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Contender or Pretender Series: A Most Violent Year

Welcome back to Contender or Pretender 2014, an Awardswatch series where, in each entry, we profile a different 2014 film and try to determine whether or not it is bound for Oscar glory next winter.  Having previously covered two of this year’s Oscar hopefuls about which the most is known to the public, this week we turn to a film that has something more of an air of mystery. This would be the latest offering from writer-director J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year.

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac shooting a scene from A Most Violent Year
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac shooting a scene from A Most Violent Year

 The Hopeful: A Most Violent Year

Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Distributor: A24 Films
Release Date: TBD (fourth quarter of 2014 rumored)

Having spent 15 years in the trenches of the commercial advertising world, Chandor broke through into the realm of features in a major way in 2011.  His film debut Margin Call, which depicted a high-stakes thirty-six hour in a top Wall Street  investment bank during the initial stages of the 2008 financial crisis, boasted a deep ensemble that most first-time filmmakers could only dream of, featuring such names as Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Stanley Tucci.  Premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the film made a strong impression with critics, with Chandor taking home honors for Best First Film from the New York Film Critics Circle(NYFCC) and the National Board of Review, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

J.C. Chandor
J.C. Chandor

Seemingly determined to prove his versatility as a filmmaker, Chandor’s sophomore offering, 2013’s All is Lost, was a 180-degree turn away from the dialogue-heavy ensemble showcase of Margin Call.  A dialogue-free one man show starring Robert Redford as a lone sailor fighting a losing battle against the stormy waters of the Indian Ocean, All is Lost received even better reviews than his first film, and for much of the year it seemed as if Oscar would be on board for the film in a major way. Unfortunately for Chandor, All is Lost’s awards chances foundered as the year wore on, as the film’s critical praise was unable to draw audiences, even by arthouse standards- the film’s gross of ten million dollars worldwide on a budget of nine million was seen as a major disappointment that halted its awards momentum, even for Robert Redford’s heavily praised lead performance.

All is Lost’s failure in the 2013 Oscar race has not seemed to stop or even slow Chandor’s rising star trajectory, however.  A mere two months after All is Lost’s Cannes premiere, Chandor unveiled A Most Violent Year as his upcoming third project, featuring the most high-profile talent he had worked with yet.  The film’s female lead was announced to be none other than Jessica Chastain, who in a mere two years has risen from obscurity to become one of the most in-demand actresses in Hollywood, with directors ranging from Terence Malick to Christopher Nolan signing her up for their films.  The film’s male lead, Oscar Isaac (who replaced Javier Bardem on the project) is no stranger to the rising star label himself, with his lead performance in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis resulting in rave reviews and critics hailing him as a breakout talent.  All is Lost’s box office underperformance did not stop the project from quickly finding commercial distribution, as A24 Films picked up the film at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival based on the script and cast alone, without having seen any footage- a rarity in the world of festival sales.

Descriptions of the actual story A Most Violent Year have been kept largely vague, but since the project’s July 2013 announcement details have gradually become publicly known.  The film’s title comes from its setting in New York City in the winter of 1981, which, as per the title, was the year with the highest violent crime rate in the city’s history.  Isaac plays immigrant Abel Morales and Chastain his wife Anna; Plot descriptions say that the pair own a heating oil business which they attempt to expand against the backdrop of the massive crime and corruption that characterized that period in the city’s history.

The strongest asset that the film has going for it at this early stage of the race is likely the presence of Isaac and Chastain in the lead roles, especially the latter.  The two-time Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner is red-hot in the industry, and any project her name is attached to is bound to receive at least some awards talk.

The main question mark surrounding Chastain in this film is whether or not she will be campaigned for Best Supporting Actress or in the lead category.  Based on the fact that Chastain finished her role over a month before production ended (according to her Facebook), it would appear that, although she is without question the leading female presence in the film, she will be campaigned in the Supporting category.  Such a strategy would be the optimal way for the film’s distributor to secure a win for the film, as well as avoiding having to compete with Chastain’s undisputed lead roles in the aforementioned Eleanor Rigby as well as Liv Ullmann’s adaptation of Gustave Strinberg’s play Miss Julie.

