A travel guide to the 2011 Oscar movies

The 83rd annual Academy Awards are coming up in a few weeks and the Oscars race is on. This year’s nominations contained few surprises, with many nods for Brit period piece The King’s Speech, Facebook biopic The Social Network, and headtrip Inception. While 2010’s ultimate travel blockbuster Eat, Pray, Love failed to made the cut, there’s still plenty to inspire wanderlust among the Best Picture picks.

Read on for a travel guide to the best movies of 2010 and how to create your own Oscar-worthy trip.

127 HoursLocation: Danny Boyle’s nail-biter was shot on location in Utah’s Blue John Canyon near Moab and on a set in Salt Lake City. Go there: Should you want to explore Moab’s desert and canyons while keeping all limbs intact, check out Moab in fall for bike races and art festivals.

Black Swan
Location: Much of the ballet psychodrama was shot in New York City, though the performances were filmed upstate in Purchase, New York. Go there: To see the real “Swan Lake” on stage at Lincoln Center, you’ll have to hope tickets aren’t sold out for the New York City Ballet, performing this month February 11-26.

The FighterLocation: in the grand tradition of Oscar winners Good Will Hunting and The Departed, the Mark Wahlberg boxing flick was filmed in Massachusetts, in Micky Ward’s real hometown of Lowell, 30 miles north of Boston. Go there: For a map of locations in Lowell, check out this blog post and perhaps spot Micky Ward at the West End Gym.

InceptionLocation: The setting of this film depends on what dream level you’re in. The locations list includes Los Angeles, England, Paris, Japan, even Morocco. Go there: There are plenty of real locations to visit, including University College London and Tangier’s Grand Souk. Canada’s Fortress Mountain Resort where the snow scenes were shot is currently closed, but you can ski nearby in Banff.

The Kids Are All Right
Location: Director Lisa Cholodenko is a big fan of southern California, she also filmed the 2002 Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. Go there: Love it or hate it, L.A. is still a top travel destination in the US and perhaps this year you can combine with a trip to Vegas, if the X Train gets moving.

The King’s SpeechLocation: A prince and a commoner in the wedding of the century. Sound familiar? This historical drama was shot in and around London, though stand-ins were used for Buckingham Palace’s interiors. Go there: It might be hard to recreate the vintage look of the film, but London is full of atmospheric and historic architecture and palaces to visit. If you’re a sucker for English period films or places Colin Firth has graced, tour company P & P Tours can show you around many historic movie locations like Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

The Social NetworkLocation: Another Massachusetts and California movie, this very academic film shot at many college and prep school campuses, but none of them Harvard, which hasn’t allowed film crews in decades. Go there: If you enjoyed the Winklevoss rowing scene, head to England this summer for the Henley Royal Regatta June 29 – July 3.

Toy Story 3 – Location: The latest in the Pixar animated trilogy is set at the Sunnyside Daycare. Go there: Reviews are mixed, but Disney’s Hollywood Studios has a new Pixar parade, to let fans see their favorite characters in “person.” Visit any Disney gift shop to make your own toy story.

True Grit – Location: The Coen brothers western remake may be set in 19th century Arkansas, but it was filmed in modern day Santa Fe, New Mexico and Texas, taking over much of towns like Granger. Go there: If you’re a film purist or big John Wayne fan, you can tour the locations of the original film in Ouray County, Colorado.

Winter’s Bone – Location: Many moviegoers hadn’t heard of this film when nominations were announced, set and shot in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri. Go there: The difficult film centers around the effects of methamphetamine on a rural family, but travel destinations don’t get much more wholesome than Branson, Missouri. Bring the family for riverboat shows and the best bathroom in the country.

[Photo by Flickr user Lisa Norman]

The Western will never die at Old Tucson Studios

The Old West was a place where there were gunfights on every street, the bank got robbed every day, and every saloon was filled with girls dancing the can-can.

Well, actually it wasn’t, but that’s the way it seems from the movies, and a lot of those movies were filmed at Old Tucson Studios.

Located a short drive west of Tucson, Old Tucson Studios is the perfect place to film a Western. There’s an entire recreated Western town there surrounded by Arizona desert, with the Tucson and Catalina Mountains providing a scenic backdrop. Oh, and the sunsets are more beautiful than anything you’ll ever see on the screen.

The main attraction at the studios is the town itself, which has provided a backdrop for seventy years of films. Movie buffs will be in a constant state of deja-vu. Wasn’t that saloon in The Outlaw Josie Wales? Isn’t that the ranch from Bonanza? In case you’re having trouble playing Spot-The-Set, there’s a seventieth anniversary exhibit on right now showing never-before-seen production stills from some of the many films that used Old Tucson Studios. A preview video can be seen here. Some of the employees are really knowledgeable, so you might want to go on one of the historical tours.

There’s plenty going on too. Costumed performers rob the bank, there are gunfights full of stunts, and even magic shows and train rides. It’s all a bit hokey, but that’s part of the fun. Kids love it.

