'A Most Violent Year': What the Critics Are Saying

J.C. Chandor's capitalism drama stars Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks in 1980s New York City

A Most Violent Year stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, a businessman trying to stay out of the criminal dealings of the heating oil supply industry of 1980s New York City.

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the A24 drama about dog-eat-dog capitalism also features Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks and Elyes Gabel. The title has already been named 2014's best film by the National Board of Review.

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Read what top critics are saying about A Most Violent Year:

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy says Chandor "delivers again" as he "has a knack for making arcane business practices not only somewhat comprehensible, but the stuff of potent human drama. He connects this drama to the American dream and the urge to get ahead in life, but neither in any pompous symbolic way nor to take potshots at capitalism. The new film is a tough-minded, bracingly blunt look at the sometimes debilitating cost of doing business that casts an unblinking eye on the physical, emotional and moral bottom line. By pointedly setting the tale in 1981, said to have been the worst year on record for violent crimes such as rape and murder in the city, Chandor seems to be saying that it doesn't have to be this bad, but this is how badly we have allowed ourselves to behave. ...  The resolution is painful, a bit melodramatic, thematically apt and, for it all, feels just about right."

Isaac "really breaks through with this performance" which "recalls Al Pacino's simmeringly low-key star-making turns in the Godfather films," and, "cast against type as a thickly accented Brooklyn gal unburdened by her husband's principles, Chastain sharply conveys Anna's matter-of-fact savvy as well as her love for her man and daughters. Perhaps more than anything, the hulking vintage cars on display (especially in a spectacular traffic jam scene) lend a sense of the visual grossness of the time. The only technical deficiency turns up in the nighttime and low-light scenes, which, as shot by the talented rising cinematographer Bradford Young have a muddy thinness to them, a washed-out look that saps the images of any weight."

Read more 'A Most Violent Year' Named Best Film by National Board of Review

The New York Times' A. O. Scott notes, "A Most Violent Year presents an honorable man struggling to stay true to his values in the face of temptation. It is also the portrait of a brilliant hustler working a very long con. It’s a terrific movie either way." Chandor and Young "succeed in giving this beat-up version of the city both historical credibility and expressive power. The light is harsh, the shadows are dense, and forces of chaos seem to gather just outside the frame, their presence signaled by Alex Ebert’s anxious musical score." Isaac is "an actor who has evolved from being someone to watch into someone you can’t take your eyes off. ... With his mournful eyes and slightly predatory smile, [he] provides tantalizing glimpses of the divided soul behind the confident facade."

Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan calls it "the most welcome kind of throwback. It brings to mind the fierce New York-based productions of Sidney Lumet in particular but also the whole notion of character-driven, the-clock-is-ticking melodramas in general. A vibrant crime story filled to overflowing with crackling situations, taut dialogue and a heightened, even operatic sense of reality, A Most Violent Year captures us and doesn't let go. ... One of the most satisfying things about Violent Year is how many moving parts it contains, and how adroitly Chandor orchestrates them all to achieve maximum dramatic tension."

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Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf writes, "An ambitious cast brings Chandor’s strained labor issues to life with utter believability — and he still somehow finds time for a thrilling chase through an abandoned subway tunnel, Abel running down the source of his woes. If there’s a weakness here, it’s the skeletal relationship at the core of the story, between a proud immigrant and his blond, brassy wife who’s used to getting her way. Unintentionally, it feels a touch Scarface (and Alex Ebert’s synth score doesn’t help). But so many scenes percolate with a beautiful understatement that you can forgive this."

The Guardian's Xan Brooks calls it "rigorous, resourceful and as smart as a whip. ... He paints a rotten Big Apple in jaundiced yellows and creams, sliding past the graffiti and the slush on his way to the docks. The script, too, does well in spotlighting an overlap of capitalism and criminality that’s not so much a Venn diagram as a perfect, seamless match."