We're still a week away from the Oscar nominations and haven't so much as a clue how large this year's Best Picture category will be, yet the race already seems comfortably pared down to three films. That's not a complaint. Three plausible Best Picture contenders is more than we're given in many an Oscar year, even at the pre-nomination stage; I'm just happy in years when there appears to be a race at all. And I'm particularly happy with this one, given that the films in question -- "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity" and "American Hustle," if you haven't got the memo yet -- make for such a vibrant and disparate trifecta.

It helps, of course, that I like all three. Glittering prizes are heaped often enough upon films I think are  negligible that I've learned not to kvetch when merely good films are rewarded. (To demand that 6,000 Academy members agree with our own specific notion of "best" is not only solipsistic in the extreme, but a recipe for near-annual disappointment.) In this case, however, I think all three frontrunners are rather better than good. That my own favorite film of the year, "Gravity," is in the running is a luxury to which I am unaccustomed, but Steve McQueen's poetic, tactile historical drama and David O. Russell's free-jazz caper are both films I could gladly back for the top prize in any given year.

Even if I were less keen on any one (or combination) of the three, I'd find their placement at the front of the pack exciting -- all three are muscular, richly crafted auteur pieces that are utterly peculiar to their big-deal directors, while offering them unfamiliar environments and challenges to play with. McQueen's bodily-fixated, fine-arts gaze meets a classical quest narrative; Cuaron's intimate curiosity about otherness meets the vastest unknowns in the universe; Russell's freewheeling sociability as a filmmaker clashes with genre strictures and sociopathic subjects alike.

The films may work for you or they may not, but there's little that's workmanlike about them either way. Even their relative qualifications as so-called Oscar bait are, well, qualified, and in spiny, interesting ways. The Academy may like politically conscious biopics, but not usually ones as sensual and unstinting as "Slave"; they may like uplifting, technically ravishing blockbusters, but not usually ones as spare or spiritual as "Gravity"; they may like actor-y throwback entertainments, but not usually ones as chaotic and morally ambivalent as "Hustle."

With none of these frontrunners either meeting the polite, vanilla standards of "traditional" Best Picture winners (an increasingly hazy concept in this day and age) or posing as a radical alternative, there's been a tendency among Oscar pundits and readers this year to cast them as types, regardless of how well they fit. (Not that they always agree on what those are: depending on whom you ask, "12 Years a Slave" is either quintessential ennobling prestige fare or the thorny, too-good-for-them alternative.)

But it's "American Hustle" -- to go by reactions from colleagues, on Twitter and in the comment threads of this very site -- that seems to be getting consistently categorized as the "soft" or "safe" option, and with increasing disdain as its Best Picture prospects get ever rosier. The protests, admittedly, come from a small group in the larger scheme of things: critics are cheerfully on the movie's side (as we learnt early in the precursor process with that unexpected NYFCC win), as is, to go by box-office receipts, the general public. It should therefore be an eminently commendable choice for Best Picture, yet many of those emotionally invested in the race seem to regard the film as a potential trap for Oscar voters -- the attractive but meaningless one-night stand they'll regret the morning after.

Yet the film I saw doesn't quite square with that categorization: "American Hustle" is a good time, yes, but fun isn't an automatically disposable commodity. Within its shimmering cloud of hairspray and sequins is a hard little story of disguise, delusion and disappointment -- the components of a soured American Dream that rewards only those who know how to work it.

The film's glitzy styling strikes some as a slick con job, but it's also an oddly honest one: Russell has made a film here about the necessity of the dazzling surfaces that keep America ticking along, even if we all know the duller realities they mask. (Not for nothing is Jennifer Lawrence gifted with a glorious monologue about her dependence on a nail lacquer that smells addictively "like flowers with garbage.")

Yet "American Hustle" isn't a film of broad-brush social statements, which may or may not be the reason for its perceived slightness in some quarters: it's a film more concerned with the role deceit plays in petty personal relationships and bad romances than in the high-concept ABSCAM fiasco that propels the plot. It is, at its rather chilly heart, a love story been two calculatingly superficial people, which isn't quite the same thing as a calculatingly superficial love story. I found myself unexpectedly moved by the naked personal damage that marks just about every character in this busy ensemble piece; it is one of Russell's great gifts that his films arouse feeling for defiantly difficult people, perhaps because -- if all accounts are to be believed -- the director is no picnic himself.

I suppose that would be a natural segue for a comparison to Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," another undisciplined study of the variable rewards of human venality. But I don't see as much common DNA between the films as other critics (particularly the Scorsese film's more aggressive advocates) seem to, either spiritually or formally. Detractors of "Hustle" delight in "GoodFellas-lite" descriptions, yet the film reminded me of no director more than David O. Russell himself.

Russell's lively verbality, frayed, jangly mise-en-scène and adoration of low-end kitsch (all of which sit some way from the super-crafted swagger of latter-day Scorsese) are present and immediately identifiable from one film to the next. With "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook" (both, of course, nominated for Best Picture) Russell has created an unlikely but vital trilogy of sorts, in which his more manic instincts are put to bear on three familiar formulae of Hollywood cinema: the boxing movie, the romantic comedy and now  the crime caper, all distressed and energized in the process.

Some view this development a copout, following the more avant-garde fun and games of an "I Heart Huckabees," but the mainstream needs directors like Russell: spiky but audience-attuned artists willing to scratch at studio boundaries from within. That his last three films have been so warmly embraced by relatively middlebrow awards bodies suggests his showmanship and his subversive streak have found a happy medium -- a tricky balance that's all too easy to underestimate. Pegging "American Hustle" as the soft option, much as the wounded, lovely "Silver Linings Playbook" was last year, does a disservice to its stranger, sadder human qualities, not to mention the continually undermined presence of comedy in major award races. (Pitting it as some kind of moral opponent to "12 Years a Slave" in the Oscar race, meanwhile, has the unfortunate effect of stressing the "importance" of the slavery drama, the virtues of which are far more soulful and less prescriptive than that.)

But I sense Russell revels in that underestimation: his films have always offered up flowers with garbage, after all. It's his unapologetic embrace of high and low culture that makes him one of the most invigorating of all contemporary American filmmakers -- and perhaps the ideal representative of where the Academy's conflicted, transitional head is at these days. "American Hustle" may not be the right choice for Best Picture this year, but it's not the wrong one either.

Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.