Can anything sum up the bold optimism and doomed romance of the American dream more fully than the open road? It began with the western, the image of a lone man on a horse gazing at an empty horizon, and a culture in which riding into the unknown was often the only way to survive. Originating in the 1940s, reaching its apex in the Sixties and still contributing a distinctive language to today’s cinema, the car movie speaks to that same desire for freedom, taken to an extreme. You can find it expressed in almost every genre, from the farce of the Smokey And The Bandit films to the strangeness of The Cars That Ate Paris, the starry-eyed meta fiction of True Romance and Wild At Heart and the death fetishism of Crash. Although not all the classics can be found online, it was still a challenge whittling down this list, but if you want an introduction to the genre, watching these films is a great way to spend your week.
Vanishing Point - Now TV, BT TV
There are few films in any genre as enduringly iconic as Vanishing Point. The key is, perhaps, in the simplicity of its premise. Kowalski (Barry Newman) is a former race driver turned delivery driver who picks up a white 1970 Dodge Challenger in Denver, Colorado so he can deliver it to San Francisco, but who subsequently, when buying the drugs that will keep him awake for the ride, makes a bet that he can make the 1,250 mile journey in less than two days. Outrunning the cops he meets along the way, he finds himself making the news, a radio presenter providing the kind of running commentary that suffuses the airwaves today but was new at the time. As Kowalski is transformed from an ordinary man into the last American hero, small details take on powerful symbolic weight and John A Alonzo’s cinematography immerses the viewer in the moment. Kowalski is doomed, of course, with Sixties idealism destined to crash head first into modernity, but along the way there is something transcendent.
The Driver - Amazon Prime
Thriving not only on the open road but also in tight urban spaces, the car genre takes a different turn in Walter Hill’s San Francisco-set heist thriller, which picks up the gauntlet thrown down ten years earlier by Peter Yates’ Bullitt and builds on it to deliver something even more intense. Bruce Dern’s detective hunts down Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver, enlisting a series of petty criminals to try and entrap him, but only the suggestion that his driving isn’t up to scratch can cut through the driver’s icy cool, and his claim that he can get away from anything might apply to more than just bank jobs. With Isabelle Adjani in support showing the steely edge that made her an icon in Subway, it’s a film that oozes style and never lets up on the visceral vehicular thrills. Hill said that what fascinated him was the purity of the story and the way he shoots scenes from inside the speeding car makes everything else fade into insignificance.
Thelma And Louise
Thelma And Louise - iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play
Car movies may be dominated by men but that’s not the whole of the picture. When Geena Davis’ bullied Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s hard-bitten Louise head out on the road in their teal 1988 Ford Thunderbird, all the classic ingredients are in place and Ridley Scott knows exactly what he’s doing. Marianne Faithfull’s rendition of The Eyes Of Lucy Jordan sets the tone (with its own references to sports cars) and the women’s final leap is arguably in process the moment they decide to leave their mundane lives behind. En route there’s sex, violence, trouble with the law and a friendship that grows strong enough to survive pretty much anything – even the prejudices of critics who initially complained about the idea of poisoning the genre with feminism. Today, of course, the film is widely regarded as a classic, and it’s founded on the classic theme of setting out on a journey from which there can be no return, more powerful because we know that it can’t last.
Gone In 60 Seconds
Seen the 2000 version? You ain’t see nothin’ yet. Sure it’s not slick, but in place of CGI it has dangerous stunts that will have you on the edge of your seat, not to mention footage of unintended crashes that put cast and crew members in hospital, but which nobody wanted left out. it may not have Nicolas Cage or Angeline Jolie, but the cars are the stars – especially yellow 1973 Ford Mustang Eleanor, whom insurance investigator pace (HB ‘Toby’ Halicki) is offered a small fortune to steal (along with 47 other prize specimens). It’s Eleanor who get the top credit and the camera adores her. It still holds a record for destroying a total of 127 cars during production 9by contrast, the spectacular chase sequence at the end of The Blues brothers only managed 103), and it also includes the longest car chase in film history, at 40 minutes. Sure, the plot may not be very coherent, but who’s paying attention to that?
Death Proof - Amazon Prime
Every good stunt provides a learning opportunity and car films have traditionally built upon one another’s bones, so whilst Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 opus may be derivative – and owe a lot to genre-changing 1979 TV movie Death Car On The Freeway – it’s very much in keeping with the genre to which it pays tribute, and the Pulp Fiction auteur certainly knows his stuff. Whilst most critics focus on the sexual aspects of the film, in which Kurt Russell’s sleazy Stuntman Mike deliberately targets and flirts with the women whom he plans to kill in subsequent crashes, there’s also a secondary theme which comes into play in the second half, in which Mike – who has made his car as safe as possible for dangerous driving – unwittingly goes up against another stunt performer (played by Zoe Bell) who enjoys risk and likes to improvise. The result feels like a comment on a genre that increasingly plays it safe. Everything here is for real and even though you really shouldn’t try it yourself, you’ll be left wanting to.
Repo Man - Chili, Amazon Prime
“A repo man’s life is always intense,” Harry Dean Stanton’s seasoned driver tells Emilio Estevez’s gauche punk newcomer as they go from one confrontation to another, trying to make ends meet in Eighties Los Angeles – but neither has any idea how intense it’s going to get. The pursuit of a 1964 Chevy Malibu with a glowing trunk, a driver who is slowly losing his mind and an increasingly large reward attached has everybody in the city on edge. As conspiracy theorists, shady government agents and rival repo operations pursue the prize, young Otto strives to keep his cool and improve a life that hasn’t exactly had an auspicious start. The cars here are old and battered but a vital part of life. The driving is creative. Alex Cox’s eye-catching direction offers a surreal perspective on a part of life that rarely makes it onto the big screen, and the Iggy Pop soundtrack is the icing on the cake.
Havana Motor Club
Havana Motor Club - Amazon Prime
Is the age of the muscle car now gone for good? No matter how much fun they may be, these machines are expensive to run and maintain, heavily polluting and a nightmare to manoeuvre in traffic. If you want to see them for yourself, though – and perhaps even drive one – there’s one place you can go, and that’s Cuba. There, the culture that suffuses these films is very much alive. Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s documentary meets the people who keep it that way, lovingly restoring old machines and cruising them around the streets by day, racing them illegally on long dirt roads by night. It follows their efforts to make racing an approved sport despite the regime’s concern that, well, people get killed doing it. Sunken boats used by people trying to flee to the US are recovered and raided for parts to create jacked-up cars that move like nothing else on Earth, because real freedom, as these people see it, can only be found in speed.