The ‘Drive’ that binds

As the year draws to a close, we find ourselves in the midst of the season’s superlative train. Most of the critics have had their say, and one film that has done somewhat surprisingly well on the circuit, establishing the field-leading Best Supporting Actor candidate and corralling a healthy share of Best Director trophies, too, is Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.”

Not only that, but it is also the only film shared by top 10 lists published here at HitFix by Drew McWeeny (#6), Gregory Ellwood (#2), Guy Lodge (#3) and yours truly (#3). That’s interesting to me, because when you look at those three takes on the 2011 film year, they are drastically different and have different criteria (in some instances different release date criteria) for judgment. But they converge at this one dynamic burst of style and vision. Why, I wonder? What is it about this film that manages to bridge gaps like that? And it’s not just us, of course, as “Drive” has popped up on a number of top 10 lists this year, firmly in the top tier of the year’s favorites.

I thought I’d ask the boys for their thoughts, and starting with Guy, who you’ll recall saw and loved the film at Cannes, he says he wasn’t sure if the “sugar rush” would last. “It certainly didn’t take long for detractors to emerge, complaining the film is all surface,” he says, “but ‘Drive’ has somehow mostly kept them at bay, perhaps because of its swift absorption into general pop culture.”

Greg followed a similar line of logic, offering that “it’s one of the few films this year or in the past few years that leaves iconic images or scenes in the viewer’s mind that haven’t been beaten into them by trailers or TV spots. Those are the movies people tend to remember the most.”

At a recent holiday party, I was discussing top 10 lists with Drew (who, by the way, considers any and all films he has seen in a given year for his list, whether released that year or not — much like Guy). He mentioned that his angle on constructing a list this year was all about directors with a clear and unique voice, and of course, Refn’s film is rich with that. But his take on its popularity is more about the film as a Rorschach of sorts.

“I think part of the reason people are able to find so much in ‘Drive’ is because the film leaves so much room for the viewer,” he says. “This is the ‘Year Of The Ambiguous Movie,’ and none of them offer up less specific info than ‘Drive,’ it feels like. [Ryan Gosling’s] Driver is a blank, and you can read a lot into that performance.”

It also has something for film lovers of multiple stripes. As Guy points out, the film “pulls off the arthouse-multiplex mash-up more deftly than any film in recent memory: cineastes feast on its language, its references, its relationship to its own medium, while champions of popular entertainment can bypass all that and enjoy it for its more immediate, even primal pleasures. It plays to both audiences, without playing down to either of them (bar the odd lawsuit-happy moron).”

Of course, Drew closes by noting what is perhaps the most obvious and inescapable truth of the film, which may ultimately be what makes it so hard to resist: “It’s just so goddamn cool.”

Me? I think there are a number of factors at play. The film deals in archetypes, which, as Drew points out, allows the audience to bring its own perspective to the piece. It’s a throwback, which breeds familiarity, but then it turns expected tropes on their ear; surprise is a powerful thing.

I also think there is something about the presence of Albert Brooks, who has been an awards-hogging element of the film all month. But that presence, again, yields surprise. There’s simply something about the familiar coming off fresh that is exciting, and that, I think, is what people are responding to.

Whatever the case, “Drive” is clearly making a mark this year. And the question is: will that mark extend to the Oscars? Brooks being snubbed by the Screen Actors Guild certainly raises an eyebrow, but for the most part, he’s assumed in for Best Supporting Actor.

Where else could it score? Guy is predicting an adapted screenplay nod. I think the film editing could get a surprising mention, while the cinematography could maybe get some love. The sound design is also worthy and would make a lot of sense for a nomination. I’d like to believe it has a chance at Best Picture and Best Director, but I need to hear from more than just critics.

For now, though, the film has certainly been spoken for. And it won’t likely be forgotten any time soon.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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