast is spot-on in their nuanced treatments of typical characters. The scene in the stagecoach, during the Apache siege, where the doctor points his gun with a lone bullet at the pregnant white woman became an established story element in many other Westerns to come, and the “save the last bullet” trope persists to this day, although mostly in zombie movies rather than Westerns. “Stagecoach” is the most influential Western to date, and it set off a whole century’s worth of road movies with its treatment of characters and location, not to mention its style and energy. [A]

"Rain Man" (1985)
While superficially a mental-illness picture, the type that earns actors Oscars for playing 'special' -- as it did in this Barry Levinson film for Dustin Hoffman -- for all intents and purposes, “Rain Man” is a road trip film that has several layers and dynamics to it. While it follows the tried-and-true American road trip arc -- an alpha male is burdened with a lesser creature, but learns to love him regardless, not to mention learns a little somethin,' somethin' from him -- in 1988 maybe it wasn't as quotidian as it sounds (Todd Phillips admits "Due Date" is highly influenced by "Rain Man"). Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbit, a successful douchebag who's become apoplectic with rage when he discovers his rich asshole dad -- who has just passed away -- has given his millions away to someone he didn't know existed: his autistic older brother sent away from the family at a very young age. Indignant that he is being denied what he believes is his natural birthright, he kidnaps his sibling Raymond (Hoffman) as a way to ransom the money back from his father's attorney at will. Raymond is nothing but a burden at first, but soon after endangering the impaired man's life a few times, the ignorant and self-involved Charlie starts to realize just how much his brother needs special care. During their road trip (Raymond can't fly), which leads them to Vegas, and then eventually L.A., the brothers bond and we see that the vapid Charlie does have a soul despite his insufferable cool-guy exterior. Kudos to Cruise and the script for not fully redeeming the character of Charlie (seeing Josh Hartnett play the role on stage in London only reemphasized how good Cruise is here), and Hoffman is obviously and iconically great as the tic-filled autistic man. [B]

"The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert" (1994)
“I'll join this conversation on the proviso that we stop bitching about people, talking about wigs, dresses, bust sizes, penises, drugs, night clubs, and bloody Abba.” If cackle-filled chatter about the aforementioned topics isn’t your (sequined) bag, then “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” might just make for the trip from hell. For the rest of us, Stephan Elliott’s Australian disco-filled comedy is a campy classic that was sadly overshadowed, at least in the States, by the similar (and inferior) "To Wong Foo." Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp may not have then had the star power of Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo, but they’re each uniquely wonderful in their roles as two drag queens and a transvestite who make a cross-continent road trip from the city to the country (and there’s something to be said for seeing Agent Smith, Leonard Shelby, and General Zod be so entirely convincing in dresses and heels). Outback vistas are nicely shot, but it’s Lizzy Gardiner’s Oscar-winning costume designs that really make this a glittering visual stunner. Bette Midler's taking the lead in a Broadway musical version of the show next year -- something we have decidedly mixed feelings about... [B+]

"Planes, Trains & Automobiles" (1987)
The contemporary standard for road trip comedies, the tag is certainly deserved and really, its one that directors could stand to study a bit more carefully as an idea of how to do it right. Written and directed by John Hughes, the film follows stuffy ad executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) and shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) as they try to make it back to Chicago after their flight is grounded on Thanksgiving weekend. But what makes the film work -- and makes it a go to staple every holiday season -- is that beyond its impeccably contrived comedic set pieces, there is a real (and yes, admittedly corny) heart beating in these characters. Del is just a big old bear, a warm, giving people-person who gradually defrosts the frigid core of Neal. Hughes is an old fashioned sentimentalist but it's easily forgiven when the film’s frequently big laughs are equally generous and spirited. And c’mon, don’t tell us you still don’t well up just a little bit at the film’s climatic subway station scene because it still sort of gets us every time. Now something of an annual ritual, “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” is a trip we look forward to taking every year. [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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