Off the Carpet: Could David O. Russell finally strike Oscar gold with frizzy 'American Hustle?'

Posted by · 6:37 am · December 23rd, 2013

With a massive wave of precursor announcements behind us, a consensus – that may or may not match the Academy’s ultimate perspective on the year – has formed: “12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong’o. That’s obviously profoundly “12 Years”-heavy, and the film has managed the most adapted screenplay wins so far, too. But we’ll have to see if that’s how it plays out on March 2.

We’ve defended the consistent updating of The Circuit already, but to reiterate, consensus matters. In the various regional assessments, you begin to see what is the most generally agreeable choice, notable in a system like the Academy’s that uses preferential balloting. And McQueen’s landmark drama could absolutely qualify at the end of the season. But frankly, it could be that a film that takes the edge off finds more traction, and while once upon a time I surmised that it might be Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it could actually be that David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is the broad play to beat.

“Hustle” is a crowd-pleaser. It’s full of contemporary Hollywood legends. It’s just the right amount of introspective and character-driven to posture as art, while its entertainment credentials are beyond reproach (very successful expansion this weekend at the box office with nine figures domestic not out of the question). I’m not calling it for “Hustle” because a) I still think “Gravity” becomes the obvious choice when the dust has settled (while Warner Bros. won’t likely screw up the campaign by calling for worship), and b) it’s silly to get hung up on potential Best Picture winners in December, even if all the cards on the table.

I liked the movie just fine but didn’t see it connecting on an awards level, particularly when the filmmaker it borrows from had a massive zeitgeist play coming down the pike behind it. But I was wrong. The film is playing with many voters and its low stakes make it, again, a crowd-pleaser. I don’t mean that at all as a backhanded compliment; I’ve said it’s an entertaining piece ever since I walked out of that first screening, albeit one that doesn’t to me feel at home in the Oscar season. Yet here it is, a BFCA-nominations co-leader, a possible consensus choice that could catch its stride at the perfect time.

But first thing’s first. Academy members get their ballots on Thursday and have the remainder of the holiday to settle on nominations before it’s pencils down on Jan. 8, 2014. We’ll all find out what they were thinking on Jan. 16, and any of those three films – “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” and “American Hustle” – could end up leading the tally. But don’t sleep on “Saving Mr. Banks,” which may have turned out a weak showing on the circuit so far but could easily spark in various craft categories that could help bring its number up to eight or nine.

I’ll be very interested to see how the (presumed) lower portions of the ballot fill out. I don’t know, for instance, whether “Her” is going to play for the Academy like it has for critics. I don’t know how much support that SAG ensemble nomination really indicates for “Dallas Buyers Club.” I haven’t had the “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Wolf of Wall Street” conversations with a lot of voters because most of them are just getting around to the movies.

On the flip side, I wonder if “Before Midnight” has enough early-year residue to “surprise.” I wonder if evident love for “Fruitvale Station” pans out on the ballot, and frankly how Harvey Weinstein’s entire slate will end up represented. And I’m curious where a late-comer like “Lone Survivor” that plays well to the “meat and potatoes” crowd could land.

This time of year, voters are just staring down that daunting stack of screeners and looking at the crib sheet the early conversation influencers have whittled down for them. But there are some films I’d like to speak up for, that are lingering on down the stack and deserve to be seen now, not way after the fact with a, “Man, I wish I had gotten to that sooner.”

Like Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” for instance. I know it was seen early enough in the season by most (it was the first official Academy screener of the year) and that it has fans in people like Robert Duvall and Martin Scorsese. It was certainly part of the conversation at Telluride, where a number of Academy members turned out to kick off the season with screenings of movies like “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” that would ultimately box little guys like “Mud” out of the conversation. But it’s one of 2013’s gems and Nichols is going places. Academy members could do a lot worse than to find a place for him in the original screenplay field or in fact the film on the Best Picture list.

All of that, too, could be said for “Before Midnight” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” but then there’s “Out of the Furnace.” The critics have done a real disservice in dismissing this film, in my humble opinion, and Bale’s performance seems almost objectively better than his work in “American Hustle” (which is to take nothing away from his “Hustle” turn, which almost seems like it’s in another movie, or that it wants to be). Really, everyone in the “Furnace” cast is firing on all cylinders, and because of the critics, Academy members might not see it as a priority. But ask anyone from William Friedkin to Owen Moverman, Bennett Miller to Martin Scorsese; indeed, it appears to be a filmmaker’s film, if not one for the pontificating class.

I don’t dare hold out a hope for consideration of “This is the End” as more than a mere summer comedy, but I would love for “All is Lost” to be seen as more than a Robert Redford one-man show. I will be truly heartbroken if the sound branch doesn’t speak up for it, and I would love to see the cinematographers or the directors spark to it as well. It’s going to be remembered, eventually, as a cinematic buoy for our times. I would also love to see the actors take to James Franco’s work in “Spring Breakers,” which some critics have supported and perhaps, thankfully, legitimized for more than a few voters. But I won’t hold my breath on that, either.

Those are just humble suggestions, of course. This is their party and it’s best to just make peace with that.

So with that all squared away, the Contenders section has been updated and tidied just in time for the holiday. We won’t bother addressing it again until the new year so look for another assessment of the season at the start of 2014 after the PGA and WGA have added to the equation.

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