A24Though the cast and creative team behind the film are as good a bet as any to produce a high-quality film, quality is only one ingredient in awards success (and sometimes not even a necessary one).  The campaign this film receives will make or break its hopes for Oscar glory, and this is where the primary question marks surrounding the film lie.  The New York-based A24 was started in 2012 and has been growing rapidly since then- according to an April 2013 Variety profile of one of its executives, the size of their staff more than quadrupled in their first year, and in 2014 they will achieve their goal (stated publicly when the company was unveiled by its founders) of releasing eight to ten films a year, with nine titles released or slated for this year.

Though the company has never had a film in serious Oscar contention, it did gain attention for the campaign it launched for its most high-profile film yet, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which featured star James Franco holding two golden Oscar statuettes with the caption “ Consider This Shit,” imitating a line said in the film by his character of Alien.  Though the film came nowhere near Oscar, Franco was able to collect wins from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics, an impressive haul for a performance in a highly divisive film jam-packed with violence and sexual imagery. However, the barrier to entry into Oscar competition for a first-time studio can be very high, as CBS Films, another new player in the awards game, found out- in 2013, it spent heavily on a campaign for Inside Llewyn Davis, but, despite the film receiving rave reviews and hailing from more established filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, it only received a single nomination, for Best Sound Mixing.

In the end, A Most Violent Year will need to overcome the uncertainty surrounding its awards bid through two things- it, even more so than most of this year’s other contenders, will need to receive very strong reviews and stand out for critics, and have more success at the box office than Chandor’s previous offerings.  Chandor’s track record as a filmmaker so far indicates that he can deliver on the first score, especially if those critics disappointed that All is Lost did not receive the mainstream exposure they thought it deserved decide to vocally champion his latest.

As for box office, Chastain’s presence will be an asset the likes of which a Chandor film has never had before- Robert Redford is decades past his days as a box office draw, and the collection of actors headlining Margin Call, while distinguished, were either similarly past their primes or had never been draws in the first place.   though she may not yet approach the household name status of a Jennifer Lawrence or a Sandra Bullock, buzz surrounding her performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was a key factor in the film grossing over $132 million worldwide, more than doubling the total for Bigelow’s previous offering, The Hurt Locker (which had a strong general awards buzz itself, being 2009’s Best Picture winner) and even if she is campaigned for awards as a Supporting player, the studio will likely feature her just as prominently as Oscar Isaac in marketing.

Unless the film should prove itself a disappointment, Chastain should at the very least feature prominently in the Best Supporting Actress race, or the Lead race if the opportunity should arise to campaign there.  Securing a nomination for Oscar Isaac will be an order of magnitude more difficult, as Best Actor is traditionally the most competitive of all the acting categories, and Isaac has the further obstacle of not being a previous nominee like Chastain, and not having quite yet achieved the status in the industry of his former Julliard classmate.  For Isaac to score a nomination, the film would likely need to be a top 5 contender in the Best Picture race, a difficult proposition for a film backed by a “ true independent” studio like A24: The last film to do so was Secrets & Lies in 1996, handled by October Films.  Chandor scoring a nomination in the Best Director category would face similar difficulty, though a second nomination in the Best Original Screenplay race should be much easier if the film is well received, as would Best Picture, thanks to the expanded field.

Any nominations for the other supporting players in the film will depend on the material the film gives them- tentative early speculation has focused on Albert Brooks (a previous nominee for Broadcast News in 1987), reported to play Isaac’s attorney in the film.  The role of an attorney in a crime drama has a thin and uneven track record with the Academy: Robert Duvall was nominated for his role as Corleone family attorney in The Godfather, while Sean Penn failed to do so for his performance as Dave Kleinfeld in Carlito’s Way, despite a Golden Globe nomination.  A Most Violent Year would likely need to be a very strong contender for Brooks or any other supporting player from the film to be nominated, unless they are unambiguously singled out as a scene-stealing presence.

All in all, A Most Violent Year is far from the sure bet that an Unbroken would seem to be, but does not have the apparent underlying problems of a Get On Up. The film could become the underdog success story of the 2014 Oscars, or a cautionary tale of what happens when a small studio tries to play on the same field as the big boys-only time will tell.

VERDICT: CONTENDER

OSCAR ISAAC: PRETENDER

JESSICA CHASTAIN: CONTENDER

ALBERT BROOKS, OTHER SUPPORTING PLAYERS: PRETENDER

About the author

Peter has been on the Awardswatch forums since the start of 2012. He’s a student in the real world and a student of pop culture, and he enjoys predicting who will win awards because it combines his love of pop culture with his love of competition and speculating about the future. His prediction prowess makes him a member of both the Emmy Experts and the Gold Rush Gang.