Ten Great Road Trip Movies

The Arts


As my own road trip winds down in Arragossa, the last stop before the 300km drive to Barcelona, I mentally drew up a list of memorable road movies…

1. Dead End

Christmas Eve, a family trying to get home, a vanishing woman, a mysterious stretch of road that seems to repeat itself forever – the staples of every horror film, but in the hands of a French director it becomes a very funny trip to the heart of one family’s everlasting hell.

2. National Lampoon’s Vacation

Surprisingly well-observed comedy based on a short story about shooting Walt Disney, Chevy Chase’s finest hour and filled with great moments, from the pan-shot of everyone asleep in the car (including the driver) to Imogen Coca’s ghastly gran, in a roadster whose colour is described by the salesman as ‘Metallic Pea’.

3. Planes, Trains & Automobiles

‘Those aren’t pillows!’ Dell Griffith, shower curtain ring salesman, teams up with Steve Martin on a journey from Chicago that includes hillbillies, stroppy airline agents and dangerous freeway driving. Watch for the single-frame skeleton and the post-credits shot.

4. Midnight Run

Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro out-deadpan one another but learn a lot as one marshalls the other across the states in an ultimately touching buddy pic. Watch out for the wristwatch.

5. The Last Detail

Foulmouthed hard-ass Jack Nicholson shepherds poor dim conscript Randy Quaid to a court marshall, only to start feeling sorry for him. Hal Ashby transforms the depressing landscape and brings heart to a dark comedy.

6. Feux Rouges

Interesting French film – the red lights of the title are tail-lights. A fighting couple split, and the husband (an alcoholic) has to find his wife in dense night traffic to save her life. It captures the horrors of night driving on a time deadline and will make your palms sweat.

7. Highway To Hell

All-but-forgotten comedy fantasy as a guy takes a short cut and is told not to stop on it under any circumstances. When he does (of course) he mets the highway cop from Hell – literally. There’s a terrific Cerberus!

8. Lost In America

Albert Brooks and his wife give up their jobs to go across America, only to lose all their money. He has to get a job in the middle of nowhere. ‘How much money are you looking for?’ asks the employment officer. Brooks tells him what he was earning in the city. There a burst of laughter. ‘No, but seriously,’ says the officer. Classic.

9. Detour

Tom Neal’s mean-mouthed nightclub pianist complains ‘When this drunk gave me a ten spot, I couldn’t get excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs.’ The film contains a jaw-dropping murder, in this case a telephone-cord strangling accidentally performed through a closed motel door. He should never have picked up that  sleazy dame!

10. Race With The Devil

Peter Fonda and his family are vacationing in an RV when they witness a Satanists’ ritual. So far, so ordinary – but the conspiracy spirals out of control in a sustained act of racing paranoia that’s very seventies. It deserves to be remade.

All further great road movies (other than ‘Easy Rider’) in Comments please!

17 comments on “Ten Great Road Trip Movies”

  1. Stephen Winer says:

    How about “Two for the Road”? Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn , directed by Stanley Donen, fine script by Frederic Raphael and lovely music by Henry Mancini.

  2. ‘Dead End’ is a great film, really unusual atmosphere, kind of like the twilight zone with some David Lynch influences. Speaking of Lynch, Ray Wise (Laura Palmer’s dad in Twin Peaks) is superb as the father of the family. ‘Feux Rouges’ is another good choice (I like the Hitchcockian vibe here) and I had completely forgotten about ‘Highway to Hell’! Interesting list Christopher!

  3. Helen Martin says:

    The Cheyenne Social Club, although not properly a road movie is worth watching just for the opening with Fonda’s voice drifting in from off stage, “You’ve been telling that story ever since we left Texas and…” Since it’s a cowboy film the riders slowly drifting into view give a beautiful picture of the major complaint on the average long trip.

  4. Paul McAuley says:

    Great list. I’d also recommend Paris, Texas, Two-Lane Blacktop, and The Straight Story. Oh, and Radio On, London to Bristol via the Hoover Factory.

