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Why AFI Opener ‘A Most Violent Year’ Isn’t an Oscar Contender

Why AFI Opener 'A Most Violent Year' Isn't an Oscar Contender

New York writer-director J.C. Chandor shot like a cannon out of Sundance 2011 with Wall Street talk-fest “Margin Call,” which landed him an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, followed by success d’estime “All Is Lost” in 2013, with solo movie star Robert Redford. So expectations were high for “A Most Violent Year.”

But sometimes early success breeds too much confidence. The most crucial tightrope act when considering a release plan is to realistically figure out what you’ve got. A24 landed the movie, which was backed by Participant Media, but finally catered to the director’s strongly stated desire to follow a prestige fall release plan. Telluride did not pursue an early cut of the film–it might not have been finished in time anyway–which after a few more months in the editing room finally went to AFI Fest for opening night. 

The trouble with an award-season release is that scrutiny is more intense. As Tom Brueggemann suggests in his weekend box office takeaways, Chris Nolan would have been better off on every level with a summer release for “Interstellar.” Opening that movie in the fall with Oscar hopes on your sleeve reveals a director’s hubris.

In Hollywood, everyone is ambitious, competitive, opportunistic. How many times have we seen promising young directors–from German Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck to Aussie David Michod– display their chops with a breakout film packed with promise, only to be wowed and wooed and charmed until they wake up to find that their moment has somehow passed? It’s hard to get it back.

(This year’s model is “’71” director Yann Demange, who is enjoying many parties on his worldwide fest circuit, including an AFI fete at Bar Marmont hosted by Roadside Attractions, Telluride, and producer/financier Molly Smith. What will he do next? It’s up to him to seriously choose well.)

No question that Chandor is a gifted filmmaker and “A Most Violent Year” has much to commend it, including outstanding performances by Oscar Isaac (whose “Inside Llewyn Davis” director Joel Coen came to opening night, in advance of starting “Hail Caesar!” Monday) and Jessica Chastain as ambitious husband and wife business partners in 1981 New York who are trying to get ahead despite every incentive to follow the corrupt practices of the period. The beautifully lensed (“Selma” DP Bradford Young), atmospheric period movie calls up such Sidney Lumet classics as “Prince of the City” and “Serpico.” Isaac replaced Javier Bardem at the last minute–who may have had good reasons to withdraw after months of development with Chandor–and Chastain does as much as she can as the daughter of a mobster with dangerously long fingernails. Where was that colorful figure? The movie could have used more sizzle.

Chastain got dispensation to attend the premiere from the controlling Christopher Nolan, who is forcing her to only promote “Interstellar” during a contractual period–along with Isaac and costar David Oyelowo (who has not yet seen Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which screens in full at AFI on Tuesday). The movie could have used her help. Chastain was as charming as ever at the party, savoring her big moment, when she emasculates her husband by whipping out a gun when he thinks a tire iron will do the job. Oyelowo pointed out that while Americans applaud her, that would not happen in the more decorous U.K. 

Chastain continues her pursuit of strong women’s roles: she wants to find more parts like “Interstellar,” where her brainy scientist was originally written as a man. Her love interest in the movie, Topher Grace, at one point turned to her and said, “Why do I feel like I am playing the girl?”

But in “A Most Violent Year” Chandor leaves out many details and explanations for his characters’ behavior; the movie raises more questions than it answers, including why the filmmaker was driven to make it. What is he after, exactly? It is far from clear. In this scenario, you tell the director either to do reshoots and get back in the editing room (this could have been done at the script stage) or you put the movie out in the new year when it might have some breathing room. Sundance might have given this a warmer welcome. The Academy is tough. They set a high standard.

So far trade and festival critics are upbeat. But will year-end critics’ groups anoint this among their favorites? In the spring this movie might have had a chance. Now? Not so much.

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