We hope you enjoyed Nos. 21-11 of our Road Trip movie countdown! If you didn’t get a chance to check out the prior list, you can do so (or revisit it) by clicking here.
Before we dive right into the final 10, unless we already lost you because you immediately scrolled down to see what is the No. 1 Road Trip movie, let me briefly give you a couple of movies that made our list of 68, but couldn’t crack the top 21, just because it’s likely not that many have seen them. These are true road trip movies, in the sense that 90-percent of the movie is based on the road. We’ll call this our Honorable Mention!
Into the Wild (2007)
Based on a true story, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) abandons his middle class life, gives his savings to charity and makes his way via hitchhiking to Alaska.
Coupe de Ville (1990)
At their father’s request, three brothers (played by Daniel Stern, Arye Gross and Patrick Dempsey) reconnect for the first time in five years, taking a cross-country road trip in a 1954 Cadillac to surprise their mom for her 50th birthday. As the eldest of three brothers, this is a family favorite of ours. Funny, touching and a little close to home.
OK … so as a Star Wars fan I may be a bit biased in putting this in the Honorable Mention. But it’s a road trip movie, and a good one at that! Four buddies take a cross-country trip to Skywalker Ranch so their dying friend can see Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace before it’s release. Sound geeky … it kinda is, filled with Star Wars jokes, but it’s also funny and a little heart-warming. Plus Kristen Bell sports the Slave Leia costume.
Lost in America (1985)
A husband (Albert Brooks) convinces his wife (Julie Hagerty) that they should quit their jobs, buy a Winnebago and travel the country!
The Lucky Ones (2008)
After suffering injuries in war, three soldiers, played by Tim Robbins, Michael Pena and Rachel McAdams, return home only to realize that life has moved on without them. When a blackout cancels flights the trio take to the road.
Now back to our countdown …
No. 10 - Easy Rider (1969)
Named on six ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1 – a list record three times.
On one hand you have Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – the great American road novel. On the other, you have Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider – the great American road film. Both works explore the social climates of their times expressed through the metaphor of their respective journeys through. In Huck’s case, his journey down the Mississippi River is an escape from a society he distrusts and the evils of slavery. His ideal is to light out to the territories where he can enjoy a life of free of being “sivilized”. In Easy Rider, Wyatt, A.K.A. “Captain America” (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper), set out from those territories back east toward New Orleans.
In the end, it turns out Huck was right, the western territories are more free. In the west Wyatt and Billy are welcomed wherever the go, whether it be at a rancher’s for dinner or on a commune. Wyatt in particular finds life in both to be good, while Billy, more restless, wants to keep moving. But the further east that Wyatt and Billy go, the more they find a late 60’s America filled with intolerance, suspicion and fear; a fear that Jack Nicholson’s George Hanson describes as a fear of those that are truly free. Eventually George is beaten to death by a gang of local rednecks and Wyatt and Billy are wantonly and cavalierly shot to death, leaving Wyatt’s words to Billy, “we blew it” lingering in the viewer’s ears.
The film itself established many of the road film motifs we know today, especially the vision of motorcycles on the open road set of course to Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” (a motif that was hilariously sent up in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America when Brooks and Julie Haggerty set out on their own version of Easy Rider in an RV). There are incredibly gorgeous scenes of the American West, perhaps none better than Fonda and Hopper riding through Monument Valley, Utah, at sunset with the Band’s “The Weight” playing over it. Watching this movie will make you want to get out and explore more of America, even if in Nicholson’s words (as true this Sunday morning as ever), “it used to be a hell of a country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” (Dennis)
No. 9 - Borat (2006)
Named on seven ballots. Highest Rank: No. 2
Over the years, movie characters have hit the road for many reasons: A family vacation, seeking fame and fortune, to follow the American dream, to go in search of love and romance, and many more. Borat fits neatly into the genre. It is, after all, a movie about a guy who criss-crosses America to meet the love of his life. But nothing else about the movie is neat or predictable. We’re talking about Sacha Baron Cohen here, and a documentary-style film in which he stars as a naïve, totally clueless, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, racist journalist from Kazakhstan who is utterly lacking in social graces, who travels from New York to Los Angeles to meet, of all people, erstwhile Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson, and who offends nearly everyone he meets along the way.
