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Around the World in 25 Films

A roundup of cinema-history highlights that transplant viewers across the varied landscapes of the world.

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The world is a big, scary, often bewildering place. So big, in fact, that few of us will ever see much of it. Like really see it — float among the majesty of Milford Sound, New Zealand; stalk (or be stalked) across Tanzania’s dynamic Serengeti; or touch the walls of the Petra, in Jordan, “a rose-red city half as old as time,” as a famous poet once put it. Fortunately, filmmakers old and new are making their way across the globe, documenting its beautiful, sometimes harsh landscapes, and telling stories of the people who live there. Below you’ll find a list of films about the world, told through the lens of different peoples’ collective struggles, their failures, their triumphs. The list is by no means exhaustive. But each film should prove a starting point for charting your own wild adventures around the world — starting from the comfort of your own living room.

The Motorcycle Diaries

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Argentina/Chile/Peru: Based on the real-life journey of Marxist revolutionary Ernest “Che” Guevara (in his pre-guerilla days) and his friend Alberto Granado, The Motorcycle Diaries chronicles the pair’s road trip through South America in search of a true Latin American identity. What they find instead is the gross exploitation of the lower classes, with soaring vistas of the South American countryside providing poetic juxtaposition through the film.

Director: Walter Salles
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Mía Maestro
Premiered: 2004

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City of God

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Brazil: Adapted from a 1997 semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, City of God paints a portrait of the Cidade de Deus, a poor favela in suburban Rio de Janeiro, over the course of two decades. The film follows multiple storylines, and elicited real-life residents of the Brazilian favelas as actors, garnering near-universal acclaim for its unflinching portrayal of gang violence and drug trafficking as parts of everyday life there.

Directors: Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Matheus Nachtergaele, Leandro Firmino
Premiered: 2002

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Y Tu Mamá También

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Mexico: Y Tu Mamá También is the coming-of-age tale of two Mexican teenagers who undertake a cross-country roadtrip with an older woman. Touching on the economic and political inequalities of present-day Mexico, the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 2003 Oscars.

Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Daniel Giménez Cacho
Premiered: 2001

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Oslo, August 31st

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Norway: From breakout director Joachim Trier (Reprise), Oslo, August 31st follows a day in the life of Anders, a recovering drug addict who leaves his rehabilitation center in rural Norway for a job interview in downtown Oslo. Loosely based on the Pierre Drieu La Rochelle novel Will O’ the Wisp, the film provides viewers with a quiet and meditative glimpse of present-day Oslo.

Director: Joachim Trier
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner, Ingrid Olava
Premiered: 2011

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Wild Strawberries

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Sweden: Often considered among Ingmar Bergman’s best films, Wild Strawberries chronicles the journey of Professor Isak Borg, an aged, self-centered physician traveling from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree. Traveling with his daughter, the pair meet a series of hitchhikers who inspire Borg to reevaluate his life.

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin
Premiered: 1957

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Oh Boy

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Germany: When it debuted, Oh Boy emerged as a gem of contemporary German cinema. The film presents a portrait of Niko Fischer, a university dropout, as he struggles to find meaning in the wonderful absurdity of present-day Berlin.

Director: Jan Ole Gerster
Starring: Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Justus von Dohnányi
Premiered: 2012

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In Bruges

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Belgium: After a job goes wrong, two Irish hitmen await orders from their boss in Bruges, Belgium. Though their instructions are to keep a low profile, cabin fever drives them to explore the dark side of this quaint, medieval town, setting off a series of unfortunate, but hilarious, events.

Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ciarán Hinds
Premiered: 2008

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The Sea Inside

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Spain: Written, produced, directed and scored by Alejandro Amenábar, The Sea Inside chronicles the real-life story of quadriplegic Ramón Sampedro, who, after a tragic diving accident, spent decades fighting to end his life through euthanasia. The film won the 2004 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and shines throughout with soaring shots of Spain’s northern coast.

Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Javier Bardem, Belén Rueda, Lola Dueñas
Premiered: 2004

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The Great Beauty

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Italy: The Great Beauty won the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It follows the story of Jep Gambardella, an aging socialite, as he reflects on his life, love and sense of purpose in one of the most serene cities in the world, Rome.

Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli
Premiered: 2013

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Dont Look Back

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England: A documentary following Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, with appearances from present-day notables such as Joan Baez and Donovan (who were just emerging then), most of Dont Look Back takes place in concert halls, dressing rooms and hotels — but the film paints an iconic portrait of England in a fever over the the arrival of American star, then already on his way to becoming a household name.

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Starring: Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman, Donovan
Premiered: 1967

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Trainspotting

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Scotland: Danny Boyle’s second film, Trainspotting, based on the Irvine Welsh novel of the same name, emerged as one of the most iconic British films of the mid- to late-‘90s. It centers around heroin addict Mark Renton and his intimate circle of junkie friends as they chart their paths through the grimy underbelly of Edinburgh, Scotland, looking for the score of a lifetime.

