There are films that transport you, and films that make you want to transport yourself. The latter variety not only succeed in capturing the mood and essence of a destination, but stir you to experience it for yourself. And as a travel-addict, those are the kinds of films I’m all about.
Here are the titles that made the top of my short list of movies that inspire travel:
#1: Before Sunrise
Set in Vienna, the power of this 1995 film is rooted in its unpolished simplicity. As we follow the main characters through this gorgeous and historic city, there are no dramatic musical crescendos, no plot twists, and no action sequences of any kind. It’s just two people, experiencing a place and sharing a bit of themselves — an honest depiction of travel.
Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a heartbroken American who’s been aimlessly riding Europe’s rails and is on his way to Vienna to catch a flight home. On the train, he strikes up a chance conversation with Celine (Julie Delpy), who’s on her way back to Paris. When the train begins to roll towards Jesse’s stop, he tells Celine that he’s almost out of money and is planning to just kick around the city until his flight leaves the next day. In a last minute decision, she’s convinced to go with him.
What unravels from there is a kind of subtle and hastened romance. The streets, parks and bars of the city play host to Jesse and Celine’s conversations about life and love, which are pushed deeper by the constant knowledge that their time together is brief. At the end of the film we see sweeping shots of the avenues they passed during the night, shown in the new light of day with characters absent; it’s a stark representation of how the places we visit leave emotional impressions on us, though we rarely leave such a mark upon them.
#2: In the Mood for Love
Set in Hong Kong, 1962, In the Mood for Love gives only glimpses of the main character’s world — a tiny apartment, an alleyway with lane houses, and a street-vendor noodle shop. But through his modern film noir style, director Wong Kar Wai evokes a dark, exaggerated and romantic mood from these corners of the city. His drawn out scenes cradle imagination, and force us to think about the inspiring qualities of unlikely places.
Cho Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist who’s just rented a room next to that of So Lhai-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Both of their spouses work overtime and are rarely home, and so the two begin a friendship. Eventually Cho and So confide their mutual suspicions that their spouses are cheating on them with each other.
This realization draws the two into a strange relationship and, feeling guilty about the scandal their romance would cause, Cho takes a job in Singapore. But though he’s left physically, his heart apparently didn’t make the journey; years later her returns to Hong Kong in search of So, only to find that time has irreversibly changed the place he used to know.
#3: L’Auberge Espagnole
The cultural intersections, the fumbled words, the drunken nights that stretch ’til dawn; this film wholly captures the study abroad experience in all its awkward humor. Whether you’ve studied in another country or not, L’Auberge Espagnole (“The Spanish Apartment”) resonates on a human level with every traveler.
Xavier (Romain Duris) is a French economics students who’s doing a program in Barcelona, and winds up sharing an apartment with a group of students hailing from all over western Europe. Over his year-long stay, the world Xavier knew is turned on its head, and his ties to home are strained even as those with new friends are strengthened. He begins to wonder what he’s doing with economics at all and digs deeper into his hobby as a writer. (Sound familiar?)
#4: Lost in Translation
Director Sofia Coppola’s Tokyo is a glowing, unsure place; characters connect with each other only as passers-by, struggling to understand themselves and the city amid a never-ending haze of jet lag. Getting lost here is something both painful and beautiful, even for an aging, reluctant cynic like Bob Harris.
Harris (Bill Murray) is a washed-up actor who’s come to Japan to do photo shoots for a whisky endorsement. During one of his many sleepless nights spent at the hotel bar, he encounters Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent Yale graduate who’s tagging along with her well-meaning but inattentive photographer husband. Over the next few days, the two form an undefinable yet vaguely romantic friendship, and share doubts about the direction of their lives.
In the film we see Tokyo (and a bit of Kyoto) through foreign eyes. There’s a sense of wonder, confusion and even subtle spirituality. The stunning visuals and bittersweet plot are enough to make you want to hop the next flight to Narita.
#5: The Motorcycle Diaries
In the heart of South America, a lonely motorcycle gobbles up an open road. The growling engine jitters the camera, and as we watch we feel like we’re being thrust into unknown oblivion. For those with a bad case of wanderlust, it’s probably the sexiest scene ever.
The Motorcycle Diaries, based on the written memoir of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, is such a gripping film because not only is it about travel, but also about transformation. Setting out from Argentina with his friend Alberto on a rickety bike they call “The Mighty One,” Ernesto (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) is changed during a trans-continental journey as he encounters the crushing poverty of South America’s native people.
In the final leg of their trip, Che arrives at a leper colony and offers a bit of his medical expertise. It is here that his political notions are solidified, as he observes the river that separates the villages of doctors and patients — a representation of the divide between the ruling classes and the ruled. While journeying abroad may not necessarily bring out the revolutionary in everyone, those of us who’ve been down a few roads can surely relate to the film’s depiction of how travel can change the course of our lives.
What are your favorite travel-inspiring films? Feel free to share them in the comments below.