The movie is horrifically, hilariously inappropriate. It’s also absolutely brilliant, an award-winning comedic game-changer that raises the stakes for just how wrong something can be and still feel so very right. (Credit goes to director Larry Charles, who keeps it all in line). Borat (full name: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) is a movie about a man following his dreams. It’s a trip no one who’s seen it will ever forget. (Martin)
No. 8 - O’ Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)
Named on nine ballots. Highest Rank: No. 5 – twice.
How could you not like a road movie based on the original road story, Homer’s The Odyssey? This Ulysses is the fast talking, pomade wearing Ulysses Everett McGill (played to perfection by George Clooney) has busted out of the infamous Parchman Farm. Like Ulysses, Everett uses his smarts and quick tongue with his simpleton crew Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (played sweetly by Tim Blake Nelson), who often pay the price for his ideas. Like the Ulysses of old, the Coen’s Everett is determined to return to his Penelope (Holly Hunter) and finds adventure, and challenges along the way to reuniting with his wife and children. Along the way, they also manage to record a hit record as the fake group, The Soggy Bottom Boys.
The Coen brothers set their odyssey in Depression-era Mississippi complete with blind seers, lotus eaters sirens (in a hilarious scene Delmar believes Pete has been turned into a toad) and a cyclops (a thieving Bible salesman played by John Goodman). There are also plenty of archetypes recognizable from Southern literature and mythos, e.g. the bluesman who sells his soul to the devil at a lonesome crossroads (named for a real bluesman, Tommy Johnson, and played by another, Chris Thomas King). The movie’s King Menelaus, is Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, the quintessential phony, corrupt southern politician played deliciously by the late, great Charles Durning.
This is one of the Coen brother’s best, and features many of their well-known techniques, e.g. zooming facial close-ups, and plot devices, e.g. a criminal protagonist, along with actors familiar from their other films (Durning, Goodman, Turtorro, etc). O Brother, thou, is also well-known for the sepia tint in the cinematography to give the movie it’s “old-timey” look and feel. The film was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
Of course, you can’t talk about O Brother, Where Art Thou? without mentioning its soundtrack which was a critical and surprisingly commercial success (having sold more than 7.8 million copies to date). T Bone Burnett was in charge of collecting the songs to be used in the movie and put together an Americana mix of bluegrass, gospel, folk and country using mostly contemporary artists like Allison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris among others. The soundtrack is probably best known for Ralph Stanley’s haunting a capella “O Death”, a performance that won Stanley a Grammy at the age of 75 in 2002. The soundtrack was the big winner at that year’s Grammy Awards, winning five in total, including beating out Bob Dylan and U2 for Album of the Year. (Dennis)
No. 7 – Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
Named on eight ballots. Highest Rank: No. 2
Before being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay or killing Santa Claus, Harold and Kumar took a relatively sane road trip to satisfy their munchies in one of the funniest travelogues and stoner odysseys ever made. Normally road trips are cross-country and with a meaningful destination in mind, but here, all our heroes want is a couple burgers after they get high. It takes them all night to reach the White Castle that’s in their own town, and that’s just the first of many absurdist gags that bend expectation and turn a series of trite, moronic episodes into an epic crusade for victory. There’s a cartoonish/hilarious/essential road trip encounter every five minutes – a stop-off at Princeton, a creepy hitchhiking detour with a disfigured trucker, attack by wild animal (a raccoon, who after being thrown out a moving car hovers in mid-air like Wile E. Coyote), having to operate on someone after being mistaken for surgeons, a run-in with a disapproving parent, going to jail, standing up to bullies, traveling by hand-glider, meeting Neil Patrick Harris (who also craves some burgers…fur burgers), and riding a Cheetah! The interplay of mundane and surreal sets a wild, unpredictable tone to the trip. There are meta nods (a Van Wilder cameo on Kal Penn’s behalf and a reference to the director’s previous movie, Dude Where’s My Car), an inevitable radio sing along (Wilson Phillips’ “Hold on”), doppelgänger (Eddie Kay Thomas and David Krumholtz), Jamie Kennedy as a weird guy who chooses the same bush to pee in as Kumar, a daydream montage of Kumar marrying a giant bag of weed…basically an inspired and altogether different kind of joke tucked in everywhere throughout this. That the entire movie also functions as a satirical expose of rampant racial prejudice should elevate it to a comic masterpiece, a wise work of art disguised as a pothead’s stream of consciousness, but with all the surface pleasures it has to offer – nonstop laughs, high spirits, star-making turns (if only) from John Cho and Kal Penn, a witty inversion of the road trip movie scope – its underlying intellect is as easy to misinterpret as Starship Troopers, while its pride in elevating an Asian and an Indian actor to the pretty much never-accepted status of anti-stereotypical leads in a mainstream Hollywood movie is wonderfully progressive. For such a dumb B-movie premise, this is one dense road trip. (Mike B)
