World's 12 Best Travel Movies

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What is it about Brits and the desert? Past masters at meddling in the Middle East, they brought us Lawrence, a brilliant, deeply flawed literary soldier who was turned into a wartime hero by the American broadcaster Lowell Thomas. David Lean's masterpiece is dominated by a searing performance from Peter O'Toole, at once complicated and conflicted, schmoozing the urbane Faisal (Alec Guinness) and hurtling madly into battle on camelback. Lean brought the burning desert sensationally to life through the latest Super Panavision 70 cinematography, while Maurice Jarre's epic score lent a noble quality to this Boy's Own campaign in the desert, a corner of the First World War that, heroics aside, was really little more than a sideshow of a sideshow.

The enduring themes of love, war, personal tragedy, double-dealing, and an edge-of-the-seat dénouement that can reduce the hardest-hearted grump to a secret sniffle, together with some of the great lines in film history, make Casablanca an all-time favorite. As the expatriate owner of Rick's Café Américain, Humphrey Bogart stalks Vichy-controlled Casablanca, a place of fear and smoky glamour, with brooding intensity. Who wouldn't throw it all in just to be with the divine Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman? But Rick is made of sterner stuff. Opposed to the Nazis all along, he sends Ilsa off on a plane and out of his life with her Czech resistance-leader husband, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Why? Because if she doesn't leave now, she'll always regret it. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."

It's not all fun and games. Travel can be a matter of life and death. For those who enjoy the darker side, the travel thriller Deliverance delivers in spades. And arrows and bullets. Four Atlanta businessmen, who probably should be playing golf, decide on a more adventurous weekend canoeing down the fictional Cahulawassee River in deepest Georgia. Big mistake. The landscapes in John Boorman's cinematic wilderness are sublime, the music portentous, the screenplay terse and gritty. After losing their friend, Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and Ned Beatty survive a harrowing hide-and-seek and rape. The words "squeal like a pig" still haunt. Has camping ever been so uninviting?

The ultimate travel movie charts an astonishing odyssey, from bone-wielding hominids at the dawn of time to 21st-century astronauts and beyond. The ostensible quest is to understand a mysterious monolith, first encountered by the hairy hominids and lodged millennia later in the surface of the moon. Yet the journey is much more than that. Director Stanley Kubrick's exploration is at once a disturbing meditation on the debilitating effects of technology and what it is to be human. The sci-fi special effects stretched available technology to the limits and appealed to a new counterculture generation of moviegoers to whom it was deliberately marketed as "the ultimate trip." The rousing score of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra never sounded the same again.

Winner of four Oscars, this gloriously improbable adventure romp was blessed by the Midas touch of Steven Spielberg as director and George Lucas as producer. It established the winning Harrison Ford Indiana Jones franchise, a box-office record buster. Part scholar, part swashbuckling adventurer, Jones has it all, immersed in ancient manuscripts and deciphering mysterious scripts one moment, fistfighting Nazis, blowing up airplanes, and, of course, getting the girl the next. Archeology meets supernatural fantasy in a breathless hunt for the Ark of the Covenant that dashes from one exotic Middle Eastern location to the next. This is light-hearted, compulsive cinema at its most irresistible. We all love a quest.

Some countries are harder to understand than others, no matter whether the trains run on time, men and women fall in love, and dogs are considered cute pets. Where better to explore the otherness of travel and foreign places than Japan, an enduring mystery to most of the world? Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray are a brilliantly left-field combination in the leading roles, one a demure 20-something questioning her new marriage, the other an aging actor hovering on the edge of a midlife crisis during a $2 million whisky promotion. Cross-cultural encounters between East, West, and two generations abound in this moving story of loneliness, longing, and alienation. Watch out for the glamorous woman in black telling Murray to "lip my stockings!"

