David O Russell’s drama made a brilliant late arrival this awards season.

Awards watchers and voters had already sampled most of this season’s five-star menu by the time Sony invited select press including Screen International to join SAG members for the first public screening of American Hustle on Nov 24.

Over the next two hours or so, it became clear there was a brilliant late arrival at the awards season dinner party in the shape of David O Russell’s drama inspired by an FBI investigation into political corruption.

The third entry in Russell’s exuberant suite of East Coast blue-collar tales — the other two being Oscar winners The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook — boasts the now customary high-quality work from the writer-director, as well as excellence in costume and editing and an ensemble to die for.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner deserve to be among the acting contenders this season.

That’s saying something when there is already a strong crop for consideration including Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Sandra Bullock, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, Oscar Isaac, Jared Leto, Matthew McConaughey and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to name a few.

With American Hustle out in the open (the studio has embargoed writers from reviewing it or talking about plot points) only Red Granite’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, distributed in the US through Paramount, remains unseen, although at time of writing that was about to change.

Beyond acknowledging its obvious credentials - legendary film-maker, potent male lead cast, sexy topic - there is little point attempting to assess Wolf’s quality until it has been viewed. Any tub-thumping by those who worked on it should be discounted as unreliable, so we must revert to what we know.

The popular refrain around Hollywood is that this year’s crop of awards contenders is as fine as any to emerge in a long time. Don’t just take our word for it - Harvey Weinstein has said as much. It’s an exciting roster and in the weeks ahead the critics’ groups will take the lead in dictating which movies break from the pack.

What makes the field so appetising is the range of flavours. Fancy an envelope-pushing thrill ride? Watch Gravity. A finely acted thriller based on true events? Try Captain Phillips. If excruciating historical drama or edgy genre are your thing, go for 12 Years A Slave or Prisoners. Perhaps a more broadly appealing crowd-pleaser? See Saving Mr Banks.

The diversity on offer is testament to the fine talents at work in cinema today and it is gratifying to see the studios and independents well represented in the mix. And if for whatever reason a movie’s overall package doesn’t inspire the voting masses, there is individual excellence to celebrate by the bucket load.

Leaders of the pack

At this fairly advanced stage of the season it’s been about posturing and promotion, yet a handful of contenders have edged in front.

Slave parlayed rave reviews from Telluride and Toronto into a steady trot to the top of people’s estimation. Captain Phillips, the surprise box-office hit, and Gravity, the global smash that has left a trail of slack jaws in its wake since the Venice world premiere in August, must also stand alongside Slave. These are the three movies so far that have generated the most consistent and consistently excitable chatter.

Yet as the recent Governors Awards in Hollywood proved, it doesn’t take much to remind everybody who’s out there. The Dallas Buyers Club cast were in town and hopped over the following day to a quiet lunch with select press. Also, Weinstein is clocking up the prestige partnerships for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom and campaign strategists are building support for those old warhorses Bruce Dern and Robert Redford through low-key events for Nebraska and All Is Lost. It’s going to be a close-fought and entertaining few months.

Jeremy Kay is US Editor for Screen International