Photo credits: (L to R) First row: “Black Orpheus,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Pleasantville.” Second row: “Flash Gordon,” “Midnight in Paris” (top), “The Thief of Bagdad” (bottom) “Harry Potter,” “Edward Scissorhands” (overlay) “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” (overlay). Third row: “Orpheus,” “Jason and the Argonauts” (overlay), “The Wizard of Oz,” “Beauty and the Beast.” Fourth Row: “The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Time Machine,” “Juliet of the Spirits.” Fifth row: “The Ten Commandments” (overlay), “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Beetlejuice” (overlay), “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Ok, I have a confession to make. The Omnipotent Being, the Alpha and Omega of all things, the Almighty God and Creator of the Universe didn’t really ordain this list. I just made that part up. And to be honest, I’ve never seen a fantasy movie made on another planet, let alone all the fantasy films made on the planet on which I live, so I can’t really say definitively which are the greatest fantasy films in the universe. These are just 27 of my favorites that I could remember during the writing of this article. But thank you for clicking on my post.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s be honest. Top 27 lists, top 10 lists, and any other list with a headline containing the words ‘best of,” “all-time,” “greatest,” etc. are 90% vanity, and 10% click bait. They’re a critic’s way of showing everyone what good taste they think they have. It’s arrogant to assume that one critic has such god-like powers to decide the best of anything. It’s personal taste and everyone knows it.
But “best of” lists are fun. Who doesn’t love reading them to see if they approve or disapprove of the author’s choices? They’re a way for movie lovers, both critics and fans, to proclaim their identity to the world: This is what I like. This is what moves me. This is who I am.
I have always been especially enamored of fantasy films. Though all films are inherently such in that they transport us to a world, a life, that’s not our own. But there’s something especially exhilarating about a completely fabricated world with its own rules, its own laws and its own sense of magic that allows us a reprieve from the drudgery and daily horrors of real life (pandemics, race riots, the rising threat of fascism – you know, the little things), if only for a couple of hours. And the often-fantastical images of the fantasy film fit in nicely with my lifelong interests in dreams, surrealism, and world mythology.
There are many kinds of fantasy films on this list: the whimsical, the tragic, the mythic, the poetic, the intellectual, the touching, the brooding, and the psychedelic – all aspects to some degree I suppose of my own personality. Some were made for adults and some for families. Some are dark, some are funny, some grand, some lovely, but what ties each of them together is a unique ability to suspend our disbelief and like cinematic wormholes, suck us completely into another universe.
I have excluded animated films from this list as they are their own kind of fantasy with a different set of rules and a different kind of magic. And I have, with one exception, avoided superhero films for much the same reason. I put serious consideration into including Richard Donner’s 1978 version of Superman, and you could consider it a runner up. But in the end, I stuck with one superhero movie that stood out from the rest. As for sequels and franchises, I tried to choose just one film from each that I felt best represented the appeal of the series, not always an easy task.
So now, sans divine proclamation, I herewith unveil the list of my 27 all-time favorite fantasy films… more or less. Drumroll please…
27. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that The Thief of Bagdad, the beloved British fantasy by director Michael Powell and producer Alexander Korda, has lost much of its shine over the decades. It’s aged more than any sound film on this list.
The Oscar winning visual effects, while top notch in their day, are creaky by contemporary standards. The first half of the film drags. And the romance lacks heart. But at 80-years-old, the film still works as an epic, occasionally enchanting artifact from an era when big movies and expensive visual effects were still an event. Filmed in sublime Technicolor with Oscars also going to the cinematography and art direction, much of the film is still beautiful to look at.
Powell directed two of the most sublime color films of all time, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, both straight dramas that play like fantasies. And while Thief can’t quite hold its own against those movies, he was an apt choice to direct this famous story from The Tales of the Arabian Nights, the story we know best as Aladdin. Its influence on the classic Disney animated version is readily clear, particularly in the costume and character design of the Sultan and the wicked Jaafar (the deliciously sinister Conrad Veidt).
26. Destiny (1921 – Silent with Title Cards)
German expressionist director Fritz Lang is best known for two films, the silent sci-fi classic Metropolis (1927), and his 1931 masterpiece, M, the chilling child-killer thriller which made a star out of future movie villain and voice impressionist favorite Peter Lorre and continues to influence, either directly or indirectly, every thriller made since.
