Ranked: 30 Best Road Movies of the Past 30 Years

  • Comments: ↓ 27 user comments
  • Publish Date: November 3, 2010

Pack your bags

ImageDue for another road movie

In honor of this Friday's Due Date, writer-director Todd Phillips’ first road movie since his aptly titled teen sex comedy Road Trip, we have decided to take our own journey, through the past 30 years of road movies. Some of these movies take place on the road, others involve a road trip but very little travel, but all of them provide one thing: escape.

Road movies encompass almost all genres -- horror, sci-fi, comedy, crime, adventure, drama, and the most American of all, the western. They can be commercial or independent. They can follow a family, two buddies, two enemies, or a single lonely soul. Their versatility is their strength, and the reason many filmmakers return to them again and again.

There is a cliché that accompanies road movies and travel in general -- it’s not where you’re going but how you get there -- and films have always embraced that notion. The story is the transformative power of the road. How did these characters change between point A and point B? This is true of even the zany road comedies like Losin’ It and Euro Trip. Admittedly, some characters change quite drastically by dying at the end, or turning their car into an exploding ball of fire, but -- with the possible exception of The Cannonball Run -- the hero is never the same person once he gets to point B.

So if you need to find your lost mother or father, love to get into trouble at gas stations and roadside diners, don’t fear being stalked by a psychopath, or just want to have a few laughs with your friends and maybe lose your virginity, then hit the road. It’s all out there, and, to paraphrase Maverick and Goose, sometimes we all feel the need, the need for speed.

Below, we count down the 20 best-reviewed road movies in our database, from #20 to #1. On the following page, we'll take a look at 10 additional road movie classics (since 1980) that aren't listed on Metacritic.

The 20 Best-Reviewed Road Movies on Metacritic (Since 1980)

20. Something Wild (1986) Add to Netflix Queue

"For the first time in a long while, this is a movie that lets Demme be Demme, and the result is a film that's more than enjoyable. It's a blast."

--Paul Attanasio, Washington Post

Gross: $8 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 6
Good bar 4
Mixed bar 4
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 73 Users: n/a
Image

Itinerary: A free-spirited woman kidnaps a straight-laced businessman and takes him down America's East Coast until they run into the one man she doesn't want to see, her ex-husband who is just out of prison.

Jonathan Demme's Something Wild is like a role-reversed It Happened One Night with a psycho ex-husband thrown in for good measure. The film's manic energy is addictive, but its abrupt shift in tone takes a little bit of fun out of the whole twisted trip. The film introduced most viewers to Ray Liotta's special brand of menace, and while the film sets up the two main characters as opposites, the road has a way of revealing one's true nature.

19. Natural Born Killers (1994) Add to Netflix Queue

"Natural Born Killers is both audacious and astonishing, a vision of a charnel house apocalypse that comes close to defying description."

--Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Gross: $50 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 5
Good bar 9
Mixed bar 4
Bad bar 2
Awful 0
Critics: 74 Users: 7.6
Image

Itinerary: Two married psychopaths go on a killing spree across America's Southwest making sure everyone knows who they are.

Like a phantasmagoric Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers is Oliver Stone at his least subtle and least understated, and that's saying something. He uses every type of film stock and cinematic style to blow up a killers on the lam story into a violent commentary on our response to violence and how it's portrayed in the media.

(tie) 17. The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) Add to Netflix Queue

"The Motorcycle Diaries is an epic road movie with everything you'd want from such a film: laughs, kicks, adventures, pathos, poetry, natural beauty, strange encounters and friendship tested and strengthened."

--Shawn Levy, Portland Oregonian

Gross: $17 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 13
Good bar 18
Mixed bar 6
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 75 Users: 7.8
Image

Itinerary: A future revolutionary and his best friend travel 5,000 miles through South America on their way to a leper colony in Peru.

In making The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles and his crew followed the route taken by Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado in 1952, and the rugged yet beautiful South American landscape plays a big part in the film. What Salles does not show us is Guevara's transformation into Che, choosing instead to focus on the quiet, gradual awakening of a mind looking at the world in a completely different way.

