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Ranked: The Films Of David O. Russell

Ranked: The Films Of David O. Russell

It’s getting less attention right now than movies with Jedi or cowboys or bear attacks, but one of the most exciting films hitting theaters in time for Christmas is “Joy,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as a single mother and entrepreneur battling to make her mark on the world. And one of the reasons it’s so exciting is that it’s the latest movie from director David O. Russell.

It’s the eighth movie credited to Russell (there’s a ninth, as we’ll see, of murkier origins) across his 21-year career, and he’s had one of the more fascinating ones in modern cinema. Breaking out with comedy “Spanking The Monkey” in 1994, Russell came up alongside Tarantino and co., but has always marched to the beat of his own drum, with a distinctly vibrant, fleet-footed comedy vibe.

Early in his career, he got something of a reputation as an enfant terrible, thanks to well-publicized on-set blow-outs with A-list stars, including the infamous leaked “I Heart Huckabees” confrontations with star Lily Tomlin. But Russell’s reinvented himself spectacularly: after a six-year gap following the middlingly-received ‘Huckabees,’ he returned with “The Fighter” in 2010, the first of three films in the space of four years that were both huge commercial successes and adored by critics and awards-givers alike.

He’s revered by actors (even some of the ones he’s had screaming matches with), Jennifer Lawrence has vowed to work with him forever, and his last three movies saw eleven actors earn Oscar nominations, and three of them take home the prize. But he’s also one of the rare filmmakers to make comedy visually exciting and genuinely artful, even if he’s not always to everyone’s taste.

With “Joy” beginning to screen (early word: it’s good!), and hitting theaters on Christmas Day, it seemed to be a good time to take stock of Russell’s remarkable career. So below, we’ve ranked his films to date from worst to best, though in this case, those are relative terms: all but the bottom one or two are terrific, and even those have much to recommend them. Take a look below, and let us know if you agree in the comments.

8. “Accidental Love” (2015)

It’s perhaps unfair to include “Accidental Love” on a list of David O. Russell’s movies: it went out under a different title (it was originally called “Nailed”), without his approval, and it’s not even credited to him, instead getting a belated release of a sort this year, with “Stephen Greene” credited as director. The filming began in 2008, suffered through a stop-start production due to financing difficulties through disgraced producer David Bergstein, and Russell and his producers eventually walked away from the project entirely. As such, one certainly shouldn’t give Russell too much blame for the finished movie, which is pretty dire, and wasn’t ultimately assembled by him, and includes a tiny amount of material he didn’t shoot, and one comes away with a newfound respect for the way he can elevate material. At the same time, though, it’s a little hard to look at the material and see this ranking anywhere near the director’s best work even if it hadn’t been so badly compromised. Jessica Biel stars as Alice, a roller-waitress, shot in the head with a nail gun just as her beau (James Marsden) proposes. Doctors won’t operate because she doesn’t have healthcare, and so Alice (who’s become a more sexual, impulsive being as a result of her brain injury) heads to Washington, hooking up with youthful congressman Jake Gyllenhaal, and starting a campaign for those afflicted by unusual conditions, including Tracy Morgan as a man with an anal prolapse. Knowing how different its rhythms are from Russell’s movies, particularly his later ones, one certainly laments the looser version that we might have seen, as the unimaginative editing job done here by the backers gives an airlessness to much of the comedy, though it’s possible to see where it might have once been funny in theory, and the cast seem to mostly be doing good work, particularly Biel and Marsden. And the now-dated nature of the subject matter, in a post-Obamacare age, doesn’t help. But as is so often the case with big-screen satire, it often comes across as clunky and heavy-handed, so broad and uneven that its targets usually escape, and with an oddly juvenile approach to sex. It’s perhaps notable (though it’s possibly just down to the difficulties of its release) that it’s the only Russell film he doesn’t have a writing credit on: ultimately, the material seems sort of beneath him. Perhaps the film’s tortured post-production process, and the director disowning it, ended up making it a dodged bullet…

7. “I Heart Huckabee’s” (2004)

