“Home is behind; the world is ahead.” For many people, “The Lord of the Rings” epitomizes what makes movies so strong and intoxicating: a sense of leaping through the screen, abandoning one’s reality, and immersing oneself in a completely new world. Even people who use the term endearingly tend to disparage it with a contemptuous tone. However, the movie offers a unique capacity for escaping that should be welcomed.
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The best fantasy filmmakers, including Jean Cocteau, Guillermo del Toro, and Hayao Miyazaki, are aware of the psychological benefits of escapism. To get a fresh perspective, you may need to move out of your own head for a moment. In the end, even the best escapism brings us back to our true selves.
40 fantasy films create new realms and new avenues for understanding and empathy. “Star Wars” and its ilk, as well as films in which imagination is represented exclusively through daydreams, are not included in this list. These are awe-inspiring examples of the power of imagination and world-building.
1. “Enter the Void” (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
‘Enter the Void’ is the closest that Gaspar Noé has come to crafting a fantasy film, and what a mind-frazzing fantasy it is. It’s about an American drug dealer shot by police on the streets of Tokyo who has a floating consciousness and experiences the consequences of death through that consciousness. Noé’s passion project revolves around that.
As the floating soul’s first-person perspective hovers over the city, Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie transform their camera into a physical expression of their main character’s stream of consciousness. All events are seen via his eyes through flashbacks, which is why the camera sits on his shoulder. As a result, “Enter the Void” becomes a fantasy that is both exalted and grounded at the same time, a roller coaster ride of hallucinogenic highs and lows that only Noé can control. —Zack Sharf —
2. “A Ghost Story” (David Lowery, 2017)
‘A Ghost Story’ is a clever and imaginative film that lifts a basic haunting into an eloquent meditation on love, time, and the final collapse of all things. ‘A Ghost Story’ was jokingly presented as a ‘Beetlejuice’ remake directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Actors Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck from Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” will reprise their roles in the new film. For some reason, the white hospital sheet is placed over his body as he refuses an opportunity to cross over to the other side of the veil in the aftermath of a vehicle accident. He begins to roam around the house where he used to dwell, a gentle spirit huddling in its corners and watching while his wife mourns, massacres a pie, and eventually moves out. He is silent beneath the cloth, unseen to the living, and unclear of his cosmic purpose.
The ghost is able to move forward in time after she left. It becomes increasingly difficult to discern if the ghost is haunting the home, or if the house is haunting him, as the days, months, and even years pass by without him noticing. “A Ghost Story” discovers poignant new meaning in life beyond death under the guidance of cosmic forces and the lovely yearning of Daniel Hart’s score. —David Ehrlich’s statement
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)
“Harry Potter” films were launched by Chris Columbus in the form of grandiose fantasy spectacles that promised eye-popping visual effects thrills and squeaky clean storyline. It wasn’t until “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was helmed by Alfonso Cuarón that moviegoers began to take the series seriously. By handing the series over to Cuarón, it became a studio blockbuster with sophisticated emotional overtones that could match its fantasy glitter.
The director allowed the series to mature alongside its adolescent protagonists and introduced a darker tone that made “Prisoner of Azkaban” the first “Harry Potter” film to feature genuinely perilous stakes for Harry, Ron, Hermione, and others. As the film’s cinematographer, Michael Seresin, threw a chilly, grey shadow over the look of the film to give it a more harsh edge, the visual palette was strikingly different. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is the best “Harry Potter” film ever made. —ZS
4. “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (Woody Allen, 1985)
“When asked which character in my films is most like myself on the screen, you only have to look at Cecilia in ‘Purple Rose of Cairo,'” Woody Allen says in his biography “Apropos of Nothing.” That is indeed the case with Mia Farrow’s socially awkward waitress in Allen’s Depression-era 1985 dream. So infatuated is she with an RKO Radio Pictures movie character played by Jeff Daniels that she wills him off of the screen and into her mundane existence. To make matters worse for the film’s producer, this sets the scenario for a strange love triangle between Cecilia, the character in the movie, and Daniels’s real-life counterpart, who is also played by Daniels.
A Best Original Screenplay nomination went to Allen’s film “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” which was both whimsical and heartbreaking. Despite not delivering the Hollywood ending Cecilia craves, the mournful conclusion brings “Cairo” full circle, creating a magnificent homage to the silver screen and its ability to lift us out of our everyday woes. —Ryan Lattanzio
5. “Coraline” (Henry Selick, 2009)
Coraline, Henry Selick’s stop-motion film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s story, features stunning visuals.
