Monday, January 18, 2010

The 10 Best Movies Ever Made About Travel

Travel is one subject that filmmakers just can't leave alone, and it's easy to see why. Real-life travel highlights heady possibilities for adventure, escape, fantasy, discovery, sex and romance - not to mention scenery. All that makes travel prime material for reel-life, too.

As a travel journalist, I am addicted to globetrotting, and a decade of reviewing movies and covering the film-festival circuit for a San Francisco newspaper confirmed forever my love of the movies. I decided to put movies and travel together to come with a list of the 10 best travel movies ever made. (I wrote the first version of this piece for; this is the slightly tweaked 2.0 version.)

These pictures are feature films - that is to say, they are fiction. They are not travel documentaries (by your leave, Michael Palin; hope you don't mind, Rick Steves.) They are not films that use travel just for beautiful backdrops, like the James Bond flicks or the innumerable caper movies out there. These films - scary, steamy, funny, dreamy - have travel at or close to their core.

In no particular order:

"Up in the Air.'' OK, it didn't do so well at the Golden Globes. This current hit earns a place on the 10-best list anyway for Jason Reitman's smart script and adept direction and vivid performances by George Clooney as a smooth but hollow "career transition consultant,'' Anna Kendrick as a just-graduated B School barracuda, Vera Farmiga as a worldly business traveler with a secret and Jason Bateman as the boss with a heart of glass. The movie turns conventional and bogs down toward the end, but it captures perfectly the impersonal intimacy that corporate road warriors experience. When much-traveled Clooney, on an airplane, is asked where he's from and says "I'm from here,'' it rings true.

"Around the World in 80 Days.'' An old-school Hollywood epic, this 1956 costume adventure, starring David Niven as a London gentleman in the 1870s determined to go 'round the world in 80 days to win a wager, is based on the novel by Jules Verne and shot in wide-screen 70 mm. Producer Mike Todd spared no expense for sets and on-location eye candy. The story takes Niven's gentleman and his butler (played by the Mexican comedian Cantinflas) on a breathless jourrney from Europe to India to Japan, the U.S. Wild West and back to London. It becomes a literal and figurative flight of fancy when the peripatetic pair visits Spain in a hot air balloon. Never mind the 2004 re-make; this one is the one to see.

"Enchanted April.'' This color-drenched 1992 feature, based on a 1922 novel, epitomizes a subgenre: The story of repressed, buttoned-up Britons and other Northern Europeans who go to sunny, sensual Italy (or France, or Spain or the Greek isles), find romance and learn to lighten up. Shot in beautiful Portofino, Italy, this tale of the redemptive power of travel has a sterling British cast that includes Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent and Alfred Molina. Polly Walker is the slinky Lady Caroline, complete with Roaring '20s Louise Brooks helmet hair and come-hither eyes.

"The Beach.'' Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a young American backpacker who gets in way over his head, directed by Danny Boyle of "Slumdog Millionaire'' fame and shot on drop-dead gorgeous tropical islands in Thailand, this 2000 release spotlights the grotty, risky side of travel. Tilda Swinton is convincingly predatory as a dropout cult leader on a hidden isle. The story, based on a 1996 novel, is a showy but sobering cautionary tale for innocents abroad.

"Roman Holiday.'' The screen's most beguiling enchantress, the young Audrey Hepburn, plays a cosseted princess who wanders incognito and delightedly wide-eyed through the Eternal City in the company of a worldy-wise American journalist (Gregory peck). Her lighter-than-air performance in this modern fairy tale, released in 1953, won a Best Actress Oscar for Hepburn. Today, nearly 60 years after the film was made, weathered commemorative plaques around Rome mark the spots where director William Wyler shot key scenes.

"Lost in Translation.'' Director Sophia Coppola's second feature, released in 2003, has a dreamy, out-of-body charm that disguises its intricate structure. Bill Murray, as an uninspired American movie star visiting Japan to make a TV commercial for big bucks, meets fellow fish-out-of-water traveler Scarlett Johansson, whose photographer husband is forever scooting off to shoot starlets and rock bands. These two lonely souls, jet-lagged and sleepless, meet in one of the world's great hotels, the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and set off to explore neon-lit Tokyo. The couple forges a May/September romance that combines wistfulness and zaniness in equal measure.

"Murder on the Orient Express.'' What's a travel best-list without a crime on a train (or ship or plane)? Agatha Christie's novel supplies the murder and the train, and an all-star cast - including Albert Finney as Inspector Poirot, with Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and other luminaries - supply knowing, enjoyably broad acting, while perhaps the most famous long-distance train in the world races from Istanbul to England. There are 13 suspects and many red-herring clues in the 1974 release, the first of several starry, big-screen adaptations of Christie who-dun-its.

"Planes, Trains and Automobiles.'' It's 1987, and affluent family-man Steve Martin is seated next to a decidedly downmarket shower curtain-ring salesman played by John Candy, a gabby, sloppy guy who pretty much lives his life on the road. Martin is trying to get home to suburban Chicago and his wife and kids for the holidays. Comic complications ensue. He can't seem to shake the needy but oddly endearing Candy, and he can't for the life of him get home quickly, no matter how many frustrating changes of itinerary he makes. Directed by the late John Hughes with a deft storyteller's touch.

"Road to Singapore.'' This willfully goofy 1940 comedic ride to the tropics of Southeast Asia is good fun, with Bing Crosby providing the silky crooning and Bob Hope the can-you-believe this wisecracks. There are, of course, gorgeous dames and exotic locales (actually, sets). Almost any of the seven Hope-Crosby "Road' pictures, released from 1940 to 1962, can fill in, as all follow the same dated but well-crafted escapist formula. Zanzibar, Morocco, Rio de Janeiro, Bali and Hong Kong are other destinations in the series - as is far off-Utopia.

"Before Sunrise.'' Writer-director Richard Linklater creates a magical, two-character chamber piece in this 1995 movie, starring Ethan Hawke as a college-age American guy traipsing around Europe and Julie Delpy as a young Frenchwoman doing the same. They meet on a train and spend a romantic night wandering around Vienna and talking about life before promising to meet again, maybe. The 2004 sequel, "Before Sunset,'' shot in Paris, is good, too, but lacks this film's charming sense of discovery.

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