Of his silent films, I prefer Destiny over the more political Metropolis. I first saw it when I was 17 on the treasure chest of international film history known as PBS Movie Theater, a weekly broadcast of the Janus film library that introduced me to many of the world’s greatest works of cinematic art in the late ‘70s. The film’s haunting images and engrossing story have stuck in my memory all these years. I saw it again recently to see if it still holds that same magic and it does, perhaps even more so.
Subtitled, “A German Folktale in 6 verses,” Destiny tells of a starry-eyed young couple (Walter Janssen and Lil Dagover) travelling by carriage to a small town. That night, when the male lover mysteriously dies, the woman strikes a deal with death. She will have three chances to save a doomed lover in three scenarios set in different locals around the world. One in Arabia, one in Venice, and one in China.
The film’s visual effects are reasonably astonishing for a film that’s nearly a century old. And Lang was a master of moody storytelling. Sure, it’s primitive stuff compared to today’s fantasy films. The Lord of the Rings it ain’t. But despite its age, Destiny still manages to mesmerize and captivate, something so many of today’s bloated CGI blockbusters can’t seem to do.
25. The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
George Pal’s reputation as a filmmaker began with a series of Oscar winning animated shorts known as Puppetoons, a type of stop motion animation known as replacement animation, in which the parts of each model are duplicated for every position, every movement, and every facial expression required, and then interchanged or “replaced” during filming as needed, thus avoiding the careful and exhausting manipulation of a single model. Later Pal produced and/or directed several classic live action sci-fi and fantasy films including When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and this little family gem, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao.
Set in the old west, the movie concerns a small town of naïve, bickering citizens about to be swindled by a greedy landowner (Arthur O’Connell) when they’re visited by a mysterious Chinese man, named Dr. Lao (Tony Randall). Lao claims to be 700,000 years old and brings with him a bizarre circus filled with magic and mystery. Lessons are learned, love is found, and of course, the good guys win.
The film is largely aimed at children and there’s a generally corny feel to it that echoes the live-action Disney movies of the era, but there’s also a sense of the otherworldly packed inside the doctor’s tent in scenes that are provocative, adult in their knowing, and tempered with a dark sense of warning. And at the center of it all is an engaging performance by the underrated Randall who plays the diverse characters that make up the strange circus.
Some may bristle at the idea of the white Randall playing the title character. I’m not Asian, so I can’t speak for those who are, but personally I don’t think the issue detracts from this film. There’s a certain self-awareness about the Chinese stereotype as if Dr. Lau is playing on the expectations of the naïve townspeople. But on the other hand, this was Hollywood in the 1960s, the same decade that gave us Mickey Rooney’s facepalm-worthy performance as the Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So there’s that. Still it would be a shame if it prevented audiences from appreciating Lao’s twisted, yet sweet sense of wonder and its wise and relevant life lessons.
24. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Tim Burton’s suburban fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands, perfectly balances bittersweet romance, teen angst, and broad social satire in a story that’s both hilarious and heart-breaking. Part Frankenstein, part Pinocchio, and part Beauty and the Beast, the film tells of young Edward (played with Chaplinesque pathos by the brilliant Johnny Depp), a living man-boy created by a mad inventor (horror/fantasy icon Vincent Price in his final live-action feature film).
Before the inventor can give Edward hands, he suddenly collapses and dies, leaving the poor lad alone to suffer with the title deformity in the old man’s decaying mansion. One day he’s visited by the neighborhood Avon Lady (the hilariously oblivious Dianne Wiest) who, pitying the young man, brings him to her home in a cartoonish pastel neighborhood that bears more than a little resemblance to the fictitious Springfield neighborhood occupied by the Simpsons, a comparison driven home by the film’s memorable Danny Elfman Score. There, Edward becomes the toast of the town in a series of charming and ingeniously funny scenes and later, the object of sympathy from doe-eyed daughter Kim (Wynona Ryder) when the town turns against him.
Disheveled and ineloquent, the clumsy Edward stands in for every awkward adolescent who ever inhabited a growing body and every misfit who ever tried to fit into a selfish and callous world. Edward Scissorhands is a smart, funny, and ultimately tragic fable for our hollow modern times.
