Movies are sometimes to be taken at face value, viewed as no more than quick, simple escape routes out of our dreary daily lives. But the list of flicks we’ve compiled below serves an even higher purpose, that of whetting the appetite for travel, adventure and summer flings through engaging storytelling and a heady sprinkling of the most fragrant sights and sounds you’re likely to find on screen and abroad. Anchored in culture clashes or carefree bashes, they offer a glimpse into better or lesser-known holiday destinations, and are perfect to set your holiday standards by (if your idea of fun is crushing disappointment!).
So settle into this virtual tour of your next trip, sight-seeing has never been smoother, not to mention easier on your legs!
1. A Summer in Genoa
The thing about Europe, as seen from across the Atlantic, is it seems to be an endless fount of inspiration… for gags about, or at the expense of, the shell-shocked American traveler. For a mainstream look at yanks coming face to face with Europeans’ peculiar take on fun, freedom and female nudity, you could try watching The CW’s Backpackers, but Michael Winterbottom’s A Summer in Genoa is definitely head and shoulders above that trifle. Featuring the maze-like old cobblestone streets steeped in history we’ve come to expect from movies shot in Italy, the flick explores the healing power of escapism and new beginnings. And if the eye-candy isn’t enough, leave it to everybody’s favorite king (Colin Firth) and perennial go-to indie darling (Catherine Keener) to reel even the Euro-skeptics in!
2. The Before Trilogy
The popular cult trilogy from director Richard Linklater breathed its last with 2013’s Before Midnight, but the realistically messy tying up of loose ends should only make your marathon binge even tastier. Watch the love story between Celine (played by Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) unfold from its first train-set spark, and go down the long, winding path they took to the slightly less exotic land of coupledom. Shot in some of Europe’s most alluring cities (Vienna, Paris, Messinia), this trilogy is bound to leave you with a bad case of the travel munchies… and a raft of unrealistic expectations about summering in Europe. But then, who’s to say you won’t indeed stumble on your soul-mate while hoofing it across the continent?
3. Vicky Cristina Barcelona
If you’ve been itching to put a face to the ‘European loose cannon’ stereotype, look no further than Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in Woody Allen’s Spain-set romp. They play two former lovers – Latino, with all the ticking bombs that implies – who pull the clueless, American, would-be daredevilist likes of Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) into their telenovela-worthy drama. The pair of traveling femmes are just getting their feet wet in Barcelona – the raw passion, art and culture-scented Spanish capital – which is why, at once wary and goaded by curiosity, they don’t see all the madness coming. We do, and it’s a real treat watching them negotiate the flash fire that ensues. If you’re a fan of Allen’s, you should equally watch his other odes to the Old Continent, like the more recent Midnight in Paris.
4. Stealing Beauty
I loved re-watching this summery wine-flavored first-blush-of-love story as I was growing up, and I still credit it every chance I get for introducing me to Bertolucci (I’d then go on to see, and mark as an all-time favorite, his The Dreamers, which, though set in Paris and with a unique take on culture clashes of its own, will show you more indoors than out, so it didn’t make the cut here). Stealing Beauty sees the bee-stung beaut Lucy (Liv Tyler) reeling from her mother’s untimely death and traveling down memory lane, to an old bucolic hangout in Tuscany. Once here, she rekindles a romance, forms new connections, makes discoveries about both her mum and herself, and, framed by awe-inspiring, breathtaking landscapes, comes into her own as a woman.
5. Certified Copy
Abbas Kiarostami’s warmly received puzzler is a two-person walkabout with quite a lot to recommend it as a must-see, but the leading couple (Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) stands out as its centerpiece. When their respective characters, James, a writer, and Elle, a gallery owner, meet (also in Tuscany), they strike up a conversation on genuine versus phony art which seeps into the very fabric of the movie. But, somewhere along the way, as they proceed down time-worn, idyllic country roads together, their manner with one another slowly skews to reflect a shared past or, perhaps, a ludic enactment of the movie’s, and their own, idée fixe. That the film still works on both levels, driven by both scintillating dialogue and an undercurrent of mystery, and the curiously undefined relationship doesn’t take anything, least of all the viewer, away from the main philosophical conundrum, is a testimony to the director’s expert grasp of dosage and tight grip on storytelling.
