Forget books! Movies are the best way to stoke the fire of your wanderlust.
Infuriating bylines aside, there’s plenty to love about both books and movies. Whereas reading a book is necessarily a solo endeavour (unless you’re reading out loud), watching a good movie can be a solo or a communal event. Even just having a few movies saved on your phone can help save your sanity on an ultra low budget flight or bus ride.
As with my list of favourite travel books, these aren’t necessarily movies specifically about travel; some of them certainly are, but this list is more about movies that give me the urge to see the world. And so, in no particular order, the List:
The Darjeeling Limited
The Darjeeling Limited may not be the critics’ favourite Wes Anderson film (in fact, it’s one of his worst-reviewed films), but it’s certainly my favourite. The film follows the brothers Whitman as they journey by train across India, a year after the death of their father. Much of the film plays like a particularly dark comedy of errors, as the brothers’ constant bickering continuously gets them into trouble with the train’s steward, but there are a few emotional moments that hit like a ton of bricks. The film is a riot of colour, all shot with the trademark Wes Anderson cinematography (which I love… though others, not so much), and a fantastic soundtrack that’s a mix of the Kinks (all from Lola versus Powerman) and old Bollywood scores.
Lost in Translation
This is another one that’s so obvious, it feels like a cheat. There’s a reason Lost in Translation shows up on so many “best of travel movie” lists: you can feel what the characters are going through. Even if you haven’t travelled to an entirely foreign culture the way the Bill Murray’s “Bob” and Scarlett Johansson’s “Charlotte” do when they alight in Japan, their isolation in a city of millions of people is so acute that it’s hard not to empathize with them. This movie had such an impact on me that a number of songs from the soundtrack are still on my “travel” playlist, all these years later.
So, this one wound up on both this list and my favourite travel books list. The book is definitely better (it’s certainly aged better than the weird “Crash Bandicoot”-style videogame scene in the second half of the movie), but it’s watching this movie that first started my wanderlust a’ stirring. The movie covers the same themes as the book, especially about exclusivity and elitism among the most jaded “off-the-beaten-path” travelers, but it nation-swaps Richard (who’s now American, and played by post-Titanic Leo DiCaprio) and Sal (now British, and played by the brilliant Tilda Swinton). Nearly two decades after it first came out, it still stirs something in my soul every time I see it, and makes me want to pack a bag and bum around Southeast Asia.
And while I’m on the subject of movies that were also on my book list…
Into the Wild
The 2007 adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a damn good movie. The non-linear narrative is engaging, the cinematography is beautiful, and Emile Hirsch is a great Chris McCandless/Alexander Supertramp. He goes through a real physical transformation during the sections of the movie set in Alaska, where he gets progressively scruffier and scrawnier as time goes on. Into the Wild, specifically the parts that are chronologically before McCandless’ Alaska trip, definitely makes me want to go out and hitchhike again, but the Alaska segments manage to really get across the danger and the folly of the young vagabond’s journey.
City of God
This one’s not a travel movie at all, as the entirety of the film takes place in Rio de Janeiro, and most of it is confined to the Cidade de Deus neighbourhood. Rather, it shows a side of the the city that (until favela-tourism became popular) few people ever saw. City of God follows some of its characters over the course of two decades, and many of the first-time actors in the movie are actual residents of the Cidade de Deus and the favelas. It’s an important movie for any traveller to watch, as it reminds you of the kind of poverty and violence that can exist on the edges of even a city as touristy as Rio.
I feel guilty for not putting Koyaanisqatsi (which Baraka‘s director, Ron Fricke, worked on as the cinematographer) on this list, given that Philip Glass’ minimalist soundtrack for it is one of my all-time favourite scores, but Koyanisqaatsi keeps its scope narrowed to the US. Baraka, on the flip side, covers the globe. A documentary without a narrative and without narration, it consists entirely of beautifully shot vignettes from wildly disparate places; from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, to Maasai Mara in Kenya, and from the skyline of Manhattan, to Iguazu Falls in Brazil. For me, it might as well be a cinematic list of “must-visit” travel destinations.
This is another movie that wound up on a lot of best-of lists, and for good reason; Reese Witherspoon is fantastic in it. Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) has managed to effectively implode her life after the death of her mother, and, finding herself near rock bottom, decides to tackle the famed Pacific Crest Trail, a 4200 km backcountry hiking trail that stretches from Mexico to British Columbia. Wild follows her journey through the varied, beautiful landscapes of the PCT, as well as her journey of self-discovery and redemption. In spite of the discomfort and suffering Cheryl works through (seriously, Reese Witherspoon sells it), after watching Wild, you’ll want to tackle some form of epic hike; it got me to start looking into hiking the John Muir Trail, and before I wound up booking my hiking trip in the Grand Canyon.
Now for something a lot less heavy than most of these other movies. Outsourced opens with Todd (or as he’s referred to by his new employees, “Mr. Toad”) being told by his employer that his entire call centre team is being cut, and the work is being outsourced to India. Oh, and he’ll have to fly to India to train the new team and his replacement as manager, in order to get a promotion that keeps him the US. The movie follows a pretty straightforward “fish-out-of-water” scenario, as Todd slowly stops pushing back against his new surroundings and learns to accept and even love them. The movie is a lot more down to earth than the NBC TV adaptation ever was.
The Motorcycle Diaries
Based on Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s memoir of the same name, the film follows Che and his fellow med student Alberto Granado as they travel around South America from Buenos Aires up to Peru, in order to volunteer at a leper colony. The journey, and the poverty he encounters along the way, spark something in the young, privileged Guevara that helps to mould him into the revolutionary he would become. If nothing else, it’ll make you want to hop on a motorcycle and head out on an epic road voyage of your own.
This one’s a total cheat, as it’s not a movie at all. Departures was a Canadian-made travel show that ran for three seasons and forty-two episodes. It follows two high-school friends who meet up after years apart, as they travel the world, starting with Canada. Scott, already something of a road-hardened traveler, is the natural guide, while Justin is his comic foil (occasionally, the cameraman, André, gets in on the shenanigans). Standout episodes for me include Season One’s two episodes about India; the episode about tiny Ascension Island, in the Atlantic (which is sadly now impossible to get to by plane, until at least 2019, due to the decrepit state of the island’s only airstrip); Season Two’s episode about Libya, well before the Arab Spring (and an episode in which the boys get lost playing hide and seek in an ancient abandoned town); two episodes about Mongolia; and Season Three’s two episodes about Ethiopia.