The best car movies for Race Enthusiasts!
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#1 Grand Prix

A fabulous racing film, with incredible race photography.  The final race scenes on the high banking of Monza (the original high-banked track doesn't exist anymore) were shot from the door of a helicopter at 180 MPH. This film literally could not be made in today's world (as John Frankenheimer points in in the Making Of special). It is unique, and always will be.

Many of the characters are directly patterned from real-life racers, crews, and owners. Some are played by actual racers. Look closely and you'll also see many of the original drivers and team owners in several scenes.

We very reluctantly rate the film in third place because of the romance and melodrama that are not related to the racing. Eve Saint Marie's character is a device placed in the film for the benefit of the audience - she is there simply to help viewers understand the sport. As a character in the film, she detracts from it. The appeal of  her over-emotional character to that of Yves Montand is simply that she is not his wife, and is interested in more than the sport which he has built his life around - and cannot escape. 

This film is also an interesting contrast to modern F1 racing. Grand Prix depicts a different age of racing - the technology was crude and failed in major ways. The drivers literally gambled their lives. The safety equipment was abysmal and did little to protect the drivers. Many of the tracks no longer exist in their original form - and couldn't in today's environment. And the racing was real - anybody could win, nothing was pre-ordained, and the competitive contrast to a modern F1 "race" is like night and day. Grand Prix depicts the real thing.

An entire discussion could be had of where this film would be ranked in the filmography of John Frankenheimer. We'd rate this as one of the highest, and certainly as the most challenging he ever made. The Train, Seven Days in May, Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate (perhaps his best?), and Birdman of Alcatraz are also all high on the list.

The best news is that the film as of July 11, 2006 is finally out on DVD with a new digital transfer and a remastered soundtrack. Better yet, it includes 4 new of documentaries and a featurette about Grand Prix racing as it was in the sixties. This disc is a must-have for any and all automotive enthusiasts. The documentaries are fascinating, in fact if your local sports car buddies have seen the film they'll probably want to watch the documentaries again and again.

 Along with this new DVD, we have two other items:

  • A Speed Channel (Speedvision) special "The Making of Grand Prix". Cnsider it a must-have. This is not the same material as on the new DVD.
  • A documentary on the making of Grand Prix. Most of the material - and a lot more - is on the new DVD, but this is worth having anyway.

What's needed next, now that the Frankenheimer estate has opened the vaults, is a book about the making of the film - similar to "A French Kiss with Death: The Making of LeMans".

Starring: James Garner, Eva Saint Marie, Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune. Directed by John Frankenheimer.

Label: MGM/UA Home Video

Year: 1966

Color, 2 hours, 50 mins

Format: Blue-ray

Available: yes

#2 LeMans

The quintessential racing film!

Our vote for the all-time #2 motorsport film! Your collection could not be complete without this film!

A great story, very realistic - it was actually filmed at the track during the event. The in-car footage is astounding - it will place you in the car.

Unfortunately, the Blue-Ray version - while it has a better transfer - doesn't include all of the available footage. McQueen shot many more hours of film than have ever been made available. Let's hope the McQueen estate will open up the archives at some point.

There is also a *great* book which covers the making of the film in exacting detail: "A French Kiss with Death". 464 pages, hundreds of photos. This books covers the life and filmography of Steve McQueen as background. The main focus, however, is on the film itself - and the book offers an incredibly detailed view of the making of the film. You'll rarely see this level of detail about any film, much less an automotive racing film! It's surprising that this level of history is even still available to be published.

 

Starring: Steve McQueen

Label: Paramount Home Entertainment

Year: 1971

Color, 106 Minutes

Format: Blue-ray

Available: yes

 

#3 Rush

This will be a controversial positioning for some, and it was a tough decision to make. Why? Consider these arguments:

- It doesn’t have the emotional impact of Senna. Niki Lauda's accident scene is bad, and his hospital scenes are worse, but the death of Senna is much worse. Lauda, thanks to his iron will, got back into the car 6 weeks after the accident - while Senna is dead - and needlessly so. You will walk out of the theater thrilled by what you’ve seen in both films, but you won’t be so sad as to be speechless and deep in thought as with Senna. Senna was that good, and it was that tough on us. Like Senna, you will walk out of the theater determined to read some history of the early years of Grand Prix racing.

