10 great road movies of the 21st century

Andrea Arnold’s freewheeling interstate odyssey American Honey is the latest proof that there’s still plenty of gas left in the road movie genre. Here are 10 more modern gems that put the pedal to the metal.

Oliver Lunn

American Honey (2016)

American Honey (2016)

Harmony Korine recently said: “You can’t make a road movie anymore because everyone has GPS. It’s impossible to lose yourself anymore.” And you can see where he’s coming from. Everyone has a detailed map of the world in their pocket, meaning adventures on the road – if we can still call them that – are calculated, tracked, timed. Everyone can right a wrong turn. No one can really get lost. So does this mean the road movie in the 21st century is dead? The evidence seems to point to the contrary.

Not least Andrea Arnold’s latest, the breathless, freewheeling road movie American Honey, starring Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf. (It’s worth noting that, this year, LaBeouf embarked on a ‘digital road trip’ with artists Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner, where they invited the public to track them down using coordinates revealed via Twitter.) In the film, Sasha Lane plays Star, a teenage girl who throws caution to the wind the second she meets Jake (LaBeouf) in a Kmart. With his rat-tail hairdo, trouser braces and wild dancing right there in the Kmart, who wouldn’t fall for this guy? He recruits her into his travelling magazine sales crew, and what follows is a whirlwind of drink, drugs, and young love on the road.

Shot on a 12,000-mile road trip with mostly non-professional actors (Lane had never acted in a film before and was discovered by Arnold on a beach), American Honey captures the freedom offered by the open road: that feeling of cruising in an open-top car while Mazzy Star’s ‘Fade into You’ plays on the stereo; that sense that you can go anywhere and be anyone. If nothing else, it proves that the road movie in the 21st century, while adapting to the modern digital world, is alive and well. But then, anyone who’s seen the following films already knew that. Someone send Korine a screener.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

Director Alfonso Cuarón

Y tu mamá también (2001)

More sex triangle than love triangle, Alfonso Cuarón’s searing drama sees two sexed-up teens invite an attractive older woman on a weed-fuelled trip to a Mexican beach that may or may not exist (“a place only the fisherman know”). They load up the car with crisps and beer and condoms, before scooping up the woman whose husband, it transpires, recently cheated on her. Naturally she’s on this road trip to let loose, and that’s exactly what they do, cutting straight to talk of sex partners and what turns them on. You can guess where it goes from there.

Shot by award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant), Y tu mamá también captures the scorched Mexican landscape in a way that beckons the hungry traveller in you (the Mexican tourist board should definitely hire this guy). Yet, once the credits roll, it’s also a cautionary tale about sleeping with your best friend’s girlfriend. Best not do that.

The Brown Bunny (2003)

Director Vincent Gallo

The Brown Bunny (2003)

It’s hard to talk about The Brown Bunny without mentioning its infamous fellatio scene and the hearty boos that greeted its Cannes premiere in 2003. But the image that really encapsulates this existentialist movie is less explosive: a man looking through a windshield smeared with dead flies, staring blankly at the open road unraveling in front of him.

The man is Vincent Gallo, also writer, director, editor, cinematographer, costume designer, makeup artist, you name it, of this movie. The mood is contemplative, the man reflecting on a life-changing incident in his past. But Gallo isn’t interested in explaining why this guy – a motorcycle racer on a cross-country trip from New Hampshire to California – is so glum. What’s more important is that the viewer surrenders to the film’s visual poetry, its rhythms – the long takes, the piercing lens flare, the sombre strains of Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Milk and Honey’ – and how it captures the loneliness of long-distance driving.

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Director Walter Salles

The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

Seeing this film, it’s obvious why director Walter Salles was plucked as the favourite to adapt Kerouac’s On the Road. Set in 1952, it follows 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (you know him best as ‘Ernesto Che Guevara’). Yes, this is a biopic, but its focus is Che Guevara’s pre-revolutionary years, specifically the time he hopped on a Norton 500cc motorbike with a friend for the trip of a lifetime. The plan: to travel from Buenos Aires to Guajira Peninsula in Venezuela via the Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world, to see things they’ve only read about in books, to be enlightened.

What makes this a singular road movie, though, is the bike. After all, a bike can’t provide shelter when the heavens open up, or space for tools and drinking water when that inevitable breakdown happens. But that’s also what’s so romantic about this vision: two men, two wheels, and of course, the epic mountain vistas and endless dusty tracks of South America.

The Puffy Chair (2005)

Director Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass

The Puffy Chair (2005)

In this low-budget Duplass brothers film, Mark Duplass plays a struggling musician who wins a vintage ‘puffy chair’ on eBay that resembles one his father had. He intends to pick it up and deliver it to his dad for his birthday. But it’s a two-day trip so, to make the most of this cross-country adventure, he invites his girlfriend and dopey brother.

Possibly the first mumblecore road movie, The Puffy Chair is a twentysomething relationship drama that ambitiously weaves dramatic twists and turns in a way that feels both authentic and epic. Which is all the more astonishing when you realise it was made for a mere $15,000 (money borrowed from the Duplass’s parents). Not bad when you factor in all that gas money.

