Thelma & Louise (1991)
Let’s just get it out of the way, the obvious and only choice for best road trip movie is Thelma & Louise. Ridley Scott’s film tells the story of, well, Thelma and Louise. The titular characters head out on a road trip, which quickly takes a dark turn when one of them is nearly raped and the other shoots the assailant. After that, the ladies head out on the road, hoping to escape the lives that wait for them back home. A touching, exciting and fun film; this movie is sadly still one of the only female-focused road trip movies (Sorry, Britney, but Crossroads just didn’t make the cut). Full of fun set pieces, a great soundtrack and a compelling tale of female friendship, Thelma & Louise is definitely one of the best road trip movies out there. Also, did you know that Geena Davis was a semi-finalist for the Olympic archery team AND a member of Mensa?
Pierrot Le Fou (1965)
For our next film, we hop back in time and across the pond for a French take on the road trip genre. In Jean-Luc Godard’s film, he tells the tale of what he describes as “the last romantic couple.” A Parisian man leaves his wife and child behind and runs away with the babysitter. Though, as it turns out, she’s being pursued by gangsters. The two steal a dead man’s car and go on a road trip (read: travelling crime spree) to the south of France. Although, as with all of Godard’s movies, the plot is pretty flimsy and mostly just an excuse to make an effortlessly cool movie with a bunch of artsy statements and gorgeous visuals. And as usual, he succeeds.
This next entry in the list is a much more serious-minded look at the crime-spree road trip (this is the last violent road trip movie, I promise). Terrence Malick’s stunning debut film tells the story of a young Sissy Spacek who begins a romance with a violent and anti-social Martin Sheen. When Spacek’s father forbids their relationship, Sheen kills him and the two get into a car and attempt to make their way to Canada, leaving a trail of bodies behind them. The story weaves together Spacek’s teen bubblegum voiceovers about their relationship with the grim realities of the violent acts they commit. Match that with Malick’s keen eye for capturing the American landscape and you’ve got yourself a road trip movie with the kind of cinematic poetry rarely seen within this genre.
Finally, our first road trip movie that doesn’t feature any crime! Just ignore the fact that all of the lead actors look like they’ve definitely spent time in prison. Maybe even several consecutive sentences. Wim Wenders’s 1984 feature is a simple story of love and loss, beautifully shot and compellingly told. A silent drifter suffering from amnesia wanders out of the desert and collapses in a bar. A doctor finds a phone number in his pocket and contacts his estranged brother who comes to pick him up. The drifter has been missing for four years, having left his son behind in the care of his brother and his brother’s wife. The drifter and his son begin to re-establish their relationship and go on a road trip in search of their missing wife and mother. Equal parts beautiful and depressing, this movie uses no gimmicks to tell its simple and heart wrenching tale.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
The final film to round out our top five is the only somewhat light-hearted, relatively crime-free, and LGBTQI film on our list. The film focuses on two drag queens and one transgender woman making their way across the Australian outback in an old school bus named Priscilla. The film traces the usual hallmarks of a road trip movie: bonding moments, overcoming adversity, and having a good ol’ time. Except in drag. The film went on to become a cult classic and brought international attention to the Australian film scene. It even won an Academy award for outstanding costume design. I guess all you need to impress the Academy is a bunch of feather boas and shiny sequins. Take that, period pieces!