The Top 25 Best Car Movies Ever
A few weeks ago, we compiled a list of the 20 most iconic star and car pairings in TV and cinema history. Many of those car and actor duos have become so integral to the fabric of entertainment and pop culture history that they have transcended the films and shows in which they starred.
But those cars and thespians can only become legendary through the context of their roles. Which are our 25 top movie picks for serious car nuts? Find out after the jump. (Note: We aren’t including documentaries, so no bitching about gems like Love the Beast and Dust to Glory being omitted.)
Gone in 60 Seconds (the original)
The brainchild of SoCal junkyard operator H.B. “Toby” Halicki (who also played the main character, Maindrian Pace), this indy film from 1974 is low on production value and star power (most of the cast was comprised of Halicki’s family and friends). So why is it a must-watch? It climaxes with a 34-minute long car chase involving Halicki running from the cops in a yellow 1973 Ford Mustang Mach 1 codenamed Eleanor. Again: Two-thousand and forty seconds worth of cop-car-bending, shopping-cart-maiming action. Trust us when we say it’s worth sitting through all that acting that the average porn star would call “Wretched.”
This computer-animated feature may have only been released five years ago, but it already qualifies as a cinema classic for car nuts. Sure, the story is rather formulaic (hotshot jock/celebrity gets stranded in a small town and gradually learns there’s more to life than winning or being in the spotlight), but the visuals are a treat, and the voice acting from the likes of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy and the late Paul Newman and George Carlin is top notch. Gearheads of all ages should be eagerly anticipating the sequel’s pending arrival in theaters.
When it comes to movies set in the world of auto racing, many people feel there’s Grand Prix and there’s everything else. And the John Frankenheimer-directed epic that was filmed during the 1966 Formula 1 season certainly makes a strong case for itself: An international cast of stars who would become legends (James Garner, Jessica Walter, Antonio Sabato, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand and Toshiro Mifune to name a few), appearances by drivers who would become legends (Phil Hill, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Dan Gurney to name a few), a fantastic score by the great Maurice Jarre, and exceptional cinematography. Yeah, the love stories and other subplots are a bit hokey, but they do tie the film together well enough to make it a must-watch.
Steve McQueen may have starred in some spectacular films that were the brainchildren of other people (including one we’ll get into later), but one of his own films is widely considered to be one of the two best racing movies of all time (the other being Grand Prix): Le Mans. Filmed in the weeks leading up to and following (as well as during) the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans, the movie follows McQueen (as Porsche driver Michael Delaney) as he returns to the famed race one year after a crash that left a fellow driver dead. He winds up befriending said driver’s widow (played by the lovely Elga Andersen) and battling Ferrari driver and rival Erich Stahler (played by Siegfried Rauch). But we all know the Porsche 917s, Ferrari 512s and other 200+ mph sports cars of the era are the real stars, right?
You wouldn’t think an existential road movie starring a pair of musicians (James Taylor and Dennis Wilson) would become a classic among car nuts, but it has. Big time. Taylor’s and Wilson’s characters (which, like other characters in the film, don’t have actual names) travel cross country in a heavily-modified 1955 Chevrolet 150 2-door sedan, their only income coming from beating local street racers they meet along the way. But the driver of a 1970 Pontiac GTO (played by Warren Oates) and a female hitchhiker (Laurie Bird) both leave them flummoxed.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Next, let’s turn the clock back to 1963, and look at a film that had star power out the wazoo, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But we’re not as amazed that it combined the talents of screen legends like Jimmy Durante, Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Milton Berle, Peter Falk and Buddy Hackett ( cameos from the likes of Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Buster Keaton and Don Knotts) as we are at the sight of all the chrome bejeweled, tailfinned classics from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s running around Southern California in search of a buried fortune. If you’re a fan of classic American cars and trucks and aren’t geeking out by halfway through the film, check your pulse; you might be dead.
