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Criticwire Survey: The Best Car Movies

Criticwire Survey: The Best Car Movies

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this survey.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: We’ll keep this one short: In honor of the “Fast and the Furious” series, what’s your favorite car movie?

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

I’d love to say something unique or cult-ish like “The Wraith” or “Joy Ride,” but at the end of the day I gotta go with “Fast Five.” I genuinely disliked the first four “Fast & Furious” films, but the fifth film somehow made itself into one of the best action films of the last twenty years. It uses its complicated tapestry to its advantage and uses its character history as an emotional weapon all the while offering crazy stunts and an almost self-parodying turn by Dwayne Johnson. It amounts to a “franchise all-stars to the rescue” caper that all-but-outdoes “The Avengers” and shows how Universal accidentally stumbled into the kind of expanded universe that Hollywood now craves above all else. “Fast Five” is like the “Empire Strikes Back” of the franchise, something that sticks out like a sore thumb by virtue of its quality and its surprising and almost inexplicable emotional potency that feels like more than just an action franchise sequel. It’s not just a great action film, it’s a great movie and I imagine the F&F series will be chasing its ghost for as long as the franchise keeps on riding. 

Charles Bramesco, Random Nerds, The Dissolve

“Planes: Fire and Rescue.” Wait, that probably doesn’t count. Then the scene in “Southland Tales” where the computer-animated SUV has shockingly graphic sex with another SUV. No, come back, I swear I have a real answer.

That real answer is “Death Race 2000.” I first saw it at age 17, easily swayed by the “maniacs in muscle cars armed to the grills make a game out of murdering pedestrians and one another” logline, and with Ebert’s zero-star review only sweetening the deal. Even so, I didn’t anticipate the atmosphere of general insanity that reigns over the film: the fetish masks, a sexy neo-Nazi speed demon, the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Paine who is named, obviously, Thomasina Paine. But a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone threw me for the biggest loop of all. Wasn’t he, like, a real actor? What was he doing in this movie clearly directed by fourteen-year-olds on meth? It felt like peeping into the windows of a strip club and seeing your friend’s dad.

Sean Axmaker, Parallax View

“How fast does it go?” “Fast enough.” The great car movie, the great road movie, and the great American existential road to nowhere is, as far as I’m concerned, “Two-Lane Blacktop.” The story is ostensibly a race across the country “for pinks” (pink slips), but that already slim excuse for a gypsy life on the road evaporates like everything else in the lives of The Driver (James Taylor), the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), and GTO (Warren Oates), people so disconnected from any kind of community, family, or home that they don’t even have names.

Peter Howell, The Toronto Star

Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop” from 1971 makes the whole “Fast & Furious” franchise look like a series of Wacky Race cartoons. It actually feels like a real race, as Dennis Wilson and James Taylor (yep, the pop stars), pit their ’55 Chevy against Warren Oates and his souped-up GTO on a cross-country tear. Cuts through America’s big wide open and the mindscapes of alienated souls with fury and grace.

Justine Smith, Sound on Sight

I never learned to drive and the only road trip I’ve ever been on was when my family did a two day drive from Montreal to Nova Scotia before I started university. In my own life I prefer the train to the highway, and I relish my trips from Montreal to Toronto for TIFF every year, I love the quickly passing landscapes and I find the rhythmic mechanical sound trains make comforting. In the movies, road films are among my favorite sub-genre; they hold an introspection I find appealing and romantic. I relate road films to westerns, a genre I also hold close to my heart: I connect with the idea of a literal journey across great landscapes as a reflection of an inner journey and self-realization. Isn’t “The Searchers” a road movie set in a time before there were roads? It’s hard for me to choose a favorite, I love “Easy Rider” for its reckless youth and tragicomic tone; “Paris, Texas” is perhaps Wenders’ masterpiece and Wild at Heart is a vivid evocation of fast burning obsessive love. Above all it is perhaps Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop” I love the most. I’m not even sure why, it just speaks to me on a primal level. It is a film that effortlessly seems to embody the contradictions of the pursuit of happiness, drawing us away from social expectations into a world of outlaws and outcasts. It has a spiritual realness that feels uncalculated and spontaneous. It’s a film that embodies the ethos of the road movie, focusing on the character’s inner lives with equal attention to their vehicles as to their transient lifestyles and dreams.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe

“Two-Lane Blacktop.”

Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press

“Two Lane Blacktop,” a film that everyone loves or hates. It was one of the first “art” films I ever saw.

Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

Blake Edwards’ 1965 “The Great Race” follows an early 20th-century
intercontinental motor race; there was something in the air that year,
possibly which also saw the release of “Those Magnificent in Their
Flying Machines,” about a 1910 air race from London
to Paris. Playing off of silent movie tropes, with Tony Curtis the hero
in white, Jack Lemmon the villain in black and Natalie Wood the damsel
not quite in distress, all contestants in a race from New York to Paris,
west by way of a frozen-over Bering Strait.
(There is a feminist through-line, only a little played for laughs, and
though love takes the day, it is not at the expense of Wood’s
independence; the point is that they have met each other’s match.) Mack
Sennett is a touchstone as well: The film climaxes
in a massive pie fight. The racing is to some extent beside the point — it’s a way to move the characters into a series of exotic set pieces,
and all the other competitors drop out early — but the cars driven by
Curtis and Lemmon, as the Great Leslie and
Professor Fate are marvelous inventions, automotive extensions of their
owners — Leslie’s a long, sleek thing of gleaming white and gold,
Fate’s Lemmon’s a matte black tank equipped Bond-like with cannon, smoke
screen and hydraulic lifts. (This was the year
after “Goldfinger.”) It was a time of big, long, noisy
comedies-with-intermissions that also included, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad
World” — another road race — and I have no idea, frankly, whether this
is a good picture, so colored with persistent childhood enthusiasm
is my view of it. It’s a fanciful vision of a lost world from a time
can seem a fanciful lost world itself. It’s bright and busy and Henry
Mancini wrote the score. (“The Sweetheart Tree,” lyrics by Johnny
Mercer, Oscar-nominated.) It’s been a while since I’ve
seen it, but I’ve seen it a lot, and am pretty sure I could give a fair
recitation of the scenes, mostly in order, with the odd line of
dialogue accurately remembered.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I recently got to see “Paper Moon” for the first time on the big screen, at the historic Colonial Theater. As far as all around wonderful cinema experiences it was up there. I’ll also be one of the many to mention “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” and “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.”

Richard Brody, New Yorker

“Holy Motors,” is this a good question. Could have stopped there before the light even turned green, but look: The modern cinema was born on a two-lane highway in the front seat of the 1956 Oldsmobile that Michel Poiccard steals at the start of “Breathless,” and Godard’s films have always been car-nivals, starting with a chase scene in his 1955 short “Une Femme Coquette.” Going through his films for their copious auto-motifs and comparing them to the work of his peers suggests that there are in fact two French New Waves, the car-nal (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol) and the disin-car-nated (Rivette, Rohmer). The French romance of the road predates the New Wave; as Isaac Babel wrote in his 1934 story, “Rue Dante,” set in Paris, “My tutor belonged to the half of the nation that sells cars. The other half buys them.” The auto-nomy that they offer comes clearly into focus as it disrupts the isolation of traditional communities, which is why the French cinema has always done the vehicular with feeling; one of the surprises of Jean Renoir’s “Night at the Crossroads” is how car-centered it is (and a chase scene at night on a dark country road is, for me, one of the best car scenes ever filmed). That freedom is also a matter of privacy in public, which accounts for much of Abbas Kiarostami’s work and makes me all the more impatient for Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi.” But the contemporary filmmaker who most clearly sees cars in all the strangeness of their doubleness — public and private; a fixed point in motion; an alienating but alluring, tactile yet abstracted perspective — is Sofia Coppola; her film “Somewhere” ingeniously reimagines, visually and emotionally, the experience of a world seen and a life lived too much in cars.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second

Godard’s “Une Femme Marieé” has my favourite driving scenes, and I’m a big fan of Elliot Silverstein’s “The Car” too, but I’m going to be boring an obvious and go for “Two-Lane Blacktop” for my final answer. Monte Hellman’s road movie truly has the feel of being inside of an automobile growling along the open highways of America. Honorable mention: “Race With the Devil,” the Peter Fonda-starring, satanist RV chase movie directed by Jack Starrett.

Monica Castillo, International Business Times

I’m not the biggest fan of cars, so I’ve always rather enjoyed the
several car chases in “The Blues Brothers.” The sequence through the
mall is possibly one of my favorite action scenes in movie history.
“They broke my watch.”
Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

“Crash” (the Cronenberg one, natch).

