For many of us, travel is everything. But while an incessant desire to explore foreign lands may plague our minds, there are some fantastic films out there which could go some way to satiating those pangs of wanderlust. Below is our definitive list of the best travel films of all time (well, up until mid-2017, that is!) – so sit back, relax, and enjoy the sense of escapism, brought to you by the best of cinema.
Films are not ranked in order of preference – these are just 10 of the travel films that we love! (Please note that some of these trailers may contain language or themes that some may find offensive.)
Lost In Translation (dir. Sofia Coppola; starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannsson)
As Sofia Coppola’s sophomore effort, Lost In Translation is also the director's most well-loved film, silencing any critics who doubted her ability (Coppola is the daughter of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and nay-sayers would use this against her at the very start of her career).
Based in vibrant Tokyo, Lost In Translation tells the story of Bob Harris, an ageing actor who begrudgingly visits the city due to work. We’re also introduced to Charlotte, the bored and underappreciated wife of a less-than-attentive husband. With both parties feeling lost, alone, and oddly isolated in bustling Tokyo, their unlikely friendship seems as if it was somehow meant to be.
The film is tender, heartbreaking, hilarious, and exhilarating all at once, and while lead actors Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson navigate their confusing emotions in an equally complex Japan, it feels as if we, the viewer, are experiencing their journey first-hand. Tokyo is a dizzying city unlike any other; add to that the highs and lows of the odd couple’s partnership, and the evocative nature of this film is nothing short of enticing.
Often described as a ‘loveletter to Japan’, Lost In Translation captures the heart of just about any adventurer, and you’ll find yourself promising to pay a visit to the nation’s capital as soon as the final credits roll. Tremendously performed and with a stunning soundtrack to boot, Lost In Translation deserves its place on any film – or travel – lover’s list.
Into The Wild (dir. Sean Penn; starring Emile Hirch)
Based on the true story of Christopher McCandless and his soul-searching expedition across North America, Into The Wild captures the restless sense of angst and adventure felt by young adults across the world. In his quest to find something more than what his (arguably comfortable) life could possibly offer, McCandless (played by Emile Hirch) faces highs and lows head-on.
Without spoiling too much of the movie’s plot, the real-life subject of Into The Wild is either a hero to likeminded adventurers, or a naïve narcissist to others. While it would be unwise to mimic McCandless’ reckless abandon, it’s impossible to ignore the swelling feeling in your chest as you witness his on-screen doppleganger (Hirch) experience a whole new world of romance and possibilities. Sure, some folk may even cringe at the film’s script, scoffing at the profound way in which McCandless converses with the countless other loners he encounters on the road. Whether you view this young man as a foolish hippy or an admirable vagabond, there is much to appreciate about Into The Wild; above all, you will marvel at its incredible landscapes and locations.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (directing and starring Ben Stiller)
While …Walter Mitty’s fantasy elements may have been lost on critics, much of the hard-working 9-5 crowd will relate to the title character’s desperate (and, at times, seemingly deluded) desire to leave his mediocre life behind. Ben Stiller surprises his audience by playing the mild-mannered Walter Mitty; a sobering, refreshing change of pace from the actor’s typically wired performances.
Disillusioned with life as a negative assets manager at Life Magazine, Mitty often finds himself fantasising about an altogether more fascinating life. Not exactly underappreciated, but still longing for something more, Mitty is quick to jump at the first sign of adventure, escaping the office and embarking on a journey that can only be described as larger-than-life. Rugged seas, ferocious volcanoes, and near-misses with some of the world’s most glorious and intimidating animals make for quite a tale, and while the story may seem a little too ridiculous to some viewers, many others will be left feeling emboldened and inspired by this unforgettable film.
The Motorcycle Diaries (dir. Walter Salles; starring Gael Garcia Bernal)
Unlike the quirky elements of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the straight-forward narrative of Salle’s The Motorcycle Diaries was an instant hit with critics, with many a travel-buff ranking it in their all-time favourite film list ever since. As well as telling the life story of 23-year-old Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (who would later become a revolutionary of Marxism), …Diaries is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a biopic.
Not only did this re-telling of Guevara’s pilgrimage across Latin America inspire the creation of numerous tourist trails, but The Motorcycle Diaries has been credited with keeping the revolutionary’s memory alive. Casting light on Guevara’s opposition to the mistreatment of Latin communities, the film examines Che’s transition from a young man to a symbol of hope, battling severe social injustices alongside those he meets along the way.
