Sixteen years after reading it, I still remember Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. His harrowing account of the 1991 Halloween Nor’easter instantly transported me to the middle of the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean, and I came the closest I ever have to drowning… even if it was only through the power of the written word.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has the same terrifying effect, abandoning you in the vacuum of space without any way to get home. And it’s even more traumatic, since it’s all being played out in front of you in (extremely worth it) 3D.

It all begins with a beautifully choreographed 13-mnute tracking shot as we’re introduced to (A) Earth, from 400 miles up, (B) the Space Shuttle Explorer in orbit (C) the hobbled Hubble Space Telescope, and (D) veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and civilian scientist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who are making some last-minute repairs before heading home. Not long after they get frantic word from Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) that a large debris field is headed their way, all hell breaks loose. The crew is killed, the Shuttle and Hubble are destroyed, and Kowalski and Stone find themselves with nowhere to go and their oxygen dwindling.

That’s it. That’s all I’ll tell you.

And that should suffice, because not only is Gravity the most stunning and exhilarating film of 2013, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything from the past several years that compares. It should be required viewing for every film student. And film fan, for that matter.

Cuarón has previously proven his brilliance helming not only the riveting Children of Men but also the best of the Harry Potter bunch, the Prisoner of Azkaban. Here he steps up his game even further, crafting a nerve-racking, gut-wrenching drama that is literally out of this world. Damned if you don’t find yourself wondering how he got NASA’s permission to film in outer space.

Not only is the camera work riveting thanks to Cuarón’s excellent use of first-person, especially as Stone and Kowalski go flipping through space, ass over teakettle, the near absolute silence (we’re in space, after all) is freakishly haunting, too.

Just as stunning as the visual magic and the sparse but intense screenplay (which Cuarón co-wrote with son Jonás) are the performances by the two actors. Clooney’s Kowalski is the charming, funny, and calm voice of reason, and Bullock’s Dr. Stone is a space-suited panic button who gradually gets a grip (often literally) as she discovers a side of herself she never knew she had. It’s a transformation that will leave you saying, “Heck, if she can win an Oscar for that Blind Side schmaltz, this one’s a no-brainer.” It’s a performance so intense that you’ll find yourself breathing (and holding your breath) right along with her.

And then as you finally reach the end, release your armrest, and once again feel the pull of gravity on your body, you will no doubt come to realize that this is as close to perfect as movies come. (And it makes the 5/5 stars I gave last week’s Rush silly in retrospect.)

5/5 stars