As far as natural, breathtaking beauty is concerned, you would be hard-pressed to find somewhere that can beat New Zealand.
If you need any proof of this, I have an entire list of places filmed in New Zealand that will prove my point. From gorgeous beaches to lush landscapes to stunning mountain ranges, New Zealand is as close to heaven as earth can get. A place a versatile as New Zealand makes it a perfect filming location for practically any genre of movie, and the country has capitalized on this with an outsized filming industry that is luring in big-name directors, film stars, and – increasingly – TV shows.
Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.
You can get one month free of Amazon Prime (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.
Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best.
While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.
Though this might feel like a Peter Jackson fan club list, I promise there are other directors included in this batch of films. This list of extraordinary movies shot in New Zealand has a little bit of everything, so let’s get into it!
Let’s start with one of the greatest film trilogies of all time – and the most famousmovies shot in New Zealand (by far!).
Based on the books by legendary author J.R.R. Tolkien and directed by one of the greatest directors of all time, Peter Jackson (New Zealand native), the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers and The Return Of The King) is the quintessential film series to watch before visiting New Zealand.
It chronicles the journey of a hobbit named Frodo (and a lot of his hobbit friends) as he journeys to Mordor to destroy the one, all-powerful ring for the greater good of Middle Earth. It is the ultimate fantasy/action film, and while there are so many memorable characters that play central roles in the battle for Middle Earth, the main star of the film is the location.
From the lush forests to the ascending mountains, this movie truly showcases the awe-inspiring beauty of New Zealand. Filmed in over 150 locations all across New Zealand, it gives a comprehensive portrait of the island country. These sights so severely captured the hearts of Lord of the Rings fans that there are actual tours you can go on to visit filming locations – not to mention visiting Hobbiton.
Some of these tours last as long as 14 days – and still do not cover all the filming locations! My personal favorite is Mt. Doom – a.k.a Mount Ngauruhoe, a stratovolcano UNESCO World Heritage site, or Edoras, a.k.a. Mount Sunday.
You have to check these incredible movies out to truly understand the magnitude of the beauty of New Zealand. And just imagine how much more breathtaking it would be to see these sights in person rather than on the small screen.
And once you have finished the Trilogy, then there is the Hobbit trilogy – and the upcoming first season of Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings TV show …all of which are also filmed on location in New Zealand!
Vincent Ward’s 1984 classic holds its own place in New Zealand cinematic history as being the very first New Zealand film to ever be chosen for a competitive screening at the Cannes Film Festival. It is no surprise as to why. It is a moody, melancholy drama that has some positively breathtaking cinematography, lighting, and scenery.
Set in Uruti, which is in the west area of the North Island, this story follows an 11-year-old girl named Toss who lives on a sheep farm with her mother, father, and grandfather. After witnessing the accidental death of her father, Toss becomes disconcerted as a stranger infiltrates his way onto the family farm and into the family’s trust. This includes a romantic affair with Toss’s mother.
Toss believes him to be the devil and decides she must take the safety of her family into her own hands. The plot, while compelling and eerie, plays a backseat role to the beautiful Uruti. While the lighting, weather, music, and general atmosphere of the film is quite bleak and foreboding, it is gorgeous, nonetheless.
Personally, my energy levels surge in the kind of melancholic landscape that this film portrays. It truly embodies the loneliness that the main character feels in the film, making the scenery one of the most important aspects of the film.
There is no doubt Vigil is a unique gem of a film that further adds to the legend that is New Zealand’s impressive, cinematic beauty.
This film follows Captain Nathan Algren. He is an alcoholic and struggles to grapple with the horrors that he committed during the American Indian Wars. He is recruited to help train the Imperial Japanese Army so that they may successfully crush the remaining samurai who are in active rebellion against Japan’s new, young emperor.
The Imperial Japanese army is comprised of peasants, and they are completely inexperienced. Despite this, they are ordered to attack the samurai. Algren protests this but is overruled. Unsurprisingly, they are defeated in battle. Algren is captured by Commander Katsumoto and brought back to the samurai village.
The story follows Algren as he begins to sympathize with the samurai’s plight. It is a beautiful story with a heartbreaking yet inspiring ending. It is about redemption and keeping important traditions.
One of the aspects of this film that always stuck out to me was how beautiful the scenery was. When I discovered that the stunning village (Uruti Village) and epic battles (Lake Mangamahoe) were filmed in New Zealand, I almost couldn’t believe it. However, it wasn’t that hard to accept because that is just how stunning New Zealand is.
The fact that the creators of the film were able to so convincingly make New Zealand look like 1870’s Japan just further establishes New Zealand’s universal appeal and unparalleled beauty. The Last Samurai might initially make you want to visit Japan, but hopefully, this article steers you in the right direction – towards Taranaki (which was used as a very convincing stand-in for Mt. Fuji!)
