Even those of us who love to travel usually can’t manage to travel all the time. So in those months when we’re just living our lives, we need a way to experience the world vicariously. Books are a great way to see other places through someone else’s eyes, as I wrote here. But for some of us, movies can be even better.
After all, movie makers have the perfect tools to capture the sights and sounds of a faraway place. And a talented cinematographer can add lighting and perspective that make us feel like we’re right there. We don’t have to imagine what a place looks like – we can see it with our own eyes.
When I was younger, I used to haunt the Revue Theatre in Toronto’s west end, to sit in its time-worn seats and watch the European movies that played there. I saw Sweden through the eyes of Ingmar Bergman, France through the lenses of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Spain through the quirky perspective of Pedro Almodóvar. It was a compelling look at the landscapes of these countries, but also at the lives of the people who lived there: what were they like, these people living half a world away?
To me, however, the best movies are the ones that really stand back and show the country or city in its glory. Here are a list of “movies on location” that have given me some of the best armchair journeys to other parts of the world:
Manhattan New York
Woody Allen, 1979
This is Woody Allen’s “love letter to Manhattan”. The opening shows powerful shots of New York in all its stark beauty, while Gershwin music sweeps over us and we hear Allen writing a story about a man who loves the city — himself. Then we’re off on a quirky romantic story that takes us through the streets of New York, in that wonderfully urban, yet slightly neurotic space that defines not only Woody Allen but the city he lives in.
Filmed in stunning black and white by Gordon Willis, the film is a visual wonderland, with shots like the one at the top of this post, with Allen and Diane Keaton under the 59th Street Bridge at dawn. To me, it’s a classic — so much so that the poster is hanging on my living room wall.
Slumdog Millionaire India
Danny Boyle, 2009
A movie with something for everyone, Slumdog Millionaire paints a portrait of modern India that is part myth, part sociology and part political condemnation. The struggles of Jamal, an office tea-boy (played by Dev Patel) trying to win a national TV game show, are the fulcrum for a whole cycle of stories that show the good, bad and worst of Indian society.
At times, the movie follows an Oliver Twist-like plot as Jamal tries to escape poverty and stay out of the grips of organized crime. At others, it becomes social drama as he fights to overcome authorities who can’t let a “slumdog” win the enormous TV prize. And at the end, it all wraps up with a Bollywood number on a train platform. In a way, nothing could be more fitting in a country like India.
(For a very different, yet equally true, side of Indian life – and again starring Dev Patel – have a look at my post about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films. India, more than almost any other country, is a land with a thousand faces.)
In Bruges Belgium
Martin McDonagh, 2008
This dark comedy about a pair of gangsters sent inexplicably to one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval cities in the oddest travelogue you’ll likely ever see. Still, the convoluted plot takes us on a memorable tour of the city’s picture-perfect streets and landmarks — it’s like something from a fairy tale, as the head gangster puts it. (You can see some of the city in this post.)
The irony is that while the older gangster loves Bruges, the younger one is completely immune to its charms — he calls it “a shithole”, and can’t wait to leave. What he doesn’t know is that his trip there is a parting gift from the boss: (spoiler alert here) he’s to be bumped off by his companion for botching a hit on a priest. The older criminal is torn over whether to carry out the order — but then, what are you going to do with a fellow who can’t see the beauty of Bruges?
The Year of Living Dangerously Indonesia
Peter Weir, 1982
Few movies portray a country better than this one. It follows a young reporter — Mel Gibson, in his breakout role – sent to cover the overthrow of Indonesia’s President Sukarno. He soon finds that the political scene, and the country itself, are a strange and intricate puzzle. And his only guide through the labyrinth is a dwarf called Billy, played by Helen Hunt, who interprets the scene using mythical characters from the wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre.
The movie does a great job of capturing a Westerner’s bewilderment at the complex, almost alien world that is Southeast Asia. But its best moments are Gibson’s trips through the chaotic streets and lush green landscapes of Indonesia. And all the more impressive since the film was mostly shot in the Philippines — permission to film in Jakarta was revoked due to fears it would be anti-Muslim.
The Night of the Iguana Mexico
John Huston, 1964
Some of you know of my love for Puerto Vallarta, the charming colonial city on Mexico’s Pacific coast where northerners like me go to escape winter. And one of the local sights of PV is a pair of houses once owned by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who carried on a famous affair while this movie was being filmed in Mismaloya, a village just south of town.
To be sure, the movie doesn’t show much of the city, spending most of its time overlooking Mismaloya’s cliffs and beaches. But it manages to bring the place to life – you can almost feel the breezes sweeping in off the ocean. Add Ava Gardner as a free-spirited hotel owner, Richard Burton’s desperation as the defrocked minister, and the script based on a Tennessee Williams play, and it’s a movie that holds up remarkably well despite its years.
Those are my five movies on location. There are more I could have included, of course: Lawrence of Arabia, Zorba the Greek, even Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. And I’m sure you have a few favourites of your own that you like to slip into the DVD player on those long winter nights.
If so, let us know what they are, and what you like about them. It’s always great to get a movie recommendation, but even better when it’s one that will take us travelling.