Should we pile the kids into the minivan (or the Wagon Queen Family Truckster – if you have one) and visit our national parks – both the nature and amusement-kind – in hopes of creating lifelong memories for all involved, or should we stay at home, save money, send the kids to an assortment of camps and vacation Bible schools and listen to cries of “I’m bored!” all summer long? Unlike the parents of old, most of us choose the latter.
Instead of taking that trek, maybe you’d rather sit down and watch others struggle with long, often-trying, yet amusing adventures.
Not sure where to start? Consider us your rest area. You’ve stopped at the right place. We’ve given you the top 21 (more on why we picked 21 in just a few) road trip movies of all-time!
What constitutes a road trip movie? Well we debated this, and came to the conclusion that if the plot of the movie was based on some sort of trip, whether it be on foot, motorcycle, plane, train or automobile, then it’s considered a road trip movie.
So yes, Dorothy, Toto and her traveling companions from the Emerald City may have gotten some votes. As did the little ring-bearers from the Shire, and that over-bearing clown fish in search of his tank-bound son.
Overall 68 movies were nominated by our panel of 17 PopBlerd writers (or guest voters), and these were the best of the best!
You’ll find a movie from every decade (except the 1940s) from 1930 – 2010, with the 2000s leading the charge with nine movies on the list, followed by our beloved ’80s with six.
Fourteen of the 21 movies were nominated for 48 Oscars. Five movies won at least one Oscar, with one Best Picture winner and four nominated for Best Picture in the group. And for you aspiring screenwriters, you want to get nominated for an Oscar, write a road trip movie. Nine of the movies on our list were nominated for a screenplay Oscar (with three of them winning).
So as you can see, it’s a comprehensive list we’ve come up with here.
We went with 21 because the difference in No. 20 and No. 21 was just a point or two (and since I get to edit this post, and my wife chose No. 21 as her No. 1 choice, I thought it deserved a mention).
Without further ado (cause I’ll do that more on Thursday when we pick this up) here are Nos. 21 – 11:
No. 21 – The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Named on three ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1 – twice.
The Motorcycle Diaries only depicts act 1 in the life of Ernesto Guevara, but even in doing so, it feels like one of the most compete biographical films there is. Focusing not on Che’s life work, it instead examines what goes into shaping a young man’s perspective. Told with a gentle humor and touching honesty, while dealing with issues of friendship, love, loss and inequality, this is a film of genuine depth. Both somber and uplifting, sincere and beautiful, Gael García Bernal’s performance is one that deserves to be remembered. (Duan)
No. 20 – About Schmidt (2002)
Named on five ballots. Highest Rank: No. 3.
Jack Nicholson finally acts his age in About Schmidt, starring as the title character, Warren Schmidt, an Omaha man who decides to go on a road trip in an oversized Winnebago after retiring from his job as an actuary and losing his wife. The film was directed by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Election), and it features the director’s trademark bittersweet sense of humor. While the movie is ostensibly about Schmidt’s journey to attend the wedding of his only daughter, it’s really about how this man comes to terms with his own mortality — and how he manages to avoid the seductive advances of Kathy Bates in a hot tub — all while documenting the journey in letters to an adopted African boy named Ndugu. Nicholson’s poignant performance is a welcome turn from his wicked charmers of the past. No wonder he earned yet another Oscar nomination (his twelfth) for it. (Martin)
No. 19 – Midnight Run (1988)
Named on four ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1
This 1988 action comedy from director Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop) had all the makings of a typical ‘80s buddy flick. But the terrific chemistry of Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter and Charles Grodin as a squirrelly mob accountant trying to escape the law and the mob elevates the film to classic status. It was De Niro’s first stab at a comedy after legendary turns in The Godfather saga and numerous Scorsese films, but he and Grodin were hilarious as “Odd Couple”-esque opposites on a cross-country race to get to LA. (Unfortunately, De Niro’s career has since slipped into the slapstick schmaltz of Meet the Parents, Analyze This and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.) Grodin had starred in a string of movies over the previous two decades, but he was probably best known for his faux-cantankerous appearances on late night talk shows. He was a revelation in Midnight Run, playing off De Niro’s tough guy character as a sympathetic yet squirrelly guy who just wants to live his life in peace. Throw in a great supporting cast with the likes of Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton, Dennis Farina, Joe Pantoliano and Philip Baker Hall and you’ve got a movie that holds up to this day. Of course, Universal had to go and make three made-for-TV movies in 1994 starring Christopher McDonald as De Niro’s character (with the incredibly hacky titles of Another Midnight Run, Midnight Runaround and Midnight Run for Your Life), but let’s not hold that against the original. (Jay)
No. 18 – Dumb and Dumber (1994)
Named on four ballots. Highest Rank: No. 3.
