The 2021 Academy Awards came and went a few weeks ago in a much different-looking ceremony, held on Sunday, April 25. A limited number of attendees gathered to see a number of excellent, deserving films (Judas and the Black Messiah, The Father and Another Round among my personal favorites) awarded with the highest honors in the movie industry.
However, one subset of films that gets little recognition come awards season is, as you might’ve guessed by the title or by reading previous entries of this column, cinema concerning the small world of motorsports.
Over the past couple weeks, I have dutifully watched and re-watched some landmark films in this canon, among them first-time viewings of Grand Prix, Le Mans and Stroker Ace, as well as re-watches of Rush, NASCAR: The IMAX Experience and Logan Lucky. Respectively, it’s been five and 17 years since I saw Rush and IMAX for the first time, yet both have aged incredibly well. Rush holds up against the best movies of 2013 (from The Wolf of Wall Street to Prisoners to The World’s End) and is my favorite from that year, while I’m almost positive that IMAX was the first movie I ever saw in a theater … and it’s held its own nearly two decades later.
Racing movies never get much love from the Academy. While Ford v Ferrari scored an impressive four nominations and two wins at the 92nd Academy Awards and Grand Prix swept its three categories in the 39th edition, a host of excellent entries, including Rush, Senna and Le Mans, all failed to secure even a single nomination in applicable categories. There were a total of 53 years between Oscar wins for racing films.
This will not stand, so I’ve done my own.
I’ve whittled the number of categories down from 23 to 10 and made several changes. Best actor and best supporting actor have been combined, as well as actress and supporting actress. And the categories of “made-for-TV documentary” and “best racing scene” have been added for specificity in terms of the genre.
And the awards go to…
Days of Thunder (1990)
Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Grand Prix (1966)
Le Mans (1971)
Kicking things off with the most important award because structuring this article like the Oscars are probably wouldn’t go well, Rush remains the best racing movie ever made. While all five movies do fall into a pure-racing-movie generalization in the best possible way, there’s a bit too much stretched-out melodrama in Grand Prix and some subpar elements to Days of Thunder.
The same applies to those who just missed the cut; Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Logan Lucky are both hilarious and incorporate NASCAR at various levels, but both fall short of the quality mark here. Le Mans is the best portrayal of the 24-hour race in any movie, documentary or feature, with the event taking up just about the entire runtime.
Rush combines two standout performances from its leads, as does Ford v Ferrari, along with stunning racing sequences and fantastic visuals to document heated battles in their respective racing periods. Rush prevails, though, by never taking a single breath during its two-hour runtime and cutting from race to race and seamlessly interweaving rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda’s personal lives and interactions with their teams (and the stress of an F1 season coming down to the wire).
Ron Howard, Rush
Asif Kapadia, Senna
James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari
Adam McKay, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
Tony Scott, Days of Thunder
Winner: Ron Howard, Rush
Howard’s career has been hit-or-miss as of late, delivering the subpar In the Heart of the Sea (an adaptation of one of my all-time favorite books) and the forgettable Solo: A Star Wars Story, but his direction of Rush in 2013 was nothing short of perfect, seamlessly weaving together the racing scenes that directly impact the drivers’ lives as well as the lives of the drivers and their significant others, family and teams — all while keeping the viewer on track with the races, points and standings all fall into place for a nonstop two-hour journey through (mostly) the 1976 season.
Best Actor, Lead or Supporting
Christian Bale — Ford v Ferrari as Ken Miles
Daniel Brühl — Rush as Niki Lauda
Matt Damon — Ford v Ferrari as Carroll Shelby
Adam Driver — Logan Lucky as Clyde Logan
Chris Hemsworth — Rush as James Hunt
Winner: Daniel Brühl — Rush as Niki Lauda
Hardest category of the lot? I think so.
All five actors knock it out of the park – Adam Driver taking a comedic turn amid a career of more serious roles in Silence, BlacKkKlansman and Marriage Story, while Bale and Damon playing off of each other perfectly as their characters prepare for Le Mans and Hemsworth embodies the free-wheeling, playboy lifestyle that Hunt led. Just missing the cut are Steve McQueen, Tom Cruise and Will Ferrell for Le Mans, Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights, respectively. But it’s Brühl that shines the brightest as the talented, calculating Lauda.
