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With: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandino Moreno, PeterGerety, Christopher Abbott, Glenn Fleshler, David Margulies, Jerry Adler, Ben Rosenfeld, John Procaccino, Ashley Williams, Pico Alexander, Matthew Maher, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Ralph, Daisy Tahan, Giselle Eisenberg, Taylor Richardson
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 124
Date: 12/31/2014
IMDB

A Most Violent Year (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Oily Business

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Plenty of today's filmmakers are in awe of the American movie renaissance of the 1970s, a period that began roughly at the end of the 1960s, with Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, and ended at the end of the 1970s, with Star Wars and Raging Bull. It was a time that older studio executives conceded that they didn't know what they were doing, realized that the youth market was the way to go, and hired fresh, young directors (Scorsese, Schrader, Coppola, De Palma, Bogdanovich, Spielberg, Lucas, Friedkin, Malick, Altman, etc.) to do their thing. These directors had plenty of control and could take plenty of risks. Movies tended to be gritty and character-driven, and even allowed for certain experimentation.

Many younger filmmakers have tried to emulate the feel of these movies, although, of course, because they sprung out of imitation rather than inspiration, they never feel quite right. The new movies are reverent toward their rather irreverent forerunners. However, if I were going to give one filmmaker the prize for coming the closest, it would be to J.C. Chandor for his excellent new A Most Violent Year, set in 1981, the year after Raging Bull. One of my colleagues remarked that if not for the credits that confirmed otherwise, he would have been convinced that it was a lost Sidney Lumet film.

Chandor is quietly creeping up in the movie industry as a man who can write complex, brilliant, yet crisp and dramatic original screenplays, as well as direct them with style and skill. This is only his third film, after Margin Call (2011) and All Is Lost (2013), but for my money he's quickly surpassing even someone like Paul Thomas Anderson. A Most Violent Year is fixed on realism, chilly urban areas, and shady criminals, but some of its underlying themes of greed, power, and corruption seem even more relevant today than they might have been the violent year in which the story takes place.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs a heating oil business. As the film begins, he and his accountant Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) make a deal for some prime waterfront property; he puts down a huge payment and if he cannot make up the rest within a certain time frame, he will lose the property and his deposit. At the same time -- in the year with the highest crime rate on record -- mysterious hijackers are stealing Abel's delivery trucks and beating up his drivers, even his salesmen. And the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) informs him that he is being investigated, which causes the bank to back out from providing the rest of the money.

So Abel must try and raise the rest of the cast by going to his competitors, and also must try to solve the problem of the truck hijackings. Meanwhile, he struggles with a personal dilemma. He prides himself on being a self-made man, having learned many of the tricks it takes to appear like a leader, and having squelched whatever "foreign" traits he once inherited, trying to become more "American." He wants to run his business as cleanly as possible, without all the dirty deeds that seem to abound. But his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of a flat-out gangster; Abel married her and purchased the company from her father. She has her own ideas.

It's a pleasure to watch adult filmmaking like this, entertaining, with chases and fights and surprises, but still rooted in characters and grown-up problems. It has a genuine atmosphere, a world in which people actually live, rather than an artificial movie world. Even if most of it may seem alien to us, the question of how an innocent becomes unwillingly corrupt in a corrupt world is most intriguingly answered.

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