Often referred to as the cultural capital of Canada, Montreal is a breeding ground for creatives, having nurtured and inspired countless writers, musicians, filmmakers, and artists over the years. With that in mind, we put together an entertainment bucket list of sorts for the city. These are the titles to check out if you’re planning an adventure in Canada’s cultural hub but first want to get a taste of the city and the talent it’s given voice to throughout history.
Coming off of the success of their previous film, “Catch Me If You Can” (which also shot several scenes in Montreal, notably at the Lionel-Groulx metro station), Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks teamed up again for this dramedy, which is a must-watch for anyone who’s ever complained about a long layover. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a traveler from the fictional Krakozhia, who lands at JFK to learn that he has been denied entry into the U.S. At the same time, a civil war breaks out in Krakozhia, and consequently, the U.S. no longer recognizes it as a sovereign nation, meaning he can’t return. Stuck in limbo, he is forced to settle in the terminal, a stay that lasts close to a year. Sound like Hollywood hogwash? Not quite — the movie’s actually based on the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugees who was forced to live in Charles De Gaulle’s Terminal One for almost 18 years.
Though the film is set in New York, many of the exterior airport shots were taken at Montreal’s Mirabel International Airport. Some interior shots were used as well, including a few pans of baggage carousels and jetways, but unfortunately the terminal is no longer in use, so you won’t have a chance to go relive the scenes from Viktor’s escapades!
One of the quintessential romance stories of the century, “The Notebook” is one of those movies you turn to after a bad break-up, a film that’s best paired with chocolates, a bottle of red wine, and a box of tissues. Its numerous accolades include not only eight Teen Choice Awards, but also the 2005 MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss.
While the Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams classic was shot mostly on location in South Carolina, the scenes in which Gosling’s Noah is off at war and fighting on a wintry battlefield were shot amid the picturesque landscapes just outside of Montreal. So, if you find yourself in the city during one of its gorgeous snowy winters, you should feel a bit of extra inspiration, knowing that the wondrous vistas surrounding you played host to such pivotal scene in such a beloved movie.
There are likely no other movies steeped as strongly in Montreal’s culture than “Barney’s Version.” Based on the novel of the same name by Montreal icon Mordecai Richler (see below), it recounts the life of Barney Panofsky (played by Paul Giamatti), an English-speaking Jewish man from the city who reflects on the successes and screw-ups of his life as it nears its end.
Blades of Glory
On the extensive list of Will Ferrell-starring comedies, this one about rival figure skaters who team up to compete in the “World Winter Sport Games” ranks pretty low. But, if you’re looking for movies that prominently feature some of Montreal’s most famous sites, it’s actually not a bad choice. The exterior stadium shots feature Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, which was built for the 1976 games and is often referred to as “The Big O.” There’s also the spectacularly recognizable Habitat 67, which was used as the athletes’ housing in the film. Built by architect Moshe Safdie as a pavilion for Expo 67 (the 1967 World’s Fair), the 12-story structure is a housing community that has been deemed one of the greatest architectural landmarks in all of Canada due to its eccentric design and meticulously arranged units. Additionally, the final chase scene of the film, in which the antagonist Stranz Van Waldenberg (Will Arnett) pursues Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) up a frozen river, across the street (which, it is impossible to not point out, would have destroyed their blades), and into the stadium, was also filmed on location.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Because much of the film takes place in a dystopian near-future, the production crew for the 2014 installment in the “X-Men” series set its sights on Montreal. The city’s metallic skyline and contemporary buildings — such as city hall, the Olympic Stadium, and McGill University — provided precisely the futuristic look they needed to add to the movie’s ominous atmosphere.
Last Night in Montreal
You probably know Emily St. John Mandel from her wildly successful “Station Eleven,” the National Book Award-nominated story of a traveling Shakespearean theatre troupe roving across a post-pandemic North American wasteland.
If there’s one writer who can provide a window into the lives lived in Canada’s cultural capital, it’s Mordecai Richler. Raised in the Mile End area of the city, Richler was a prominent member of Montreal’s Jewish community, and even after moving to Paris and, later, London, he focused much of his writing on the experience of English-speaking Jews in Québec. His work spans across literary genres — though most famous for his novels (including “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” and “Solomon Gursky Was Here”), he also published essays, a short story collection, travelogues, and even a popular series of children’s books, “Jacob Two-Two.”
