Travel movies are practically an institution by now. The genre has dozens of sub-genres: the entitled white woman travels to a foreign locale and bangs an exotic dude while discovering herself subgenre (Eat, Pray, Love; Under the Tuscan Sun; The Holiday), the douchebag bros traveling around getting laid subgenre (Road Trip; EuroTrip; the Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle trilogy), the traveling while being hunted by murderers / serial killers subgenre (Deliverance; Duel; Identity; The Hills Have Eyes; Jeepers Creepers), and so on.
There’s a lot of crap in the genre. But there’s also a ton of brilliant, life-altering shit in there, which you should absolutely watch if you want to get the inspiration for your next big trip. So here’s my list of the all-time best travel movies. A quick side note before I start: The criteria is that at least some characters in the movie have to be travelers. So a movie doesn’t count just because it’s set someplace exotic. Also, I have to have seen it. Sorry, Bollywood.
15. Midnight in Paris
Especially for readers and movie buffs, travel is often less about visiting an actual place than it is about visiting the place as described by your favorite writer — Hemingway’s Spain, Joyce’s Dublin, or Faulkner’s South. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris takes a nostalgic screenwriter (played by Owen Wilson) and allows him to travel back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, back when it was chock full of the best writers and artists in the world. If for nothing else, watch it for the awesome scenes with the drunken, macho Hemingway.
14. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
J.R.R. Tolkien considered The Lord of the Rings to be a single story, so I’m counting it as one here, even though the three movies add up to 9+ hours of viewing time. And yes: It counts as travel even if it’s in a mythical land. If you haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings, then I don’t know what the fuck you’ve been doing with your life, but it basically defines the word “epic.” And while many people consider director Peter Jackson’s inability to do anything at all with any sort of brevity to be the trilogy’s great weakness (his kids presumably hate it when it takes him 18 hours to make them toast for breakfast), it’s still an incredible story to watch. At the very least, it’s an amazing advertisement for visiting New Zealand.
It’s a road trip with zombies. I mean, what more do I need to say about it?
12. Dumb & Dumber
It doesn’t matter how dumb or dated this movie is, I will always love it, and I will probably always be able to quote it from beginning to end. Also, you get to see great American sights, like the plains of Nebraska (“That John Denver was full of shit,”) and Aspen, “where the beer flows like wine and the beautiful women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano.”
11. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The movie, sadly, is not as excellent as Douglas Adams’ insanely awesome book or any of its four sequels, but that was maybe too much to hope for in the first place. If you’re unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a man who survives the demolition of Earth and then travels around the universe searching for a decent cup of tea. I suggest, of course reading the books first (which are full of useful travel advice, like, “Don’t panic,” “Always know where your towel is,” and “The secret to flying is to throw yourself at the ground and miss”), but in a pinch the movie will make your universe feel larger and stranger, which can only be a good thing.
10. The Darjeeling Limited
Other than maybe Slumdog Millionaire, no movie made me miss India quite as much as The Darjeeling Limited. It’s a Wes Anderson movie, so naturally full of whimsy and understatement, but the tale of three brothers taking a train across India to see their mother seems to capture the feel of being a stranger in huge, crowded, cluttered, confusing India perfectly. You can almost smell the country.
9. Thelma & Louise
Thelma & Louise is indisputably the best American buddy road trip movie all time. Yes, even better than Dumb & Dumber. It’s also a rare popular feminist movie, so that’s an added plus.
8. Life of Pi
Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi is one of those rare movies that is actually better than the book. It’s about a young boy who is, along with an adult Bengal tiger, the only survivor of a shipwreck, and is stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is visually stunning and is one of those rare movies that looks even better in 3-D. See it that way, if you can.
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Of course this is a travel movie. It gets into the top 10 solely on account of its iconic map travel scenes. Technically, I could throw all three Indiana Jones movies in here (what fourth?), but Raiders is by far the best, and if it doesn’t put some swash in your buckle, nothing will.
6. Lost in Translation
One of the most defining parts of travel is the sense of feeling isolated, exhausted, and culturally cut off. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation manages to convey that perfectly, while also making Tokyo look pretty fucking incredible. The fact that Bill Murray didn’t win the Oscar for this movie is proof that there is no God.
You really don’t need to say anything about Up except that it’s a Pixar movie, but it’s also an incredible travel movie. I always worry that I’m going to turn 60 and find that I haven’t been to all of the places that I want to go, and to that, Up answers, “Who cares?” Ultimately, it’s a movie about living life to the fullest no matter what your age. Also, it has talking dogs.
4. In Bruges
After a botched assassination in London, two hitmen go to the medieval Belgian town of Bruges to hide out. It is one of the funniest, darkest movies you’ll ever see, and if it doesn’t make you want to go to Belgium afterwards, nothing will. Except maybe waffles.
3. The Before Sunrise trilogy
Yes, I’m cheating by putting two trilogies on here, but the Before Sunrise collection is not only the best travel trilogy of all time, but the best trilogy of all time. You heard me, George Lucas. If you aren’t familiar with these movies, Before Sunrise starts with an American boy (Ethan Hawke) and a French girl (Julie Delpy) meeting on a train and getting off in Vienna to spend the night together before he flies home. The next two movies follow their relationship — in real time! — over the next two decades. Each movie really only contains three characters, Jesse (Hawke), Celine (Delpy), and whichever foreign locale they’re wandering around: Vienna in Before Sunrise (1995), Paris in Before Sunset (2004), and Messenia, Greece, in last year’s Before Midnight. Inexplicably, each movie is better than the last, and it’s an absolute fucking treat to watch.
2. Into the Wild
Watching Into the Wild is basically an act of vicarious wish fulfillment. Who hasn’t wanted to drop all of their belongings and leave home for good, committing to life as a wanderer? Into the Wild is based on the true story of Chris McCandless, who did just that for two years back in the ’90s. The movie focuses less on the problematic aspects of McCandless’s life — that he abandoned his family and didn’t tell them a thing about his whereabouts, or his wild irresponsibility in refusing to use maps in the Alaskan wilderness — than Jon Krakauer’s excellent book does, but it’s still an incredible movie, and will make you itch to get on the road.
1. The Motorcycle Diaries
The Motorcycle Diaries is the true account of two Argentine friends’, Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado, trip around South America on a rickety motorcycle named La Poderosa, or “The Mighty One.” Ernesto Guevara found himself politicized by the trip, and went on to become the Marxist revolutionary “Che” Guevara. Aside from being one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve ever seen, The Motorcycle Diaries wins the top prize by being about how travel can be uncomfortable, exhausting, and fundamentally life-changing. Che Guevara’s world got bigger when he traveled, and for better or worse, that trip changed history.