Cars, motorcycles, anything with a motor and wheels have been an infatuation of Americans since the first horse and buggy and more so since the first real car came rolling off the assembly line. The open road and the curiosity about what’s at the other end of that road is an infatuation of Americans too. With the advent of internet technology, many people feel these days that they don’t need to travel across country, or across the globe. These people just need to put the top down and hit the road and that passion for the road trip will be reinvigorated within them. There’s no better place to display these feelings than on film. Some of the greatest films ever made were based on road stories. Maybe the story is all about a family trying to take a cross country trip together, or the story is darker and more isolated with one man trying to deliver a car by driving it across country. The kinds of stories that can be told on the road are limitless and the parameters for this list are some of the most open of any top 10. The story must be focused on traveling on the road. Characters can be driving anything or even walking. The point is that the story is told on the road from point A to point B. An honorable mention has to be Midnight Run. This is a good one but just not something I watch over and over. It’s probably better than some of the films on this list in terms of acting and execution, but the films on this list have something that make them films I’d watch over and over. That’s it. Here’s the list:
This is a very formulaic story. A good friend gets sick and his buddies want to help him do that one thing he’s always wanted to do before it’s too late. What put such a formulaic film on the list are the characters, the well done humor, and the “wink wink nudge nudge” throughout the film to genre movie fans. In the film this motley crew attempts to take their buddy across country to George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and break in to get an early look at the first prequel to the Star Wars franchise before the movie hits theaters. Some classic moments are the Star Trek sequences and cameos and a really hilarious scene where Kristen Bell is interrogated by Lucas “Ranch” security.
9. Death Race 2000
Roger Corman produced this camp classic road trip movie. In this particular road trip, the travelers are in a race across country not only to be first at the finish line but also to accumulate the most points during the race. Points are accumulated by killing pedestrians in eye catching ways. This film has spurred jokes for over 30 years anytime someone is driving and pedestrian crosses in front of a car. I myself have said “Hit that old woman she’s worth 500 points!” The racers include David Carradine in one of his most fun roles, Sylvester Stallone, and Mary Woronov who has been in tons of great movies such as Silent Night Bloody Night, Rock n’ Roll High School, Eating Raoul, and most recently The Devil’s Rejects and the fantastic The House of the Devil.
8. The Cannonball Run
Cannonball Run is a cross country race for the more mainstream audience. This one’s not about mowing down pedestrians. It’s simply about crossing that finish line first. These racers aren’t out to get innocent bystanders but they have no problems with pulling dirty tricks that could hinder their opponents. This comedy is actually base on a real cross country race that was established in response to a 55mph speed limit being established on United states highways. The amazing cast of this film says it all: Burt Reynolds (Smokey & the Bandit, Deliverance), Roger Moore (Bond films), Farrah Fawcett (Charlie’s Angels), Dom DeLuise (Spaceballs), Dean Martin (Ocean;s Eleven (1960), The Sons of Katie Elder), Sammy Davis Jr.(Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, Fantasy Island), Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing, The Fog)
7. The Road
Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are on a role these days starting with the jaw dropping No Country for Old Men. The Road is one of those novels that many said couldn’t be adapted into a film. The story is simple but extremely emotional and disturbing and some scenes are more extreme than anything put on film in the United States. The film that finally hit theaters was slightly tweaked to make the story filmable and overall the film is quiet, slow but precisely paced, and outstanding. It’s a post apocalyptic world and a man is trying to get his son across the country and down to the beach where he believes the two of them will be able to survive. That’s the story in a nutshell. They don’t drive along the road though. They walk and bush a shopping cart full of the helpful things they discover in their travels. The stark look of the film does a phenomenal job of building an atmosphere of sadness and fear, which is the life the man and his son live. The film stars Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Nightmares and Dreamscapes) turning in stunning but subtle and quiet performances. This is the only film on the list where the main characters are walking on the road rather than taking a vehicle.
In this creepy road picture, David Duchovny (The X-Files, Californication) and Michelle Forbes (Battlestar Galactica, True Blood) play a couple traveling across country visiting locations connected to some of the most brutal serial killers in history. Brian is writing a book about these locations while his girlfriend is documenting the trip by taking photos. They share expenses with another couple played by Brad Pitt (Inglorious Bastards)and Juliette Lewis(From Dusk Til Dawn) who are running from something terrible that Pitt’s character had done. This film is dark and tense from beginning to end, one of Pitt’s most unique performances to date. Pitt is almost unrecognizable in this film.
