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The 25 Best Road Trip Movies

by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2010 6:55 AM
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"Due Date" (2010)
All apologies to our fellow writer who we respectfully disagree with, and to our audience, who are now likely confused, but opinions are like assholes, everyone's got one and Todd Phillips' latest "Due Date" is, to this writer, nowhere near as dire as we painted it in our first review. Sure, it's no 'Hangover' and it's certainly no "Old School" (the crown jewel in the Phillips ouevre), but it's still a funny, entertaining and enjoyable picture, if albeit a little predictable and maybe even too wacky near the end. If you find Zach Galifianakis remotely funny -- and you should -- you'll appreciate how sad, pathetic and hilariously dumb his perm-haired Ethan Tremblay character is. The film has some balls the way it paints Robert Downey Jr.'s Peter character as a complete selfish, workaholic jackass with little redeemable qualities (he spits on cute dogs, he punches kids) and the script does little to soften his edges. There's also some really nice mature notes and emotional scenes from Galifianakis who one day is going to have a career as a dramatic actor if he wants it (see his solid semi-dramatic turn in “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story”). Like most comedians, he seems to have a gulf of pain bubbling underneath and when it simmers to the surface, goddamn if it doesn’t choke you up. Sure, the story is super familiar, two guys who hate each other are forced to go on the road together and the bigger asshole eventually builds empathy for the lesser man (it's total "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"). And yes, it's not as balls-out funny as some of Phillips' greater films, but it's just a minor work, not a disaster by any means, and one that should still probably connect with audiences.

"Flirting With Disaster" (1996)
At times it’s a screwball comedy, then it’s a road movie, then it’s an existential look into a character’s search for his real family, then it’s a drug comedy. regardless of its focus hopping like a frog from lily pad to lily pad, David O. Russell ("Three Kings", "I Heart Huckabees") balances all of this into a cohesive and intelligent comedy with inklings of Woody Allen and “Seinfeld,” one this writer would argue is Ben Stiller’s best film. Russell’s talent can’t be denied, and has only solidified since. And Stiller, in one of his earliest leads, is terrific, playing the role he always plays but with a subtler, more character-based approach here. The now-huge comedic actor is almost always the guy who gets shit on throughout a movie, but here we actually care about him because he feels real. The last half hour is so off-the-wall funny, when Stiller finally meets his parents and they turn out to be former Grateful Dead-loving hippies that still produce drugs (“you can’t outrun the wind!” uttered by the irreplaceable Richard Jenkins in his whitey-tighties during an LSD trip, is a highlight, and should’ve been the tagline for “The Happening”). What follows concerns a jealous brother, a wrongfully misplaced drug, a gay couple that happen to be police partners, crazy step-parents, a brilliant infidelity storyline, and two words: armpit fetish! It’s all wonderful. A truly hilarious film that proves modern cinema is not without a smart, well-crafted comedy. [A]

"Happy Together" (1997)
Wong Kar-Wai may have gone off the boil a little in recent years, with the disappointing likes of "2046" and "My Blueberry Nights," but thanks to "Happy Together," he'll always be one of our favorite working directors. One of the most incisive and well-rounded looks at a gay couple ever made (and, over a decade later, it's depressing that nothing else has really come close since), it's the heartbreaking love story of Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung), two people almost uniquely unsuited to each other. The pair give storming central performances, and, to no one's great surprise, DP Christopher Doyle, never better than when working with Kar-Wai, turns in eyeball-meltingly gorgeous visuals. Some argue the director can be shallow, more of a sensualist than anything else, but he's never dealt with such well-drawn characters as he does here. It might not strictly speaking be a road movie, but it's certainly structured as one -- starting with the couple's arrival in Argentina, and ending with Lai finally reaching the Iguazu waterfalls he's been chasing. More importantly, it's as truthful and painful a relationship movie as Kar-Wai's ever made. There's a glorious new Blu-Ray out there now, so if you've never seen it, now's as good a time as any. [A-]

"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
There’s no point in understating the seismic effect Arthur Penn’s 1967 biopic/gangster film/road picture had on the films that followed. The ripples of this film, especially the cathartic, equal parts gloriously savage and tragic finale, can still reduce an audience groomed on violence to stunned silence. With all the hyperbole about Penn’s way with bullets and wounds, it's easy to forget that “Bonnie and Clyde” is, at its unhinged core, a road picture about a surrogate family that comes together and falls apart while on the run from the law. With Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s larger-than-life doomed would-be-lovers spending almost every scene of the film on screen bickering or tempting each other, it's a wonder that Michael J. Pollard (C.W. Moss), Gene Hackman (Buck Barrow), and of course Estelle Parsons (who won an Oscar for her performance as Blanche) still manage to make themselves noticed. On the road with the titular thieves, the group dynamics are revealed and explored with enough intricacy to secure audience sympathy not only for our titular criminal rock stars, but their less well-known cohorts. Parsons is especially amusing in her portrayal of the shrill, nervous, and occasionally grating Blanche, while Pollard plies his devil-may-care young cool and Hackman practices the tough guy shtick he’s done so well throughout a storied career. All in all, as far as road movies go, “Bonnie and Clyde” may be one of the very best, not to mention the most underhanded about revealing its trajectory. [A]

Honorable Mentions: Ending on the note of "Bonnie and Clyde" highlights another major absence -- "Badlands." As much as we adore Terrence Malick's debut, it's been well-covered elsewhere, and we thought the space could be better used. "Easy Rider" is another one, and indeed, possibly the single most iconic road movie, which we simply didn't have anything new to say about -- Steven Spielberg's "Duel" fits the same category. Otherwise, the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "Road To..." series is occasionally entertaining, but fairly dated, while Preston Sturges' "The Palm Beach Story" is wonderful, but comes off worse against "It Happened One Night." Like "Two Lane Blacktop," "Vanishing Point" is another pared-down chase flick not without its charms, while both Kathryn Bigelow's "Near Dark" and Ruben Fleischer's "Zombieland" are as much road trips as they are horror films.

"Faster ,Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" is one of Russ Meyer's best exploitation flicks, while, albeit far more highbrow, Wim Wenders' "Alice in the Cities," the first in a trilogy of road movies, is also among its director's best work. David Lynch's "The Straight Story" is beautifully observed (and unusually matter-of-fact for the director), and perhaps the slowest road movie ever made. Unless we're counting Gus Van Sant's "Gerry," of course. Van Sant is something of a road trip connoisseur, his best being "My Own Private Idaho."

Comedy wise, "National Lampoon's Vacation" is fairly definitive, with Chevy Chase rarely on better form, while "Little Miss Sunshine," despite becoming a derisive byword for a certain kind of big name indie flick, remains a wonderful little film. We'd be remiss if we didn't mention "The Cannonball Run" and "Smokey and the Bandit," which were huge successes in the 70s, even if they are both terrible. But the film that probably got closest to inclusion? "Apocalypse Now," as much a travelogue as it is a war movie.

-- Kevin Jagernauth, Christopher Bell, Oli Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Mark Zhuravsky, Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang

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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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