10 Movies Where the Cars are the Stars
Hollywood and modern automotives were born around the same time, meaning we’ve been obsessed with both of them for a century. Yet for every hundred movies that use cars as set dressing, there’s one that actually incorporates the car into the story, turning it into an actual character in the film. Sometimes it’s in a chase scene that becomes so iconic it would be unimaginable to see any other car in the frame; other times it’s a comedy built on a specific make and model. These movies are pure escapism for viewers, who never have to worry about, say, outrunning the highway patrol or paying for premiums after wrecking a luxury coupe. If you find yourself getting the urge to re-enact some of these scenes, don’t. Just pop on the next DVD.
- Back to the Future: DeLorean Motor Company went bankrupt in 1982, but the DMC-12 will live forever thanks to its pivotal role in the Back to the Future trilogy. (Which is, as we all know, one of the best film trilogies ever made. This is indisputable.) The car is so distinct that its appearance is enough to make people start humming Huey Lewis tunes. From its early incarnation as a time-traveling roadster to later iterations that saw it fly and driven by a train, the DeLorean is an iconic part of the movies, as memorable and evocative as Marty McFly’s lifejacket. Without this car, you don’t have a movie.
- Gone in 60 Seconds: Pick your poison: there’s the 1974 original film, or the 2000 remake. The original has a rusty, vintage feel thanks to the lack of CGI, but the remake has Nicolas Cage going bonkers (as usual), so it’s a draw. Either way, you’re in for some goofy action as a gang of thieves sets out to steal a fleet of cars in a short amount of time. Both movies are all about the thrill of chase, and they both feature a Ford Mustang dubbed “Eleanor”: its a 1973 Mach 1 in the original and a 1967 Shelby Mustang GT in the remake. For sheer spectacle, though, you’re better off with the original version, which features a 34-minute car chase, still the longest in movie history.
- Vanishing Point: The 1971 chase movie Vanishing Point is many things, from an existential meditation to a look at the dour times America was facing at the end of the Vietnam era. It’s also a classic car flick that’s influenced movies ever since, including Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. The story is simple: a driver has to take a white 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco over a weekend. But the driver is a Vietnam vet and speed demon, so what should have been a normal cross-country trip turns into a race against law enforcement and a fascinated media. The Challenger’s beautiful, and the film’s a cult classic.
- Christine: Stephen King’s written his fair share of stories about everyday items that become infused with evil, but none has the exact ratio of horror to cheese as Christine, turned into a film by John Carpenter in 1983. Christine herself is a 1958 Plymouth Fury that’s possessed by generically malevolent spirits and sets out to kill anyone who makes fun of her owner, the nerdy Arnie. The movie is not without its flaws — the concept of a killer car, though moderately eerie, doesn’t really play well on screen — but it’s still a fun showcase for a beautiful car that hails from an era before Americans were concerned with pesky things like fuel efficiency and the cost of gas.
- The Italian Job: Starring Michael Caine, this 1969 heist movie culminates in a fantastic chase using cars you wouldn’t normally cast in an action sequence: Minis. The chase itself is a wonderful one, covering crowded streets and hidden sewers, but what makes it stand the test of time is the way it’s played out with small, agile cars. (The same trick worked for the chase in 2002’s The Bourne Identity.) The cars become not just disposable vehicles but actual characters in the story, giving the film a special flavor.
- Two-Lane Blacktop: Not many cult road movies have received the full treatment from the Criterion Collection, but Two-Lane Blacktop isn’t your typical road movie. Starring James Taylor and Brian Wilson (the only time they’d ever act) and featuring a minimum of dialogue, the film follows unnamed racers who drift across the country challenging other drivers with their 1955 Chevy. But the movie’s so much more than that, digging into identity and obsession as they relate to cars and power. An overlooked movie that deserves a bigger audience.
- Bullitt: Even if you haven’t seen Bullitt, you’ve seen the car chase sequence that’s now regarded as one of the best ever filmed. Detective Bullitt, played by Steve McQueen, pilots a 1968 Ford Mustang through the streets of San Francisco, flying over hills as he tries to catch the villain. The sequence runs just shy of 11 minutes and doesn’t happen until the end of the film, but it achieved classic status so quickly that the chase and the car quickly became the most memorable parts of the movie.
- The Cannonball Run: The Cannonball Run was based on a series of actual cross-country races in the 1970s, dubbed the “Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash.” The races were largely a response to the introduction of 55 mph speed limits on intertstate highways, and the antics were brought to life in a 1981 film (and tragically bad 1984 sequel). The hijinks revolve around pairs of racers driving everything from an ambulance to a Ferrari; it’s basically a kid’s crazy dream come to life. Required viewing for fans of classic cars and classic Burt Reynolds.
- Smokey and the Bandit: Speaking of Burt Reynolds: if you really want to go old school, there’s 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, a movie that popularized the 1977 Pontiac Trans Am and mustaches with equal fervor. The film’s pretty simple: Bandit (Reynolds) blasts across the country at top speeds to distract the highway patrol from the fact that his partner is hauling 400 cases of Coors from Texas to Georgia, which was illegal given that Coors was then only sold in certain states. The movie itself is, well, not the greatest. But it’s a fun time capsule. Watch it with some Coors.
- Speed: A bus counts as a car, right? Well, it’s a motor vehicle. Close enough. Speed cemented Keanu Reeves’ place as an action star and gave a career to Sandra Bullock (who wasn’t going anywhere with flicks like Love Potion No. 9), but the real star of the show was the bus that careened through Los Angeles at a minimum of 50 mph, taking out construction zones, civilian cars, and even a plane before slowing to a stop. Director Jan de Bont used a dozen different buses during production, but the final product is a seamless blend of all of them, turning the runaway bus into a moving prison for the characters on board.