There appears to be two sides to David O. Russell. On one side, there is a celebrated director who produces movies that are fun and vibrant but with depth and substance, and who challenges societal stigmas around mental health, feminine autonomy, love, and family. Originality has earned this Russell and his movies several Oscar nominations and wins, and some might even say he’s a cinematic pioneer.
On the flip side, the New Yorker’s name has often been shrouded in a cloud of controversy. From allegations of mistreatment of various actors (including Amy Adams and Lily Tomlin) and purportedly putting Christopher Nolan in a headlock, to reports of sexual assault, where the director himself had confirmed that he’d inappropriately touched his own niece. It’s fair to presume that the American Hustle director is a difficult man to work with (just ask George Clooney) and whose methods on-set are not just challenging, but borderline abusive.
His alleged personal shortcomings aside, Russell has written and directed some truly excellent movies. Even though his most recent film Amsterdam has received mixed to negative reviews, we thought we’d take a look at some of Russell’s best and attempt to clarify a few things.
Amsterdam is David O. Russell’s latest release and, yes, it’s been seriously panned. Perhaps that’s partly because of the immense hype behind Amsterdam — the director’s first film in seven years, with a stellar ensemble cast and hotly-anticipated build-up, the movie couldn’t live up to expectations and proved to be somewhat divisive (and mostly disliked) among critics. The movie itself is a confusing jigsaw puzzle that hopscotches back and forth in time.
It tells the story of two World War I army vets, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold (John David Washington), who through various acts of misfortune find themselves and their partner Valerie (Margot Robbie) as suspects in the midst of a double homicide investigation.
The three go on to uncover the perpetrators and the right-wing ideals they hope to instill into American politics.
Russell brought in a huge ensemble cast of newcomers to his process (Chris Rock, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Shannon, Zoe Saldana, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Taylor Swift, Rami Malek, and more) along with usual Russell recruits Bale and Robert De Niro, all of whom put in dazzling displays. The huge (and hugely talented) cast, along with great attention to detail with its beautiful set design and costumes, certainly helps to restore some semblance of logic to a convoluted screenplay. Even if the viewer is confused or lost while watching the film, Amsterdam is still a visual delight and a big showcase for some of today’s best actors.
5/6 Spanking the Monkey
In his 1994 directorial debut Spanking the Monkey, David O. Russell delivers perhaps his most controversial screenplay to date. The film concerns the story of forbidden love, an incestuous relationship between a mother and son. Outside one great film (Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart), Russell confronts a topic that is only ever really addressed in those semi-sordid 90s porn movies on shoestring budgets.
With his father out of town on business, medical student Ray (Jeremy Davies) is forced into forgoing an exciting internship due to his mother breaking her leg. Throughout the summer, Ray and his mother Susan (Alberta Watson) get closer and closer until the unthinkable happens. An extremely uncomfortable and provocative comedy, Spanking the Monkey announced Russell as a major new voice.
4/6 Three Kings
Three Kings walked so the likes of Jarhead and End of Watch could run. The action-packed war movie from 1999 gave birth to the grainy, handheld, docufilm style seen in so many war and cop movies. After the conclusion of the Gulf War, American troops prepare to head home, though when they discover they are literally sitting on a gold mine (in the form of a gold cache just a few miles from their military base), the soldiers decide to abort their imminent departing mission and set their sights on a ton of gold.
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube star in this action flick that is both fully aware of how the American army can often be perceived around the world as a lawless, brash, and overly-forceful body, but also demonstrates the reality of modern warfare, its consequences on communities overseas, and what the boredom of waiting can do in a highly-charged (highly armed) military environment. Three Kings combines action and comedy to great effect, and with its very sharp script and charming performances, it’s up there as one of Russell’s very best.
3/6 Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook isn’t your typical rom-com; instead, it’s a movie where its characters are both realistically flawed and broken, and Russell throws you through the emotional ringer before he truly allows you to enjoy the ultimate feel-goodness of what you’re watching.
Starring Bradley Cooper, Russell’s new muse Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro, the film is a story of love and compassion through personal hardship, following Pat Solitano (Cooper), a sufferer of bipolar disorder recently released from a psychiatric ward who is on a mission to get his estranged wife back. In the process, he meets Tiffany (Lawrence), who offers to help him in his quest in return for partnering up with her at a local dance competition.
2/6 The Fighter
Following the inspiring true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a journeyman boxer from a deprived area of Lowell, Massachusetts, The Fighter details Ward’s struggles at distancing himself from his older brother’s shadow, Dickie Ecklund (Christian Bale), who, having been a well-regarded boxer himself falls into a life of substance abuse and minor crime.
The movie traverses Ward’s rise to the top against the odds, and the synergy between Wahlberg and Bale keeps the film ticking along effortlessly. The Fighter is a classic case of a zero-to-hero sports flick and boasts the sentiment of hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
1/6 American Hustle
Hairspray, brown flares, ultra-suede, cashmere, miniskirts, large golden-rimmed aviators, and open-button shirts with huge collars — David O Russell’s American Hustle mastered 1970s iconography better than most recent films. It’s a movie that is bold, brash, and statement-making. Two con-men Irv (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) are played into working for an undercover FBI agent in return for a reprieve for their fraudulent misdeeds. American Hustle is a blend of romance, crime, and drama, and possesses this pizzazz and showiness that not only makes it an exquisitely entertaining watch but an aesthetic masterpiece.