NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION (1983)
Whether you’re a parent or a kid, this is probably the way you really remember the family road trip: as a Sisyphean obstacle course and endurance test, with one disappointment after another. Of course, when it happens to someone else’s family, it’s epic-scale funny.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
The yellow brick road is the setting for every moviegoer’s first road movie. In typical road movie fashion, Dorothy discovers that the point of her journey is not the destination but the friendships made and lessons learned along the way. (One lesson: It’s not necessarily a good idea to stop and smell the flowers.)
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977)
Get outta Burt Reynolds’ way. Burt in his Trans-Am and Jerry Reed in his semi have just a few hours to make the Texarkana-Florida run, and they’ve got illegal beer to deliver. The quintessential chase movie of Burt’s career, and therefore, of the whole 1970s.
IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)
All kinds meet and mingle on the road — in this case, a streetwise reporter (Clark Gable) and a runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert), who knows a better limb than the thumb for an attractive hitchhiker to use to get a ride. The first great road movie in Hollywood history, and the first great screwball romantic comedy, with an armload of Oscars (including for Gable, Colbert, and Best Picture) to prove it.
THE SURE THING (1985)
Gen X’s own It Happened One Night, with college students John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in the Gable and Colbert roles, finding themselves improvising their way across the country. Hey, you’d do whatever it takes not to be trapped in a car with Tim Robbins singing show tunes.
PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987)
The title says it all, as mismatched travelers Steve Martin and John Candy use every means available to get home for Thanksgiving. Anyone whose road trip ever involved a rental car will appreciate Martin’s rant at the leasing agency.
EASY RIDER (1969)
Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) mount their choppers to go looking for America but, as the movie’s ad tagline noted, couldn’t find it anywhere. Instead, in the definitive motorcycle movie, they find alternative communities of overlooked Americans, a wild and wacky Jack Nicholson (in his star-making role), and the dark heart of anti-countercultural backlash.
ROAD TRIP (2000)
Not so much a raunchy college romp as an homage to the raunchy college romps of the early ’80s (a formula the filmmakers would perfect with Old School), this trek at least has the virtue of inclusiveness. There aren’t any freaks or perverts or losers on this ride, just a mismatched set of misfits who all deserve their own shot at pleasure and happiness, however their boats happen to float. (Exhibit A: Tom Green.)
INTO THE WILD (2007)
Following the examples set in the 19th century by Thoreau, Twain, and Whitman, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) sheds all his attachments on a quest to escape from society and explore the frontier, but society keeps finding him (in the form of alternative communities and would-be surrogate relatives), and he discovers that the only frontier that others haven’t already explored is inside his own restless heart.
DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)
Yes, this movie was remade into a sleek action extravaganza in 2008, but you have to love the original, pulpy, low-tech version, about a futuristic cross-country demo derby whose drivers get extra points for mowing down pedestrians. The late David Carradine is typically grim as the champ Frankenstein, while the then-unknown Sylvester Stallone is lean and hungry as his challenger.
TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (1971)
The most existential of all the existential road movies of its era (Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, Five Easy Pieces, Electra Glide in Blue), this laconic tale of two nameless drag racers stars James Taylor (yes, that James Taylor) and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who compete against Warren Oates for girls, car titles, and glory. The real-life Cannonball Run race was inspired by this movie.
THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)
In David Lynch’s gentlest movie, a dying WWII veteran (the majestic Richard Farnsworth) is so determined to make peace with his estranged brother that he travels to see him across state lines on a riding lawnmower.
Old World professor Humbert (James Mason) doesn’t just fall for the much too young Lolita; he also falls for America, in all its kitschy roadside glory, from bubble gum to motels to soda pop.
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (2004)
It’s the young Che Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (Argentine actor Rodrigo de la Serna, a real-life relative of Che’s) doing the Easy Rider thing across South America, on the journey whose encounters with the downtrodden radicalized Che and helped make him the Communist poster boy he still is today.
Inspired by the Charles Starkweather case and starring an impossibly young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, Terrence Malick’s first film is a dreamy, strangely beautiful meditation on the twin American loves of the open road and senseless violence.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006)
Nominated for Best Picture, this dysfunctional-family-on-the-road comedy — starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette, and Paul Dano — plays out like the indie version of National Lampoon’s Vacation.
CANNONBALL RUN (1981)
Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, and Farrah Fawcett lead the pack in this all-star cross-country underground race. Chaotic comedy ensues. Screenwriter Brock Yates founded the real-life Cannonball race, inspired in turn by a movie: Two-Lane Blacktop.
ROAD TO RIO (1947)
Sometimes the road trip leads to enlightenment and self-knowledge; sometimes it’s just an excuse to make wisecracks and break into song. This is probably the best of the seven Road films made by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour, full of elaborate musical numbers, showbiz in-jokes, and fourth-wall-breaking asides to the audience.
Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (2001)
Future Motorcycle Diarist Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna travel across Mexico seeking adventure, sex, and wisdom, only dimly aware that all three are accompanying them in the mysterious form of slightly older woman Maribel Verdú.
THELMA & LOUISE (1991)
Road trips aren’t just for guys. All in all, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon had a pretty fun time. Except for the whole roadhouse parking lot incident. Oh, and the road trip’s last few feet.
ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994)
This Australian comedy about a trio of drag queens who get a cabaret gig in the middle of the desert is a journey of revelations and self-discovery pretty much like any other on this list, only with an ABBA soundtrack and a lot more sequins.
MIDNIGHT RUN (1988)
Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin compete to see who can do the funnier slow burn as annoyed bounty hunter De Niro drags annoying Mob accountant Grodin across the country, with rival bounty hunters and mobsters in hot pursuit.
'Paper Moon' (1973)
Smooth con man Ryan O’Neal and even smoother con moppet Tatum O’Neal (in her Oscar-winning role) travel across the Depression-era Dust Bowl, scamming the gullible and each other along the way.
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Spend a hilariously uncomfortable week touring California whine country — er, wine country — with a painfully self-absorbed guy who’s not quite ready to get married (Thomas Haden Church) and a painfully self-conscious guy who’s not quite ready to accept his divorce (Paul Giamatti). Just remember, don’t drink and drive; spit first.
SHERMAN'S MARCH (1986)
Ross McElwee’s wistful documentary masterpiece started out as an effort to trace the effects of General Sherman’s scorched-earth campaign during the Civil War, but it mutates during the filming into a chronicle of McElwee’s own romantic failures. The full title is Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.
LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001-2003)
It’s a dangerous business stepping out your door, Bilbo tells Frodo, since you never know where you may end up. The road is a crucible of character for dreamy Frodo (Elijah Wood) and timid Sam (Sean Astin), forging them into heroes capable of courageous acts they never dreamed they could accomplish. Bonus points for making the entire journey barefoot.
THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953)
Leave it to the French to turn the road trip genre into an exercise in existential dread — a nail-biting one along bumpy mountain roads in a truck carrying a cargo of nitroglycerine.
LOST IN AMERICA (1985)
When you flee the corporate world, sell all your assets, buy a mobile home, and take your nest egg along with you on your journey to find the heart of America, it’s probably a good idea not to stop at a Vegas casino along the way.
PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
Like Lolita (and not just in a creepy way), this story of a lad’s search for his stolen bicycle is really a celebration of kitschy roadside Americana, from biker bars to tourist traps, from drive-in movie theaters to giant, hollow fiberglass dinosaurs.
THE LUCKY ONES (2008)
Three soldiers back from Iraq (Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, and Michael Peña) bond during a road trip across the United States.