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The 25 Best Road Trip Movies

by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2010 6:55 AM
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"Pierrot Le Fou" (1965)
Coming immediately after one of the very greats in Godard's canon, "Alphaville," "Pierrot Le Fou" marks a major transitional step in the director's career -- his first film in color, for one, and the first step in a move towards post-modernism that, eventually, became all-consuming. Here, Godard uses a fairly standard set-up -- a married man (Jean-Paul Belmondo) runs away with the babysitter (Anna Karina), who, as it emerges, is being pursued by Algerian gangsters. But the plot is never the point: Godard uses it as a hook on which to hang a primary-colored pop-art trifle. It's as ineffably cool a movie as ever made, summing up the French New Wave for generations that follow but, unlike some of Godard's better work (even the equally road movie-like "Weekend"), it never becomes about anything other than style and technique. The photography, by Raoul Coutard, and the score, by Antoine Duhamel, are both stunning, but like most true pop art, it's all surface dazzle. [B-]

"Pee Wee's Big Adventure" (1985)
Is there such thing as a perfect film? Possibly not, but we contend that exhibit Q, Tim Burton's feature-length debut starring Paul Reubens as the titular Pee Wee character is as close to perfect mainstream storytelling as cinema gets. We're not really sure what happened to the rest of Burton's career afterwards (a few gems like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood” and then a motherload of awful), but the 'Big Adventure' is a hilarious, engrossing and inspirational tale of a young man -- a loner, a rebel -- who treks across our great nation in search for his stolen bicycle -- a heartbreaking metaphor for the loss of innocence we endure by becoming adults. Part road film with a various cast of characters -- Judd Omen as Mickey being this writer’s personal favorite -- part coming of age tale and part Iliad-like epic of adventure and self-discovery that would make Homer more than proud, why we're not celebrating the 25th anniversary with a 10-disc Criterion box-set is beyond us (one of the reasons this thing is so good? The late Phil Hartman is one of the co-writers). The cloying bag of tricks that are rote and pedestrian in Burton's films now are fresh and inventive here. And Danny Elfman, who has become another predictable clown, does some of his greatest work here (arguably, he’s been remaking this score for ages). Judd Apatow might be producing Reuben's next Pee Wee film, but they should be careful, as the 'Big Adventure' is an ever-dynamic, masterfully constructed piece of pop cinema that raises a profound question that has dogged humankind for ages: “I know you are, but what am I?” [A+]

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000)
The Coen Bros. put their distinctive spin on “The Odyssey” (the original road trip tale) with this Depression-era comedy filled with strange characters and the brothers’ most quotable dialogue (outside of “The Big Lebowski,” that is). George Clooney gets goofy (and starts a winning partnership with the fraternal filmmakers) as Ulysses Everett McGill, a chain-gang refugee who travels across dusty landscape to retrieve his buried treasure with the help of fellow convicts Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson). Like road trips themselves, the best road trip movies feature a solid soundtrack, and the T-Bone Burnett-produced sounds were just as big as the movie. The seductive sirens scene gets even better with the dubbing of the angelic voices of Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris, and the now-iconic Soggy Bottom Boys’ hit “Man of Constant Sorrow” gets an extra push from Union Station’s Dan Tyminski’s subbing in for Clooney on lead vocals. [A-]

"The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004)
This story of young Ernesto “Che” Guevera on a long road trip with his friend Alberto Granado is an incredibly intriguing coming-of-age adventure movie that provides insight in to the revolutionary’s beginning. When Steven Soderbergh released his two-part epic on Che’s guerrilla war efforts in Cuba and Bolivia, a wonderful, inadvertent trilogy was finished (franchise, anyone? "Che Guevara: On Stranger Tides?"). Director Walter Salles, DP Eric Cautier and the music by Gustavo Santaolalla paint a lyrical look at South America, as Ernesto and Alberto cruise along the continent via the titular vehicle, providing a worthy backdrop that expresses Guevara’s love for the people and culture while hinting at the motivations to his future revolutionary philosophy. The landscapes are lush and wonderful as the two friends journey through a life changing experience. Lead actor Gael Garcia Bernal (“Amores Perros,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) has rarely been better, and it's proof that Salles is the perfect choice to helm the ultimate road movie, next year's Kerouac adaptation “On The Road.” [A-]

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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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