The season is changing! As I write this, it’s eighty-four degrees and sunny outside. I can hear an ice cream truck out my open window, and also a cop shouting over the cruiser speaker at that ice cream truck, because I guess it’s illegally parked. My eyes are itchy from the pollen and my hair is voluminous from the humidity. On my block, the smells of grilled hot dogs wafting from the balcony barbecues above mingle with the smells of hot dog urine from the sidewalk below. This morning, I saw a pigeon fight with a seagull over a Popsicle wrapper. Rejoice, all, for it is summer in the city.
I love—and I mean really love—summer in New York, the terrible place where I was born and where I live and where, if I’m lucky, I will die. But summer also makes me want to get away—to put on giant sunglasses and tie a silk scarf around my hair and pile into a convertible with either my platonic best friend or my doomed lover. Maybe we’re running from the law or falling into a series of comic misadventures as we try to make it to the shore. Maybe we’re committing a string of small-time robberies as we go. Maybe one of us is a bounty hunter. Maybe we unwisely pick up a hitchhiking drifter (actually, this is where I draw the line… I don’t have enough joie de vivre to let a stranger into my car). But yes, I’m talking about a road trip.
You should really, honestly take a real road trip this summer. They’re cheap, and they can be excellent ways to relax and explore without having to check into a hotel or sit inside a plane (we’re at the tail-end of a pandemic, after all). But sometimes it’s hard or even impossible to hit the road (I can’t even drive, let’s start there), so we’ve rounded up a bunch of classic summer movies that will help quench (or spur) this desire for you.
Let’s shift gears to outline the rules:
Now, these road trip movies have to be CRIME-RELATED (see title of website), which excludes many excellent ones. So, as you scroll down, you won’t see Pierrot Le Fou or Wild Strawberries or Little Miss Sunshine or It Happened One Night or any of the road movies directed by Wim Wenders. Where is Y Tu Mamá También, you ask? In my heart, just NOT ON THIS LIST.
Please note that ROAD RACE MOVIES are not on this list. This is a list for ROAD TRIP movies. There can be pursuit in a Road Trip movie, but not a competition, which is what happens in a Road Race. ROAD RACE movies will will be on another list, a list just full of them and nothing else! But that is not THIS list.
Road Trip movies on this list can involve incidental crime while on the road. Do “getaway” movies count? Sure. Also, you might notice that the highly vehicular film The Honeymoon Killers is not on this list, and you’re right. It doesn’t NOT qualify, but it just really bums me out.
Oh, and while I adore the movie Road to Perdition, and it’s 100% a crime road trip movie, its complexion is winter, not summer. So, and I apologize, it’s not on here. Same with Go, which is flat-out a Christmas movie.
Now, you might be wondering, what about journeys taken on the road by HORSE? Regrettably, I say they do not count for our purposes. We need a motorized vehicle of some kind to factor in the transportation. Sorry, Stagecoach.
One last note—this list is not ranked! It’s more of a friendly syllabus.
Ok, start the car! Here we go!
Midnight Run (1988)
Is Midnight Run, the 1988 buddy-crime-comedy Midnight Run starring Charles Grodin as a do-gooding embezzler and mob accountant captured and dragged across the country by bounty hunter Robert DeNiro, the greatest road trip movie of all time? Yes. Watch it with your best friend, OR your worst enemy. Points if they’re the same person.
Thelma and Louise (1991)
I don’t think the plot of Thelma and Louise will be unfamiliar to anyone who has ever read this website, but just in case: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are best friends who go on a road trip, and while they do, Susan Sarandon shoots Geena Davis’s would-be-rapist (played by my aunt’s friend’s brother) and the two go on the run. Maybe it’s that Y2K fashion has made a huge comeback in this year 2021, but their outfits have not felt more relevant SINCE the film came out. High-waisted, straight-leg, stone-wash jeans will, I suppose, never go out of style.
True Romance (1993)
Ah, yes, True Romance, the movie that Quentin Tarantino wrote and sold for the money he’d use to make Reservoir Dogs. Patricia Arquette is a brightly-dressed call-girl who marries Christian Slater’s comic-book geek and everything’s great for these star-crossed lovers until he steals cocaine from her pimp and they head to Hollywood to sell it, with very angry gangsters on their trail. WHEREFORE ART THOU AN OPPORTUNIST CLARENCE? Also, Gary Oldman has dreadlocks and Brad Pitt sleeps on a couch.
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995)
Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo are three drag queens who head to Los Angeles from New York on a road trip to compete in the Miss Drag Queen of America Pageant! It’s on the list because when Vida (Patrick Swayze) is assaulted by a racist cop who pulls them over, and fights back, she believes she’s killed him! It counts, whatever, this movie is delightful.
