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Ten Greatest American Road Movies

Updated on July 18, 2012

When people are looking for answers, they hit the road!

For many years road movies have been a mainstay in American films. The characters in these movies drive from place to place, hoping to achieve some goal, which may or may not be legal, or they may simply be trying to understand the world or themselves a little better. You may not need to get to a particular place – it’s the trip that matters.

At the heart of road movies is American’s love affair with automobiles. What could be better than cruising in a classic Chevrolet along Route 66 or some deserted backroad? The American dream will always include a car, truck, motorcycle or skateboard - some way of getting down the road, where adventure can be found.

So here we go, please read the list of the Ten Greatest American Road Movies:

10. Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Hunky, heartthrob of the 1970s, Burt Reynolds, plays a good ol’ country boy named Bo “Bandit” Darville, who is hired to deliver 400 cases of Coors beer from Texas to Georgia. Darville buys a Pontiac Trans Am to distract the authorities while one of his friends drives the truckload of beer. Along the way, Darville picks up Carrie (Sally Field), a runaway dancer fleeing her husband-to-be. Darville thereby incurs the wrath of Texas Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), who would have been Carrie’s father-in-law. This action comedy is packed with hair-raising chase scenes. Smokey and the Bandit spawns two sequels, as well as numerous imitators, because people can’t seem to get enough of movies loaded with screeching, tire-smoking automobiles with the pedal to the metal.

9. Duel (1971)

Dennis Weaver stars as David Mann, an electronics salesman who, while driving his red Plymouth Valiant on a lonely two-lane road through the California desert, encounters a mysterious trucker bent on his demise. David Mann can’t seem to get away from this 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker truck, the driver of which, Mann never sees close up or identifies in any way and also remains unknown to the audience. After much hair-raising driving, Mann finally crashes his Valiant into the truck, sending it over a cliff. Originally produced as an ABC Movie of the Week, Duel is Steven Spielberg’s movie directorial debut. The story was written by Richard Matheson, who wrote many episodes of the Twilight Zone TV series. If there’s a quintessential American road movie, particularly relating to suspense or horror, Duel may be it, because, after all, you never know who you may run into to on the open road.

8. It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night is one of the first American road pictures. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, the film stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Cable, two of the most famous actors in American cinema during the 1930s and ‘40s. Colbert plays a privileged socialite who runs away from her domineering father. Cable plays a reporter who finds her and agrees to let her run free while he soaks up material for what could be a best-selling story. So the couple hits the road and eventually falls in love. It Happened One Night swept the top five Academy Awards for best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress. This didn’t happen again until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. It Happened One Night may be one of the best romantic comedies off all time.

7. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Another comedy within the road movie genre is Little Miss Sunshine, a story about a dysfunctional family that takes an 800-mile road trip in an old, mechanically challenged VW bus, so Olive, a seven-year-old girl played by Abigail Breslin, can compete in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty contest. Because of logistical problems and a general lack of funds, the whole family must take the trip. Steve Carell stars as the gay brother of Abigail’s mother. During this contest comprised of very young girls, Olive performs a burlesque routine played to the music of Rick James’ “Super Freak,” which her lecherous grandfather (Alan Arkin) had secretly taught her. The reserved folks in the audience are scandalized, naturally. Then the whole family joins Olive onstage, hoping to make light of her performance, though nothing can alter the disastrous, though hilarious, outcome.

6. Almost Famous (2000)

Directed and written by Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous is about a teenage journalist who travels with a rock band. The movie is a fictional account of Crowe’s work as a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s. (At 18, Crowe wrote a cover story for Rolling Stone describing his experience while touring with the Allman Brothers Band.) In the movie, William Miller, played by Patrick Fugit, becomes friendly with members of Stillwater (a fictional band), who agree to let him travel with them as he writes an article for Rolling Stone. The editor at Rolling Stone expects Miller to write an “honest and unmerciful” account, which Miller writes. But Russell Hammond, Stillwater’s lead guitarist, denies Miller’s story. Miller is devastated, but Hammond eventually recants, saving Miller’s article. Overall, it’s high times in the 1970s in this nostalgic, comedy-drama.

5. Vanishing Point (1971)

Capitalizing on the anti-authoritarian ethos of the post-Woodstock era, Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, an adrenaline junkie who drives a 1970 Dodge Challenger across the American Southwest, hoping to deliver the car to a client in San Francisco. Kowalski is an ex-cop and Vietnam veteran who is tortured by the surfing death of his girlfriend. Soon two motorcycle cops try to bust Kowalski for speeding but nobody can catch him. As Kowalski crosses Nevada, a blind African-American disk jockey named Super Soul calls Kowalski “the last American hero” and, while giving clues as he talks on the radio, tells Kowalski where the cops are laying for him. Nevertheless, eventually the police set up a roadblock that Kowalski can’t avoid, so he drives the Challenger right into it, a kind of suicide as statement of rebellion, which inspires many filmmakers in subsequent cinematic endeavors.

