Thursday, February 19, 2009

Top Ten Car Movies

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Since the automobile and motion pictures were invented right around the same time, cars and movies have had a long-standing relationship. While there have been movies that have featured cool cars (American Graffiti, Munster Go Home) and great car chases (Bullit, The French Connection, The Seven Ups), I have limited this list of my Top Ten Car Movies to only those films where cars are the main subject matter.

10. Cars (2006): Here's one for the kiddies that's enjoyable for all ages. Another gem from the geniuses at Pixar, all about a hot-shot racing car named Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, who learns the inevitable life lesson. Other voices are provided by Paul Newman, Michael Keaton, Richard Petty, Cheech Marin, and Larry the Cable Guy. Disney Home Video.

9. Duel (1971): Steven Spielberg's film of Richard Matheson's creepy short story about a man (Dennis Weaver) stalked by a killer 18-wheeler. A lot better than it sounds, it was originally produced as a made-for-television movie, but was released theatrically overseas. Universal Home Entertainment.

8. Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988): Francis Ford Coppola directed this true story about Preston Tucker, played with gusto by Jeff Bridges, an automotive genius whose revolutionary automobiles were way ahead of their time. Unfortunately, the dream of the title is crushed by the Big Three automakers (now reaping the whirlwind, by the way) and the US government. Paramount Home Video.

7. Le Mans (1971): Steve McQueen plays Michael Delaney, who competes in the gruelling, 24 hour race through the French countryside. Almost documentary-like in its approach, the film features some mind-blowing footage from the actual race, and a laconic performance from the iconic McQueen. Paramount Home Video.

6. Grand Prix (1966): James Garner stars as a world-weary race car driver who attempts to make a comeback after falling from grace. John Frankenheimer captures the feel of being behind the wheel of a formula one racer travelling at over 160 miles an hour with some way-ahead-of-its-time camera techniques, and also captures a bygone era when drivers lived hard and drove harder. While the soap opera elements tend to slow things down a bit, the driving sequences more than make up for it. With Yves Montand, Eva Marie Saint, Toshiro Mifune, and French chanteuse Francoise Hardy. Originally presented in Cinerama. MGM Home Video.

5. Death Race 2000 (1975): Director Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) helmed this futuristic exploitation satire about a cross country race where drivers score points for running down as many people as possible. David Carradine stars as champion death racer "Frankenstein," with Sylvester Stallione as his nemesis Machine Gun Joe, the lovely Simone Griffith as his love interest, and the Real Don Steele as the play-by-play announcer. Continuing an unfortunate theme, this one was also the subject of a lesser remake, starring Jason Statham, in 2008.

4. Pit Stop a/k/a The Winner (1969): "Flesh Against Steel! Raw Guts for Glory!" Writer/director Jack Hill (Spider Baby, Coffy) scores with this story of a drag racer named Rick Bowman, played by Dick Davalos (best known for playing James Dean's brother in East of Eden), who is recruited to drive in "figure eight" races, a totally insane (and real) form of car racing. This film is highly underrated, having been consigned to the bottom half of double bills when it was released, due to the fact that black & white films had gone out of fashion, but deserves a greater reputation, as it is one of the best films of its kind. Hill filmed the mayhem up close and personal, capturing many real crashes, and gets some fine performances out of his cast, which also includes veteran character actor Brian Donlevy, Ellen Burstyn (here billed as Ellen McRae), and Spider Baby vets Beverly Washburn and Sid Haig (outstanding as Bowman's mentally unhinged rival). The DVD ediion from Anchor Bay is now out of print, but can be had easily enough.

3. Vanishing Point (1971): Barry Newman is Kowalski, who takes a job delivering a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco. He bets that he can make the delivery in 15 hours or less, which inevitably leads to unwanted attention from Johnny Law. A spectacular chase, and much vehicular mayhem, ensues. Co-starring Cleavon Little as Super Soul, a blind radio personality with a police scanner who helps him avoid the heat, and mythologizes him for his listeners as "The Last Free Man on Earth." Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, and remade (very, very badly) in 1997. Available on DVD from Fox Entertainment.

2. Gone in Sixty Seconds (1974): Written, produced, directed by, and starring H.B. Halicki, this automotive orgy boasted "93 cars destroyed in the most incredible chase ever filmed." A drive-in classic and an example of true independent cinema: Halicki even distributed the film himself. Sadly, he was killed in 1989 while filming the sequel when a stunt went horribly wrong. Highly superior to the big budget remake of a few year back starring Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie, but unfortunately the DVD release of the original is marred by a re-recorded soundtrack.

1. Two Lane Blacktop (1971): Director Monte Hellman's existential road movie stars musicians James Taylor as The Driver and Dennis Wilson as The Mechanic, who make their living drag racing in their primer-grey '55 Chevy. Into their insular world comes The Girl (Laurie Bird), who hitches a ride with them, and G.T.O. (the great Warren Oates), who challenges them to a cross-country race for pink slips. One of the greatest films of the '70s, featuring incredible widescreen cinematography, and a great script from Rudolph Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Candy Mountain). With Harry Dean Stanton. Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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