Streaming Gems is an ongoing feature where we discuss movies recently released on streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) that are worth your time.
RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)
There’s no clear frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar with awards season on the horizon, but there’s a plethora of contenders for the prestigious award for the moment: Darkest Hour is a period biopic that chronicles Winston Churchill’s time as the prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, A24’s The Florida Project follows the lives of children who live and play in an extended-stay hotel in the slums of Florida while their parents struggle to pay rent for the week, and Fox Searchlight is offering up another science fiction fairy tale from Guillermo Del Toro with The Shape of Water. . .and that’s before mentioning the upcoming Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
However, one film that should be a contender, but came out too early in the year for awards consideration is The Lost City of Z, Amazon Studios’ period epic based on real-life events and the book of the same name by David Grann. Hailed by critics but overlooked by audiences, The Lost City of Z had a 30 million dollar budget but only grossed a combined 17 million dollars domestically and worldwide at the box office after its release in April this year. It’s unfortunate because the film harkens back to a time where classical Hollywood epics reigned supreme, makes itself unique amongst them through its tone and naturalism, and is yet another gem from the often-overlooked auteur, James Gray.
After gaining the necessary connections to the film industry while attending the University of Southern California, James Gray wrote and directed his first two feature films, Little Odessa and The Yards, which came out in 1994 and 2000 to critical success with attractive casts, only to be overshadowed in the box office by the breakout hits of the independent film scene in their respective years. After finally gaining box office success with We Own The Night in 2007, James Gray developed his directing style as a storyteller in 2008 with the contemporary romance, Two Lovers, before branching out into epics in 2013 with The Immigrant, a period drama starring Marion Cotillard as a female immigrant from Poland who gets deceived into a life of sleazy vaudeville by a magician played by Joaquin Phoenix. Few audiences were able to see The Immigrant due to a very limited release, but it proved itself as one of the most overlooked films of the decade so far thanks to the authenticity of its time period and strong performances from its ensemble.
Gray’s craft as a storyteller carries over to his newest film, The Lost City of Z. Staying in the period piece genre at a time where they are seldom made, Z begins in Ireland circa 1905, where Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam, in a career-best performance), a young British officer and explorer, is assigned by the Royal Geographical Society to travel to Amazonia to settle a dispute between the then-primitive nations of Bolivia and Brazil. For his two-year mission, Fawcett is joined by a small crew, which includes Corporal Henry Costin (a nearly unrecognizable Robert Pattinson), and an Amazonian guide who talks obsessively about a golden city in the jungle. It isn’t until Fawcett comes across pottery on the ground and tribal engravings in the stones and trees that he starts to believe in the lost city himself, and makes it his life’s goal to destroy the narrow-minded beliefs of his peers while bringing glory to his family name and reputation by discovering the city, which he calls Z (to be read as Zed, the British spoken form of the letter Z).
The Lost City of Z may be two and a half hours long, but it earns its run time as it spans twenty years of Fawcett’s life, chronicling his multiple treks through Amazonia, the toll his obsession with finding the city takes on himself and his relationship with his son Jack (played by Tom Holland), and even his time in the trenches of World War I. What makes it such a marvel to watch from beginning to end is the direction from James Gray, who relies primarily on visuals to tell the story of Fawcett’s journey, from old-school filmmaking techniques such as slow cross dissolves and foreshadowing to effective match cuts; one cut from a beer trail to a train barreling down a railroad track only emphasizes the scale of the assignment. Gray also commits his film to naturalism through the tremendous performances from his ensemble; especially Hunnam, whose emotional range is on full display while appearing so genuine that nothing feels melodramatic or over-the-top. This extends to the film’s dramatic beats, such as when Percy’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller, also at her career-best here) wishes to accompany her husband on his second expedition to Amazonia because she believes she is able-bodied and capable of handling the rigors of the voyage. The resulting debate between the couple is so realistic with its drama that it stays gripping and powerful while addressing the social issues of today without feeling preachy.
What makes The Lost City of Z stand on its own as an epic, however, is its ethereal tone. Gray shot Z on 35mm film, which creates a look reminiscent of epics from the past as dynamic shadows evoke the same dread Fawcett and his team face while in the jungle, while accenuating the golden skies and green grass of England’s landscapes while he’s home. This also extends to the immaculate sound design: insects, birds and reptiles dominate the rivers and jungles of Amazonia while the majestic score from Christopher Spelman emphasizes the wonder and spectacle of the wilderness, creating an immersive atmosphere the further the party travels through it. The film even goes inside Fawcett’s mind in an early scene where his party is ambushed by a tribe of natives while traveling down a river. In true old Hollywood fashion, he pictures surreal images of his home, church and the baptism of his son to keep his fear of death at bay.
When I first saw The Lost City of Z for the first time during its theatrical run, I went into it expecting a psychological thriller with its lead character going mad with obsession, if only because I didn’t watch any trailers. However, I left hypnotized by the incredible cinematography and sound design, blown away by the strong performances, and so awestruck by the ending that I wanted to see it again the second it was over. It wasn’t until it came to streaming that I finally could, and from that viewing, I came away loving it even more. The Lost City of Z is a long film but worth planning your day around if you have Amazon Prime, where it’s currently streaming. It’s the kind of epic movie that doesn’t get made anymore, and one of the best films of the year.