Film Review: A Most Violent Year (★★★★)

A_Most_Violent_Year_2At the Museum of Modern Art, New York audiences were treated to the “New York Premiere” of J.C. Chandor‘s “A Most Violent Year,” as a part of their Contenders 2014 series.  Chandor’s previous films “Margin Call” and “All is Lost” were also screened there over the years.  The former is a well-told story, which garnered Chandor an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  The latter, was well-admired, featuring a beloved turn from Robert Redford, and only managed a single nomination for Best Sound Editing.  Chandor produces his finest effort yet with “A Most Violent Year” featuring two powerhouse performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.

Chandor gets his hands on some of the most talented and undervalued people in the film business for A24’s newest venture.  Cinematographer Bradford Young showed his best Terrence Malick-like aesthetic with his work on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” probably his most recognized work up until now.  He showed his abilities and the depth of his scope with the little seen “Middle of Nowhere” from Ava DuVernay in 2012, and “Pariah” by Dee Rees from 2011.  His visual eye is simply remarkable, and what he captures in Chandor’s newest, is some of the DP’s most calculated and precise efforts.  New York City, 1981, is the backdrop of our film, but along with Young’s camera work, Chandor’s focused direction and storytelling, and an ensemble that resonates profoundly, a new character is created before our eyes.  Young inhabits the soul of that character.  New York, you haven’t felt this alive in cinema in quite sometime.

One year after delivering THE performance of the year with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and being passed over by the Academy Awards and several major guilds, Oscar Isaac hits another one out of the park with his performance as Abel Morales, a man desperate to achieve the American dream.  Isaac, who is both complex and satisfying, is richly devoted and impeccably raw.  With his work on display, he shoots to the near top of today’s best working actors.  Isaac’s turn is easily one of the year’s most invigorating and most exciting character studies, revealing only real and believable behavior.  Intelligent, well-mannered, and downright fantastic, it’s one of the best performances of the year.

amostviolentyear_imageJessica Chastain sinks her teeth into another meaty role and bites down hard as Anna Morales, Abel’s wife.  Reminiscent of a mixture of Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom” and Laura Linney in “Mystic River,” Chastain constructs an enigmatic woman, a Lady MacBeth-type, but with an authentic style that steals the show.  There are even elements that call back to something like Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct.”   Definitely alluring, and inhabiting a sexiness you can’t teach in Julliard, Chastain keeps the audience in the dark but with a complete hypnosis.  She fixates on her motives with a terrifying determination, accompanied by a gritty script, and sets the screen ablaze word after word, minute after minute.

The rest of the supporting cast delivers in their brief moments on-screen including Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, and Alessandro Nivola.  One of the great finds of the year, at least to those who appreciate a layered and bravura performance, is that of Elyes Gabel.  Making a living on CBS’s “Scorpion,” and with some remembering his work on the first two seasons of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” I have to sadly admit to never hearing of him before (or realizing it was him).  As Julian, Gabel takes on a fully, fleshed out supporting turn, commanding our attention, and earning every second of screen time.  In a just world, we’d be talking about him as a serious Best Supporting Actor contender.  Gabel is a marvel to witness.

Composer Alex Ebert hits another career high with his score and original song titled, “America for Me.”  Ebert channels the tension of the scene within his composition, knowing exactly when to pull back, and hit the accelerator full force.

The film is a slow simmer, ferociously brought to a boil, before unleashing its fury in a third act that is fully engrossing.  Admittedly, it takes some time to wonder if the work is either earned or necessary.  I kept going back to the last few moments, wondering if what I saw was ultimately satisfying.  Days later, it stands out as one of the key scenes in film from the year overall.  There’s a brilliance to what Chandor decides to show and end in those moments.  Unpredictable, and maybe not the note that audience members will want to go out on, but completely guided.

A Most Violent Year” is one of the great modern crime thrillers, ultimately showing itself as one of the most enthralling experiences of the year.  I thoroughly believe that a true Oscar contender is on our hands in several categories.  Visibility, and a love for the movies, are the only requirements to enjoy this gem.  A great piece of art that all should treat themselves to.

Chandor’s film is being distributed by A24 Films and is scheduled to open in theaters on December 31.

Check out the Oscar Predictions and see where ‘A Most Violent Year’ ranks!

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