(tie) 17. In This World (2003) Add to Netflix Queue

"A tremendous human drama, with each stage of its characters' journey a white-knuckle thriller in miniature."

--Ty Burr, Boston Globe

Gross: $84k
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 7
Good bar 15
Mixed bar 3
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 75 Users: 9.2
Image

Itinerary: Two young Afghan refugees attempt to make the harrowing journey from Pakistan to London by any means necessary.

Shooting in a cinéma vérité style and using non-professional actors (to the extent that some people mistook the film for a documentary), director Michael Winterbottom focuses on two refugees to represent the struggle of many. Their trip cannot be any more perilous as they hide in the back of pickups and buses, walk across an endless plain, and cross the ocean in a ship's cargo container.

16. Smoke Signals (1998) Add to Netflix Queue

"What's truly remarkable about Smoke Signals is the depth of the narrative, a touching tale of self-discovery."

--Joshua Klein, A.V. Club

Gross: $7 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 6
Good bar 7
Mixed bar 4
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 76 Users: n/a
Image

Itinerary: Two Native American friends travel from Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho to Phoenix, Arizona to pick up the remains of one's dead father.

At times both funny and poignant, Smoke Signals delves into the very different memories two young men have of the same man: the late Arnold Joseph. His son Victor remembers him as a drunk who left him ten years earlier, while Thomas remembers him as the man who saved him from the house fire that killed his parents. These two views have helped form their personalities, but their trip reveals unknown truths about the man who impacted them so much.

15. My Own Private Idaho (1991) Add to Netflix Queue

"Before this trippy, mesmerizing movie swerves out of control, it delivers an exhilarating and challenging ride."

--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Gross: $6 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 8
Good bar 5
Mixed bar 5
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 77 Users: 8.5
Image

Itinerary: Best friends and street hustlers Mike and Scott leave Portland and go to Idaho and Italy in search of Mike's mother.

Gus Van Sant loosely based part of his film on Shakespeare's Henry IV, but it's the fact that one of its major characters (River Phoenix's Mike) is a narcoleptic that lends a strange aura to My Own Private Idaho. When he has a narcoleptic fit, Mike is completely vulnerable, relying on the goodwill of others to take care of him. He can wake in a different town, with no idea how he got there. All that Mike knows for sure is that he loves Keanu Reeve's Scott, but Scott is on the street by choice, while Mike is not so lucky.

14. Midnight Run (1988) Add to Netflix Queue

"The virtue of Midnight Run is not that it does anything new; the virtue is that it does everything old so well."

--Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail

Gross: $38 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 7
Good bar 6
Mixed bar 3
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 78 Users: 9.5
Image

Itinerary: A bounty hunter must bring a fugitive accountant from New York to Los Angeles in time for his trial date.

In this mismatched buddy road trip comedy, Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin bicker and eventually bond through a series of plot twists involving the Mafia, the FBI, another bounty hunter, and various modes of transportation. The chemistry and comedic timing between the two leads is memorable, and director Martin Brest -- who had already shown his skill in the buddy cop genre with Beverly Hills Cop -- fills the supporting roles with strong performances by Joe Pantoliano, Dennis Farina, and Yaphet Kotto.

13. Broken Flowers (2005) Add to Netflix Queue

"It's a romantic comedy in which both the romance and the comedy are turned to such muted levels that any lower would require closed captioning."

--Scott Foundas, LA Weekly

Gross: $14 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 15
Good bar 19
Mixed bar 5
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 79 Users: 5.7
Image

Itinerary: After receiving an anonymous letter stating that he has a 19-year-old son, an aging Don Juan embarks on a cross-country search to talk to the five women he thinks might have sent the letter.

In Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch has his most acclaimed cast to date in Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, but he still maintains the low-key, minimalist approach of his earlier films. Although it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2005 and is arguably Jarmusch's most accessible film, Broken Flowers is still not for everyone. Sometimes the need to fill in so many blanks can leave the viewer wondering what really just happened. Whether you see that as a positive or negative is up to you.

