Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #17. "A Most Violent Year" (2014)

A Most Violent Year
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

A Most Violent Year 
Released: December 31, 2014 
Release Number: 17
Directed By: J.C. Chandor 
Written By: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city's history.
Major Awards: 1
Golden Globes
-Best Actress (Drama): Jessica Chastain (Nominated)

For A24, their second year literally ended on a high note. Following a tumultuous mix of hit and misses, 2014 was saved for the studio by both Laggies and their final film, director J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year. It was a film that received critical acclaim and suggested that the studio hadn't peaked early that year with films like Enemy and Under the Skin. The film starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain was a familiar gangster drama that explored corruption in business through the life of an oil heating salesman. The film popped with life from an up and coming director, and it started the second coming of A24, of which would continue to blossom in 2015 with some of their most recognized work to date. For now, their sophomore year would end with a nice round of friendly violence.
The story begins a few years before Chandor had conceived A Most Violent Year. Having had success with his directorial debut Margin Call, he was being offered screenplays for violent movies that he felt were of "b-minus" quality. He was frustrated as he kept thinking of different ideas for his next movie. While his next would be All Is Lost, the idea came around the same time following the Sandy Hook school shooting. Chandor's family lived near the school, and it began to make him concerned for his family's safety. He wondered if the secured schools would be enough. This lead him to research what the "most violent year" was for his home city of New York. The answer, 1981, lead to the film while producing additional interesting parallels such as a new president, new mayor, and various other elements that explain why violent grew throughout the city at the time. With that in mind, he officially had a title.

At the time of casting, he had chosen Javier Bardem for the lead role. Jessica Chastain would eventually follow. When Bardem backed out, Chastain sent a note to Chandor to consider former acting classmate Oscar Isaac for the role. It was by coincidence that Chandor was already doing so. This lead to a variety of reunions, with Isaac reuniting with co-star Albert Brooks. Chastain would reunite with Interstellar co-stars David Oyelowo and Elyes Gabriel. Isaac's name, Abel Morales was a play on the themes of the movie: able and moral, or the ability to be a moral person. Speaking as Isaac was to play a civilized businessman, Chandor wanted to explore his descent into corruption. Likewise, Chastain thought that it would be best if her character wore nothing but Armani. After sending a request, she got the appropriate 1981 Armani wardrobe. 

Unlike most A24 films, financing and rights were purchased far in advance of the movie. The studio gained the rights on January 22, 2014 with promise to have the film finished by the fourth quarter of the year. By the following week, shooting was underway. It was Chandor's biggest project, of which he also wrote over the course of four years. With a reported budget of $20 million, he had more chances to create a vision of 1981 New York that was covered in graffiti, and captured the seediness that he desired. Even composer Alex Ebert did his best to invoke the era, using a heavy dose of synthesizer while conveying music from Miami Vice and Scarface. The film had its premiere at AFI Fest on November 6, 2014 to generally positive acclaim.
The film wasn't only among the most acclaimed movies of the year, it was one of A24's highest rated movies to date. Critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 89%, which is even higher than Under the Skin (84%), which was another film appearing on several Top 10 lists for the year. Mike LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that "For all its other virtues, is a wise movie about leadership." Alonso Duralde of The Wrap would go so far as to praise Chandor, claiming that the movie "firmly plants himself among this generation's great filmmakers." Critics also placed it on their Best of 2014 lists, including Todd McCarthy of McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter (8th), Richard Roeper of the Chicago-Sun Times (9th), and Christopher Orr of The Atlantic placed it in 1st place. The film would also become the first A24 movie to receive a Golden Globe nomination, earning Jessica Chastain a Best Actress (Drama) nomination. Despite this, there were those who wanted to see Isaac and Brooks in the major races. They would show up in other fields, though none as prestigious. The film would earn $12 million at the box office.
With its December 31st release, A Most Violent Year proved to be A24's best New Year's Resolution possible. After a rough second year, the studio was ending on a high note with one of their most acclaimed films yet, even earning Golden Globes for their effort. The studio would only continue to earn more praise, going further into the intersection between art and prestige as time would go on. For the immediate future, the studio was going to hit a familiar beat. With a big name director (Noah Baumbach) and a rich supporting cast, While We're Young was not only the next movie, but a rallying cry for what laid ahead. 2014 was a year full of unmemorable misfires, but that was officially over. It was time to enter the second coming of a studio out to change the face of independent cinema.

Up Next: While We're Young (2015)

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