“Home is behind; the world ahead.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s motto in “The Lord of the Rings” also captures one of the things that’s so powerful and intoxicating about the art of movies itself: that feeling of leaping through the screen, leaving your life behind, and being immersed in something totally new. Escapism is often used as a dismissive term, even by those who use it endearingly. But the cinema has a capacity for escape unlike any other medium — shouldn’t that be embraced?
The best fantasy filmmakers — Jean Cocteau, Guillermo del Toro, and Hayao Miyazaki, among so many others — understand the psychological power of escapism. Sometimes you need to step outside of yourself to look back in. The best escapist entertainments ultimately bring us back to ourselves.
These 40 fantasy films open up new worlds and new paths of understanding and empathy. Space-borne fantasy — “Star Wars” and its ilk, a rich enough world to inspire its own list — is excluded here, as are films in which fantasy is expressed primarily as simply daydreams. These are triumphs of imagination and world-building that seem incapable of losing their power to enchant.