(tie) 10. Wendy and Lucy (2008) Add to Netflix Queue

"Another illustration of how absorbing a film can be when the plot doesn't stand between us and a character."

--Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Gross: $866k
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 15
Good bar 13
Mixed bar 3
Bad bar 1
Awful 0
Critics: 80 Users: 6.2
Image

Itinerary: A young woman and her dog journey from Indiana to Alaska but get stranded in a small Oregon town.

Unlike most road trip movies, Wendy and Lucy does not show the viewer the beginning of the journey; instead we are thrust into the middle, at a moment of crisis. From there, director Kelly Reichardt's realist eye focuses on the increasing troubles of being alone, poor, and in an unfamiliar place. It is the ultimate road trip gone bad, not in the psycho-trying-to-chase-you-down-and-kill-you kind of way, but in the Italian-neo-realism-via-2008-America kind of way.

(tie) 10. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) Add to Netflix Queue

"It has been a while since we've seen such a consistently funny and entertaining road movie."

--Claudia Puig, USA Today

Gross: $60 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 15
Good bar 19
Mixed bar 2
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 80 Users: 7.5
Image

Itinerary: A family of misfits journey from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach California in a yellow Volkswagen Microbus so a young girl can fulfill her dream of participating in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.

Throwing a gay suicidal Proust scholar, a heroin-snorting grandpa, a teenage boy who has taken a vow of silence, and a father obsessed with selling his motivational program into a van with a mother and her cute pudgy daughter might be asking the audience to suspend their disbelief a little too much, but first-time feature directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris use the conventions of the road movie to keep all the quirkiness in check and allow the characters to grow on the audience.

(tie) 10. Central Station (1998) Add to Netflix Queue

"The story is much less about its resolution than the experience along the way. At its best, Central Station is a movie of small textures and fleeting moments, the intangibles that pass between people."

--Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle

Gross: $6 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 10
Good bar 12
Mixed bar 2
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 80 Users: 9.1
Image

Itinerary: An old woman and a young boy travel from Rio de Janeiro to northeast Brazil in search of the boy's father.

Brazilian director Walter Salles is one of three directors to have two films in our top 20, but he seems particularly drawn to the road movie. He is currently directing an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and even his debut narrative feature, Foreign Land, was a road movie. But it was Central Station and the Oscar-nominated performance of Fernanda Montenegro as the cynical Dora that brought him full blown international attention.

9. Flirting with Disaster (1996) Add to Netflix Queue

"Flirting With Disaster, like that Energizer Bunny, keeps on going. But in this case, the perpetual motion is a deliciously hysterical rush. "

--Desson Thomson, Washington Post

Gross: $15 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 8
Good bar 6
Mixed bar 2
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 81 Users: n/a
Image

Itinerary: An adopted man crisscrosses America to find his birth parents before naming his newborn son.

David O. Russell's screwball comedy includes armpit licking, wacko parents and heavy acid trips, but at the heart of Flirting with Disaster is Mel Coplin, played by Ben Stiller. His odyssey includes increasingly complicated stops in San Diego, Michigan, and ultimately New Mexico, but if you are to take one thing away from this film, it is this: be very careful when Indian wrestling with your six-foot-tall volleyball-playing half sister near your birth mother's very expensive china cabinet.

8. Old Joy (2006) Add to Netflix Queue

"The movie's scale is minuscule, but the physical and emotional landscapes it travels are as broad, deep and mysterious as the human psyche itself."

--Ella Taylor, LA Weekly

Gross: $256k
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 14
Good bar 8
Mixed bar 1
Bad bar 1
Awful 0
Critics: 84 Users: 5.6
Image

Itinerary: A married father-to-be and a rambling free spirit reunite for a camping trip in the Cascade mountains with the ultimate goal being a peaceful respite at the Bagby Hot Springs.

The second of two Kelly Reichardt films to appear on our list is quite a divisive film. While critics embraced the drama's quiet revelations on fading friendship and long takes of tree-lined roads, forest insects and flowing hot springs, many viewers struggled to grasp what made the film revelatory and not boring. Decide for yourself; it's only 76 minutes long.

