1. Smokey and the Bandit
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Burt Reynolds and his blacker-than-black Pontiac Trans Am appeared in three films, each one less enjoyable to watch as the franchise moved from the carefree 1970s to the campy 1980s. Burt Reynolds There’s no denying that in a decade beset by an energy crisis, the open road still represented a spirit of possibility and opportunity, and the original Smokey and the Bandit perfectly captured this spirit. Furthermore, it’s one of the best films ever made about bootlegging (after Thunder Road, of course).
2. Mad Max
The Mad Max films have made an important mark in the history of automotive cinematography, no matter which one you choose to watch – whether it’s the starkly barren near-future landscape of the original or the high-octane stunt work of Fury Road. It’s easy to see why Mad Max and its sequels (Road Warrior, Beyond Thunderdome, and the most recent Fury Road) rank amongst the best car movies ever made when set in the desolate wastelands of post-apocalyptic Australia.
Bullitt isn’t a car movie if you take it at face value. It’s almost certain that when people think of this Steve McQueen detective story, they’ll recall the car chase in which McQueen’s Mustang raced against the villain’s black Dodge Charger through San Francisco’s streets. Indeed, for the vast majority of people, that’s the ENTIRE movie they remember about Bullitt. As a result of this scene, car chases have been portrayed onscreen in action films for the subsequent three decades, setting the standard for the industry.
4. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Tokyo Drift, criticized by some for abandoning the United States (and the original cast), is the sole reason the Fast and Furious series is still going strong today. The decision to shoot the film in “Tokyo” was brilliant because it gave the director free reign to use some of the coolest unobtanium cars ever created for the silver screen. Incorporating a Tokyo setting introduced a global cast, allowing for big box office in theaters all over the world. This proved that the formula was durable. Our top 10 car movies list includes it because it’s the last in the series to be almost entirely focused on car culture and those who love it.
5. Gone In 60 Seconds (Original)
Even if you haven’t seen the Nick Cage remake, fans of fast cars will appreciate the original Gone in 60 Seconds’ chaotic mayhem more than the film’s narrative deficiency. With stuntman H.B. Halicki at the helm, the film is basically one long chase scene with the Ford Mustang serving as the crown jewel of the incredible destruction that makes up the film’s second half. There is a lot of sweet almost-malaise period metal in Gone in 60 Seconds, but it’s also the height of 70’s auteur excess.
6. Grand Prix
John Frankenheimer was a talented director with a genuine interest in automobiles, as evidenced in his films (as list runner-up Ronin would prove more than two decades later). No matter how successful Grand Prix was in capturing the ferocity of 1960s auto racing, its depiction of the pressure of competition has yet to be matched in any other medium.
7. Cannonball Run
Movies like Cannonball Run are the epitome of carefree, mindless bubblegum (or is that “gumball”) cinema. They’re also devoted to the road trip, which is a staple of the automotive lifestyle. Don’t think about it too much and think back to when throwing stars and cars at the screen was an effective formula that didn’t (Redline) fail (Need for Speed) miserably.
8. American Graffiti
It’s possible that Tokyo Drift was the last film about car culture to be shown in a multiplex, but that’s not the case. For George Lucas, the success of American Graffiti not only led to the funding of Star Wars, but it also helped revive interest in the 1960s cruise scene, which was just emerging in pop culture at the time and depicted the late-night adventures that were so common in small towns across the country. Similar to Dazed and Confused, the sweet vintage cars that were woven throughout the lives of its characters were the lifeblood of the Texas college and high school that the film aimed to capture for a glorious 24-hour glimpse in Dazed and Confused.
9. Vanishing Point
In Vanishing Point, a man named Kowalski drives a 1970 Dodge Challenger across the country to reach the West Coast on a quest of spiritual growth and discovery. As a warning about how the Summer of Love would affect popular culture for years to come, it was one of the first pieces of art to sound the alarm.
10. The Fast and the Furious
The fact that a 2001 action film with a cast of relative unknowns is still fueling a multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise 15 years after its release is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Despite this, we find ourselves in this position. If you’re a fan of imports, muscle, or classic cars, you’ve got to admire director Rob Cohen for making an effort to involve the tuner community during the production of the first Fast and Furious movie. That effort has been lost in the sequel. Just have fun with all the neon kits, big graphics, and nitrous bottles stuffed onscreen and forget about the cheesy parts. The danger is going to multiply!