No. 6 – Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Named on eight ballots. Highest Rank: No. 2
Some road trip movies depict the growth of a character from callow youth to seasoned and mature man; some use the road as a metaphor for the expansive promise — and often disappointing reality — of America itself. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure does absolutely none of those things. The film has the kind of threadbare plot — character loses beloved item and will stop at nothing to get it back — that one normally finds undergirding a second-rate Saturday Night Live project. Essentially a series of vignettes, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure nevertheless succeeds on nearly every front: it’s visually imaginative (no surprise there, with Tim Burton at the helm), just suspenseful enough to keep your attention without killing your buzz, and full of hilarious turns by a brilliant cast. Considering this was the first big-screen vehicle for Paul Reubens’ famous alter ego, it’s amazing how generously he yields the spotlight, and many of the movie’s most memorable gags and lines come from people other than Pee-Wee. (Two words: Large Marge.) But Reubens/Pee-Wee is the irreplaceable heart of the film, full of moxie, peevishness and determination that is endearing and even a little inspiring. As far as journeys go, one could do worse than emulate Pee-Wee’s picaresque route in reuniting with his bike. Just remember: there’s no basement in the Alamo. (Dan)
No. 5 – Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Named on nine ballots. Highest Rank: No. 4
As silly as it is heartbreaking, Little Miss Sunshine tells the story of a family so short on cash that when the youngest member is chosen to take part in a beauty pageant, they all must cram into an antiquated yellow Volkswagen T2 Microbus to get there. (That bespectacled, awkward-looking Olive is competing against prettier Southern California girls makes perfect sense in our Toddlers & Tiaras/Here Comes Honey Boo Boo age.) Along the way, as they travel from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, there are multiple setbacks, and everyone learns a great lesson: that nothing is more important than family. Little Miss Sunshine is a comedy with a great, big heart, one that features a strong acting ensemble (Alan Arkin won an Oscar for his performance) and a screenplay that includes lots of quotable lines. The whole thing climaxes with a supremely hysterical dance to Rick James’ “Super Freak,” but in Little Miss Sunshine, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. (Martin)
No. 4 - The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Named on eight ballots. Highest Rank: No. 3
When one thinks of “road trip” movies, The Wizard of Oz probably doesn’t come up on the list, despite it being exactly that. Of course, the main premise of the movie revolves around the epic trip that Dorothy, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow take to find the Wizard. Also, haven’t we all had that, “There’s no place like home” moment after a long stretch on the road? (I know I did after a four-day trip lasting 40+ hours a few summers ago). Maybe The Wizard of Oz isn’t a traditional entry on our list, but the 1939 film is the tale of Dorothy’s classic journey down the Yellow Brick Road, where she discovers friendship, love, great music, and grows up along the way. If that isn’t the recipe for the perfect summer road trip, I don’t know what is. (Brittany)
No. 3 - Almost Famous (2000)
Named on eight ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1
All you need to know about what makes Almost Famous so great can be found in the iconic scene where teenage Rolling Stone reporter William Miller, the band he’s covering, and their groupies sing along with the Elton John song “Tiny Dancer.” In just under two and a half magical minutes, director Cameron Crowe captures the frustration, heartbreak, joy, and elation of being on the road with a bunch of your closest friends. “I have to go home,” William tells Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane. “You are home,” she replies. And indeed, in Almost Famous, there’s no better place to be than on the road, traveling from gig to gig with your favorite band, sitting right next to the girl of your dreams. Crowe’s film, based on his real experiences, gets all the details and emotions just right, putting us on the bus (and later, on the plane) with Stillwater, and giving us a memorable look at the rock and roll lifestyle of the 1970s. (Martin)
No. 2 - Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
Named on 10 ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1 – twice.
