Pop culture is driven in part by film. Who hasn't heard someone else quote a film in everyday conversation, or done so themselves? And a uniquely American aspect of this is Car Culture. Americans love their cars and love movies about cars. Australia, of course, has a car culture which rivals America's — which explains the appearance of Australian films on this list.
There are tons of "Car Movies" out there, but there are only a few that I would consider "Must-See" films. I've included some older ones and some newer ones, but all of them — in my opinion — should be viewed by anyone with an interest in movies. I'm not just including "car chase" films, although that does make up the bulk of the list — we Americans love our cars and love going fast in our cars — but films with a car or cars at the center of the film.
I have listed these films in no particular order (that's why I'm not numbering the list). I don't suggest you should see any one before another, unless the two are part of a series — in which case you should likely view them in chronological order.
Now, grab some popcorn, pop in a disc (or fire up your favorite streaming service), and enjoy some Must-See Car Movies.
Never to be confused with the horrible 2000 remake starring Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie, this gem from writer/director/star H.B. Halicki has one of the most iconic and memorable car chases ever to grace the silver screen (although I might say that about most of the films on this list).
What sets this one aside, however, is the unapologetic carnage in the film. This is not a nice guy forced to do terrible things against his will. This is a car thief doing whatever he can to escape the police and keep the car — at any cost. The driver never stops to care about the other drivers who are victims of his relentless attempt to elude the police. In fact, the police are tipped off to his thefts by a disgruntled employee whom he has treated badly.
This film was also an exercise in guerrilla film making. H.B. Hallicki and his team filmed most of the movie on Sundays because the permit office was closed so no one would be out checking to see if they had the required permits (they didn't). In fact, the scene in which the Mustang clips a light pole and takes it down while trying to make a freeway exit was an accident. This was not part of the script and actually took out a real light pole. H.B. Hallicki got the car started again and just kept going. The authorities didn't know who was responsible until the movie was released.
Spoiler alert: This is one of those films where the bad guy gets away. And not only does he get away, but he gets away with the goods. Watch this for the chase scenes (while the long chase with the Mustang is the best, don't go refill your popcorn when the towtruck shows up), not for any moral lesson.
This one is creepy as hell. It's kind of a retelling of the story of the "Breakers", people who would use lights to attract ships onto hidden reefs at night and during storms in order to strand the ships and pillage their cargo.
Again, there is no moral lesson in the way these people kill, maim, and pillage, but it's fun to watch, anyway. Also note that this movie has Bruce Spence in it, who went on to play the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2 and Jedediah the Pilot in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. BTW, take a look at these stills from this movie and from Mad Max: Fury Road. Homage, anyone?
Another film that starts with the flimsiest of story lines. The whole thing is fired off when the delivery driver, Kowalski, makes a bet that he can get this 1970 Challenger to San Francisco from Colorado in 15 hours. That's it. That's the whole impetus of the film. He's not an outlaw, the car isn't stolen. He just makes a bet concerning the speed with which he can make a legitimate delivery and his speeding is what attracts the attention of the police. That, and the fact that he just isn't going to be stopped.
Another difference between this one and Gone In 60 Seconds is the moral fiber of the protagonist. In one scene a motorcycle cop wipes out while chasing Kowalski. Kowalski stops and looks back. Once he sees that the cop is okay he continues on.
This movie also stars Cleavon Little as the blind DJ, Super Soul, who starts recounting Kowalski's escapades on air, much to the chagrin of the police and some locals. You should recognize Little as the new Sheriff in Blazing Saddles.
Oh, by the way, this is another that should not be mixed up with the terrible remake which came later.
If you're starting to get the idea that the early '70s (and perhaps 1974 in particular) were a good time for car movies, you're not wrong.
At least this one has an explanation for both why they're doing what they're doing and why this guy is such a good driver. Peter Fonda plays Larry Rayder, a NASCAR driver who doesn't have the money to compete. So he and his mechanic decide their best route to NASCAR success is to rob a grocery store.
Despite some early problems with their plan, and the intrusion of Larry's previous night's folly, Mary, his driving skills and Deke's mechanic skills seem to be keeping them ahead of the police. With some breaks from the action in which we see more and more friction between Larry and Mary (to be expected of this unwelcome tag-along dynamic) and between Larry and Deke (which doesn't bode well for a career on the NASCAR circuit) the many chases in this movie — and the sudden ending — make this one a definite must-see.
Part of the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez "Grindhouse" double-feature (Rodriguez's contribution was Planet Terror), this one tells the story of a psychotic stunt driver who apparently gets his kicks out of scaring the shit out of and killing women using his car.
He's successful in the first half, scaring the daylights out of the woman who has made the mistake of letting him give her a ride, then killing her and a carload of other women in a head-on crash which he alone survives. He's been very careful, too, as the cops just know he did this on purpose but don't have a shred of evidence against him. They can't even get him on DUI as he was drinking non-alcoholic drinks at the bar.
