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The 25 Best Road Trip Movies

by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2010 6:55 AM
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"Midnight Run" (1988)
It's fair to say that, even though his biggest hits in recent years have been in the genre, Robert De Niro has never had a great capacity for comedy. But the great exception over the years was Martin Brest's action-comedy "Midnight Run." In it, De Niro plays bounty hunter Jack Walsh, who's hired to track down errant mob accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), and the bickering pair travel from New York to LA, pursued by the FBI (embodied by the great Yaphet Kotto), the Mafia (led by Dennis Farina), and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton). It's the same formula established by Frank Capra, but it's rarely worked quite as well: "Beverly Hills Cop" helmer Brest was capable of matching action and comedy as well as anyone in recent memory (or was -- his skills seem to have left him by the time "Gigli" came along), and the film trots along at a fair old pace. But what the film really flies on (and it's true of all road movies, really) is the chemistry between its travelers: you suspect that De Niro's funny here because he's being elevated by Grodin. The two bicker and feud in an endlessly entertaining fashion. It's not much more than an unusually well-executed action-comedy, let down by a needlessly convoluted script, but whenever you watch one of the many films that have tried and failed to capture the magic in its wake, you appreciate how rare it is to get something like this right. [B+]

"La Strada" (1954)
Everything you need to know about “La Strada” can be found in the lovely, expressive, humorous and heartbreaking face of Giulietta Masina. She plays the innocent Gelsomina who is sold to strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) after her sister dies and her mother is anxious to rid the family of another mouth to feed. Zampano teaches Gelsomina some basic clowning skills so she can assist in his shows, she immediately takes a liking to it. But if Gelsomina tries to make the best of the situation she’s thrown into, Zampano makes life insufferable. Mean, stubborn and cold-hearted he eventually drives her away, and she finds a wise friend in a street performer, Il Matto (Richard Baseheart). They wind up traveling together and it isn’t long before Zamano is at odds with Il Matto and the film drives into it’s tragic third act. It’s difficult to describe the beauty of “La Strada” to those who haven’t seen it, or the pure joy it is to watch Masina on screen, who with a flicker of her mouth or a quick look with the eyes can bring laughter, tears or both at the same time. But this is one of Federico Fellini’s finest efforts; a whimsical tale with exaggerated and broadly-stroked characters, but with an emotion as real and moving as it gets. With a gently evocative score by Nino Rota, and the tenor of a well loved and familiar fable, “La Strada” is a devastating, aching and tender tale of a man who realizes too late that the best thing he’ll ever have in his life has passed him by. [A+]

"It Happened One Night" (1934)
It's entirely possible that without Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night," none of the films on this list would exist at all. The first, and possibly still the best, road movie, and the first film to sweep the five main categories at the Oscars (which went unmatched for forty years), it's that rare film that's a deep, deep pleasure to watch from start to finish -- even Stalin was allegedly a fan. Following a newspaper journalist (Clark Gable) who meets a runaway heiress (the unbelievably great Claudette Colbert), married against her father's will, it's a timeless story that hasn't aged a day, and proved endlessly influential -- just check out Gareth Edwards' "Monsters," for proof, essentially a remake of Capra's film, albeit one with giant creatures. There's a zip and pace to the film that every similar comedy should aspire to, consistently, gut-bustingly funny, and there's a pre-Production Code sexiness to the film absent from 99% of romantic pairings (the film just snuck in under the wire before the restrictive Hays Office started operating). We were lucky enough to catch the film on the big screen this week in London (It's playing at the BFI Southbank until November 11th, and we urge anyone in town to check it out). It continues to play like gangbusters with audiences. Quite simply, it's a wonder. [A+]

"Down By Law" (1986)
Playing out like a smooth, languorous jazz tune on a sweltering summer evening, Jim Jarmusch’s “Down By Law” follows three guys, who are down on their luck, as they stumble and struggle their way to freedom. It really doesn’t get better than the trio of Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni; as a disc jockey, pimp and misguided Italian tourist, respectively. They find each other in prison and after a daring escape, hit the road together. As they travel the swamps of Louisiana, the relationship between Zack (Waits) and Jack (Lurie) continues to fray but it's Bob’s (Benigni) inextinguishable lust for life, and naive innocence, that keeps them together. Featuring some breathtaking cinematography by Robert Muller, Jarmusch’s film is one of his best; a sweet, sad, achingly funny riff. While Benigni would later gain much more attention for his Italian comedies and his breakthrough to mainstream North American audiences via his Oscar-winning role in "Life is Beautiful," his role here is one of his finest. With the stature of silent comedian, combined with mouth spitting garbled English idioms mixed with astonished Italian outbursts (the quotes from the film are endless) he's the pulse of life between the sour and sourer duo of Waits and Lurie, whose unique charms are an acquired taste worth developing. Set to songs by Waits, music by Lurie and guided by Jarmusch’s unhurried direction, “Down By Law” opines that, “It is a sad and beautiful world.” We couldn’t agree more. [A-]
P.S. The film is a great double bill companion to Jarmusch’s previous and equally solid road trip film “Stranger Than Paradise.”

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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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