Another piece of the Oscar-season puzzle was unveiled Sunday night when Sony held the first major screening of David O. Russell‘s American Hustle at the Cary Grant Theatre on the Culver City lot. The packed crowd was largely made up of SAG and a few Academy members, plus select press. Since this and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (which begins screening at the end of the month) have been the two remaining question marks before we have a clear view of the complete competitive landscape, the unveiling of this one was hotly anticipated. It was definitely the place to be. In fact, one New York-based consultant working on the film flew in Sunday afternoon specifically for the screening and flew back on the red-eye immediately afterwards.

If rivals were hoping it would be a bust, or at the very least a disappointment, I hate to bring them the bad news. Although formal reviews are verboten until early next month, I can say that from my vantage point, Russell — whose last two films Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Fighter (2010) were nominated for Best Picture and Director, as well as taking some acting Oscars — has another winner with a film that will have strong appeal particularly in the actors branch and at SAG. I also think, even in this fiercely contested year, Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing and Costume nods could be in the cards along with any number of possibilities for its superb ensemble including lead actor  Christian Bale, lead actress Amy Adams, supporting actors Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner, and supporting actress Jennifer Lawrence. Especially Lawrence; she is simply dazzling as Bale’s wife, a total knockout scene-stealer throughout. If she hadn’t already won last year as Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook, there is no doubt she might be unbeatable here. At 23 years old and the star of this weekend’s all-time November record breaker, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, she may well become the frontrunner anyway to take back-to-back Academy Awards after this performance is seen. It’s prime Oscar bait. The actors, including voters I spoke to afterward, were clearly blown away. In fact the entire cast — which also includes a terrific unbilled one-scene cameo from Robert De Niro, who was nominated last year for Silver Linings — will certainly figure heavily for the SAG Outstanding Cast of a Motion Picture award. One person connected to the film to whom I spoke said early reaction had been on the mixed side, but I couldn’t detect that at this screening. It was all upbeat. Time will tell.

At last week’s Governors Awards, Russell told me he simply couldn’t pass up the chance to do this film which offered strong roles for stars of his last two films. So Bale and Adams from The Fighter joined Cooper, Lawrence and De Niro from Silver Linings. I remember Russell talking about prepping this film while at the same time hitting the awards circuit last year. Somehow despite all that he has pulled it off.

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The film, loosely based on the 1970s Abscam government sting operation which nailed several members of Congress, involves Bale and Adams in a con game where they team up with an out-of-control FBI agent played by Cooper. Bale is remarkable and, in customary fashion for him, put on 40 pounds and shaved his head so he could create a hairstyle with a god-awful comb-over. Adams is complex and excellent and Cooper, sporting a perm, matches his Oscar-nominated work in Silver Linings. Renner, playing a corrupt but likeable politician, also shines as the soul of this enterprise.

Russell’s last two films netted a total of seven acting nominations and three wins. I would expect more of the same this time. The director has a knack for getting the best from his performers and there is verve, excitement, energy, and top-of-their-game acting in just about every frame. Russell puts these characters in your face and it’s something. It would be hard to imagine the actors branch passing this up despite killer competition in every category this year.

After the screening, Russell, Adams, Renner, co-star Elisabeth Rohm, editor Jay Cassidy, costume designer Michael Wilkinson, and casting director Mary Vernieu appeared for a 40-minute Q&A. Although it is loosely  based on real-life events, Russell took Eric Singer’s existing screenplay and did what Renner termed was a page-one rewrite. He gave the characters priority. “The love triangle and emotions are the center of the piece. I love the way people walk and talk and dress as much as I love the story,” Russell said. Rohm added, “With David, it’s all about the truth. You can discover things in moments”. The actors all said it was a free-flowing atmosphere on set with ever-changing script pages. Cassidy, who also earned an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings, echoed that when he said in the editing room, “I got to be there for the final re-write.” There was also improv. In fact Adams, who doesn’t often take credit, said a scene in which she impulsively grabs Lawrence in the ladies room and kisses her full-on on the lips was actually her idea and she praised Lawrence for making it work. “She’s amazing. She’s fearless. I’m fearful, but I will do anything except I will do it with a lot of thought”, she said. “Unless Jennifer is keeping a secret though, she’s completely fearless”.

American Hustle itself is a fearless piece of American cinema and more evidence that Russell is really on a roll. It’s my guess that Sony can add this one to Captain Phillips (which passed $100 million at the boxoffice this weekend) on its list of true contenders this season.