6. In Bruges
Let’s take a break from Tuscany’s privy romantic nooks, and set course for Bruges, the small Belgian town that served as a very lively background, all but a character in and of itself, for first-time director Martin McDonagh’s dark 2008 comedy. The story revolves around a pair of hired guns, played by the always reliable Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, who’s pulling his comedic weight here and leaves us wanting more of the same, rather than the thriller fare he keeps dabbling in. Farrell’s Ray starts off as a reluctant tourist who resents the exile imposed by his boss (the chameleon extraordinaire Ralph Fiennes), but then finds a host of activities to keep him busy – making friends, downing beers, doing drugs, getting physical, and getting laid. In other words, the staples of European tourism.
7. The L’auberge espagnole Trilogy
Shot over eleven years, Cédric Klapisch trilogy can’t really hold a candle to the other three-parter on our list, but, to be sure, the first installment was by far the best, and the most relevant to us here, of the lot. Set in the warm, inviting and tourist-friendly Barcelona, it follows French student Xavier (Romain Duris) as he lands in a multi-cultural dwelling he’ll be sharing with other Erasmus students from all over and embarks on some character-defining experiences we all seek out in our twenties. And, by the looks of it, Barcelona is probably the best place to live them in: with its fun, inclusive and all-round laid-back approach to travel fueled youths, it makes for a vibrant setting that’s conducive to, well, yes, loads of frolicking, but also to gleaning essential self-knowledge about how you tick, and click with the world around you.
8. The Darjeeling Limited
I found this, like most Wes Anderson whimsies, to be an instant battery-filler flick. On my list of train-set movies, it snatched the top crown from Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train, to ultimately be dethroned by Snowpiercer. From our travel-focused standpoint though, its juiciest moments happen on stop-overs, when the three brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) get off the eponymous train and alternatively delve into India’s marketplaces, hodgepodges of knick-knacks, snakes and pickpockets, into its temples, its backwoods etc., right up to the foot of the Himalayas. And if there’s no real enlightenment to be had here – and the comedy’s all the better for it – I reckon it’s also because that’s not something you plan for. It serves as a reminder that tacking on a high-minded purpose to a journey rarely pans out.
9. Eat Pray Love
Adapted from the book of the same title, this Julia Roberts movie was pretty much panned when it came out, and, true enough, her character Liz’s pasta-induced food-gasms were nothing to write home about – but let’s put our nit-picking hat aside for a moment, we’re here to gear up for a takeoff, not a takedown. When the life-hungry divorcee makes her way into India and Indonesia, Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story director Ryan Murphy rallies, by tapping into the scenic marvels, lack of pretense and spiritual wealth over there – and that’s the only reason you keep watching. The movie pulls through by the skin of Javier Bardem’s pearly whites (aka every woman’s definition of the holiday splurge), though, truth be told, the serene (soporific?) vistas afforded by the ashram Liz stayed at in India should also be given some credit. Whether you’re bound for India in search of love or inner peace, you should probably keep in mind that, according to the real-life Liz who authored the source material, “outside the walls of the Ashram, it is all dust and poverty.”
10. Cairo Time
While we’re on the subject of brief, jetlag-induced half-baked decisions that feel wicked good, few on-screen love affairs I’ve seen have stood the test of time, and of my failing memory, like Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time. The will-she-or-won’t-she flick was touted by Rotten Tomatoes as their top scorer that year in the romance category, and its leading lady was widely praised for her equally top-notch performance. Egypt blossoms under the curious eyes of Patricia Clarkson’s Juliette, wife to a UN official who’s come to join him for a spell, but realizes on touching down that said husband has been delayed indefinitely and it will be his friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig), come to show her around the city, who’ll be keeping her company. The muted feelings that spring up between them, against the city’s hustle and bustle and myriad tightly-packed colors, speak to an overhanging cap of self-denial which, in a way, matches up with everything we’ve come to learn about, and expect from, any story set in the Arab world.
