The road movie is an indispensable genre within cinema. While a movie focused on a journey may seem too nebulous to warrant its own movement, the genre offers a distinct series of tropes and symbols. For one, the open road is a vast metaphor. Directors have used car rides to symbolize a character’s personal journey when they discover new aspects of themselves as fresh landscapes peer over the horizon.
However, road movies don’t even have to involve a road. Movies like Finding Nemo or O Brother, Where Art Thou? are quintessential road movies because they feature characters devoted to finding something important on a quest. Ultimately, that search and yearning for something meaningful rests at the genre’s core.
Here are 25 of the greatest road movies of all time, detailing the most memorable journeys in cinema history.
1. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey
Dog movies are typically overly sentimental exercises in emotional manipulation, but occasionally one comes along that hits all the right notes. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey is the quintessential children’s road movie as Chance the American Bulldog, Shadow the Golden Retriever, and Sassy the Himalayan cat embark on a quest to be reunited with their family. Naturally, the film isn’t exactly filled with grit and realism, but it succeeds by crafting an engaging plot that outpaces other childrens movies.
2. Forrest Gump
Forrest’s journey across America is a classic example of a road movie, even though he travels by foot the entire time. Forrest Gump also makes the cut because it expands the typical definition of an adventure. Tom Hanks’ character not only travels a sizable distance, but traverses different time periods to trace a journey across years as well as miles.
3. Finding Nemo
Released when Pixar was at its creative peak, Finding Nemo represents a watershed moment in children’s movies. The movie received widespread critical acclaim for its mature themes and ability to handle delicate subject matter. Marlin’s epic journey to find his son, Nemo, hits all the tropes of road movies, but cast into an aquatic backdrop.
4. Road Trip
Road movies often deal with serious trials of spiritual rediscovery, and then sometimes they star Tom Green. Road Trip is filled with toilet humor, inane dialogue, and all manners of absurdity. However, this college comedy makes its formula work by never trying to take itself too seriously.
5. Little Miss Sunshine
Little Miss Sunshine can be seen as the antithesis of National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, where the family structure is torn apart by dysfunction. The film follows a young girl’s journey to a questionable beauty pageant plagued by her family’s numerous psychological shortcomings. Writer Michael Arndt shines as he weaves a black comedy that pairs love and turmoil.
6. National Lampoon’s Family Vacation
The National Lampoon’s Family Vacation series practically invented its own specific subgenre of road movies. Nearly every film chronicles Chevy Chase as he tries to be the perfect family man only to spectacularly fail in every way. The first entry follows his family’s trip to “Walley World” and the side-splitting obstacles they encounter along the way.
7. Easy Rider
Easy Rider is much more than an excellent road movie. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s epic motorcycle trip across the South proved to be a cultural touchstone, sparking a new era in cinema. Their journey showcased the numerous subcultures and societal tensions gripping America in the ’60s. As a result, the film ends up painting a much broader picture than the trials of two wayward cocaine dealers.
8. Thelma & Louise
Thelma & Louise casted off many tropes of typical road movies. Instead of being led by some macho protagonist in search of his frail love, the film focuses on the trials of two women painted as criminals by a patriarchal society. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon excel in the lead roles, giving the most compelling and impassioned performances of their careers.
9. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
A real-life depiction of Murphy’s Law, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a road movie where everything goes horribly wrong for maximum comedic effect. Starring the all-star duo of John Candy and Steve Martin, the film explores two opposing personalities attempting to work together. Over the course of the movie, both characters discover their similarities while hilariously reaffirming their differences.
10. Y Tu Mamá Tambien
Rather than explore the rugged American countryside, Alfonso Cuarón wanted to visit his home country of Mexico in Y Tu Mamá Tambien. The acclaimed film is a mature coming-of-age tale where two teenage boys become immersed in a new world of drugs and sex. Along the way, they discover the deeper implications of Mexico’s cultural landscape and political history.
11. Two-Lane Blacktop
Since its release in 1971, Two-Lane Blacktop has secured its place as a cult classic. Though its commercial performance was dismal, the road movie excelled as an arthouse hit for its rich atmosphere and limited dialogue. The film is especially important for exploring Route 66 in its glory years, before the interstate highway expansion forever changed America’s roads.
