Traveling the World in an Armchair

Grounded by the pandemic, the author has been revisiting memorable locales with the help of some favorite films.

Given the daunting tangles of global restrictions and lockdowns worldwide, I’ve been traveling vicariously by watching movies featuring international locales that have left indelible impressions on me from my own trips. Here’s an annotated list of some of them.

Two for the Road (1967). Fifteen years ago, during a business trip near Nice, France, I booked a commuter helicopter flight that soared up to Monaco along the Cote d’Azur. My impetus for this lark was Two for the Road, a romantic comedy starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney as a married couple working through their bumpy relationship on a road trip in southern France. The film incorporates scenes of the two speeding along the twisting Riviera coastal road with wind in their hair. 

Roman Holiday (1953). Audrey Hepburn’s American movie debut came in this comedy with Gregory Peck in Rome, one of my favorite cities. Roman Holiday is intriguing as the 23-year-old Hepburn, playing a European princess trying to travel incognito, is squired around by Peck on a romantic spree that touches landmarks such as Castel Sant’Angelo, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the Colosseum—all mostly devoid of tourists in a post-war Rome of the early 1950s.

Out of Africa (1985). In 2017, my wife and I took a safari through East Africa, and to me the cinematography of Out of Africa pulses with idyllic scenes of Kenya, one of the countries on our trip. The movie, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, won Best Picture at the 1986 Academy Awards, though reviews had not been kind. In the Washington Post, screenwriter Paul Attanasio snarked, “When you finally get the heck out of Africa, it's not a second too soon.”

Crazy Rich Asians (2018). A glamorous culture-clash romantic comedy, this film captures a Singapore I loved in a visit about 10 years ago, with other familiar scenes in Kuala Lumpur and Penang that I remember fondly from even earlier. 

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002). Alfonso Cuaron’s road movie is an exuberant, sexy escapade embracing Mexican culture and geography in rural Oaxaca, with memorable beach scenes at isolated San Augustin Bay on the southwest coast of Mexico. 

Lost in Translation (2003). When I stayed at Tokyo’s luxurious Park Hyatt hotel in 2003, the staff were still talking about the recent shooting there of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, which stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. It’s Coppola’s embrace of ennui and a lunge for human connection in a business-travel setting in a city she loved, with spectacular scenes of the Shinjuku and neon-blazing Shibuya districts.

28 Days Later (2002). Danny Boyle managed to briefly close off London locations like Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, and Oxford Street to depict a post-apocalyptic horror landscape where a handful of survivors, and a few zombies, wander around in settings that we all know so well.

Midnight in Paris (2011) – Woody Allen’s fantasy love poem, with nostalgic scenes at Montmartre, the Opera, Ile de la Cite, and Versailles. In Variety, critic Peter Debruge said the movie was so “smitten with its rain-slicked environs you half-expect to see Paris’s tourism office listed among its backers.” 

It’s All True (1993). A documentary with recovered footage from Orson Welles’s spectacularly failed 1942 cinematic adventure in vibrant wartime Brazil, most of which the RKO studio infamously junked in a snit over creative differences. In a surviving segment, Welles lovingly films the Carnival, luxuriating in samba music that “comes rolling down to Rio from the hills.”

Der Untergang (2004). Travel journalist Chris Barnett and I were at the opening of the Ritz Carlton Berlin on Potsdamer Place in 2004 when we set out on a cold, rainy day to find the site of Hitler’s bunker, which we knew was somewhere nearby. Nominated for best foreign-language film at the 2005 Academy Awards, Der Untergang had been shot at haunting Nazi-era locales in and around the ruins of the Fuhrerbunker, which was recreated for scenes of Bruno Ganz’s much-parodied carpet-chewing Hitler in the final days. With effort, Chris and I did finally locate the Fuhrerbunker site (then unmarked, though now with signage for tourists), but that’s another story.