David O. Russell

Ben Stiller’s film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is one of several late contenders for the awards season in 2014. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox. 

Colin McLaughlin: We’d like to spend the last installment of Oscar Bait talking about the state of the awards race and then move into highlighting some of the awards categories we’ve largely ignored up to this point. As far as the top two awards, Best Picture and Best Director, they haven’t changed since October. “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” are the top contenders for Best Picture, and their helmers, Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron, are really the only ones being talked about for Best Director.  

Lee Henry: Absolutely. Other well-received directors like Alexander Payne, Paul Greengrass and the Coen brothers, are basically jockeying for spots in the category. There are some potential, late-breaking surprises such as recent Academy darling David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street,” but no one has seen either of them, and I doubt either will be able to take down McQueen or Cuaron.

CM: The Hollywood Reporter has already filmed its yearly Director’s Roundtable, which featured McQueen, Greengrass, Russell, Cuaron, Ben Stiller and Lee Daniels. Stiller’s film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is screening well so far, so he may have dark horse status. Right now, I’m guessing that Daniels won’t be nominated given that “The Butler” is by now so distant compared to the other contending films. 

LH: In just a month’s time, we’ll have seen most of the winners for the major film critics’ societies, as well as the nominees for the Golden Globes and Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. Russell’s last two films have forged intense emotional connections with their audiences and led “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” to awards success, and “American Hustle” will be the most recent film in a lot of voters’ minds as they nominate. I don’t like to predict films I haven’t seen for nominations, but I won’t be surprised if it happens. 

CM: “Captain Phillips” is receiving strong support for director, actor and likely Best Picture nomination. To me, it looks like one of the films that will garner a lot of nominations — mostly technical — but few wins — sound editing and mixing is the best bet for a “Captain Phillips” win, though “Gravity” very well could make a technical sweep. “12 Years” will take the adapted screenplay award. Nothing else could possibly stand in that category — “Philomena,” “Captain Phillips,” maybe even “Before Midnight” — against John Ridley’s take on Solomon Northup’s memoir. You’ve seen “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Blue Jasmine,” both by directors that are known for their writing ability. Thoughts on the original screenplay category?

LH: As far as Best Screenplay, it is almost certain “12 Years a Slave” will take Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Original Screenplay is more up in the air. 

CM: The potential award winning movies still to come out this year include “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “August, Osage County,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Labor Day” and “Her.” 

LH: After winter break, we’ll discuss the inevitable craziness of awards in December and January and see how our personal predictions stack up against reality.

Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Photo courtesy Mirage Enterprises. 

David O. Russell is one of Hollywood’s most unpredictable working filmmakers. Russell’s journey from war comedy “Three Kings” to Oscar-winning boxing drama “The Fighter” is one that’s fairly hard to chart, especially because one of his interim films, “Nailed,” is likely never going to be released. His new film, “Silver Linings Playbook,” is another unpredictable step for Russell, a romantic comedy dressed up as an inspirational examination of mental illness.

Set in Philadelphia, “Silver Linings Playbook” tells the story of Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper), who is discharged from a mental hospital in the film’s opening scene. He returns home to his parents (Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver), who are instantly on edge about a possible repeat of the incident that got him incarcerated in the first place. Pat’s erratic behavior doesn’t help their concerns, but once he meets the just-as-nuts Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) and agrees to participate in a dance contest with her, things slowly start to come back together for Pat and his family.

When you think of this generation’s best dramatic actors, Bradley Cooper is by no means the first name that comes to mind, but he is quite impressive as a man who’s just starting to figure out how deep his mental deficiencies run. Cooper is imposing here, always on edge, and when he loses control of his illness, there’s an intensity to his performance that’s only matched by the sorrow he feels once he recovers. It’s unexpectedly harrowing and moving work, and Cooper would be receiving some serious awards-attention if not for an overriding factor.

That factor is the stupendous Jennifer Lawrence, who turns in her most accomplished performance to date. Between launching a film franchise with “The Hunger Games” and this film, Lawrence is having an incredible year. She plays so many different notes, hitting all of them perfectly. In just one scene, Lawrence can go from sexy to wounded to furious. At one point she even goes nose-to-nose with Robert De Niro and wins, something very few actors can say. If there’s one reason to see “Silver Linings Playbook,” it’s Lawrence’s work, because there really aren’t enough good things to say about her performance.

The rest of the cast is filled with essential performances, some bigger than others, all of them ranging from good to excellent. As Pat’s bookie father, De Niro is just as crazy as his son in an entirely different way. Weaver and Shea Whigham round out Pat’s family, both instrumental to exploring Pat’s mental issues while turning in solid performances.

“Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t directed with the precision that we’ve come to expect from Russell, but some of that has to do with the emotional messiness of the material. Mental illness is a difficult thing to make cinematically compelling, and Russell mixes some very dark material with big laughs. The film gets a bit shrill at times and the pacing a bit spastic, but there’s some creative, evocative staging by Russell. David O. Russell has made another crowd-pleaser with “Silver Linings Playbook,” one that plays in heavy emotional territory. Strong performances and a solid handle on tone keep the film from becoming too overbearing, but an ending that’s too sweet by a significant measure concludes the film on a remarkably convenient note. Even so, it’s an entertaining, engaging film and worth seeing, even if only to see Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper give their best performances to date.