12. Bonnie and Clyde
By today’s standards, Bonnie and Clyde’s subject matter would hardly be seen as controversial. In the late ’60s, director Arthur Penn unwittingly created a movie that galvanized counter-cultural movements while horrifying the establishment. The film follows the famous story of criminals Bonnie and Clyde without sparing the necessary details about sex and violence.
13. Paris, Texas
The absolute desolation of the American Southwest makes it prime territory for a soul-searching road movie. In Wim Wenders’ classic Paris, Texas, a man without memories tries to recapture his past in search of his wife. Wenders’ uses the vast, scorched landscape to mirror the main character’s sense of loneliness as he traverses windy desert roads.
14. Dumb and Dumber
In the vein of inane comedy classics like Road Trip, Dumb and Dumber lives up to its name. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels co-star in this wonky road movie where two pals of questionable intelligence become embroiled in a conflict with criminals. The film deserves its place in the road movie canon because of its ability to blend slapstick humor with glimmers of introspection.
15. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Coen Brothers never fail to disappoint, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? remains one of their greatest achievements. It’s a classic treasure hunt with a unique twist. The writers and directors pulled from Homer’s influential poem Odyssey to cast a Greek epic in Depression-era Mississippi. The ambitious plot succeeded thanks to an incredible cast featuring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson.
16. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
A Pee-Wee Herman film might be the last place you’d expect to find inspiration from Italian cinema. In Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Herman embarks on a quest to find his lost bicycle, which directly parallels the acclaimed Italian film, The Bicycle Thief. While the similarities may end there, the film captures its source material’s sense of adventure.
17. Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road deserves its own, unique place within the scope of road movies. While most road films balance some violence with introspection, Fury Road rarely lets up from thrilling, white-knuckle brutality. Director George Miller crafted a visually captivating movie where a band of rebels flee from a powerful army. The movie offers little respite from the vehicular violence, blending art house visual technique with blockbuster action.
18. Almost Famous
The touring life of musicians make them the perfect subject matter for a road movie. In Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe re-imagines memories from his time as a young rock journalist following famous bands around the country. As his film counterpart immerses himself in the rockstar lifestyle, he discovers new dimensions of himself with each concert.
19. Beavis and Butthead Do America
Some road films feature characters searching for a lost love, or maybe treasure. Naturally, the animated degenerate duo of Beavis and Butthead embark to find their long lost television. Creator Mike Judge was initially reluctant to agree to Beavis and Butthead Do America. Thankfully, he conceded and delivered one of the most hilariously oafish movies of all time.
20. On the Road
Writer Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On the Road has become a classic for its honest depiction of the vagabond lifestyle. Director Walter Salles does justice to the source material through his use of immersive cinematography. By focusing on gorgeous landscapes, he effectively creates a film that gives viewers a powerful sense of wanderlust.
21. Wild at Heart
Many of David Lynch’s films explore his fascination with American iconography, whether it’s rural towns or sprawling cities. For Wild at Heart, Lynch looked to the road for inspiration. Starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern, the surrealist film layers references to The Wizard of Oz and Elvis Presley on top of a suspenseful tale of crime.
22. The Motorcycle Diaries
Director Walter Salles faced the challenge of a lifetime when he decided to direct the film adaptation of Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries. The Marxist legend penned the book as a coming-of-age tale where he discovered various social injustices across Latin America. The real-life story makes for an essential road movie and faithful depiction of Guevara’s early years.
In Vagabond, Belgian director Agnés Varda harkened back to her time growing up in France. The film focuses on a young woman’s journey throughout French wine fields in the midst of a harsh winter. Varda explores her trek through linear and abstract means. For example, there are a handful of scenes where the main character’s friends face the camera and relay their experiences. This mix of narrative stylings makes Vagabond a curious outlier among road movies.
24. Il Sorpasso
Post-war Italy was a transformative time in the country’s history. The economy began to rabidly urbanize from a past dominated by agriculture. For Il Sorpasso, Italian director Dino Risi captured that transformation with formidable wit and style. The film features the comedic travels of two men with divergent personalities who try to find common ground.
Road movies are not always focused on feel good, spiritually-enriching journeys. Famed director Terrence Malick paints a bleak picture of teenage runaways in Badlands. The film features two young lovers who try to make a run into Montana after a string of violence. While the pair share an electric romance, the law inevitably catches up with their recklessness.
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