The French may not have given us schadenfreude, but have anyone's misadventures ever proved as hilarious as those of Monsieur Hulot, the hapless Frenchman on vacation? Jacques Tati, the writer, director, and eponymous hero of this cult classic, is in sublime form as the charming beanpole Monsieur Hulot, who causes unintentional mayhem whichever way he turns during a stint in Saint-Marc-sur-Mer on the Atlantic coast. Those who thought only the British were hidebound by class will enjoy the affectionate satire on the rigid postwar hierarchies of France. Everyone gets it in the neck, from overfed capitalists to posturing intellectuals. Two hours of unforgettable slapstick. Among the numerous highlights, Hulot's madcap canoeing expedition is priceless.

One of the great films of the 20th century, Federico Fellini's rambling masterpiece on Roman decadence chronicles a week in the life of playboy society journalist Marcello Rubini, played by sharp-suited Marcello Mastroianni. Marcello roves without pleasure from doting girlfriend to bored heiress, flitting from one inconsequential celebrity scoop to another, longing all the while for someone less emotionally cloying and something more intellectually edifying. Dreamlike sequences are strung along this free-form narrative like pearls: the aristocrats' party in a Lazio castle; the unfulfilled frolic with Anita Ekberg in Rome's Trevi Fountain, the last word in baroque excess; the feather-filled orgy that misses the mark—all are visual treats in a dark exploration of feckless society and doomed ambition in a Rome that is never less than alluring.

Spain meets Hollywood in this engaging romantic comedy, with Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem lending Latin pizzazz, with a smidgen of sex and violence, to the lives of two young Americans played by Rebecca Hall (Vicky) and Scarlett Johansson (Cristina). A smoldering Bardem collides into both, upsetting a fragile dynamic with ex-wife Cruz and changing all their lives forever. As the title suggests, Barcelona snatches a starring role, its architectural gems, street scenes, and gastronomic delights basking in enviable sunlight throughout. The Catalan tourism authorities would struggle to come up with anything so enticing. A classic Woody Allen take on the quest for personal fulfillment and the impermanence of love.

Based on the extraordinary life of Karen Blixen, a wealthy Danish writer who established a coffee plantation in Kenya in the '30s, Sydney Pollack's Oscar-winning film is a tribute to the continent with the widest skies in the world. Like many travelers of her time, Meryl Streep's Blixen romanticizes Africa, but it is a performance shot through with passion and intensity. For once, Robert Redford, as languid lover and big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, plays second fiddle, though he possesses the truer relation to Africa. As he tells her, "We're not owners here, Karen. We're just passing through."

A lovely, lurid Pixar-produced fantasy about a grumpy septuagenarian who, after decades of stifling the travel bug, finally heads into the unknown, pursuing his lifelong dream of seeing Paradise Falls in Venezuela, with an unintended companion in tow. His mode of travel is unorthodox: to escape the clutch of greedy property developers, he fills his home with thousands of multicolored helium balloons until it takes off. A heady, heartwarming adventure for children and those who should know better but don't.

There are train journeys, and then there are train journeys. The world's most famous spy is also one of the most prodigious and, depending on who's playing him, most elegant travelers. James Bond (a dashing Sean Connery) is dispatched to Istanbul to make himself the willing victim of a honey trap with the delectable Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a cipher clerk in the Soviet Consulate. Bond's mission: get the girl and get the cipher machine. Needless to say, our heroine falls for the British agent after a close run with rival SPECTRE and a desperate Gypsy shootout. Widely considered the best 007 movie ever made, the train adventure is as gripping as it gets.

Travel isn't meant to be like this, which is why Borat is so toe-curlingly compelling. Homophobic and anti-Semitic Kazakh reporter Borat, played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, wreaks havoc on a trip across America, interviewing a series of unsuspecting victims. Those of a sensitive disposition should beware of the nude brawl that erupts in a hotel between Borat and his producer. Described by co-writer Dan Mazer as a film about "bags of poo and fat men's testicles," it's also a superb satire of cultural confrontation.