15 Essential Films for Travel Inspiration

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1. Into the Wild, U.S.A., 2007

“It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it.” ― Jon Krakauer 

Why live in the future, toiling away at the workplace, fantasizing of far off plans and tangible objects we may possess only with a month’s wage? Protagonist Christopher McCandless revels in the present, abandoning the luxuries of the material world and seizing the moment through solo travel, solitude and fleeting encounters with the world’s strangers as he comes face to face with his own inner essence and that of human existence. Beautifully reflective, the film follows this reckless daredevil on his physical and ultimately philosophical journey around the world in search of experience and ‘the real’. Just as his real life counterpart, the very thing that propels him forward eventually also brings him down, as skilful & enterprising as he may be in terms of outdoor survival, nature and adventure are ironically the ultimate cause of his own demise and in a poignant twist, just as his journey comes to a close, only too late he has his epiphany that ‘happiness is only real when shared’.

2. El Laberinto del Fauno / Pan’s Labyrinth, Spain, 2006

‘You are who you think you are, as long as it comes from a genuine place in your heart. It doesn’t matter what you have in the material world, you can always believe in your true essence.’ – Guillermo del Toro, Director

What if all it took to escape fascism was a single piece of chalk? Lost kingdoms concealed in the shadows, towering ancient palaces, wild mazes, fauns, fairies and gargantuan beasts of the darkness- Ofelia‘s gnarled world is at once grotesque and fantastic, here is a visually resplendent magnificent cinematic tapestry of special effects, realism and fantasy. Forced to reside with her fascist stepfather Capitán Vidal and his army, Ofelia flees an existence tainted by violence that she cannot control, running away into her own consciousness – a fantastical realm in which she may reign as royalty. As she dons her glasses of imagination, reality metamorphoses into a complex labyrinth, everyday insects morph into flying fairies and when Capitán Vidal begins to sew his own mouth after a knife injury, we witness the beginning of his own self-dehumanization and transformation into the mouth-less, eyeless Pale Monster of the labyrinth – he has effectively gagged and blinded himself with Spanish dictatorial doctrines.

The film culminates too in violence; as our heroine’s blood soaked body lies still on the ground we are left to contemplate moral reasoning, transgression and the atrocities of the 1944 Spanish Civil War; yet this film is not about death but rather self-induced re-birth through escapism. Violence contained within the walls of her soldier-filled house and its garden reminds us much of the civil war, contained within the borders of the country; thus, Ofelia’s journey is perhaps not only one girl’s mirage of reality, but also reflects a nation’s revolution as Ofelia becomes a symbol of the war’s repressed victims. With just one piece of chalk she creates the doorway to an alternative reality, liberating herself from Capitán Vidal and the shackles of fascism.

‘A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped…’ – Narrator

3. Intouchables / UntouchableFrance, 2011

‘My true disability is not having to be in a wheel chair. It’s having to be without her.’ – Phillipe

High class millionaire Phillipe must deal with the downside of thrill seeking as obsession rears its duplicitous head and his life turns from adrenaline-filled ecstasy to a disabling depression following a paragliding accident that leaves him paralysed from the neck down and motionlessly pining for his deceased love from within his chair of confinement. When former convict Driss from the volatile French suburbs les banlieuesreluctantly applies for the position of carer in an effort to prevent the authorities cutting off his state benefits – stealthily swiping a handful of the aristocrat’s silverware on his way out – he seems an unlikely fit with the regulated life of Phillipe’s mansion now dominated by rules and procedure. Yet just as his handicap has paralysed his body, routine is beginning to paralyse Philipe’s once spontaneous soul, as if benumbing his joy with healthcare regulations; it is only with his laid-back approach to care giving that Driss manages to free Philipe from his own self-pity so that he may carpe dium.

In a country that somewhat overlooks its disabled population in terms of equality law and where extreme right-wing National Front politician Jean-Marie Le Penn, boasting an austere approach to immigration legislation, enjoys more than 25% of the public vote, what could have been an overbearingly melancholic account of one man’s personal tragedy, is an excellently well-produced cinematic treat laced with humour and sensitivity that dispels untruths and stereotypes of France’s foreign nationals and disabled community.

4.七人の侍 / Seven Samurai, Japan, 1954

‘What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies!’ – Kikuchiyo

What cinematic trip around the world would be complete without a glimpse of the legendary samurai sword fights? Defined by self-abnegation, samurai soldiers and their values will arguably always be an influential pillar of Japanese society, with their glorified stomach cutting ritual suicide Seppuku 切腹 still influencing the country’s current 30,000 a year suicide rate. As was seen so often, pride, honour and altruism become bread and butter for seven samurai soldiers on a seemingly futile self-sacrificial mission to protect small-town civilians from bandits of the Japanese civil war in the archetypal Japanese film Seven Samurai. Action, humour, romance and tragedy seamlessly intertwine with an inspiring script to create one of Asia’s most renowned masterpieces of film, this is a fictional glance at Japanese society and history quite unlike any other, not to be missed by lovers of Japanese culture and cinephiles everywhere.

