“American Hustle” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” bring 2013 to a strong close

The 2013 film calendar is close to wrapping up and after all that wading through the clearance section of the year, we have finally been rewarded with two early Christmas presents in the form of two films opening this Friday, December 20 from some of the best American directors working today. David O. Russell’s 1970s semi-nonfictional NYC con story American Hustle is opening at various theaters around the Twin Cities and Minneapolis-born directors Ethan and Joel Coen’s 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene Inside Llewyn Davis is opening exclusively at Landmark’s Uptown theater.
Coming off the success of his two previous films, The Fighter (2010) and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Russell should receive a third straight Best Director Oscar nomination with his latest quasi dramedy American Hustle. The movie opens with the title card “Some of this actually happened,” and immediately we find ourselves transported to a time where leisure suits, oversized aviator glasses, rotary phones and awful perms were present. From the get-go, Russell’s merry band of pirates, or actors, find themselves included in on the joke, scam, drama, and aura.
Watching Irving Rosenfeld (a dynamic Christian Bale) fixing his comb-over in the opening frame sets up a “shifting” device as Russell’s narrative begins and ends with Rosenfeld, a dry cleaner shop owner and a reasonably successful con man who may not look the part. Bale added a significant amount of weight for the role, but talks a good game. Along with Rosenfeld along for the ride is his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a part that serves her as the worm on the hook, especially when she gives herself the moniker of “Lady Edith Greensly” accompanied with a faux-British accent and showing plenty of skin  in almost every scene; how could any heterosexual male resist? When Rosenfeld and “Lady Edith” are made by undercover FBI agent Richie DiMaso (a tough-nosed Bradley Cooper) in an insurance scam, DiMaso elects not to necessarily arrest the couple, but instead convinces them to help him with a few busts—the biggest of the bunch is sacking pompadour haired New Jersey mayor, played beautifully by Jeremy Renner who at first seems a bit out of place. We are introduced to Rosenfeld’s wife, Rosalyn (a pitch-perfect Jennifer Lawrence)—a lovable loose cannon who seems to be unsure what Irving is up to much of the time.
American Hustle is based on a real-life case in the late 70s/early 80s, better known as Abscam, that lead to conviction of several congressmen on bribery charges. Clearly Russell (and co-writer Eric Warren Singer’s whose original script called American B.S was on the Black List) take some liberties in their story, but seem to have a ball bringing these cast of characters to life. Hustle is fun entertainment despite a few downfalls including a “loosey-goosey” approach to the narrative, especially in its overlong running time (137 minutes) with no sense of pacing or plot in the middle hour. It also seems to work exceedingly hard to give homage to Scorsese’s Goodfellas and director George Roy Hill’s Best Picture winner The Sting. Rather than letting the notion fall into place, it beats us over the head making sure we are following along to those references.

Hustle has entertaining aspects besides the hideous wardrobe, including stand-out performances from Lawrence and Michael Pena as a Mexican-American FBI agent playing an Arab sheik in a crucial tense scene and a great cameo. No spoilers here, but the film belongs to Bale who’s deserving of a Oscar nomination in his slick portrayal of Rosenfeld. He is confident in his looks and words, never loses his cool, and is the beating heart of Hustle’s make believe flimflam cover.
Two directors who have executed the “flimflam” genre in spectacular form are the ever-changing Ethan and Joel Coen, whose wildly surprising and heartfelt Inside Llewyn Davis brings a funny and brilliant look of the 1960s New York folk scene. The film follows one Robert Zimmerman who’s on the rise while one Llewyn Davis (perhaps based on folk musician Dave Van Ronk who had an album titled Inside Dave Van Ronk) is slowly on the decline.
Davis (brilliantly embodied by Oscar Isaac) is stilling hanging onto his dream and passion of performing folk music in an era when everyone with a guitar in the five boroughs of New York City was looking for success. Davis had released an album a few years earlier with a partner who then jumped off the George Washington Bridge (which actually makes for a great joke in the film by Coens’ regular John Goodman who plays a former jazz musician). But Davis did not have success as a duo either. When Davis learns that his fellow musician Jean (an incredibly icy Carey Mulligan) is pregnant, with a 50/50 shot of it being Llewyn’s or her own musician partner Jim (Justin Timberlake), Davis begins to question where his career is headed. Looking for money anywhere, he heads to his manager Mel (scene-stealer Jerry Grayson). Even an advance would help, but when Davis gets word that a club owner in Chicago is looking for acts, he heads west to keep the dream alive. But first he needs to return an orange tabby cat (the revealed name is an even longer payoff joke) that escapes from a neighbor’s apartment and becomes a metaphor for Davis’ own week-long odyssey into his musical and personal future.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of 2013 and one of the very best in the Coens’ career—an accolade that is used for every one of their films but really is the case here. It is a deep character study that has lacked in the past few Coen brothers films, and brings a completely unexpected haunting resolution with a breakout performance by Isaac.
Teaming again with music producer T-Bone Burnett in similar fashion as they did with 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou, the pair create bluegrass, gospel, blues and yes folk rock  in every scenario. Inside Llewyn Davis invokes the early 1960s folk movement lingering in virtually every scene and features a killer studio session with Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver (best known as Hannah’s boyfriend in HBO’s Girls) recording/performing a song Timberlake’s Jim wrote called, “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” which nails the era of joys and temperaments in the times of eventual change. And speaking of change, the Coens enlisted French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel for the first time (best known for his masterful work in Amelie and Tim Burton’s upcoming Big Eyes). Delbonnell perfectly captures the nooks and crannies of every dingy apartment corner, the closed confines of being inside of a packed and long car trip, the crisp snow falling in overcastted skies of Chicago, the solid colors of every sweater and the smoking cafes.  The widescreen lens fully captures a fluid sensual look of a time, lost but not forgotten, just like one tabby cat.