The Muppet Movie (1979)
The Muppet Movie, the first feature film involving the Muppets. It is a funny, meta story—not exactly a prequel, but a kind of alternate history of their group. The film itself the product of the Muppets deciding to make an origin story, which offers an explanation as to how they met one another and wound up in Hollywood, which means that the film is as much about the story as it is about the manufacturing of one. That movie, in which Kermit, a humble, banjo-playing, swamp-dwelling frog, is “discovered” by an agent, is about the excitement of potential movie-stardom. As he makes his way ton California, meeting and picking up Muppets along the way, Kermit winds up hounded by a Frog Legs salesman (Charles Durning), determined to make Kermit his spokesperson.
The In-Laws (1979)
The In-Laws is one of the funniest movies ever made. Don’t watch the remake. Peter Falk and Alan Arkin play two polar-opposite dads whose kids are about to get married. Arkin is a dentist, Falk is a businessman who really seems to be a bank robber of sorts. And they wind up on a cross-continental journey together, just days before the wedding. Watch it. It’s incredible.
Nurse Betty (2000)
Nurse Betty is such a weird movie. I kind of love it and I think I’m the only one who might? Besides the Cannes Film Festival Jury, which awarded it Best Screenplay in 2000. It’s very weird and maybe I’m misremembering it, but there’s something very neat and complete about it, despite its extreme messiness. Waitress Betty (Renée Zelleweger) is married to a really terrible Aaron Eckhart, and she watches his brutal murder. She winds up with PTSD and a whopper of a psychological coping mechanism, which is the belief that she’s a nurse on her favorite medical soap opera and she’s engaged to its lead character, a doctor played by an actor played by Greg Kinnear. She just doesn’t know that her husband’s killers (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock) are on her trail. But they are also not as expected. While Chris Rock is a pretty bad guy, Morgan Freeman is Betty’s parallel in the film–a nice-guy stuck in a bad job, but more importantly, he too, is guided by a dream. He doesn’t want to kill her—he sees her as a Doris Day-type and falls in love with this idea of her. It’s not a comedy, which is how it was billed… but it is a very interesting, absurd fable while also being a very affecting, if gonzo, rumination on trauma, desire, fantasy, obsession, white femininity.. lots of things.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Speaking of “gonzo,” no Road Trip list would be complete without a nod to this trippy adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s psychedelic novel. Counts as a crime movie because of all the drugs.
Easy Rider (1969)
Same with this one, the great hallmark of New American Cinema.
Paper Moon (1973)
Tatum O’Neal won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Addie Loggins, a precocious kid initially used in a get-rich-quick scheme by small-time con man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal, her real-life father) who ultimately joins in his schemes, as the two drive through the Depression-Era Midwest.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Even though there are to many sweaters and jackets for Bonnie and Clyde to PROPERLY signify summer, you knew this sunny getaway film would be on this list, right?
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
If you’re a dad, you’ve seen this movie, you just have. Burt Reynolds is a tough trucker who has to drive a tractor-trailer full of beer across state lines in 28 hours… while a sheriff (national treasure Jackie Gleeson) is hot on his trail.
Something Wild (1986)
Something Wild is something else, and you should really see it. This Jonathan Demme film starts out as a rom com about a straightlaced banker (Jeff Daniels) who meets a free-spirited woman (Melanie Griffith). BUT THEN SHE KIDNAPS HIM!!!!!!!!!!!
This stone-cold b-film noir is one of the absolute best road movies ever. Tom Neal plays a hitchhiking pianist on his way to LA, whose plan changes abruptly when the sleazy driver who picks him up dies. And what does our man do? He takes the dead man’s identity!
Queen & Slim (2019)
Two young people (Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya) go on a wonderful first date, which then goes horribly wrong when they are pulled over by an unscrupulous policeman. The incident unfortunately escalates, leading to Slim’s shooting the policeman in self-defense. But after this ill-fated moment, the two know what lies ahead for them (Queen is a lawyer), so they go on the run together. But as they are chased down, a video of their encounter goes viral, turning them into national symbols for black rights. It’s a little uneven, but still. Road movie.
Gene Hackman and Al Pacino start in this film about a pugnacious drifter-with-a-criminal past and a homeless sailor who travel West together.
The Mexican (2001)
I’m realizing now that Brad Pitt is on this list a lot. “The Mexican” of the film’s title isn’t Brad Pitt, though (thank goodness) or even a person… it’s a cursed gun that Brad has to bring back across the boarder, with his girlfriend Julia Roberts along for the ride.
The Living End (1992)
A movie critic and a hustler are both HIV positive, and begin a dangerous, decadent, and destructive road trip together. Often seen as reflecting the sensations of anger and futility in the face of an HIV diagnosis during this time period, the film is a furious, passionate, tragic story of two men who have lost everything, and so have nothing left nothing to lose. A transfixing, heartbreaking masterpiece.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker is one of the only female-directed noirs of its era in Hollywood, and it is absolutely thrilling. When two friends on a fishing trip pick up a hitchhiker, they don’t know that he’s a psychotic escapes convict until he tells them that he intends to murder them when the ride ends.
