11 Films That Inspire Travel

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I’d like to say that we at Andrew Harper are a logical lot, always choosing our travel destinations based on careful research and sober reasoning. But of course, sometimes all it takes is one beautifully shot film to convince us that we simply must get to X. Films aren’t bound to reflect the gritty reality of a place (Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” has few shots of garbage bags lining the streets), and that is surely why they can be so effective at inspiring wanderlust.

Certain locales — New York, Italy, Paris, Istanbul, to name a few — already exude auras of romance. An evocative film about such a destination makes it all but irresistible. Good films shot on location don’t just depict the beauty of a place; they suffuse it with rich emotion. And I suspect that if we’re honest with ourselves, our most important motivation for traveling isn’t to learn more about the world or even to relax. It’s to feel something that we can’t or don’t feel at home.

The sensations that only travel can produce are currently more difficult to experience than usual, but films are thankfully just as accessible (if not more so) as they ever were. They can provide some semblance of the feeling of travel, substituting for the real thing until we’re able to once again fly wherever we please. Few people are likely to enjoy every movie below, but everyone can surely find at least one or two that resonate.

Roman Holiday (1953)

"Roman Holiday" movie poster
"Roman Holiday" movie poster - Paramount Pictures

This absolutely charming black-and-white film marks the first appearance of Audrey Hepburn in an American movie. She plays a visiting European princess who escapes her tightly controlled schedule to explore Rome. A reporter, played by a dashing Gregory Peck, encounters her and is happy to accompany her on her adventures, hoping that he might make an article out of the experience. Rome looks almost as chic as Hepburn. It seems as if we’re in for a predictable ending, but master director William Wyler isn’t one to let things slide into cliché.

Where to watch: YouTube

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

"The Talented Mr. Ripley" movie poster
"The Talented Mr. Ripley" movie poster - Paramount Pictures

Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, this sumptuously shot film is taut with suspense and dread. After a few short scenes in 1950s Manhattan, the action shifts to the fictional Italian village of Mongibello, a sun-drenched composite of Positano, Procida and Ischia. Rome and Venice also have their star turns. Matt Damon plays the sociopathic title character with incredible skill; we root for him even as he embarrasses and eventually horrifies us. Cate Blanchett plays a naïve but gorgeous supporting character, and Gwyneth Paltrow is at her best, evincing easy moneyed elegance with every gesture. The extravagant beauty of Italy seduces Ripley; he refuses to give it up, whatever the cost. It’s hard to fault him for that.

Where to watch: YouTube

Call Me by Your Name (2017)

"Call Me by Your Name" movie poster
"Call Me by Your Name" movie poster - Sony Pictures Classics

Northern Italy looks achingly romantic in this recent hit, adapted from an André Aciman novel for the screen by James Ivory of Merchant-Ivory fame. It follows the romance of Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a bookish and musically talented 17-year-old, and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old graduate student living in a villa with Elio’s family for the summer to assist his father, a professor of archaeology. Whether the viewer is gay or not, the film certainly makes one yearn to be young and in love and in Italy.

Where to watch: Vudu

Cairo Time (2009)

"Cairo Time" movie poster
"Cairo Time" movie poster - Mongrel Media

Some more mature actors light up the screen in this exquisite film. Juliette (a luminous Patricia Clarkson) is in Cairo awaiting her husband, who asks his Egyptian friend, Tareq (the handsome Alexander Siddig), to keep her company until he can escape his work and join her. Tareq and Juliette explore Cairo and its surrounds together, and their connection is electric. They keep putting off a visit of the pyramids — Juliette’s husband wants her to wait until they can see Egypt’s most famous ruins together. But when in Cairo, the pyramids are hard to ignore for long. This film is a quiet little masterpiece.

Where to watch: YouTube

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" movie poster
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" movie poster - The Weinstein Company

The wonderful Patricia Clarkson also appears in this wry Woody Allen film, this time as a wistful supporting character who long ago chose amiable stability over true love. The main characters, played by Javier Bardem, Pénelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, form a sort of tumultuous love quadrilateral, backdropped by a sun-dappled Spain. As in various other Allen films such as “Midnight in Paris,” the setting is a character as well. Barcelona has rarely looked more golden. Although the people involved in the love affair are all relatively young, the film has a strong sense of nostalgia. For better and worse, some of the characters are close to crossing the bridge into simple contentment, never to return to the land of passionate possibilities.

Where to watch: YouTube

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" movie poster
"The Grand Budapest Hotel" movie poster - Fox Searchlight Pictures

When I first saw this Wes Anderson film in the theater, there were times I could barely catch my breath, so hilariously frenetic was the pace. And yet, deep nostalgia also runs through this piece, which Anderson says was inspired by the elegiac memoir of Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday.” We see the Grand Budapest Hotel, located in a fictional central European country, both in its aristocratic heyday and long into its postwar communist decline. Most of the action happens at the end of the former, following the madcap adventures of the hotel’s impeccably suave and startlingly foul-mouthed concierge and his “lobby boy.” The Grand Budapest bears a close resemblance to the Imperial Hotel in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary, and I can’t deny that seeing the Imperial from the Stag’s Leap viewpoint gave me a bit of a thrill. I love how this film manages to be both cheerfully absurdist and movingly mournful of a lost era. Screening it always makes me want to hop a plane (and time machine) to pre-war Central Europe.