7. About Schmidt (2002) Add to Netflix Queue

"The power of this great movie -- part comedy, part tragedy, part satire, mostly masterpiece -- is in the details."

--Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

Gross: $65 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 24
Good bar 10
Mixed bar 6
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 85 Users: 5.8
Image

Itinerary: A widower in his 60s travels from Omaha to Denver in an RV to attend his daughter's wedding.

The first of two Alexander Payne movies to make it on our list follows Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a widower who, having retired from his job and discovered a secret his wife had long hidden from him, feels that his life has no purpose except to prevent his daughter from making the same mistakes he made. Both satirical and tragic, About Schmidt uses the road movie structure to look at a life unexamined and find redemption in the most surprising places.

6. The Straight Story (1999) Add to Netflix Queue

"Lynch takes us on a journey of shattering understatement -- a remarkable accomplishment."

--Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Gross: $6 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 18
Good bar 13
Mixed bar 1
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 86 Users: 8.1
Image

Itinerary: A 73-year-old man with failing eyesight and two bad hips rides a lawnmower from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin to make amends with his brother.

While many might expect the violent and surrealistic Palm d’Or-winning road movie Wild at Heart to be the David Lynch film to make this list, it is instead The Straight Story, the simple true story of Alvin Straight. Coming right after the dark, cryptic Lost Highway, Lynch’s lyrical and contemplative approach to Straight's story surprised many longtime fans, but the real standout was lead actor Richard Farnsworth, who became the oldest actor ever nominated for an Academy Award.

(tie) 4. Y Tu Mamá También (2002) Add to Netflix Queue

"One of the most joyous movies I've ever seen, and one of the handful of great erotic films the movies have given us."

--Charles Taylor, Salon

Gross: $14 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 24
Good bar 8
Mixed bar 3
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 88 Users: 8.0
Image

Itinerary: Two teenage boys and an attractive older woman leave Mexico City in search of a beautiful secret beach.

At first glance, Y Tu Mamá También might seem to be nothing more than a sexed-up road movie, but director Alfonso Cuaron shows that he has more on his mind than mere titillation. By using a drifting camera and an omniscient narrator to comment on both the current economic state of Mexico and the eventual distance between two boys from different classes, Cuaron brings weight to what otherwise could have been forgettable.

(tie) 4. Thelma & Louise (1991) Add to Netflix Queue

"It spins its wheels in a giddy sort of way, then puts the pedal to the mettle, lays rubber and fairly takes wing."

--Rita Kempley, Washington Post

Gross: $45 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 8
Good bar 4
Mixed 0
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 88 Users: 7.7
Image

Itinerary: After one of them shoots a rapist, two women try to drive from Oklahoma to Mexico in a '66 Thunderbird.

The female buddy road movie to end all female buddy road movies stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in their most iconic roles, and Brad Pitt (and his abs) in a star-making appearance. But credit must also go to director Ridley Scott, whose final, unforgettable shot is now permanently lodged in America's collective pop culture memory.

3. Borat (2006) Add to Netflix Queue

"A comic put-on of awe-inspiring crudity and death-defying satire and by a long shot the funniest film of the year. It is 'Jackass' with a brain and Mark Twain with full frontal male nudity."

--Ty Burr, Boston Globe

Gross: $129 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 27
Good bar 9
Mixed bar 2
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 89 Users: 7.0
Image

Itinerary: A Kazakh television personality treks from New York to California in an ice cream truck to find the 'virgin' Pamela Anderson and marry her.

Borat Sagdiyev is a popular television personality in his native Kazakhstan who, at the behest of the Ministry of Information, is sent to America with his producer Azamat Bagatov to make a documentary film. He is a sexist, a homophobe, an anti-Semite, and, well, very funny, but it’s the use of the mockumentary format that allows Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles to capture all of Borat’s encounters with real, unsuspecting people with hilarious results, especially the most glorious naked male wrestling scene ever put to film.

