Being on the road is a great way to manifest a character's spiritual or emotional journey into the physical, as a way to symbolize the obstacles and lessons that come with pursing some goal or dream.
From offbeat comedies to allegorical dramas, here are my picks for the best road movies that use the road to teach, challenge, and unite their colorful characters.
15. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
As you can guess from the title, this one isn't exactly confined to the road—it also takes to train tracks and even the skies. At its core, the film centers on the journey shared by two bickering strangers who spend three days wrestling their way to Chicago for Thanksgiving Day.
Steve Martin and John Candy star as the tightly-wound marketing exec and his irritating-but-lovable travel mate, for whom just about everything goes wrong. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a feel-good comedy classic directed by the renowned John Hughes.
14. Queen & Slim (2019)
Queen & Slim may not itself be a true story, but it's inspired by real news headlines, including the tragic 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Released at a poignant time—just prior to the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out across the globe—Queen & Slim tells the gritty story of a Tinder date gone awry.
Melina Matsoukas' glossy directorial debut isn't simply a matter of style or substance, because it's dripping with both. Starring Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, their Tinder date is intercepted by a white cop and... well... you can probably guess the rest.
13. The Rover (2014)
An Australian Western set in the near-future, Rover hums with an eerie atmosphere of desertion. Ten years after economic collapse, the Australian outback becomes a lawless space for a rugged drifter (played by Guy Pierce) to hunt down a gang of thieves.
Left behind with him is an injured, simple-minded young American (brilliantly played by Robert Pattinson). Robberies and shootouts interrupt the tensely quiet landscape of David Michôd's road drama, in which everybody is really only out for themselves.
12. Rain Man (1988)
Materialistic businessman Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) is in the midst of importing Lamborghinis to Los Angeles when his father dies. After driving over to Cincinnati, he finds his inheritance has gone to an unnamed trustee—who turns out to be an estranged older brother.
Charlie decides to take full custody of Raymond (played by Dustin Hoffman)—who has autism and savant syndrome—but it turns out a lot trickier than Charlie imagined.
Raymond refuses to fly so they are forced to drive towards a deadline, all while juggling Raymond's demanding routines. Rain Man is a touching and iconic drama from Barry Levinson.
11. Nebraska (2013)
Alexander Payne's Oscar-nominated comedy-drama was the final film to be released by Paramount Vantage, the "art cinema" sector of Paramount Pictures. Shot in black and white, Nebraska follows a cantankerous old man who believes he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes prize.
Of course, the whole thing is a scam. Nonetheless, Woody (played by Bruce Dern) takes his disgruntled son David (played by Will Forte) and embarks on a road trip to Nebraska, during which David finally uncovers the man beneath the hardened alcoholic.
10. American Honey (2016)
In order to find an actress for the starring role of her next troubled teen drama, filmmaker Andrea Arnold took to the streets and carnivals during spring break rather than relying on professional casting calls.
This approach perfectly matches the rugged and spontaneous tone of American Honey, in which a gang of hitchhikers and criminals surf the roads as a traveling sales crew.
The brilliant Sasha Lane stars as Star (no pun intended), who ditches her abusive father after she spots Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf) in a van full of misfits and decides to join them.
9. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Okay, we're cheating a little bit with this one. The Darjeeling Limited is technically a train movie, but it shares a lot in common with road movies when you step back and look at what it is.
The Darjeeling Limited is a unique and elevated take on road movies, following the same principles but sprinkled with all kinds of Wes Anderson fun, including his trademark aesthetics.
Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman star as three brothers who are reunited one year after their father's funeral. Bold colors saturate the screen as Anderson litters the brothers' journey of self-discovery with funny gags, cool camera angles, and touching moments.
8. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
A 1960s cult classic that broke many cinematic taboos, Bonnie and Clyde went down as one of the most iconic (and bloodiest for the time) films in history. We all know the legend about this couple who went on an infamous 21-month crime spree during the 1930s.
Director Arthur Penn breathes life into the myth by combining elements of slapstick comedy with gory violence and experimental filmmaking techniques, heavily influenced by the French New Wave.
Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway star as the robbing couple, who decide to steal their way out of the Great Depression.
7. Badlands (1973)
Terrence Malick's neo-noir film Badlands doesn't just follow a crime spree—it kicks things up to another level.
Instead of robbing banks, young couple Holly (played by Sissy Spacek) and Kit (played by Martin Sheen) become serial killers. Spacek narrates the movie as the duo are chased by the law across the Midwest.
Malick's directorial debut received widespread critical acclaim and is loosely based on the real-life 1958 murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
6. Paris, Texas (1984)
Co-produced by French and West German companies, the award-winning film Paris, Texas paints a European portrait of the American Southwest.
Wim Wenders' indie drama, which won the Palme d'Or, follows a mysterious vagabond (played by Harry Dean Stanton) who's found dissociated in the desert.
His estranged brother agrees to pick him up from Texas and soon ends up driving him to find his long-missing wife.
Stills of the sparse Texan outback are woven throughout Wenders' slow-burning drama, which relies on visuals more than heavy dialogue.
5. Nomadland (2020)
Based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Chloé Zhao's Nomadland won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress.
Frances McDormand's award-winning performance as a widow who lives an itinerate lifestyle is painted against the sweeping backdrop of the Arizonian desert.
Nomadland is a poetic, restless, and beautifully shot drama that will have you yearning for the van life where home isn't just a static place or word but "something you carry with you."
4. Almost Famous (2000)
Almost Famous is the semi-autobiographical tale of a young music journalist who goes on tour with fictitious rock band Stillwater.
On behalf of Rolling Stone magazine, William Miller (played by Patrick Fugit) joins the motley crew of rockers and groupies to write an article on the band.
Take a peek behind the curtain of the 70s music scene, where tensions rise between fans and musicians, between the people who live music and the people who watch from the sidelines.
Directed by Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous is your classic coming-of-age tale, starring Kate Hudson.
3. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Husband-and-wife collaborations are rare for film directors, but Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris showed that it can be successful with their stunning feature film directorial debut.
Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, and Abigail Breslin star in this sprightly colored tragicomedy, which plonks us in a bright yellow Microbus for a trip from New Mexico to California.
A mute son, a suicidal brother, a heroin-addicted father-in-law, and a failed life coach husband all make Sheryl Hoover's life more than chaotic. And when her young daughter earns a spot in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, all hell breaks loose.
2. Thelma & Louise (1991)
The fact that Thelma & Louise was initially criticized for its "negative portrayal of men" speaks volumes about it as a heralded feminist flick.
A female buddy movie that echoes the legend of Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma & Louise tracks two best friends as they drive toward the mountains for a much-needed vacation.
Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Brad Pitt, and Harvey Keitel make up the cast in this cat-and-mouse chase across the American Southwest, in which the FBI tails the polar-opposite, store-robbing besties.
1. Easy Rider (1969)
Easy Rider isn't just a great movie—it's an emblem of 1960s counterculture. It marks the dawn of New Hollywood, when filmmakers started moving away from the studio system and started stepping into more radical and experimental independence.
Simply put, Easy Rider made a huge impact on a tiny budget.
Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (who also directs) bolt around on their motorbikes as they smuggle cocaine from Mexico into Los Angeles. Hippy communes and bad acid trips punctuate their journey, which is all set to a groovy Jimi Hendrix soundtrack.