Top 10 Car Movies Ever: A Definitive List for Every Film-Watching Gearhead
It’s hard to believe that, over the past century, automobiles have evolved from newfangled contraptions into an inseverable aspect of our daily lives. The concurrent advancement of motion pictures led to the visual chronicling of humanity’s love affair with automobiles through numerous films that depict cars (and our relationship with them) in insightful ways.
While everyone has their favorite classic car movies, these 10 feature films are arguably the most notable in the history of cinema.
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The Fast and the Furious (2001)
What would’ve been a controversial pick a decade ago is now an obvious shoo-in as one of the top car movies of all time. While it’s not a masterpiece by any means, it’s hard to overlook The Fast and The Furious‘ irrevocable influence on blockbuster cinema, becoming one of the highest grossing franchises around the globe. While Fast Five is arguably the best in the series thus far—and a crucial turning point in the franchise’s direction—it’s still the first chapter that laid the groundwork for today’s record-breaking success.
Talladega Nights (2006)
It’s one of the few successful car-themed comedies that deftly satirizes sports biopics while sharply critiquing our idolization of sports celebrity. Adam McKay’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is an underappreciated send-up of American car culture, particularly NASCAR‘s infamous patriotism and masculine bravado. While not every joke lands, it’s still surprisingly timely given the ongoing vast divide between American and French motorsports, while cementing McKay and Ferrell’s “smart dumb comedy” style.
Another notable automotive film released in 2006 and one of Pixar’s most lucrative properties—notorious for its rampant merchandising—Cars is often dismissed as a conventional hero’s journey tale meant for child audiences. While its story is admittedly cliched, Cars deserves more serious respect as the most successful animated automotive property ever. Now synonymous in the public’s mind with “cartoon cars,” Disney-Pixar’s Cars is the reigning king of animated automotive cinema—deserving of a spot in the top 10.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Most automotive films focus on the character’s relationship with cars on the road—typically resulting in an abundance of vehicle chases, motorsport races, and/or cross-country road trips. What makes Francis Ford Coppola’s biopic on automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker unique is its interest in man’s relationship with cars off the road. An insightful look at one man’s contributions to the industry and the process of automotive production, Tucker: The Man and His Dream balances technical dialogue with poignant moments. Tucker might not have revolutionized cinema, but it stands as a singular automotive-centric piece that deserves to be seen.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
An audience favorite more than a critical darling, Hal Needham’s highly successful road trip comedy combines zany characters and wild car chases through country roads. A product of its time in style and subject, Bandit’s beer-running escapades may not hold much weight in today’s Hollywood circles or to Northern audiences, but the film is a beloved classic to a generation of Southerners. Once thing we can all agree on: that iconic Trans Am was sure a beauty.
The Italian Job (1969 & 2003)
If you know what the MINI Cooper is, you have this classic film and its surprisingly entertaining remake to thank. The original stands as a quintessential British caper that captures 1960s British culture in a wry and self-aware time capsule. The remake effectively took a quintessentially British tale (originally snubbed in the USA) and morphed it into a slick, brisk heist flick with global appeal. Both films have their share of star power and feature extended car chases that showcase the signature style and size of MINI.
Le Mans (1971)
You can’t compile a list of notable automotive movies without paying homage to Steve McQueen’s grandiose attempt to capture the experience of 24 Hours of Le Mans on film. While the final product is flawed from a narrative perspective, the events behind the camera are as notorious as the film’s initial box office and critical failure. In the years since it’s release, Le Mans has earned the respect of many automotive and cinematic historians who value its visionary cinema verité achievements.
The Love Bug (1969)
What could have been another of Disney’s many disposable, forgettable live action flicks became the highest grossing film of the year and has remained an endearing family favorite that spawned a slew of delightful sequels. While it’s amiable cast does a swell job, it’s the depiction of Herbie that truly steals the show. The production crew did a phenomenal job at anthropomorphizing an automobile, and while some of the green screen effects haven’t held up well, many of the driving stunts are actually still impressive. Despite never being referred to or revealed as a VW Beetle in the film, The Love Bug bolstered America’s fondness for the zany, round compact car.
The French Connection (1971)
Typically uttered in the same breath as “classic car movies,” William Friedkin’s crime thriller earned its share of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been inducted into the National Film Registry. A fictionalized portrayal of a true story, The French Connection took risks and experimented with camerawork to produce a white-knuckled car chase that viewers will never forget. This prolonged sequence through the streets of New York does overshadow the rest of the film, though it still earns its place as a cinematic legend.
The second Steve McQueen film on the list–and undeniably the better of the two–Bullitt is a masterpiece in many ways. The visceral, heart-pounding chase through the sloping streets of San Francisco earned it an Academy Award and induction into the National Film Registry. Still the go-to paragon of how to perform and film vehicle stunts 50 years later, Bullitt is a timeless cinematic achievement that will never be outdone.
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