23. Orpheus (1950 – French with Subtitles) – tie
Jean Cocteau was most famous as an acclaimed French poet until he tried his hand at filmmaking and made two of the greatest works of film fantasy of all time including Orpheus, his haunting reworking of the timeless Greek myth. Orpheus, you’ll remember, was the poet/musician who, upon the death of his beloved, Eurydice, successfully journeyed to the underworld to bring her back on the condition he never again look into her eyes.
Cocteau’s version turns the old story on its ear as the now seemingly dysfunctional couple are wooed, not by each other, but by the female representation of death (the magnetic Maria Casares) and her servant (beloved French actor François Périer). Cocteau’s real-life partner, the eternally dashing Jean Marais, is ideally cast as the tortured poet.
Orpheus is full of odd details and beguiling mysteries. Cocteau’s ice-cold tone and sterile 20th century visual idiom, employing many of the same types of effects he used in his other great fantasy, Beauty and the Beast, feels a lot like the work of David Lynch and seems clearly to have influenced that director’s work.
23. Black Orpheus (1959 – Portuguese with Subtitles) – tie
Nearly a decade after Cocteau’s version of the myth, came French director Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, an exquisite Oscar winning best foreign language film and Palm d’Or winner. Set in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, this sumptuous production couldn’t be more different from the Cocteau version.
In Black Orpheus the emphasis is on the romance, and the lush, throbbing beats and writhing melodies of its delicious festival settings. The attractive young cast is appealing and engaging with stars Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn fresh and tantalizing as the doomed mythological lovers.
Alternatingly jubilant and dark and buoyed by stunning color photography, Black Orpheus puts its own contemporary spin on the timeless myth. In fact, the fantasy elements of the story are so laid back and so neatly tied to the film’s setting that it’s hard, at times, to know if they’re even there. Is it fantasy? Allegory? In my book, it’s just weird enough to qualify as the former.
21. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of the eight Potter films is far from the best, but it might be the most enchanting. That’s largely because everything’s new here: the living paintings, the great staircases that shift like pieces in some impossible puzzle, the great owls that deliver the most interesting mail. All of these made their first appearances in this film. And there are endless other mysterious and magical sequences: the dark presence in the night, the centaur, the flying keys, the three-headed dog named Fluffy, et al.
There are more imaginative and powerful films in the series, the Alfonso Cuaron directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for instance, but this is a delightful introduction to a solid series filled with the magic and mystery that have endeared the novels and films to an entire generation.
20. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Even in the post-Star Wars era, Jason and the Argonauts remains a little boy’s wet dream. The stop-motion animation of movie legend Ray Harryhausen was a treat too enticing for this little boy to resist and remains so to my older little boy self. And, I must confess, as a young gay boy newly discovering his sexuality, I was always up for an old-fashioned Greco-Roman epic full of hairy, sweaty men in diapers. What’s not to love?
The film brings to life the story of the ship The Argos, its crew, and its captain Jason as they search for the Golden Fleece. They battle various creatures of Greek myth and non-myth – the Iron giant Talos, the three harpies, the 7-headed hydra and a miraculous army of 7 skeletons, considered by many to be the greatest stop-motion animation sequence ever filmed.
The film is episodic, a characteristic of the original myths as well as Ray Harryhausen movies, and the acting a bit stiff. But this isn’t Lubitsch. The Greek myths are inherently appealing. And Jason and the Argonauts successfully transfers that appeal to the screen. You don’t have to be a gay-curious little boy to appreciate the rich escapism of this classic film myth.
19. Wings of Desire (1987 – German with Subtitles)
There is no more audacious film on this list than Wim Wender’s wistful Wings of Desire. Presented almost entirely in a series of voiceovers, the film tells the story of two angels, Damiel and Cassiel (Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander) who roam the streets of pre-reunification Berlin. Detached from the colorful real life of its citizens, they exist as black and white ghosts observing, recording, and comforting the lost human souls who fret about them.
There are few conversations in the film. Instead, myriad characters walk silently by the angels, unaware of their presence, while their thoughts are spoken by the actors. And there’s little here to call a story; The film is comprised mostly of fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking vignettes.
This may put off some viewers (Americans), not to mention that the film’s in German and shot mostly in black and white, but its understated and quietly mesmerizing tone transforms the material into something that, despite its somber, sometimes tragic nature, is surprisingly life affirming.
And how can you not love a movie that features Peter Falk as himself and a performance by punk legends Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds? They’re the icing on this lovely, bittersweet cake.
