It is understandable that some filmgoers might have seen enough of Ryan Gosling for one year. While there can be no denying the man is a talented actor, he has been a ubiquitous presence on our screens this year. However, whether you prefer to see Gosling as a scruffy low-income father, an immaculately groomed playboy with Photoshop abs or an idealistic political campaign manager, nothing can prepare you for his performance in Drive. An exercise in controlled minimalism and nuance, Gosling will chill you to the bone as the nameless antihero in Nicolas Winding Refn’s electric retro noir.

Imagine if back in his heyday, John Hughes dispensed with the high school romantic comedies and adapted the hardboiled fiction of James M. Cain or Jim Thompson. While set in a washed out modern day Los Angeles normally only glimpsed in the work of Michael Mann, Refn imbues his film with a throwback vibe of the early eighties, before the florescent sweatbands and bad haircuts took over. The Danish director has made a remarkable name for himself in Europe and on the festival circuit with films like Pusher and Fear X, introduced many people to the singular talents of Tom Hardy in Bronson, and produced perhaps the first existential Viking movie with Valhalla Rising. His work blends a vivid pop-art aesthetic with an almost romantic brutalism, channeled through a tortured, complex male protagonist, often blunt instrument than lone warrior.

In Drive, Gosling is a mechanic and occasional Hollywood stunt driver by day, but moonlights as a “wheel man” – a getaway driver – and displays remarkable talent behind the wheel. His boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) is looking to capitalize further on the kid’s skills by having him drive a rally car, funded by local gangster, Bernie Rose (a frightening Albert Brooks). Our hero is also distracted by the cute blonde, Irene (Carey Mulligan) who lives across the hall with her young son. He senses a glimmer of a normal life, until Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison and drags him into a maelstrom of violence.

Drive offers an almost immaculate combination of style and substance and Refn has assembled an incredible cast that also includes Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks. On the surface the film is sleek, clean, and quiet, like a new car fresh off the showroom floor, purring along to Cliff Martinez’s stunning score. It glides from moment to moment before Refn slashes open LA’s underbelly, and the stink and scum of the criminal world oozes out onto the screen. It pulls you close before erupting in outbursts of horrific violence as the driver slowly reveals his true nature and exactly what he is capable of. Drive is an exceptional piece of crime fiction, and an achingly beautiful love story between two strangers struggling to express themselves. It is also disarmingly stylish and almost impossibly cool. For my money, Drive is the best American film of 2011 and absolutely unmissable.