It’s a Johnson family, Thanksgiving tradition. We (OK … I) watch football in the morning. We eat turkey in the mid-afternoon, and afterwards we have our annual screening of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. After all, it’s not only one of the best road trip movies EVER but the best Thanksgiving movie of … EVER!
However, this is a road trip list, so why does Planes, Trains and Automobiles deserve to be ranked as the No. 2 road trip movie of all-time?
Steve Martin plays Neal Page, a marketing exec on a business trip in New York, trying to get home to Chicago for Thanksgiving, two days before Thanksgiving. Any of you travel on the day before Thanksgiving? Then you’ll know why Neal Page didn’t have an easy time.
His travel partner – by accident – is a shower curtain ring salesman named Del Griffith, and played brilliantly by the late-great John Candy (why does John Belushi and Chris Farley get all the early-death-of-a-big-man credit when Candy is the true genius?).
You want a disaster of a road trip try this:
Start with a taxi ride to a New York airport, where flights are delayed and you miss your kid’s school program. You finally get on a flight headed home, however, due to a snowstorm in Chicago, you end up in Wichita, Kansas and sharing a queen-sized bed with some dude you met on the plane.
From there you sit in the back of a truck filled with hay and where the temperature is “One”, so you can take the “people train” out of Stubbville. However the train breaks down in Missouri and just like that you’re singing the Flintstones theme on a Greyhound to St. Louis.
Flights are booked in St. Louis – after all it’s the day before Thanksgiving – so Neal attempts to rent a car. Except the car isn’t there, which leads to this very funny, very NSFW or kids or anyone with sensitive ears scene.
Neal and Del are hilariously reunited minutes later, and the two attempt to drive home in a car that Del mysteriously rented. That leads to this scene where the two end up going the other way on the freeway.
The car ends up catching on fire, the car is impounded, they ride home in the back of a milk truck and the movie has a very, very touching twist-ending that leaves you in tears and makes you forget you just spent 90 minutes laughing, and the final two drying your eyes.
They don’t make comedy like this anymore. Well done John Hughes, well done.
Which leads us into another Hughes written flick … our No. 1 Road Trip movie of all-time! (KJ)
No. 1 - National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Named on 10 ballots. Highest Rank: No. 1 – twice.
It’s no surprise that we find the Griswolds atop our list of the best road trip movies of all-time. After all, as we mentioned in Tuesday’s intro to the countdown, it’s midsummer, the time when families think about taking that All-American cross-country trip to Disneyland or any of the other beautiful National parks our nation is blessed with.
And who better to model our adventure after than Clark, Ellen, Rusty and Audry.
OK maybe not.
If you’re not familiar with the story of the Griswolds and their Quest for Fun you probably haven’t been interested in reading our two-part road trip series. Why? Because Vacation is the family vacation / road trip movie.
The family of four leave Chicago in the Wagon Queen Family Truckster headed for the fictional California-based Walley World (think Disneyland but instead of Mickey Mouse you have Marty Moose). The trip takes them from the ghetto of St. Louis, through Kansas to visit relatives (the infamous cousin Eddie, played by squatter Randy Quaid), the canyons of Colorado, the desert of Arizona and finally to the empty parking lot of Walley World.
Of course, hilarity ensues during all this state-hopping.
For a father of three, and a veteran of annual family road trips, the movie is pretty true to life – at least as much as movies can be. Some of the most realistic scenes are when it’s just the four of them in the car. Dad telling the kids to look out the window at some historical site, the kids listening to headphones so they don’t have to pay attention to their parents conversation, the kids fighting in the back seat, causing the parents to grow frustrated in the front seat. There are moments where you think “I’ll never do this again!” or “Let’s turn this car around!” but then you reach your destination, feel like you accomplished something, and realize all of the “foreplay” led to a really great time and memories you’ll have forever.
Ultimately that’s Vacation. Clark’s “pilgrimage to see a moose!” makes the rest of his family – and even himself – realize that spending all that close-knit time with each other is what’s important in life. (KJ)
There you have it! The 21 best road trip movies of all-time! Now get on the road and enjoy your summer! And safe travels!
Did we miss your favorite? If so let us know in the comments below!