In the second half of the movie, though, he meets his match going up against three women test driving a "Vanishing Point Challenger", a duplicate of the 1970 Dodge from that movie. What happens next is among the most exciting car chases ever filmed — made even more exciting by the behind-the-scenes info on how the scene was shot. Stunt performer Zoe Bell plays herself in the film and is riding on the hood of the white Challenger when Kurt Russell's character (Stuntman Mike) starts the chase by banging into their vehicle with his. The stunt driver for the scene was worried about Zoe being on the hood, and wanted to do it at only 30mph. Tarantino kept asking her to do "another take" at slightly higher speeds until he got the shots at full speed.
And just when that chase ends, another begins, with the women in the Challenger now chasing Stuntman Mike, seeking revenge. What happens next just adds to and intensifies the earlier chase dynamics (including a pretty decent double-car jump). In a typically male-dominated genre, it's nice to see the women take control and be the aggressors for a change.
Released in the US as The Road Warrior (due to the fact that the original Mad Max did so poorly that studio execs didn't think American audiences would want to watch a sequel to a film they never saw), this movie continued the story of Max Rockatansky.
This film takes place after another world war has completed the societal collapse that had already begun in Mad Max. It's not until Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome we finally learn for sure that it was a nuclear war ("what's a little fallout among friends, eh?" as Max's geiger counter is going crazy over the water being sold).
This is where we get the first glimpses into Max's psyche that — although he has nothing left to live for — something in him just insists on continuing to live, no matter what. The custom vehicles in this film are even better than the slight modifications the cars were given in the first film, making them stars in their own right. And the massively long tanker chase is one of the best chase scenes ever put on film (I say that a few times on this list, but it's true).
Ron Howard plays Hoover, a reckless teenager who loves speed almost as much as the girl he has a crush on. When Darlene shows more interest in a hot car at the race track than she does in Hoover, he decides the way to her heart is to steal the car and take off on a wild ride through town.
Easily the funniest movie on this list ("He said he called me Hoover because I put him into a depression."), the chases on town roads, through fields, and down steep hillsides ("Oh, my god, we killed him!") will keep the car enthusiast in you happy while the laughs will just add to the enjoyment of this wild teenage romp.
Again, there are some brief asides — including a trip to the gas station in a horse-drawn wagon, putting the gas in milk canisters, and a very inventive money exchange — for character development and further story-telling, but the humor never leaves even if the action does cool down a bit during these spots.
I know if you aren't already familiar with it it's a hard sell, Ron Howard in a car movie, so here's the trailer:
This one is probably on every Car Movie list ever created, and with good reason. It's a cop movie that just happens to have (here I go again) one of the best car chases ever put on film.
Steve McQueen as San Francisco cop Frank Bullitt turns the pursuit around and starts chasing the guys who were following him. The chase flies through some of San Francisco's more memorable locations and wreaks absolute havoc on the streets.
One behind-the-scenes story (whether it's true or not is debateable) contends that the city refused permission to film the part of the chase that goes down a particularly steep hill, crashing into parked cars along the way, so Steve McQueen hopped into the Mustang, told the crew to roll film, and did it anyway. Only instead of cars brought in by the studio — in the very best guerrilla style — McQueen crashed into whatever cars were parked on the street and the studio simply came along behind and paid the owners off afterwards. The stunt reportedly resulted in a reckless driving charge for McQueen, but like I said, take this story with a grain of salt. (I checked Snopes.com but found nothing.)
Yes, there is another movie between this one and Mad Max 2, which is listed above. But while that one is good in its own right, I didn't think it deserved a place on this list.
Fury Road, on the other hand, is worth watching just for the custom vehicles, alone. Check out this shot from the film:
While some of the effects are wonky (the dust storm scene is the best example) and take a bit more suspension of disbelief, the whole film is thoroughly enjoyable as a car film (see above) and as a chase film.
While not strictly a "car" movie (like Bullitt), this one does have one of the best car chases on film. What makes this one even better is that the vehicles used in this movie aren't normally considered muscle cars or sports cars (although I'm sure there are quite a few Europeans who would disagree with my America-centric assessment). They use stock sedans to chase each other around city streets and country roads, with some pretty intense wrong-way action, too.
In this movie the cars are definitely not the stars, but what the characters do with the cars is still pretty fun to watch. But don't take my word for it:
LOL! I bet you thought I was going to miss this one, didn't you? Are you kidding? This is one of the all-time fun car movies!
Another one with equal parts humor and bad-ass cars/chases, this film rocketed the 1977 Pontiac Trans-Am's sales to statospheric levels. The car was definitely one of the characters.
Also, along with all of the great car chase scenes, who can forget when Snowman puts the pedal to the metal and flies his big rig past the Bandit and into the derby grounds — with a trailer full of Coors, no less?
That's eleven. I was going to stop at ten. In the future I might do more, but I hope you get a kick out of this list and hopefully I've introduced you to at least one Must-See Car Movie you haven't yet seen.