Other cop movies may get more ink, but none of them have The Chase. The pursuit of a pair of assassins in a black ’68 Dodge Charger by Lt. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) in a green ’68 Mustang fastback through the streets of San Francisco is the stuff of legend, setting the very high bar for all Hollywood car chases that followed. But car nuts will also enjoy seeing how many background vehicles in the chase they can I.D. (though at least one cheat sheet exists), as well as taking turns lusting after vintage-1968 Jacqueline Bisset and the 1964 Porsche 356 Cabriolet she shared with on-screen boyfriend McQueen.
George Lucas may be best-known for the Star Wars franchise, but his first hit film was set not a long time ago (1962, 11 years before the film was released), nor in a galaxy far, far away (Modesto, CA). American Graffiti follows a gaggle of teenagers and their various adventures over the course of one eventful night, and there was no shortage or cruising or street racing in some cool cars (including the same ’55 Chevy from Two-Lane Blacktop, albeit gussied up and driven by a young Harrison Ford). Fun fact: The license number on John Milner (Paul LeMat)’s ’32 Ford coupe is THX 138, a riff on the title of Lucas’ first feature film, THX 1138.
Vanishing Point (the original)
In contrast to the early ‘60s, the late ’60s and early ’70s were, pardon the pun, a real trip. The emergence of drug culture, a series of assassinations and the escalation of the Vietnam War conspired to create a loss-of-innocence for America. Vanishing Point was made against this backdrop, as Barry Newman’s hero/antihero Kowalski blitzed a white Dodge Challenger across the Southwest, encountering an eclectic cast of characters before the movie’s explosive finale. And there are vehicular cast members that non-Mopar fans will enjoy, too, but there’s no questioning the Dodge pony car’s star status.
The Gumball Rally
Inspired (like a few other movies) by the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, this 1976 movie about a madcap race across the America featured Michael Sarrazin, Raul Julia and Gary Busey as the human stars, while the car stars included a Shelby Cobra, a Ferrari Daytona Spider and a Mercedes-Benz 300SL. The prize the competitors are pursuing? Bragging rights and – drumroll please – a gumball machine.
Smokey and the Bandit
If you could point to one movie that confirmed Burt Reynolds‘ star power, it would have to be Smokey and the Bandit. Participating in the mother of all beer runs with Jerry Reed, Reynolds’ Bandit masterfully runs interference against the lawmen (led by Jackie Gleason‘s Sheriff Buford T. Justice) trying to stop the operation in his immortal black and gold Pontiac Trans Am. And you certainly can’t discount the presence of a 30-year-old Sally Field…
The Italian Job (the original)
If fans of the Volkswagen Beetle have an “official movie” in the form of the Herbie franchise, than fans of the Mini have The Italian Job. The tale of British gangster Charlie Croker (the incomparable Michael Caine) and his merry band of raiders ripping off the Mafia in Turin is fun by itself, but the chase through (and under) the city in a red, white and blue trio of classic Mini Coopers is all kinds of cheeky. However, fans of classic British and Italian sports cars may consider this flick a snuff film, for reasons that become apparent early on.
As action thrillers go, Ronin is a dandy. It has heartstopping moments and backstabbing galore, and a high badass quotient with Jean Reno and Robert DeNiro. Yet the icing on this cake is the car chase element. Since it’s set in France, lots of the featured iron is European, with a second-generation BMW M5, a first-generation Audi S8, and a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 among the sweet super sedans figuring into at least one of the chases.
It may not get much attention (despite having Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern as its leads), but The Driver is a gritty, no-nonsense crime flick about a professional car thief/getaway driver (O’Neal) who’s trying to stay one step ahead of an obsessed detective (Dern). And since it was made in 1978, there’s no shortage of Malaise Era motorcars onscreen, and a good many of them get beat on in chases and other eyebrow-arch-worthy sequences.
The California Kid
This made-for-TV flick made in 1974 but set in 1958 saw Martin Sheen rolling into a tiny California town to investigate his younger brother’s death in a car accident. He quickly determines that the vindictive local sheriff (played by Vic Morrow) may have played a role in the accident, and engages him in a harrowing face-off. Sheen’s ride for the movie? A sweet chopped, flamed ’34 Ford three-window coupe built by renowned hot rodder Pete Chapouris.