4. Paul (2011)

He’s a wise guy and he’s rude; he also likes to smoke pot and drink beer, so you gotta love Paul the extraterrestrial – he’s just like people! Paul is a sci-fi comedy about two British comic-book enthusiasts who travel to the San Diego Comic-Con International. On the way back, they witness a car crash at night, and from the darkness walks Paul, your typical space man or grey. Paul, using the voice of Seth Rogan, needs a ride to Devil’s Mountain, where a spaceship is supposed to pick him up. So the Brits hit the road with Paul, hoping to keep the Feds from nabbing him. You see, Paul crashed his spaceship at Roswell back in 1947 and has been hanging out at Area 51; but now the government wants to extract his brain to find out how he heal injuries with his mind.. Along the way, the story provides numerous references to classic sci-fi movies.

3. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

This comedic tour de force shows stars aplenty - Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Spencer Tracy, Phil Silvers and Jonathan Winters, just to name some, as well as over 50 cameo appearances. The story is about “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante), who drives recklessly along a desert road, passing many motorists, before he finally careens off a cliff. Just before Grogan kicks the bucket, literally and figuratively, he tells the motorists where he buried $350,000 in stolen loot. What commences is a mad dash toward the “Big W” at the Mexican border, as these greedy folks seem willing to break any law, injure themselves or others, in order to grab the money first. Spencer Tracy plays the cop who’s been trying to recover the money for 15 years. This movie is almost certainly the greatest comedy ever made and definitely one of the best road pictures too.

2. Easy Rider (1969)

This flick is the quintessential 1960s counterculture film. Two longhaired bikers, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) smuggle coke from Mexico to L.A. and sell it for traveling money. Then, astride their Harleys, they embark on a cross country trip through the Southwest, hoping to assert their freedom and eventually arrive at New Orleans, where they want to party at Mardi Gras. Interestingly, Fonda and Hopper co-wrote the screenplay and Hopper directed the film. Jack Nicholson also makes a notable appearance as George Hanson, a square who decides to ride with the boys to New Orleans. Unfortunately, Southern rednecks spoil the fun by murdering Hanson, and then later down the road, blow away poor Wyatt and Billy. The story ends badly for the boys because they got greedy like the Fat Cats, the Man and the Establishment. “We blew it,” Wyatt tells Billy toward the end of the movie. So they had to die – or something like that.

1. Thelma and Louise (1991)

Geena Davis stars as Thelma and Susan Sarandon as Louise, two women who want more empowerment in their lives, and because of this Thelma and Louise is often considered a feminist film. Incidentally, Both Davis and Sarandon are nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, but lose to Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs. The story unfolds when Thelma and Louise begin a two-day road trip. They stop at a cowboy bar, where a man tries to rape Thelma in the parking lot - until Louise comes along, revolver in hand. The man disrespects the women, so Louise shoots him dead. Thelma wants to call the cops, but Louise insists they flee. Now fugitives in the Southwest, they turn outlaw when Thelma robs a convenience store. Finally cornered by the cops at the Grand Canyon, the women elect to drive their T-bird off a cliff. This is the kind of movie you never want to end.

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    • SkySlave profile image

      Skyler DeCristoforo 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Voted up for an awesome hub. Easy rider is my favorite from the list, a great classic movie. I love Jack Nicholson's role, absolutely hilarious. I've recently watched Paul and i laughed just as much as i did when i first watched Shaun of the dead. You know this hub reminds me of one of my favorite books On The Road by Jack Kerouac, witch is basically one big adventure across the united states.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 4 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, SkySlave. All of these road movies were fun to watch. I've also read "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, a very interesting character. His biography was one long road picture. Later!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Great hub with wonderful movies. I love It's a Mad World, surely the funniest movie ever. We got into a tradition where we watched it every New Years Day. And laughed every time. I wonder if you'd include Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." I had read the book and the movie really did justice to the book.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 4 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Dolores Monet. I'll have to check out McCarthy's book and movie. Maybe the flick belongs on this list. If it does, I'll add it. Later!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

      Great hub, I love Thelma and Louise and that would also be my number 1 choice though I also like It's A Mad, Mad...World which still makes me laugh even now.

    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 4 years ago from California

      Thanks for the comment, Jools99. Both movies you mention are indeed classics in any genre. Later!

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