Sunday, December 28, 2014

J. C. Chandor's notable A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: Saving the not-quite-best film for the last

Writer/director J.C. Chandor is making quite the name for himself -- with movies hugely acclaimed by the critics (myself included) while not setting the box-office afire. That might change just a bit (but not by much, I'm afraid) with the release of his third film, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, which has been chosen by the National Board of Review (NBR) as the best film of 2014. Looking over the NBR's record for the past 20 years, I find the group has generally made wise choices for Best Film, with Finding Neverland and Quills the only real ringers. (Those films had certain qualities, but "best"? Please.) The NBR even managed to produce a very wise tie in 1994, honoring both Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction -- a choice of quality both old and new.

Mr. Chandor (the filmmaker is shown at left) sets his newest endeavor in New York City back in 1981, which is said to have been the most violent year on record for NYC. Oddly enough, what distinguishes A Most Violent Year -- other than it's being very well written and directed (both by Chandor) and well acted by a talented ensemble -- is how very non-violent it turns out to be, given that the threat of same hangs over the entire movie. It also takes us into an industry into which we seldom venture: that of the fuel oil business. Evidently, back in 1981, trucks delivering fuel oil were being robbed repeatedly (below), while their drivers were often hurt in the process (further below). The particular driver we see here in both shots is played by a very good actor, Elyes Gabel, and it is his role and his performance that give the movie its beating heart.

I learned more than I would have imagined possible about the fuel oil business while watching this film, which was, back in that decade, at least -- if what we see and hear in the movie can be believed -- controlled by a few leading families, most of whom were involved in criminal activity to a greater or lesser extent.

The actual stars of the film are Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain (shown below and further below), playing Abel and Anna Morales, the husband/wife owners of a relatively new fuel oil firm that is about to do a make-or-break deal which should insure its major growth. Both actors are, as always, very fine, with Mr. Issac (on screen most of the time) keeping his character and emotions quite close to the vest, as Abel attempts to curtail these robberies without resorting to any kind of illegal revenge.

Anna (Ms Chastain), on the other hand, comes from a high-level mob family and encourages Abel to do anything he must to right the situation, including, if necessary, using her family to help. But no, Abel is intent on succeeding on his own "honest" terms.

Is this even possible? The movie exists to answer that question, and the answer we get, as you might expect from Chandor, not to mention the situation itself, is anything but simple. As the film proceeds, we meet some of the Morales' friends, co-workers, competitors and police investigators (there are some fine supporting performances here from the likes of Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola and David Oyewolo), and we end up with yet another lesson -- one of the better ones -- about the costs of obtaining the American Dream.

Ms Chastain's role (unless much of it ended up on the cutting room floor) does not allow her much else than being an attractive, sexy nudge -- a smart one, but a nudge nonetheless. The movie belongs to its men, as has all three of Chandor's films, and they all come through with flying colors, each character offering up a different approach to violence and to the situation in which they're all involved.

Issac continues to grow as one of our most intelligent, tamped-down and subtle actors. Interestingly, his charisma can be seen most effectively in a twatty little pseudo-blockbuster like Sucker Punch, in which his Blue Jones character runs riot (watch this film to its conclusion and end credits, just to see him and Carla Gugino cut loose). I wish somebody would write Issac a role in which he could really fly. Clearly, he's got the wings.

Meanwhile, A Most Violent Year -- from A24 and running 125 minutes -- opens this Wednesday, December 31, in New York City at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. In Los Angeles, look for it The Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood. A wider release will hit theaters across the country in the weeks to come.

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