It’s hard to think of a director who’s put together a more up-and-down body of work than Ron Howard. The man who made brilliant movies like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon is also responsible for Gung Ho, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (that infernal Jim Carrey version), and 2011’s blindingly bad The Dilemma… not to mention the two cringe-worthy Da Vinci Code movies.

Will the real Ron Howard please stand up?

For his latest, Howard chose a story that gripped the world of auto racing in the mid-1970s but went largely unnoticed here in America—the Formula One rivalry between British driver James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda. “Who?” and “who?”, you ask? “Formula what?” Well, buckle up; this is one of those stories that will have you wondering how Hollywood has ignored it for so long.

Whether you know anything about the sport or the people involved, Rush is a movie that will stay with you long after you walk out of the theater. And it’s not just because of the subject matter; Ron Howard, it seems, has remembered how to direct.

Working from a script by Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan, Howard starts by taking us back to the first days of the Hunt-Lauda rivalry. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is the drinking/smoking party boy who drives on the junior circuit with a devil-may-care attitude, while Lauda (Daniel Brühl) is a brilliant tactician who loves the gas pedal but not at the expense of his own safety.

Together (and against each other), they were the yin and yang of Formula One racing, and in the 1976 season their rivalry reached its peak.

If you’re starting to nod off, don’t. If you think this is a movie only about fast cars and two macho men, it’s not. Students of the sport know all about the incredible events of that 1976 season (if you don’t, I won’t spoil it here), but suffice to say this isn’t just a story about who could drive a car faster.

Both Hemsworth and Brühl are pitch-perfect in their roles, expertly avoiding the one-note performance that each could have easily become. And Morgan’s screenplay fuses drama, action, and even comedy (particularly during a hilarious scene set in the Italian countryside) into a well-rounded and universally appealing film.

It’s Howard, though, who shines brightest here. The driving sequences are outstanding; more than a half-dozen races are highlighted, and each one is fresh and different and never feels a bit repetitive. He pulls all the arrows out of his quiver (the good quiver, not the Far and Away one) to create as visually-stunning a masterpiece as he has to date. He also deftly walks the fine line between the on-track racers and their off-track lives, giving us just enough background to know the characters but not so much that we spend the whole movie wanting to get back behind the wheel.

To say Rush has instantly leaped to number one on the list of Best Car Racing Movies Ever isn’t really a high compliment; the list is pretty thin (Days of Thunder? Talladega Nights?). What Rush does, though, is remind us that Ron Howard is still capable of making great films, and this is one of the best of the year.

5/5 stars