Arguably Russell’s most divisive work, “I Heart Huckabee’s” occasionally resembles more of a Charlie Kaufman mindfuck rather than any of the playful, big-hearted dramedies that the director is better known for. Met with largely mixed notices from critics upon its release — particularly in the wake of “Three Kings,” which was focused and furious where “Huckabee’s” is loopy and unwound — it now stands as one of Russell’s more memorable films, if not exactly his best. A sort of high-strung existential screwball comedy, “Huckabee’s” is mainly the story of Albert Markovsky, marvelously played by Jason Schwartzman as an overgrown, idealistic teenager prone to reading his own embarrassingly emotive poetry and throwing temper tantrums on a whim. Albert’s an environmentalist, sort of: a position that’s put him squarely in the crosshairs of Huckabee’s, an open-space-trampling chain of department megastores personified by Brad Stand, (Jude Law, playing comic condescension to the hilt) a type-A corporate striver who’s everything Albert is not. When a recurring series of run-ins with a tall African man sends Albert into an existential tizzy, he seeks out the services of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (the delicious duo of Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin). They’re a hip (and married) pair of “existential detectives” who get paid to rummage around in their client’s subconscious affairs. “Huckabee’s” is notable for the broad, sometimes physical comedy that gave early works like “Flirting with Disaster” their fizzy kick, and yet it’s also uncommonly deep: an angry farce that buzzes with anxiety and a sense of piercing moral inquiry. The film has an inspired, slash-and-burn energy that goes for broke more often then not, as in a gloriously disruptive dinner scene featuring a bearded Richard Jenkins and a pre-fame Jonah Hill that’s as explosively funny as anything in “American Hustle”. “Huckabee’s” is also proof, if any was needed, that Russell has always been able to get terrific work out of his actors, particularly Naomi Watts as a Huckabee’s model who begins to question her superficial lifestyle and a hilarious Mark Wahlberg as a bicycle-riding firefighter who has vowed not to ever use petroleum in the wake of 9/11. Unfortunately, many will remember this flawed, fascinating film more for reports of Russell’s volatile on-set behavior (we’ve all seen that Lily Tomlin video) but that’d be a shame. Even if it doesn’t quite hang together like some of Russell’s later, more confident work, it’s still a punchy oddball delight, and a vital work from its director.

6. “Spanking The Monkey” (1994)

Winning the award of ‘All Time Worst Film To Watch With Your Parents,’ Russell’s provocative, jet-black comedy-of-manners debut could, on the surface, be similar to all kinds of sub-Sundance movies from young filmmakers, dealing as it does with a pre-med student having to move back with his parents for the summer. But this being a David O. Russell joint, it had a unique twist that made it stand out immediately when it bowed at Sundance in 1994: Jeremy Davies’ neurotic lead Ray, left looking after his broken-legged mother (Alberta Watson), ends up increasingly attracted to her. The queasily taboo-busting premise got the film the attention that Russell needed for his debut, but the film’s tone is, while broad in places, rather more interesting in tone, nodding to “The Graduate” and “Harold And Maude,” delving deep into its hero’s sexual frustration and confusion and, despite the extremes the movie goes to, proving tender and sympathetic to its hero. Much of that, beside Russell’s already assured blend of tones, comes down to the central performances: Davies, whose career was just getting underway (this launched him to work with Spielberg on “Saving Private Ryan” just a few years later), is a terrifically put-upon Oedipus, while Watson (who sadly passed away earlier this year, aged just 60) is even better, a ferocious, sexy, mercurial woman. Their chemistry, in both a family and sexual sense, utterly sells the film. Outside of the central relationship, it’s less successful. Even by the standards of Russell’s often heightened approach to family life, things get a little broad and cartoonish, stacking the deck so absurdly against Ray that it starts to feel artificial and conceited in places. And the helmer isn’t yet as formally assured as it would become, with the movie looking very much like a first film for most of its running time. But even so, it was a more than promising debut that hints at exactly the kind of filmmaker he would become.

5. “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)

On paper at least, “Silver Linings Playbook” doesn’t sound like anything special. An adaptation of Matthew Quick’s debut novel of the same name — about a teacher who is hospitalized for a bipolar disorder after making a discovery of his wife’s infidelity — Russell’s sixth feature bears all the trappings of cynical Oscar bait on its admittedly glossy surface. And while the film’s detractors complain that the result is too cloying and/or contrived, the film’s high points are practically impossible to deny. ‘Silver Linings,’ like its hero, is unabashedly sincere, a little crazy, occasionally irritating but ultimately winning: a stirring, sad and often bruisingly funny ode to forgiveness and reinvention. Bradley Cooper does astonishing work as Pat Solintano: a man who, in the wake of a personal tragedy, is determined to find the “silver lining” in every situation, even if said situation ends with him being kicked out of his therapist’s office or beating the crap out of his sweet, football-loving dad Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro, defying the late-career slump many have accused him of being stuck in). The moody, explosive Pat eventually meets a kindred spirit in the form of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence, beginning what would be a fruitful working relationship with the director). She’s a promiscuous, whip-smart troublemaker who’s working through her own set of very dark issues. Cooper and Lawrence have a fascinating, prickly, give-and-take chemistry in what would be their first collaboration with Russell (De Niro would go on to work with the director again in both “American Hustle” and “Joy,” as would character actor Shea Whigham, who plays Pat’s more stable brother in “Silver Linings” and has a small role in “Hustle”). Many have unjustly labeled the film a rom-com, and while the script inevitably hits some familiar beats, labelling the film as such feels a bit reductive. Like practically all of Russell’s films, “Silver Linings Playbook” is a big-hearted look at flawed, desperate people struggling to be the best possible versions of themselves that they can be. Sure, a few of the film’s plot threads are too neatly wrapped up and yes, the film actually climaxes with an exuberant dance-off that foretells the fates of the movie’s characters. But these are small quibbles, as only a churl could resist the sparkling human vision Russell has concocted here: a poignant chronicle of life’s highs and lows and a superb showcase for its stars.

