Few genres have proven as definitively American as the car racing film.
Regardless of national origin, anytime a character buckles into the driver's seat, floors the gas pedal, and hits the road for some serious ass-kicking rubber-burning mayhem, it conjures images of the sunburnt, Bud-guzzling NASCAR fans and days of open road that make America great.
Now that director Ron Howard and actor Chris Hemsworth have teamed up for Rush, a film based on the true story of rival Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt, that legacy continues in high-profile Hollywood style.
I'll be honest, it looks pretty run-of-the-mill:
This is not to say it won't be awesome. The racing scenes and horrific car accidents are probably worth the price of admission alone. Because more often than not, we're looking for something simple when we walk into a racing movie: speed, crashes, and style.
Some films exceed these expectations, turning otherwise straightforward road narratives into thoughtful meditations on wanderlust, competition, and the near-mythic freedoms associated with being a perpetual "rolling stone." Some do not. Either way, the story of the road (and the racetrack) has often been just as much the story of America.
Here are some of the genre's highlights:
1. Vanishing Point (1971):
Meet Kowalski. He's in Colorado, but has to make a quick delivery in California. Before long, he and his iconic white Dodge Challenger are being chased by the cops, a pursuit narrated by blind DJ Super Soul's animated commentary touting the driver as "the last real American hero."
It's a little heavy handed (and surprisingly slow), but this flick remains a genre staple 40-plus years after its release.
2. Death Proof (2007):
Kurt Russell a.k.a. "Stuntman Mike" likes to kill women. His weapon of choice? A beat up muscle car equipped with a "death proof" protective chamber allowing those within to survive even the most brutal collisions. The problem for his passengers: it only saves the guy in the driver's seat.
Enter Zoe and company, female stuntwomen, and film industry types. When Mike harasses them during a California countryside excursion, the women give him a taste of his own medicine (armed with none other that Kowalski's white Dodge Challenger from Vanishing Point).
This is a clever but underrated thriller in my opinion, filled with great performances, incredible stunt work, and some of Tarantino's best dialogue.
3. Senna (2011):
For a documentary about a guy I'd never heard of, this flick was unexpectedly riveting. Ayrton Senna da Silva is the most famous F-1 driver in Brazilian history, and this story of his life and violent death explores the romantic mystique of the racecar driver better than any other film I've seen.
4. The Fast and the Furious (2001):
The movie that embedded street racing in the popular imagination, spawning multiple sequels of varying quality that nonetheless consistently give the people what they want: flashy cars, high speed pyrotechnics, and Vin Diesel.
5. Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974):
Peter Fonda (Crazy Larry) plays a borderline-sociopathic car racer who, after robbing a grocery store with his partner (Adam Roarke), leads cops on a cross-country high-speed pursuit with Susan George (Dirty Mary) in tow. Trashy mayhem ensues, and it's rather glorious.
6. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006):
One of Will Ferrell's more successful efforts parodies the macho redneck culture around NASCAR racing. John C. Reilly plays his best friend, while Sasha Baron Cohen steals the show as Ferrell's French nemesis.
And unlike most of these, there's a happy ending to this one.
7. Death Race (2008):
I'm not talking about the corny Roger Corman-David Carradine flick with the weird costumes and ugly cars. This mean and muscular "remake" starring Jason Statham takes the story of convicted felons competing in a televised "race to the death" to another (more brutally violent) level.
The result is intense, simple-minded, and undeniably thrilling.
8. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971):
The granddaddy of them all, a truly great modern classic that strips the genre to its bare elements: a Driver, a Mechanic, a wealthy loudmouthed truth-bending competitor (played by the brilliant Warren Oates), and the open road.
James Taylor makes a memorable film debut in the laconic leading role, and Monte Hellman directs with unparalleled skill. This moody and thoughtful film is almost the antithesis to what most racing movies are, and it will haunt you for a long time after.