Since taking the Telluride and Toronto film festivals by storm in the early fall, "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" have dominated the Oscar conversation. Three months of screenings and cocktail receptions and glad-handing have done little to alter the leaderboard, but now, as critics groups, Screen Actors Guild Awards voters and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. have weighed in, there's a new question popping around Hollywood.
Is the film academy about to go back to the '70s again?
David O. Russell's fizzy, late-disco-era con artist comedy, "American Hustle," has emerged as a viable alternative to "12 Years" and "Gravity," receiving seven Globe nominations, a SAG movie ensemble nod and a wave of great reviews, along with a prestigious New York Film Critics Circle best picture prize. Like "Argo," last year's best picture winner, "Hustle" boasts a combination of craftsmanship and pure moviegoing pleasure set in a time period that holds a powerful, nostalgic appeal to baby boomers, the film academy's biggest bloc of voters.
The cumulative stamp of approval from critics, actors and Golden Globes voters has increased "Hustle's" standing just as it's arriving in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 13. (The movie opens wider Dec. 20.) With an A-list cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and that girl from "The Hunger Games," Jennifer Lawrence, the movie possesses a commercial appeal lacking in other Oscar contenders.
And, with the academy, "Hustle" also hits a sweet spot between the serious history lesson contained in "12 Years a Slave" and the popcorn thrills of "Gravity." The same Oscar voters who favored the crowd-pleasing entertainment of "Argo" over Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" last year will find much to appreciate here.
For whatever reason, another feel-good movie, Disney's making-of-"Mary Poppins" story, "Saving Mr. Banks," has gone the other way with awards voters. Aside from Emma Thompson's lead turn as P.L. Travers, the starchy English author reluctant to sell her book to Tom Hanks' stubbornly persistent Walt Disney, the movie has been shut out of the discussion.
The cold shoulder has surprised many in Hollywood as the film has played well to academy members and SAG voters, owning a warm, sentimental tone that separates it from edgier, R-rated contenders such as "Hustle," Martin Scorsese's hooker-heavy and drug-drenched "The Wolf of Wall Street" and the hard-edged dramas "Captain Phillips" and "12 Years."
Then again, it's possible "Banks" may be striking many voters as a bit too soft. "It's a nice Disney-corporate-retreat film about how studios always know best and writers are crazy and only Americans understand emotions," pop culture journalist Mark Harris tweeted last week. In other words: Anyone not owning a pair of mouse ears might not be susceptible to the movie's charms.
And an alternative has already emerged for the older, "Poppins"-friendly crowd. "Philomena," the fact-based story of an elderly Irishwoman who enlists the help of a sour-pill journalist to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier, has been winning raves for the chemistry between its two stars, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It earned three Globes nominations, including best picture drama.
"Philomena" and "Banks" are part of a group of late-arriving contenders, which also include "Hustle," "Wolf of Wall Street," the Coen brothers' '60s folk-scene study "Inside Llewyn Davis" and Spike Jonze's melancholy, modern love story "Her," hoping to gain a foothold in this year's Oscar race. The second-wave strategy has worked in the past. Last year, Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" parlayed five Golden Globes nods into a best picture nomination and eventual Oscar wins for original screenplay and supporting actor Christoph Waltz.
This year, "Her" might be the dark horse bet, sporting a weirdly affecting romance between a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his new, intuitive computer operating system, voiced, beautifully, by Scarlett Johansson. The film, which won best picture prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. (in a tie with "Gravity") and the National Board of Review, has the clever originality of Jonze's two collaborations with Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation") along with a profound, affecting look at the way people relate to technology and each other. The HFPA adored it, giving "Her" three nominations, including nods for picture (comedy or musical), Phoenix and Jonze's screenplay.
Of course, the HFPA also dug Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" too, which tied "American Hustle" with a leading seven nominations. An Oscar win for McQueen would make him the first black director to win that prize. The question moving forward: Will the academy look to make history or be enthralled by a movie that revels in a more recent, polyestered past?