Travel films are more than National Geographic documentaries. (Although when I’m researching a destination, that’s where I often begin…) A common definition is “a documentary film, television program, or online series that describes travel in general or tourist attractions without recommending particular package deals or tour operators.”
No, I’m thinking of movies that combine a place with the people who are there. The result: an authentic slice-of-life view, with an interesting story. The scenery may or may not have a starring role, but is absolutely essential to the plot.
To qualify for my list of best travel films, there really must be a combination of places, people, and plots. The setting serves as the foundation; the story couldn’t really happen anywhere else. Interesting characters that we want to know more about. And a compelling narrative to keep us engaged. All come together to create a timeless movie.
This is my list, cheer or jeer. Many are decades old. Lots of foreign selections. Some are quirky, some are gorgeous, some just struck a personal chord. I hope you’ll add your favorites in the comment section. Let’s do some globe-hopping, shall we?
My list of best travel films
Amélie: I must lead with my favorite. The city of Paris stars, along with Audrey Tautou, in this comedy-romance-fantasy. A charming young woman, working in a Montmartre cafe, decides to help others. Complications ensue. The soundtrack will enchant you, too.
The Way: Again, I am biased. I didn’t see this film before I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, but when I was on my pilgrimage, many others said it was what inspired them to walk the 500 mile route. Martin Sheen is perfect as the heartbroken father who makes the journey in memory of his son and to appease his own guilt. Northern Spain will inspire you, too.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: India! Bustling and colorful! Add a magnificent “mature” British cast to portray pensioners looking to escape a boring retirement or live on limited funds, and what could go wrong? Nothing. The street scenes and views of Jaipur are great and give us an up-close view of what it really would be like to live there.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: Definitely an oldie-but-goodie, but it makes Australia shine. A pop-culture classic, featuring drag queens, toe-tapping music, and the breath-taking Outback, it was a daring film back in the day (1994). And still worth your time, so hop onboard Priscilla (the bus) and meet the Ozzie locals.
Out of Africa: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, AND Africa. No wonder this was the Best Film of 1986. Based on the autobiography of Karen Von Blixen, Kenya–and the Shaba National Game Reserve– are portrayed in all their beauty (Garnered the Best Cinematography Oscar, too) and the story is the timeless dilemma of head vs. heart.
One Week: Oh, Canada! This 2010 film gets straight to it: Told he has an aggressive terminal cancer, Ben Tyler (Joshua Jackson) postpones treatment in favor of buying a motorcycle and riding from Toronto to Vancouver Island. Realizing he has lived a “safe” life, Ben now embraces the unknown…and impacts strangers along his way. Canada’s magnificent landscapes soften the sadness of a young life about to be snuffed out too soon.
The Motorcycle Diaries: Speaking of motorcycles, before he became a beret-wearing revolutionary icon, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a medical student. His book about his 5,000 mile journey with a friend makes for a fine film. South America shows us her best, from Buenos Aires to coastal Chile to Machu Picchu to Columbia…to Venezuela. Join these two young men–and their temperamental motorcycle–for a memorable trip.
Sideways: The U.S. has some travel-worthy films, too. How about California wine country? Wine-snob Paul Giamatti, in one of his best roles, takes a friend for a fling before the friend’s wedding. The lush vineyards provide a fabulous setting for this road trip. The story is funny and sad and complicated. Oenophiles will see some nice labels, too.
Shirley Valentine: Here’s another movie about a woman who decides to change her life for the better. Shirley is a Liverpool housewife whose husband treats her like a piece of furniture. When he dumps the eggs she cooked for him into her lap, she heads to Greece. Actually, to the beautiful, beautiful Greek islands. And lucky us, we get to go along. She takes a journey to discover herself. A great reminder of the magic of travel.
In Bruges: “Banished” to Bruges after a bungled murder assignment, two hit men land in this charming medieval city to lay low. One of them hates the place, the other buys a guide book and can’t get enough of the history and art. All the while, Bruges becomes more than a backdrop. If you haven’t been there yet, you’ll want to go. The cast and plot are superb. The director, Martin McDonagh, brought us “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO.”
Before Sunrise (Vienna)…Before Sunset (Paris)…Before Midnight (Messenia, Greece) My confession: I resisted Before Sunrise when it was wildly popular. It just sounded cheesy. I was wrong. Set about ten years apart, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy give us an honest–and sometimes painful–look into a relationship. The films are dialogue-heavy, but the settings play important roles, too. Jenna Scherer, at Conde-Nast says, “All three movies are a testament to travel’s power to realign your perception of your own life.”
Under the Tuscan Sun: Frances Mayes’ book made us want to hop off a bus and buy a villa. Diane Lane, as Mayes, does the same thing in the film. Italy never disappoints, especially Tuscany and its astoundingly-spectacular countryside. It’s an uplifting story, too, of hope and fresh starts. I dare you to watch it and not start planning your next Italian adventure.
Midnight in Paris: Whether you like Woody Allen or not, this is the perfect film for anyone who loves Paris, art, literature, history, culture… There’s a bit of time travel involved, but how else are we going to meet Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and Picasso?? I’m not sure Paris is ever not photogenic–certainly not here. (As long as I’m praising Paris, don’t miss Paris, je t’aime, short vignettes by twenty directors, with a star-studded cast. The anthology takes place all over the City of Light.
The Bucket List: No list of best travel films can exclude the movie that launched a buzz phrase. Besides, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman take us all over the world: France, India, China, Egypt, Tanzania… The message is clear: Live life to the fullest, for as long as you can. Although I’m no longer convinced about the need for a bucket list, this film demonstrates the joy of experiencing dreamed-of destinations.
Use travel films to remember, anticipate, or fantasize. I realize now that I’ve got many more to share. Look for another list in the future. In the meantime, please tell us your favorites in the comments!