Broken Flowers (2005)

Director Jim Jarmusch

Broken Flowers (2005)

When retired computer magnate Don Johnston (Bill Murray) receives an anonymous letter from an ex-girlfriend claiming he has a 19-year-old son he’s never met, he hits the road to discover the truth. But Don – a real ‘Don Juan’ in his day – had many girlfriends. Which one sent the letter?

This is a Jim Jarmusch movie, which means any conclusion to that mystery would be less interesting than the road trip itself. Especially since Murray owns every frame of the film, in his Fred Perry tracksuits, deadpanning his way across the American landscape in a rental car. Made two years before the first iPhone came out – meaning Murray frequently grabs a large map on his passenger seat rather than a pocket GPS device – this is an offbeat road movie in which Murray’s jaded shtick is placed front and centre.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Director Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

A bright yellow VW camper van is the means by which the dysfunctional Hoover family – father, mother, moody teenager, suicidal uncle, surly grandfather – shuttle their young daughter to the finals of a beauty pageant. They travel hundreds of miles, from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, their journey punctuated by heated arguments and inauspicious breakdowns. But hey, they’re in a bright yellow camper van and the sun is shining.

That’s the happy-sad balance that the directors of this film – husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – deftly strike: it’s equal parts hilarious and solemn. Hailed by Roger Ebert as “a classic American road movie”, this uplifting Oscar-winner is perhaps the most visually iconic road movie of this century, thanks in large part to the blinding yellow VW that adorns the film’s poster.

Old Joy (2006)

Director Kelly Reichardt

Old Joy (2006)

With his hobo beard and his folky threads, singer-songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, looks every inch the traveller in Old Joy, Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist road movie. In the film, he plays thirtysomething hippy Kurt, who reunites with an old friend for a weekend trip to a remote hot spring in Oregon. The two friends lay out a map on the hood of their banged-up Volvo. They seem slightly awkward and uncomfortable, unable to act like they used to act around each other.

Being a ‘minimalist road movie’, not much happens and scarcely any dialogue drives the plot forward. Yet when Kurt solemnly says “I miss you” to his friend, it’s clear their relationship took a wrong turn somewhere. What happened? Marriage? Different careers? Life? Accompanied by an elegiac Yo La Tengo score, and filmed in languid long takes that drink in the Pacific Northwest landscape, Reichardt’s film is about two old buddies lamenting the past. As a road movie, it’s closer to Gus Van Sant’s two-men-in-the-middle-of-nowhere indie flick Gerry (2002) than Thelma & Louise (1991).

Nebraska (2012)

Director Alexander Payne

Nebraska (2013)

The father-son road trip in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska isn’t intended as a family bonding experience. But that’s where it eventually heads. They hit the road because the father, a dementia-addled 77-year-old, receives a note in the post saying he’s won a million bucks. He naively assumes this to be true and hopes to collect his prize in Lincoln, Nebraska. Reluctantly, his son agrees to drive him across two states, half fuelling his dad’s fantasy and half trying to bring him back to reality (“You didn’t win anything, it’s a complete scam, Okay?!”).

Shot in stark monochrome, Payne’s charmingly reflective four-wheeler is propelled by Bruce Dern’s hilarious turn as Woody Grant, an eccentric old man who makes for a compelling companion on this heartwarming journey.

Locke (2013)

Director Steven Knight

Locke (2013)

Perhaps the purest road movie on this list, in that it takes place entirely on the road, Locke sees Tom Hardy behind the wheel of a shiny BMW. He plays Ivan Locke, a construction bigwig who’s driving from Birmingham to London with a lot on his mind. That journey is all we see. That’s the whole movie. Its plot emerges via a series of phone calls that Locke juggles in his car en route. Turns out he once slept with a woman named Bethan; Bethan is about to give birth to his child in London; Locke’s wife is about to find out; Locke’s job hangs by a thread as he decides not to supervise a major concrete pour early the next morning.

It’s a simple setup, yet it’s visually arresting, making great use of the road lights that beam onto Locke’s troubled face. Once you get past the fact that Tom Hardy is speaking with a Welsh accent, you’re completely strapped in, a backseat witness to an unforgettable road trip.

Taxi Tehran (2015)

Director Jafar Panahi

Taxi Tehran (2015)

Dissident Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is behind the wheel of a taxicab. We never really learn why. It could be a disguise, or it could – after being banned from making films for 20 years – be his new day job. Coolly circumventing the restrictions of his ban, Panahi places his camera on the dashboard of his cab, filming himself as he shuttles a slew of eccentric passengers around Tehran: two old women with a goldfish; a strange man who attempts to recruit Panahi into his dodgy DVD business; and Panahi’s opinionated niece who’s embarrassed to be picked up in her uncle’s taxi.

Despite the static camera and the long takes, this isn’t the slow, soporific arthouse movie you might expect. Like Jim Jarmusch’s episodic taxi film Night on Earth (1991), Panahi celebrates these backseat weirdos, playing the encounters for laughs. With a smile on his face, the filmmaker relishes every fleeting glimpse into a local’s life, each character abruptly exiting out of the frame via his cab door. The result is a daring and thought-provoking slice-of-life movie that’s as warm as it is brazen.

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