Though I feel a little bad saying it, I've never really cared for Ron Howard as a filmmaker. I have a nostalgic fondness for a few of his earlier films (Splash and Willow come to mind) and Frost/Nixon was pretty fantastic, but for the most part I find his movies too obvious to be very intriguing. I should also point out that my interest level in auto racing, whether it's NASCAR or its fancier European cousins, lies somewhere south of zero, and I'd never heard of James Hunt or Niki Lauda until Howard decided to make a movie about them.
Rush, then, might end up being the biggest cinematic surprise of 2013, at least for me. It's an exhilarating, full-throttle sports movie about two men who are completely obsessed with racing—or, more specifically, with racing one another. It's always entertaining and sometimes downright thrilling. Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, basically playing Thor again but doing it very well) is an impulsive, charming Brit who thinks nothing of risking his life on third-string European racing circuits in hopes of becoming a Formula One champion. Lauda (Daniel Brühl, who delivers Rush's most interesting performance) is Hunt's polar opposite: a calculating, abrasive Austrian who thinks in millimeters and percentages rather than Hunt's vaguer notions of impetuous risk and hedonistic reward. Rush introduces both men on a day that will come to define them, before rewinding and filling us in on what got them there. The remainder of the movie, and by far its best portion, deals with the fallout of that day. (Tip: If you don't already know what happens, do not look it up before you see the film. Trust me.)
With Rush, Howard makes some of the most fascinating creative choices of his career. When it comes to the racing scenes, he takes us claustrophobically close; we experience those thundering engines in the minutiae of churning pistons, swishing grass, and trembling eyelashes. There are a few moments of grim spectacle in the film's first two acts, but you'll have to wait until the white-knuckle finale to see any real racing action. It's worth it, though.
When his characters aren't crammed into these "bombs on wheels," Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) work in broad strokes. In spite of all the speechifying about competition and compulsion, we never get much insight into Hunt and Lauda's weird obsession with hurtling around in circles at 170 mph, or with besting one another. In fact, we get the idea that maybe they don't understand it themselves. We just know they're driven, and that's enough.
For any real insight into the more curious aspects of macho obsession, you'll have to turn to Don Jon. It's a very different sort of passion that drives Jon Martello Jr., the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the actor's writing/directorial debut. Jon, known to his bros as "The Don" because of his frequent sexual conquests, is so addicted to Internet porn that he prefers it to any sort of genuine interaction. He hosts an endless stream of one-night stands in his meticulously maintained New Jersey apartment, but the pleasures offered by real, flesh-and-blood women don't compare to the utterly controllable, self-centered experience of whacking to porn flicks.
That begins to change when Jon meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a beautiful Jersey girl with her own media-driven ideas of what constitutes an ideal relationship. Jon finds himself very much in love with Barbara, and resolves to give up his beloved skin flicks. He finds it isn't that easy.
While Rush is content to let its dudes be dudes and to chalk up their dangerous competition to a magnificent, mysterious obsession, Jon doesn't get off so easy. (Ugh, sorry.) As the layers of his compulsion are stripped away, ultimately—and in some very unexpected ways—by a middle-aged woman named Esther (Julianne Moore, who is sensational here), Don Jon becomes a remarkably insightful film, not to mention a very funny one. And, like Rush, it doesn't mind exploring some uncomfortable territory, albeit of a very different kind—Howard's film has some squirm-inducing moments of body horror, while Don Jon might test a few limits with its hard-R raunchiness. But while Rush isn't interested in figuring out what fuels its subjects' sometimes self-destructive passions, Don Jon exists entirely to do just that.