My first thought upon watching Drive last night—and I mean within the first five minutes of this incredible film—was “You’re telling me there were nine movies better than this in 2011?”

"There's no good sharks?"

Nine, of course, is the number of films nominated for Best Picture this year, and I’ll bet you anything that after watching  all nine of them I’ll be able to name several that don’t measure up to this tightly-wound bundle of celluloid tension. I’ve seen Midnight in Paris (loved it) and Moneyball (loved it, too), and of these three films I’d be loathe to tell you which one I enjoyed most. So I won’t try.

What I will do is tell you the three main reasons this film knocked it out of the park for me (wrong movie analogy, I know). And sadly, for the sake of brevity, one of those reasons won’t be the awesome score/soundtrack, which reminded me fondly of the very best eighties cool-vibe music.

Reason #1: The Driver

Never leave home without your claw hammer

Ryan Gosling is scary good. If you’ve seen a lot of movies, you’ve seen a lot of actors try to pull off the slow burn, the strong-but-silent, the still-waters-run-deep, the pick-your-cliche. And you’ve seen most of those actors fail. The problem with trying to nail this type is that being understated isn’t the same as being wooden, and most actors end up looking like Tecumseh from Cheers.

Not so with Gosling. This guy’s got chops, and he imbues every frame he’s in with intensity. Oh, there’s a range in his performance, but you’ve gotta watch for it. For evidence of what I’m talking about, take a look at the sick terror in his eyes during the daylight pawnshop hold-up scene. Gosling owns this film.

Reason #2: The Supporting Players

Who you callin' a clownfish?

Albert Brooks is the one that most will think of, and that’s a good thing. He, like the film, was robbed of a nomination. I don’t believe that there were five better supporting performances this year, so don’t try to convince me.

What many people might overlook, though, is that the other players essayed their roles with equal precision. Though you might not pay much attention to Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, and (especially) Bryan Cranston, you need to. Watch how they inhabit their characters and exude just the right mixtures of dubious hopefulness (Mulligan), insecure bravado (Isaac), and greedy decency (Cranston). They help make a good movie into a great movie.

Reason #3: Nicolas Winding Refn

Every frame counts

You ever heard of this guy? Nope, me neither. In fact, I had to check with my old friend, the Internet Movie Database, just to make sure I spelled this director’s name right. And even after double and triple-checking, I’m still doubtful I got it. The name looks like a bunch of font types strung together.

But that aside, Refn’s a name I’ll remember from now on. Neil Marshall (of Dog Soldiers and The Descent fame) was slated to helm this picture, but when that fell through, Gosling hand-picked Refn to take the wheel (ha!). I could bore you with why this movie signals the ascent of a new directorial star (like the amazing sustained tracking shots and the—hey, wake up!), but all you need to do is look at the five pictures featured in this post to see how skillful Refn (and his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel—apparently the studio stipulated that the entire crew consist of three-named men) is at framing his shots.

So go watch Drive. If you don’t, The Driver will pay you a visit. And he’ll be wearing this mask…

Um, was that my bladder or yours?

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