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TOH! Ranks the Films of David O. Russell from Best to Worst

TOH! Ranks the Films of David O. Russell from Best to Worst

Maybe all great auteurs are a little crazy. What does it take, after all, to keep creating movies year after year that entertain and surprise and bear an inimitable authorial stamp? David O. Russell has grown on me since I saw his first film, “Spanking the Monkey,” which broke out at Sundance in 1994. I attended a festival press conference, notebook in hand, and somehow Russell intuited from my facial expressions that I didn’t much like his movie. And he remembers it to this day! My take at the time was that he was an ambitious New York filmmaker who intended to shock Hollywood with his well-acted incestual family drama audition piece. Well, it worked; he got their attention and then some.

Eight films later, his movies are of a piece. They don’t fit comfortably into genre structures, although “Silver Linings Playbook” is a romantic comedy and “Three Kings” is a war movie, which may explain why they are among his best-received. The idiosyncratic director doesn’t accede easily to studio dictates, which is why he has gravitated toward such mavericks as Harvey Weinstein and Megan Ellison, who allow him to experiment with form and content. 

He likes to force comedy out of tragedy, and to push his actors into uncomfortable places that often result in their best work. (Hence the many reports of his volatile set explosions.) Although some pros like Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams may not want to repeat their intense experience on “American Hustle,” Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper form the Russell family unit. 

And even if his most recent film “Joy” doesn’t meet the standards of quality entertainment set by his trio of Oscar-nominated movies, “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “American Hustle,” the biopic inspired by mop inventor Joy Mangano is still identifiably a DOR movie—structurally defiant, exuberantly acted, edited until the last possible moment, unpredictable and undeniably fun. 

There’s a lot to be said for that. —Anne Thompson

Here are our rankings, which were much debated. Never have TOH! writers been so much at odds. 

1. “Three Kings”(1999)
A frantic, beautiful meeting of sky and sand set in the days following the end of the first Gulf War, Russell’s satirical portrait of the anarchy of American empire is the most visually arresting title in his filmography, jostled by Newton Thomas Sigel’s desaturated, angular compositions. Blending action, black comedy, fantasy, and reportage, it’s also among the loosest, to the point that it periodically spins off its axis; in the image of a bullet penetrating bile ducts deep in the human body, or a slow-motion shootout unspooling beneath streaks of white clouds, the style outruns the storytelling. If the repeated refrain “Tell me what we did here” puts rather too fine a point on the film’s main theme, however, its skewering of a rapacious war in the Middle East remains timely and provocative. As a trio of American soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube) becomes embroiled in the complications of postwar Iraq while on a trek to steal Saddam’s gold, in fact, “Three Kings” offers a fiery condemnation of American policy even more resonant today than it was upon its release in 1999. Diving headlong into the gulf between actions and consequences, ideal and reality, the film is clouded with portents that came all too true in the subsequent decade, achieving the effect of a premonition. – Matt Brennan 

2. “Flirting with Disaster” (1996)
This daffy screwball ensemble comedy is David O. Russell at his most relaxed—even as the energies contained in this dysfunctional family story are manic and loose. Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette turn in winningly funny performances as neurotic New Yorkers Mel and Nancy Coplin, who are accompanied by the brazen, slinky Tina (Tea Leoni) on a road trip to San Diego to meet Mel’s estranged biological mother. Instead they find themselves landing in one screwing detour after another, including comic appearances from Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins as an unlikely gay couple causing friction for Nancy and Mel, and Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda as Mel’s liberal, LSD-making biological family. Setting the stage for Russell’s wilier efforts such as “I Heart Huckabees” or “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Flirting with a Disaster” features dextrous feats of comedy acting, with almost everybody playing against type. – Ryan Lattanzio

3. “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012)

