“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.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.
"Enter the Void" (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
“Enter the Void” is the closest that master provocateur Gaspar Noé has gotten to making a fantasy movie, and what a mind-frazzling fantasy it is. Noé’s passion project centers around an American drug dealer who is shot by police on the streets of Tokyo and has a out-of-body experience in which he experiences the aftermath of his death through his floating consciousness.
Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie turn their camera into a physical manifestation of their main character’s stream of consciousness, shooting the film from the floating soul’s first-person perspective as it hovers over the city. In flashbacks, the camera sits atop the character’s shoulder so that all events are experienced from his perspective. The result is a fantasy so rooted in the main character’s view of the world that to experience “Enter the Void” is to be simultaneously elevated and grounded, subjected to a rush of psychedelic uppers and downers that only Noé can control. —Zack Sharf
"A Ghost Story" (David Lowery, 2017)
Jokingly pitched as a “‘Beetlejuice’ remake directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” David Lowery’s crafty and ingenious “A Ghost Story” elevates a simple haunting into a powerful meditation on love, time, and the inevitable dissolution of all things. The movie, which reunites the lead actors from Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” stars Casey Affleck as a homebody musician and Rooney Mara as his restless wife. When he dies in a car crash, his spirit ghost lifts right off of the gurney, the white hospital sheet draped over his body as he rejects an opportunity to step into the great beyond. Silent beneath the cloth, invisible to the living, and unsure of his cosmic purpose, he begins to wander around the house where he used to live, a benign presence huddling in its corners and watching as his wife mourns, massacres a pie, and eventually moves out.
After she leaves, the ghost becomes unstuck in time. The days skip into months skip into years as his journey blurs into a domesticated riff on the final minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — it soon grows hard to tell if the ghost is haunting the house, or if the house is haunting him. Guided by cosmic forces and set to the beautiful yearning of Daniel Hart’s score, “A Ghost Story” finds poignant new meaning in life after death. —David Ehrlich
"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)
Chris Columbus launched the “Harry Potter” movie franchise with bloated fantasy spectacles that delivered eye-popping VFX thrills and squeaky clean, family-friendly storytelling. It wasn’t until Alfonso Cuarón stepped in to helm the third installment, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” that cinephiles started taking “Harry Potter” seriously. In Cuarón’s hands, the franchise realized its full potential as a studio blockbuster that could match its fantasy dazzle with mature emotional undertones.
The filmmaker allowed the franchise to grow up with its teenage characters and injected a darker tone into the series that made “Prisoner of Azkaban” the first “Harry Potter” film to have genuinely dangerous stakes for Harry, Ron, Hermione, and more. The visual palette alone was a stark contrast to what came before, as cinematographer Michael Seresin cast a cold, grey shadow over the look of the film to give it more of a hardened edge. In forcing the characters and the franchise itself to grow up, Cuarón delivered the best “Harry Potter” movie ever. —ZS
"The Purple Rose of Cairo" (Woody Allen, 1985)
In Woody Allen’s memoir “Apropos of Nothing,” he writes, “When asked which character in my films is most like me on the screen, you only have to look at Cecilia in ‘Purple Rose of Cairo.’” Indeed, Mia Farrow’s socially awkward waitress in Allen’s Depression-era 1985 fantasy is in similar pursuit of flights from reality. She falls so in love with an RKO Radio Pictures movie character, played by Jeff Daniels, that she wills him out of the screen and into her drab life. This causes problems for the producer of the movie, and sets the stage for a surreal love triangle between Cecilia and the character in the movie, and the real-life actor counterpart, also played by Daniels.
Whimsical and bittersweet, “The Purple Rose of Cairo” earned Allen a Best Original Screenplay nomination. While the climax doesn’t deliver the Hollywood ending fit for the kind of pictures Cecilia loses herself in, the melancholy finale circles “Cairo” back to reality, conjuring a magical ode to the big screen and the movies’ power to sweep us up and out of the tragedy of real life. —Ryan Lattanzio
"Coraline" (Henry Selick, 2009)
Henry Selick’s stop-motion adventure “Coraline” brings Neil Gaiman’ story to life with eye-popping and dazzling results. Dakota Fanning voices Coraline Jones, a young girl who discovers a portal in her new home that connects to an inverse reality populated by button-eyed doppelgängers. It’s the classic “Alice in Wonderland” story rendered with such detail by Selick’s stop-motion team (there were 30 different models used for Coraline alone) that to watch “Coraline” is to savor every nook and cranny of the production design and to get lost in every corner of Selick’s fantastical world.
The way Selick and his team contrast Coraline’s two opposing worlds through tweaks in color and design makes “Coraline” an endlessly involving watch, one that isn’t afraid to get scary when Coraline finds herself in danger. “Coraline” is the rare fantasy that’s accessible for all ages. —ZS
“Jumanji” (Joe Johnston, 1995)
One part wild kiddie dream (a board game comes to life!), one part deep exploration of what it means to be human (what a film to consider in the era of social distancing), Joe Johnston’s wonderfully wild 1995 fantasy offers the full breadth of the genre in an entertaining and emotional package. Loosely based on the 1981 children’s book of the same name — and later to inspire a robust and modernized franchise that’s a heartening example of remakes done right — the film spins off a relatively simple idea into fascinating spaces.
