The movie that put contemporary Greece on the map, at least in my experience, was Never on Sunday (1960). Greece had been off the cultural grid for well over 2000 years by this time. And even then, it was not a breakthrough movie for the Greek film industry. This one was made by American filmmaker Jules Dassin, husband of Melina Mercouri. It is on the surface a pure vanity project. But underneath, it is an inquiry into what had happened to Greece in the last two millennia. In true classical style, Mercouri embodies the spirit of Greece in the persona of a beautiful but wanton woman. Dassin and his Greek goddess wife followed their 1960 hit with the less successful Phaedra (1962).
The movie that has done more than any other to rehabilitate Greece in the popular imagination is Zorba the Greek (1964). Based on the 1946 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (say Ka-zant-zakis), filming was done on location in Crete. Nia Vardalos, in her less iconic neo-Greek films, criticized Mexican-American actor Anthony Quinn for stereotyping the Greeks. Point taken, but this may be one of the best ethnic stereotypes in the history of movies.
The 1967 to 1974 military Junta (say Hun-ta) was a low point for modern Greece. The Dassins escaped the country and took up occasional residence in a Manhattan hotel (where it may not interest you to know that I was briefly employed at that same time). Mercouri returned to her homeland after the fall of the Junta and entered political life, campaigning for the restoration of Greek cultural treasures. The realities of life in Greece during the “The Regime of the Colonels” are depicted in the Costa-Gavras film, Z (1969).
Throughout the 20th century, Greece suffered sequential episodes of political turmoil punctuated by disastrous events. There is a Greek film called A Touch of Spice (2003), not easily available in English, which deals with the tragic expulsion of Greeks from Istanbul in the pogroms of 1955 through 1978. Beautifully filmed, it offers a surprisingly placid view of a humiliating episode for the Greeks.
Most of the more recent films about Greece have been made by non-Greeks. A notable exception can be found in the work of Theo Angelopoulos. He is a maker of long and thoughtful films filled with arresting imagery, but he is not favored among those who like their movies delivered with American speed and star power.
There are a few films that offer opportunities for vicarious sightseeing in modern Greece. Ranging from light comedies to romantic dramas, they typically begin in Athens. They include: Boy on a Dolphin (1957), In the Cool of the Day (1963), For the Love of Benji (1977), Shirley Valentine (1989), Summer Lovers (1992), My Life in Ruins (2009), Before Midnight (2013), and The Two Faces of January (2014). Most of these are about Americans or Europeans on vacation. If I had to recommend one, it would be Boy on a Dolphin.