Bullit -- Many people pick this scene from Steve McQueen's classic as the greatest car chase of all time, zooming up and down the winding hills of San Francisco. Once those tires start squealing, it's pulse-pounding excitement that's hard to top.
The French Connection -- Personally, I think this is the best of them all. Gene Hackman races beneath an elevated train in the streets of New York, chasing the bad guys up above. They don't make realistic car chases like this anymore.
The Seven-Ups -- This under-rated and often forgotten movie is one of my favorites. Roy Scheider's car chase is full of thrills right up to its shocking end.
Ronin -- Robert DeNiro starred in this movie, which had one of the best modern chase scenes ever filmed. The story was mediocre, but the action was top-notch.
The Blues Brothers -- Even comedies used to have great car chases!
Then we have those films that seemed to be entirely one long car chase:
Smokey and the Bandit;
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World;
and many more.
Even television has had its fair share of great car chases,
from Starsky and Hutch,
to Knight Rider,
to The Dukes of Hazzard.
Hollywood still gives us plenty of car chases --
The Dark Knight,
The Fast and the Furious,
and countless others.
But compare and contrast the early car chases to the more recent ones. Pyrotechnics and special effects have replaced the drama of capturing speed and danger through camera technique and editing. Now, the main goal seems to be how big of an explosion you can create or how high you can flip your car in the air. If you look at the early car chase scenes, they cause the viewer's adrenaline to rise because the filmmakers have realistically re-created what it might feel like to be in a car chase. Even the early car scenes rely on Hollywood sensationalism of course, but they are grounded in a sense of believability. The latter car chases are so over the top with kinetic editing that is more like an MTV video than a narrative movie.
Car chases may have become cliches a very long time ago, but they still manage to entertain. I just wish movie makers would return to the sense of realism that they seem to have abanadoned. Maybe they feel as if they have to constantly raise the bar and top the car chases that have come before, but they are doing so at the expense of realism, which causes audiences to feel desensitized to what they are viewing.