Additionally, he regularly contributed to major publications such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Gentleman’s Quarterly. If you only have time to enjoy one of his works, we recommend poring through “Barney’s Version,” and then watching the 2010 movie adaptation on the flight to the city.
The Tin Flute
Perhaps the most classic of any Montreal novel, Gabrielle Roy’s “The Tin Flute” is a compassionate story of Florentine Lacasse and her family, a downtrodden but determined group stuck in the poverty-stricken Saint-Henri neighborhood during World War II.
It was awarded the 1947 Governor General’s Award (recognizing distinction in academic, artistic, and social fields), and in 2017, Québec’s Ministry of Culture and Communications, which promotes and protects the province’s unique culture, declared its publication a historical event. And, if you know French and want to brush up before your visit to the bilingual city, you can pick up the book in its original form — it was published in French under the title “Bonheur d’occasion.”
The Hockey Sweater
Don’t be turned away by the illustrations. Roch Carrier’s story, based on his real-life childhood experience, is more than just a children’s book; it’s an icon of Canadian literature. Hockey is a shared passion among pretty much all Canadians, and as a kid, your winter days are spent lacing up the skates and gliding across the pond, feeling the physical and emotional rush of stepping onto the ice as wind and frost nip at your fingertips. In the post-WWII years, when Carrier was growing up, every kid sported the number-9 jersey of Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice “the Rocket” Richard. But when his wore out, he asked his mother to replace it, and she accidentally bought him a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead, earning him the ridicule and torment of his peers. Depicting both the unblemished joy of childhood hockey and the sociopolitical tensions between the Anglophone and Francophone factions of the era, the brief story captures a particular cultural moment in Montreal’s history.
Montreal’s most famous musician originally aimed for a career in the world of literature, and that background shows through in his poetic lyrics and innate sense of storytelling. But once he fully made the leap to the music industry, he was on the path to becoming a legend.
It’s difficult to overstate the influence the late singer-songwriter had on the music industry — performers across all genres have covered his songs, from Aretha Franklin to Elton John, to U2 and R.E.M. “Hallelujah,” his most popular tune, has been sung by over 200 different artists and used in countless movies and television shows, such as “Shrek,” “The West Wing,” “Watchmen,” and “Scrubs.” All told, in his near-50-year career, he produced 14 studio albums, the last of which (“You Want It Darker”) was released just three weeks before his death in 2016. And, if you somehow have yet to be introduced to his songs, there’s really no bad place to start.
Indie rock band Arcade Fire has been a favorite among many in the travel community ever since their song “Wake Up” was featured prominently in 2013’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The film, Ben Stiller’s tribute to wanderlust, blasts the song as the milquetoast protagonist decides to make the leap and live out a true adventure by flying to Greenland in search of a lost photograph — and the rest of the band’s extensive discography induces much of the same heart-thumping emotion. Though they got started in the experimental musical scene centered in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood, their inspiring and monumental sound has skyrocketed them to an illustrious international career that’s included five studio albums, an album of the year Grammy award (for “The Suburbs”), an NBC television special, and contributions to multiple movie scores such as “The Hunger Games” and “Her.” (For the latter, they even earned an Oscar nomination.) And with no signs of them slowing down, we can only assume there’s a lot left to come.
Mac DeMarco is one of those musicians whose personality is as unique as his sound. For many performers, such a sentence would carry a negative implication, but the opposite is true for Mac. He exudes positivity, living a life of easygoing affability that translates to his close relationship with his fanbase — when he lived in Queens, he gave out the address of his four-bedroom beach house (and his phone number), inviting his fans to stop by whenever they wanted. The residence soon became a nonstop hangout for fans of the indie rocker, whose music can be described with terms such as “jangle pop,” “slacker rock,” and “blue wave.” Before all of that though, he got his professional start in Montreal, moving there from his hometown of Edmonton and making money through odd jobs and participation in medical experiments to fund his musical endeavors. Like Arcade Fire, he came up within the DIY music scene at Mile End, and the creative energy of the city molded his distinct tone. Though by now he’s released three studio albums and two mini-LPs, his following is still growing and his style is still evolving — and given his level of individualism, there’s no telling where he’s going from here.
Have another entertainment suggestion for visitors to Montreal? Let us know in the comments below! Once you’ve exhausted your Montreal-based multi-media adventure, consider relaxing at one of the city’s many Marriott International locations.