Travel movies are a great way to satiate your wanderlust when you’re in between trips. Or, like me, you might have spent the last few months in lockdown and have no idea when your next trip will happen. Then, travel movies can be the perfect pick-me-up.
Whether you’re after something thought-provoking or lightheaded, there is a travel movie out there for you. Here’s my list of favourite travel movies that explore different aspects of adventure or simply showcase a destination.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Sophia Coppola’s highly acclaimed romantic comedy explores loneliness and friendship while showcasing the crazy, fascinating city that is Tokyo. A fading American movie star Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray), who is going through a midlife crisis, travels to the Japanese capital to film a commercial. At the hotel he meets college graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who is disillusioned with her marriage and life in general. They connect over their shared sense of melancholy and culture shock. Bob and Charlotte’s unlikely friendship soon adds new meanings and possibilities to their lives.
“Lost in Translation” is a fantastic film for those after travel inspiration and a thoughtful take on human existence. Tokyo just happens to be the perfect setting for it. The city has it all, from skyscrapers, incredible nightlife and tech to contemplative temples, peaceful gardens and century-old traditions. Tokyo doesn’t cease to amaze and even shock visitors from all over the world. I can’t imagine that the film could have been made anywhere else. Just like Tokyo and Japan, “Lost in Translation” is worth experiencing for yourself.
Into the Wild (2007)
Written and directed by Sean Penn, “Into the Wild” is a classic amongst travel movies. It is a thought-provoking film adaptation of the eponymous non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer. It tells the story of college graduate Christopher McCandless who decides to rebel against his affluent background. He renounces civilization, gets rid of his possessions and sets out on an epic American backpacking trip. He eventually makes it to Alaska where his idealism is tested by the harsh reality of living off the grid. Unfortunately, there are no happy endings.
The film is a spectacular celebration of nature, adventure and the free spirit. Thanks to incredible cinematography, we get to marvel at the awe-inspiring beauty of American landscapes. As Chris makes his way to Alaska, we also get to meet a motley crew of sweet and funny characters whose life is touched by Chris.
Nevertheless, despite the film’s numerous strengths, I feel that Sean Penn overly romanticised this story. Although Chris is portrayed as an alternative hero, he often comes across as delusional and unnecessarily cruel. The background that he tried to escape did not prepare him for the lifestyle he so desired.
I do strongly recommend checking it out as it allows you to experience the world through the eyes of a complex character. I can also guarantee that you will start dreaming of a big American road trip after watching it.
The Beach (2000)
It’s hard to find a list of the best travel movies without a mention of “The Beach”. This one is no exception. Based on Alex Garland’s novel of the same name, the film is a classic story of paradise found and lost.
It starts off at a dodgy hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where young American backpacker Richard stumbles upon a map showing the way to a mystical island paradise in the Gulf of Thailand. Driven by his desire for adventure he sets out to find it. Joined by a couple of French backpackers, Richard does reach the legendary island. However, everything is not what it seems in paradise.
“The Beach” didn’t impress the film critics when it came out, but I think it’s still worth a watch. It showcases the beauty of Thai beaches with their golden sand and crystal clear waters. It also offers an interesting take on our obsessive search of that perfect paradise, hidden away from the rest of the world.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
A delightful romantic comedy written and directed by Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris” is the ultimate love letter to the City of Lights. The film follows successful Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender who is vacationing in Paris with his fiancée and her parents. Gil is harbouring dreams of moving to Paris for good and writing a good novel. However, his fiancée has a very different idea of what their future should look like. One night, while walking around Paris alone, Gil bumps into a group of mysterious revellers who seemingly transport him back in time. He finds himself in his dream era where he gets to meet his literary idols, enjoy some romance and ultimately reassess his own present.
Paris is, of course, the real star of this film. It showcases its grand palaces, incredible museums, characterful cobbled streets and fascinating flea markets. It’s not surprising that the city has for centuries attracted romantic souls like Gil. It’s likely that you’ll want to become one of them after watching this film.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
Walter Mitty has a tedious job developing photos for Life magazine. He escapes the everyday monotony by daydreaming of great adventures but lacks confidence to pursue them in real life. Luckily, one day Walter’s life changes completely. His boss sends him on a mission to locate a lost photograph that is supposed to grace the cover of Life’s last issue. In order to do that, Walter has to track down the elusive photographer who took it. The quest takes Walter to some stunning locations around the world and, ultimately, gets him out of his comfort zone.
The film received mixed reviews from critics and it’s true that the story is not the most original. However, I feel that many of us can relate to Walter Mitty’s desire for something greater than the boring everyday. On top of inspirational value, the film showcases the natural beauty of Iceland. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film has placed the country on many people’s bucket lists.