Russell’s most successful movie to date combines the
romantic comedy genre with his nose for family dysfunction, as his romantic
leads, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, are two lost,
emotionally damaged yet attractive people who draw comfort and kinship from
each other. Russell has, dare I say it, Billy Wilder’s tough unsentimental
approach to romance. This delicately edited relationship comedy is both funny and
moving. Even in this cynical age, we root for these two characters in pain to
heal each other, win their dance contest and find true love. After landing the
coveted “Silver Linings” role via a Skype audition from Louisville,
Lawrence embraced Russell’s hardboiled directing style. If he told her
something sucked, she did it again, including that scene-stopping football
monologue that drew cheers in theaters. An actress who relies on her own
instincts on how to read a character and make her real, Lawrence came into her
own with this Oscar-winning performance. – Anne Thompson

4. “I Heart Huckabees” (2004)
Russell’s polarizing surrealist screwball, in which a man in crisis (Jason Schwartzman) hires a pair of existential detectives (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to investigate his place in the human fabric, peers into the abyss with insane intellectual acrobatics and roughneck slapstick alike. (Tomlin traipsing through lawn sprinklers in an eggshell-blue pantsuit never fails to make me laugh.) As Schwartzman’s alienated environmentalist spars with a stooge for the titular big-box store (Jude Law), romances a French nihilist (Isabelle Huppert), and befriends a desperate firefighter (the inspired Mark Wahlberg), Russell dabbles in philosophy, politics, and pop culture with the same dreamy, agile humor as Jon Brion’s unforgettable score—even the somewhat clunky attempts to visualize being and nothingness are bracing little bursts of invention. In its hysterically funny, startlingly prescient attempt to “dismantle the world as you know it,” as Tomlin’s character says, “Huckabees” displays the full measure of Russell’s wild imagination. Many consider it a failure, noble or otherwise, but I think it’s his masterpiece, and one of the three or four finest American comedies of the past 15 years. – MB

5. “Joy” (2015) 
Ever idiosyncratic, David O. Russell assembled his usual trio of Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro to headline rollicking biopic “Joy,” loosely based on the true story of mop inventor/pitch woman Joy Mangano. Lawrence ably carries Russell’s first film with an everywoman protagonist at its center who is not crazy. We follow driven Mangano from 10 to 43, sharing her daydreams and nightmares before and after she achieves success. She’s an imperturbable Long Island single mom entrepreneur with the capacity to persevere against her chaotic, undermining family, especially her father (Robert De Niro). Russell merges Joy’s fantasies with those of her mother (Virginia Madsen), who is obsessed with daytime soap operas, her supportive Latin husband (Edgar Ramirez), and the wizard of Emerald City—Lancaster, Penn.—(Bradley Cooper), who finally gives Mangano her chance to shine on QVC. It’s fun to follow this woman who has the smarts to figure out how to pull herself up and buck the assumption that working class moms can’t win. – AT

6. “The Fighter” (2010)
The view here is that everybody got it wrong. The engine of Russell’s bio-pic about Boston fighter “Irish” Mickey Ward wasn’t Melissa Leo’s hellacious ring mother Alice Ward (a role Leo was born to overplay); it wasn’t really Christian Bale’s crack-head Dicky Eklund, Alice’s son, Ward’s half-brother and the Norman Maine of Mickey’s snake-bitten boxing career. The best performance in the movie was delivered by Mark Wahlberg, the only one not ACTING with a capital A-C-T-I-N-G and who played the title role of Mickey Ward as the deliberate, determined center of calm amidst a riot of scenery chewing and horrendous characters (remember those seven sisters? OMFG). 

The view here too is that it was according to Russell’s precise calculations: It was Mickey’s story, about Mickey’s success, which had to be won not by a guy who was self-indulgent, weak and apt to blame everyone else for his failings (like his brother), or who was all brassy attitude and obliviousness (like his mother), but someone who had the talent, guts and a sufficient number of dysfunctional family members to render it all useless. Wahlberg has never been better, or a better example of how subtlety and craft are lost on the awards voters: Apparently, there was no room for a Best Actor nomination for Wahlberg after Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) and Javier Bardem (“Biutiful”) were deemed worthy of nominations. Really? Go watch the movie again. – John Anderson