- It doesn’t have the sheer realism of Grand Prix, since Rush uses some liberal CGI out of necessity, and Grand Prix used none whatsoever. Keep in mind that due to safety and insurance constraints, Grand Prix couldn’t be made today. John Frankenheimer shot one scene in particular hanging out the door of a helicopter at 180 MPH! The studios would never allow Ron Howard or any other member of a film crew do that today. Those days are long gone and a reliance on CGI is the result. Fortunately, Rush doesn’t over-rely on CGI as so many racing films have had to do. You will know what is CGI and what is not. And while we’re stuck with two gratuitous ass shots of Chris Hemsworth in Rush, the creators of Grand Prix would never waste time on something so base. This is why Grand Prix is higher on the Top 5 list than Rush.

- It doesn’t have the stark realism of LeMans. LeMans was a labor of love by Steve McQueen, with every possible in-car shot, noise, and obsessive technically correct details. And he was there, himself, driving and racing. Steve’s character and his own racing credentials dictated every scene in this film – one reason why it is a must-see for racing enthusiasts. We are there ourselves as drivers, right with Steve, from the first scene where he looks at the track, remembering the travails of last year, preparing himself for the hard and determined work again this year. We’ve been in that situation ourselves, as has some of the audience. By contrast, Ron Howard doesn’t have the credentials (although he does have Niki Lauda) and didn’t set out to make this type of film. Rush is more of a human interest story than a pure racing story – although it will have more than enough racing for the racing fans.

- It doesn’t have the technical nirvana of Super Speedway. We’re not here in Rush to learn how these cars and engines were built, as in Super Speedway. However, like Super Speedway, we do have some extremely well done racing sequences across a season. And remember who won the last race in the epic 1976 Formula 1 season: it was Mario Andretti. Mario is not only one of the most accomplished drivers of all time, anywhere and in any race series (and he has won all the big ones), he is a terrific personality all around.

What Rush does have is a very compelling human interest story of the odd friendship and incredible competition between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, two of the greatest Grand Prix drivers of all time. And it takes place in an age when Formula 1 was very much different from today: far more risky, risking death or mutilation, with far lower safety standards, and always offering actual racing with passing unlike today’s sanitized version.

If you are collecting videos of the classic years of Grand Prix racing, and indeed perhaps even preferring those events, this is definitively the movie for you..

 

Starring: Chris Hemsworth (James Hunt), Daniel Bruhl (Niki Lauda), Olivia Wilde (Suzy Miller).

Directed by Ron Howard.

Year: 2013

Available: not yet available

 

 

#4 Senna

Very detailed documentary of the life of Aryton Senna, who for ten years dominated Formula 1 and won the championship 3 times (and, but for politics, a 4th). Very appealing character, and a hero to his fellow Brazilians. Also a very tragic death in his 10th year of F1.

This film has just been released and has opened in North America as this is being written. We've seen it twice, and every viewing is worthwhile. The technology is crude, the speeds are high, and when accidents occur they are sudden and fatal. And yet you'll see people (Rubens) and names (Michael) that you will recognize even if you only started following F1 recently.

On that point, this is also a historical documentary, tracing the history of racing for a ten-year period. During that period, as shown by the cars in the events, you'll notice considerable technological evolution just in appearances alone (the film doesn't cover any aspects of engine development). And that evolution also covers safety aspects - just look at the position of the head of the drivers in the cars over the years. In the early days of Senna, the head was fully exposed and upright. In later years, it was located further down into the chassis - although it would be years yet until the Hans device was invented.  