Regardless of whether you have a vested interest in politics or not, The Motorcycle Diaries showcases some absolutely incredible scenery, and there’s something charming about the sense of altruism felt throughout the film’s 126 minutes. On a basic level, …Diaries showcases some eye-poppingly good scenery, and is heartening for the way Che (Garcia Bernal) views the world. For those with a penchant for politics, this film is a much-watch; for those in search of adventure, embrace not only its aesthetics, but the values which The Motorcycle Diaries carry in abundance.
Moana (dir. Ron Clements and John Musker; starring Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson)
While it may seem unorthodox to include a Disney film on this list, make no mistake: Moana is the perfect travel tale, complete with pertinent messages about girlhood, the environment, and so much more.
The titular character of this spellbinding tale, Moana (played by Auli’i Cravalho), is hardly dissimilar to most 16-year-olds: she loves her family (especially her Gramma Tala); she has big dreams; but she’s also over-protected. Of course, there are things that set Moana apart from your average teenage girl. First of all, she’s the daughter of the island chief. Secondly, she has a spiritual relationship with the ocean, allowing her to command the most tempestuous of the elements.
While Moana is borne of myth and legend, this Polynesian adventure manages not drown under an excess of fantasy components (see: 2013’s Frozen). Instead of being dragged down by unrelatable leads and a lack of substance, Moana is brimming with empathetic moments and valuable lessons which do not go unnoticed. Take, for example, the film’s protagonist: brave, determined, but by no means perfect, Moana is a fantastic role model for young girls; not only for her admirable attitude, but she is the first Disney princess (in my memory, at least) with a positive body image. Gone are the typical waifish figures of animated females; in their place, a strong young lady who definitely does not need a man to save her.
Body-image and confidence issues aside, Moana is a modern-day parable about climate change, serving as a metaphor about our role in protecting the ocean. While the ocean in this adventure acts to protect our heroine, in reality, it is our duty to conserve our seas and the creatures in them. The whole reason for Moana’s epic voyage stems from the environmental disaster that has struck her home: the once-verdant island of Motunui is struggling to survive as a result of failing crops and over-fished lagoons. But while Moana (and the ‘crazy’ village lady, Gramma Tala) both know the importance of giving back to nature, they understand that this will be an uphill battle – one which Moana refuses to back away from.
Although Moana is an animated affair, it’s impossible not to get swept away by the stunning oceanic opticals that are present throughout the film’s running time. While the locations in Moana are make-believe, you are still compelled to embark on an adventure of your own. The ocean is evocative, as much a part of this story as Moana herself, and the level of empathy you develop for both is hard to shake even after the final credits roll. Above all else, the appreciation you’ll gain for adventure, the environment, and female empowerment is second to none – for those reasons alone, Moana is more than deserving of a place on our list.
Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Reese Witherspoon
Hot off the back of the success of Dallas Buyer’s Club, director Jean-Marc Vallée’s next effort saw a return to biographical dramas. Based on the 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the film tells the story of Cheryl Strayed and her journey of self-discovery. After the dissolution of her marriage and the untimely death of her mother, Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) opts to battle her personal turmoil by taking a solo trip across the Pacific Crest Trail.
Though many of us can be thankful to have not been pushed to the brink in the same way as Strayed had been, her frustrations (and subsequent determination to prove herself) are all-too familiar to the best of us. It’s not uncommon for us to want to take our greatest adventures after some trying circumstances; if anything, the ability to ‘go it alone’ and discover our own strength is the most healing thing of all. Marred by a history of deaths, divorce, and drug abuse, however, Strayed’s expedition seems particularly vital and terrifying in equal measure.
Wild makes for compelling viewing for a number of reasons. Sure, Strayed is courageous – but her 1000-mile hike is taxing at best, and harrowing at worst. The locations are breathtaking (the Pacific Crest Trail being as picturesque on-camera as you’d ever imagine) – but witnessing Strayed’s desperation and torment will, at times, leave you gasping for air. The film is a masterpiece, examining the physical and mental pressures of ‘going it alone.’ But, as arduous as this particular adventure may be, it’s an adventure all the same – one which was worthwhile, humbling, and heartening all at once.
Born Free (dir. James Hill; starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers)
Of all the titles on our list, this is the one which is likely to mean the most to conservationists. Born Free is yet another film based on factual events; namely, the story of Joy and George Adamson, and their efforts to raise an orphaned lion cub before releasing it back into the wild.
Produced just 6 years after the publication of Joy Adamson’s 1960 book of the same name, Born Free is an honest account of the couple’s time spent living in Africa. The plot does not dance around the fact that George Adamson is responsible for the death of the cub’s mother; it does, however, document the man’s redemption, and the steps made to better understand these animals, ultimately providing them with a better life. While elements of the film are understandably dated (these were the 60s, after all), the way we’re able to gain a better understanding of nature in tandem with the Adamsons is certainly valuable.