18. Excalibur (1981)
It’s no surprise that the great British filmmaker John Booreman chose the “Funeral March” from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung as the main theme for Excalibur, his epic retelling of the King Arthur folktales. Based on Sir Thomas Mallory’s “La Morte d’Arthur.” Booreman’s film pulses with the operatic intensity of a Wagner grand opera. But in Excalibur the singing is replaced by bloody action, sexual tension, and exuberant filmmaking.
Uther Pendragon, through the assistance of the sorcerer Merlin (the entertainingly bizarre Nicole Richardson) and the sword of kings Excalibur, beds the king’s wife to produce future king, Arthur with the stipulation that Merlin gets to keep the boy. Thus begins Arthur’s rise to power and his eventual betrayal in a dark, exhilarating celebration of magic, the glory of battle, and man’s vital connection to nature. It’s all here: the sword in the stone, the Knights of the Round Table, Guenevere and Lancelot, and the search for the Holy Grail.
Excalibur didn’t quite work for me on its original release. It seemed an odd mishmash of pageantry and violence with odd interjections of humor. And it didn’t help that much of the film bore striking similarities to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, rendering some of the film’s most dramatic scenes a bit giggly. But nearly four decades later, the film’s quirks now seem to add to its charms. It’s biggest flaw today is its brevity. This is one of the epic stories of all time and it could have used more of a fleshing out. The search for the grail seems especially rushed.
But as it is, it’s thrilling. It’s hard to watch the swirling title sword return to the hand of The Lady of the Lake at the film’s finale without feeling goosebumps and without being convinced that somehow swords and indeed films can be possessed by magical forces.
17. Flash Gordon (1980)
Many sci-fi lovers hate this movie because of its intentionally campy nature which they somehow misinterpret as unintentional. I always suspect these people have never seen the original low budget serial shorts with their laughably primitive visual effects, cheap sets, dopey dialogue, and generally bad acting.
This later version of those serials serves as both homage and parody, ramping up the camp to a super fabulous 11. The special effects, rather than being updated to late ‘70s industry standards set by Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman, mimic the klutzy effects of the original, but this time with the spectacular colors of cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and the sublimely stylized sets of production and costume designer Danilo Donati, a longtime Fellini collaborator. (Its imperial throne room looks as if it were a collaboration of the legendary Italian director and Hitler propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl.)
With its swirling kaleidoscope of cartoonish hues, Flash Gordon is one of the great color films, capturing the visual world of comic books better than almost any other film until, arguably, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Subtle homages to The Wizard of Oz, Robin Hood, Barbarella and many others add to the charm.
Above all, it’s the cast that makes the silliness sing. Leads Melody Anderson and Sam J. Jones as Dale and Flash, are decidedly bland, but Jones at least boasts the surfer dude good looks, cheery disposition, and decidedly hairy chest appropriate for the movie’s accidental hero title character.
The real stars are long-time veterans like Brian Blessed, a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton, Fiddler on the Roof’s Topol, the hilariously slutty Ornella Muti, and best of all, legendary Swedish actor and Hollywood villain extraordinaire, the late, great Max von Sydow as the notorious Ming the Merciless. Von Sydow, the star of many of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films became legendary in his later career portraying bad guys in American blockbusters. His Ming is one nasty guy. He makes Anton Chigurh look like Ashley Wilkes.
Maybe it isn’t for everyone, but for those willing to embrace the camp and follow the lead of Queen’s perky, synth-heavy musical score, Flash Gordon is bright, goofy fun.
16. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is generally considered a Christmas movie because it has an angel in it and because it takes place during the Christmas season. But the fantasy here is not one of traditional Christmas, with its mytho-religious imagery, or even modern Christmas, with its commercialized legend of a jolly old fat man who lives with elves at the north pole.
It’s a Wonderful life is a fantasy that just happens to take place at Christmas, a dark drama about a desperate and suicidal man questioning the value of his own existence, who, through divine intervention, gets a second chance. George Bailey, played with the perfect everyman amiability by the Golden Age’s Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart, falls victim to the nefarious banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and is given the opportunity to see the consequences of his never having been born. The film’s brilliant and devastating final act, reminiscent of A Christmas Carol, is as unsettling as any horror movie of the period.
