Cars have long played a significant role in American society, and as such, they’ve often been a pivotal part of many famous movies. Cars have played more important roles in some movies than others, but the fact of the matter is they can sometimes be the highlight of an entire film. From the dark green Ford Mustang in Bullitt, to the orange Toyota Supra in The Fast and the Furious, the right cars can carry an entire film, even if the actors sometimes can’t.
If you’ve deprived yourself of a deep dive into the automotive cinematic experience, don’t worry. All you need is a free couple of weekends, a TV (or computer), and tons of popcorn to eat while you binge watch. The following 25 films may take a while to get through, but don’t be the guy or girl who goes without seeing these films before he or she kicks the bucket.
1. Two Lane Blacktop
This 1971 film pairs a young James Taylor (yep, the musician) and Dennis Wilson (the drummer for The Beach Boys) as a drag racing duo. The two of them set off across the U.S. racing a gray 1955 Chevy. Along the way the meet up with a girl played by Laurie Bird and a classic jealous love triangle ensues. Also, they meet an odd, possibly crazy, man in a Pontiac GTO, who makes things even more interesting.
2. Dust to Glory
This 2005 documentary is about the world-famous Baja 1000 off-road race. Even if you couldn’t care less about off-road racing, this movie will get your heartbeat up and maybe even inspire you to do a little adventuring of your own. Plenty of famous racers and automotive industry folks make appearances, including Mario Andretti, Sal Fish, and Chad McQueen, who is the son of actor and racer Steve McQueen.
Possibly Steve McQueen’s most well-known and loved role was that of Frank Bullitt in the 1968 movie Bullitt. McQueen played a tough San Francisco cop. While the storyline of this movie is compelling, the chase scene between the green Ford Mustang McQueen drives and the black Dodge Charger driven by the two main villains is by far the highlight of the film. It’s said to have changed car chase scenes forever.
4. Love The Beast
Much like Steve McQueen, Australian actor Eric Bana loves cars and racing. During his career he has looked for roles that tie in with cars, but eventually he just decided to shoot his own documentary in 2009 on his own 25-year history with a 1974 Ford XB Falcon Hardtop that he bought when he was just 15 years old. The movie is highly regarded among car enthusiasts and features people like Jeremy Clarkson, Jay Leno, and Dr. Phil.
5. The Fast and the Furious
If you’re under 40 and have seen any car movie, you’ve probably seen this one. Despite the poorly written dialogue and macho silliness, it’s been one of the go-to car movies since 2001. This movie was many people’s introduction to tuner culture, and it inspired a generation of people to get into cars. Also, it started one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. All of the Furious movies could be on this list, but since that’d take up too much space, just the first movie makes the cut here.
6. Le Mans
If you know much about auto racing, then you probably know how fierce the competition was at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1970s. In 1971, Steve McQueen financed and starred in the movie Le Mans, which shows what the world’s toughest 24-hour race is all about. With almost a documentary level of attention to detail, this fictional account is often held up as a great motorsports movie, despite the fact that it flopped at the box office.
This 2010 racing documentary focuses on the life Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, the three-time F1 world championship driver who lost his life behind the wheel at age 34. Focusing on his racing career, the film starts just before his debut in 1984 and goes all the way to his fatal final lap in 1994. Even if you aren’t a fan of motorsports, this is an emotional and inspiring story that anyone can appreciate.
Another excellent Formula One movie is 2013’s Rush. It’s a biographical sports drama with a focus on the rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. Hunt and Lauda had a legendary rivalry in the 1970s, and Chris Helmsworth (Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (Lauda) do a superb job of making it come to life on screen. This movie is visually stunning and genuinely thrilling.
9. C’était un Rendezvous
The French short film C’était un Rendezvous is really very simple. It’s a high-speed drive through the busy streets of Paris. At the end of the film, the driver gets out of the car and you see him walk toward a woman and give her a hug. And while the film sounds simple, the driving is anything but. You’ll be on the edge of your seat the entire time and the soundtrack of the car’s sonorous engine will keep your heart thumping in your chest.
10. Gone in Sixty Seconds
The original Gone in Sixty Seconds from 1974 is a cult classic, but is a bit hard to follow. The 2000 remake with Nicolas Cage and Angelina Jolie is much easier — and fun — to watch. Say what you will about Nick Cage; when he’s running from the cops in Eleanor, his iconic custom 1967 Mustang, you just have to root for him.
11. Mad Max
Any of the of the Mad Max movies could be on this list, especially the most recent one. But that would have taken up a lot of space, so we’ll use the first film from 1979 as a stand-in. Mad Max featured a number of cool motorcycles and cars, solidifying it as a serious car movie for all eternity. But the 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT nearly overshadows Mel Gibson in his breakout role, and deserves all the recognition it gets. Too bad the model was never sold in the U.S.
