The best travel movies ever made is a mix of life up in the air (the art of traveling) and life on the ground (human drama unfolding in interesting places around the globe). The list of best movies about travel weighs heavily towards planes and airports but I’ve also given some thought to being in an unfamiliar place and growing as a person because of the places you’ve been.
I think each of these films is a classic for a reason, and I try to offer a brief take why they’re one of the best travel movies. That even holds for some of the ones on the list that may not have been so critically acclaimed.
Up in the Air is top of the list of best travel movies for reasons that should be obvious, Die Hard 2 is awesome even if it’s absurd with more plot holes than the business plan for Washington Dulles’ Independence Air. But was there every really a better air crash investigator than Kris Kristofferson in the broadly panned Millenium?
Here’s my top 13 best travel movies. What are yours? What am I missing?
- Up in the Air. The movie was not in any way related to the book, which I read on a United Washington Dulles – San Francisco flight in 2001. The two female leads in the film didn’t even exist in the book (Vera Farmiga kind of sort of did). But George Clooney plays us, they go through security and throw down elite status cards and Clooney is on a quest to pad his mileage balance.
It tries too hard at times to be an allegory for the Great Recession which was at its depths in 2009 when the film was released. It makes one fundamental mistake about rental cars. But the airport and flight scenes, along with hotel check-ins, are absolutely awesome. To know me is to fly with me. Oh, and there’s a deleted scene you may not know about.
- Die Hard 2. A year after taking down terrorists at Los Angeles’ Nakatomi Building, Bruce Willis’ John McClane battles terrorists again — this time at Washington Dulles airport.
Nevermind that the pay phones at the airport say Pacific Bell giving away that this isn’t really Dulles. And I’ve never figured out why planes in a holding pattern that were running out of fuel never sought to divert to Baltimore or Richmond. But Willis trying to wave off a plane that was about to crash land was just a phenomenal scene… And so was the late Fred Thompson ordering all inbound aircraft into holding by declaring “Pack ’em, stack ’em, and rack ’em.”
- Flight. Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot. Most of the movie is Washington (not) dealing with his addiction but the controlled crash scene is incredible.
- Airplane!. Over Macho Grande? I don’t think I’ll ever get over Macho Grande.
If you’re rather watch Airplane as a drama, it tracks closely with Zero Hour!. The Zero Hour script was purchased by the writers and many scenes are literally a comedic version of the 1957 film.
In fact, here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two movies:
- Before Sunrise (Vienna) Before Sunset (Paris) Before Midnight (Greece). Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walk and talk — with youthful idealism masked as cynicism in Vienna, reconnecting years later through the streets of Paris, and dealing with the challenges of their relationship and doubts about life on an island in Greece.
The screenwriting is phenomenal and acting believable, and we get a taste of a different place in Europe in each film.
- National Lampoon’s Vacation and European Vacation (but not Christmas Vacation). The first film was the classic family road trip as Chevy Chase takes his clan on a journey through its own history, his own mid-life regrets, and his deeply committed quest to be a good father — taking everyone to Wally World and flirting with Christie Brinkley along the way.
- The Terminal. Tom Hanks is on a quest that brings him to New York, but he can’t leave the airport because his passport is invalidated by a coup in his home country. It’s based on the true story of an 18 year stay at Paris Charles de Gaulle.
- Lost in Translation. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are lost and detached from their lives, and explore Tokyo together. They see the city as foreigners, they’re foreign to each other and to themselves, and the story revolves as much around the Park Hyatt Tokyo as it does Japanese karaoke.
I love the Park Hyatt on its own terms (though it’s not really conveniently located) but the movie makes the property special, and the property helps make the movie special. It’s my favorite Bill Murray performance and of course I’ve been unable to sleep in Shinjuku though I found myself at the Denny’s rather than the New York Bar. No Scarlett Johansson, but it was the best Denny’s I ever visited.
- Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Holiday travel is rough. I hate flying on ‘amateur days’. It’s far worse during irregular operations. But if you’re determined enough, you can get where you’re going — even if it takes changing from a plane to a train and circumstances force you to drive across much of the country.
Although I actually prefer the Charles Grodin / Robert De Niro version Midnight Run.
- Airport. This 1970 film was the first of a series, and a classic disaster movie that intertwines the lives of people dealing with keeping an airport open during a major weather event while a bomber plots to blow up a plane.
- Millennium. Ok, so this movie only has an 11% ‘Fresh’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Kris Kristofferson plays an NTSB investigator looking into the collision of a Boeing 747 and a DC-10 where all the passengers of the 747 appeared to be dead prior to ground impact, even though the plane caught fire only once it hit the ground. Because, time travel.
- Pushing Tin. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton are air traffic controllers. It’s dark, and probably not a great movie, but the scenes at New York TRACON are awesome.
- Boeing Boeing. Tony Curtis is an American in Paris dating 3 different flight attendants — for Air France, Lufthansa, and British United Airways — whose international routes never have them in town at the same time. They all live with him whenever they’re in Paris, with photos and personal touches swapped out to match each one of them.
Then technology intervenes: faster planes means schedule changes, so that all of their schedules overlap, and hijinks ensue…
There are other films I considered for this list. For instance I felt like I had to include Sully but the truth is that the whole movie was just an excuse for an amazing flight sequence – but you can’t really sell an evening’s entertainment that lasts just several minutes. Still, what they did re-creating US Airways 1549 was incredible.
I even considered She’s Out Of My League. There are few jobs worse than TSA screener. It’s low rent security theater and you have to wear rubber gloves because the work environment is gross and that’s before you pat down grandma. But once in awhile Hollywood can give the men and women in blue a win.
And I thought about Soul Plane, but…
What else belongs as one of the best travel movies?