Ranked: David O. Russell, From Worst to Best

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A look back on the "American Hustle" director's stumbles and successes.

David O. Russell is part of the generation of filmmakers who started their careers in independent films, made an impression at Sundance, and then went on to work on the edges of the studio system to varying degrees of success. Russell often works with an ensemble cast and has become known as a great director of actors–for his last two films, seven different actors received Oscar nominations and three of them won. His seventh feature film, American Hustle, opens this weekend and to commemorate this, we looked back on his oeuvre from worst to best.

6.  Spanking the Monkey (1994)

This feels like a debut film. It’s about incest, which means it’s creepy and can make an audience squirm in a way that nothing else can. The performance by Alberta Watson as the incestuous mother is excellent, showing that Russell had a way with actors from the beginning. In retrospect, it’s easy to see what he was trying to do in the film, but wasn’t quite able to manage–take drama and play it for comedy. Only, it doesn’t work here. 

5.  I Heart Huckabees (2004)

For his fourth film, Russell made a movie that tried to combine anarchic comedy with larger concerns and ideas. The result is something of a mess. It’s an interesting mess, with great performances by Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin and Isabel Huppert as existential detectives and Mark Wahlberg as a firefighter, who in the aftermath of 9/11, is trying to eliminate his carbon footprint–quite successfully. Some characters are interesting, some scenes are great, but overall the film is incoherent. It’s an intriguing collection of ideas and concerns, but it never manages to be more than that. That still didn't stop it from becoming an indie cult favorite.

4.  The Fighter (2010)

The Fighter doesn’t feel like a typical Russell film, and it’s not. It’s a project he specifically joined at the request of star and producer Mark Wahlberg. It’s a darker film than typical Russell fare, but it’s also clear what attracted him to the project. Wahlberg’s Micky Ward makes an oddly bland center of the film, but he’s flanked by the performances of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, who received Oscars for their roles. Also starring is the equally impressive Amy Adams, who gives one of the most surprising and adept performances of her career. The final fight scene is well staged, but because we don’t care much about Ward by the end, his victory feels more like the inevitable conclusion to a boxing film than a real triumph. 

3. The Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

A funny drama about recovery and mental illness and loss. It remains a solidly made film, but not quite on par with Flirting with Disaster–the Russell film that it draws easy comparison to. The film ultimately suffers from its predictability. The highlight of the film is its distinguished treatment of mental illness. Early in the film, Cooper and Lawrence have a laugh out loud conversation about medication and by the end, Cooper’s character redresses his illness in a way he was unable to before he intersected with Lawrence. The emotional landscape is light-handed and graceful, despite the inevitable romantic formula. That’s Russell’s great talent: making a dramatic life-altering story in a film that never seems quite so momentous.

2. Flirting with Disaster (1996)

This is one of the best screwball comedies in contemporary cinema. Ben Stiller plays a character who wants to meet his birth parents–something his adoptive parents don’t entirely support–with his wife, a newborn, and a social worker in tow. The result is one mishap after another with each character introduction increasing the level of insanity in the film. It’s a great film for the actors. Tea Leoni has rarely been funnier, Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin are a hilarious pair of ATF agents, character actors Celia Weston and David Patrick Kelly are laugh out loud funny, and both the birth parents (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda) and adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal) steal the show. The film was groundbreaking for Stiller more than anyone involved–including Russell. Stiller played to perfection the neurotic character type he’s revisited in a string of films since–There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, Night at the Museum–to great success.

1.  Three Kings (1999)

Three Kings sounds like a depressing movie–a group of American soldiers who are trying to help Iraqis being slaughtered by Saddam Hussein’s revolutionary guard. Russell manages to make the film light, comedic at times, and yet it never minimizes the death and pain of the subject matter. It’s striking after years of fictional and biographical films just how complex a portrait the Three Kings delivers. The soldiers, the media, ordinary Iraqi civilians–all of them are presented as three dimensional figures we can relate to. The film established George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg–who were still early in their careers– as leading men, as movie stars. It also makes clear Russell’s worldview, which had been hinted at in his earlier films and would be echoed in his later work–that horrible and tragic things happen in life, but life itself is not horrible and tragic.