Portrait of a City: The 13 Films to See Before you Travel


Words by Malia James

The running joke is that I chose all of my careers as a way to travel.

Which, if I’m honest, has a lot to do with my love of hotels and room service. Looking back, I should have just become a travel photographer, but that’s another article for another time. After I stopped touring in my band Dum Dum Girls, I still had the urge to be on the road, but as I was re-invigorating my directing career, there was no time for vacations. My hack became pitching to shoot in the places I wanted to travel. Paid vacation, in a way, except the only sightseeing I get to do is when we’re out scouting. That said, a city offers a unique texture and backdrop to any cinematic piece that can, if captured the right way, become another character in the story. I like it old, dirty and slightly dreary, but with a romantic edge.

Tokyo: Lost In Translation

Tokyo is one of my favourite cities in the world. Top three, easily. You feel trapped in a place where the future is the past and the past is the future. It’s all whipped up in a non-linear quantum physics mind-bend that makes you feel like a character in a Murakami novel. Sofia Coppola (and DOP Lance Accord) beautifully capture everything that is wistful about Tokyo—the people, the lights, the mix of a hyper-traditional culture rooted in a history of ritual and politeness, and the seedy underbelly of by-the-hour themed motel rooms. My first shoot there we filmed overnight, every night starting at midnight or one AM and finishing as everyone was going to work. If you can possibly have something so romantic as this for your first visit to Tokyo, I highly recommend it. You’ll probably be awake with jet lag at all the wrong hours and get soaked by one of their incredible automatic toilets. Hot tip: make sure you know what the button does before you push it, unless you’ve put the lid down.

Los Angeles: Drive

I live in LA, but I really loathe shooting here. Sunny skies, beaches and palm trees don’t excite me visually, nor did I ever plan to live here. LA was a grower for me. So was this film. My first viewing, I thought it was a bit dull. Each time I’ve seen it since, I’ve appreciated the mastery in what he’s doing more and more. Beautiful shots of the city at night, drenched in sodium vapour. Who wouldn’t love a romantic drive with Ryan Gosling down the LA riverbed at sunset with perfect-temperature air blowing in your hair? Who wouldn’t want Ryan Gosling to lean you against a wall in an elevator (maybe without him murdering a man within arm’s reach immediately after)? The locations are well-curated, showcasing the best of the gritty retro-but-not-retro motels and cafes that have come to define capital H Hollywood.

Paris: Before Sunrise

We all want to meet someone on a train travelling through Europe and have a romantic, spontaneous night full of adventure and good conversation in Paris. Chances are, you won’t, but I urge you to at least try for it. For me, these things were more prone to happen in off-piste cities like Istanbul, but I can’t think of a movie shot in Istanbul to recommend. Paris is great for wandering around. One of my fondest memories was a long walk I took around the city taking photos while listening to music between four and eight AM, as a way to combat jet lag.

New York: Eyes Wide Shut

I love this movie more every time I see it. I may be on my eighth viewing by now. I want NYC to forever be frozen in Christmas season with twinkling lights and pulsating Christmas trees and secret sex parties with only the most beautiful people in the city. I’m sure those exist, but my social anxiety outweighs my fantasies.

Manchester: Control

Few films better capture the nuances of being in a band. No director could have so perfectly captured the beauty in the bleakness of the UK better than Anton Corbijn did here. When I lived in London for a time, I may have been the only person (as a transplant from California) who enjoyed the dreary days. The cobblestone roads and industrial wasteland seem poetic, and they become lines of design fitting for Joy Division artwork more than relics of colonial times. This film will take you right into what it would have felt like to be in Manchester at the time when Factory Records became the iconic machine we still reference today. Whether or not you wear a trench coat with an upturned collar and smoke rolled cigarettes is up to you.

Berlin: Christiane F., Victoria, Love

I now see, via this list, that I am aesthetically obsessed with Berlin. All three of these films are about some form of toxic love rendezvous amidst the gritty, edgy, delightfully aged but not retro-feeling backdrop of Berlin. Christiane F. is if you want a splash of Bowie and a side order of heroin. Gaspar Noe’s Love is if you want it NC-17, Victoria is if you want to turn up the volume even more and throw in bank robbing with your love story. Christiane F. defined the style of my early work. Gaspar has all the production design and location choice I want in life and in my projects. Victoria is an absolute masterpiece in its execution—a love story/coming of age/heist film all unfolding over two and a half hours in one single take. Yes, you read that right. The entire film is one shot. See it, live it and read about how they did it.

Seattle: Singles

I wish that Seattle stayed permanently frozen in the 90s and you could go see all your favourite grunge bands play in dive bars with stickers lining the walls of the bathroom. I wish that meeting at coffee shops to talk to your friends about dating was still a thing. This movie hits every nostalgic nerve in my body, but it does so in a way that holds up over time. It feels nostalgic in look and nuance, but the story—the laughably difficult journey that is dating—is timeless.

Marfa, TX: No Country For Old Men

People get super romantic about Marfa. Its trend factor was on par with kale for a minute there. I’m from Texas, so the vast dirt fields and rolling tumbleweeds only get me so hot. The thick blanket of stars gets me every time, though. NCFM is filmed by my all-time favourite DOP, Roger Deakins. It captures all the best corners of Marfa and the sweaty landscape of nothing beautifully. Plus, it’s full of the passing life lessons that are common for a store clerk or police sheriff to grant you in these middle-of-nowhere Texas towns. I like to think that your inner monologue should be narrated by Tommy Lee Jones the minute you cross the Texas border.

Mexico: Sicario

I love Mexico so much, I almost moved there a few years ago. Here, again, we see the mastery of cinematographer Roger Deakins. The Mexico I love is the juxtaposition of a warm and welcoming culture that loves food and laugher and community that pushes back against police corruption and drug cartels. In a way, a lot of what you hear in the news about what’s been happening down there is both truth and half-truth. All the corruption is real and lives below the surface, but life outside is delicious. No better word to describe it than delicious. This film shows the darkness hiding in the shadows.

East London: Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold is one of my favourite living directors. She’s a master at all things dark. This movie is about a young angry girl trying to break out of her bleak life living in a council estate in east London. If you visit, you’ll pass by these buildings a lot as you walk from the pub to the coffee shop for your cortado. You’ll wonder about the lives of the people living in those buildings that line the street. It’s probably full of stories like the one of this young girl and her party-loving mom.

Boston: Good Will Hunting

Boston probably isn’t high on your travel list. I went to college in Boston, so the way this movie captures the academic life in the city is totally nostalgic for me. Except, sub out being immersed in the world-changing academia at MIT (or was it Harvard?) and swap it for Emerson film school kids smoking clove cigarettes and listening to punk records on vinyl. Though, I did make out with a boy from MIT once. Good Will Hunting will take you back to your college years, when you thought you could do anything. When you and your friends travelled in packs. When the bars were cozy and lined with wood paneling. When a greasy cheeseburger kiss on a first date was a moment so romantic, you’ll forever be trying to find that spark again.

To read more from the MC Travel Issue, go and buy it here.

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