A little girl named Coraline Jones discovers a gateway in her new home that leads to an alternate realm populated with button-eyed doppelgängers, and Dakota Fanning plays Coraline in the film. In “Coraline,” Selick’s classic “Alice in Wonderland” story is portrayed in such detail by his stop-motion team (there were 30 separate models used for Coraline alone) that watching it is to relish every corner and crevice of the production design and to get lost in Selick’s wondrous universe.
It’s impossible to get bored watching “Coraline,” thanks to the color and design modifications used by Selick and his team to contrast Coraline between her two worlds. This is an uncommon fantasy that may be enjoyed by people of all ages. —ZS
6. “Jumanji” (Joe Johnston, 1995)
Joe Johnston’s wild 1995 fantasy is a beautiful mix of a childlike daydream and a serious investigation of what it means to be human. As an adaptation of the 1981 picture-book, which went on to generate an entire modernized series that serves as an inspiring example of how well remakes can be done, the film takes a simple concept and turns it into an intriguing world.
At school, Alan Parrish is teased relentlessly by vicious peers, whose mean antics eventually lead to his discover a mystery board game called… Jumanji!! While it’s fun to play with Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy, then Bonnie Hunt), it’s soon revealed that the game’s difficulties and dangers are all too real. New players (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) join the game without realizing it, and Alan is still caught in the game. Sarah is still haunted by seeing her best friend dragged into a playing board three decades earlier.
The foursome must use their wits to defeat a game that exists solely to outwit its human players, complete with stunning spectacular effects (which heavily feature wild animals) and a dreadful baddie. “Jumanji” is a fast-paced, high-octane adventure that packs a powerful emotional punch for its audience. In the words of Kate Erbland —
7. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (Edgar Wright, 2010)
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” will be remembered as one of the landmark films of early 21st-century North American mass cinema decades from now, when civilization has crumbled and we’re all huddled in underground caverns fending off global warming, pandemics, and/or dragons (a surprisingly frequent topic of conversation in post-apocalyptic caves). Like “The Social Network,” “There Will Be Blood,” or even “The Tree of Life” Edgar Wright’s frantic, emotional, and relentlessly smart graphic novel adaptation will be right up there.
Millennials will continue to communicate via “Scott Pilgrim” quotes even after the floods wash out most of the world’s main cities and video games become something we can only play in our dreams. In an attempt to numb the agony of living off of petrified Slim Jims procured from a 7-11 while on a recent journey to the surface, we’d yell at one another, “Bread makes you fat!”. Several people were killed. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” skewered a generation of stunted man-children who sought to game the girls they liked, only to end up playing themselves,” we will remember their names. —DE
8. “Excalibur” (John Boorman, 1982)
In addition to “Point Blank,” “Deliverance,” and “Hope and Glory,” John Boorman is best known for his Arthurian epic, “Excalibur.” With this unusual fantasy endeavor, which came after he turned down an opportunity to produce “The Lord of the Rings,” his career has been characterized by frequent genre switching. As always, Boorman managed to combine his intellectual pursuits with a great aesthetic presentation.
Peter Jackson’s subsequent films, while lacking in breadth, offered a blueprint for future fantasy adaptations of legends. It had a stellar cast, including Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi as Lancelot and Guenevere. For example, the latter’s sequences contained a few of the most sexually graphic scenes ever seen in a studio fantasy movie, which may have contributed to its success. Take credit for Warner Bros. for taking a risk on this. “The Exorcist II” and “Camelot” were two of their most unsatisfactory collaborations with director E.J. Boorman, and this film is no exception. —Tom Brueggemann’s work
9. “Aladdin” (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1992)
When Disney matched one of its finest musical soundtracks with a career-high comedic voice performance from the famous Robin Williams for its 1992 smash, it found some buried treasure of its own. For many years, Disney’s secret sauce was Alan Menken, who wrote earworms like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Newsies.” “Aladdin” is no exception to Disney’s success because to his witty lyrics and catchy music.
