The freedom and restlessness of summer are perfectly suited to the constant, airy movement found in many road trip movies. The form is versatile, suiting genres from action-comedy to meditative drama; all that’s really required for a film to qualify as a road trip movie is a main character whose journey from one place to another is spotted with constant stops in fresh locales. However, the great examples of the form tap into a deeper appeal. The summer road trip movie is about gradual development; it’s about two or more people stuck with each other against a constantly changing backdrop who come to understand more about one another and themselves.
The road puts things in perspective, and the best road trip movies lead characters to numerous distinct locations that subtly needle at the character’s preconceived notions and offer them fresh, joyful experiences. Strong chemistry between the central cast is essential, a compelling reason to begin the journey is optional, and a sense of freedom and meditation delivers on the summertime appeal of the open road. Across the decades, several great directors and iconic actors have embarked on cinematic road trips, but only a select few have perfected that balanced cocktail that makes the journey feel meaningful, and its destination earned.
10 Last Flag Flying (2017)
This underrated 2017 film from master of the hangout movie Richard Linklater balances the comfortable tones of a road movie with a thoughtful examination of the consequences of war. Last Flag Flying stars Steve Carrell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne as three Vietnam veterans who reunite when one of their sons is killed in the Iraq war. The three embark on a journey across America to pick up the young man’s body while meditating on their own experiences with war thirty years prior. It’s a mature film, but not melancholy; Linklater mostly approaches the subject matter through meandering conversations, with the heavier themes working in the background.
9 The Mitchells Vs. The Machines (2021)
This action-packed animated comedy produced by Into the Spider-Verse’s Phil Lorde and Chris Miller follows a family whose cross-country road trip to drop their oldest off at college is interrupted by a robot uprising. The dynamic road trip structure showcases numerous robot-ravaged locations across America, where the film executes its intricate action just as well as any summer blockbuster. However, the strength of any road movie is in its characters. The Mitchells vs. The Machines distinguishes itself through its grounded central story of a father and daughter struggling to understand one another.
8 The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
The Motorcycle Diaries, adapted from the Che Guevara memoir of the same name, tells the story of a young Che Guevara as he and his friend travel across South America by motorcycle, gradually undergoing the political enlightenment that would one day see Che become a revolutionary leader. The film is meditative and tonally balanced, creating the sense of a road trip that both liberates and sobers the young Guevara. The episodic structure is a winning aspect of the road trip movie, and it works well in The Motorcycle Diaries, with the film managing to alternate between light chapters and heavier ones.
7 Midnight Run (1988)
A road trip movie will stall without chemistry between its leads; the beloved action-comedy Midnight Run boasts chemistry in spades between its two central characters. Midnight Run sees Robert De Niro play a bounty hunter tasked with delivering his latest bounty, mob accountant “The Duke,” across state lines. With the two forced to flee mobsters and the FBI, their initial antipathy blossoms into one of the best action movie friendships of all time. The film sings along at a dazzling pace, offering laughs and thrills in perfect balance. An easy watch that rewards on endless visits, it’s perfect summer viewing.
6 Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous tells the story of a teenage music reporter on the road with the fictional rock band Stillwater. The film delivers a blend of nostalgia, wonder and contempt for the 1970s music scene as the wide-eyed music critic protagonist is allowed to glimpse the hedonism and interpersonal drama behind a rising band. One of the best hangout movies, Almost Famous’ focus on likable characters, its loose, episodic plot and great music makes for an immersive, relaxing watch ideal for laid-back summer days.
5 A Goofy Movie (1995)
This animated summer road trip movie is an underrated gem from the Disney renaissance. A follow-up to the series Goof Troop, A Goofy Movie uses the framework of a light-hearted comedy romp to tell a resonant story of fathers and sons. The story follows Goofy as he attempts to reconnect with his teenage son by embarking on a cross-country fishing trip on the first day of summer. Once again, this film succeeds based on the strength of its central pairing, whose gradual understanding of one another over the course of their travels feels earned and mature.
4 Beavis And Butt-Head Do America (1996)
This irreverent animated comedy sees two moronic underachievers unknowingly become fugitives after embarking on a journey across America to obtain a new TV. Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is a continuation of MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head series by Silicon Valley and King of The Hill creator Mike Judge, although prior viewing of the series is not at all necessary. The film is a tight 81 minutes of easy fun, packed with absurd gags; it manages to deliver one of the purest distillations of the episodic road trip formula, while gleefully subverting that formula with two characters too stupid and short-sighted to ever change or grow.
3 Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The hit indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine delivers droves of offbeat charm with its story of a dysfunctional, underachieving family who pile into a VW bus in hopes of getting youngest child Olive to a beauty pageant final in California. The road trip movie is a perfect ode to imperfect families, with its first-rate cast delivering a chemistry that propels the trundling narrative along with disjointed grace. Among its number, the ensemble counts Steve Carrell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano and the late Alan Arkin, who earned an Oscar for his performance as the heroin-addicted grandfather Edwin.
2 Thelma & Louise (1991)
One of director Ridley Scott’s best films, Thelma & Louise is a tragic, joyful, liberating movie about two women who become fugitives from the law on a road trip gone awry. The film captures the freedom of the road as the titular characters embrace their new lives as outlaws, escaping their oppressive lives and finding strength in their friendship. Thelma & Louise uses the bright summer heat to evoke a carefree, euphoric atmosphere, managing to make the distressing chase feel like a summer road trip.
1 Easy Rider (1969)
Few films feel more particular to summer than Easy Rider. The freewheeling, rule-breaking movie follows two drug smugglers powering through the desert on their motorbikes, hoping to reach New Orleans in time for Mardis Gras. It’s a profound, vital image of a bygone moment in American history, one in which limitless freedom and potential pushed the young into soul-searching, hedonism, and constant movement. The film finds its loose plot secured by a charismatic central pairing of Hollywood stars, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda; their story, while not exactly an enviable road trip in many ways, evokes the quintessential journey through the heat and freedom of summer.