Unfortunately there was a bad fire in 1995 that destroyed many of the buildings and irreplaceable movie history, but there’s still plenty left to give you a good dose of movie nostalgia. So saddle up and ride down to Tucson, and while you’re there you might want to see some more of the Old West attractions southern Arizona has to offer, such as the ghost towns, the Saguaro National Monument, and the Old Spanish Trail. Tune in next time when I’ll be talking about Tombstone, a real Wild West town.

3 unexpected destinations for riding like a wild west cowboy

The wild west cowboy is an American icon. Buffalo Bill. John Wayne. The Marlboro Man. These guys were as tough, rugged and wild as the west itself. They represented everything exciting and romantic about the undiscovered western half of the country. But this area of the US isn’t the only place where cowboys roam the range. Here are are few more places where you can rope and ride alongside real cowboys.

South America – The Pampas of Argentina
Someone has to wrangle the cows that make that famously tender Argentine beef, and that’s the job of Argentina’s gauchos, the South American cowboys who run the country’s estancias (or ranches). Many, like Estancia los dos Hermanos, are now open to tourism. Just an hour or so outside of Buenos Aires, you can gallop alongside the gauchos for hours, and then return to the ranch for a filling meal of juicy local beef.

Other cowboy outposts in the region include Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru.

Central America – The Hills of Honduras
The hilly region of northwest Honduras, close to the border with Guatemala, is pure cowboy country. Outside of the small town of Copan, near the Mayan ruins, coffee plantations and cattle farms cover the land. Most of these are purely working operations, but a select few, like Finca el Cisne, have caught on to the agri-tourism trend and offer horseback tours of their properties. Here you can learn all about how coffee is produced and then enjoy an exhilarating ride through the misty green hills.

You can also find cowboy culture alive and well in parts of Guatemala and Costa Rica.North America – The Islands of Hawaii
In Hawaii, paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys), herd cattle and sheep over the rolling hills of the islands. Kahua Ranch, on the Big Island, is one of the oldest working ranches in Hawaii. It’s been around since 1850, and in fact is located just above the harbor where the very first cattle arrived on the island. The ranch welcomes guests for 2.5 hour rides over some of the property’s 12,000 acres.

Western Canada, Mexico and of course, many parts of the Western US still rely heavily on cowboys to manage large cattle farms.

Cowboy culture extends far beyond the Americas. They’re just as tough in Australia, where they herd cattle over never-ending expanses of the hot, dusty, Outback, or in New Zealand, where they guide sheep over the country’s rugged landscape. There are even cowboys in South Africa. So pack your boots and ten-gallon hat for your next international journey, and you can have a cowboy adventure almost anywhere you go.

Two other anniversaries: the first Civil War battle and first Western gunfight

The whole world is celebrating yesterday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and while that amazing event deserves all the press it gets, there’s just one problem–you can’t walk around where it actually happened! Luckily there are two events that happened on this date that you can actually see where it all took place–the first major battle of the American Civil War and the first Old West standoff between two gunfighters.

On July 21, 1861, the United States had been in a Civil War for three months, but there had been very little real fighting. Both sides were busy recruiting men and training them, and except for a small battle in Carthage, Missouri, and a few skirmishes, the Union and Confederacy had not really tested each other, or themselves. That was about to change.

President Lincoln decided to act, and ordered the huge army guarding Washington, DC, to move south and defeat the Confederate army camped at Manassas Junction, Virginia, just 25 miles south of the capital. The Union troops marched out in a festival-like atmosphere and many wealthy citizens followed them in carriages, hoping for a good show.

The two armies clashed on July 21. At first things went well for the larger Union army and they pushed the Confederates back, but the rebels launched a counterattack that smashed the Union lines. Panicked, the undisciplined Union troops began to flee. The civilians who had come to watch abandoned their picnics and fled too. A disorganized mob of civilians, wounded, and soldiers who had ditched their weapons hurried all the way back to Washington. The Union had been thoroughly beaten and lost almost three thousand men killed, wounded, or captured. The Confederate army, while scoring the first major victory of the war, had suffered terribly too, losing two thousand killed and wounded. Despite the urging of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Confederate commander didn’t follow up his victory by attacking Washington. Perhaps he was shocked by the huge losses, something neither side expected. Everyone now realized it would be a long, bloody war.

The Battle of Manassas (also known as the First Battle of Bull Run) is memorialized by an excellent National Battlefield Park. The visitor center has an interactive electronic map that shows you how the battle progressed. Several interpretive trails take you around the major sights, but if you have the time, reserve a park ranger tour. I’ve been on several of these at various Civil War battlefields and they’re always good. The park rangers really know their stuff and bring the battles alive.

A little bit of trivia: the Battle at Manassas was the first time the Confederates used the famous rebel yell. This YouTube clip takes a recording of a Confederate veteran and multiplies it so you can hear what it would have sounded like to have a whole regiment of these guys charging at you. Intimidating to say the least.

If you like Westerns, you’ll be interested in the other historic event that happened on this date.