Though if you still do want to visit Japan, we have some films for you…
This is another Peter Jackson masterpiece, but years before Lord of the Rings. Released in 1994, this film follows the young lives of two disturbed teenage girls in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Juliet (an early performance by the riveting Kate Winslet) has just arrived at a new school in Christchurch. She befriends the not-as-well-off Pauline (in an early performance by the incredible Melanie Lynskey). Both girls have troubled home lives and find solace and joy in each other. They form an impenetrable bond that begins to concern the girl’s parents.
The two friends create a fantasy land in their minds that is based on stories they are writing together. As the girls endure further trauma and hard situations, they become consumed by their fantasy world, and it becomes a major escape for them. Juliet’s parents decide that it is best to leave Christchurch and to send Juliet away to live with a relative in South Africa.
The girls hatch a plan to run away together. In order to do so, they must commit an unspeakable act (which I won’t spoil). This film has elements of fantasy, drama, and tragedy. With stellar performances, Heavenly Creatures is a must-see and the film that made Peter Jackson into a household name (in New Zealand at least!).
The beautiful Christchurch is a wonderful backdrop to this story and presents a perfect juxtaposition of the gorgeous, idyllic scenery and the spiraling, psychologically descending story. Another example of New Zealand’s essence playing a vital role in a story.
The next film on this list is a period piece featuring an incredible lineup of actors: Sam Neill, Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, and Anna Paquin.
In this film, Ada (played by Holly Hunter) and Fiona (the young Anna Paquin) have been sold by Ada’s father to a frontiersman in New Zealand named Alisdair (Sam Neill). Ada has been mute since she was six and strictly communicates via her handcrafted piano and sign language. Fiona acts as an interpreter of sorts. Alisdair tells Ada that there is no room for her piano in their home, and he forces her to abandon it on the gorgeous beach she arrived on.
He eventually sells the piano to his best friend Baines (Harvey Keitel) without telling or asking Ada. She is obviously devastated but eventually ends up giving Baines piano lessons. As the story progresses, they slowly fall for one another and engage in a forbidden affair. An affair that is not without consequences.
There is also a magical element to the story that I won’t ruin it for you. This film scorches with romance and is a truly magnificent love story. It is all the more magical and romantic because of the setting of the film. Particularly, I couldn’t believe how beautiful the beach in this movie was. The beach scenes were filmed at Karekare Beach in New Zealand, and it practically stole the show.
Vast, expansive, and bright, the beaches of The Piano look like they would make for the most magical vacation spot. They have certainly proven to be a most magical filming spot.
This next film is on the goofier, comedic end of the movie spectrum. ‘Black Sheep‘ starts with two brothers names Angus and Henry. As children, a jealous Angus plays a cruel joke on Henry involving his dead, pet sheep. This prank and the death of their father happen within seconds and cause Henry to develop a severe phobia of sheep.
Years later, Henry comes back home to the farm to sell his share of the farm to Angus. Through the film, Henry discovers that his brother has been experimenting with the sheep and turned them into mutated killing machines. The film is lighthearted and funny and has a slight horror edge.
It is sort of like ‘Shaun of the Dead’ with sheep. It goes from funny to crazy to absolutely outrageous and is a fun ride the entire time. Despite the nature of the killer sheep and their ravenous hunger for human flesh, the rolling hills, snow globe skies, and green stretches of land not only make me want to consider sheep farming, but positively make me want to hop on the nearest plane and fly out to the filming location.
This movie is a fun watch due in equal parts to the hilarity, the horror, and the stunning New Zealand countryside. It might not be one of the best films made in New Zealand, but it could well be the zaniest!
Alright, it’s been a couple of movies since I brought up Peter Jackson, but his time has come again. He is pretty much synonymous with New Zealand in my mind, so it is only appropriate that he gets several mentions on this list.
The film currently under review is his epic interpretation of the horror classic ‘King Kong.’ He pulls no punches in this film. The special effects are breathtaking, and the acting is impeccable. It is a story I trust you know already.
Set during the Great Depression era, eccentric and financially flailing director Carl Denham ships himself, his film crew, and his actors to an exotic filming location. He tells them they are headed to Singapore, but they are, in fact headed to the infamous Skull Island. The ship ends up running aground on the Island, and Carl decides it’s time to film.
Filming is short-lived, of course, as the film’s star, Ann Darrow (played by the lovely Naomi Watts), is captured by the mighty Kong. Though initially terrified, it doesn’t take very long for Ann to see the sweet, human side of Kong. Eventually, Ann is rescued, and Kong is captured. Carl sees the money-making potential of bringing Kong back to New York, and the rest is tragic, cinema history.