  5. Ken Murray says:

    I remember reading the book of The Last Detail long before seeing the movie and loved it. Also I went to see Red Lights when it came out and thoroughly enjoyed it. Surprised no Two Lane Blacktop or Easy Rider in the list?

  6. Rob says:

    There was a film from the 70’s called Vanishing Point. For some reason they played it every year on TV in NZ. There was desert, nude woman riding motorbikes in front of a sunset, a beginning that was the end, a fast white car, religious freaks, rattle snakes. I watched it a few times as a old kid/pre teen. I would like to search it out again and view as an adult. Sometimes that can be a disappointment. Give it a crack as they used to say back in NZ.

  7. Martin says:

    What about all of the Bing Crosby Bob Hope Road to… movies. On the other side there’s Duel with Dennis Weaver.

  8. admin says:

    I didn’t add Easy Rider or Two-Lane Blacktop because they’re so well known. Vanishing Point was a desperate attempt at capitalising on the rising youth movie market, and I never got to the end of Electraglide In Blue.

  9. Ken Murray says:

    Electraglide in Blue is only really memorable for the ending, combining a pull back shot and excellent soundtrack. Oh and that the star turns out to be a murderer many years later. By coincidence I was listening to an old John Lennon studio rehearsal recording this morning which included studio chatter between Lennon and Phil Spector. Murder victim and murderer working together as it were. Who’d of guessed?

  10. John says:

    Good list, but you’re stretching the term “road trip movie” in several cases here. Midnight Run is a great movie, but it’s not a road trip movie. Wasn’t it mostly set on a train? And the focus is not on the traveling or the people they meet. That’s what I think of when I think road trip movie – the destinations, the people met on the way.

    I’d pick Thelma and Louise, The Daytrippers, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Straight Story, The Living End and even The Muppet Movie as excellent examples of a road trip movie.

    Now I’m off to find a copy of Highway to Hell. How did I ever miss that one?

  11. I remember seeing Race With The Devil late at night on TV when I was 13. It gave me nightmares then. 30 years later I still feel uneasy when I think about it. I will have to see it again and see if the effect is the same.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    There’s always “They Drive by Night” although you are driving up and down the US Pacific Coast rather than just one long trip. It’s a very accurate one, too, so you really see what these guys were up against and as for the trucks! The problem is that it’s two films put together and they don’t fit. Watch the first half and ignore the second.

  13. Pedro Almirante says:

    Little Miss Sunshine is another one well known.

  14. David Chapman says:

    I thought that the adaptation of Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote starring Leo McKern and Alec Guiness was rather good. The book was better, of course. I think Guiness portrayed the niavity of the hapless priest rather well, and McKern’s communist mayor is very enjoyable.

  15. David Chapman says:

    After posting, I remembered that it was a television movie, rather than a conventional cinema film, so I am not sure if this qualifies!

  16. Bob Low says:

    David-from memory, I think the adaptation of Monsignor Quixote was a Film Four production for the then ”non-digital” Channel 4, so it probably got a limited theatrical release at some point. Whether it did or not, it’s a worthy addition to any list of great Road Movies.

  17. Iain says:

    Ah, weird road movies is one of my favourite genres:

    Two ones from Bruce Macdonald (Canadian director):

    Roadkill – a groupie (Valerie Bugahiar) is sent on a quest to find an obscure punk bad in the desolate north of Canada. She can’t drive, so takes a cab (which has a great payoff at the end.) Has a great cameo from Don McKellar playing a wannabe serial killer.

    Highway 61 – A roadie (also played by Valerie Bugahiar) is delivering the body of her “brother” (a corpse stuffed with drugs) along the famous highway but is being chased by someone who thinks they’re Satan.

    And a really odd one from Bob Gale of Back to the Future fame:

    Interstate 60 – a young man (James Marsden), at a career crossroads, takes on a mission to deliver a package along the mythical Interstate 60 guided by a kind of leprechaun/trickster played by Gary Oldman. Has a lot of great cameos in it (both Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd are in it, as well as Kurt Russell, Ann Margret and a fantastic Chris Cooper) and a very Twilight Zone-ish feel. Not a great film, but worth seeing if you like offbeat fantasy films.

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