By July 21, 1865, the Civil War was over, but the bloodshed hadn’t stopped. Wild Bill Hickok, a former scout for the Union army, and Davis Tutt, a Confederate veteran, were both gamblers in Springfield, Missouri. They had fallen out over an alleged affair Hickok had with Tutt’s sister. One day Hickok was playing cards with a group of Tutt’s friends and winning big. Tutt was hanging around, lending his friends money in the hopes that Hickok would lose. When Hickok kept winning, Tutt grew angry and demanded he pay back $35 from a previous game. Hickok claimed it was only $25 and wouldn’t pay any more than that. Tutt grabbed Hickok’s gold pocket watch and said he would keep it as collateral. Hickok was furious, but sitting in a room full of Tutt’s friends, there was nothing he could do. He stormed off, warning Tutt not to wear the watch. Tutt laughed and said he’d show it off on the town square the next morning. An appointment had been set.

Tutt showed up on Springfield’s town square the next morning just as he promised, and so did Hickok. Some townspeople intervened and tried to settle the dispute. Tutt now wanted $45, and Hickok insisted he only owed $25. They had a drink over it, but nothing was resolved. At just before 6 p.m. they were both back on the square, this time ready to fight. They faced off for a moment, then drew their weapons and fired at the simultaneously. Tutt missed, but Hickok plugged Tutt in the side. Tutt shouted “Boys, I’m killed!” and ran around a bit before dropping dead.

This was the first time that a proper Western-style gunfight had ever occurred and it captured the public imagination. Similar fights have been played out in books and movies thousands of times, but in reality few gunfighters actually fought this way. Even Jesse James didn’t die in a proper showdown. He got shot in the back of the head by someone who was supposed to be his friend.

Two plaques on Springfield’s town square show where the gunfighters stood for their epic duel. Also take time to visit another plaque that marks the spot where three black men were lynched on April 14, 1906, for allegedly assaulting a white woman. A mob of two thousand people forced their way into the town jail, dragged them to the square, and hung them from a tower that contained a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Lynching was all too common in the United States at that time and even today people try to forget it ever happened. A former employee at the state’s historical society, now thankfully retired, once told me there were “hardly any” lynchings in Missouri. The historical record shows otherwise. It’s good that Springfield owns up to the darker aspects of its past. The local paper did an investigative report on the incident.

Great American road trip: Choteau, Montana, Letterman’s hangout is a gem of a town

Choteau, Montana where David Letterman married last week at the county courthouse is a gem of a town–the type of off-the beaten-track that beckons people who might be passing through to pull into a parking lot and stay awhile.

When we were on our Great American Road Trip to Montana and back last summer, we pulled into the parking lot of the Old Trail Museum for just “45 minutes” and stuck around for three hours with thoughts of returning some day. This was after staying with friends who live near the base of the Rockies twenty miles from town.

The Old Trail Museum is one of those types that tell unusual tales of western life. There’s the noose that was used for the last hanging in Choteau, for example. I hadn’t seen an actual noose used in an actual hanging before. It catches your attention. The noose is in a display with other artifacts and details about the murder that sent the guy to the gallows.

There are also exhibits about Native Americans, cattle ranching, medical care and whatever else you can think of that has to do with life in the west. One gallery is dedicated to the dinosaurs that once roamed the region.

Along with the main museum are other buildings with a variety of themes. There’s the taxidermy grizzly bear, the cabin dedicated to a Danish pioneer family and an art studio of a prominent Montana artist. I could have spent hours here poking around.

The museum also a great place to pick up books with a Montana theme. Fiction, non-fiction and kids’ fare fill shelves in the gift shop. Here you can buy items made by Blackfoot Indians who live in the state. I went a little nuts with the buying–a problem of mine. But, then again, anything one can do to keep the economy following.

We also helped the economy flow at Alpine Touch, across the street from the museum. Alpine Touch is a brand of specialty spices made in Choteau. While we were buying bottles of the Lite All-Purpose Seasoning, we tossed in several bottles of huckleberry body lotion and huckleberry jelly–also Montana-made.

Chances are, you won’t run into Letterman if you head to Choteau, although people have seen him there. The saucy older woman who is a volunteer at the visitor center mentioned giving him a chuckle when she let Letterman know that he is on too late for her to really know who he is. Who cares who Letterman is was her take, although she did offer that he has been very kind and generous to Choteau.

The great thing about places like Choteau is that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can have the same great glorious time whether you don’t have more than a few nickels to rub together, or you’re a millionaire.

That’s one of the things I thought of when we spent an afternoon wandering around in Sun River Canyon located in the Lewis and Clark National Forest with the brilliant blue sky overhead. Hiking along the trails is free. You can pick up trail maps at the Rocky Mountain Ranger District Trail office in town. We were lucky enough to come across a beaver just as it ducked into a stream to head to its dam.

Before we left Choteau, we would have shopped more, although we did have just enough time to grab some ice cream at the ice-cream shop that’s part of the museum complex. It cost more than a nickel, but it didn’t break the bank.

For anyone looking for a low key fun place to go with families, consider here. It’s only 50 miles from Great Falls, another Montana destination I’d like to have more time for one of these days. One place you might consider staying is the JJJ Wilderness Ranch. We walked around the grounds hoping to snag a horseback ride, but you have to be a paying guest. Next time we’re in Choteau, I’m finding a horse.