Another travel movie that I think is worth a watch is “Wild” with Reese Witherspoon. It is based on American writer Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found” that covers her experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995.
The epic 4,270 km journey was undertaken by Cheryl as a way to heal from emotional trauma. Her mother’s sudden death and the breakdown of her marriage led to years of self-destructive behaviour. Determined to pick up the pieces of her life, she chooses to hike her way to recovery. With no previous experience, ill-fitting hiking shoes and a monster backpack, she battles the elements, various setbacks and, ultimately, her own painful memories. At the end, she doesn’t only complete the challenging journey, but also finds a way back to herself.
Although it’s not always easy to empathise with Cheryl, her experience is proof that travel can be truly life-changing. Surrounded by stunning American nature, she got to test her physical and emotional limits. As a result of this challenge, Cheryl gained strength and a sense of piece that she so desperately needed to move on with her life. Her story may well inspire you to set out on your own big adventure of self-discovery.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Based on an international bestseller by Kevin Kwan, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu as she travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick to attend his friend’s wedding. There she discovers that Nick’s family are actually super rich and Nick himself is a highly sought-after bachelor. Suddenly, Rachel has to navigate disapproving relatives, jealous socialites and the intricacies of an unfamiliar status hierarchy. The film boasts witty dialogue, an incredibly talented cast and breath-taking surroundings.
While ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is not strictly a travel movie, it offers an incredibly glamorous portrayal of Singapore. From hawker centres and Gardens by the Bay to iconic luxury hotels and famous skyscrapers, the film showcases the many things that Singapore has on offer. Personally, the film made me dream of visiting this island nation and experiencing its razzle dazzle for myself.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001 – 2003)
Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy is an award-winning adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s eponymous fantasy novels. It is a classic story about friendship, courage and the eternal struggle between good and evil. It features lovable characters, noble heroes, fantastical creatures and a quest of epic proportions. However, the star of the film was, undoubtedly, the breath-taking New Zealand scenery. In a way, it was a 9-hour advert for the country’s diverse and otherworldly landscapes.
As a result, the films have firmly placed New Zealand on the radar of many travellers, including me. Even though the trilogy is not new, you can still do LOTR location tours, visit the studio behind the films’ special effects in Wellington or find yourself on the Hobbiton movie set. It’s hard not to start dreaming of your own New Zealand adventure after watching these travel movies.
This cinematic phenomenon inspired “The Hobbit” film trilogy a few years later. It still features beautiful New Zealand vistas, but I didn’t really enjoy it, so wouldn’t recommend it.
Mamma Mia (2008)
Musicals might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it might just be the perfect choice for someone looking for lighthearted entertainment. Based on a popular musical of the same name, ‘Mamma Mia’ transports us to a beautiful Greek island where a young bride-to-be named Sophie is trying to find out who her real father is so he can walk her down the aisle on her big day. To figure this out, she secretly invites three potential candidates to the wedding. She discovered them through the old diaries of her mother, Donna who is completely unaware of the imminent arrival of her old flames.
The movie might not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it boasts a star-studded cast, iconic ABBA songs and incredible scenery. If nothing else, “Mamma Mia” will definitely make you dream of booking a trip to the beautiful Greek Islands.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)
This British comedy featuring a stellar cast of cinema veterans is sure to delight. The film follows a group of British retirees who head to India to enjoy a more pleasant and cheaper retirement than the one back home. However, the trip doesn’t go as planned. The initial setbacks as well as the general craziness of India affect each of them in different ways. Some of them take to the new surroundings, while others have to seriously reevaluate their past and present.
Compared to other travel movies, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” might not offer anything ground-breaking. Sometimes it feels like it’s just using stereotypes about older people instead of real people. Despite that, it is still a sweet film that reminds us that travel and adventure is not only for the young. It is also a celebration of the beautiful and multifaceted country that is India.
All in all, the film is a great option if you’d like to see something uplifting and visually pleasing.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)
Written by Will Ferrell and Andrew Steel, “Eurovision Song Contest” is a charming musical comedy that explores the idiosyncrasies of this quirky European obsession. The story begins in a small town in Iceland where two aspiring pop stars Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdóttir suddenly get the chance to represent their country at the Eurovision. So they travel to Edinburgh (every year the host country is different) to show the world what they are made of. However, their adventure is not a bump-free one as they have to battle fierce competition, performance issues and self-doubt.
It’s probably one of those films that you either love or hate. I’m definitely in the former camp as I enjoyed the majestic Icelandic scenery, beautiful views of Edinburgh and the portrayal of the eccentric competition itself. If you do decide to give “Eurovision” a go, I’d say don’t take it too seriously and just enjoy the joyful, if somewhat silly, ride.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of the best travel movies. Share your favourites in the comments.
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