My one memory of this movie … embarrassing my high school girlfriend because I laughed way too much and way too hard.
Still one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in the theaters (I was 17, what do you expect?), Dumb and Dumber is the story of best buddies, Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and their cross-country trip – in a van converted into a SHEEPDOG! – from Providence, Rhode Island to, “Someplace warm. A place where the beer flows like wine. Where beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano.” Of course he’s talking about Aspen.
Why Aspen? Because that’s where Mary “Samsonite” – the girl of Lloyd’s dream and a client from his limo day – flew and he needs to return her (Samsonite) briefcase, which is filled with ransom money for her kidnapped husband.
Sure the movie is dumb (duh, it’s in the title), but it’s still funny nearly 20 years later, and it’s about traveling cross-country with your best buddy in the whole wide world. (KJ)
No. 17 – North by Northwest (1959)
Named on four ballots. Highest Rank: No. 3
In perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, Cary Grant plays New York marketing executive Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for “George Kaplan”, and chased across the country by foreign spies. Leading to this famous scene.
No. 16 – The Sure Thing (1985)
Named on five ballots. Highest Rank: No. 3
Who wouldn’t want to drive cross-country with the girl from your English class that you may have eyes for?
That’s the premise (sort of) behind The Sure Thing, the 1985 comedy directed by hitmaker Rob Reiner (This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally…, A Few Good Men, Sleepless in Seattle – just to name a few) and starring John Cusack as the fun-loving Walter Gibson, Daphne Zuniga as the uptight, school-first, Alison Bradbury and introducing Nicollette Sheridan as the Sure Thing.
Looking to go to California for Christmas break (Gibson to visit his buddy Lance, played by Anthony Edwards, and that “Sure Thing” and Bradbury to visit her boyfriend Jason), the two end up surprisingly in the same car, thanks to a ride share board. That doesn’t last long as their bickering causes their drivers (one played by Tim Robbins) to throw them out of the car, causing the duo to find creative ways of reaching their destination.
Of course after a couple of nights of disagreement and differences, the two begin to realize that they enjoy spending time together and by the time they reach California, Bradbury realizes her boyfriend’s a total bore and Gibson realizes that there’s more to a woman than just her body. (KJ)
No. 15 – Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Named on four ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1
Y Tu Mama Tambien is the road trip as a pensive coming of age experience – Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) are two aimless friends from different social classes in Mexico who convince a beautiful woman Luisa (Maribel Verdu) to take a trip with them to the make-believe “Heaven’s Mouth” beach, and as they journey through many hallmarks of the genre – killing time by bantering, playing silly games and listening to the radio, rubber-necking for weddings and car troubles they pass by, dealing with sexual tension, revealing past betrayals and re-evaluating their relationships – the three passengers take their own trips to personal enlightenment. Tenoch and Julio realize they’re not as closely bonded as they thought, while Luisa copes with hidden pain by embracing spontaneity and liberation, yet it all unfolds in the messy, ambiguous rhythm of real life. Director Alfonso Cuaron announced himself as a real talent with this movie – the raw immediacy of everything that happens, the long, spiraling conversations that are so intoxicating they sublimate all expository and thematic pretext, and how naturalistically it’s all both performed and filmed is like a less romanticized version of the Before Sunrise approach. Adding an extra layer is the sporadic narration, which mutes the soundtrack for a moment to fill in the bittersweet details of the locales we only briefly see along the way, showing the infinite mosaic of life out there as well as, specifically to American audiences, the bleak (yet not discontent) realities of family and economy in turn-of-the-century Mexico. It’s a painful road trip, but one of the most authentic ever put to screen. (Mike B)
No. 14 – Thelma & Louise (1991)
Named on four ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1
I can’t recall a female “buddy” movie that existed before Thelma & Louise, which either speaks highly to the breakthrough the 1988 movie was, or speaks highly to my lack of qualifications as a cinephile. Films where a couple of buddies find themselves enmeshed in a series of unfortunate circumstances that leads to them breaking the law was nothing new, but the fact that the two protagonists were female was groundbreaking.
