All cinema is a journey, when the viewer travels into a world separate from their own. We want to be transposed, transformed, changed. Some films are more literal in this form and travel films have been popular for many decades. The opportunity to travel with characters we care about on their travels is welcomed and the best travel films make us care about the journey and the people on it.
There have been wonderful travel novels that just haven’t transferred successfully to the big screen: Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining On the Road led only to a distinctly middling adaptation from Walter Salles (who did better with another effort which features on this list). When done right, though, travel films are intoxicating, immersive, and powerful. This list offers the 10 best examples of the genre, spanning continents and eras.
10. The Trip to Italy
Based on a British TV Series, Michael Winterbottom’s film stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalised versions of themselves. Brydon has been asked by a newspaper to tour the country, from Piedmont to Capri, partly following the footsteps of the great Romantic poets. Coogan joins him on his trip and the film follows their engrossing conversations as they journey through the majestic Italian countryside.
This is a film that revels in the innate comedic ability of its actors, for Coogan and Brydon natural conversations ilicit genuine uproarious moments consistently; it’s an improvisational masterclass, just as the films of Christopher Guest are, and the film is better for it. Coogan is more well-known internationally than Brydon but having The Trip to Italy (2014) focus more on the latter means the fictional comedy narrative feel more enjoyable and convincing.
The humour is very British, of course, often dry and droll, but in being executed by two masters from those shores, this film should satisfy the palettes of most, whether they be watching for the comedy, the beautiful scenery, or the mouthwatering Italian food the two devour throughout. One of the other joys of Winterbottom’s film is that it is, simply, a great hangout film, an excellent buddy movie, albeit in a proper, idiosyncratic British way.
9. The Darjeeling Limited
Wes Anderson’s road film, the wonderfully cast Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzman play three brothers travelling through India in an attempt to reconnect with each other. It could easily, dangerously become a patronising tale of white Americans using an exotic land to heal themselves but Anderson is too wise for this, and his film subverts this remedy for self-actualisation.
The brothers want to find transcendence, find spirituality, but their sadly too absorbed in their own personal lives to achieve this. Seeking enlightenment, they only find frustration; this film isn’t Eat Pray Love (2010).
The local people, too, are treated like humans, with respect, and never veer too much into stereotypes. It’s definitely a Wes Anderson production, full of his intricate design and style, but he allows India and its beauty to influence his shots (a local crew was predominantly used and much was shot on location).
It also holds his usual themes of lost dreams and broken families, just done in a different setting. For such a strikingly consistent filmmaker, The Darjeeling Limited (2007) sees Anderson create a disarmingly rich work, both familiar and unfamiliar.
A grimly sardonic horror comedy comes from director Ben Wheatley, part travelogue and part murder spree. Chris and Tina take a trip around England. Soon they become annoyed at other people who they deem unworthy, like a man littering who refuses to pick up his rubbish; it’s a comically English reason to decide to kill someone over.
Chris especially sees himself as a proper English gentleman, a lover (protector?) of the countryside, respectful and polite. Tourists are killed while poetry of William Blake splashes across the screen. He is what is good about England and he feels the need to uphold the honour of his country. The writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram also portray the main couple, and both the writing and acting is impeccable.
As they progress on their journey, the hazy fog that covers the English landscapes also slowly seems to shroud Chris’ convictions, as the chasm between his proud ideals and modern reality becomes lost.
There is no room for sentimentality in Sightseers (2012), and it’s a gruesome vision of the people of its country; we’re not expected to care about Chris and Tina or their unfortunate victims.
7. The Motorcycle Diaries
A biopic of an early journey Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara took through South America, years before he rose to prominence as an iconic guerrilla fighter in Cuba and beyond, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) is both a road film and coming-of-age one.
This 1952 trip with his friend Alberto Granado would be life-affirming and future-defining for Guevara: he became transformed by the impoverishment he witnessed throughout the continent, and the injustices routinely faced by the poor people of these lands.
It’s based mostly on Guevara’s written memoir of the actual journey, and Walter Salles directs faithfully. He structures it in inspirational form, the seeds of discovery for Guevara that would flourish into his later radicalization and political fighting. He may not be Che yet, but this film shows that he’s well on his way to getting there.
The film does not overtly judge his politics but merely wants to show that his revolutionary streak was guided in the beginning by real feelings of care and sympathy; the Guevara of this film and time transcends politics and controversy.
6. Into the Wild
Coming from the somewhat surprising Sean Penn, Into the Wild (2007) is the film adaptation of one of travel’s most striking and sombre tales. Based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book of the same name, it tells of the journey of Christopher McCandless to the depths of the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990’s.
Like anyone who has read Thoreau’s Walden, his story – and this film – will inspire a longing, an urge, to escape to a wilderness of our own, to a log cabin in the middle of nowhere; McCandless’s story also comes with a needed warning, given the tragedy which ultimately befell him (poor decisions and naivety lead to him dying of starvation).
This film evokes morbid fascination, and even if one didn’t know the story previously, one can guess where the film is heading. Penn wisely sticks mostly faithfully to the source material, showing the numerous people he encountered on his journey that Krakauer was able to track down himself.
The film is a serious and depressing tale of a man ruined by his uncompromising nature; we all may dream of living a life like McCandless, Penn and Krakauer say, but it should remain a dream for all but those truly ready for it.