Travelling tales have been a storytelling staple since storytelling itself started, so that’s essentially forever. The Road Trip movie is the cinema world’s answer to one of the most enduring narrative archetypes.
There’s a road trip for every film genre. For our purposes here we’re talking cars and driving (because really, just about any travelling narrative could be a road trip, couldn’t it Frodo), but as far as the rest goes, the possibilities of a road trip movie are endless. There is one general foundation though – the journey itself is always far more significant than the destination itself.
So get put on your driving music and gather your pack of wacky companions and sit back and enjoy the journey through these 5 of the Best Road Trip Movies (in no particular order of greatness).
1. Thelma and Louise
Directed by Ridley Scott
Not only is this a classic road trip flick, it’s also one of my favourite movies of all time. Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) cast off the tedious boredom of their dull ever day lives and hit the road for a girl’s weekend in an oh so sweet sky blue Thunderbird. Early on, they get into some trouble, killing an attempted rapist in self defence and then end up on the run, robbing convenience stores and taking on the roles of two classic western bandits.
The supporting cast, particularly Harvey Keitel as Hal the cop tracking the duo across the countryside, is as flawless as the rest of the movie. A very young Brad Pitt, in one of his first movie roles makes a very sexy appearance as a loveable but ultimately untrustworthy travelling cowboy. Pitt’s role lasted not even ten minutes but it was enough to catapult him into the fame that followed.
The car itself is just as much a character as Thelma and Louise – just imagine what a different movie this would be if they were cruising Monument Valley in a beat up hatchback or something equally uncool.
Thelma and Louise is often regarded as a chick flick, and perhaps that’s fair as it is all about female empowerment against the patriarchy. But that’s not to say that it’s a “Girls Only” film. This is a superb bit of cinema – a terrific story beautifully shot and brilliantly acted – that has enough of everything to please any movie fan. It made a kick when it was first released, winning 1992 Best Screenplay Oscar (Callie Khouri). It was also nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Editing, and Davis and Sarandon were both nominated for Best Leading Actress in the same year.
2. Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
There are few movies that have so carefully blended family drama, quirky existential dilemmas and sheer comedic gold, all wrapped up in the form of a road trip movie.
The Hoover family is taking a cross country trip to get seven year old Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. The dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a loser trying desperately to dell his self-help guides; the son, Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a Nietzsche inspire vow of silence to help him focus on his dream of becoming a fighter pilot; Grandpa Edwin (Alan Arkin) is a junkie old man evicted from his old folks home for dealing heroin; Uncle Frank (Steve Carrel) is an expert in Proust who has just attempted suicide after his boyfriend took up with number one Proust scholar, Frank’s academic rival; and then there’s the mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette) who is just trying to hold them altogether.
They make the journey from Albuquerque to California in a yellow Kombi that barely goes and rarely starts – another great example of a car being a Road Trip character unto itself – and along the way, they learn and face some hard truths about each other and themselves.
In 2007, Little Miss Sunshine won the Oscar for Best Screenplay (Michael Arndt), and Alan Arkin won the Best Supporting Actor award. Abigail Breslin was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and it was also nominated for Best Motion Picture.
This is as deeply heart-warming and sad as it is downright hilarious and is recommended for anyone who likes their films with a little bit of weirdness and a whole lot of heart.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Sideways is another drama comedy (no, I’m not going to use that compound neologism typically applied to movies of this ilk). This time we have two middle aged men – Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) taking a weekend boys trip through Californian wine country before Jack’s wedding.
Miles is a depressed and struggling writer, also a wine buff and Jack is a obnoxious, uncouth failed actor who wants one last weekend of sex and indulgence before he’s married.
Both men disappointed in the way their lives have gone so far and the film takes us through their coming to terms with everything they have or rather have not achieved. Giamatti is his usual glum character, but he plays the type so damn well that no one could possibly complain.While the wine flows a little too freely through their journey, Jack and Miles hook up with women, face more and more disappointments but ultimately find one form of peace or another.
Legend has it that sales of merlot dropped considerably in the U.S after Miles, a pinot man to the end, gives a passionate anti-merlot rant. Sideways is smart and funny and a brilliant piece of character writing. It’s sad but nevertheless warming. Don’t watch this movie if you’re trying not to drink wine. Or if you don’t want to see a fat naked man running full frontal.
4. Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Directed by Stephan Elliott
There is just no other movie that compares to Priscilla Queen of the Desert – and let’s make a point of deliberately ignoring the painfully weak attempt that was To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995).
Priscilla is about a group of drag queens travel across the Australian outback in a bus (affectionately known as Priscilla), en route from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform a show though we learn along the way, there is a far more personal ulterior motive for the trip.
Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Terrance Stamp – these are some of the best Australian actors and some of the best actors all round, and they each in this film just seem to be having a jolly good time. Some Australian icons pop up their heads in the supporting cast including the later Bill Hunter and even a cameo from Margaret Pomeranz.
Priscilla was a major event in Australian cinema – the costuming, the casting, the general excellence of the entire film and a positive and portrayal of gay culture, something which was at the time not in the mainstream. The film took Aussie movies to the world stage (again) and was even enough to colour the theme of Sydney’s Olympic ceremonies in 2000.
Beneath all of the outrageous outfits and perfect one liners, there is a sincere heart to this fish out of water comedy. The film is dotted with a sometimes confronting portrayal of homophobia – the bus being spray-painted “AIDS Fuckers Go Home” and some sobering scenes of anti-gay violence that were just not heard of in mainstream cinema before, particularly in the comedy genre.
Like all of our movies in this list, the characters in Priscilla all learn something about each other and more importantly themselves as they make their journey. Plus, the amazing disco pop soundtrack will have you dancing long after the credits have closed.
5. Planes Trains and Automobiles
Directed by John Hughes
Anything that has John Hughes in the director’s chair is going to be good. And Planes, Trains and Automobiles is one of his best. It is a far step away from the teen drama comedies that Hughes if best known for although it is made with the same smart scripting and clever blend of comedy and sentiment that made his 1980s teen flicks so revered.
Here we have Neal (Steve Martin), after a series of misfortunes struggling to get home to his family by Thanksgiving. On the road, he meets Del (John Candy) a travelling shower ring salesman and the two pair up to try and make the trip home as quickly as possible.
This is your typical odd couple scenario – one that plays so well for road movies where the car forces such close company. Martin is the straight guy, a bit of a snob, while Candy is the loudmouthed slob. Neal can’t stand Del and he makes this discontent more and more obvious as their journey goes on. By the end of the movie though, Neal has seen that Del is not actually such a bad guy and when he realises Del’s sad trouble and unfortunate situation, invited him to his thanksgiving table. Awwww.
Planes Trains and Automobiles is a road, rail and sky trip movie, one of the classic comedies of the 1980s with two of the best comedians of the last few decades in fine form.
Is there a glaring omission? What makes your list of favourite road trip movies? Tell us in the comments below.