It’s a Wonderful Life has a lesson to teach about the importance of every human life and it’s decidedly old-fashioned in its telling, but nobody packaged old-fashioned sentiment like Frank Capra. Critics called it Capra-corn, even while ceding its effectiveness. The truth is, when done well, corn works, and nobody did it better than Capra. Show me a man who isn’t moved by this film, and I’ll show you a grinch with a tiny, tiny heart.
15. Juliet of the Spirits (1965 – Italian with Subtitles)
If Ingmar Bergman saw Catholicism as a self-flagellating temple of death and yet was resigned to it in guilt and angst, Federico Fellini abandoned it altogether for his own ethereal pagan aesthetic. In Juliet of the Spirits, Giulietta (Giulietta Masina), stifled and oppressed by the Catholic patriarchy that dominates her life, learns of her husband’s philandering, and finds her true feminine strength with the help of a few mischievous female spirits.
Fellini, whose movies are always full of stunning visuals, delivers a wealth of it here. But it’s the magic of the weird. Heavy with symbolism and dream imagery, the movie’s surrealistic revelations might take a few views to sink in, but it’s worth the trouble. Juliet of the Spirits like all the master’s films, is mysterious, odd, at times confounding, disturbing, funny, and told with the unmistakable visual style that has influenced filmmakers for over half a century.
And it’s Fellini, so don’t forget about the boobs. In dream imagery, breasts are a symbol of nurturing and in Fellini, there’s always lots of nurturing. Yet, despite this, the film is a true feminist movie landmark. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but for those up for a good challenge, Juliet of the Spirits is a liberating journey into the wondrous mysteries of the human subconscious.
14. Midnight in Paris (2011)
Woody Allen has long dabbled with and even dived headfirst into the deep end of the fantasy pool. Even his straight comedies often wade in the shallow end. Love and Death and Annie Hall are mostly straight, real-world narratives that flirt with elements of fantasy. Other Allen films like The Purple Rose of Cairo, with its movie characters bursting from the screen into real life and Alice, his reworking of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, are full-on fantasies.
Midnight in Paris is in the latter group, telling the story of confused New York novelist Gil (Luke Wilson) who, while visiting Paris, discovers a time portal to the city’s storied days in the jazz era, when it was a hub for many of the most renowned and innovative artists and writers in the world. Picasso is there as are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Georgia O’Keefe, Man Ray, and countless others.
You might call Midnight in Paris an intellectual fantasy in that it requires a certain knowledge of the arts – film, literature, painting – to fully enjoy many of its funniest jokes. The scene in which Gil explains to a confounded Luis Buñuel, his idea for a film about a dinner party that keeps repeating itself for no apparent reason, will likely fly over the heads of anyone who hasn’t seen the great surrealist director’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise.
The entire film is perhaps little more than an opportunity for Allen to pay homage to his favorite writers and artists, and revel in the opportunity to write in the voices of heroes like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But it’s so charming and funny, so bounding with love for the arts and the artist, it’s impossible to resist.
13. The Time Machine (1960)
George Pal’s greatest fantasy film is an epic telling of the classic H. G. Wells fantasy, “The Time Machine.” Square-jawed Australian actor Rod Taylor, whose other famous role was as the male lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, is ideally cast as George, inventor of the title mechanism. Taylor is the ideal protagonist for this kind of adventure – masculine, insanely attractive, intelligent, and compassionate, yet not given to exaggerated displays of emotion.
George travels through time in a series of marvelous stop-motion animated sequences that excite the imagination, eventually ending up in the very distant future where he sees firsthand the results of human folly. Set to a lovely score by Russell Garcia that’s as sweeping as the film’s journey through the eons, and backed by stunning production design, the movie blends science fiction and fantasy with compelling results.
When I was in the seventh grade, I saw the first half of the film in a “Unified Studies” class and found myself enraptured. It was all I could think of that night and the next morning. I couldn’t wait to see the second half. But when I returned to school the next day, our class wasn’t allowed to watch the second half because our teacher had decided the movie was stupid. To be fair, she may have been responding to the movie’s dumbing down of Well’s political allegory. But I was devastated in that overdramatic way that is the specialty of fanciful little boys.
I eventually saw the film as an older teen and many times since. And to this day I feel sorry for that teacher, that she lacked the imagination to appreciate its poetic sense of the possible. She was very literal minded and as I recall in other situations, rather thoughtless in her treatment of her students. Too bad for you, Mrs. Hammerson from Trail Ridge Junior High. I hope you one day learned to appreciate the eager curiosity and effervescent beauty of this timeless entertainment.
12. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
Before there was CGI, there was stop-motion animation, and no one has ever done it better than the legendary Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen’s work may seem crude and jerky compared to today’s fluid computer animation, but it had one quality that much of today’s CGI effects lack – character. The stop-motion sequences in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad are unique and astounding, most notably a half woman/half serpent, two two-headed Rocs, a living skeleton, and a giant cyclops to end all movie cyclopes.
The story, though it takes back seat to the effects, is not without its charm and it has the forward motion that the animator’s somewhat tedious Jason and the Argonauts lacks: Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) and his bride to be, Princess Parisa, are traveling to his home in Bagdad to be married when they land on the island of Colossa, where they encounter the evil and manipulative magician Sokurah (the glorious Torin Thatcher) who lusts after a magic lamp possessed by a giant cyclops. Once home, the couple is coerced by Sokurah into returning to the island to retrieve the lamp. Perilous adventures ensue.
The movie will appeal most to children and Harryhausen-enchanted adults. But fantasy film lovers of all ages should find something to love in this, the first and best of the animator’s three Sinbad films. And don’t forget the score by Bernard Herrmann. It’s one of the master’s very best.
11. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Most people would probably expect this film to be on a list of great horror films. But in truth, this sequel to James Whale’s 1931 Universal horror classic, Frankenstein, isn’t particularly scary, even by early 1930s standards. What we get instead is a whimsical, and surprisingly touching fantasy that portrays its famous lumbering monster with compassion and great sympathy.
The openly gay Whales’ sly humor is often seen today as gay camp and there is certainly intriguing evidence to support this theory – the flamboyantly swishy Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who collects his shrunken human “dolls”; the touching relationship between temporary roommates, the blind-man and the monster (Boris Karloff); and the monster’s utter inability to connect with a woman, the disgusted, lightening-haired, bride of the title played to hissing perfection by Elsa Lanchester.
But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy its quirky humor, authentic pathos, and one of the all-time great film scores by future Hollywood legend, Franz Waxman.
10. Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice made a star out of its director, Tim Burton, arguably the preeminent fantasy filmmaker of our time. Along with the lovely, quasi-fantastic Big Fish, and the aforementioned Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, the director’s second feature, remains one of his best films, a hip and irreverent comedy fantasy about undead spirits fighting to keep their lifelong (and death-long) home from being inhabited by a pretentious family of idiots.
The movie overflows with flip, morbid humor, ingenious visual gags, and Burton’s characteristically bizarre visual style. In Burton’s hands, death becomes hilarious. The film’s bright and likeable cast includes, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, a young goth Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Dick Cavett, and the wonderful Silvia Sydney, whose slashed throat is the focus of one of the film’s funniest bits. As the mischievous title spirit, Michael Keaton is at his manic best.
Hilarious, irreverent, and more than a little insane, Beetlejuice remains, 32 years later, one of the most inventive entertainments ever put on film.
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
I know a lot of fans would insist without even hearing an argument that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the greatest achievement in film history and I’m not one to argue with fanatics. But the truth is, while I have reservations, the trilogy is impressive on every level – as a hero myth, as an intricately detailed fantasy, as a high action war epic, and to a lesser extent, as a romance.
The Two Towers, based on the middle chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved literary trilogy, was my least favorite of the three books. But it’s the best of the films because, among other things, its extensive and complicated battle scenes are surprisingly coherent and involving, and because its stunning CGI creations, notably Gollum and the giant walking, talking tree, Treebeard, fit seamlessly into the narrative rather than simply standing apart as effects. They exist as authentic, fully realized characters.
Director Peter Jackson’s predilection for excess serves this epic well. The Two Towers is a complete work of film art, a complex tapestry of engrossing adult drama, spectacle, and dazzling fantasy.
8. The Seventh Seal (1957 – Swedish with Subtitles)
While the Catholic American writer Flannery O’Connor was writing her stories of Christ haunted souls in America’s deep south, Swedish film master Ingmar Bergman was exploring similar themes against a mythohistorical European backdrop.