The Skull Island scenes were filmed at the beautiful Lyall Bay in Wellington, New Zealand. If you can imagine the island without the prehistoric dinosaurs and giant bugs (thankfully, all computer animated), then you have the ideal beach day.
The theater scene at the end of the film was filmed at the gorgeous Auckland Civic Theater. It is also a place you can visit as it is an active venue and one of the few remaining atmosphere cinemas in the world.
Up next on our roster is ‘Boy.’ Set in 1984, this story follows 11-year-old, highly imaginative, Michael Jackson obsessed, Alamein; simply known as ‘Boy’ to everyone else.
While living on a small farm with his grandmother, brother Rocky, and a few cousins, his grandmother leaves one day for a funeral and leaves Boy in charge of the farm. While she is gone, Boy and Rocky’s father (who has been out of the picture for years and has been incarcerated for part of those years) shows up looking for a bag of money he buried before being arrested.
Boy, who loves his father dearly and makes up fantastic stories as to why he hasn’t been in his life, thinks his dad is searching for buried treasure. Rocky, who is younger, is a bit more apprehensive about the situation. Their mother died giving birth to Rocky, and therefore Rocky, who is more reserved than Boy, thinks he has powers as a result of the tragedy.
‘Boy’ is a coming-of-age story that deals with a young boy’s desire to have someone to look up to. It is a sweet, smart, zany film that has a lot of great humor and is cleverly shot (sort of like a super mild Wes Anderson movie as far as style goes, if I had to compare it to something).
Of course, the movie is set and filmed in New Zealand; Waihau Bay, in particular. It is a gorgeous beach town with cascading mountains and a fantastic horizon. No doubt, a fantastic place to visit.
If you thought I was done going on about the magnetic attraction and stunning beauty of New Zealand’s beaches, you are positively mistaken. Perfect Strangers is another movie starring Sam Neill that, despite its categorization as a thriller, definitely makes me want to grab a beach towel and chair and head off to where it was filmed.
However, you should probably not go there under the circumstances that Melanie (played by Rachael Blake) does. She finds herself charmed by a perfect stranger (see what I did there?) and decides that a one-night stand is in order. She gets on his boat, where she passes out from too much alcohol. She wakes up a little concerned about her situation, but not completely panicked.
She still finds the man charming and goes along with it. It does not take long, however, to realize that she has been kidnapped and is being held against her will on a remote island. The story spirals from there and takes several unexpected turns. Overall, this is a very decent thriller.
The quality of the film is compounded by the scenic filming location. Once again, Aotearoa might just have the most fantastic beaches I have ever seen – and thankfully, so many of the great movies made in New Zealand know how to bring them alive in such a way that the beaches are almost characters themselves.
Last on this list, but certainly not least, is ‘Whale Rider.‘ It tells the tale of a village in search of their next leader. Pai is a young girl in the village who is a direct descendant of the famous, ancient Whale Rider. Their leader from years ago who once traveled by whale.
Pai’s twin brother died along with their mother at childbirth. It was believed that her twin would have been the next leader, but now that only Pai is left (the role has always gone to a male), Pai’s grandfather Koro refuses to train or acknowledge that she might be the next leader.
However, she is determined and goes about her own ways of learning the traditions and fighting techniques that Koro is currently teaching the young boys of the village as he seeks out a new leader. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Pai is, in fact, the new leader, despite her grandfather’s refusal to believe.
This is another coming-of-age story that is touchingly told and beautifully shot. Filmed in Whangara, on New Zealand’s North Island, the depiction of this small, coastal town is simultaneously quaint and vast. It looks tropical, while still retaining its oh-so-kiwi essence and feel.
There you have it! If you don’t want to visit New Zealand by now, then I think you must have only skimmed this article. Seriously, do an internet search on some of these places, or better yet, watch these movies. You will be booking your ticket in no time.
This article only covers 10 extraordinary movies shot in New Zealand but if you are a real fan of Aotearoa, then here are some other local kiwi films we recommend checking out:
- Goodbye Pork Pie (1981) – Two New Zealand losers in a stolen car lead the police on a chase, picking up a girl on the way.
- Once Were Warriors (1994) – The story of an urban Maori family, the Hekes, and their problems with poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence, mostly brought on by the family patriarch Jake Heke.
- Two Little Boys (2012) – When Nige finds himself in trouble after a series of unfortunate accidents he turns to his best mate Deano, problem is Deano’s not really the guy you should turn to in a crisis.
- What We Do in the Shadows (2014)– Vampire housemates try to cope with the complexities of modern life and show a newly turned hipster some of the perks of being undead.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) – A boy and his foster father become the subjects of a manhunt after they get stranded in the New Zealand wilderness.
- Cousins (2021) – Connected by blood but separated by circumstances, three cousins spend a lifetime in search of each other. Based on the 1992 novel by Patricia Grace.
Further Things To Consider Before Any Adventure
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!