When I went to the Los Angeles Film Festival back in June I didn’t really know what to expect. It was my first fest experience, and it ended up being a good way to start; the films were all very small – and I hadn’t heard of any of them beforehand – but I still saw some great stuff. You can catch up with all of those reviews here, but now it’s time for a completely different experience. AFI Fest began tonight, and my excitement is reaching another level entirely.
I have thrown myself into the world of film this year in a very intense fashion, following all of the news out of each big film festival. Most of the big hits from Sundance have been released already or will be out soon, but many movies that premiered at Cannes or Venice or Toronto won’t see distribution for months (if ever). AFI Fest is there to pick up the slack until then. There isn’t a lot of original programming at the festival; it is mostly a program of greatest hits with interesting shorts and world cinema pieces mixed in. I’m going to try to see some unique stuff over the next eight days, but this festival is really about catching up with the awesome movies I have been reading about for the last several months.
In making a tentative schedule for AFI Fest I was having a real tough time trying to squeeze in big upcoming films like Inherent Vice and The Gambler, before realizing that I should make a concerted effort to skip anything with a concrete release date in the United States, even if it’s several months away. I live in L.A., those movies will all come to me. Plus, I would hate to wait in line for hours to see Foxcatcher a week early and end up missing the next Goodbye to Language 3D in the process (seriously, when is that movie coming to Los Angeles?).
The only exception to that loose rule that I’m planning on making is for J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year – which opened the festival tonight in Hollywood’s world-famous Dolby Theatre (the home of the Academy Awards). The theater is massive – there were 1800 available seats this evening – so I was able to see the film despite standing in the longest line I have ever seen outside of a theme park. All for good reason too, as this was the world premiere of the film – even Jessica Chastain was on hand, despite being prohibited to promote the film due to Interstellar contract conflicts.
The film takes place in 1981 New York City – statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Most of that violence is relegated overheard radio broadcasts in the movie itself, providing a paranoid and heavy atmosphere to a feature about an honest immigrant trying to reach the pinnacle of the American dream. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns and operates a heating oil company, and its steady expansion has provided a nice life for his family, including his wife, Anna (Chastain), whose family history seems to be tied to organized crime. Abel works very hard to avoid that world though, which is made even more difficult when other companies (with their own questionable practices) begin hassling his drivers and salesmen. This harassment coincides with a tricky land deal and a pending investigation (courtesy of David Oyelowo), yielding, if not a violent year for Abel, certainly a tumultuous one.
I have not seen Chandor’s debut film, Margin Call, but I did enjoy his sophomore effort, All Is Lost, quite a bit. I was quite disappointed when Robert Redford did not receive even a nomination for his almost entirely silent portrayal of a man whose life is threatened by natured itself. Chandor has a real knack for working with actors, and that is on display here. Oscar Isaac is excellent as a man whose morals are constantly being tested, despite the fact that it is never clear how strong they were in the first place. Abel’s commitment to work ethic is almost condescending, but it is also somewhat hypocritical, as he received the business from Anna’s father under uncertain circumstances. Chastain is equally strong, playing a smart, independent, and powerful woman whose love for her husband doesn’t keep her from doing what is necessary. This viewer’s only disappointment with Anna is that she isn’t in more of the film. The script sacrifices Chastain (and great supporting performances by the likes of Albert Brooks and Peter Gerety) to provide a character study for Abel.
This isn’t a bad decision by Chandor, as the audience wins either way. The writer/director’s refusal to hold the audience’s hand helps put us in Abel’s head. We are dumped directly into Abel’s life and it is up to the viewer to catch up. However, Chandor seems to take an almost perverse pleasure in making this more difficult that it needs to be. I’m a pretty intelligent person (“yeah right,” you think) and I’m still not clear on some of the logistics of the plot.
But A Most Violent Year still manages to succeed. The script is sprinkled with levity, which is essential to a movie like this, and Chandor and cinematographer Bradford Young manage to allow the overcast New York winter sky to set the mood for the entire picture. Events don’t really “happen” in the film, though Chandor does bring us to the edge a couple of times while building excellent tension. Instead the movie is focused on examining whether a man will make what he considers the hard choice. And whether that choice is even the best one to make. That’s a decision I will have to face myself in the coming days of the festival. I can’t wait to see how I handle it. Maybe Chandor will make a movie about that next.