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Chandor has a very good 'year'.

When "New York, New York" lyricist Fred Ebb wrote that immortal line, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," it's doubtful he imagined the life-or-death stakes such sentiments take on in "A Most Violent Year," an '80s-era New York crime drama in which just making it from one day to the next seems like a major accomplishment. In his third turn behind the camera, writer-director J.C. Chandor has delivered a tough, gritty, richly atmospheric thriller that lacks some of the formal razzle-dazzle of his solo seafaring epic, "All Is Lost," but makes up for it with an impressively sustained low-boil tension and the skillful navigating of a complex plot (at least up until a wholly unnecessary last-minute twist). Almost certainly too dark and moody to connect with a broad mainstream public or make major awards-season waves, this solid, grown-up movie-movie does much to confirm Chandor as a formidable filmmaking talent, and star Oscar Isaac as one of the essential American actors of the moment. A24 opens the pic in limited release Dec. 31.

If Chandor's promising 2011 debut, "Margin Call," could loosely be described as a Wall Street transposition of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," "A Most Violent Year" seems to have been steeped overnight in a solution equal parts Sidney Lumet and Lumet's consummate latter-day reinterpreter, James Gray. The setting is 1981, the year of Lumet's "Prince of the City," and it's possible to see a continuity between that movie's naive whistleblower cop and Isaac's upstart businessman here. Chandor's film bears an even stronger likeness, though, to Gray's little-seen sophomore feature, "The Yards" (2000), which built a similar tale of ambition, free enterprise and moral compromise around an essential Big Apple industry: there, subway parts; here, heating oil.

But if "A Most Violent Year" hits many familiar notes, it does so in an unusually gripping and effective fashion, pulling you deeper and deeper into the struggles of a young heating-company boss trying to make inroads in an industry dominated by generations-old family businesses (which operate rather like a certain other "family" business). None of this is news to Isaac's Abel Morales, who started out as a lowly truck driver himself, but somewhere along the way fell in love with the boss's daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and bought the business from him. And while Anna's dad was all mobbed up, Abel prizes squeaky-clean transparency.

With the conviction common to the self-made, the born-again and other fanatics, Abel prides himself on forward movement through society's barriers, having shed all but the slightest traces of his immigrant heritage, built his family a sprawling suburban McMansion, and developed strategies for routing the competition with a minimum of dirty tricks.

When the movie opens, it's clear that Abel's success mantra doesn't sit so well with one or more of his fellow oil merchants. While the city at large panics from an all-time-high crime rate, Abel's Standard Heating Co. finds itself engulfed in its own brutal turf war, with drivers robbed at gunpoint, beaten, shot at, or all of the above. The timing couldn't be worse, just as Abel is starting escrow on a long-abandoned waterfront fuel yard that will put him in a real position to corner the market, and just as a young district attorney (a typically excellent David Oyelowo) launches an investigation into heating-industry malfeasance.

Chandor lays this all out briskly and confidently, always giving just enough information to keep the viewer hooked, while maintaining a certain intentional opacity. The pacing is deliberate yet uneasy, like a slowly tightening noose, with scenes staged mostly in long, wide master shots with a minimum of cutting. But when Chandor feels it's warranted, he turns up the heat, including a tense shootout on the 59th Street Bridge, and a terrific chase sequence that begins by car, transitions to foot, and ends on an elevated B train. Which makes it all the more disappointing on those rare occasions when Chandor overplays his hand, mostly in a subplot having to do with a panicked young Standard driver (Elyes Gabel) who goes on the lam after his second violent truckjacking.

Isaac is marvelous to watch here, playing a character who could give Llewyn Davis a crash course in how to win friends and influence people. We first see Abel going for a vigorous morning jog; that's fitting, because for him, to take a single step backward in life is a fate worse than death. And Isaac pours that stubborn resolve into every inch of the performance, from his slightly formal, affected speech patterns to his rigid, ramrod-straight posture; he's like a Horatio Alger hero on steroids.

As for Chastain, in most of her roles to date, she's been the ballsy, forward-pushing dynamo, and "A Most Violent Year" is no exception. Though she's not quite as well served as Isaac by the script, her Anna is around long enough for us to see that she's every inch her father's daughter, and far less religious than Abel when it comes to playing by the rules.

Chandor has fleshed out the supporting cast with the kind of veteran character actors who seem to bring a lifetime of experience with them when they enter the frame: Albert Brooks, wonderfully weary and resigned as Abel's inhouse lawyer; Alessandro Nivola as the courtliest of Abel's competitors; and Jerry Adler ("The Sopranos") as the orthodox Jewish landlord who holds the deed on Abel's future.

The movie is also a triumph of subtle period craftsmanship on almost every level, especially the work of production designer John P. Goldsmith, who has a field day with long-bodied Cadillac coupes and diesel Mercedes, metallic desks and filing cabinets; costume designer Kasia Walicka Mamone, applying bounteous earth tones; and cinematographer Bradford Young, whose widescreen images are retro without ever verging on kitsch, with ungentrified Gotham locations bathed in a crisp winter's light and swirls of indoor cigarette smoke.

A Most Violent Year

Director: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo

CREDITS: An A24 release in association with Participant Media, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and FilmNation Entertainment of a Before the Door/Washington Square Films/Old Bull Pictures production. PRODUCED BY Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, J.C. Chandor. EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Glen Basner, Joshua Blum, Kerry Orent. DIRECTED, WRITTEN BY J.C. Chandor. CAMERA (COLOR, ARRI ALEXA HD, WIDESCREEN), Bradford Young; EDITOR, Ron Patane; MUSIC, Alex Ebert; MUSIC SUPERVISOR, Linda Cohen; PRODUCTION DESIGNER, John P. Goldsmith; AT DIRECTOR, Douglas Huszti; Set Decorator, Melanie Baker; COSTUME DESIGNER, Kasia Walicka Mamone; SOUND (DOLBY DIGITAL), Michael Barosky; SOUND DESIGNER, Steve Boedekker; SUPERVISING SOUND EDITORS, Richar Hymns, Steve Boedekker; RE-RECORDING MIXERS, Steve Boedekker, Gary Summers; VISUAL EFFECTS SUPERVISOR, Mark Russell CASTING, Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield. REVIEWED AT Dolby 24, Nov. 4, 2014. (In AFI Fest --opener.) MPAA RATING: R. RUNNING TIME: 124 MIN.

CAST: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Glenn Fleshier, David Marguiles, Jerry Adler, Ben Rosenfield, John Procaccino, Ashley Williams, Pico Alexander, Matthew Maher, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Ralph, Daisy Tahan, Giselle Eisenberg, Taylor Richardson


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Title Annotation:A Most Violent Year; J.C. Chandor
Author:Foundas, Scott
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Nov 11, 2014
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