The road trip plot device is pretty much infallible when it comes to any storytelling medium. There is an undeniable appeal and level of suspense when it comes to characters travelling from one place to another, no matter the purpose (if there is even one). A great road trip movie also serves as romanticized inspiration and motivation for those of us absolutely itching to pick up and drive (or fly, train it, or walk) somewhere new. Especially when summer is approaching, it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with reasons not to go on a road trip. As the genre is wide and rich, the following selection was nearly impossible to narrow down, and the honorable mentions section is likely my largest yet.
In no particular order:
1) Y Tu Mamá También (2001) dir. by Alfonso Cuarón
In this heartbreakingly touching and hilarious coming of age story, two seventeen-year-olds (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna), who are fueled by hormones and spontaneity, set off on a road trip with a stunning older woman (Maribel Verdú). As they travel over a whole summer, they begin to slowly mature and find an entire new meaning in themselves and their lives. It’s a sexy, gorgeous film with an exceptional screenplay—and this should go without saying, but I urge you to never watch this with any family member in the same room.
2) It Happened One Night (1934) dir. by Frank Capra
Few directors give Frank Capra a run for his money when it comes to screwball comedies (save for perhaps Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges). There is a bit of a debate as to whether It Happened is merely a coincidental predecessor to the screwball genre or if it did in fact start the trend. Regardless, it’s a superb road trip movie. Heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) runs away from her wedding and her wealthy tycoon father to escape all responsibilities. During her travels, she comes across the path of gossip newspaper reporter Peter (Clark Gable), who agrees to help her in exchange for an exclusive story. The two bicker to perfection, and along their journey from buses to cars to motel rooms, Ellie learns how to become independent and Peter learns to let go of his cynicism. Needless to say, the two fall in love. It’s a classic love story, and still holds up strong today (unlike the walls of Jericho).
3) Lolita (1962) dir. by Stanley Kubrick
Unlike the 1997 adaptation of Lolita directed by Adrian Lyne, the tone and representation of Kubrick’s version is much closer to the beloved book by Vladimir Nabokov. Leaning away from overly glossy and romantic, Kubrick’s Lolita is dark, twisted, and hilarious—just as it was intended to be. Although the film has slightly less of a focus on the characters’ road trip than the book, Lolita remains one of the greatest American road trip stories of all time. After Humbert Humbert (James Mason) falls in love with fourteen-year-old Lolita (Sue Lyon), he marries her mother (Shelley Winters) to get closer to her. He then whisks Lolita away from summer camp after her mother is in a freak accident, and travels the American roadside, neglecting to let Lolita in on what happened to her mother. Both Kubrick’s and Nabokov’s (who wrote the screenplay) depiction of America is beautifully captured from the perspective of the road. Controversial, touching, depraved, and wry—what more can you hope for in a film?
4) Puffy Chair (2005) dir. by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass
Mumblecore films are not for everyone. In fact, even the small pool of directors that are considered to be part of the genre (if you can even call it that, as it’s more of a movement) strongly dislike the very idea and label “Mumblecore.” The films are typically digitally shot, super low budget, and painfully realistic. Puffy Chair follows Josh (Mark Duplass) as he drives cross-country with his girlfriend (his real life wife Katie Aselton) to deliver a giant purple La-Z-Boy as a surprise gift to his father. In between the constant nagging and fighting with his girlfriend, nothing about the pick-up and delivery of the chair seems to work out. The idea of a road trip is at first idealized, but by the end of the film you, right along with the characters, feel tired, claustrophobic, and ready to go home.
5) Badlands (1973) dir. by Terrence Malick
Badlands is a typical love story. Kit and Holly (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) meet, fall in love, and go on a giant killing spree in the South Dakota badlands. The two pick up and leave their hometown, and drive extensively through South Dakota as they hide out from the law. Although Malick grew into a slightly different style as his career went on, Badlands still displays his budding, distinctive aesthetic and stands as one of his greatest accomplishments. It might not be the most ideal road trip scenario, what with the bevy of murders, but regardless, it’s a gorgeous portrayal of traveling and losing your innocence with the love of your life.
Extremely Honorable Mentions: Two Lane Blacktop (1975), Five Easy Pieces (1970), Easy Rider (1969), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Thelma and Louise (1991), Sideways (2004), About Schmidt (2002), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Darjeeling Limited (2007), Road Trip (2000), Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Dumb and Dumber (1994), Tommy Boy (1995).
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.