Tuesday, January 13, 2015


I find it strange that something like A Most Violent Year got me to (momentarily) appreciate New York City again (for those of you who haven’t seen this yet, it doesn’t exactly paint the nicest picture of the big apple). This film plays in to two of the most commonly used phrases that are associated with NYC.
On one hand, “City Of Dreams” could describe A Most Violent Year because it’s about a guy trying to make his dreams a reality. But on the other hand, “The Rotten Apple” also describes certain aspects of the film because it shows an uglier side of the city.
New York City has an interesting mystique in that whenever something great happens, you hear the phrase; “Only In New York”. But when certain negative things happen in New York (that could honestly never happen anywhere else) you hear “well, that could happen anywhere” (truly old school New Yorkers would probably say something like; “You don’t like it? Get the f*ck out”). I guess that’s what makes NYC so unique (I do honestly appreciate true New Yorkers who love & embrace both the beautiful & ugly qualities of their city). 
The negative events that take place in A Most Violent Year definitely couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world outside of possibly old school Detroit (some of the grittiness, crime & corruption we see in this film are pretty similar to the events in Paul Schrader’s Detroit-based Blue Collar).

Much of the same stuff has been written about JC Chandor's A Most Violent Year (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, power, corruption, the testing of ones manhood, the American dream, etc). I don’t see many critics commenting on the spiritual connections it has with other classic New York City-based movies outside of Goodfellas & The Godfather.
In the film there's a chase scene that takes us from the inside of a speeding car on to a subway platform just like the iconic chase scene in The French Connection (both scenes take place in Brooklyn). About 50% of A Most Violent Year is covered in the same kind of graffiti seen in classic early 80's hip-hop films like Wild Style & Style Wars (both movies are shot exclusively in the Bronx & upper-Manhattan). Throughout the movie, news reports of murders, muggings, flashings & rapes play in the background as if someone is reading off the synopsis of an early Abel Ferrara movie. And I can't exactly put my finger on it but James Toback's Fingers also seems to be a direct influence.
I feel like had this movie been made 30 years ago it would have starred the likes of Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Cathy Moriarty & Victor Argo.
A Most Violent Year doesn’t share the same grittiness as the movies that possibly influenced it (and I would never expect that) but J.C. Chandor certainly tried his best to be as authentic as possible.

The French Connection
Paul Schrader's Blue Collar explores corruption within unions which is something A Most Violent Year touches on more than once.

Style Wars
Ms. 45
It makes sense that Ms. 45, Abel Ferrara's NYC-based vigilante crime thriller, was made the same year that A Most Violent Year takes place: 1981 (this also happens to be the year I was born). New York City had such a strangely negative outside reputation that John Carpenter's conveniently titled Escape From New York was released that year. But what people need to understand is that this film doesn't try to touch on every issue concerning NYC at the time (racial tension, police brutality, drugs, etc). That would be too big of a task. Chandor does make it a point to have some of these issues in the peripheral of the film in a Robert Altman-esque kind of way where even though things are out of focus or almost off camera, they still hold importance. In the French Connection-inspired chase scene I mentioned at the beginning of this review, we get a glimpse of a young mohawked punk on the train standing near Oscar Isaacs. And outside of the traditional graffiti artwork we see, there's a million black sharpie tags in what seems like every other frame of the movie.
But the focal point of the film is about "Abel" (Oscar Isaacs) a businessman trying to advance & expand his (legitimate) fuel business (and protect his family) amidst the opposition of his dirty competitors who seem to be conspiring against him.
A unique aspect about this film is that it's probably the most non-gangster gangster film I can think of. What I mean by that is the language & violence within A Most Violent Year would have you think you were watching a mob movie, but we never see any actual mobsters or traditional gangsters. There is always the heavy implication that they're right around the corner (it's heavily implied that Jessica Chastain's character comes from some kind of connected mob family that are just a phone call away). There are two scenes where Chastain's "Anna" handles a gun and you get the sense that she's been around firearms before and she isn't just Abel's housewife.

It seems fitting that days before I saw this I caught a screening of Sydney Lumet's 1958 TV adaptation of All The Kings Men (at Anthology Film Archives) which also deals with power & corruption among questionable characters who either start out “good” and end up “bad” or straddle the line between good & bad through the entire film.

