With the release of Furious 7 this week and the impending release of Mad Max: Fury Road next month, car movies have suddenly taken center stage. Of course, a “car movie” can mean many things — from a racing flick to a road movie to, well, a film that’s just set among cars in general. Regardless, we thought this might be a good time to take a step back and look at some of the best car movies over the years, and to do so in an all-encompassing, inclusive way. As a result, this list of movies is quite eclectic — it includes gearhead classics, cult standbys, noirs, modern blockbusters, art-house favorites, and even some genuine obscurities. Along the way, it became clear to us that a “car movie,” more than anything, is a film where a car plays a key role in the way a character interacts with the world — be it as a weapon, a tool, a dream, a setting, or a metaphor. Here are the 29 greatest car movies. (And as usual, we’ve stuck to one film per franchise, lest you wonder why there aren’t half a dozen Fast & Furious movies on this list.)
29. The Car (1977)
This is basically Jaws with a car, and it’s just as loony as that sounds. A black automobile, presumably from the depths of Hell, terrorizes a small-town community, and it’s local lawman James Brolin’s job to stop it. Utterly ridiculous, at times laughably so. But that’s kind of its genius, too: Because this car does all sorts of things a car could never actually do, you never quite know what to expect. Directed by Elliot Silverstein, this cult horror flick was a late-show mainstay: Any kid switching channels late at night in the ’80s when those ominous “Dies Irae” chords came on knew he or she was in for something special.
28. Drive (2011)
This movie isn’t quite the masterpiece it was billed as at the time, but it is a fascinating blend of pop influences — the terse gearhead classics of the ’70s, the New Age stylings of the ’80s, the hip irony of the millennial era. Director Nicolas Winding Refn knows how to shoot violence, but more important, he knows how to anticipate violence. And using an almost comically inexpressive Ryan Gosling (playing a stunt-driver-cum-getaway-driver, not unlike Ryan O’Neal in The Driver), he builds elaborate, deadpan setpieces that are unnerving in the way they promise graphic, brutal horrors that the film only occasionally shows. Plus, let’s face it, the soundtrack is cool.
27. Thunder Road (1958)
In this classic 1958 noir set in the world of illegal mountain moonshiners, Robert Mitchum plays a young vet working as a transporter — one of “those wild and reckless men, who transport illegal whisky from its source to its point of distribution,” using souped-up cars. This wasn’t a fanciful movie creation; it was an actual subculture. The film may not have the authentic details of those classic car movies that would start to come out a decade or so later, but Mitchum is, and will always be, the coolest cat onscreen. Give him a hot rod, and he’s suddenly cooler.
Jason Statham, who has now joined the Fast & Furious franchise (we’ll see if he gets to stick around), scored his first franchise playing an expert driver who gets paid to transport cargo — any kind of cargo, no questions asked. Many of us underrated this movie at the time; the silliness just seemed to be too much, and Statham’s stoic demeanor felt stiff, despite his considerable physical prowess. But over the years, he and the film have grown on us, gaining a wonderfully surreal, retroactive sheen. This is a fun, freewheeling, and oh-so-French action flick — the kind of movie that can slow down to ruminate on madeleines and Proust before proceeding with the mayhem. That, of course, is the EuropaCorp house style. The Luc Besson–led production company has also given us the Taken films, Lucy, and any number of other nutty, corny, go-for-broke action spectacles.
25. Mercedes, Mon Amour (1992)
Part The Bicycle Thieves, part The Old Man and the Sea, this little-known Turkish gem is a hilarious, poignant tale of a poor villager who goes to work in Germany and saves up to buy himself a beloved yellow Mercedes. Hoping to bask in the glory of his hard-earned success, he attempts to drive it back to his village, only to meet many roadblocks along the way — much of them having to do with his own venality and materialism, as well as Turkey’s infamously horrendous drivers. A very human tale that manages also to be a keen social satire.
24. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
Peter Fonda and Adam Roarke play two 0-to-100 holdup artists/racers who rob a huge supermarket, only to get saddled with the NASCAR groupie (Susan George) whom Fonda’s character bedded the night before. Speeding away from the cops in, first, a souped-up 68 Chevy Impala, and then a garish Dodge Challenger, the trio bicker and banter relentlessly. Meanwhile, the pissy, frustrated lawman (Kenneth Tobey) trying to coordinate the manhunt has to deal with abject incompetence and mind-boggling bureaucracy, as well as his own desire to relive his youth. There isn’t a single sane person in this movie, but the tremendous stunts, crossed with the film’s surprisingly easygoing atmosphere, have made this a car classic.
23. Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
First, a word about the original: The 1974 Gone in 60 Seconds, directed by stuntman and towing/impounding impresario H.B. Halicki, is one of the strangest films of all time, a series of stitched-together car scenes and stunts held together with dialogue that attempts to relay an elaborate story of a group of thieves robbing a whole crapload of cars; it’s borderline unwatchable. The remake is pretty much the exact opposite: an impossibly slick, Jerry Bruckheimer–produced, star-studded heist flick that goes down smooth and easy. Nicolas Cage is the master thief who has to steal 50 cars in 96 minutes. His teammates include Robert Duvall and Angelina Jolie. The car setpieces are ludicrous, and ludicrously enjoyable.
22. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
At his best, Will Ferrell can effortlessly shred the delusional, almost psychotic machismo of the American male — and he can do it with a smile. In NASCAR, he found the perfect target. One of Ferrell’s biggest and best movies was this hilarious racing spoof, which followed the rise and fall and rise of a smug champion racer, his complicated friendship with best pal and fellow racer John C. Reilly, and his rivalry with an effete, snotty Frenchman played by Sacha Baron Cohen. The movie moves between cock-of-the-walk triumph and utter humiliation with suck quicksilver ease that you might get carsick.
21. Autostop (1991)
In 1990, the Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov (who would later win an Oscar for Burnt by the Sun) was enlisted to make a short promotional film for Fiat, but wound up creating this magical short feature instead. In this evocative, melancholy tale, an Italian champion racer is tasked with driving a car from Italy into Russia. Along the way, as the clean roads of Europe give way to the snowy, forbidding desolation of Russia, the film becomes a haunting meditation on belonging: This lonely man with no family and seemingly no life goes from having meaningless, fly-by-night interactions to unwittingly putting together a weird, dysfunctional surrogate family for himself. And like the best car movies, what seemed like a mundane tale of man and machine becomes a metaphor for how we live our lives.
20. Locke (2013)
After the Mad Max: Fury Road movie comes out, this movie will probably gain some retroactive irony (and possibly a new, totally misleading home-video cover). Tom Hardy sits in a car, juggling a variety of duties: A woman he had an affair with is about to give birth, and he’s trying to make it to the hospital; he has to remotely oversee an immense “concrete pour” for a new construction (this is a way bigger deal than it sounds, trust us); and he has to explain to his family why he won’t be home to watch a big soccer match with his son. The film’s tension comes not from anything to do with the car, but with the increasing urgency of all these things bearing down on our hero. And Hardy, giving one of his greatest performances, is the very picture of cool, calm competence. As his confidence begins to fray, and as his smoothly speeding vehicle starts to seem like more and more of a prison, the film becomes almost heart-stoppingly suspenseful.
19. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Director Francis Ford Coppola and producer George Lucas teamed up for this glitzy, beautiful, and surprisingly personal biopic about postwar inventor Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges), who took on the big car companies as an independent automaker and effectively got crushed. But in Coppola and Lucas’s telling, Tucker won a victory of sorts. Many of his inventions and innovations, such as seat belts, are commonplace today, and the film only somewhat-ironically treats his story as one of triumph. It’s easy to see how these two powerful, independent filmmakers — especially Coppola, for whom this was a long-term dream project — might recognize themselves in this story of a stubborn, brilliant man who attempted to play on the same stage with his more powerful, ruthless competitors.
18. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Few people ever think of this Ridley Scott–directed, Callie Khouri–written classic as a “car movie,” but it totally fits when you think about it. Fleeing from their oppressive lives, our heroes, played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, take the standard trajectory of liberation embodied by the macho road movie and give it a feminist kick. In so doing, they also assume and transform some of the typical elements of such movies — the gun, the one-night stand, and, yes, the car. And the film’s much-discussed, controversial finale — with its nods to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as the climaxes of such gearhead classics as Vanishing Pointand Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry — takes on a new hue when you start to think of the whole thing as a car movie.
John Carpenter’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel is pretty much the last word in possessed automobiles. Nerdy, shy teen Keith Gordon becomes obsessed with his new 1958 Plymouth Fury and starts to become more aggressive, ruthless … different. Is it the car? (It’s totally the car.) King’s wacky premise was gripping on the page, but Carpenter’s coolly efficient direction — along with ace acting from young stars Gordon and John Stockwell, both of whom would go on to become acclaimed filmmakers themselves — turns it into something more: a nasty nightmare of teenage self-actualization.
16. The Driver (1978)
Walter Hill’s tense thriller about a stoic stuntman (Ryan O’Neal) working as a getaway driver was a key influence on later films such as Drive, but it itself is essentially an Americanized, automotive remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s seminal hit man drama Le Samourai. As in Melville’s film, a level-headed professional who makes sure not to have any attachments or emotional baggage finds himself drawn to a fellow human. And little by little, his isolation (in this case, represented by his car) starts to dissolve, and he finds himself more vulnerable than ever before.
