We only have a few months to go before we finally get to travel again. While we wait, I thought I’d write a very personal, wildly non-comprehensive list of films that have inspired a few trips over the years, both for me personally and also at PRIOR. In making it, I gave myself a few rules: no docs, stay away from the way too obvious, and think beyond just scenery to character and culture. If you’re bored of box sets and series, this is a list to get you planning.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
“Just what we all need: A cock in a frock on a rock,” is just one of the memorable lines from this 1994 Australian road trip film in which its drag queen stars veer from Sydney through the outback to Alice Springs and, finally, King’s Canyon. That’s essentially the plot of one of the most famous simultaneously LGBT and Australian films of all time. The ‘90s saw something of a mini renaissance of Australian film, each one exuberant and exaggerated (and hilarious), but also probing a dark heart. Also in each of the films, like Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, Sydney is the Emerald City, sparkling in both daylight and nightlife (let’s hope that returns).
The Bond films
Controversial opinion, perhaps, but 007 is the least captivating character in the endless Bond series. Sure, there are absurd villains, Shirley Bassey theme songs, and of course girls, girls, girls. But for me it is the global locations that keep me returning. Witness the electrifying Day of the Dead in Mexico City in Spectre, the mournful Scottish moors in Skyfall, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia as an unlikely star in From Russia With Love, and the shimmering Lake Palace in Udaipur as Pussy Galore’s lair in Octopussy. God, they even make Macau look sexy (it’s not). And, well, of course there is Jamaica, where Ian Fleming’s house is now a glamorous hotel, Goldeneye.
If Brooklyn were a city (as it was until 1898), it would be one of America’s largest and certainly most diverse. A startling amount of the DNA of the modern United States was forged and is still found in this sprawling borough. Colm Tóibín’s story of a young Irish immigrant (Saiorse Ronan) finding her feet and then her stride is a classic American tale, and the brownstones and energy of Brooklyn her bold supporting actor.
Call Me by Your Name
The quintessential coming-of-age film of our era also perfectly depicts the seasons of Northern Italy, especially the languid summers of lunches taken al fresco, searching for a body of water — any body of water — to escape the heat, and silly dance parties where, at a certain hour, anything becomes possible. Beyond that peach scene, also look for the seasonal progression of fruits as a marker of time.
There is no perfect film about Ancient Egypt, but it’s always illuminating to see a recreation of one of the most beguiling periods of history. It so happens that this one stars two of the most compelling actors of all time, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. No one has worn the arch and regal roles in such sumptuous style before or since. It might not be a perfect film, but the scale and opulence of the sets and costumes befit an era and place known for exactly that.
Tugging at both guitar and heartstrings, Coco is a loving tribute to Mexico and its culture and traditions. A modern hallmark Disney film, it muses on life and death through the lens of the country’s most famous rite and ritual, Dia de los Muertos, in the most vivid, sensitive and joyful way. Warning: You will cry.
The Darjeeling Limited
Almost any Wes Anderson film could be on this list, but the one I always come back to is this brotherly train journey through India. In Anderson’s world, shape, line, color and culture combine into something singular, a take on a place that is loving and witty. No muse is more colorful and contradictory than India, and with this subject Anderson evokes tension between the beauty and ridiculousness of traveling through it. Other films may be more insightful and inspire me to go back to India now, but this is the one that made me want to go in the first place. Oh, and the star of the show is not Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman or even Angelica Houston. It is the luggage.
Werner Herzog’s Amazonian fever dream takes us to Iquitos, one of the trippiest cities in the world, still reachable only by boat and plane. It’s the spiritual home of ayahuasca, and you get the feeling that plenty was consumed in the process of making this completely mad masterpiece.
I opt for this modern noir over the twinkly La La Land and the bonkers Mulholland Drive. Hollywood loves Hollywood, and this 1997 Curtis Hanson film withstands the test of time. It was shot entirely on location throughout L.A., including at historic spots like City Hall and the Formosa Cafe.
La Grande Bellezza
Rome is ridiculous in this hilarious, Oscar-winning satire of the city’s indulgent yet atrophied society. Priests are obsessed not with religion but recipes, showgirls are washed up, actors yearn for a day when the city was cinematic, and politicians are, well, Italian politicians, yet for all this melancholy, they all still love a rooftop party. For non-Italians, it is a real look at what actually goes on in the city that can seem set in amber and for tourists only. There are abundant Fellini references, and it never takes itself seriously. Despite its biting nature, Rome is still the eternally striking star, the great beauty of the title.
