Open roads, wind in your hair, purring engine; there’s a special kind of magic in road trips that make them irresistible to filmmakers and audiences alike (and not just the kind of “magic” that comes from spending too much time around petrol fumes).
All the things you might find in great films come baked into a road trip: Breaking free of comfort zones, making new friends, visiting strange places and long ol’ stretches with nothing to do but reflect on your life and the issues it throws your way. Essentially, road trips are God’s gift to screenwriters.
In a genre filled with so many jewels, it’s worth highlighting the films that still manage to stand out, the ones that compel you to take on the open road and let loose for real. With that in mind, let’s take a look at 12 of the best and most significant road trip films of all time.
Into The Wild
There’s a naïve, rebellious free spirit inside even the most straight-laced of us. Into The Wild gives us a version of real-life Chris McCandless (Otherwise known as Alexander Supertramp) that channels the most extreme desires of that little free spirit. After graduating college, he rejects a traditional career, donates the entirety of his savings to charity and sets off on a winding, cross-country journey to the Alaskan wilderness.
Many of the choices made by Mr. Supertramp are criticised as being unforgivably naïve, not least is the vague and ultimately fatal notion of heading to Alaska to “Live off the land” with almost no preparation. This, I feel misses the point of the film’s take on Chris. He’s the starry-eyed dreamer inside us all writ large; of course, he’s going to give away all his money and leave home without a plan, assuming everything will just “work out”. Into The Wild is an intensely emotional portrayal of the road trip spirit, and one that’s well worth your time.
Thelma & Louise
Ridley Scott’s wild tale of a weekend escape turned police getaway fits so much charm and intensity into just a couple of speedy hours. The partnership of our eponymous leads, brought to life by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, draws you into their dilemma and opens your heart to their joys and dramas with such ease. By the time the credits roll, you’ll have felt the blow of that iconic ending like it happened to your own friends.
The complex and fiercely protective nature of brotherly love needs more representation on-screen. If any film proves this, it’s Rain Man. Showing us the difficult journey of brothers Charlie (Tom Cruise) and Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) as they travel across the US and closer to true brotherhood, we’ll see Charlie learn to understand and embrace his brother’s autism as something more than purely a burden. Also worth recognising is the increased awareness of autism that came from the film’s popularity and Hoffman’s performance; it isn’t a perfect portrayal, but it treats the topic with more sensitivity than most films manage
Rebellious on every level, Easy Rider lays out an impression of 1960-70s American society and the clash between its mainstream and counterculture members, ultimately mourning the futility of opposing the mainstream. Most importantly, it’s credited as one of the films that led the way for many modern filmmaking techniques and ushering in a new era of Hollywood: licensed soundtracks, stylised editing and fast paced storytelling were practically unheard of in the decades before Easy Rider. Nowadays, Hollywood would be unrecognisable without snappy cuts and catchy chart toppers. It’s a little ironic that a film so immersed in rebellion would end up paving the way for a new norm.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Not a road trip film in the traditional “easy going Americana” sense, more like a “shot of adrenaline to the heart” sort of thing; Fury Road is nonetheless very much worthy of being on this list. Boasting some of the most memorable visuals and insane action scenes of any film in the past few years (if not of all time), this most recent installment in the Mad Max franchise introduces us yet again to a new post-apocalyptic settlement, new survivors and for the first time: a new Max, this time played Tom Hardy. This new Max must aid a rebellious warrior and five unwilling wives in their mutiny and escape from tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe. What follows this setup is almost two hours of car chase that for once makes the often used phrase “non-stop thrill ride” actually appropriate.
The Straight Story
A change of pace for not only this list, but also surrealist Director David Lynch. The Straight Story tells the humble tale of an elderly farmer travelling across states from Wisconsin to Iowa on the only transport available to him: his lawnmower. What sounds like a laughable premise actually lays the groundwork for a thought-provoking, unexpectedly moving journey that comes as a complete surprise when you remember that the director’s previous credits include Twin Peaks, Eraserhead and Inland Empire.
This cross-country, apocalyptic road trip is dripping with as much style and charisma as it is gallons of blood. Zombieland (now gearing up for a sequel) doesn’t much care about telling a compelling narrative, what you’ll find here essentially boils down to a search for safety and one man’s hunt for an elusive Twinkie. It’s the charm of its leads and the chemistry they have with one another that’ll cement this film in your memory. Don’t expect much biting social commentary or intense drama; this film exists to kick-ass and have fun, it only asks that you’re happy to come along with it.
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical modern classic wraps up the intense highs and lows of teenagehood, the tension of touring with oversized egos in a rock band and a nostalgic look at the 70s in this neat, road trip package. The journey of our young protagonist: William Miller, will see him through the first steps of maturity and into a promising future as he gets himself the chance to write for The Rolling Stone at only 15-years old. Bursting with enough humor, sincerity and emotion to make even the coldest heart melt like butter; Almost Famous is the quintessential coming-of-age tale of recent years.
Ralph Macchio – everyone’s favourite Karate Kid – abandons martial arts for the blues as Eugene Martone in another musically driven, coming-of-age story. Based around the legends of Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil for skills on guitar and a blues heart to match, Eugene is accompanied by elderly music legend Willie Brown as they search for Johnson’s “lost song”. On the journey, Eugene – already a musical prodigy – will discover that true blues ability comes from pain and life experience, not prestigious education. He’ll love, lose and learn as both a person and a musician, taking those first steps to becoming a real blues man.
Crossroads is a fun journey steeped in the best kind of blues clichés and culminating in a fantastic musical climax that’ll send shivers down your spine.
To call Logan a “superhero film” does it an injustice; there’s no saving the day, no world ending catastrophe and no proud heroics here. What we have instead is the odyssey of a dying man – almost the last of his kind – and the girl he’s tasked with escorting across the American-Canadian border. Violent, intense and drenched in atmosphere; Logan hits you with an emotional gut-punch unlike any other Marvel production and serves as a perfect farewell to hugh jackman in his last performance as Wolverine.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Clooney brings the slick-haired, silver-tongued charm in this loose and relatively modern interpretation of Homer’s “The Odyssey”. Set in 1930s Mississippi instead of ancient Greece, three escaped convicts: Ulysses, Pete and Delmar must flee from the law and help Ulysses in his personal quest while surviving all manner of bizarre people and groups along the way. If the humor, inspired soundtrack or creative camerawork led by the Coen Brothers don’t draw you in, the performances by George Clooney and John Goodman are sure to win you over in this memorable homage to one of the oldest and most influential pieces of literature out there.
Little Miss Sunshine
Stuffing an entire dysfunctional family into a VW Winnebago for 700 miles is a recipe for disaster up there with throwing a bucket of Mentos into a hot tub of Diet Coke. Little Miss Sunshine focuses on the Hoovers, a family with enough issues to tear themselves apart ten times over and seem to be on the brink of letting that happen. We’ll grow to understand them as fleshed out individuals as they face their personal demons and grow to accept each other on this intense, personal and at times, darkly funny road trip to the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant.