A love affair with a place often starts not with a visit to the location, but with seeing it on a movie screen. Actually being there in person may often seal the deal, but the initial spark can easily be set off while watching a film that captures the place beautifully. That is often the start of a new passion; the seed of the idea that you could make a life in this wonderful new place.Of course, not every film with a strong sense of place is a film that makes you want to pack up your bags and head there at the earliest opportunity. There are plenty of films where the city, town, or village in which the plot is set is so strong and vivid that it’s almost a character in itself – but it’s not necessarily a character you ever want to meet. The nameless city that Seven is set in is not particularly inviting, and not even the biggest Batman fan is likely to want to uproot themselves to live in the dark and vicious hell-hole that is Gotham. And if you want examples that are set more firmly in real cities, there are 28 Days Later, Taxi Driver, and Fargo, none of which make Manchester, New York, or Minnesota look very enticing at all.
However, there are of course plenty of inspiring films that make you want to book the next available flight, and the United States of America in particular has an abundance of such movies. Here are ten films that may just see you packing your bags.
A River Runs Through It
A period drama isn’t normally the kind of film that inspires you to travel or relocate – after, it’s essentially the kind of film that’s trying to capture a time and place that are long gone. However, one of the things viewers love about A River Runs Through It is the American countryside, which seems so epic and unchanging that it draws you to it in the certainty that a hundred years would not have had much of an effect on it.
The film is based on a semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean, and tells the story of the two sons of a Presbyterian minister in 1920s Montana, following them through their coming of age during World War I and their adult lives during the Prohibition era. Fishing and nature are jumping-off points for a range of deep musings, but the film is always firmly grounded in the gorgeous, unspoiled American wilderness.
Woody Allen has made so many films set in New York and steeped in its sensibility that we could probably fill up at least half of this list with his films alone. The city certainly looks sublime in black and white in Allen’s gorgeous Manhattan, and one of his greatest works, Hannah and Her Sisters, lovingly explores multiple aspects of the city; however, we’ve decided to choose the film that Roger Ebert called “just about everyone’s favorite Woody Allen movie”.
Allen reportedly came up with the idea for Annie Hall while walking around the city of New York, and it shows. Like many Woody Allen films, the plot, at its core, is minimal. The protagonist, a neurotic stand-up comedian, is struggling to figure out why his relationship with the title character, a whimsical nightclub singer, failed. The conversations between the two range across topics from the mundane to the metaphysical, while the city of New York is a constant presence throughout the film.
Beverly Hills Cop
Eddie Murphy excels in this great portrait of Los Angeles, even if it’s slightly over-the-top. In addition, the New York Times put Beverly Hills Cop on their list of the 1000 best movies ever, and the Los Angeles Times put it on their list of the 25 best LA films. Murphy plays a young, rebellious, and often reckless cop from Detroit who comes to Beverly Hills to solve his friend’s murder. It’s a wild, hilarious, and often violent romp through LA, and Murphy is at his best here.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
There must be thousands of films about New York, with all its different worlds and moods and seasons, but it would be difficult to find another film that’s as charming as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on the Truman Capote novella of the same name. The film stars Audrey Hepburn in what is probably her most memorable and defining role, which by itself is enough reason to watch it.
Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a young socialite in New York, who is independent and ambitious but also naïve and vulnerable. One of her neighbors in the apartment building she lives in is a young, struggling writer, who is fascinated by her, and the two become unlikely friends. The film presents a colorful, enticing, and fanciful vision of Manhattan that is, along with the characters and the plot, almost implausible – but somehow, it’s all done so beautifully that it’s hard to find fault with it, and you can’t help being drawn in. Capote reportedly wasn’t too happy with the film or with the choice of Hepburn for the leading role, which is probably a good thing in its own way, because the film has a more positive, cheerful outlook than his novella did.
In a way, this is an especially apt film for expats, because the story itself has been transplanted from London, which is the location in Nick Hornby’s novel, to Chicago, which is the location in the film. It stars John Cusack as a music-obsessed record store owner who just can’t seem to get his love life in order, and is dumped by yet another girlfriend. To get a grasp on things, he starts to contact all his ex-girlfriends, hoping they can help him understand his problem. For a story that was originally written by a British author and set in a British city, it’s amazing how well it fits into a US setting. If they could do it, so can you.
Like New York, countless films have been set in Los Angeles, but few films manage to reach the level of LA Story. In fact, few films about any city in the world manage to be the kind of sublime love letter to LA that this film is, both celebrating and gently mocking the city, its people, and its culture.
The charming and sometimes surreal romantic comedy stars Steve Martin as a television meteorologist tired of his dead-end relationship and his meaningless life in a superficial city. Over the course of the film, he tries to find love (guided at times by a seemingly sentient highway sign) and make sense of his life and of LA.
There tends to be a sinister air of desperation around a lot of road trip movies, in spite of the exhilaration and abandon that is a requirement for all of them, but Sideways manages to be much more thoughtful and uplifting, perhaps because it’s not strictly a road trip movie.
Two middle-aged men, played by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, take a week-long trip to Santa Barbara wine country before one of them gets married, leading to some great experiences, introspection, and tentative steps towards a rather late maturity. It’s a wonderful film about travel, marriage, friendship, fidelity, imperfection, wine, and a whole lot more. It’s been reported that the film improved wine sales in the US and the UK, and increased the popularity of Merlot at the expense of Pinot Noir because of the preferences of Giamatti’s character.
The Blues Brothers
It’s one of the most expensive comedies ever filmed, it’s a cult classic, it’s a quirky and inventive musical, it’s probably John Belushi’s greatest role, and it’s got some of the craziest car chase sequences you’ll ever see. Most importantly, however, it’s a wonderful ode to the blues and to Chicago.
Convict Jake Blues is just out of prison, and finds out that the orphanage where he and his brother Elwood (played by Dan Aykroyd) grew up is due to be closed unless it can pay the several thousand dollars that are due in property taxes. The brothers set off on a mission to revive their blues band and put on a performance that will raise the required money, but numerous enemies try to stop them, including what seems like the entire police force.
The Straight Story
Here’s another American road movie that’s unusually calm and heart-warming. What’s probably even more unusual is that it comes from David Lynch, a director whose work is otherwise always determinedly unsettling. In The Straight Story however, Lynch tells the simple, touching, and true story of Alvin Straight, a World War II veteran who in 1994 drove his lawn mower across Iowa and Wisconsin to see his ailing and estranged brother before he died. Because of his poor eyesight, Straight couldn’t get a license to drive a proper vehicle, so he decided to drive down in his lawn mower, which could barely manage five miles an hour.
It’s an incredibly quiet, slow-moving, but engrossing film, shot in chronological order along the actual route that Straight took to see his brother. In spite of its gorgeousness and serenity, the American countryside is admittedly not for everyone; however, for anyone who is drawn to such surroundings, there are probably few films that can match this one for impact.
You might think that watching a city get wrecked by an earthquake and then burnt up by lava isn’t the best invitation to live there, but hopefully no one takes the disaster in this movie too seriously. Volcano was directed by Mick Jackson, who also directed LA Story, but the two are drastically different films.
This one is rather cheesy and full of clichés, but then which disaster film isn’t? What’s important is that Volcano has its charms (including Tommy Lee Jones) and is a beautiful depiction of some of the most iconic and visually captivating sights and locations in Los Angeles. In spite of all the fire and destruction, and somewhere through all the smoke, you can still see Jackson writing yet another love letter to his beloved city.
What are your favourite movies set in the USA? Let us know in the comments!