At the time of the film’s original release, Born Free was met with critical acclaim, praised for its honest storytelling and its ability to portray animals authentically, without over sentimentalising them. Over the years, Born Free continued to inspire nature-lovers across the globe, with lead actress Virginia McKenna continuing to fight for animal rights in the decades since.
In addition to its ethical message (and the subsequent creation of the Born Free Foundation), Born Free captures Africa at its raw and beautiful best: from the gorgeous plains of Kenya to the majestic big cats seen on-camera, Born Free is both a time-capsule of a movie and a beckoning hand to budding conservationists.
Little Miss Sunshine (dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; starring Abigail Breslin and Alan Arkin)
Okay, so while Little Miss Sunshine isn’t strictly a travel film, it’s still fun being along for the ride, right? Directed by the husband-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine follows the Hoover family on their journey across America. But this is not a tale of family fun and bonding, oh no. In fact, quite the contrary.
Olive (played by Abigail Breslin) is a sweet little girl with big dreams. She aspires to be a beauty queen and, with the help of her doting grandfather, she is determined to make it. The only thing standing in her way is her chaotic, dysfunctional family.
Made up of a Type A motivational speaker, a shamed scholar, an overworked mother of two, a drug-addling senior citizen, and an angsty teenager, the Hoover family are flawed to say the least, but must pull together to help Olive achieve her dream. Her confidence and exuberant attitude is the one shining light of the Hoover dynamic; should the family prevent her from competing in the pageant, her light would soon be snuffed out.
Little Miss Sunshine is a laugh-a-minute movie which, from time to time, will blindside you with heartbreaking and tender moments. Tensions constantly threaten to put a halt to the 800+ mile journey from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach, and the viewer is left rooting for little Olive to make it to the pageant (and through her shambolic family life) in once piece. An utterly charming affair, Little Miss Sunshine is as unforgettable as it is unique.
Under The Tuscan Sun (dir, Audrey Wells; starring Diane Lane)
Hailed as many a travel-lover’s reason to visit sun-drenched Italy, Under The Tuscan Sun is a film which is arguably more about style than it is about substance. The story itself is fine, and the performances throughout are commendable; but what the film lacks in originality, is more than made up for in simply stunning shots of the Italian countryside.
Under The Tuscan Sun follows the familiar trope of ‘woman falls out of love; her perfect life falls apart; a wise friend convinces her to focus on herself and to take a trip away.’ It’s something we’ve all heard before, time and time again, so director Audrey Wells scores few points for storytelling. That said, Wells is more than capable of capturing the feeling you get when travelling to a beautiful new location; the hedonistic allure of Tuscany surely being the star of the show.
Similar to films such as Midnight in Paris and Magic In The Moonlight, Under The Tuscan Sun consists almost entirely of serendipitous events, leading its main character (in this case, Diane Lane’s ‘Frances’) through a rose-tinted version of the world as we may not already know it. It’s pleasant; it’s escapism; it’s harmless good fun…and it will make you want to escape to the effortlessly romantic Italy.
Okja (dir. Bong Joon-ho; starring Ahn Seo-hyun and Tilda Swinton)
The final film on our list is 2017’s Okja, the first Netflix film to have made it to the Cannes Film Festival. Sharp-witted with a scathing edge, Okja is a modern masterpiece which tackles our ethics (or lack thereof) when it comes to animals…without us ever really noticing it.
The film revolves around a young Korean girl (Seo-hyun) and her beloved pet pig. While the synopsis of a farting, pooping ‘super-pig’ seems less than exciting, do bear with it: beneath the glittering façade of celebrity (Swinton’s ‘Lucy Mirando’; Jake Gyllenhaal’s ‘Johnny Wilcox’) and the mesmerising locations (the film takes place in Seoul, rural Korea, and New York City), there lies beneath the surface an element of self-reflection, and an uncomfortable truth which we can no longer ignore.
We won’t give too much away, but the pertinent message at Okja’s heart should not go unheeded. Whether you love animals, are interested in Asian cinematography, or simply want to know which film was at the centre of this year’s Cannes festival drama, Okja is absolutely worth your time. It’s a miracle of filmmaking, and harbours the rare gift of telling a story which will only gain further importance over the coming decades.
All images courtesy of the films to which they belong. If you would like credit to be added to this article, or for any images to be removed, please contact us.
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