I don’t like movie car chases. This makes me either the worst or the best person to be compiling this “Fate of the Furious“-inspired list (our nitrous-drunk review is here). I chalk it up to two things: first, being a child of the 1980s when, after the car-chase heyday decade of the ’70s, suddenly they were ubiquitous. Not just in films, but in the inescapable American TV shows of the 1980s (an era we could maybe start calling, in contrast to our current peak, “Trough TV”). I grew to dislike them for sort of the same reason that Steven Soderbergh has said he dislikes nudity scenes — though in this case it’s not so much that a car chase turns a film into a “documentary,” but it does often divert attention away from the story. Suddenly the emotional stakes are put on hold in the name of suspense, and the next few minutes devolve into what can frequently feel like a rote, purely technical exercise. In the very lamest TV shows of my youth, a car chase was often, in contrast to its purported, pulse-pounding effect, an excuse to put the kettle on: filler, b-roll material that it didn’t matter if you missed, you’d be able to pick up what happened afterwards just fine.
The second reason is that I don’t care about cars. Not even a tiny little bit, beyond the basic “hey, that looks cool,” the way one might feel about a character’s shoes. So, sorry if you’re the kind of petrolhead who has come here to get the skinny on which movie emulates the roar of a V6 best, or to snort nose milk about how dumb it is that someone appears to change gear in reverse or whatever. There are about 15,000 other lists that are far more heavily focussed on details of make and model and driver expertise than this one. In fact, try to spot the several deliberate mistakes in this regard, included just to keep you on your toes. (*Any mistakes are not deliberate, but I’ve probably made some and this seems like a pretty slick way to cover my ass).
What this predisposition to dislike does mean is that a car chase has to be great to get my attention at all. And by great, I don’t mean technically accomplished, necessarily, or a bravura showcase for a particular stunt driver (here’s our list of Best Car Stunts, by the way), or an OTT game of Top Trumps to decide who’d win in a fight between a Ford Mustang and a Dodge Challenger. The main criterion for “great” here is that, much more than being exciting, the car chase has to be necessary–for the story, for the characters, for the movie. After that, added points for ingenuity and inventiveness, because we’ve all seen enough of these to mean that a little novelty goes a long way (arguably the entire ‘Fast and the Furious‘ franchise is based on this principle, up to and including driving a car out of one UAE skyscraper and into another, and then doing it again). With those parameters alone in mind, here are the 35 Best Movie Car Chases ever — if even I like them, you might too.
35. “Duel” (1971)
Prepare to be scandalized: one isn’t really supposed to say it because of the rule that even the obscure debut films of successful filmmakers must be lost masterpieces, but Steven Spielberg‘s lean little thriller is just the tiniest bit dull to watch today. That’s really because it’s a beautifully neat idea, stretched out to feature length, without quite enough characterization to fill the gaps. However the idea itself–of a malevolent unseen trucker inexplicably hellbent on driving Dennis Weaver’s increasingly sweaty salesman off the road–is kind of fab, with the truck being an obvious precursor to the shark in “Jaws.” It’s fascinating to watch Spielberg work out how suspense works here, and it’s present right from Weaver’s first dangerous encounter with the truck that really feels like something that could happen to anyone.
34. “Goldeneye” (1995)
Martin Campbell, aka The Man Who Saved Bond Twice, did so the first time when Pierce Brosnan took over the role after an uncharacteristically long hiatus since Timothy Dalton‘s last outing. “Goldeneye”‘s success was a great deal down to how it distinguished itself from the slighter dourer ’80s Bonds, and established Brosnan’s take on the role. And really no scene did that better than theis one, in which Bond steals a tank, crashes it through a building, reduces half of Moscow to rubble, in a chase that is about as subtle as well, a turreted armored army vehicle. But it’s also a blast and immediately established Brosnan as a Bond who could look suave and unflappable in literally any situation.
33. “The Rock” (1996)
Michael Bay‘s best film contains his second-best car chase, which sees mild-mannered, somewhat weedy chemist Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage, in his first role after his Oscar-winning turn in “Leaving Las Vegas“–seriously, God bless this man forever and ever) behave exactly as we would expect a mild-mannered, somewhat weedy chemist to do. That is, he commandeers a bright yellow Ferrari and goes careening through the streets of San Francisco in hot pursuit of Sean Connery‘s indestructible, old-skool Captain Mason, who has stolen a Hummer. Ah, how elegantly do the vehicles here convey reams of character information! Like the rest of the film, it is ludicrous, noisy, dumb as a stool and a lot of fun, particularly for Cage’s “Hmm yeah, why not?” reaction.
32. “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” (1974)
This is a tricky one to include since, along with “Vanishing Point,” “Duel” and a couple of others from the ’70s, it’s essentially all car chase, and the cumulative effect of the film can’t really be judged from watching bits of it (hence two clips below). Part of a kind of nihilist road-movie subgenre that also included stuff like Spielberg’s “The Sugarland Express,” “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry” stars Mary Coombs and Peter Fonda, respectively, and concerns three bandits on the run after a kidnapping and extortion caper has netted them the money they need to set up as pro racing drivers. Here, the chase is the thing, with the amorality of our heroes contributing to a loose, free-wheeling, very ’70s vibe, right up until that surprising, dumb-luck ending.
31. “Jack Reacher” (2012)
Like, I suspect, many of you, I’d largely forgotten about this film, except in the context of Werner Herzog and remembering that it had a good car chase. Revisiting the chase, it’s actually really good, and not just because it reminds you that Jai Courtney and David Oyelowo were once in the same film, which has got to help out with any future Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon games. Director Christopher McQuarrie wisely plays the whole thing without music, and while obviously influenced by the chase films of the ’70s, Caleb Deschanel’s nighttime photography is beautifully sharp and slick, often favoring an unusual half-screen shot of the driver with blurred background taking up the whole right side of the frame. Of course, a lot of that is to show off star Tom Cruise who did all his own (impressive) driving stunts here, and it shows.