Brühl had previously starred in Inglourious Basterds and went on to portray Baron Zemo in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but his performance in Rush somehow didn’t earn him a supporting actor, or even lead actor, nomination at the Oscars in 2014. Playing Lauda ranges from the driver himself to a vulnerable yet determined presence in the hospital after his infamous crash, ordering the doctors to pump his lungs again despite the utter agony he goes through just minutes prior.
And then, at the end, Brühl pulls off what was so uncharacteristically Lauda: giving the championship to Hunt in the final race of the season due to the conditions of the race at Fuji Speedway. The pouring rain was so unrelenting and Lauda’s vision was still wavering, so he pulled into the pits and ended his race. His conversation with Hunt at a hangar to close the film is also memorable.
Best Actress, Lead or Supporting
Caitriona Balfe — Ford v Ferrari as Mollie Miles
Riley Keough — Logan Lucky as Mellie Logan
Nicole Kidman — Days of Thunder as Dr. Claire Lewicki
Jessica Walter — Grand Prix as Pat Stoddard
Olivia Wilde — Rush as Suzy Miller
Winner: Riley Keough — Logan Lucky as Mellie Logan
The supremely underrated Riley Keough, who happens to be Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, steals the show in this category as the good-luck sister of the bad-luck Logan brothers, Jimmy and Clyde (played by Channing Tatum and Driver, respectively). All of the others are fantastic — the late Walter as someone married to the sport but not entirely understanding of it, Kidman as a doctor thrown into a relationship with a driver, Wilde dealing with an angry, frustrated Hunt and Balfe with her husband Miles’ on-and-off racing career.
Keough, though, excellent in everything from Mad Max: Fury Road to The House that Jack Built to The Lodge, delivers in Logan Lucky as a hair stylist dealing with her brothers, both of whom hatch a plan to rob Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600, and Tatum’s character’s daughter, who she styles for beauty pageants.
Her performance is one certainly overshadowed by Tatum, Driver and a hilarious Daniel Craig, all roles with more screen time, but she pulls of being simultaneously fed up with her brothers and eager to help nicely — Mellie gets Driver and Craig in and out of the raceway, is the best driver of the whole gang when they need a getaway and poses as a Fanatics worker to infiltrate her way into the race.
Best Racing Scene
Days of Thunder, Cole Trickle wins the Daytona 500
Ford v Ferrari, “Go Like Hell” – Ken Miles wins the 24 Hours of Daytona
Grand Prix, Monaco Grand Prix
Le Mans, Michael Delaney’s substitution and runner-up finish
Rush, Nürburgring start & Niki Lauda crash
A clip from the 1976 German Grand Prix scene opens Rush but then cuts to a flashback as Hunt and Lauda’s cars kick grass into the camera lens. When the scene does arrive later on, it’s a stunner — the stark colors of the cars against a black track and threatening sky, the duel between the rivals to start the race and lighting-fast movements of the pit crew kick off the race.
This is followed by the defining moment of that season and Lauda’s career, as well as the expected centerpiece of the film. As Lauda attempts to make up ground on Hunt and keep his points lead, something breaks in the Ferrari and the car kicks to the right, smashing into the retaining barrier and bouncing back onto the track. Lauda’s machine erupts in flames in a moment-by-moment recreation of the actual crash footage, while two other cars pile in and fire licks the edges of the camera.
Those two drivers, as well as a third, were eventually able to pull Lauda from the wreckage and he spent less than two months recovering. The shots during the crash, though, are abjectly terrifying and demonstrate just how dangerous Formula 1 was at the time.
Hemsworth’s Hunt describes the cars as “little coffin[s]” and a “bomb on wheels,” and the viewer also sees the danger’s impact on the drivers: one competitor is decapitated at Watkins Glen International in brutal fashion early on in the film (a combination of François Cevert’s fatal 1973 crash and Helmuth Koinigg’s fatal 1974 accident at the same track) and Hunt is very clearly shaken, while Lauda matter-of-factly blames the driver for the mistake.
Blink of an Eye (2019)
The Last Race (2018)
NASCAR: The IMAX Experience (2004)
Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story (2020)
Up there with The History of the Seattle Mariners, Stop Making Sense, Ken Burns’ Baseball and Free Solo as one of my all-time favorite documentaries is Senna, a portrait of one of Formula 1’s all-time greatest drivers. Using archival footage and limiting interviews to isolated audio in voiceover, it paints an emotional and in-depth picture of three-time champion Ayrton Senna while highlighting the pure elation he experienced during the height of his success, as well as the pride and hope he brought to a struggling Brazil at the time.
