There is such a great pleasure to be had in being surprised by artists you already expect to be impressed by, and this is a pleasure that A Most Violent Year offers in abundance. It combines the talents of the three of the most interesting new voices in cinema of the 2010s: writer-director J.C. Chandor, leading actor Oscar Isaac, and cinematographer Bradford Young. I hope by now that we're all aware that these are names which should perk up our ears at the very least; and though A Most Violent Year is the greatest work by none of them, it's such a left-field exercise in each case that it's still the most damned delightful thing imaginable, and a tremendously rewarding way to bid adieu to a sometimes frustratingly mediocre movie year.

The year in question is 1981, and we only get to see a chunk of it in the early months: it begins and ends in winter, which sets the mood about the way you'd expect it to. Here, we meet Abel Morales (Isaac), who has, after many years of struggling, begun to construct his empire in supplying heating oil to the New York metropolitan area. This has become a very fraught process: while the city reels under one of the most heavily crime-ridden years in its existence, Abel's business has been targeted by the thugs and enforcers unhappy about seeing a jumped-up immigrant break his way into their game; his tankers are being hijacked and his drivers threatened, and his business adviser Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks, unrecognisable beneath a straight hairdo) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are both needling him to pursue slightly more aggressive tactics in shutting down this threat to his business, in violation of the ethical code he committed himself to, that he'd never lower himself to become a gangster. Meanwhile, even though he's not doing anything more illegal than the rest of his industry - which is to say, he's not being completely legal, not by any stretch - he's just come under fire from the D.A.'s office, in the form of prosecutor Lawrence (David Oyelowo), with some indictments that threaten to scuttle his impending deal to purchase an oil storage facility owned by a family of Hasidic Jews. With all this going on, Abel's moral resistance, which had already proven to be at least a little bendy, after all, starts to get flexed very hard indeed.

Something of a self-conscious anti-gangster picture, A Most Violent Year isn't necessarily going to win points for surprising originality, and I wish the ending didn't feel quite so pat. The film's appeal, though, is less in the story than in the storytelling: the low simmer of creepy-crawly tension (aided considerably by Alex Ebert's humming, grim-feeling music, the kind that enters your body through your spine rather than your ears), the mordant sense of ethical pathos in a chilly world where the very best people are still pretty lousy and if everything is going to hell - not that I was around in New York in 1981, but its re-creation of the filthy, run-down city of pre-Giuliani legend is just the fucking bees' knees - there's no real the point in trying to behave decently. Young captures all of this filthy downtrodden life, and its contrast to the sleek newness of the nouveau riche Morales household, with heavily shadow-stained cinematography that suggest that he badly wants to audition to be the new Gordon Willis, and probably could manage that feat if he decided to stick with it. The shadowy winter New York of the film looks tremendous: not reinventing a wheel that has been smoothly rolling since the early 1970s (if sadly underused in later years), but machining it with absolute perfection. It's a far cry from anything the chameleonoid cinematographer has yet done (his stock in trade is lighting brown and dark brown flesh better than anybody else I can name working right now, with a detour in 2013 to flawlessly copying Terrence Malick in Ain't Them Bodies Saints), and pretty close to perfect in its bleakness.

As the animating spirit of this rather chilly movie, Isaac is superb; given how openly the whole movie wants us to think about '70s New York crime films while we're watching it, it's no real shock that he's channeling vintage Al Pacino, in everything from the barking way of speaking to the heavily-lidded eyes and downcast mouth. There are no poor performances in the movie (though the dissonance between Brooks's voice and his unfamiliar look is certainly distracting), but nobody is able to pull focus from him: this is very much a one-man show, and Isaac's performance as that man is wonderful: worn down and sullen, but also coiled up with frustration and anger; presenting a clever man just far enough from sophistication that we can see all the clicks and whirs as he thinks his way through new problems.

It's a terrific center to a damn sturdy film: Chandor, three features into his career, is quickly becoming one of America's best damn sturdy filmmakers, and all without repeating himself. His 2011 debut, Margin Call, was a politically-alert economics procedural; last year's All Is Lost a virtually wordless one-man survival drama, and now this moody, moral thinkpiece wrapped in a period-evoking genre film. All that connects the films are characters who clamp onto a plan like a pit bull and follow it to the end no matter how much needless pain is involved; that, and a confident ability to structure moments and scenes to drag us breathlessly through the story.

A Most Violent Year has bumps along the way: some dialogue that rather too baldly tells us what all this means, and some rocky editing, mostly. There's a persistent problem with conversations between three participants, which are blocked and cut in a way that makes it very nearly impossible to work out the physical relationships between people at all times. But there's a great deal more to the film that's engaging and deep, smart without being all that challenging (Chandor's mood here is much more "let me entertain you with well-acted adult situations in an unadorned urban environment", the most quintessentially '70s thing about it, than "let me make you re-evaluate how you think and interact with art"), and it's a pretty terrific piece of the filmmaking for intelligent adults that supposedly can't get produced anymore.