7. “American Hustle” (2013) 
What better way to do the hustle than with a breathless con
vs. con caper. For those who never felt the heavy thump-thump-thump of a disco
anthem while the heady scent of Opium and poppers hung in the air, sweat poured
forth from tight polyester suits and breast-baring dresses and a spinning mirror ball blinded your
eyes, this black-hearted comedy will make you feel like you lived through the late ’70s by the time the credits
roll. You will also experience some rather questionable era-correct
hairdos. Russell knows the best
way to throw a party on screen is to invite the right actors, and the usual
suspects from his movies past are all here: Jennifer Lawrence (as a Medusa-locked mad Jersey housewife), Bradley Cooper
(as a heavily-permed FBI agent
looking for a big bust using Abscam-like tactics), Christian Bale and Amy Adams (as shysters in love who are coerced into helping Cooper
pull his coup), and Robert De Niro (as a Mafia big shot, natch). 

The storytelling is uneven
and the chicanery afoot gets a bit tangled in the details. But who cares when a
sexy-as-hell Lawrence, peeved about husband Bale’s outside activities, belts
out “Live and Let Die” during a manic spate of housecleaning while expressively
waving her Playtex-gloved hands. 
Russell hasn’t been this loose or worked an ensemble cast better since
“Flirting With Disaster.” But, here he is flirting with his success as a
filmmaker and it pays off big time. – Susan Wloszczyna

8. “Spanking the Monkey” (1994)

Back when there were boundaries to push, and Sundance movies
(“Poison,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Clerks”) regularly pushed them, none was pushier
than Russell’s feature debut “Spanking the Monkey”—which, as everyone already
knew going in, was going to be about a young guy sleeping with his mother. In what would be a commercial
success coming out of Utah, Russell threw his audience (especially his male
audience) at least two sizable sets of curves: Mom was played by MILF
extraordinaire Alberta Watson, who died earlier this year at the ridiculous age
of 60. So, y’know … Also, the son was played by Jeremy Davies, whom you
wouldn’t put anything past, even way back before he was playing Dickie Bennett
on “Justified.” 

But Russell showed precocious control over subject matter
that, yes, may have been calculated to get him attention, but which also told a
complicated psychological story: medical student Ray Aibelli (Davies) is set to
begin a prestigious summer internship when his mother, Susan, breaks her leg
and his father (Benjamin Hendrickson), who’s heading out of town on business,
tells Ray he’s got to stay home. Which he does, losing the internship and
girlfriend and being put in the kind of physical proximity to his already
unhappy mother that ultimately leads to trouble. OK, not everyone’s brand of
trouble. But Russell doesn’t make it sci-fi either: The thrust, shall we say,
of “Spanking the Monkey”—as it would be in all those Russell movies
to come—is unorthodox characters in unusual conflict. And as usual, the payoff
is considerable.  – JA

9. “Accidental Love (2015)
This long-delayed crime against cinema finally arrived in
theaters and on VOD in March, five years after David O. Russell walked away from
the project—which was beset with
funding woes—and refused to be associated with it. While it’s no “The Day the
Clown Died,” this putrid political satire is strictly for David O.
completists and those who want
to feed their masochistic streak. Danger signs begin to flash early and often during the film’s anachronistically frantic “Happy Days” opening sequence, with a miscast Jessica Biel as roller-skating car hop Alice.
That’s before a nail becomes lodged in her head, which causes her libido to
slip into overdrive along with other side effects such as speaking in
Portuguese. This laugh-free comic catastrophe then shifts into a toothless
depiction of self-serving Capitol
Hill politicos as Alice pleads her case for health insurance reform so she can
pay her bills—a premise that seems out of date now that Obamacare is a
reality.

The lone light-hearted scene that bears some semblance of
Russell’s usual deft, humorous touch takes place in the office of Alice’s local
congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal, never more bug-eyed as he strains to be funny), who becomes the beneficiary of her rampant lustful urges. Round and round the
camera whirls as arms and legs flail during their heavy-panting interlude, set to the strains of “At Last.” If “Accidental Love” has had any positive effect on the
universe, it perhaps served as an extra incentive for Russell to get his act
together and release three Oscar best-picture contenders in a row—one fewer
than Frank Capra, though he could tie if “Joy” makes the cut. But he has a ways
to go to match William Wyler’s run of seven. – SW

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