15. The Hitchhiker (1953)
“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours …” One of the all-time great film noirs, this 1953 thriller was directed by the great Ida Lupino. Two men on their way to Mexico for a fishing trip pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer. The man holds them hostage and makes them drive him to California. Oh, and he tells the two men he’ll kill them when the trip is over. The film is remarkable not just for its claustrophobic, white-knuckle tension, but also for the way it subtly toys with the freedom of America’s burgeoning car culture and the open road. The killer is a man who, for all his delusions, pokes at the other men’s complacency and domesticity — making this thriller a forerunner of everything from Easy Rider to The Hitcher to Collateral.
14. Vanishing Point (1971)
Richard Sarafian’s surreal cult road movie has a mysterious speed-freak (in all senses of the word) leading police in multiple Western states on an epic chase as he runs into a cross-section post-’60s washouts and recalls the various events of his life (including a spectacular racetrack crash). Meanwhile, a blind small-town radio DJ narrates, encourages, and mythologizes the journey. Equal parts art-house whatsit and car-fetish classic, the film works so well thanks to director Sarafian’s ability to shoot a chase, as well as his feel for the landscape.
13. Rush (2013)
Ron Howard’s biopic about the ’70s rivalry between Formula One racers Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is over the top in all the right ways. The director has always dealt in broad strokes, and here he pits these two men against one another as elemental opposites: The Nerdy Scrivener versus the Easygoing Hedonist. The two leads are excellent, and they keep the somewhat predictable tale of obsessive competition grounded. As their rivalry develops — and with it, of course, their friendship — the film also gives us big, bold, crazy sequences that capture the danger and allure of racing. We wince in terror and keep asking for more. It’s a wonderful film that for whatever reason got ignored by audiences.
12. Two for the Road (1967)
Stanley Donen’s classic romantic drama features Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as a bitter, affluent married couple driving their Mercedes through France as they flash back over key events in their life together — many of which also involve them driving somewhere. Written by Frederic Raphael (who had written Darling and would later write Eyes Wide Shut), the film is a mesmerizing portrait of how love decays. And in its constant movement, with its almost frantic tempo, it suggests that time, much like that Mercedes, is kind of a prison when it comes to love. The film’s odd tone — propulsive yet melancholy, cutting yet reflective — seems to embody the fact that nothing ever stays the same.
11. Death Proof (2007)
Quentin Tarantino’s homage to Z-grade exploitation flicks and cult car movies — initially presented as one half of the omnibus film Grindhouse — is an excellent horror movie, the ultimate car stunt flick, and a bizarre hangout movie, full of the director’s patented longueurs and extended scenes of seemingly irrelevant dialogue. Tarantino gives us a stunt driver (Kurt Russell) who gets off on killing carloads of unsuspecting females. In the first half of the film, we see him stalk and consume his prey; in the second half, we watch a group of victims as they fight back. The film is touching, alluring, and thrilling in equal measure — but like many of Tarantino’s greatest films, it also has the playful, experimental quality of a narrative puzzle.
10. Taste of Cherry (1997)
The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has made so many films set in and around cars that I’m starting to think they should give him a Fast & Furious installment, just to see what happens. In this Palme d’Or–winning drama, a middle-aged Iranian man drives around searching for someone who will bury him after he commits suicide. That’s a depressing setup, but the film is a lot gentler. Kiarostami uses the car both as a psychological and sociological tool — it represents our character’s isolation, but it also represents a way that individuals can have private interactions in this heavily policed religious state. (Maybe that’s why the director has filmed cars so often in his work — as have some of his compatriots, like Jafar Panahi.) As Kiarostami treats us to extended scenes of his protagonist driving around, the landscape gliding past his windows, something mesmerizing and even kind of exciting emerges. In its own way, this is as great a car movie as something more iconic, like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop.
9. Joy Ride (2001)
In one of the great, underrated thrillers of the last two decades, brothers Paul Walker and Steve Zahn (the former’s a fresh-faced romantic, the latter’s a loose cannon ex-con) compete over co-ed Leelee Sobieski as they run afoul of a faceless, psycho trucker they toyed with over the CB. Sex and cars: Director John Dahl brings out the unsettling undertones even as he orchestrates some fantastically terrifying setpieces. Playing a likable but selfish loser, Zahn has never been better; and the boyish, charming Walker freaks out like nobody’s business; the film’s greatest asset is the fraternal chemistry between these two.
8. Fast Five (2011)
It wasn’t so much that the earlier Fast & the Furious films were realistic. But in their own crazy way, they had adhered to some semblance of plausibility. With their focus on the street-racing subculture, and on the specific capabilities of the cars themselves; they were amped-up carsploitation movies. With the fifth entry in the franchise, however, the series went Bond — becoming an international fantasia of increasingly fantastical setpieces, each one more ludicrous than the last. There was no reason for it to work, but director Justin Lin (who shepherded four of these movies, in the process turning this franchise from a box-office also-ran to an international phenomenon) captured just the right lighthearted, cartoonish tone to make it all sing. The new one, Furious Seven, comes close to topping it — and who knows, maybe it will with the passing of time — but for now, Fast Five remains the pinnacle of this series.