The Seventh Seal, perhaps the director’s most famous classic, is a brooding meditation on death, fear, and above all, faith. A knight (Max Von Sydow) and his squire, embittered by their experiences in the Crusades, travel home through the plague infested countryside. On the way, the knight meets up with the personification of death (Bengt Ekerot) and the two play a game of chess to decide his fate.
Tortured by the “silence” of his god, yet nevertheless compelled to believe, the knight hopes to delay the inevitable for a chance to pressure Death for confirmation of his faith, but with little success. As the game continues over days, Bergman explores his themes through a series of vignettes both horrific and pastoral, all elegantly framed by the stunning composition of Gunnar Fischer’s black and white cinematography.
Pestilence, death, and Catholicism may not be at the top of your list of subjects for a fantasy film, yet despite the heavy going, The Seventh Seal’s gloomy cinematic poetry ultimately enchants.
7. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Six years ago, I had no idea what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was, which superheroes were considered Avengers, or which Chris was a Hemsworth and which was an Evans. Today, largely because of this film, I’ve become a fan, Martin Scorsese be damned. Drawing on mythology, science fiction, cartoons, and of course, comic books, Avenger’s: Infinity War serves as the climax for a 22-movie collection, moving deliriously from character to character, planet to planet, and subplot to subplot with nary any narrative confusion. Its cast of characters features virtually every being in the MCU, including one of the greatest of all film villains, the thoughtfully evil Thanos. It’s also funny as hell.
And if that weren’t enough, there’s a shit-ton of big time Hollywood movie stars too, enough to match any classic Hollywood blockbuster… ever. Indeed, Avengers: Infinity War is as epic as any movie ever made and that includes Griffith’s Intolerance, DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, and Wyler’s Ben Hur.
If you don’t want to invest the time in seeing the handful of films required for this film to make sense, the joke’s on you. Infinity War is an enthralling three-hour cinematic rollercoaster ride filled with spectacle, imagination, and big laughs.
Note: For those willing to put in the work required to enjoy this movie, I recommend you at least see Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), Thor Ragnarok (2017), and Black Panther (2018). The earlier Avengers films are less important here because the bulk of its characters’ story is told in the film’s direct sequel, Avengers: Endgame. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), is less important in terms of understanding this film, but it’s massively entertaining.
6. Pleasantville (1998)
Gary Ross’ serio-comic fantasy Pleasantville sneaks up on you most uncannily. It begins with a standard ‘90s setup: Brother and sister David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) break the TV remote while quarreling and are immediately visited by an unsolicited repairman (Don Knotts). The repairman gives them an also unsolicited magical remote which zaps the modern teens into “Pleasantville,” a cheesy, black and white, 1950s TV sitcom.
At first the gimmick is played for hip Spielbergian laughs, but it soon evolves into something much deeper – a finely wrought allegory of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and the loosening of sexual censorship, changed the world forever.
As David and Jennifer interact with the townspeople, the TV automatons become more human and change into color. But with the change comes the Pandora’s box of human qualities, both good and evil. As in our real culture, the truth is more complex and interesting, but far more problematic. The film’s final half features a series of clever, often deeply moving scenes, most involving the decade’s greatest American actress, Joan Allen, that elevate the film from smart satire to sublime drama.
5. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Whether one chooses to believe that the story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt is literally true, or a myth meant to establish the spiritual foundations of Judaism, there’s no denying that Cecil B. DeMilles’ second version of The Ten Commandments is cinematic magic, a journey to a fantastic world of miracles far different from our own.
Shot stunningly in the still unequaled Technicolor process, with a level of production design and quality that’s impressive even today, this handsome three-hour epic spans the life of the Jewish prophet from his survival of Pharaoh’s decree that all first born must die to his receiving of the Ten Commandments from God, voiced by DeMille himself.
There’s a gloriously cheesy, if engaging, love triangle and the delicious over-acting of Anne Baxter, Vincent Price, and Edward G. Robinson to enjoy before the real fun kicks in mid-film, when the legendary Oscar winning visual effects pack their punch. The plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the writing of the commandments are just some of the thrilling sequences.
Despite his simplistic moralizing, DeMille was no slouch as a filmmaker and The Ten Commandments, his greatest showpiece, still reigns as one of old-Hollywood’s grandest spectacles.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006 – Spanish with Subtitles)
Guiermo del Toro’s Pan’s Laybrinth is adult fantasy at its finest. As violent as it is spellbinding, Pan’s Labyrinth contrasts the brutal imagery of World War II era atrocities with dark fantasy elements, choosing grotesque traditional European fairy tale imagery over the sugary sweet modern Disney style we are so used to in the United States. The fairies in this movie look like they might devour Tinker Bell’s flesh in a single bloody bite. And the brilliant Doug Jones brings the film’s most fantastical creation, a sassy satyr, to chilling life.
