The beginning of the 20th century was accompanied by two new technologies that would permanently alter life as we know it: the automobile and the motion picture. The timing was extremely convenient for the movie business, as cars quickly became a favorite subject for artists exploring their newfound abilities to capture moving images. For as long as people have been driving cars, there have been people who wanted to stand next to them with a camera and film it.
The two art forms have essentially grown up together, as the past 100 years of movies also serves as a document of the way car design has evolved. The most glamorous vehicles of the 1930s and 1940s fit right into the lavish Art Deco sets of Old Hollywood. And when cars became faster and more colorful after World War II, the movies did too. When New Hollywood auteurs started making boundary-pushing road movies in the late 1960s and 1970s, cars became the ultimate symbol of the freedom they so openly yearned for.
And then, of course, you have the car chase movie. People pursuing each other in very fast cars is one of Hollywood’s most reliable subgenres, and car chase movies have only improved as we’ve invented new filmmaking technologies. Legendary filmmakers like Steven Spielberg cut their teeth on car chase movies before moving onto bigger things, and modern favorites including Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright made a point of paying homage to the genre after they had established themselves as notable auteurs.
Revisiting the best car movies is both an important film history lesson and a rollicking good time. From nuanced dramas to thrillers about handsome guys making their cars go vroom vroom, the automobile has provided an enduring symbol that filmmakers of every stripe have been able to work with.
With “Fast X” rolling into theaters this week, it’s a great time to check out some great car cinema (assuming you’re not busy rewatching the other “Fast and Furious” movies). While the latest adventure from Vin Diesel and Friends might be the beginning of the series’ final trilogy, history makes it clear that the car movie genre isn’t going anywhere.
10. “Christine” (dir. John Carpenter, 1983)
John Carpenter adapting Stephen King for the story of a killer car named “Christine”? No wonder producer Richard Kobritz, who’d previously worked on the 1979 “Salem’s Lot” miniseries, jumped at the chance to secure the rights, and had screenwriter Bill Phillips working from King’s manuscript months before the 1983 book even hit shelves. Not to be confused with the likes of lesser anthropomorphic horror (see 2010’s schlocky “Rubber” about a killer tire), “Christine” delivers the snappy terror and smart characterwork fans had come to expect for Carpenter, but this time with a lighter frame and a full tank of fun. When a bright red 1958 Plymouth Fury comes off the assemblyline and later finds its way into the life of outcast Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), a kind of “Child’s Play” friends-til-the-end saga ensues as Christine defends her owner like a demonically possessed Herbie. —AF
9. “American Graffiti” (dir. George Lucas, 1973)
No film has more perfectly captured the experience of being young and dumb and obsessed with your car like “American Graffiti.” George Lucas’ ‘70s period piece about a group of Modesto teens celebrating the last day of school takes place mainly behind the wheels of the character’s various automobiles, as they pick up fast food, head to parties, get involved in street races, hunt down crushes, run afoul of greasers, but mostly drive around their town for no reason in particular. —WC
8. “Two for the Road” (dir. Stanley Donen, 1967)
Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney journey through a surprisingly sad road trip comedy in Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road.” The 1967 rom-dramedy charts a couple’s declining marriage across a decade of road trips through the south of France. Caught somewhere between “Scenes from a Marriage” and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s “The Long, Long Trailer,” Frederic Raphael’s nimble script won him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. —AF
Check out more of the best romantic comedies of all time.