7. Duel (1971)
Though it was made for TV, most folks consider this to be Steven Spielberg’s first real feature. It’s certainly the first time that we got a full view of his awesome talent. Dennis Weaver is the mild-mannered commuter stuck behind the wheel of a car that’s being terrorized by a mysterious tractor trailer for no discernible reason. What starts off as a tight little thriller becomes a fascinating study in masculinity. Weaver is the Eternal Pushover, the guy who is always getting stepped on and pushed aside. His massive, beastly, seemingly indestructible pursuer is everything that he’s not. The back and forth between these two figures — between, essentially, man and fate — has a delicious, delirious existential kick. Plus, this movie, written by Richard Matheson, is just plain exciting as hell.
6. Holy Motors (2012)
In Leos Carax’s masterpiece, the enigmatic Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) rides through Paris in a limo, inhabiting wildly different characters along the way — each scene seemingly resulting in a big, emotionally cathartic moment … before Oscar just casually moves on to the next thing. What in God’s name is this? A religious allegory? A metaphor about acting and/or filmmaking? A meditation on the constantly shifting nature of the modern world? A vision of a soul adrift? One thing’s for sure: In that recurring image of Oscar being driven through town in his limo, Carax captures a perfect visual metaphor for the character’s episodic, slightly distanced journey through this bizarre, patchwork existence.
5. Collateral (2004)
Michael Mann’s thriller about a Los Angeles cabbie (Jamie Foxx) and his hit-man passenger (Tom Cruise) absolutely is a car movie, in case you’re wondering: It’s all about how Foxx’s cab represents a safe cocoon through which he experiences the world, and which keeps him from seizing the life that he could be living. When Cruise’s white-haired assassin enters that cocoon, he begins to poke at Foxx’s careful, controlled sense of self; the cab ride from hell turns out to be a rite of passage. How appropriate, then, that Foxx’s most important assertion of his identity comes when he totals the cab with both of them in it. Meanwhile, Mann’s beloved Los Angeles cityscapes have never been more vivid or beautiful.
4. Repo Man (1984)
Alex Cox’s cult classic is an unclassifiable comedy about a suburban punk kid (Emilio Estevez) who falls in with a veteran repo man (Harry Dean Stanton) and learns “the repo code,” while a story line involving stolen aliens, punk criminals, government agents, televangelists, and ex-hippies swirls around him. Director Cox tackles consumerism, commodification, capitalism, and conformism, but he’s not a scold. He has that unique ability to create barbed satire while also conjuring up ridiculously memorable characters, never letting his righteous anger get in the way of his humanism. The result is a movie that defined the punk ethos for an entire generation of viewers.
3. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Monte Hellman’s classic (and classically quiet) road movie about a Driver (James Taylor), a Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), and a Girl (Laurie Bird) racing a man in a GTO (Warren Oates) cross-country is the kind of moody, beguiling movie you want to see over and over again — and which reveals a little more upon each viewing. Co-written by Rudy Wurlitzer, the film is not exactly a metaphor, not exactly a drama. Instead, in the occasionally perplexing interactions between these characters, it creates a strange little ecosystem of competition, co-dependence, resentment, and alienation. But most unforgettable are the fantastic driving sequences and the almost casually riveting performances — with James Taylor making for a perfectly intense (and surprisingly charismatic) lead, an ideal foil for the garrulous, slightly helpless Oates.
2. The Road Warrior (1982)
The second film in the Mad Max series is a relentless action opera, but it’s also a very strange one — filled with feral kids, weird inventors, BDSM biker gangs, and one of the all-time strangest, most florid villains ever to grace an action blockbuster, Lord Humongous. Given all that, and given the film’s topicality — with its gas shortages, its post-nuclear setting, its punk aesthetic — it’s amazing that this film hasn’t completely dated. But no, the filmmaking itself here is so strong that the movie effectively defines its own genre. Instead of getting overtaken by time, The Road Warrioritself turned out to be a key influence on the many postapocalyptic action movies that followed.
1. Taxi Driver (1976)
No complaining. It totally is a car movie. Sure, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece is not a gearhead classic; you won’t find car nuts fetishizing it or anything like that. But this study of loneliness, madness, and violence is all about the way cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) drifts through the city — the dank, smoky streets forming a vision of Hell as they glide past his windshield. In the way it creates a seemingly impermeable border between Travis and the world, and in the way that the figures who step into his cab, each in their own way, penetrate his sense of identity, this is not just a car movie; it’s the ultimate car movie.