2. Almost Famous (2000) Add to Netflix Queue

"The first relevant film about rock and roll and the music industry, the first film that lets you in on the secret."

--Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer

Gross: $33 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 29
Good bar 9
Mixed bar 1
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 90 Users: 8.5
Image

Itinerary: A teenage journalist goes on tour with a rock band with hopes of publishing an article in Rolling Stone.

To form his Oscar-winning screenplay, Cameron Crowe pulled from his own memories of writing for Rolling Stone while covering bands like The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. In this semi-autobiographical tale, his stand in, William Miller, loses his virginity, falls in love and learns that his heroes are as flawed as anyone else, if not more. Crowe’s Almost Famous mines the ego and bombast of the rock world for both humor and warmth, and it also has the most famous full bus sing-a-long to an Elton John tune ever.

1. Sideways (2004) Add to Netflix Queue

"Sideways makes you glad about America, about movies, about life."

--Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

Gross: $71 million
Critic Review Distribution:
Great bar 36
Good bar 5
Mixed bar 1
Bad 0
Awful 0
Critics: 94 Users: 6.2
Image

Itinerary: A struggling novelist and a semi-successful actor on the verge of marriage drive through Santa Barbara wine country for a celebratory bachelor week.

A road trip always goes a bit smoother if both people have the same goal in mind, so it’s no surprise when Miles’ desire just to enjoy some wine and Jack’s desire to get laid collide and cause problems for both of them. Alexander Payne’s 2004 comedy not only won the Academy Award for best screenplay, but also increased sales of Pinot Noir nationwide, thanks in part to Miles' love of the grape, but also his famous proclamation, “I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot!”.

On the road ... again

Continue to the next page for 10 additional road movie classics from the 1980s that aren't in Metacritic's database ...

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (27)

  • 1 Sad Norwegian Bast  

    The Canadian “One Week” …. a little pearl of a roadmovie.
    Link imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1104806/

    Away we go.
    Link imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1176740/

    Really glad that some people have noticed the Norwegian movie named “Nord” (North)
    Trailer with english subs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsER3grBTew

    Sin Nombre is also worth a peak.
    Link imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1127715/

    Is Into the Wild a road-movie? Or is it purely on the road that really matters? Then The Straight Story is the best movie ever made …

  • Brett  

    What about Fandango, Easy Rider, Mad Max?

  • bill  

    Fellowship of the Ring was definitely a road movie, and received pretty high Metascores, I believe.

  • Glen  

    What people don't seem to realise is thatthese lists are based solely on metascores and movies have to be part of the database to be eligible.

  • Jeff Strate  

    The additional list of 10 can easily be expanded to include last year's "The Road," with Viggo Mortenson, 1975's "The Passenger," with Jack Nicholson, 1973's "Badlands," with Martin Sheen & Sissy Spacek, 1976's "Nickelodeon," with Tatum and Ryan O'Neil, 1940's "Grapes of Wrath," with Henry Fonda and 2005's "Grizzly Man" with 2007's "Into the Wild," with Emile Hirsch and probably least "The Rat Race," for its aburdly hilarious star-studdented, set pieces led a family visit to a roadside "Barbie Museum" (Jon Lovitz) and an uncredited Kathy Bates as the "Squirrel Lady."

    The road movie genre is rich and varied. For me they began with 1954's "La Strada," with Anthony Quinn and Giuletta Masina and 1953's "Genevive," with Kay Kendall and Kenneth More. With so many wonderful road movies, I could never quibble with ranking them.

  • howard  

    What about Easy Rider? And The Last Detail? Big omissions. I also have to say that Lord of the Rings is a classic road movie. A variety of unlikely characters band together with a common goal, hit the road, encounter obstacles, overcome adversity and win in the end. Right?

  • arjun  

    dumb and dumber ??

  • Chad S.  

    If you want to see a great performance in an unsung film, check out Robin Tunney in "Niagara, Niagara".

  • B  

    What about "Into the Wild?" I would consider that a quality Road Trip movie.

  • Arie  

    No "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"? Come on!

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