7. “Two-Lane Blacktop” (dir. Monte Hellman, 1971)
“Two Lane Blacktop” is the kind of cultural artifact that is so clearly a product of its time that we could never hope to reverse engineer it. But thank God somebody had the sense to make it when they did. Monte Hellman’s cult classic stars two non-actors (James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson) as speed-obsessed drifters whose encounter with a mysterious driver named GTO prompts them to embark on a cross-country race. The film’s moral ambiguity and abrupt ending make it the perfect fusion of a crowd-pleasing Hollywood genre with more creatively sophisticated New Hollywood sensibilities. —CZ
6. “The Blues Brothers” (dir. John Landis, 1980)
The idea that two “Saturday Night Live” characters could be expanded with enough narrative heft to carry a feature film may have seemed absurd when “The Blues Brothers” was announced — and frankly, the next several decades of “SNL” movies validated that sentiment. But “The Blues Brothers” remains a film that defies all expectations to form something inexplicably perfect. Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi star as two Chicago musicians on a mission from God to save the orphanage they grew up in by getting the band back together. The film’s sharp humor and rolodex of A-list cameos played a big role in its success, but the hilariously absurd car chases provide the cinematic gravitas that allowed John Landis’ film to transcend its sketch show roots. —CZ
5. “Drive My Car” (dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)
Movies about cars often focus on the vehicles’ exciting qualities: the adrenaline rush of a race, or the glitz and glamor of a sleek sports car. But in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” the red Saab that carries director Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his chauffeur Misaki (Tōko Miura) from scene to scene is a place of quiet, almost spiritual contemplation, where Yūsuke runs through his lines and the stoic Misaki slowly opens up about her past. Like the Saab, the film steadily and smoothly traces the bond the two forge under the roof of the automobile with surprising grace and beauty. —WC
4. “The French Connection” (dir. William Friedkin, 1971)
Much of beauty of the car chase movie lies in the elegant structural simplicity that the genre provides. All a writer needs to do is craft a character the audience can rally behind, find something they want more than anything in the world, and place it in the hands of someone willing to drive extremely fast to keep it away from them. Such is the case with “The French Connection,” William Friedkin’s landmark crime saga that uses two New York cops’ obsession with shutting down a heroin ring as an excuse to devise some of the grittiest car chases of the 1970s. Gene Hackman gives a career-defining performance as Popeye Doyle, a sometimes-blundering cop whose commitment to his law enforcement goals knows no bounds. You’ll never look at porkpie hats the same way. —CZ
3. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (dir. George Miller, 2015)
Put simply, all the vehicles in “Mad Max: Fury Road” absolutely rule. There’s the massive “war rig” our title hero (Tom Hardy) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drive across the desert on their quest to save the brides of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne); it’s a hulking truck with skulls, spikes, and guns decorating it, like something out of a hyperactive child’s wildest fantasies. Then there’s the fleet of vehicles Immortan and his tropes use to hunt down Max and Furiosa, coming in all shapes and sizes with guns, cockpits, and spikes up the whazoo, and which provide some of the best and most adrenaline-pumping action scenes put to film. Plus, a guy plays a guitar that shoots fire while riding in a car; like we said, this movie rules. —WC
2. “Titane” (dir. Julia Ducournau, 2021)
Selling someone on Julia Ducournau’s borderline unfathomable “Titane” through a list of the best car movies feels about as backwards as learning to drive stick in a classroom. But to leave this hyper-violent, melancholy, and definitively queer shocker out of our consideration of vehicular cinema would be to overlook one of the all-time most innovative uses of the automobile in art. Agathe Rousselle stars as a floor room showgirl/serial killer — sexed up, down, and sideways — whose bizarre, passionate, and erotic relationship (yes, erotic relationship) to cars comes from a crash that left a metal plate in her skull since childhood. “Titane” won Ducournau the Palme d’Or at Cannes: making her the second female filmmaker ever to receive the honor. Come for the promise of a mass murder via hair clip; stay for the craziest firetruck scene ever conceived. —AF
1. “Bullitt” (dir. Peter Yates, 1968)
Any film that’s centered around Steve McQueen looking like a badass in a Ford Mustang is bound to date itself eventually, but Peter Yates’ “Bullitt” has endured as a classic because it features what might be the most dazzling car chase sequence ever shot. McQueen’s Frank Bullitt evading two hitmen in a Dodge Charger via a race through the streets of San Francisco is a work of technical mastery that won Frank P. Keller a well-deserved Oscar for Best Editing. The jazzy cop thriller is the epitome of 1960s cool and remains the gold standard that car chase choreographers aspire to match. Frank Bullitt’s enduring timelessness has prompted Steven Spielberg and Bradley Cooper to revisit him in an upcoming film that will tell a new story about the character. —CZ