Aside from her unclear race, Jasmine was the first non-white Disney princess, and her racist portrayal has not aged well (he is darker and has more stereotypical Arab characteristics than the other characters). Williams’ Genie is the star of the show, but Gilbert Gottfried’s villainous parrot Iago rates as one of the funniest villain sidekicks in Disney history. When it comes to animated films, “Frozen” and “Aladdin” are the exceptions, not the rule. —Jude Dry,
10. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” (Peter Jackson, 2002)
One of fantasy’s greatest achievements is Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the rings” trilogy and the Battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers” represents the climax of his vision. ‘The two towers’ Tolkien fans have always lauded this combat scene as one of the most visceral and dazzlingly choreographed war scenes in film history, and the Helm’s Deep set piece is no exception.
“The Lord of the Rings” is so memorable because of Jackson’s approach to the film. He takes fantasy and grounds it on a human level and from a human perspective so that the viewer may see the magical creatures and beasts as real. When it comes to fantasy terror, Helm’s Deep matches “Saving Private Ryan,” allowing “The Lord of the Rings” to transcend genre. Although “Two Towers” is known for its epic Helm’s Deep battle and Gollum’s full debut into the film’s CGI history, “Two Towers” is also a great fantasy film in its own right. —ZS
11. “The Never Ending Story” (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984)
In the pantheon of the most beloved fantasy films, “The Neverending Story” has a special position because of the irrational fear of quicksand it instilled in an entire generation. After years of making action and war films, Wolfgang Peterson, the German director of “Das Boot” and “Air Force One,” decided to go in a completely different direction.
The story-within-a-story narrative device, which has the dual effect of bringing in young listeners as replacement protagonists while simultaneously blowing their little minds with an early dose of meta-theatricality, would subsequently be emulated by “The Princess Bride.” Falkor, the fluffy white dog/dragon, is the star of the show thanks to the inventive puppetry, which is both rough and hypnotic. It’s easy to see how heartbreaking the film is when you view it again as an adult. Depression is an apparent metaphor for the nothing, a malicious monster threatening to swallow all that is good. For a children’s fantasy film on nihilism, the Germans are the best. Maybe we wouldn’t all be so delicate if more American films were so realistic in tone and meaning. —JD
12. “Princess Mononoke” (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
“Princess Mononoke,” a film by Hayao Miyazaki set in Japan’s late Muromachi period, tells the story of young prince Ashitaka, who befriends a woman raised by wolves and becomes embroiled in a battle between forest spirits and humans determined to destroy them and deplete the forest’s natural resources. As a continuation of the concepts and characters first introduced in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” “Princess Mononoke” has an environmentalist core as well as an action-ready female protagonist. With more savagery and visceral, immersive set pieces, “Mononoke” takes the pace of “Nausicaä” and amplifies it. Back-to-back viewings of these two Ghibli films reveals Miyazaki’s development as a storyteller and his desire to challenge himself over the course of 13 years. —ZS
13. “A Christmas Carol” (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951)
“Scrooge,” Charles Dickens’ best-known Christmas tale, has been made into a film by Alastair Sim, and it’s widely considered to be one of the best. After establishing a droll humorous presence on screen (his bloodhound visage exhibits a spectrum of tragicomic delights), Sim’s portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, the wretched miser, is enhanced by the noir-like black-and-white ambiance.
Using a mixture of social realism and German Expressionism, Brian Desmond Hurst manages to express both terror and humour without ever going over the top in the film. Screenwriter Noel Langley’s (The Wizard of Oz) additional history on Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley’s tortured soul, Michael Hordern (Scrooge), is positively frightening in this adaptation of A Christmas Carol. When it first came out, this version resonated the most with the general public (it was a big hit in Great Britain, but not in the United States until it was resurrected on television, like “It’s a Wonderful Life”). Bill Desowitz, author.
14. “Mary Poppins” (Robert Stevenson, 1964)
Is there anyone who hasn’t dreamed of having an enchanting and magical nanny come into their lives and assist them get through the tough times with a spoonful of sugar? It is a film that is constructed on childhood fantasies and the belief that magic is powerful enough to bring about genuine change, like many of its ilk. To tell the raucous, winning story of the nanny’s zest for life (and her large suitcase, filled with all manner of things), the Julie Andrews-starring Disney hit weaved together live-action and animation to tell the story of the struggling Banks family, based on the books by P.L. Travers about the eponymous nanny.
In spite of the fact that many people, especially generations of children, were reared on “Poppins,” the film also has a more grounded and emotional side to its characters and plot. Although the film is full of sweeping musical numbers, “Mary Poppins” focuses on how decent individuals can make a beneficial impact on the world, from saving a family to bringing needed cheer. This type of message is generally best conveyed in more heightened films.