5. Thelma & Louise
When you think of Ridley Scott, you probably think of Blade Runner or Alien, but he’s much more versatile than those classic horror films. Scott also brought us this dramatic film about two desperate friends running across country hoping to get away from their lives of both brutality and mediocrity. Some will disagree but I believe this film to be Susan Sarandon’s (Rocky Horror Picture Show) best performance. Gina Davis (The Fly) is also fantastic in this melancholy film. Look for the first major appearance of a young Brad Pitt too. Scott directs this film with a steady hand and even keeps his own visual style under control.
4. The Hitcher (1986)
The original 1986 film features C. Thomas Howell (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) as a young man tasked with delivering a car across country. Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner) plays John Ryder, a vicious serial killer who stalks the isolated desert roads that Howell’s character now must traverse. Ryder begins to stalk Jim (Howell) specifically down the dusty highways and eventually frames him for a series of brutal killings. By the end of the film the police are after Jim but if he stops the car Ryder is there waiting for him. This film plays on the isolation of the open road and the paranoia that can build in someone traveling those roads alone for too long and oh yeah there’s a serial killer. Jennifer Jason Leigh makes a small appearance in this film too.
3. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
No road movie list would be complete without Plains, Trains, and Automobiles. Steve Martin (The Jerk) and John Candy (Spaceballs) play quit an odd couple attempting to travel across country to get home in time for Thanksgiving. Martin plays a very average, but somewhat neurotic family man while Candy plays a mess of a loner. In the 80’s, theaters were basically owned by director John Hughes. He tapped into American youth culture with classic teen comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles to name just a few. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles focuses on older characters but it’s still a family film. The two leads bring a mix of stiff and dry comedy with pure slapstick outrageousness. Two scenes always come to mind regarding this film. The first comes when the two wake up in an awkward position in bed together. The second comes when Candy drives the car in the wrong direction on the highway.
There are action road movies, horror road movies, and family road movies and Vacation sits at the top of the heap of family entries in the genre. This film was made when Chevy Chase (Fletch) was at the top of his comedic game. In the early 80’s, there were few that were as cleverly funny as Chase. What happened in the 90’s is a different story but I digress. In this film, Clark Griswold (Chase) wants desperately to take his family across country to an amusement park for a vacation. No family has faced obstacles like the ones that the Griswold family faces on this trip. Most other father’s would have given up and turned back but the more challenging the trip got the more determined Clark was to get his family to their destination. Along the way the family lost an aunt, a dog, and most of their belongings. While there are tons of over the top big slapstick comedy moments, some of the funniest scenes come when Chase delivers some hilarious line in a serious deadpan tone that only Chase is capable of. Also in this film is Beverly D’Angelo (Every Which Way But Loose), Randy Quaid (Independence Day), and Anthony Michael Hall (Sixteen Candles).
1. Easy Rider
Road movies were a major part of cinema in the 60’s and 70’s and often those movies crossed with biker movies. Biker movies often also cross into exploitation film territory and while that’s definitely not a bad thing it strays a bit far from what a road movie really is. One biker film, Easy Rider is known as the gold standard for biker films and it’s a pretty great road picture too. There’s a sense of freedom attached to bikers of the 60’s and 70’s. Older people looked at them as trouble, as slackers, and they were because they often didn’t work which is what allowed them the freedom to travel back and forth across country at will. They’d just take little jobs here and there to keep food in their belly and gas in the tank. In this film, Wyatt and Billy are two bikers traveling to Louisiana for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they end up in jail, meet a slew of quirky characters including a drunken lawyer, and hitchhikers, and end up having to deal with the death of a friend. The film features Peter Fonda (Dirty Mary Crazy Larry) as Wyatt and Dennis Hopper (Speed) as Billy. The film was also directed by Dennis Hopper. This film is quirky and dramatic. While imperfect in places, it’s still a true time capsule of a bygone era that should be seen by all fans of road films and fans of film in general.
That’s our list. What’s yours?