5. Keïta! l’Héritage du Griot / The Heritage of The Griot, Burkina Faso, 1995 

‘How do we live life as both poetry and prose? This gentle film has near-universal zing.’ – The Guardian

Bordering Mali in south western Africa, Burkina Faso may be one of the continent’s most impoverished countries, yet still it manages to boast a rich chef d’oeuvre of cinematic gems. Director Dani Kouyaté puppeteers his actors with precision, manipulating a fine script that narrates the journey of a boy hovering between reality and the envisioned land of magical stories and lingering between European culture and science and the Mande people of the 13th century just as Burkina Faso symbolically and culturally divides itself between its former colonial ruler France and the ways of its indigenous African population.

6. Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis / Welcome to the Land of the Ch’tis, France, 2008

Jean : I have some good & some bad news.
Philippe : I’m suspended, is that it ?
Jean : Worse.
Philippe : Fired?
Jean : Even worse.
Philippe : Worse than fired?? What then??
Jean : You’re being transferred to the North.

7. The Darjeeling Limited, U.S.A, 2007

‘We’re here to find ourselves and bond with each other. Can we agree to that?’ – Francis

Perhaps every physical journey is after all a spiritual one? Wes Anderson concocts another optical feast that fills our eyes with colour and our ears with the sweet sound of deep acoustic music, shaking our souls with contemplation, emotion and humour as we wander with Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrian Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) on their brotherly bonding trip through India where they face the unfamiliar and encounter all the fleeting cultural quirkiness and intensity that the country has to offer.

8. 画皮 2 / The Painted Skin: The Resurrection, China, 2013

‘Exchange my skin for your human heart.’ – Xiao Wei

Spells, curses, evil spirits, disfigured princesses, enchanted otherworldly creatures, vast mountains, spellbound Arctic prisons and skilful warrior sword-fights – an optical feast of special effects and unquenchable creativity, the high-budget film The Painted Skin and its sequel set in Imperial China’s Yuan dynasty, encompass all ancient Chinese legends have to offer in terms of unbridled imagination, wild fantasy and delicious immorality.

9. Jean de Florette, France, 1987

‘Remember, it’s much easier to push something downhill than uphill, so push him in the direction where he’ll fall.’ – César Soubeyran

Sun kissed hills and valleys pan across the screen as the accordion sings its arresting afternoon song through the humble villages of the south; set against the backdrop of post-war rural France, the quintessentially French classic Jean de Florette envelops itself in the rustic charms of Provence whilst exploring the antithesis of prejudice and tolerance, the destructive nature of man’s greed and the inevitable intertwining of human relationships. Petty neighbourhood squabbles over carnations lead to duplicitous small town scheming, village fraud and even bereavement and as the film’s sequel Manon des Sources culminates, in a cruel ironic twist, crafty protagonist César Soubeyran is left to savour the bitter taste of his own medicine, suffering at the hand of his own plotting.

10. Los Diarios de Motocicleta / The Motorcycle Diaries, Argentina, 2004

‘I now know, by an almost fatalistic conformity with the facts, that my destiny is to travel…’ ― Ernesto Guevara

‘A revolution without gunshots? You must be crazy.’ ― Ernesto Guevara

11. Goethe!, Germany, 2010

‘Love grants in a moment what toil can hardly achieve in an age’ – Johann von Goethe.

The tale of one of history’s most highly acclaimed poets Johann von Goethe and his ill-fated early foray into romance with Charlotte Buff, who becomes the object of an unrequited affection that would provide the emotional springboard, which would help stimulate his masterpiece The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers) – a theatrical work so successful in its portrayal of love and human suffering it was said to have been influential to the detriment of its viewers, with many choosing to emulate the love-sick protagonist Werther and suicidally sacrificing themselves in the name of love. For those willing to turn a momentary blind eye to historical accuracy and revel serenely in the vivid display of eighteenth century Germany and its plethora of ornate architecture, regal ruffs, aristocratic wigs, banquets, quills, poetry and prose, this period piece has all the essentials required to enchant as Germany’s answer to Shakespeare in Love.

12. снег не тает навсегда, Snow Doesn’t Melt Forever, Russia, 2009

13. स्लमडॉग मिलियनेयर, Slumdog Millionaire, India, 2008

‘ Keep her crying and you’ll earn triple.’ – Youngest Salim

If you haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire yet, then perhaps it is about time you switch to the Bollywood channel, India’s acclaimed 8 time Oscar winner has not reaped its cinematic prestige for nothing. Opening with an excrement coated young slum dweller in search of celebrity, unwittingly on the cusp of losing his mother in a violent Muslim/Hindu attack, the film presents a myriad of juxtapositions – Mumbai’s slums and mansions, sewers and palaces, paupers and millionaires, celebrity and homeless anonymity, generosity and greed, honesty and corruption, justice and abuse – that so well some up a country pumped by paradox and of course, what Bollywood film would be complete without a colourful climax of singing and dancing in unison?

