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10 Movies for vicarious travel

My blogging angle has clearly become almost exclusively travel-oriented, and any self-respecting travel blogger has to have a list of his favorite travel movies. So here is my attempt to establish bona fides.

I set out with the goal of picking not just the movies filmed in gorgeous locations but those that allowed me to identify with the experiences of main characters. This whole idea of vicarious travel, you know… That did not work out in its entirety and I ended up with a list that well approximates the prevailing blogosphere wisdom.

1. A Good Year (2006)

A hot-shot playboy investment banker inherits a vineyard in the south of France and gradually discovers a different side of life – and love. Few people can truly identify with such fortune but I suspect many dream of it. Gorgeous Provençal landscapes provide the perfect setting for acting that is as simple as it is sparkling. A few quintessential London vignettes offer delightful contrast to the serenity of French countryside. And the movie offers the best ever put-down for the kind of obnoxious American tourists who think that every restaurant has to have their specific preferred meal on the menu: “MacDonalds is in Avignon, fish and chips in Marseille. Allez!”


2. Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

An American woman reluctantly goes on a trip to Tuscany, impulsively buys a run-down villa and, while restoring it, builds a new life around her adopted community. A more feminine take on the theme of personal renewal in a foreign location, this film’s premise – settling down in Tuscany – hooks me regardless of its “chick-movie” quotient. There is plenty of evocative scenery, quite a few enchanting snapshots of local life, a depiction of palio festivities, and a bonus glance at Rome as well as Positano on the Amalfi Coast. Plus, a bunch of dialogues that to my ear sound just cartoonish enough to be utterly delicious. “Signora! Please stop being so sad! If you continue like this, I will be forced to make love to you. And I’ve never been unfaithful to my wife.”


3. To Rome with Love (2012)

This ode to Rome is not unlike similarly-named Paris, Je t’Aime or New York, I Love You. Several unrelated short stories (or very loosely related, as it happens in a couple of instances) combine into a very impressionist view of the city in which they are all set. To my taste, quite a few of the Parisian vignettes are borderline disturbing, and I’ve been residing in or about New York City for too long to consider it a travel destination for me. Woody Allen’s offering also has the distinction of being the work of a single director and I am reasonably a fan of his neurotic brand. The stories contained herein are quite wacky – opera performance in the on-stage shower is more than imbecille – but the Eternal City acts as a magnificent counterweight and backdrop that surely has seen it all. “It’s incredible that the Colosseum is still standing after thousands of years. You know, Sally and I have to re-tile the bathroom every six months.”


4. Midnight in Paris (2011)

The movie opens with solid three minutes of cityscapes – no voice-over, no titles, just visualizing all that is so mesmerising about Paris. The story that follows – in some aspects, it is a fable – is another riff on the theme of finding oneself, in this case through being seduced by the most romantic of the great cities of the world. The time-travelling aspect may be a bit loose and the procession of famous names who lived and worked in Paris may be too gratuitous, but falling in love with the City of Lights is depicted in ways that I can certainly associate with. “That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me.”


5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

What do you know?! Three Woody Allens in a row – I must be inadvertently coming out of the closet as an admirer. Come to think of it, any director who would start making movies with my favorite cities as backdrops would count me as a fan. And my major beef with this particular film is that it could use a little bit more of Barcelona than it actually does. The scenery nonetheless is magnificent (and not only Barcelona), the acting excellent and worth the accolades, the soundtrack has one of my favorite Spanish guitar tunes in Paco de Lucia’s Entre Dos Aguas, and the subtext of the movie – finding new experiences in foreign lands – is something I find alluring (sexual undertones aside). “Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain. And this is a chance for something special.”


6. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

I did not rate this movie high when I first watched it. Its purported hilarity doesn’t arise to the levels that I usually deem funny, and I am a bit ambivalent towards Wes Andreson’s preference for face-on or, alternatively, tracking shots. I am also sceptical of the notion of resolving family issues in a setting that some of the said family’s members may find challenging. I am down with exploring new cultures and stepping outside of comfort zones – on a reasonable scale – but probably not as an instrument of bonding for estranged and unstable siblings. And yet, this train ride across India brings not only imaginative cinematography but also the most luscious, if obviously retouched, series of the snapshots of the subcontinent. “I love the way this country smells. I’ll never forget it. It’s kind of spicy.”


7. The Tourist (2010)

Here is another movie that is unlikely to break into my overall favorites list. In fact, I remembered little of the plot which revolves around seemingly clueless American tourist who gets pulled against his will into a convoluted multi-party hunt for a billionaire fugitive. As I reread the synopsis on IMDB, I realized that the setting of the movie – Venice – had completely obscured the plot twists for me during viewing. Which, for the purposes of this list, is probably the highest praise of all. If you want to travel vicariously through movies, La Serenissima justifies watching this flick all by itself.


8. Lost in Translation (2003)

Not many people can claim experience as a celebrity descending into irrelevance but many people know what fish out of water feels like. And when you see another such fish across the room and you strike a friendship, things quickly start looking better, don’t they? This movie uses glimpses of Tokyo and of Japanese culture as the set-up for clash-of-sensibilities comedy, but it still allows you to imagine yourself being there, and in rather identifiable circumstances of needing a soul mate to keep yourself going. In the end, it is an exploration of being a stranger in a strange land, with rich visuals, great acting, almost chaste romantic undertones, and a fair dose of hilarity. “Enjoy your fright.”


9. Sideways (2004)

I am a declared oenophile and I have embarrassingly not yet visited California wine country. Which makes this movie – admittedly more about mid-life crisis than it is about wine or travel – a worthwhile addition to the list. There is beautiful scenery and sufficient depiction of wine tasting to whet my appetite, on top of excellent acting. Plus, Paul Giamatti’s character left me with a number of phrases to help my lighthearted pretenses to being a wine expert. “Quaffable, but uh… far from transcendent.”


10. James Bond movies

I am cheating here, but really!! Name one single Bond movie that does not have at least three breathtaking locations, often introduced by sweeping panning shots. Other super-agent franchises (think Bourne or Mission:Impossible, for instance) are also strong contenders, but I am particularly fond of 007. Must be all of those gorgeous women in all of those gorgeous locations, plus not a shred of doubt who the good guy is and whether he will prevail. “What exactly do you do?” – “Oh, I travel… a sort of licensed troubleshooter.”

What are your favorite movies for vicarious travel?

Posted in Movies