Greg Cwik, Indiewire, Movie Mezzanine

“Crash.” The car sex one, not the racism one. 

Andreas Stoehr, Pussy Goes Grrr

Tempted to go with “Crash” or “Weekend” or “Death Race 2000” here, but instead I’ll opt for Kenneth Anger’s automotive wet dream “Kustom Kar Kommandos.” It’s only a few minutes long, but Anger really gets at the lust for upholstered seats and gleaming engines that underpins a sizable fraction of action cinema. The whole short just pulses with kitsch eroticism.

Cameron Williams, Popcorn Junkie, Graffiti with Punctuation

I’ll lose my Australian citizenship if I don’t pick “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.” Max’s black supercharged V-8 Pursuit Special, and the range of fortified vehicles deployed in the battle for gasoline are simply awesome. Aside from filmmaker George Miller’s incredible action direction, I love how transport is associated with death and survival in Miller’s desolate vision of the future. The cars have a raw duality; they are both lifelines and harbingers of death. To keep moving means the chances of staying alive increase marginally but a false step can mean carnage. Miller makes motorbikes and cars essential to his characters in the same way horses were to cowboys in old westerns.

Gary Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I had one of the last interviews with Paul Walker before his death, so in his honor, I’ll cite my personal favorite films of his: “2 Fast 2 Furious,” his solo entry from the series, and his underrated film “Running Scared” which features him in a cherry red mustang. 

I also really love Marshall Curry’s documentary, “Racing Dreams” about three kids competing in Karting, and “Heart Like a Wheel” the little-seen biopic of Shirley “Cha-Cha” Muldowney. As for road trips films, two favorites include: “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “On the Road,” of course.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

I’m not a fan of the “Fast and Furious” franchise (sent your hate mail to me over on Twitter), so that dilutes the pool somewhat, but without it even being close, I have to go with “Drive.” My favorite film of 2011, it’s the epitome of stylized cool, featuring one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances. It’s almost perfection and easily my favorite in this particular genre.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

Perhaps it’s not a “traditional” car movie but “Bullitt,” starring Steve McQueen was the first film I can remember making me fall in love. No, not just with the ultra cool McQueen, but with his, um, technique.handling.the wheel (oh my) of one of the great classic car races of all time. More picturesque than “The French Connection,” more “street” than Ron Howard’s underappreciated Rush, Bullitt was revolutionary stunt filmmaking and a remarkable use of McQueen’s actual experience as a driver. And it still thrills, with no 3-D, high def,or surround sound. If watching this sleek, sexy, intimate and innate relationship between a man and his car doesn’t get your pulse racing, check to make sure you’ve got a pulse at all.

Farran Nehme, New York Post

I have an imperishable affection for John Carpenter’s “Christine,” and for Keith Gordon’s performance in it, all smudged black eyes and bruised emotions. I don’t own a car and I’m puzzled by the affection people lavish on theirs, so it’s nice to see at least one movie where the car loves the guy back. Also, the car radio that repeatedly plays Thurston Harris — I was a little in love with Christine myself. 

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule

My favorite car movie is probably “Christine” — one of John Carpenter’s best and most underrated films – about a sentient, murderous car. From the beginning, the film is seeped in a 1950s, American Graffiti-style nostalgia for the automobile as freedom, as fashion, as an extension of one’s own personality. Pretty soon though, after a few inspired car-ror sequences, it flips that nostalgia around. Cars are cultural touchstones, means of transportation and powerful tools, but they can also be scary and dangerous, only as good as the people driving them.

Luke Goodsell, Movie Mezzanine, Empire

Way too many to choose from, but a favorite double-bill: “American Graffiti” and its spiritual sequel, “Christine” — the baby-auto boom returning to haunt (and hunt) its offspring.

Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter

Earlier this year George Lucas’ Modesto-memoir “American Graffiti” officially dethroned “Punch-Drunk Love” as my all-time personal #1 film. And it is of course a “car-movie” par excellence: the principal characters define their self-image by means of their motorized conveyances, and their status in others’ eyes is likewise primarily determined by the coolness of their wheels; pedestrianism is invariably temporary, and when one of the main characters finally takes to the air in a plane, the picture has no choice but to end. 

