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American Hustle: One of 2013's best films
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‘American Hustle’

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C.K.

Rated: R, for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence

Run time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Bottomline: One of the year’s best

“American Hustle” is now officially one of the buzziest films of the awards season.

The anticipation for director David O. Russell’s fictionalized account of the FBI’s late 1970s ABSCAM sting operation was already heated thanks to its magnificent cast and a trailer that bursts off the screen.

On Tuesday of this week, though, the polarizing yet influential New York Film Critics Circle surprisingly awarded it best film and best screenplay, catapulting the film into heavyweight status.

Expect to hear a lot of hype about the film for the next two months, and all the while keep one thing in mind: “American Hustle” lives up to that hype in every possible way.

This is true despite its rather awkward beginning.

The opening scene lingers on con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) standing at the mirror, meticulously gluing a hairpiece onto his bald scalp then combing his remaining hair over it. The next scene introduces the love triangle between Irving and ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who argue over Irving’s partner in crime, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams).

Irving and Richie spar and Sydney keeps the peace as the three prepare to entrap a target, but we have no context for this little drama. It’s funny but lacks the punch of a truly great beginning.

Then for the first 20 minutes or so, the movie plays like a Martin Scorsese film without the energy. It’s set in New York City in the late ’70s, multiple characters speak in voice-over narration, and at the center of it all is a big scam.

All of this makes it too reminiscent of “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

These scenes mark an inauspicious beginning to what becomes a great film.

“American Hustle” finds its voice about 30 minutes in and builds more tension, complexity and quirk with each successive scene, until we are riveted throughout an absolutely perfect final hour.

We have seen a lot of movies about pivotal moments in 1970s American culture, yet this feels fresh. The movie is sexy without being lewd, and the writing is smart without being pretentious. Like “Argo,” it tells a dramatic story yet is so funny so much of the time it almost deserves to be called a comedy.

Each one of the acting roles is spot on and represents some sort of growth for the actor.

One of the movie’s greatest joys is watching Bale play a vulnerable, bloated and bald hustler from the Bronx. The same man who made himself into an awesome physical specimen for the Batman movies gained 40 pounds and got a comb over for this role. This movie will remind everyone that Bale is a great dramatic, as well as comedic, actor.

Adams slinks and struts through the movie wearing blouses so low-cut and sheer they leave little to the imagination. Her Sydney is duplicitous, scheming and manipulative, which shows us a whole new side of the actress.

Jennifer Lawrence, whom the New York critics named best supporting actress, is, once again, spectacular as Irving’s volatile wife, a woman described as “the Picasso of passive-aggressive kung fu.”

Cooper and Jeremy Renner, as a mayor who lets his love of his people make him too trusting, also get to spread themselves into new territory — just like their director, David O. Russell, who continues to build an impressively diverse and consistently outstanding body of work.

“American Hustle” will compete for all the major awards, particularly in the acting categories. In virtually every respect this is an impressive piece of work that belongs on everyone’s top-10 list and needs to be seen by all movie lovers.

It’s the rare film that makes critics gush but will also please a wide swath of viewers. Great films aren’t always able to be viewed repeatedly, but I wanted to see this one again the moment the credits began to roll.