In Steven Spielberg’s first-ever feature, an innocent commuter is stalked and intimidated by the man behind him, who happens to be driving an enormous truck.
Gun Crazy (1950)
Perhaps the most literally-titled film on this list is about two teenagers who hit the road for a shooting spree.
Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek star in this classic from director Terrence Malick (at the start of his career), about a teenage girl and her older boyfriend who go on a killing spree in South Dakota. If you have not seen this before, you will be shocked to see how Martin Sheen looked when he was young.
Starman is one of those movies that’s probably not crimey enough for this list, but it does involve lots of government agents so I’m allowing that to be my excuse. An alien lands on earth and takes on the physical appearance of a man he sees in a photograph (Jeff Bridges) who turns out to be deceased. And his widow (Karen Allen) is shocked at seeing “her husband” again, even more shocked to learn he’s an extraterrestrial, and starts to fall in love with him as she helps him find a way home.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s classic New-Wave film Week-end, which is home to the longest single-take traffic jam scene ever filmed (I’m assuming), is about a couple who takes a weekend road trip to the wife’s parents’ house… to murder her parents! But then… things don’t go as planned.
From Dusk ‘Til Dawn (1996)
Would this list be complete without Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s half-bank-robbery-getaway, half-vampire-massacre movie? No, I think not. I thought about it, though, and I am not putting Death Proof on this list because it’s more a car movie than a road movie, if you know what I mean.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1973)
In this heist movie which I forgot to put on my Heists ranking (thanks to my friend Mike Gonzales for reminding me), Jeff Bridges plays a car thief named Lightfoot who picks up a preacher (Clint Eastwood) on the run from a shooter. But the minister turns out to be an infamous bank robber nicknamed “The Thunderbolt” and as they journey together, they wind up plotting a robbery.
Wild at Heart (1990)
Did you think that this list would NOT include David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, a movie about how Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern are in love and have to go on the run because Laura Dern’s mom has hired an assassin to whack Nicolas Cage?
They Live by Night (1948)
In this classic noir, the directorial debut of Nicholas Ray, Farley Granger plays a young thief and prison escapee on the lam who falls in love with the niece of the owner of the service station where he pulls over. They decide to go on the run together, traveling mostly by bus through Depression-era America. It’s a great movie, but its movie poster has the worst, most misrepresenting tagline, a quote from the movie that simply explains “we’re in a jam!” Yes, I’ll say you are.
Natural Born Killers (1998)
Whatever else Natural Born Killers may be, it’s a road movie too. Juliette Lewis is on this list a lot, come to think of it.
One False Move (1992)
In this thriller co-written by and starring Billy Bob Thornton, three criminals commit several grisly murders in Los Angeles before hopping in the car and heading to Texas to try to sell cocaine. But Sheriff Bill Paxton is waiting for them!
No, you turn. Mike Gonzales toid me about this movie I had never heard of, in which Sean Penn heads to Las Vegas to pay off a gambling debt (on pain of death from the Russian mob) but gets stuck in a very strange Arizona town.
Thieves Like Us (1974)
Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, which is based on the novel of the same name by Edward Anderson (which also gave source material to They Live By Night) is a very gritty, depressing pseudo love story about a young murderer on the run who begins a relationship with an innocent civilian.
Another Day in Paradise (1998)
Mike Gonzales told me about this film, in which a then-unknown Vincent Kartheiser plays a young, homeless meth addict named Bobbie who winds up stabbing a man to death in self-defense and afterwards, finds himself being taken care of by a middle-aged couple (James Woods and Melanie Griffith) who convinces Bobbie and his girlfriend Rosie to assist them in committing drug robberies. This one is reeeeeally depressing, and it’s also the only the only one on this list to have originally been rated NC-17. Just saying in case, you know, you’re planning on watching one of these with the kids. (It’s possible to watch one of these movies with the kids! The Muppet Movie is on here, after all.)
Brad Pitt again! And Juliette Lewis! Two journalists and their two friends go on a tour of murder sites suspected to be connected to a hitherto-unknown serial killer. But turns out, one of them is the killer!
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
In this heartbreaking, landmark film from Gus Van Sant, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves play best friends and gay street hustlers who wind up taking a trip to Italy together to locate Phoenix’s long-lost mother.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Preson Sturges’s amazing Sullivan’s Travels isn’t a bona-fide crime movie, but it features a director who really wants to make a bona-fide crime movie, who also winds up falsely arrested and sentenced to work on a chain gang. So, it counts. Also, you should watch it. It’s fantastic. It’s about a Hollywood director who wants to stop making goofy musicals and make a serious, gritty picture that captures the struggles of the common man, so attempts to backpack across the US and observe rural life for what it really is. Only, his Hollywood life keeps trying to pull him back.