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'A Most Violent Year' is old-school in the best way, reviews say

J.C. Chandor's 'A Most Violent Year' closes out 2014 with strong reviews

Last but certainly not least: Writer-director J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year," one of the final film releases of 2014, is earning strong reviews for its deft craftsmanship and old-school, character-driven drama.

A gritty exploration of the American dream set in 1981 New York, the film stars Oscar Isaac as a Latin American immigrant who worked his way from the bottom up to run a heating-oil business, and Jessica Chastain as his ambitious mob-daughter wife.

The Times' own Kenneth Turan says "Violent Year" is "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." Like Lumet, "Chandor is expert at getting actors on his wavelength, and [Isaac and Chastain] throw themselves into the involving roles of a Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth coming to grips with a chilly month from hell."

Turan adds, "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." The result is that "we hold our breath through twist after twist to the surprising end."

The New York Times' A.O. Scott agrees that Chandor's latest is a "pulpy, meaty, altogether terrific new film." He writes, "The intricacy of this movie's plot reflects the complexity of its protagonist, who is a fascinating skein of ambiguities and contradictions brought forcefully to life by Mr. Isaac, an actor who has evolved from being someone to watch into someone you can't take your eyes off."

The film, Scott says, "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."

Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty praises Isaac's co-star: "By now, the notion of the ferociously driven Lady Macbeth wife is a retrograde cliche. But Chastain gives Anna unexpected layers and a fresh twist.… For my money, the actress outhustles 'American Hustle's' Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence when it comes to cutthroat outer-borough street smarts."

As for the rest of the movie, Nashawaty writes, "'A Most Violent Year' isn't an explosive film. It builds slowly, simmering toward an inevitable day of reckoning. It's the kind of uncompromising movie we don't see much of anymore. And it makes you nostalgic for a time when the world was worse and the movies were better."

Among the scarce dissenting voices is the Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek, who writes, "The world needs fewer tasteful movies about distasteful things. It definitely doesn't need J.C. Chandor's 'A Most Violent Year.'" The problem, she says, is that "It's really just sort of … dumb." Chandor "pours a ton of energy into exploring the dark side of the American Dream — it's as if he set out to make 'The Godfather,' only with heating oil. But from scene to scene, the stakes never mount."

Most critics, however, are in line with USA Today's Claudia Puig. She gives "Violent Year" a glowing review, calling it "a revelation: meticulously constructed, brilliantly acted, suspenseful and sharply written. Exceptionally well crafted, it's also morally murky, complex and thought-provoking."

Puig says that "[t]he entire cast is at the top of its game," including supporting players Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo and Elyes Gabel, while Isaac and Chastain in particular give "career-topping performances." She also gives "kudos to Chandor for writing a lead female character as intriguing as his lead male, something far too rare in tough thrillers."

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