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller
Premiered: 1996

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C’était un Rendez-vous

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France: Claude Lelouch’s C’était un Rendez-vous is an eight-minute short film that sprints through the streets of early-morning Paris just after dawn. Shot in one take, and viewed from the POV of an unseen Ferrari 275 GTB (later confirmed as a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9 with a Ferrari V12 dubbed over), its high-speed representation of the French capital is entirely singular, unlikely to be caught on camera ever again.

Director: Claude Lelouch
Starring: Claude Lelouch
Premiered: 1976

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Ida

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Poland: Set in Poland in 1962, Ida follows a young woman about to take her vows as a Catholic nun who learns from her only living relative that she is of Jewish ancestry, inspiring a journey to the Polish countryside. In 2015, the film became the first Polish feature film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
Premiered: 2013

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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Turkey: Shot with CinemaScope, a widescreen lens used in the ‘50s and ‘60s, around the steppes of Keskin, Turkey, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia centers around the the real-life experience of one of the film’s writers: the nighttime search for a buried homicide victim. Haunting, though beautifully executed, the film went on to co-win the Grand Prix award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel
Premiered: 2011

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Children of Heaven

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Iran: One of the best dramas to ever come out of Iran, Children of Heaven follows the humble journey of brother and sister Ali and Zahra as they track down a missing pair of pink shoes. Shot on location in Tehran in an effort to capture the bustling spirit of the city, the film went on to win the 1998 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Director: Majid Majidi
Starring: Mohammad Amir Naji, Amir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi
Premiered: 1997

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Timbuktu

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Mali: The ancient city of Timbuktu, in Mali, has been overtaken by extremists, spawning a number of reactions by the local townspeople to the sudden reign of terror. Potent cinematography overflows here, which earned Timbuktu both an Oscar nod for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a 99 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Starring: Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki
Premiered: 2014

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Tsotsi

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South Africa: Set in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa, Tosotsi chronicles the story of a local hoodlum named David — street name: Tosotsi — who steals a car only to find a three-month-old baby in the backseat. Critically acclaimed for its sobering portrait of slum life in South Africa, the film went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.

Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Israel Makoe
Premiered: 2005

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Leviathan

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Russia: Leviathan, shot in rural Teriberka, Russia, is loosely inspired by the story of Marvin Heemeyer, an American who rampaged through his Colorado town in a modified bulldozer. The film tells the story of Kolya, a car mechanic, coping with the expropriation of his land by local legislature; the film’s genius lies in its ability to portray social tension through the unsympathetic backdrop of the Russian landscape.

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov
Premiered: 2014

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The Darjeeling Limited

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India: Wes Anderson’s voyage to India follows the story of the Whitman brothers as they travel across the country aboard a train. Centering on themes of alienation and sibling relationships, the films excels at exploiting the bewilderment and beauty of India to a first-time visitor. Much of the filming for The Darjeeling Limited took place in Jodhpur, with additional scenes shot in Udaipur.

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman
Premiered: 2007

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Chungking Express

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Hong Kong: Chungking Express follows two different storylines, each about cops as they struggle with their respective breakups. Exploring themes of isolation and urban alienation, the film succeeds at encapsulating the frenetic, often isolating pace of Hong Kong.

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Chiu Wai Leung
Premiered: 1994

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Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

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Thailand: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives became the first Thai film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the festival’s top prize. It hinges on the final days of Boonmee, as he envisions the presence of his late family, including his wife and son. The film takes place in the rural Nakhon Phanom Province of northern Thailand, near the Laos border.

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee
Premiered: 2010

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The Host

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South Korea: From South Korean director Joon-Ho Bong (Snowpiercer), The Host follows the trials of Park Gang-du as he attempts to rescue his daughter from a river-dwelling monster plaguing South Korea’s Han River. Many of the scenes were actually shot in real-life sewers. Upon its release, The Host became the highest-grossing South Korean film of all time, a title it held for eight years.

Director: Joon-ho Bong
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, Hae-il Park
Premiered: 2006

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Hero

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China: Based on the attempted assassination of the King of Qin in ancient China, Hero stars Jet Li as the nameless protagonist who recounts his battles against assassins Long Sky, Flying Snow and Broken Sword to the weary, paranoid king. Charged with magical elements that defy the laws of physics, the film is a wonder to watch with near-hypnotic fight sequences.

Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Maggie Cheung
Premiered: 2002

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Princess Mononoke

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Japan: Though Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli has garnered more attention Stateside for his films Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke is a revered favorite in Japan, exploring the relation of man to nature in its most fantastical form. Set in the Muromachi period (14th- to 16th-century Japan), the film follows the narrative of warrior-prince Ashitaka as he journeys through the Japanese countryside in search of a cure to a supernatural curse.

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Billy Crudup (voice), Billy Bob Thornton (voice), Claire Danes (voice)
Premiered: 1997

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Walkabout

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Australia: Loosely based on the James Vance Marshall novel of the same name, Walkabout follows the story of two young siblings as they make their way through the harsh Australian outback, meeting an adolescent Aboriginal on a ritualistic “walkabout,” or separation from his tribe.

Director: Nicolas Roeg
Starring: Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Luc Roeg
Premiered: 1971

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