14. Mar Adentro / The Sea Inside, Spain, 2004

‘Only time and the evolution of consciences will decide one day if my request was reasonable or not.’ – Ramón Sampedro

15. Un Monstre à Paris / A Monster in Paris, France, 2011

‘The newspapers were right. There IS a monster in Paris, and I’m looking right at him!’ – Lucille to Victor

As the inquisitive mishap-stricken Raul mistakenly mixes chemicals whilst delivering to the Botanical Gardens laboratory, a flee morphs 100 times its size into an affable singing and dancing ‘monster’ Francœur, who becomes an acclaimed Parisian theatre-star side by side with the beautiful Lucille. Yet in a jealous rage, pompous Victor set on marrying Lucille, vows to destroy the ‘monster in Paris’ at all costs and a love triangle emerges between Lucille, Victor and eventually Raul, who disguises his affection for the bewitching heroine beneath feigned distaste. Escaping corniness by a cat’s whisker, A Monster in Paris is a chic animated portrayal of Parisian rooftops at twilight, elegant velveted theatres and an array of family-run boulangerie, presenting all the captivating urban glamour of France’s famous capital.

Which films would you add to the list? Share your recommendations…

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41 thoughts on “15 Essential Films for Travel Inspiration

  1. I loved the Untouchables. I cried so hard when they parted at the end and I loved the way his beard & moustache came off. I also loved one piece from La Mar Adentro (when he files over forests).
    A+ for putting together this beautiful list.

  2. Love most of the films on this list. Mar Adentro is an amazing film from an amazing diaries. And Into The Wild, although not my favourite film – I still like it very much – its soundtrack is superb. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thank you for the recent visit to my Western genre site….much appreciated. The content and lay-out of your own site is very interesting! If I could add an interesting/challenging film that might relate to travel in the MidWest/West of the US, I would recommend Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – it stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. I have written about the film at my site in a number of spots and here is one link:
    http://westernsreboot.com/2012/07/04/film-poetry-the-cinematography-music-of-the-assassination-of-jesse-james-by-the-coward-robert-ford/

    All the best!
    Chad
    http://westernsreboot.com/

  4. I have to get off the comp but have to add a couple of films; Caramel – deceptively simple story of four female friends and their lives in Lebanon. They are vivacious and feisty and the power in female friendship is so tangible you can taste it. I’ve been desperate to go to Lebanon ever since.
    Persepolis and Aya de Youpagon are fantastic animated features about witty and ambitious young women going against the grain in revolutionary Iran and Côte d’Ivoire – both set in the late 70s randomly.
    Life + Debt (documentary), Rue Cases Nègres (Black Shack Alley) or Nègre Marron for an alternative view of Caribbean realities past and present. Babylon, Burning An Illusion, To Sir With Love (featuring Sidney Poitier and Lulu), Young Soul Rebels and Sapphire also offer a glimpse into the Caribbean presence in the UK back in the day – I include them because they’re all set in London but offer an outsider’s perspective. As does Dirty Pretty Things starring Chiwitel Ejiofor and Audrey Tatou. Would love to have included links but was interested to see that I’ve seen most of these but think I’d have chosen differently…great post though!

  5. i don’t think i’ll ever grow enough balls or guts to do what that character in the movie ‘into the wild’ did. and it’s based on true story too. i wish i could be so daring and carefree, as i love the idea of to just run away and explore.

  6. Reblogged this on Rise of the Polyglot and commented:
    I just thought I’d share this brilliantly written piece about world cinema. Although the theme is about travel inspiration, I think it also works for language learning inspiration too!

  7. Hello, thanks for visiting my site – which has brought me to yours, and very interesting it is too. I’ve spent years not really watching films (for a bunch of reasons) and now I’m going through a phase of watching lots so this post is of particular interest. Apart from the French films, I’ve hardly seen any of the ones that you mention though and, hadn’t even heard of some of them before reading this!
    So, thanks for the inspiration.
    PS – I’m trying to wrack my brain for suggestions but I’m really bad with lists, I shall come back to you if something suggestion worthy comes to mind.
    Susie

  8. This was quite an eye-opening piece. I love these recommendations-though I’m already familiar with Pan’s Labyrinth, Intouchables, Into the Wild, Seven Samurai, and Jean de Florette (as of recent years, I’ve grown to love French films)-and hope I’ll get to watch them soon.

  9. The list is just perfect as it is, but because I am an “old, romantic fool”, I would have added James Ivory’s “Room With a View” (Florence and Tuscany), Luc Besson’s “The Big Blue” (Greek islands) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky” (Maghreb). Very interesting blog you have!

  10. Great films in this list. I’ve seen some, but not all of them, but you’ve reminded me I need to take the time to watch them – something I had previously committed to do.

  11. Thankyou for your list 🙂

    I have watched:
    # Intouchables / Untouchable, France, 2011
    # Slumdog Millionaire, India, 2008

    I would love to watch:
    # Into the Wild, U.S.A., 2007
    # The Darjeeling Limited, U.S.A, 2007
    # Los Diarios de Motocicleta / The Motorcycle Diaries, Argentina, 2004

    May I please recommend:
    1. Kolja (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolya)
    2. To Live (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Live_%28film%29)
    3. Berbagi Suami / Love for share http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_for_Share

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