‘A Most Violent Year’ is a masterful portrait with Oscar-worthy work from Isaac, Chastain

“A Most Violent Year” is probably the year's most patient movie. It's a slow burn in the best way, not unlike “A Most Wanted Man” in that regard (which makes their similar titles all the more interesting). I was reminded of Scott Cooper's “Out of the Furnace” a lot while watching the film at its AFI Fest opening night gala Thursday night; it's a painterly movie about the difficulties of remaining pure and honest in a corrupt and flawed world. Masterful work.

Director J.C. Chandor owes a lot – and I imagine he would admit as much – to his chosen director of photography here. And make no mistake, Bradford Young is one of the most exciting cinematographers working today. The director and I talked a little about the work earlier this week, but it's striking tableau filmmaking, lit like a master class, evocative, moody, cues from Gordon Willis – simply gorgeous. Before I talk about anything else, I had to talk about that. Of course, anyone who saw “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” knew this guy was going to sky-rocket. And here he goes…

Some of the only people who had seen the film prior to the premiere were the Gotham Awards committee, who chalked Oscar Isaac up for a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Abel, a man trying to build a heating oil business without getting sucked into the murk of corruption and organized crime. And, uh, great call. This is subtle, specific work. It's drilled down and captivating and an absolute showcase. It would be fantastic to see that awards cachet translate to an Academy Award nomination, particularly since he was passed over for the single greatest performance of last year. But subtlety can be hard to push through in an Oscar race, particularly one this crowded. We'll see.

Less subtle, though no less controlled, is Jessica Chastain as Abel's flinty wife Anna. As a sort of Lady Macbeth, Chastain is a live wire every time she's on screen. She is fire to Isaac's ice, a connected woman (by virtue of her father's mob ties) with still waters running deep. When conflict strikes and Abel's business is intimidated by competition, the very threat of Anna getting involved is enough to make Abel quiver, and the audience with him. She has more of a presence in the film's first half and is then sort of relegated to the wife at home in the second. But no matter when she's on screen, in what capacity or for how long, she has your attention. In any Oscar race, this is the performance that will draw votes, more so than her “Interstellar” turn, which is emotional and well-utilized but simply doesn't have the resonance this does.

(Obviously there's a whole press dust-up over this aspect of the film, which may or may not be blown out of proportion; I've heard reasonable arguments on both sides. That situation has put “A Most Violent Year” in this sort of David vs. Goliath position, which from a publicity perspective, is brilliant. Of course no one is yet copping to placing that New York Times story, so the credit remains in the ether. Nevertheless, let's not get lost in the reindeer games.)

Also well used in the film, with a hair piece for the ages, is Albert Brooks. He's not in it a whole lot and there's no real awards play here, but in the sort of Robert Duvall/consigliere role, he's cool, collected and represents a whole world underneath the picture itself that's kind of intriguing. I would totally watch a spin-off movie about this guy's day-to-day. (Go for it, J.C.)

So I'm pretty much in love with this movie. There's something really bold and almost meta to me about spending $20 million on a character drama about how impossible it is to remain straight and true in a bent world. The metaphor for this business squeezing out the middle class of filmmaking is there to be dissected if you want. Maybe that's just something I saw in it, I don't know. And I'm fine with that. It's not that “A Most Violent Year” is an abstract work that can be interpreted a million different ways, but it's deceptively simple, and within such a framework, wonders can be gleaned.

“The last time I was here I was sitting right there and I lost to Woody Allen,” J.C. Chandor said from the stage of the Dolby Theater Thursday. Well, whether he wins anything for this one or not, it's frankly just nice to see that mid-budget movies like this can still make their way into the world. That's a win right there.

“A Most Violent Year” opens Dec. 31.