Given his past heroics on submarines (The Crimson Tide), boats (Déjà Vu) and trains (Unstoppable), it seemed only a matter of time before Denzel Washington ended up in an aeroplane. How the wait has been worth it - and how fascinating a change Flight is for the double Oscar winner. Of all the great fictional characters he's brought to life, the one here is arguably the best of his career to date. You've never seen Washington like this before, and when it comes to an iconic actor subverting his screen image, we're travelling first class.

Booze, drugs and one-night stands - all part of the itinerary for William 'Whip' Whitaker. A former US Navy pilot, Whitaker is now a Captain for budget airline SouthJet and bounces from bender to turnaround, the best of his career and a marriage behind him. Then, one morning after, Whitaker wakes up for a 57-minute flight that changes his world forever.

Still hungover and running on cocaine, Whitaker is flying from Orlando to Atlanta when the hydraulics on his plane fail. He manages to crash-land in a field and while six lives are lost Whitaker is hailed as a hero for saving the other 96. Then the accident investigation begins.

Surveys show that one-in-four people have a fear of flying. If you're one of them, perhaps you shouldn't see Flight - or better still, arrive 15 minutes late. Choose that option and you'll miss an incredible crash sequence, but the beauty of Zemeckis' film is that having opened with what would be the climax of many a movie, he then manages to continually crank up the tension through good old fashioned human drama, as Whitaker plays out another episode of the empty promises, false dawns and hustles of his life.

In pacing and performances, Flight feels like it belongs to 1970s' cinema. With big movies and lengthy shoots like the Back to the Future series, Forrest Gump, Castaway and The Polar Express on his CV, this is something of a departure for Zemeckis. Shot in just 45 days with a budget of $31m (you'll think most of it went on the crash), it proves that smaller movies suit him. At age 61, Flight also shows he's still in his prime. The big complaint you'll have is that there aren't more movies like this.

And, indeed, more performances like Washington's. Having gained 20 pounds for the role, and with his own natural charisma buried under Whitaker's mountain of denial, regret and memories of better days, he will have your emotions pinballing from scene to scene. One minute you're cheering him on; the next you're in total agreement with another character's assessment of Whitaker as "a drunk, arrogant scumbag". While there's excellent support from Reilly as the recovering addict he meets post-crash and Cheadle as the lawyer tasked with getting him off the hook, the movie belongs to one man, who gives a masterclass in the best and worst of human nature. In any other, non-Lincoln year, the Oscar would be his.

The cheapest ticket for one of the best trips you'll have in 2013.

Harry Guerin