Not to mention other people.
Whether you’re feeling intrepid or introverted, there are movies that understand your most gotta-get-outta-here impulses — films that celebrate movement, physical daring, restlessness, wanderlust. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that “Nomadland,” Chloe Zhao’s magnificent ode to itinerant workers in the American West, won the Lockdown Year Oscar.) One of cinema’s foundational values is world building, whereby an artist constructs a universe on screen in which we can briefly dwell and believe in. Then there are those filmmakers who bring the real, wider world to us, in all its wonderment and sense of revelation. Here’s a list of movies guaranteed to ignite the travel itch, or at least satisfy it until your next adventure:
“Faces Places” (2017) Belgian-born French director Agnès Varda, who died in 2019, had a wanderer’s heart, as evinced in two of her classic films, 1985’s “Vagabond,” about a young woman’s solitary travels and travails, and the 2000 documentary “The Gleaners and I,” in which she compared the lives of scroungers and pickers to her own resourcefulness as an artist. In “Faces Places,” Varda’s triumphant final feature, she and photo-muralist JR collaborated on the crowning achievement of Varda’s peripatetic career, taking viewers on a bracing tour through the small towns of rural France and photographing their inhabitants with stunning candor and compassion.
“Into the Wild” (2007) Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book bursts with the impulsive energy of its subject, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who set out on a journey of self-discovery that ended in tragedy. Penn doesn’t flinch from the sadness of McCandless’s end, but he imbues his story with lyricism and beauty, by way of the magnificent settings the young man traveled through, and the people he met. Penn captures the beating heart of an inveterate explorer, at its most self-deceiving but also at its bravest and boldest.
“Local Hero” (1983) Bill Forsyth’s comedy-drama stars Peter Riegert as Mac, a young oil company executive whose boss (Burt Lancaster) orders him to travel to Scotland to scout potential locations for a refinery. Mac winds up falling in love with the tiny seaside village, whose inhabitants embrace him with a hilarious combination of warmth and chilly skepticism. Propelled by a lovely musical score by Mark Knopfler, “Local Hero” is one of the all-time best movies about a fish discovering what water he really belongs in; the final scene perfectly captures the difference between tourism and genuine connection.
“Maiden” (2018) In 1989, Tracy Edwards headed the first all-female boat crew to compete in the Whitbread Round the World Race, a grueling test of physical strength, mental stamina and sailing prowess. With “Maiden,” filmmaker Alex Holmes plunges viewers firsthand into an experience that’s simultaneously exhilarating and utterly terrifying; this will either cure you of ever wanting to go to sea or send you straight to the nearest boat dealer (remember the adage about standing in the shower and tearing up $100 bills). This movie is so immediate and immersive — and the spirit of its protagonists so winning — that the only thing missing is the sunburn on your nose and the salt on your lips.
“Medicine for Melancholy” (2008) Barry Jenkins’s debut feature stars Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins as two San Francisco 20-somethings who wake up after a one-night stand, then proceed to spend a semi-lazy, sometimes awkward Sunday together walking and biking through the city. Filmed by Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton in desaturated pastel tones, this small-canvas love story isn’t constantly on the move — the characters take breaks to argue about interracial dating and gentrification in each other’s apartments — but the film still captures the mood of being visitors in your own town, with the same combination of forward motion and tender, tentative discovery.
“Meru” (2015) Before Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi made the Oscar-winning 2018 documentary “Free Solo,” they made this even more extraordinary film, about elite mountain climbers facing down one of the most challenging peaks in the Himalayas. With breathtaking cinematography and first-person access (Chin is one of the climbers), “Meru” puts the viewer right on the mountain, with all the danger, loneliness, awe-inspiring contemplation and spiritual transcendence that implies.