Where to watch: YouTube

XXX (2002)

"XXX" movie poster
"XXX" movie poster - Sony Pictures Releasing

This admittedly ridiculous film follows a James Bond formula, but instead of Sean Connery or Roger Moore, we have Vin Diesel. He plays the antihero Xander Cage, who ends up working for the NSA in order to avoid prison. The plot plays out substantially in Prague, and the film shows off the city to its best advantage. Scenes take place at the ornate Estates Theater, the Gothic Powder Tower, the fabulous art nouveau restaurant of the Municipal House and, of course, the Charles Bridge, among other scenic locations. The plot strains credulity and the action sequences are gleefully over-the-top, but in spite of that (or perhaps because of that), the film is great fun to watch. One of my favorite scenes involves a character frantically reading through the instruction manual to Cage’s sports car, which newly bristles with advanced weaponry, as they speed along the Vltava River.

Where to watch: Vudu

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)

"Goodbye, Lenin!" movie poster
"Goodbye, Lenin!" movie poster - X Verleih AG

Films about the former East Germany rarely qualify as delightful or funny, but “Good Bye, Lenin!” manages to be both. A woman dedicated to her country collapses into a coma in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She awakens months after people have begun to travel freely between East and West. But her doctor confides in her son and daughter that her heart is fragile; she must not be subjected to any shocks. What could be a greater shock than learning that her beloved country is no more? To prevent her from learning the truth, the siblings create a bubble of the rapidly evaporating East in their apartment. The ruse becomes increasingly hard to maintain, however, and her son, played by the talented Daniel Brühl, goes to ever greater (and more farcical) lengths to preserve the illusion. The action ranges with clear affection across Berlin landmarks; it serves as a snapshot of a time of incredible transition in the city. But fundamentally, this is the deeply affecting story of a son’s love for his mother.

Where to watch: Vudu

Hamam: The Turkish Bath (1997)

"Hamam: The Turkish Bath" movie poster
"Hamam: The Turkish Bath" movie poster - Strand Releasing

In this Italian-Turkish collaboration, also known as “Il Bagno Turco,” there is romance between people, but it seems almost secondary. Istanbul is the true seducer in this film. Francesco travels to Turkey’s capital when he learns that his eccentric aunt has died and left him a building in her will. He intends to sell it and return quickly to Rome, but Francesco develops a bond with the family living there, as well as with their neighbors. They all live on an ancient street lined with old houses, and it has the feel of a small town. The historic mansion of Francesco’s aunt also contains a derelict hammam. Rather than sell the building to the soulless (of course) real estate developer who plans on knocking down the entire neighborhood, Francesco elects to stay and restore the hammam. Baffled by the delay, his wife visits him in Istanbul, where she is greeted by a man very different from the one who left her in Rome. Soon the city works its magic on her as well. The film’s fine soundtrack is especially evocative, notably in the final shot of the minaret-spiked skyline of old Istanbul.

Where to watch: Amazon

Indochine (1992)

"Indochine" movie poster
"Indochine" movie poster - Bac Films

The always-stunning Catherine Deneuve stars as Éliane Devries in this sweeping epic set mostly in Vietnam, or rather, in the Vietnamese portion of French-occupied Indochina. The film encompasses about 24 years and three generations of Devries’ family, including Éliane’s adopted Vietnamese daughter and grandson. Éliane operates a sprawling rubber plantation on the outskirts of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and it’s possible to visit the setting to this day, near the Cu Chi Tunnels. Deneuve can’t help but make French Saigon seem glamorous, although many of the urban scenes were shot in Hue and Butterworth, Malaysia. As an adult, Éliane’s daughter ends up fleeing colonial authorities farther north, where Hạ Long Bay looks utterly captivating. I love this film for its richly drawn characters who are caught in the currents of history. Not everyone swims to safety.

Where to watch: Amazon

The Sunlit Night (2020)

"The Sunlit Night" movie poster
"The Sunlit Night" movie poster - Quiver Distribution

The famously scenic coast of Norway looked especially entrancing in this delightful film, shot mostly on location in the Lofoten Islands, a northern archipelago near Tromso. Its cast includes comedians Jenny Slate and Zach Galifianakis, but this movie is free of slapstick. Slate stars as a struggling artist in New York who accepts a summer job working with a Norwegian artist. He needs help with a site-specific work: painting an old barn bright yellow and orange. The sweet film has a fine sense of humor — Gillian Anderson makes a delightful appearance as a Russian attending a Viking-style funeral, for example — but all the characters are clearly in pain. Darkness is in short supply, however, since the summer sun never sets in this unbelievably spectacular place above the Arctic Circle. The filmmaker takes full advantage of the unique quality of the Lofoten light. Not all the characters find happiness in the end, but the final note is one of hope.

Where to watch: Hulu

By Andrew Harper Editor Andrew Harper editors travel the world anonymously to give you the unvarnished truth about luxury hotels. Hotels have no idea who the editors are, so they are treated exactly as you might be.
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