4. “The Fighter” (2010)

As much of a comeback story for its director as for its main character, Irish welterweight boxer Mickey Ward, “The Fighter” is that rarest of things: an unapologetic Hollywood underdog story that’s genuinely rousing and heartwarming and never once insults the intelligence of its audience. The first entry in a sort of unofficial trilogy about family and identity, (preceding “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” both similarly sprawling and rambunctious character comedies played in a signature key) “The Fighter” is slightly more idiosyncratic and personal-feeling than these sorts of films tend to be. In other words, it’s more vintage John Cassavetes than “Rocky”. The film contains all of the training montages and bone-crunching fights that committed fans of these films have come to expect, but strip away the boxing milieu and what you’re left with is a moving and often painful story of one ordinary blue-collar schnook and the toxic, if ultimately well-meaning family that he feels trapped by. Russell’s longtime leading man Mark Wahlberg gives one of his most reserved, nuanced turns as the “Son of Lowell, Massachusetts,” Ward: it’s the exact opposite of what Jake Gyllenhaal did in “Southpaw,” abandoning actorly tics for a sense of earnest, lived-in realism. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Micky’s spectacularly troubled brother Dicky Eklund (a revelatory Christian Bale, who deservedly took home an Oscar for his work here). Dicky’s a former fighting phenom-turned-crackhead whose attempts to worm his way back into his more famous brother’s life only result in him sinking deeper into the muck. Also along for the ride are Micky’s big-haired, trash-talking mom, (a show-stopping Melissa Leo) his seven terrifying, chain-smoking sisters and a sad-eyed bartender (Amy Adams, in her first collaboration with Russell) who sees the human side of Micky where others only see dollar signs. The film is remarkable for how it toggles between bare-knuckle, anything-goes black comedy and a tone of dead-serious sports drama with little to none of the tonal wonkiness that has sometimes marred Russell’s efforts (“Spanking the Monkey” being the foremost example). “The Fighter” also marks a pivotal moment for its director, where he managed to embrace mainstream formula as a way of telling his own uniquely personal stories on a somewhat larger scale. Gritty and vibrant, hilarious and heartbreaking, “The Fighter” is nothing short of a K.O.

3. “Flirting With Disaster” (1996)

If there’s anything that resembles an undervalued gem in Russell’s filmography, it’s his second film, an all-star comedy that builds on the voice and tone of his debut to far more raucous and accessible effect (though the film, sadly, failed to find much of an audience at the time). Ben Stiller, still a few years from his big-screen stardom arriving with “There’s Something About Mary,” stars as Mel, a new father married to Patricia Arquette’s Nancy, who on the birth of his child, decides to seek out his biological parents, upsetting his adoptive mother and father (George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore). A road trip begins, the family joined by adoption agency employee Tina (Tea Leoni), but there’s been a mix up, and they end up meeting multiple possible parents (Celia Weston, David Patrick Kelly, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin), but also a pair of gay ATF agents (Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins). Few genres are as difficult to make work on screen than farce — only the most skilled comedic filmmakers can pull it off (“Mistress America” being one of the few recent examples), and even then only seemingly half the time. But Russell’s sharply plotted, consistently uproarious script makes it work, the road movie momentum giving the story a breathlessness that stagier attempts usually fail at: it’s like Hal Ashby taught early Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen how to smoke weed and relax a little. The feel of timeless comedy is carried across by the cast, with 1960s and 1970s vets like Moore, Tomlin and Segal relishing the chance to play with some slightly edgier material, while Stiller’s terrific, and Russell finds a comic deftness in performers like Arquette, Brolin and Leoni that they’ve rarely been able to capitalize on since. (Best in show, though, might be Richard Jenkins, utterly hysterical as Brolin’s partner/lover, particularly once he ends up tripping on LSD). The film might not quite have the heart of some of Russell’s later movies, and it certainly doesn’t have the technical chops, but the pleasing looseness, and astonishing facility with an ensemble, has carried through ever since.

