For the second year in a row, there’s a movie in the Oscar race that has a shot at winning Big five honors: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (Original or Adapted). That movie is American Hustle and in the 86 years since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences first held their awards ceremony, only three directors have had the distinction of being nominated in all five categories twice and they’re now joined by David O. Russell.
But the spotlight this year isn’t just on Hustle; it’s on the tremendous amount of talent that joins the film in the Best Picture and Acting categories. Rarely are the stakes so high that top-notch actors are facing off against each other and a frontrunner is nearly impossible to pin down. In case the blustery weather hasn’t given you time to get out to a theater and see what all the fuss is about, here, in the first of three installments, is your summary of one of the tightest races in Oscar history.
Hustle has the same effervescent glow as Russell’s 2012 Big Five nominee Silver Linings Playbook and once again sells its story mainly through colorful and layered performances. And in that, the two films are essentially on the same level. Where Hustle lacks, however, is in story and substance. While the set design, acting, and costumes all dazzle, Russell gets caught up in the gaudy vibes of the 1970’s and turns a too-weird-to-be-true story into something ludicrous. It hum-drums along with twists and turns but when it comes time for the big reveal, it doesn’t exactly make an impression. Was Russell trying to con his audience? Maybe. But it’s more likely that Hustle is a movie in need of a tighter script. — Two and a half out of four stars
Christian Bale (Best Actor)- As Irving Rosenfeld, the Conman that falls for a woman who may just be smarter than him and that’s married to a woman who may be the end of him, Bale completely disappears into his beer-bellied character. But in a movie that revolves more around its female characters, he misses out on the juiciest parts of the movie and starts to fade about midway through, never quite regaining control. The same goes for his role as an Oscar nominee.
Amy Adams (Best Actress)- As her career expands, Adams has proven to be an extremely versatile actress and she doesn’t disappoint here. The movie practically depends on her playing dual roles and she brings both to life with the ease of any veteran actress. Dramatic, relaxed, sultry and emotional, Adams has received multiple awards for her role of Sydney Prosser/Lady Edith Greensly and landed a fifth Oscar nomination all while creating an extremely memorable character, something that could come in handy on Oscar night.
Bradley Cooper (Best Supporting Actor)- Another consistently strong actor, Cooper lost out on a golden statuette for his role in Playbook to “Hollywood superiors.” While the playing field is more even this year, it’s not void of talent. Cooper had the task of playing the straight man in Hustle, FBI agent Ritchie Dimaso and though he has a meatier role than Bale, Russell fails to fully utilize him and instead of depth gives him a prop to lean on — his outlandish curled locks. As in Bale’s case, that just doesn’t do the job.
Jennifer Lawrence (Best Supporting Actress)- In three short years, Lawrence has gone from humble beginnings to full throttle stardom. That showed in Playbook, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress. She channels the same manic energy and comedic indifference as Irving’s unhinged wife, but never gets the chance to display her full potential; she’s effective and as scene-stealing as Adams, but her performance looks restrained and she’s given far too little screen time, even for a supporting role.
While the technical aspects of Gravity aren’t as ingenious as some critics have made them out to be, they are something to behold, especially for a science-fiction movie. The alarmingly realistic feelings of desolation and loneliness the setting evokes, coupled with Sandra Bullock’s emotional performance, are more than enough to demand attention, but director Alfonso Cuarón doesn’t seem all that interested in adding anything new to the genre. Gravity isn’t so much a twist as it is a reimagining of the Space Odyssey flick and we know all too well how that path of thinking has fared for the Western. There’s also the atrocity that is George Clooney’s Buzz Lightyear-cloned, Chatty Cathy doll of an astronaut. — Three out of four stars
Sandra Bullock (Best Actress)- This year’s Best Actress category is a tight race with unbridled talent going head-to-head, but the fact that Bullock is ultimately the only character there to move the story along — and that she does so in an emotionally exhausting and beautiful way — is reason enough to place her near the top. While she doesn’t get much more than a few sniffles and panic attacks to chomp on for the first half of the movie, her final decision to carry on after being surrounded by tragedy will have you bracing for impact.
Paul Greengrass’ action-thriller is the only movie on the Best Picture list to land a nomination without having been released during awards season and that alone says something. In fact, the other 2013 film that Tom Hanks appeared in, Saving Mr. Banks, was touted for Oscar consideration and barely got noticed. Phillips’ perfectly executed action sequences and edge-of-your-seat thrills are not to be missed but what stands out even more is the director’s decision not to make his film (completely) the good guys vs. the bad. Sure the pirates are menacing and better than most we’ve seen on-screen in a long time, but Greengrass also gives them heart — that they’re not in this to be terrorists but to survive, a twisted way of living that has sadly emerged in third world countries. – Three and a half out of four stars
Barkhad Abdi (Best Supporting Actor)- There’s always a place in acting categories for breakout stars; but while film societies don’t hesitate in nominating these individuals for recognition, they also don’t necessarily believe they have a legitimate shot at winning (think 2013’s Quvenzhané Wallis).
For his part, Abdi both deserves to be on the ballot and ranks high amongst the competition. As Abduwali Muse, the Somali pirate who leads the hijacking depicted in the film, he switches between utter ruthlessness and bitter desperation with the blink of an eye, creating an intense and captivating performance.
(Read Part 2 on the Oscars here.)
Eric Miller is a marketing professional with experience in creative writing,
journalism and corporate communications. He has been writing in some way,
shape, or form for nearly all his life with plans to eventually publish a novel or
screenplay. He is also an entertainment enthusiast with the latest news on
movies, pop-culture, and events. A born and bred resident of the Baltimore Metropolitan area, he enjoys visiting the Inner Harbor as well as traveling the country, watching movies, and experimenting with mixed drinks. He is currently a member of the Sundance Institute, American Film Institute, and Maryland Film Festival.