Sheen’s firstborn, Emilio Estevez, headed up the cast of Repo Man, a low budget Alex Cox project from 1984 that has gone on to achieve cult status. One would assume a movie set in the world of vehicle repossession would mean an interesting mix of cars and driving situations, and this movie doesn’t disappoint, while still offering some surprises along the way.
Not to be confused with the natural state of Mr. Sheen’s youngest son, this classic from 1969 starred real-life husband and wife Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, as well as Robert Wagner. In between the soap opera-ish bits, Newman and Wagner do battle in Can-Am cars, USAC stock cars and Indy cars at classic American tracks like Road America, Riverside and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Newman’s involvement in the film gave rise to his offscreen passion for motorsports, a passion that would manifest itself in the form of his becoming a multi-time champion driver and team owner.
The Fast and the Furious
Produced at the height of the import tuning craze, the first film of this long-serving (or long-suffering, depending on your point of view) franchise arguably remains the high water mark. Neither the plot nor the acting broke much new ground, but the integration of all those high-zoot Hondas, Toyotas, Mazdas and Mitsubishis serve to make it a bit of a period piece that future generations will look back upon with curiosity the same way we look back on movies made in hot rodding’s heyday.
Last American Hero
If you know anything about the history of NASCAR, you know about Junior Johnson. And if you know about Junior Johnson, you know that he’s led an interesting life. So interesting, in fact, that Tom Wolfe wrote an essay on him that got turned into the movie Last American Hero, starring Jeff Bridges as a Johnson-esque (the character was named Junior Jackson) stock car driver/moonshine runner. Seeing all that old circle track racing machinery is neat, but at the same time painful to see how some rare (at least today) classics were cut up and modified to go racing (and get further disfigured in wrecks).
To Please a Lady
For all of Clark Gable’s legend status, not very many people know he was a serious car guy. Fortunately, he was able to indulge this side of his personality in the 1950 flick To Please a Lady, where he starred as alongside Barbara Stanwyck. The movie is set within the world of dirt track racing, with the climax of the movie being the Indianapolis 500, where the best midget and sprint car drivers in the country used to make their mark after advancing through the ranks. Definitely worth a watch for all the old racing footage.
This cult classic from 1980 starred Kurt Russell as a used car salesman with political ambitions and Jack Warden as both Russell’s boss and his boss’ brother/main rival. It’s one of the darkest dark comedies out there, but a 1957 Chevrolet 210’s turn in the film is particularly macabre. Consider yourselves warned, Tri-Five fans.
Based on the massively popular Japanese manga and anime series of the same name, this movie adaptation is actually a Hong Kong production, with actors from the Chinese province cast in many of the leading roles (The main protagonist, Takumi Fujiwara, is played by Jay Chou, who recently made his Western screen debut as Kato in The Green Hornet.). But the automotive stars are thoroughly JDM, right down to Takumi’s Toyota AE86.
Another film set in the Deep South, Thunder Road focuses solely on bootlegging. While there’s no questioning Robert Mitchum’s star status (he was also the producer, principal writer and even co-wrote and performed the theme song), the movie wouldn’t have much punch without the thrilling driving sequences featuring hooch runners trying to outrun the law and each other in their modded machines.
Hot Rods to Hell
Sometimes, cheesy exploitation films can hide enjoyable gems within. A 1967 example of the genre, Hot Rods to Hell, fits this mold. While the meat and potatoes are the film are forgettable (teenagers run amok on a California desert town and some new arrivals from back east), the cars used by the youth-gone-wild are actually pretty cool, with some period correct custom touches and aftermarket parts that have been making a comeback lately.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream
Hollywood loves an underdog story, and the story of Preston Tucker and his attempt to get his own car company off the ground in the late 1940s certainly fit that mold. Director Francis Ford Coppola and leading man Jeff Bridges created a worthy (though artistic-license-filled) tribute to Tucker and his vision, which centered around the radical rear-engine Tucker sedan, of which 21 of the 50 built appeared in the film.
Did we miss your favorite? Fire away in the comments!