J.C. Chandor wrestles with the definition of survival in each of his films. Margin Call glossily charts the messy human dilemmas unfolding during America's 2008 financial collapse on Wall Street. Robert Redford's near-wordless performance as the captain of a sinking ship in All is Lost shifted the process to its most elemental levels. Now we have A Most Violent Year, a slow-burning and modest crime film about the male ego gasping for air during the particularly volatile year of 1981.
Set on the dilapidated outskirts of New York City (skyscrapers are always within view), Chandor's latest gives Oscar Isaac a suitably sneaky role as Abel, the nervy owner of a local gas company whose trucks are being hijacked by unknown assailants. Threatened on multiple fronts by a curious district attorney (David Oyelowo) and cash flow issues amid an expiring real-estate transaction, Abel attempts to retain his cool under pressure, often with the help (or hindrance) of his slippery gangster-princess of a wife (Jessica Chastain).
A Most Violent Year stylizes the brooding working-class territory of director Sidney Lumet, where low-level players clash with those who have become politically savvy enough to rise up the ranks. Abel is caught between the two, trying to erase his blue-collar origins with every deal he makes, forming key alliances with competitors and marrying a woman with scary, wide-reaching influence. Chandor uses this tenuous moment in Abel's life to dissect the origins of his ambition.
"I always choose the path that is most right," he arrogantly says late in A Most Violent Year, which opens Friday, Jan. 23. The moral ambiguity of that statement fits in line with his survivor mentality, and Chandor lets the unseen ramifications of his selfish creed drift into the smoggy Gotham sky.
A Most Violent Year: When his business is threatened by a string of armed robberies, the owner of a New York City gas company (Oscar Isaac) must adapt to the volatile surroundings to survive.
Human Capital: A tragic bike accident links two powerful Italian families vying for political dominance.
Mortdecai: Johnny Depp stars as a kooky art dealer who investigates the disappearance of a priceless painting that could lead to Nazi gold.
Once Upon a Time, Veronica: A recent graduate from medical school settles down in her new life in Brazil's most violent city. Screens through Jan. 29 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Strange Magic: The first big animated film of 2015 features goblins, elves and other creatures vying for a magic potion.
The Boy Next Door: Jennifer Lopez's confused and vulnerable divorcée moves into a new town and begins a fling with a young man / psychopath.
One Time Only
Ilo, Ilo: A young boy develops a friendship with his maid, making his mother jealous. Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, at the Scripps Ranch Library.
Blue Velvet: Enter the depraved mind of director David Lynch in this horrifying look at suburban deceit that features a truly disturbing performance by Dennis Hopper. Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, at Hillcrest Cinemas.
The Princess Bride: A grandfather (Peter Falk) reads his grandson (Fred Savage) a classic story of giants, princesses and true love. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
Human Rights Watch Film Festival: This festival will showcase six films that focus on the power of an individual's perseverance in the face glaring human-rights violations. Opens with a reception at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, and runs through Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
Pandora's Promise: Personal stories from environmentalists and energy experts help paint the dire ecological picture of climate change. Screens at 6:40 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, at the San Diego Foundation offices in Point Loma's Liberty Station.
American Bear: Two documentary filmmakers travel through America, relying on the kindness of strangers for a home each night. Screens at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23; 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24; 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25; and 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27, at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Terms and Conditions May Apply: This documentary about online security exposes what corporations and governments learn about clients through Internet use and phone calls. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23, at the Metate Infoshop in Hillcrest (on Harvey Milk Street, between Centre and Normal streets).
Gone Girl: When a young housewife (Rosamund Pike) mysteriously disappears, the innocence of her husband (Ben Affleck) is called into question. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 23 and 24, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
My Community: A local documentary that highlights the beauty and creativity within southeastern San Diego. Screens at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Malcolm X Library in Emerald Hills.
Anna May Wong, Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life Times and Legend: Producer Nancy Kwan narrates this documentary about Anna May Wong, the actor who defined the role of "Dragon Lady" and pushed the boundaries of stereotypical female Asian roles. Screens at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Chuang Archive and Learning Center (541B Second Ave., Downtown).
Freedom Writers: Hilary Swank plays the role of the white savior for disadvantaged teens, teaching them tolerance and kindness. Screens at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 26, at the San Diego Central Library in East Village.
This is Where I Leave You: Four grown siblings return home after their father passes away and fess up to decades of resentment and anger. Screens at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27, at the Point Loma / Hervey Branch Library.
25 Carat: A crooked father-daughter team hatches a new plan with the aid of a debt collector. Screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
A.C.O.D.: A young man (Adam Scott) who resents his parents for getting divorced must come to grips with their sudden reunion. Screens at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, at the Mission Valley Library.
Old School: Once it hits your lips, it's so good. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
American Sniper: Clint Eastwood's unflinching and critical biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who became the deadliest sniper during four tours in Iraq.
