With Furious 7 setting the box office on fire around the world, we are reminded of how fun it is to watch cars drive at, as Data said in Star Trek: Nemesis, “unsafe velocities.” When racing films and car chases are captured just right, the result can be incredibly exhilarating to watch. Deep down we all would love to drive at breakneck speeds, but common sense and a deep fear of getting tickets which would lead us to make a mandatory donation to our local police department keep us from doing so. But movies can allow us the experience of what it is like when you can drive 55, and the following ones are the best examples of that.
Jay Leno is a big car enthusiast, and he has named John Frankenheimer’s 1966 movie one of his all-time favorites as a result. It stars the late James Garner as Pete Aron, an American race car driver who ends up racing for the Japanese Yamura team in a comeback attempt, and in the process falls in love with his injured teammate’s wife. It should be noted that Garner actually did all his own driving in Grand Prix, and Frankenheimer refused to film the cars moving slowly and then speed the film up. As a result, this movie feels like the real thing and not just another Hollywood movie.
The Le Mans race in France is known as the world’s hardest endurance course as it takes place over 24 hours on 14.5 kilometers of cordoned country road. What makes the movie Le Mans especially effective is that it feels more like a documentary than a movie as it captures the reality of this particular race in a way few other movies have. The great Steve McQueen stars as Michael Delaney, an American racer who survived a horrific crash that claimed the life of a fellow driver. While this movie was a box office flop upon its release, Le Mans has since gained a large cult following thanks to its realistic racing scenes which these days would be accomplished via CGI effects.
Asif Kapadia’s 2010 documentary remains one of the best I have ever seen. It looks at the life of Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna who won three Formula One world championships, and it follows him all the way to his tragic and needless death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. We get an intimate look at Ayrton to where we feel like we know him fully, and the movie makes clear why he was one of the greatest car racers on the planet. The beauty of Senna is that you don’t have to be a racing fan or an expert to appreciate what it has to offer. Moreover, you experience it more than watch it, and even though we know how Ayrton’s story ends, we still find ourselves hoping for a different outcome.
Ron Howard’s 2013 film reunited him with writer Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) and it centers on the intense rivalry between race car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) during the 1976 Formula One racing season. The racing scenes in Rush are nothing short of exhilarating, and they are aided by terrific cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle and the thrilling music of composer Hans Zimmer. Hemsworth does some his best acting work yet as Hunt, but Brühl steals the show in a performance that was sadly snubbed by the Academy Awards. The real Niki Lauda went out of his way to praise the film, saying it was very accurate to what transpired and that there were no big “Hollywood changes” made at all.
George Lucas’ 1973 coming of age film, made a few years before Star Wars, follows a group of high school graduates who spend their last night together cruising around town before they head off to college. It is a semi-autobiographical tale as Lucas drew upon his teenage experiences cruising around Modesto, California back in the 1960’s, and it also shows how deep his love of cars goes. Cadillacs, Thunderbirds and Chevys never looked as good as they do in American Graffiti, and it is bound to make viewers remember the first time they got their driver’s license and of the freedom it gave them. The movie also shows viewers how not ride a Vespa motorcycle.