Pointing to a specific seat in the front orchestra section of the vast Dolby Theatre before Thursday’s AFI Fest opening-night world premiere of his new film A Most Violent Yearwriter-director JC Chandor said “the last time I was in this room I was sitting right there and I lost to Woody Allen. Let’s hope it goes a little better tonight.”

Chandor was pete_hammond_300x100referring to the 2012 Oscar show, in which he was nominated for Original Screenplay for his first feature Margin Call. Although AFI Fest(unfairly I thought) overlooked by the Academy last year for his second film, All Is Lost — which at the very least should have snagged star Robert Redford a Best Actor nod but didn’t — I have a feeling he could perhaps find himself back at the Dolby in February in that same category where he duked it out with Woody.

More than one observer compared this dark, brooding and quite riveting NYC-set crime drama to something Arthur Miller might have written. And just about everyone evoked the name Sidney Lumet in describing the circa-1981 snowy New York milieu of the story dealing with moral and ethical issues surrounding a city engulfed in corruption on every level during the biggest crime wave the Big Apple had seen in decades.

Comparing it to Lumet movies like Prince Of The City, which was made the same AFI FEST 2014 Presented By Audi - Opening Night Gala Screening Of "A Most Violent Year"year in which Chandor has set his story, is a compliment And Chandor, a truly nice guy to boot, knows it. This is an old-fashioned kind of movie in the best sense of the word. “How are the reviews so far?” he asked me a bit nervously as we walked into the Hollywood Roosevelt after-party. He didn’t have to worry. Early trade notices posted even as the end credits were still running were largely upbeat. Chandor continually proves each year now he is the real deal.  But even more important to to him than what critics may think was the reaction of the audience (before it rolled for the first time in front of a big crowd, he asked them to “be nice”), particularly laughter in specific parts of the very serious movie — even when co-star Jessica Chastain shoots a deer.

It was the laughter of relief. This movie is intense but most of the violence is just in the title. It takes its time, has terrific dialogue and great acting particularly from its stars. Chastain nails her supporting role as a wife perhaps more savvy in the ways of this world than her morally conflicted immigrant husband, played superbly by Oscar Isaac in the kind off part Al Pacino might have done for Lumet.

Neal Dodson, who produced with his partner Anna Gerb and Chandor, recounted the original star was to be Javier Bardem, but after at least four trips to SpainAFI FEST 2014 Presented By Audi - Opening Night Gala Screening Of "A Most Violent Year", Chandor and the Oscar winner just could not come to a meeting of the minds on the role and Bardem ultimately passed. It left the door open for Isaac and what could really be a breakout turn for him (he’s also great in another indie this year, Two Faces Of January, which he steals). I say this now it seems with every new movie this fall, but Isaac gives an Oscar-worthy performance that unfortunately comes in a year for the Best Actor category that has about 30 viable possibilities. Arrrrrgh.

The filmmakers and Isaac actually got to know each other at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival when they were there for All Is Lost and Isaac was with Inside Llewyn Davis. They hit it off and the result is another award-worthy film that could go far in the race this year if indie distributor A24 can compete with the big guys in their first major play for Oscar attention. The nascent distributor, which also has another wonderful movie, Laggies, in current release, plans to make this film the very last movie to come out in 2014 by a-most-violent-year-poster-404x600opening it on New Year’s Eve, so lots and lots of screenings from now until then are a requirement if they expect to make inroads into the crowded field of contenders. There’s one Chandor will be at tonight at WME, another Monday at WGA where it should play well, and so on.

It helps to have Participant behind it too and clearly both Jeff Skoll and Jim Berk were beaming when I ran into them crossing the street from the Dolby to the Roosevelt. I could see Chastain , who is one of those actors who is always good , making the list for Supporting Actress even though insiders at a24 told me they are clearly frustrated that her contract for Interstellar  prevents her from promoting this film (other than the Premiere appearance last night) this month. She’s great in that film too, but vote splitting between the two would just doom her chances. You have to pick one pony . I recall when Dennis Hopper had two highly regarded performances in 1986  he found himself stunned when he got a Supporting nod for Hoosiers  over Blue Velvet ,  the movie for which he campaigned. So on second thought maybe you don’t  have to pick a pony.jessica-chastain-on-the-set-of-a-most-violent-year-in-new-york_4 Whatever happens she’s terrific in this.

AFI Fest is using the Dolby for most of its galas; there are six of them this year including Monday’s world premiere of The Gambler, Inherent Vice, The Homesman, Foxcatcher and a Sophia Loren tribute). (A sneak screening set for Tuesday was announced this morning, but that will be at the Egyptian). Normally, AFI Fest, celebrating its 28th year, would be at the massive TCL Chinese big IMAX theatre (the multiplex upstairs is being used by AFI for other films), but this year the dates of the fest directly collided with the opening of Interstellar (more Chastain conflict?) which has a key IMAX run at the Chinese that could not be interrupted for a film fest — even one as important to the momentum of Hollywood’s awards season as AFI, the last of the big Fall Festivals, has become in recent years. Berk told me he was thrilled to be at the Dolby instead which, though not a film venue, had perfect sound and projection. And of course as Chandor alluded to in his remarks the Oscars take place there so maybe that is a plus by association for any movie AFI plays this week.

In his welcoming remarks, AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale noted that the AFI Life Image (6) A24_logo__131205180530__140507011114.jpg for post 725379Achievement Award has also taken up residence at the Dolby each June, giving further gravitas to the setting for last night’s opener. He pointed out AFI Fest is not the only festival they do, with a Student Film Festival and AFI Docs also on their agenda. But this is the biggie with more than 120 films from 39 countries participating this year.

Earlier this week, AFI director Jacqueline Lyanga told me she was hyped on this year’s lineup and the continuing success of the festival itself. “It’s been great that the festival has grown and that the Institute has embraced the festival and that the industry community sees it as a launching pad for films. And that we as well are able to help the filmmakers whether it’s the larger films or the smaller films. This is just a great opportunity for them to find audiences,” she said. And unlike other fests admission is generally free for the public.