01/24/2011 03:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I (Heart) The Fighter

With Oscar nominations close at hand, Frank Rich's New York Times column on the values illustrated in two top movies, True Grit and The Social Network, hit home, affirming America's premier art form. Rich's discourse on the unexpected success of the Coen Brothers' western in the time of Facebook suggests another film: The Fighter. This beautifully wrought film is on every critic's select list, but the debate for Oscars centers on The Social Network and The King's Speech, each taking the lead for many awards. Last week's retrospective of David O. Russell's career at The Museum of the Moving Image had me thinking of a new category: Movie with the Biggest Heart. The Fighter may vie with Toy Story 3, but in the end would topple all contenders.

First, the real-life location of Lowell, Massachusetts, a red brick urban center with distinct ethnic enclaves, is the perfect breeding ground for the Great American Story. The director has a real feel for such places, having worked for a time in Lewiston, Maine. Then, the performances: at center is Mark Wahlberg in the role of Micky Ward, praised as masterful and understated. Around him swirl some outsized characters, Golden Globe winners Melissa Leo as Alice Ward and Christian Bale as Dicky, over the top as the real life personae are. (By the way, look out for Leo in the upcoming HBO movie, Mildred Pierce.) And when Letterman asked Dustin Hoffman what performance he thought stood out this year, the "Huckabees" veteran picked Amy Adams in this movie, the "MTV girl" and only woman whose hair was not teased out of the frame.

At a luncheon at 21 last week celebrating the director's career, you could see where this movie with heart gets its soul. David O. Russell worked the room focusing on each guest: hosts Spike Jonze and Geoffrey Fletcher, director John Cameron Mitchell, and other movie insiders and well-wishers. Russell said he had never eaten in the legendary restaurant before. When Jeannie Berlin came to say hello, Russell sang her praises for a movie that meant so much to him as a teen, what else? The Heartbreak Kid. The 1972 one. And so it went.

Later that night in Astoria, reported Russell: the kick off to the retrospective week was "particularly great" with about 300 people showing up. Spike Jonze, conducting the Q&A, was "very gracious in his subversive way." When Russell offered him a cinnamon Altoid, the box got passed around the audience too: "It was very real and alive." Rosie Perez was there, as was Jonze's mom Sandy who said "the nicest things about me that almost made me cry."

I'm told that the Academy voters are unpredictable. So maybe those seeking movies that reflect "another America" -- in Frank Rich's words -- can consider the one that's here. Maybe this is the year of The Fighter that could.

Cross posted at Gossip Central.