No list can exclude Visconti. One of the papas of Italian neorealism (where do we begin?!), he then pivoted into a deep exploration of the elegance and complexity of the Italian aristocracy. This epic, set in 1860’s Sicily, showcases many familiar palazzi that one can visit today, and remains one of the best evocations of the frequently represented island.
For the New York skyline and the city’s indomitable spirit.
The Last Emperor
Epic and essential, it won all nine Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture and Director. Bertolucci gives us China writ large.
La Vie en Rose
The voice of the nation, the spirit of Paris. You’ll have no regrets doing a refresher on the life of Edith Piaf, the little sparrow. Marion Cotillard’s final rendition of Piaf’s most famous song will transport you to a bawdy Parisian bar and break your heart at the same time.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Unlikely choice, perhaps, but a freak rainstorm in the Australian desert turned the scorched earth into a wildflower field and warranted a shift to the primordial landscapes of Namibia.
I was once embarrassed to say that I loved this candy-colored confection as much as I did, wondering how — with its young stars, indie director and rock soundtrack — this could be an accurate representation of the court of Versailles and its most famous resident. But I have been assured by the best authority that it was unfairly maligned when it was released and is probably incredibly accurate (and certainly incredibly evocative). It will make you want to visit the charming folly of the Petit Trianon — MA’s beautifully silly, and in some ways tragically naive, world of little lambs and weeping willows — as much as the palace’s epic Hall of Mirrors.
Everyone should go to an Indian wedding once in their life. If you can’t score an invite, then this family drama by Mira Nair captures, yes, the drama — of weddings and of India as a whole.
Virtually every frame of Jane Campion’s film is unforgettable, in large part because of the beauty of New Zealand. Its dense, dripping, fern-filled forests and the traditions of the Maori people take center stage, but it is the enduring image of the lonely piano on one of the country’s (still) empty and dramatic beaches that helped it sweep Cannes and the Academy Awards.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Perhaps the most famous film from Australia’s New Wave in the 1970s, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is an ambiguous horror/romance set in a boarding school on the edge of the bush at the turn of the 20th century. A group of Victorian schoolgirls go missing, seemingly devoured by the new and alien landscape, and are (spoiler alert) never to be found again. PAHR speaks to an entire genre of Australian film in which immigrants and newcomers live on the edge, in terror and awe of the continent’s foreboding size and sheer natural power.. It’s a great introduction not only to the landscape, but to an aspect of the psyche of non-indigenous Australians.
Family travel should be like a Pixar film, bewitching the kids at every moment while simultaneously giving a wink to the parents, who are entertained and safe in the knowledge that their children’s lives are being enriched and their worldview expanded. There are so many Pixar films that express culture and place beautifully (see Coco, above), but the story of Remy the rat in the kitchen of a Parisian temple of gastronomy is so much more than a rodent sidekick cartoon. It is one of the deepest, most insightful and subversive films about food culture. It’s also one of the best on the pressures and pleasures of Paris. There is no better way to introduce the privilege of eating in restaurants to little people (and remind older patrons, too).
Romeo and Juliet
Is it Miami? Is it Mexico City? Rio? L.A.? Or is it all of the above and more? Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespearean spin might be set nowhere, but it evokes so many cities that we love in a powerful, vivid and truly unique way. Special nod here to the genius of Catherine Martin, the creative director and partner of Baz Luhrmann and all his films. Everything is exaggerated in their world. Some of their movies may be better than others, but her designs are always something to behold.
The Sissi Trilogy
Austria? Sound of Music, right? Okay, yes. But consider that the non-English speaking in Europe don’t think the hills are alive with a spinning Julie Andrews. Instead, they think of a young empress Sissi in the form of Romy Schneider. Honestly, these 1950s films will make you want to visit the Hapsburgs far more — even if we still love the Von Trapps.
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The film that launched a thousand boats into the Bay of Naples. Everything about the depiction of Amalfi and Napoli of that era is spot-on, not to mention everyone’s dream summer: eating under lemon trees, bathing all day long, and the youthful appeal of Jude’s little shorts and GP’s tangerine bikini.
Reese Witherspoon’s film about finding redemption on the road to recovery will speak to many, not least because it is faithful to the landscape of the American West. Ultimately, it is about journeying from one point to another, both physically and spiritually.
Y Tu Mamá También
It’s a road trip, a coming-of-age film and a subversive class commentary all in one. Although Alfonso Cuarón set his story in his native Mexico, it is universal: the wild abandon of traveling as a backpacker fueled by the search for booze and, well, experimentation of all kinds.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.