12. American Graffiti
Most people know George Lucas for the Star Wars movies, but before he made it big with spaceships, Jedi, and the Sith, Lucas directed this coming-of-age story set in the car crazy California of the early 1960s. The 1973 film is about high school kids on their final night out before they head off to college. Racing and mayhem ensues. On top of all the vintage iron, American Graffiti features a star-studded cast, including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, and Harrison Ford.
In this thriller, a nerdy kid winds up behind the wheel of a 1958 Plymouth Fury that turns out to be pure evil. As the movie goes on, the introverted teen becomes as evil as his beautiful car. Based on a Stephen King book, this 1983 film features Keith Gordon, John Stockell, and Alexandra Paul as the main characters. If you like weird horror movies, you can’t miss this one.
14. Vanishing Point
This 1971 action movie is centered on a car delivery driver named Kowalski played by Barry Newman. The film follows him as he attempts to deliver a car from Denver to Los Angeles in record time. The film features some excellent driving scenes and a beautiful 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum. There isn’t a whole lot of plot, but it’s worth the watch just to see a classic Challenger in action.
15. Tucker: The Man and His Dream
This biographical drama is about Preston Tucker and the radical car that he attempted to build during his brief but infamous time in the auto industry. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the film features Jeff Bridges as Tucker. It’s a well-done movie about an iconoclast trying to disrupt the American auto industry at the height of its power.
16. Death Race 2000
This 1975 movie predates reality TV and depicts a dystopian future where a cross-country deadly car race is the main form of national entertainment. In the race, drivers earn points for running over pedestrians on live TV. This film is campy, violent, and sometimes hilarious, which is why it’s worth a watch. Also, there are plenty of cool custom cars and the cast, featuring David Carradine, Simone Griffeth, and a young Sylvester Stallone, make it hard to forget.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Bryan Cranston, 2011’s Drive is an intense film about a Hollywood stunt driver moonlighting as a getaway driver, who gets wrapped up in a dangerous criminal underworld. On top of being visually stunning, it also has an excellent ’80s-inspired soundtrack.
18. Return to Macon County
Starring a young Nick Nolte and Don Johnson, Return to Macon County follows two teenagers who take their 1957 Chevy on a cross-country journey to enter it into the National Championship Drag Races in California. Along the way they get in all kinds of trouble. While the Chevy alone is a beautiful thing, it’s hard not to love everything about this B-movie.
19. The Last American Hero
You aren’t going to find a more American story than this. 1973’s The Last American Hero stars Jeff Bridges as a young troublemaker who quits the moonshine business to become a NASCAR racer. Based on the true story of legendary racer Junior Johnson as written by Tom Wolfe in the 1965 essay “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” this film is a must-watch for NASCAR fans and Jeff Bridges fans alike.
20. Thunder Road
Another car-heavy moonshine flick is 1958’s Thunder Road. Starring Robert Mitchum as a Korean War veteran that comes home to run his family’s moonshine business. He quickly gets in trouble with some big time gangsters. Few movies have done a better job making the connection between moonshining and brutally fast driving.
21. Need for Speed
Aaron Paul is best known for his role in Breaking Bad, but not long after the series ended, he starred in 2014’s Need for Speed. Based on the popular video game series, the movie has more than a little in common The Fast and The Furious. Nevertheless, it did pretty well at the box office, even if the critics didn’t care for it. If you’re looking for a fun movie full of fast cars, you probably won’t be disappointed.
22. The Gumball Rally
This 1976 movie is about an illegal coast-to-coast road race based on the real-life Cannonball Run. Starring Michael Sarrazin, Norman Burton, Gary Busey, John Durren, and Susan Flannery among others, this flick actually predates the Burt Reynolds Cannonball movies by several years. If you’re in the mood for a fun car-focused action-comedy, sit back and enjoy this classic.
Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film Duel is his first full-length film. Dennis Weaver shines as the scared Plymouth-driving motorist being terrorized in the desert by an evil Peterbilt 281 tanker truck. This thriller will forever be the first thing that comes to mind next time you’re on an empty stretch of highway and a tanker comes into your rear view.
24. Red Line 7000
1965’s Red Line 7000 tells the story of three young stock car drivers trying to establish themselves as they each deal with difficult romantic relationships outside of their budding careers. Notable actors include James Caan, Laura Devon, Marianna Hill, and George Takei in a small supporting role.
25. The Cannonball Run
The star-studded cast of this 1981 movie is reason enough to see it. As teams of racers compete in a no-holds-barred cross-country car race, Burt Reynolds, Jackie Chan, Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. all make memorable appearances. Great action and several laugh-out-loud moments make this movie well worth the watch.