A Most Violent Year shies away from clichés like stereotypical shots of midtown Manhattan, the statue of liberty or the empire state building (I imagine there were budgetary and/or permit reasons that kept them from shooting in populated areas, but it works out in the film's favor). And if you look back at some of the classic New York City films that I’ve mentioned in this write-up so far (most of which were directed by or starring native New Yorkers like James Toback, Abel Ferrara, Harvey Keitel & Zoe Lund), those movies didn’t really feature too much of that either (outside of shots of old school midtown Manhattan which was a much different place back then). Any time we see a recognizable shot of NYC in A Most Violent Year, it’s usually from afar (the film was shot mostly in Queens). That’s right folks – this is one of those rare recent occasions where a movie set in New York City ventures outside of Manhattan & Brooklyn (there were a few scenes shot in Brooklyn but I believe for the most part, A Most Violent Year was filmed/set in Queens neighborhoods like Rego Park & Long Island City).

And all possible influences aside, A Most Violent Year is still very much it's own movie. I wouldn't want to present this film as a Tarantino-esque movie mixtape of "cool" non-stop movie references that only movie nerds would get.

Also before we go any further, I don’t mean to downplay the influence that Coppola & Scorsese had on this film. The sub-plot about the trucks being hijacked comes right out of Goodfellas (which is loosely based on true events). And some moments where Isaacs & Chastain argue with one another reminded me of the chemistry between Ray Liotta & Lorraine Braco. Certain moments where our characters meet with one another to work out some kind of business deal in the back of a darkly lit restaurant comes straight out of the first Godfather (I'd even be so bold as to compare Oscar Isaac's performance to Al Pacino's).

Had my fiancee not suggested we see this, I would have probably waited years down the line when it was streaming on Netflix. You see, between American Hustle, The Iceman & Argo, I have a tough time sitting through recent films set during the late 70's/early 80's because for whatever reason filmmakers have to shove all the nostalgia, bad hair, mustaches, pony-tails & tacky clothes down our throats in an obnoxious way (A Most Violent Year also seemed like Oscar-bait before I saw it). Authenticity is important for me in these kinds of movies and it certainly doesn’t help when an actor is rocking a ridiculous wig...

American Hustle
That's not to say American Hustle & Argo are bad films (The Iceman is pretty awful tho) but they're all still tainted by tackiness to a certain degree. The wardrobes & backdrops in A Most Violent Year are a little more toned down. There isn’t an abundance of 80's music blasting throughout the movie in an embarrassingly transparent way either (Alex Ebert's borderline ambient score is way more fitting than any 80's mixtape). And even when things get a little over-the top and super tacky, it's believable mostly in part to Jessica Chastain who comes off pretty stunning in a performance that's reminiscent of Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface in terms of attitude & wardrobe...

Although I consider Amherst, Massachusetts to be my hometown, I still lived the first seven years of my life in Queens, New York which certainly left a lasting impression on me. My family also visited New York City (specifically Queens & Harlem) on a regular basis while we lived in Amherst so I remember the boom-boxes, graffiti, empty crack vials, giant glasses, strong cologne, the '86 Mets, homeless people trying to clean your windshield with dirty sponges, addicts nodding off on the corner, big cars, dirty trains and all the other cliches most people associate with New York City. Because of my own experience I'm always skeptical when something is dubbed an authentic New York City film. But A Most Violent Year joins the ranks of recent authentic NYC movies like Mother Of George (Brooklyn), Newlyweeds (Brooklyn), Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer (Brooklyn) or even Gimme The Loot (Bronx/Queens/Manhattan) and, YES, Frances Ha (Manhattan/Brooklyn).

As you all know I've already put out my best of 2014 list before seeing a handful of movies, including this one. I don’t know if A Most Violent Year is good enough to make me redo my top 10, but it certainly falls in to that strange limbo area between top 10 & honorable mention along with films like Nightcrawler & Guardians Of Galaxy (actually without giving too much away, A Most Violent Year & Nightcrawler have similar endings and both deal with the twisted/dark side of chasing the American dream).
The ambiguous note that J.C. Chandor ends the film on is perfect in my opinion. 1981 was only the tipping point as far as I'm concerned. There was a lot more to come. By Reagan's second term (1984) "Reaganomics" were in full swing, drugs had completely taken over certain pockets of all five boroughs (see New Jack City or listen to Public Enemy's Night Of The Living Baseheads for further examples), and between Bernard Goetz (1984) & Yusef Hawkins (1986), racial tension had reached an all time high (my family ended up moving out of Queens by the late 80's due to issues ranging from my grandmother getting mugged, to us getting caught in the middle of gunfire).
Any film that brings up these kinds of personal memories is a success in my book so I highly recommend seeing this.


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