2. “American Hustle” (2013)

There was something sort of fascinating about the marketing of “American Hustle.” The film’s trailers and posters made literally no effort to convey some kind of high-concept, or plot of any kind, just letting old-fashioned star power, a loosey-goosey 70s vibe, and what’s rapidly become a sort of David O. Russell brand. The kind of movie, in other words, that wasn’t meant to get made anymore. It got ten Oscar nominations and took a quarter-of-a-billion-dollars in box office. Russell’s most recent released movie pre-“Joy” might be his toughest to synopsize: in short, it’s the very loosely based-in-fact tale of a con-man (Christian Bale), his partner in crime and in the bedroom (Amy Adams), the FBI agent who enlists them in a sting (Bradley Cooper), the politician they target (Jeremy Renner), the con-man’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence), her mobster lover (Jack Huston), his boss (Robert De Niro) and plenty more beside. This isn’t to say that Russell and his script (co-written with Eric Warren Singer) is uninterested in the story here. It’s more that, even more so than in the unofficial trilogy it completes (though from the looks of “Joy,” it may turn out to be the third part in a four film cycle), he’s leading with character, a movie more about how these people interact, the lies and truths they tell each other, the heartbreaks and deceit they weave, than anything else. In fact, it’s a shame that it couldn’t stick with the original title of the script, “American Bullshit,” a far more accurate reflection of the finished film, and the themes at play. It’s Russell’s most sprawling and novelistic picture, but also his most playful, a freewheeling, raucous party, and one where all the guests are bringing something, from Bale’s pot-bellied, combover-wearing nominal hero, the most relaxed and lived-in thing he’s ever done, to a typical firecracker turn from Lawrence, to Adams’ sultry, vulnerable heroine, to Cooper’s frat-boy, red-mist, jehri-curled FBI agent, to Renner’s slick, disarmingly dignified mayor (the latter was the only one not to get an Oscar nomination: a shame, as he’s as good as the rest). Some dismissed the film as a Scorsese imitator, but a couple of years after the dust settled, it’s clearer than ever that this is the purest David O. Russell picture we’ve had to date.

1. “Three Kings” (1999)

David O. Russell’s big studio debut might have disappointed at the box office, tanked with awards voters and permanently ruptured his relationship with George Clooney (the two famously came to blows on set, Clooney reportedly headbutting Russell over the treatment of an extra), but “Three Kings” now stands as the director’s most perfect picture, one of the very best films of one of the best years in American cinema history. Working from, and heavily rewriting, a script by future “12 Years A Slave” writer John Ridley, “Three Kings” promised on paper to be a sort of gung-ho action movie, a riff on “Kelly’s Heroes” set during the then-distant Gulf War. It does work as an action movie — the action sequences, particularly the big final shoot out, do what they do as well as you could possibly hope. But it also does so much more besides. Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and, in a surprising, surprisingly effective piece of casting, fellow director and pal Spike Jonze, play four soldiers who go A.W.O.L. in search of Saddam Hussein’s gold (via a map found in a man’s ass) as the Gulf War comes to an end, only to end up in a humanitarian showdown with the Republican Guard. Russell uses the action movie treasure hunt framework for one of the most sharply funny anti-war movies since “M*A*S*H,” and one not happy to simply rest on platitudes, but instead that skewers American foreign policy, embodied through our brash anti-heroes, while retaining a humanism and compassion for everyone involved. Few of the actors have done better work than they do here before or since, and there’s some lovely work in the supporting cast too from Nora Dunn, Cliff Curtis and in particular Saïd Taghmaoui as Wahlberg’s Iraqi interrogator, a man he shares more than a little in common with. Fuck, even Jamie Kennedy’s good here. And, though the film’s startling different stylistically to anything that Russell’s made since, this feels like his coming-of-age as a filmmaker. The characteristic looseness carries over and steers this away from the formulaic traps that would have been so easy to fall into, but with a formal playfulness (thanks in large part to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, doing career-best work) that suggested he was becoming a real master of the craft.

Russell kicked off his career with a pair of shorts, “Bingo Inferno: A Parody On American Obsessions,” and “Hairway to The Stars.” In 2004, he also released 35-minute documentary “Soldiers Pay,” co-directed with Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar, intended for a DVD re-issue of “Three Kings.” Warner Bros abandoned it, due to potential controversies, but it did eventually see the light of day, and it’s strong work that suggests that Russell should think about returning to the non-fiction world more often.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Nicholas Laskin

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