The video is available already outside North America, and will probably become available inside North America before the end of 2011. If you can't wait for your own copy, get the UK version from Amazon (and a universal region DVD player from a source such as Jlist) and it will be a very worthwhile addition to your collection. 

Why did we rate this #2? Because Grand Prix was a labor of love for Steve McQueen and it shows. Senna is simply a documentary - albeit a very good one and of an especially appealing character.
 

Documentary

Starring: Ayrton Senna

Label: Paramount Home Entertainment

Year: 2010

Color, 

Format: 

Available: not yet in North America. Currently available in Spanish, Portuguese, and UK English regions.

#4 Super Speedway

Seeing this in the original IMAX format is a nirvana experience for racers (We've seen it that way several times). The in-car footage shot in the special IMAX system takes you into (and out of) the turns at 220+ MPH (faster than F1).

You will never see footage like this unless you actually drive in these types of events, and of course none of us ever will.

While the movie is rarely shown in IMAX anymore, the DVD is the next best thing.

The DVD version has a special "making of" documentary that is very worthwhile. A newer release of the DVD has a new documentary as well.

Documentary

Starring: Mario & Michael Andretti and the 1997 CART drivers and crews. Narrated by Paul Newman.  

Label: IMAX

Year: 1997

Color, 50 mins

Format: DVD; VHS - NTSC

Available: yes

 

 

#5 Bullitt

A fair detective story and an incredible chase scene shot in the streets of San Francisco. The detective aspect is best described as "police procedural" with the danger of political agenda (Robert Vaughn) and graphic - but realistic - shootings. McQueen wanted to make the police part of the story as accurate as possible - and scenes like the examination of the suitcase in the evidence room are examples of real work that is very necessary to actual police procedure.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the view of life in 1960's California, more specifically San Francisco. The Jazz club scene is one of our favorites - in our opinion real jazz was made only in the 50s and 60s - and this club is a place we'd like to visit. And then there is the brown sport coat and blue turtleneck - a combination that would still be very handsome today.

This movie has what we feel is the best chase scene ever filmed. It was first major chase scene filmed on actual public roads (city and highway). It was extensively staged and mostly shot from the vehicles themselves. The Mustang itself has been a source of discussion and controversy for years - the whereabouts of the original car have been debated and argued over since the movie was made. Ford Motor Company has paid homage to the original car by featuring it in a European commercial, and of course with the (comparatively limp) 1991 and 2008 "Bullitt" Mustangs.

We once drove the length of the chase roads while in S.F. on a business trip! This would be a great drive to plot out and take yourself. Most of the roads and locations are still there. Just be careful of your speeds... and watch out for motorcyclists (spoiler, in case you haven't seen this film yet).

There have been other great chase films, but in our opinion they fall short of this one. The Seven Ups (Roy Scheider) has a great chase that to us exudes the shear desperation of the chase (and ends very badly). The French Connection has a short but erratic chase on city streets. One of the best and more recent was "Ronin", set on back roads in France. These films, and many others, all came after Bullitt and while great chases they didn't invent the car chase concept and are therefore thus just imitators of the real and original chase.

The chase itself is not without errors. The number of hubcaps on the Dodge is a thing of legend, and the placement of prop cars is often repetitive. The camera itself is hit at one point, and a few frames were inexplicably left in the film showing that. The means of "launching" the Dodge are very apparent (look for the bracket on the Mustang). And, unfortunately, the sound track is poor and in need of major work. We can only wonder if it was as bad in the original release, since I never saw it myself back then. We really need the McQueen estate to re-master this film. There is also in all probability some footage that could be included on a future re-release of the DVD.

Be sure to get the DVD  - it has a "making of" documentary with scenes of McQueen practicing his driving on a long-gone SCCA road course outside of S.F.

Starring: Steve McQueen, Jacqueline Bissett, Robert Vaughn. Directed by Peter Yates.

Label: Warner Brothers Classics

Year: 1968

Color, 114m

Format: DVD, VHS - NTSC

Available: yes