The titular characters weren’t in the greatest places in life. Meek Thelma (Geena Davis) was in an abusive relationship, and sassy Louise (legendarily portrayed by Susan Sarandon) was working a soul-sucking gig as a waitress. When the two decide to head on a short road trip, things unravel really fast. A stop at a honky-tonk winds up becoming a homicide as Louise shoots and kills a guy who was acting aggressively towards Thelma. A dalliance with a con man (played by Brad Pitt in the role that made him BRAD PITT) goes awry as well, and the girls find themselves broke, desperate, and on the run. From there, the cycle of crime continues, with each obstruction of the law crazier than the next.
Thelma & Louise is a thrill ride that you’ll enjoy no matter your gender (it’s totally not a “chick flick,” and the movie’s final scene is one of the most iconic cliffhangers in film history). No one may know how the girls’ stories end, but there’s no doubt that Thelma & Louise is an expertly written film that will have you rooting for these two good girls gone bad. (Big Money)
No. 13 – The Muppet Movie (1979)
Named on five ballots. Highest Rank: No. 2
Each phase of the journey establishes now classic Muppet moments: Kermit strumming out “The Rainbow Connection” in the swamp, Gonzo singing to the stars about his unknown origins (a theme explored more in-depth in 1999’s Muppets from Space), Rowlf’s ragtime piano saloon, and Animal taking growth pills to name a few. Among all of these classic scenes, it’s Kermit and Fozzie’s duet on “Movin’ Right Along” that provides the most lasting road trip moment of the movie, as the duo sets out in Fozzie’s Studebaker. In complete disclosure, I confess that “Movin’ Right Along” has made it onto a number of my road trip mixes over the years. (Gonzo)
No. 12 – Sideways (2004)
Named on six ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1
Paul Giamatti has the saddest eyes in film; he plays woeful better than anyone else, and with this film deserved the Oscar he wasn’t even nominated for, but Sideways is far from a morose movie. Sometimes it’s thoughtful, and sometimes it’s fiercely funny, and sometimes its charm has some sharp edges. Mostly it’s a rumination on aging, on commitment, on friendship; it’s a love letter to wine country and the sort of humanistic slice-of-life picture director Alexander Payne is known for. Sideways is his best – it’s sharply written, with a quartet of perfect performances at its core, even briefly resurrecting the careers of sharp-tongued Thomas Hayden Church and luminescent Virginia Madsen. It’s one of the few perfect movies of the 21st century. (Drew)
No. 11 – Rain Man (1988)
Named on six ballots. Highest Rank: No. 2 – twice.
Sometimes it’s not about the destination, it’s about the jour… okay, okay, I’m not gonna resort to hoary clichés to explain the appeal of Rain Man to you; besides, if it wasn’t about the journey, why would we care about road trips to begin with? Rain Man‘s a doozy at that, a feel-good Best Picture winner with a pair of whip-smart performances at the forefront. Dustin Hoffman won a deserved Oscar for his sensitive portrait of an autistic adult – it’s the rare film where an actor’s immersion into mental illness doesn’t come across as cloying or stereotypical – but Tom Cruise emerges as a well-kept secret, never overshadowing the force of nature Hoffman, but augmenting him with equal parts sympathy and frustration. It’s a movie for people who love acting, really; that it never really gets too mawkish or sentimental is the secret strength of the script, which doesn’t shy away from big moments, but largely keeps things on an even keel. (Drew)
We’ll pick up with the final 10 (and some honorable mentions) on Thursday! In the meantime … safe travels!