“Old Joy” (2006) Will Oldham and Daniel London play old friends who reconnect during a hike through Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Writer-director Kelly Reichardt takes what could be a corny bromance or bonding parable into far more nuanced territory, as the young men confront uneasy truths about intimacy, masculinity and maturity. Reichardt inscribes “Old Joy” with what would become her signature style: She’s wonderfully sensitive to the verdant lushness of the natural environment and completely comfortable with long companionable silences (oh, and she loves dogs). The result is a movie in which filmgoers feel as though they’re ambling down the trail alongside protagonists whose buddy comedy quietly morphs into a visual poem, and finally a prayer.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) Preston Sturges’s Golden Age classic stars Joel McCrea as a hotshot Hollywood director who dresses up like a tramp and strikes out for the Depression Era hinterland to learn about the “real” America. He wants to make a searing indictment of poverty called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and he approaches his trip with the earnest self-importance that title implies. Sturges’s deft satiric touch has proved matchless through the decades (even when the Coen brothers try their best). This parodic picaresque finds Sturges at the zenith of his formidable powers to abrade and delight. With the help of a sultry and witty Veronica Lake, “Sullivan’s Travels” winds up being madcap and meaningful in equal measure.
“The Trip” (2010) Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play reality-adjacent showbiz frenemies on a larky gastropub tour through the English countryside; in between mouthwatering shots of the cuisine being prepared and consumed, filmmaker Michael Winterbottom treats viewers to equally delectable improvs as the duo tries to one-up each other in impressions and one-liners. It could be tiresomely self-indulgent, but Winterbottom and his sure-footed leading men keep the pace to a jaunty trot. Even more winningly, it builds to a scene of pathos all the more genuine for being so utterly unexpected. Good news for the uninitiated: If you enjoy the ride, there are three sequels waiting for you.
“The Way” (2010) Emilio Estevez wrote and directed this funny and absorbing account of a grieving father who embarks on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago to honor his late son. The twist is that Estevez’s real-life dad, Martin Sheen, plays the role, with the kind of avuncular familiarity, emotional transparency and self-aware humor that audiences adore him for (Estevez plays his late son in flashbacks). Based on Jack Hitt’s brilliant book “Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain” and filmed on the actual Camino in France and Spain, “The Way” is gorgeous to look at. It’s also a deeply spiritual film, without being pietistic or sanctimonious. Estevez knows that connection with the divine isn’t reserved for gauzy moments of mystical ecstasy — it can also come with really bad blisters.
“Tracks” (2013) Based on Robyn Davidson’s 1980 memoir about her 2,700-kilometer (1,677 mile) trek through Western Australia, with only her dog and four camels, “Tracks” stars Mia Wasikowska in the ultimate leave-your-life-behind movie about adventure and self-determination. If that sounds like too much uplift, director John Curran keeps it real, as does Wasikowska, who plays her character with terse toughness. In fact, “Tracks” might unfold completely silently were it not for the chatty National Geographic photographer — appealingly played by Adam Driver — who tags along for the trip. It’s no surprise that the scenery in “Tracks” is magnificent; but Davidson’s interior journey winds up being the real story.
“Two for the Road” (1967) Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney play an unhappy couple revisiting their relationship through various trips they’ve taken through France in Stanley Donen’s sprightly, cynical portrait of a marriage. In a series of seamlessly edited flashbacks, accompanied by Henry Mancini’s tenderly mournful music, “Two for the Road” is a box full of eye candy, the most toothsome bonbons of which are shots of Hepburn wearing period-correct mid-century fashion with impeccable ease (Finney’s cars are pretty cool, too). Eleanor Bron and William Daniels show up at just the perfect time for some antic comic relief.
“Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) Alfonso Cuarón’s breakout movie stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as best friends who take the summer road trip of a lifetime when an attractive older woman (Maribel Verdú) agrees to travel with them through Mexico. That premise might sound icky, but Cuarón brings sensitivity and taste to “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” which evokes sensuality, pleasure and desire, while paying affectionate homage to Cuarón’s native country and anticipating the themes that would animate his multiple-Oscar-winning 2018 drama “Roma.” Vamanos.