Blackhat: When a cryptic hacker threatens to send the world into chaos, the U.S. government releases a young computer genius to catch him. It's directed by ace craftsman Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice).
Gangs of Wasseypur: Part 1: The first segment of Anurag Kashyap's 320-minute Indian crime saga charts the origins of a blood feud between two factions battling for control of a coal-rich township. Screens at AMC Fashion Valley Cinemas.
Little Accidents: Multiple stories intertwine after a fatal mining accident sets off a chain reaction of misfortune and heartbreak. It stars Elizabeth Banks and Josh Lucas. Ends Jan. 22 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
Paddington: Traveling from Peru, a young bear arrives in London hoping to find a home. There he meets the Brown family, who offer him a temporary safe haven.
The Wedding Ringer: Who best to impress your new in-laws than a loud, vivacious Kevin Hart? Josh Gad's shy young groom-to-be agrees.
Zero Motivation: Female soldiers stationed at a remote desert base hilariously search for meaning amid gender discrimination and absurd contradictions. Ends Jan. 22 at the Ken Cinema.
Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson adapts Thomas Pynchon's detective yarn about a real-estate tycoon who disappears, inciting a number of pot-fueled stories in early-1970s Southern California.
Selma: Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) attempts to create voter reform in Selma, Alabama, a hotbed of racism and disenfranchisement.
Taken 3: Liam Neeson reprises his role as the badass who keeps losing family members to kidnappings. Maybe third time's a charm?
Born to be Wild: Narrated by Morgan Freeman, this documentary examines the amazing bond between humans and animals, including elephants and orangutans. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death: Dark spirits are awakened in the Eel Marsh House when children evacuated from World War II London arrive looking for shelter.
Big Eyes: Tim Burton's film tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), a 1960s housewife who allows her conman of a husband to take credit for her exceptionally popular paintings.
Into the Woods: Beware the Wolf, Sondheim. Beware the Wolf.
The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch stars as real-life code breaker Alan Turing, who led a squad of British mathematicians in breaking the Enigma code during World War II.
Unbroken: Angelina Jolie's sophomore effort examines the life of Olympic athlete and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) who overcame extreme odds to survive a Japanese internment camp.
Annie: Hollywood's latest reboot of the famous musical about an orphan adopted by a wealthy tycoon features Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz and Quvenzhané Wallis as the titular melodist.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb: Sadly, Robin Williams' last performance exists within this silly universe of an inexpressive Ben Stiller, an expressive monkey and artifacts brought to life.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: The final chapter in Peter Jackson's bloated three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous novel ends in a massive battle between elves, dwarves, men and the nefarious orcs.
Top Five: Set to marry a reality star and have their wedding taped for public consumption, a popular comedian (Chris Rock) returns home to his old neighborhood, hoping to gain some clarity.
Exodus: Gods and Kings: The story of Moses, Rhamses and the Ten Commandments gets super-sized.
Wild: Based on the best-selling novel, this drama tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, who trekked more than 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail to reassess her troubled life.
Horrible Bosses 2: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day get another chance to turn the tables on their self-serving bosses and exact revenge.
Penguins of Madagascar: A trio of goofy penguins must join forces with a secret underground organization to defeat a villain trying to destroy the world.
Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller's dark sports film tells the tragic true story of the Schultz brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum), wrestlers who became forever entwined with the wealthy heir to the du Pont fortune (Steve Carell).
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1: Having just destroyed the Hunger Games infrastructure, Katnis returns home to lead the rebellion against the corrupt forces of the capital.
The Theory of Everything: Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is diagnosed with motor-neuron disease just as he's graduating with a doctorate degree in physics from Cambridge and starting a new life with his wife (Felicity Jones).
Big Hero 6: An inflatable robot develops a bond with a prodigy named Hiro, and the two become high-tech heroes.
Interstellar: Christopher Nolan's new science-fiction epic follows a group of explorers who make use of a newly discovered wormhole to find a new home for humanity.
Nightcrawler: This scathing and unsettling portrait of modern news television stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a vulture scouring the Los Angeles streets for gory events.
Birdman: A burnt-out superhero actor (Michael Keaton) tries to mount a play on Broadway in order to prove his worth. It co-stars Naomi Watts, Emma Stone and Andrea Riseborough.
Whiplash: A sadistic music teacher tortures a young drummer at a posh New York City conservatory.
Gone Girl: David Fincher adapts Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel with Ben Affleck in the lead as the suspicious husband whose beautiful wife (Rosamund Pike) suddenly goes missing.
Hidden Universe: Blast off into the stratosphere with this documentary that uses real images captured from telescopes to examine the vast reaches of space. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
Journey to the South Pacific: Let the glorious scale of IMAX take you to the tropical islands of West Papua, where life under the sea is just as lush and vibrant as it is on shore. Screens at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.