Del Toro’s unnerving tale is about the very nature of fantasy itself and its ability to provide escape from the most horrible of realities, giving refuge to those who seek love but find none. Its often-intense violence makes it completely inappropriate for children, but for adults, it’s intriguing and captivating.
3. A Christmas Carol (1951)
Christmas has always been the perfect season for fantasy films. A holiday particularly known for its magical spirit, it’s been the setting for numerous holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th St, and endless versions of Charles Dickens’ beloved novella “A Christmas Carol.” Most of us have seen at least one of those versions, but only one of them qualifies as a must-see and that’s this 1951 British version directed by Brian Desmund Hurst and starring the indomitable Alistair Sim, an Ebineezer Scrooge to leave all others in the dust.
Released in the United Kingdom as Scrooge and in the U.S. by Dicken’s title, the film, like all great Dickens movies of the era, is rich with great character roles and a willingness to risk unintended camp by upping the theatricality. Sims portrayal of Scrooge brings the nasty stinginess of the cruel employer and the repentant joy of his changed soul to vividly unsubtle emotional life, but it’s Michael Hordern‘s Ghost of Jacob Marley that provides the most fun. Rattling his chains of eternal imprisonment and wailing in over-the-top misery, he’s both hilarious and horrifying, perfectly foreshadowing the movie to come.
There are other notable versions of this tale, but none of them can match the perfect balance of tone in this engrossing, one-of-a-kind classic.
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
What hasn’t been said about The Wizard of Oz? It’s the gold standard of Hollywood fantasy films and a classic musical to boot. It’s filled with cheerful, technicolor-ready production design, state-of the-art production standards and some of the best song and dance numbers ever to come out of the mighty MGM musical factory. But so much more than that, it’s the story of beloved American icons like Dorothy and Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, the Cowardly Lion, Glenda the Good Witch, and her just-plain-mean, green-faced sister, The Wicked Witch of the West.
It’s the magic of a beloved 19-year-old Judy Garland singing the soaring “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and of her extraordinary voice, as soft as silk in a summer breeze and as soothing as a mother’s lullaby. It’s classic Americana that reminds us of the optimism of youth, the importance of friends and family, and above all, that we already possess the truths we seek.
The Wizard of Oz was the cinematic starting point for entire generations. Though just a moderate success on its initial 1939 run, the movie achieved iconic status in the ‘60s from young baby boomers like me who looked on its yearly CBS telecasts as a national holiday. If ready availability through modern media has diminished its value as a yearly event, it can’t diminish its eternally wholesome appeal, its music, and its everlasting hold on those who remain forever young at heart.
1. Beauty and the Beast (1946 – French with Subtitles)
Nothing could be further from the bouncy technicolor vibe of The Wizard of Oz, than the somber, noir melancholy of French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece, Beauty and the Beast. Together the two films speak to the incredible range of the fantasy film.
Shot in shadowy black and white with long, quiet shots that linger for maximum absorption and adorned with a lovely score by the great George Auric, the film has a wonderfully authentic old-world feel, evocative sets, and Cocteau’s trademark use of backward motion special effects. But it’s the intriguingly adult themes and an almost shocking sexual tension (for 1946 anyway) that give the film its weight. Subtle, slowly paced, and atmospheric, it’s the polar opposite of the Disney studio’s loud and garish 2017 live-action version.
Beauty and the Beast has long been embraced by the art house crowd. But the film’s allure is universal. Though its eerie mood is closer to the original fairy tale, highlighting the sometimes-cruel nature of both beast and beauty, it’s hard to think of a more rapturous cinematic fantasy. This is not only the best film version of the oft-told tale, it’s one of the most mesmerizing films of any kind ever made. While it may bore the youngest audience members, it’s essential for sophisticated teens and adult lovers of film and fantasy, a timeless escape for anyone who believes in the redemptive powers of love, magic, and cinema.
So that’s my list. What did I forget? Or what did I include that’s completely unworthy? Come on, you know you have opinions? Feel free to comment below.