11. Lost in Translation
If two strangers sharing a drink and a flirt in a strange city (Tokyo) is up your alley – and I can’t imagine why anyone would be adverse – know this is the epitome of that particular one-off alignment of wandering planets, and so much more. Sofia Coppola’s sophomore flick put her on the map as a budding director to keep an eye on, and it was thanks in no small part to the allure of the verboten. But the May-December attraction between Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte and Bill Murray’s Bob gets as much fuel from their common ground (there’s a deadening lack of love in both their lives) as from the foreign ground they discover together. Moody aesthetics abound in Japan’s Capital City, and the flick shows how allowing oneself to dive into its glitzy underbelly leads to a scary, and titillating, immersion that might, in the right company, heal alienation.
12. Shanghai Kiss
This little-known indie went straight to DVD and with good reason, but there’s something to be said about fair-to-middling rom-coms that manage to come up with a plot twist. Here, it’s the fish-out-of-water scenario that gets a nice touch-up from directors Kern Konwiser and David Ren – they move an Asian American (aptly called Liam, adeptly played by Ken Leung) from Los Angeles to Shanghai, where his comfort zone’s thrown out of whack, until he discovers being just an average Joe instead of ‘that Asian Joe’ is a breath of fresh air. Less than just another pitch for love, it’s rather the story of Liam’s toing and froing as he tries to decide between his adoptive country, where he’s been adrift of late, and his native one, where he’s just getting his bearings. Not the smoothest of fences, but you’re glad when he comes down on the right side of it. To zero in our purposes, the film does a decent job of depicting the world’s most densely populated city, in the background of Liam’s hand-wringing. Shanghai even takes center stage a bunch of times, as we get to glimpse at quite a few imposing towers, a sprawling quay, even a carnival! And, with the routine Far East gags (language barriers and culture faux pas) sprinkled throughout, you’ll be learning the basics right alongside the lead.
This 2006 movie no one’s heard about, apart from the fact that it inspired the NBC TV series of the same name, starts on a real downer. Unlike all the other rovers we’ve catalogued so far, Josh Hamilton’s Todd isn’t traveling for pleasure, he’s being shipped off somewhere on the outskirts of Mumbai to train a team of call operators and the new department head he’s just lost his job to. Director John Jeffcoat smoothly negotiates Todd’s acclimation to the new status quo, as the puzzled American, initially at a total loss, lets his new co-workers open his mind to their country’s idiosyncrasies. At the end of the day, it turns out India’s welcoming soul (complete with sticky-fingered kids, cows with a mind of their own and equally unwieldy food) more than makes up for the poverty that strikes all travelers at first glance, and giving it some slack will go a long way. Incidentally, other directors too have taken to fleshing India out in such warm and fuzzy brushstrokes, through the eyes of outsiders just itching to fall in love with it (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), but, if I were considering a trip there, I’d also check out the flicks that resisted that trend (Slumdog Millionaire, anyone?).
14. Last Stop for Paul
Like no other film on this list, this shoestring-cheap flick from writer/director/lead Neil Mandt focuses squarely on travel, to a fault: the main, but token story (the “Paul” in the title has passed away and his friend Cliff decides to scatter his ashes all over the world) often gets pushed to the back-burner, as the two traveling buddies are briefly joined or waylaid by other trekkers, each with their own on-the-road mishap or fluke to spin. On the other hand, that particular dynamic is indeed pretty common on trips, which accounts for the story-within-a-story trope and also lends the film a distinctly documentary feel. While, for about half of the running time, Charlie (Mandt) and Cliff (Marc Carter) make their way across Europe, their end destination is Thailand, where the Full Moon Party draws 10,000 revelers every month with the promise of a wild night. Whether you find that pot of gold is a good enough reason to hop on board, or not, the movie is worth at least a skip-through – especially if you’ve worked or studied your gap year away, you can now get to see what you missed out on (and cure that FOMO once and for all!).
There you have it, fourteen flicks that are guaranteed carriers of the travel bug! Of course it’s by no means an exhaustive list, and there are honorable mentions galore (off the top of my head, 2 Days in Paris, Friendship!, A Map for Saturday etc.) – know of any others? Drop us a line! Or better yet, stop watching, and get packing!