How David O. Russell hustled Hollywood, and other lessons from the Oscar nominations

Fare thee well, Coen brothers. Hello, Megan Ellison.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)

As Thor Chris Hemsworth, announced the nominations for the 2014 Academy Awards on Thursday morning, critics and film fans from around the world watched with a delightful mixture of confidence, shock and nausea. While there were few mind-blowing surprises among the nominations—aside from a complete snub of the Coen brothers, which I’ll get to in a moment—a few trends bubbled up to the surface.

American Hustle is the Oscar movie we all deserve, for better or worse

The point has been made before (and far more eloquently, to be sure) but American Hustle is far from the “best” picture of the year—yet it will walk off with a boat-load of Oscar nonetheless. True, David O. Russell is a fine director, and he’s made some intriguing, if irrepressibly manic, films. But American Hustle is nothing more than a holiday-season diversion—a feel-good lesson in camp that is more a series of finely tuned music videos than a “film for our times.” It’s Goodfellas Lite—and even that is a compliment—that, thanks to a stellar cast and a bouncy tone, has more or less swept older Academy voters and audiences off their feet. The picture’s bubbly, harmless nature is especially important when compared to the award season’s more worthy offerings, which mostly leaned toward the dark and deranged. While 12 Years a Slave, Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street are unquestionably better films—each marking a high point in their respective director’s careers, each with something vitally important to say about the human condition—American Hustle is safe, and it’s fun and it’s popular…and it will be the default choice of Academy voters. Years from now, we’ll bemoan the choice (remember Crash?), and the film’s legacy will suffer for it. But for now, it’s the best picture for our timid times.

Megan Ellison, Hollywood’s new mogul

As the head of Annapurna Pictures—responsible for both best-picture nominees Her and American Hustle—Ellison is positioning herself as the next Harvey Weinstein, and all before she hits the age of 28. Sure, it’s easy to scoff at her considerable power: Annapurna wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the 27-year-old’s father, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. But instead of relaxing in a life of luxury—as so many of her rich-kid ilk would be tempted to do—Ellison has dedicated her considerable resources to helping today’s most skilled filmmakers, producing challenging films that wouldn’t have seen the light of a projection booth if left in the hands of increasingly fainthearted big studios (see The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Spring Breakers). And despite my above objection to Hustle, it’s clear Ellison has an eye for both talent and audience-friendly hits.

Let’s talk about aural sex, baby

There was much talk late last year when Her‘s Scarlett Johansson was disqualified for a Golden Globe nomination, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association refused to consider her voice-only performance an eligible supporting role. The Oscars have foolishly followed suit, casting aside one of the most heartbreaking and full-bodied (no pun intended) performances of the year. Perhaps it was the intense “sex” scene between Johansson’s A.I. character Samantha and her human boyfriend (played by Joaquin Phoenix) that so turned off Academy members. Or perhaps the Academy just can’t comprehend recognizing a performance unless there’s a corporeal figure around for them to gawk at (see previous snubs to Andy Serkis’s turns in the Lord of the Rings series or Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Either way, the move was a huge mistake.

Fare thee well, Coen brothers

Perhaps the most bizarre snub belonged to Joel and Ethan Coen, one-time darlings of the Academy. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the pair delivered one of the best films of not just the year, but of their entire career. Yet the story of a struggling folksinger/successful asshole in 1960s New York proved to be just a sell too far for the Oscars, who shut the film out of all the major categories (sound mixing and cinematography excepted). No love for lead actor Oscar Isaac? Or the wonderful original song “Please Mr. Kennedy”? As Adam Driver’s character so memorably yell-sings in the film: “UH-OH.”

It’s cold up here

More than any other year, Canadian directors appeared to have a real shot at Oscar glory. Jean-Marc Vallée directed Dallas Buyers Club, Sarah Polley was behind the universally acclaimed documentary Stories We Tell and Denis Villeneuve helmed the TIFF favourite Prisoners. Yet all three filmmakers were shut out of this year’s awards. Villeneuve’s snub is perhaps the least surprising, as the cold and cruel Prisoners faded from memory since its September release. Yet Stories We Tell seemed all but destined for a nomination after it made the documentary short list, and topped critics’ lists across both Canada and the United States. Equally bizarre is the absence of Vallée. After all, his film did earn nods for best actor, best supporting actor, best editing and best picture. The move further illustrates the bizarre philosophical nature of the best picture/best director categories: Can a film be the “best picture” of the year without its director also claiming an award?

Tom Hanks wins, and loses

 Although Captain Phillips earned a surprisingly large amount at the box office—becoming one of Tom Hanks’s best-performing films in years—it felt like one of the lesser “prestige dramas” of 2013, especially when compared to the shattering power of 12 Years a Slave and the dizzying technical heights of Gravity. At most, pundits predicted, it would earn a long-shot nomination for Barkhad Abdi, who plays the lead Somali pirate. While Abdi did snag a nomination, it’s more than a bit surprising that the film also netted a best picture nod—yet nothing for Hanks, or its director Paul Greengrass. It wasn’t Hanks’s only loss, though. His awards-bait drama Saving Mr. Banks, in which he plays Walt Disney—one of the most historically complicated characters in Hollywood history, and one who critics think was given a superficial coat of sunshine in the new film—was completely looked over.

Never count Harvey Weinstein out

Known for bullying his way into the Oscars with lavish and aggressive campaigns for otherwise middling films (hello, Shakespeare in Love!), it appeared that 2014 would finally deliver the bitter taste of defeat to Weinstein. Yet, somehow, his studio’s Philomena managed to worm its way into the best picture category, despite receiving only a polite reception from critics, and no other major nominations except for best actress Judi Dench, who can score these kind of awards in her sleep. At least Weinstein’s other great hope, the treacly and stunt-casted historical drama The Butler (excuse me, Lee Daniel’s The Butler) was dismissed outright.

How David O. Russell hustled Hollywood, and other lessons from the Oscar nominations

  1. I mostly agree with you re: American Hustle. David O. Russell is a great filmmaker, and has made some unquestionably great films — but the thing is, this isn’t one of them. It’s a good, interesting film loaded with first-rate actors. It’s really kind of an actor’s chew-the-scene dream. But the plot was confused, the editing didn’t help, and so the film kind of just got silly in the final hour or so. Silver Linings Playbook, yes. The Fighter, yes. Flirting with Disaster was really a much better film in terms of tightness and coherence.

  2. Dead on article. The academy loves flashy mediocrity with over-the-top acting, while deeper and unforgettable films usually get left behind. You would think they would learn after the embarrassment of “Crash” winning while “No Country” remains one of the only deserving best picture winners of the last 20 years

  3. American Hustle will be like Silver Linings last year…it won’t win anything outside maybe one or two awards. I do not believe the Academy will score the votes for this film. As the weeks go by, the true colors behind that mediocre film is starting to be exposed. Exhibit A: the audience reaction to the film’s wins at various award shows thus far. Yes, those audience members only account for a fraction of the Academy, a small one at that, but I think the Academy will shun this film anyways.

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