• Thunder Road

The summer movie season officially starts this weekend with the release of Furious 7, the latest installment in the remarkably durable action franchise that’s drawn think pieces and hot takes galore. The series is a Hollywood staple, a bloated and bombastic moneymaking machine that shows no signs of slowing down, but its roots are found in cheapo B-pictures. The 2001 film that started this whole thing borrows its title from the Roger Corman-produced 1955 cheapie The Fast and the Furious, one of the many automotive adventures that make up the surprisingly diverse car genre, whose varied canon is shaped by exploitation absurdity, art film sophistication, and everything in between. The Furious franchise ultimately owes little to classic car movies—they’re essentially superhero films, at this point—but cars no doubt remain central to the series, a testament to American audiences’ enduring fascination with onscreen portrayals of fast, loud vehicles driven at reckless speeds. You can see my five favorite car movies below.

5. Two-Lane Blacktop (dir. Monte Hellman, 1971) An existential meditation, quietly constructed but beguiling and dreamlike in tone and theme. The script is virtually devoid of backstory and exposition, and thus the film’s universe is devoid of past and present: it exists in a sort of self-reflexive time warp, a hermetic ecosystem of competing egos and shifting identities. The film doesn’t follow a linear path but rather rolls along in a continuous loop, not unlike a spinning tire.

4. The Driver (dir. Walter Hill, 1978) This noirish character study—often described as an Americanized remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai—features one of the knottiest relationships between a man and his car in cinema history. Like Melville’s loner hero, Hill’s finds his steely reserve softened and his instincts dulled as he’s drawn to another person; the further he finds himself away from his self-imposed isolation (i.e., his car), the more dangerous things get. Car porn, indeed.

3. Duel (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1971) The duel in question here is between a mild-mannered commuter and a mysterious tanker truck toying with him for no apparent reason. But the conflict extends beyond the realm of machines into a more metaphysical space, where our hero grapples with his place in the universe—a duel of the mind, so to speak. The existential allegories are pretty blunt—star Dennis Weaver’s character, a symbol for all mankind, is literally named Mann—but the filmmaking is electric, an early testament to Spielberg’s prowess.

2. Thunder Road (dir. Arthur Ripley, 1958) Dave Kehr calls this the “definitive road movie,” perhaps because it’s the one that most thrillingly and artistically replicates the feeling of living life one mile at a time. It’s impossible to imagine anyone besides Robert Mitchum in the lead role, playing one of those “wild and reckless men who transport illegal whiskey from its source to its point of distribution.” The “oil slick” scene still amazes, partly due to its unabashed absurdity, a cartoon moment in an otherwise realistic and somewhat misanthropic film.

1. Vanishing Point (dir. Richard Sarafian, 1971) This iconic cult movie achieved its legendary status with a single image: a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T in alpine white, referenced and refashioned in countless films after receiving a mythic treatment by director Richard Sarafian, whose command of landscape photography and graphic mise-en-scene remains the gold standard of the car genre. A driver takes a bet he knows he can’t win—he has to make it from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours—and thus unfurls an existential odyssey that both ignites the country’s fascination and speaks to masculinity’s most senseless impulses.