Alonso Duralde, TheWrap, Linoleum Knife

Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road”: great cars, great performances and a script for the ages. Now where’s that US Blu-ray?

Carrie Rickey, Yahoo! Movies, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Repo Man.” “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.”

Danny Bowes, Salt Lake City Weekly, A.V. Club

“Vanishing Point.” That Dodge Challenger’s a bad motherfucker. And yes, Barry Newman and Cleavon Little are aces but that car, boy, woo-eee. Runner-up/antipode: “Repo Man” because “Only an asshole gets killed over a car.”

Mark Young, Sound on Sight

I would say Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” but in order to enjoy its benefits, you really have to be sitting in my seat.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

It’s not really even a contest, so deeply is the nostalgia embedded in my being. I remember being at a drive-in movie with my parents in 1977 seeing “For the Love of Benji,” and looking out the back window at the second screen at the theater, which was showing “Smokey and the Bandit.” I saw that black Trans Am and became kind of obsessed with the movie, anxiously awaiting when it finally made its debut the following year on our cable movie channel. At the time I loved Jackie Gleason’s over-the-top Sheriff Buford T. Justice, and the cool car chases. Subsequently, I’ve had a chance to really appreciate Burt Reynolds’ effortless movie-star charisma, and the oddball chemistry he had with Sally Field. And I long to see a contemporary action director who has Hal Needham’s simple understanding of how to make motorized action look fun *and* coherent.

Alison Nastasi, Flavorwire

I’m nostalgic for “Le Mans.” My grandparents on my mother’s side (both writers, too!) were involved with racing Porsches during their younger years. The symphony of the track stands in for the dialogue. Steve McQueen is utterly cool, of course, and truly understands the dynamics of racing.

Nell Minow, Movie Mom

“The Great Race,” of course, with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, dedicated by director Blake Edwards to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.” Runner-up: “The Absent-Minded Professor,” with the flying Model T.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

I’m going to have to go with “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” in which Chevy Chase and family drive to Walley World in a station wagon, dubbed the Griswold Family Truckster. The movie pokes knowing fun at the kinds of car trips we all took as kids. It’s also a great comedy about a man trying to achieve a Norman Rockwell-esque sense of perfection, only to find that it is continually beyond his grasp. My dad took me to see “Vacation” when I was fifteen, and I don’t think I ever laughed so hard. I’ve seen it many times since, always to a similar outcome. The troubles the Griswolds face on their journey are hilarious and identifiable. And hey, how great is Lindsay Buckingham’s “Holiday Road”?

Liz Shannon Miller, Indiewire

I have this weird, weird obsession with “Gone in 60 Seconds.” Yes, the remake. Yes, it’s terrible, but there’s something almost zen-like about how terrible it is. Maybe it’s the incredible pool of talent that makes up the supporting cast: I mean, Scott Caan, Will Patton, Delroy Lindo, Timothy Olyphant, Chi McBride, Robert Duvall, Christopher Eccleston, Grace Zabriskie, Frances Fisher? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? 

Plus, the dialogue is just perfection: “If his unpleasant wounding has in some way enlightened the rest of you as to the grim finish beneath the glossy veneer of criminal life and inspired you to change your ways, then his injuries carry with it an inherent nobility, and a supreme glory. We should all be so fortunate. You say poor Toby? I say poor us.” I once made my brother watch this movie and his vengeance was buying me the director’s cut on DVD. More fool he. Now, I can watch it whenever I want! 

Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine

There are two true car movies, and I’ll accept no other substitutes: “Cars” and “Cars 2,” aka “The Empire Zooms Back” of the series. They’re so great, they spawned a spin-off series! Seriously, the first film that came to mind is the 1963 epic-length comedy “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” which starred basically half of Hollywood at a period when they could all be wrangled together for a thoroughly silly and ridiculous plot all about money buried under a big W, I tell you, a big W. I won’t argue that “Mad x 4 World” is a great film (or even a great comedy; watching it on its appropriately massive Criterion Blu-ray last year confirmed that it’s oddly, creakily charming if not laugh-out-loud funny), but the vehicular insanity in this movie is pretty incredible. Add to that the widescreen cinematography — well-suited to make sure the audience can see all of the people who cram into this or that car at any given point of the film — and this might be one of the great car movies. (But not as good as “Cars 2,” because really, what is?)

Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “It Follows”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” “While We’re Young.

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