The documentary also turns quite dark near its conclusion, reflecting just how sudden and brutal F1 can be — during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend in Imola, Senna’s Williams turns dead right and flies into an off-track barrier, killing him at the age of 34. The accident came on the heels of Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal crash the same weekend; until Jules Bianchi’s crash that eventually proved deadly in 2014, Senna was the last death in relation to an F1 event for 20 years.
Director Asif Kapadia went on to win an Oscar for his 2015 documentary Amy, chronicling the life of singer Amy Winehouse, and helmed Diego Maradona in 2019. Senna somehow failed to secure a nomination from the Academy, and it’s a borderline crime that it didn’t have a chance at the documentary category.
Days of Thunder
Ford v Ferrari
The Last Race
Rewatching Ron Howard’s 2013 effort Rush a week or so ago gave me a new appreciation for the movie. Everything I had loved before were things I still thought were fantastic, but the way the film looks is completely perfect.
Whether it’s the racing sequences, indoor conversations between characters or outdoors goings-on — but especially the racing scenes — Rush has a very dated feel that’s entirely intentional. It’s not dated in the normal definition of the word, but every single frame feels like it’s straight out of a grungy, grainy 1970s broadcast. Particularly during races, the colors are incredibly saturated; the black of the track is almost bluish, the reds of Lauda’s Ferrari and Hunt’s McLaren contrast sharply with other cars and the sky, especially at the Nürburgring.
It’s a tactic that both fits the era the film takes place in and also contributes to making Hunt and Lauda’s cars stand out, especially in the incredibly dismal weather that settled in over both the Nürburgring and Fuji Speedway during the 1976 season.
In the season-ending race at Fuji, the pouring rain makes for one of the most memorable shots from the film. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle contrasts the in-helmet shots with stark, blue, high-speed shots of the pouring rain pelting visors, while other up-close shots of the race start give us slow-motion views of the tires flinging water in a semicircle and the glow of the rain lights casts a hellish glow through the spray that follows each car.
Days of Thunder
Ford v Ferrari
Winner: Ford v Ferrari
How can you not give it to Ford v Ferrari when the movie won the real-life Oscar for one of the sound categories? The mixing, editing and effects work perfectly. Rush gives Ford a run for its money here, but the actual Academy Award gives the 2019 film the edge.
The engines in the scene at Daytona (which, clearly and annoyingly, is clearly filmed at Auto Club Speedway), are the crowing point for the film: Damon’s Shelby scribbles “GO LIKE HELL” on a board and holds it up for Bale’s Miles to see on the last lap, encouraging him to rev the Ford GT40 up to 7000 rpm (and beyond). The limit had previously been enforced by the Ford higher-ups, but Miles revs the engine and the sound is otherworldly. Add to that the cars crashing down off the banking into the infield road course, Miles making his way around other cars and the motors fading in and out as the camera tracks through the traffic and you have yourself an award-winner.
Best Production Design
Ford v Ferrari
Hard to say anything here that hasn’t been mentioned above, but the design of the Formula 1 cars, the sheer amount of cars used and the track layouts are purely impressive. The views of the tracks, too, reveal spectators wearing bright colors indicatory of the time period and the accuracy of the pit boxes and grandstands is staggering.
There’s even the Elf-sponsored, six-wheel Tyrrell P34 that raced in 1976 and ’77 visible in the field, which is an incredibly nice touch.
Best Made-for-TV Documentary
The Day: Remembering Dale Earnhardt (2011)
Drive Like Andretti (2019)
Golden Hour: Making of “Days of Thunder” (2020)
Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt (2021)
Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon (2019)
Winner: Intimidator: The Lasting Legacy of Dale Earnhardt
The newest entry takes the prize in this category, an E:60 special that aired before the 2021 Daytona 500 in February. Exploring the mystique of Earnhardt’s status as a driver and his legacy in more ways than one, reporter Ryan McGee takes a different approach to the story of a career told 1,000 times.
It begins through the viewfinder of Ryan Newman‘s horrific crash at Daytona last year and frames the documentary through the lens of safety improvements, how Earnhardt’s crash led to the HANS device and other measures and the events leading up to when the No. 3 crashed at Daytona in 2001. This is isolated in the fatal crashes of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper, all of whom suffered the same injury leading to their deaths.
A full two decades after the 2001 Daytona 500, it’s a look at 20 years’ worth of safety improvements, some scares in the time between and everything NASCAR has done to make the cars safer.