Early on in my career in the music business, an older, wiser artist gave me some advice that has always stuck with me: A contract is only as good as your lawyer. In other words, when it comes to anything short of a fingerprint on a murder weapon, it doesn't matter what the law says, only having the money to enforce it.

Music is a notoriously dirty business, but every commercial enterprise has its share of the viciously greedy, who'll play as fast and loose with the law as they can until a court order — or perhaps a baseball bat — brings them to their senses.

"A Most Violent Year" is that rare film which explores this ugly reality skulking in the shadow of America's good, honest Protestant-work-ethic entrepreneurialism. Set in New York City in 1981 — which really was a bad year for the near-bankrupt city, with 2,166 murders, more than 120,000 robberies and a two-week trash strike, to make things even more miserable — the film follows Colombian immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as he strives mightily to achieve the American dream.