This week Andrew, Kyle, and Ryan will be discussing the one scene from each of the films that they feel clenched their nomination for the Best Picture Oscar. *Some spoilers to follow*
Our “pick which scene secured the Oscar nomination” idea may have set me up with a trick question when it comes to American Hustle. Part of the reason the movie is such a joy to watch is that it's propelled forward with the manic energy of the direction and acting—it's tough to even pick a scene in retrospect where the movie slows down enough to encapsulate its strengths in the sort of convenient way Oscar-bait often makes time for.
So on one hand, there's the concise and definitive anti-answer: it sealed the nomination by imbuing every scene with so much energy, so much to love on a basic level, that Academy members couldn't help but nominate it for the sheer delirious craft on display. Playing the game correctly though, I'd say there are 2 scenes that probably worked to secure the Best Picture nomination more than anything else: the one where Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) goes to Mayor Carmine Polito's home (Jeremy Renner) to reveal to him that he's the subject of an FBI sting, and the later scene at the FBI headquarters where, much to Agent DiMaso's chagrin (Bradley Cooper), it becomes apparent that Rosenfeld and co. have actually conned the bureau out of millions.
The first scene works because it strikes a surprisingly genuine dramatic note in a movie where the other dramatic scenes are played at a level just subtle enough to not quite become farce. We get a look past Rosenfeld's constantly calculated and manipulative exterior into some real emotion—he's genuinely sorry that he's hurt Polito, with whom he's developed a friendship over the course of the sting. That it never occurs to Rosenfeld that this friendship was built almost entirely on an elaborate lie maintained by him and the FBI, and therefore is no more real than anything else in his life, is ironic in the kind of (sym)pathetic way fitting of Russel's characters.
Then there's the later scene, in which Rosenfeld and his accomplice Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) plead ignorance when it's revealed that $10 million supposedly used as part of the FBI sting has gone missing—subtly hinting that DiMaso may be to blame. This one works both in that audience-pleasing way that always accompanies the moment where a character gets his well-deserved comeuppance, but it also provides a narrative payoff for the audience, who has up until this point been watching a con movie with none of the standard conventions. When Rosenfeld and Prosser finally pull one over on DiMaso and the bureau, we get a quick “Sting” moment (another Best Picture winner) where we're shown how certain things we've seen previously were actually functioning differently than we thought.
It's interesting that both of these scenes are still, at their heart, functioning to satisfy basic audience demands. American Hustle is, more than any of the other 9 films nominated for Best Picture this year, a movie constructed to entertain at the highest level. Whereas the others have their own mix of political agendas, social/cultural commentary, and aspirations to High Art, Russel delivered a classically cinematic experience—it won't win, but I'd be fine if it did.