As the race for the best films of 2013 began, I never saw Ron Howard's late starter Rush coming up from behind. It was running against a tough pack of competitors, with new films from the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Wong Kar-Wai, Park Chan-Wook, and David O. Russell, to name just a few. What's more, as you can probably tell by these horribly forced racing metaphors, I have absolutely no interest in the sport. But nevertheless, this Formula One film sat solidly in my top 10 for the year until recently being displaced by Under the Skin. So what makes Rush so special?
I feel bad for it now, but I never really had Chris Hemsworth pegged as a good actor. His turns as the god of thunder were solid enough for genre fare, but with follow-up efforts like Snow White and the Huntsman I thought that might have been all he was capable of. Maybe it's just that he has the perfect look for the part, and maybe it's that he brought his Thor wig with him from The Avengers movies, but I can't imagine anybody doing a better job playing the cocky, aloof, charismatic prick of a playboy James Hunt. And Daniel Brühl, an actor I'm much less familiar with (he had smaller roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Bourne Ultimatum), does at least as good a job playing the opposites-attract, rat-faced, mind-over-matter nemesis Niki Lauda.
"Stop thinking of it as a curse to have been given an enemy in life. It can be a blessing, too. A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends."
But the real magic is not to be found in either one of these terrific leads individually, but in their interactions together. Each fuels the other's ambition, and this competition which pushes each racer to their peak likewise brings a real conflict and emotional core to the film. And this mutual competition provides the foundation not only for the characters' struggle, but for their salvation as well. Their final race begins with each nodding in acknowledgement of the other, and if this moment doesn't touch your heart there may be no hope left for you. The poster claims that "everyone is driven by something," and in this case it's not by cars or by love for the sport, but by each other. Racing just happens to be a convenient vehicle for their relationship.
You can find the rest of my rankings for the films of 2013 here. You can also read more about Rush in my coverage of the 86th Academy Awards: commentary & predictions; snubs & guilty pleasures.