Young Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd, then later Robin Williams in a warm performance) is bullied incessantly by cruel classmates, whose mean tricks ultimately lead to him finding a mysterious board game called… Jumanji! Playing it with his only real pal Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy, later Bonnie Hunt) is fun, until they’re forced to reckon with a terrible, strange truth: its challenges and threats are very real. Three decades later, Alan is (still) trapped in the game, Sarah is stricken from the experience of seeing her best pal sucked into a playing board, and a pair of new players (Kirsten Dunst and Bradley Pierce) unknowingly saddle up for another terrifying round.
Capped off with vivid special effects (heavy on the wild animals) and a fearsome baddie, the foursome must use their wits to outsmart a game that seems to exist just to best its human players. Energetic and zippy, but with a massive emotional punch, it’s easy to get pulled into the world of “Jumanji” with each roll of the dice. —Kate Erbland
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (Edgar Wright, 2010)
Decades from now, after civilization has collapsed and we’re all living in subterranean caves to keep safe from the horrors of global warming, pandemics, and/or dragons, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” will be one of the movies people cite to define North American pop cinema of the early 21st century (a surprisingly frequent topic of conversation in post-apocalyptic caves). Edgar Wright’s frenetic, heartfelt, and relentlessly clever graphic novel adaptation will be right up there with the likes of “The Social Network,” “There Will Be Blood,” and “The Tree of Life.”
Even after the floods wipe most of the planet’s major cities off the map and video games are something we can only play in our dreams, millennials will still be communicating via isolated “Scott Pilgrim” quotes. “Bread makes you fat!?” we’ll shout at each other, desperately trying to repress the pain of subsisting on nothing but the petrified Slim Jims we nabbed from a 7-11 during a recent expedition to the surface. Many lives were lost. But we will remember their names, just as we will remember how “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” fantastically skewered a generation of stunted man-children who tried to game the girls they liked, only to end up playing themselves. —DE
"Excalibur" (John Boorman, 1982)
The great John Boorman is most acclaimed for films like “Point Blank,” “Deliverance,” and “Hope and Glory,” but his Arthurian epic “Excalibur” ranks among his top films. His career includes frequent genre jumping, with this rare fantasy effort actually coming after he rejected an offer to make “The Lord of the Rings.” Boorman, as always, fused his usual intellectual interests with a stunning visual presentation.
Though not quite reaching the scope of Peter Jackson’s later films, this provided a template for providing subsequent fantasy renditions of legends. Among the elements elevating it were its amazing cast — Nigel Terry as Arthur, but also Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, and as the lovers Lancelot and Guenevere, Nicholas Clay and Cherie Lunghi. The latters’ scenes included some of the most explicit scenes ever in a studio fantasy film, one element that might have sparked this to success (it grossed around $110 million domestic in adjusted prices). Credit Warner Bros. for taking a chance with this. Though they had a long record with Boorman, this came after his fascinating failure “The Exorcist II” and also followed in the steps of their disappointing 1967 musical “Camelot.” —Tom Brueggemann
"Aladdin" (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1992)
For its 1992 hit, Disney unearthed some hidden treasure of its own when it paired one of its greatest musical scores with a career-high comedic voice performance from the legendary Robin Williams. The great Alan Menken was Disney’s secret sauce for many years, penning ear worms in the likes of “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Newsies.” His humorous lyrics and hummable melodies made him a huge hit-maker for Disney, and “Aladdin” is no exception.
While Jafar’s racist characterization has not aged well (he is darker and has more stereotypically Arab features than the other characters), it’s worth noting that Jasmine was the first non-white Disney princess, ambiguous though her ethnicity may be. While Williams’ Genie is the star of the show, Gilbert Gottfried’s evil parrot Iago is a close second, and definitely ranks at the top when it comes to funniest villain sidekicks in Disney history. Whatever your thoughts on “Frozen,” there’s no denying they just don’t make ’em like “Aladdin” anymore. —Jude Dry
"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (Peter Jackson, 2002)
Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy is a crowning achievement in the fantasy genre, and his vision was never more ambitious than during the Battle of Helm’s Deep, the climactic set piece of second installment “The Two Towers.” One of the most visceral and dazzlingly staged battle scenes in film history, the Helm’s Deep set piece succeeds in maintaining a sense of pulse-pounding clarity through all the Uruks-on-human fighting.
That set piece defines why Jackson’s approach to “The Lord of the Rings” is so unforgettable: He takes fantasy and grounds it on such a human level and from such a human perspective that, suddenly, magical creatures and beasts feel tangible to the viewer. The fantasy horror of Helm’s Deep matches the real-world horror of “Saving Private Ryan” and allows Jackson and “The Two Towers” to transcend the genre. The Helm’s Deep battle is strong enough to warrant “Two Towers” a spot on any best fantasy list, but there’s also the full introduction of Andy Serkis’ Gollum, one of the first and most fully-realized CGI characters in film history. —ZS
"The NeverEnding Story" (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984)
Gifting an entire generation an irrational fear of quicksand (Artax! No!), there is a special place in the pantheon of most beloved fantasy films for “The Neverending Story.” German filmmaker Wolfgang Peterson (“Das Boot,” “Air Force One”) took a wild left turn from his typical wartime and action fare to craft a deeply moving, imaginative, and affecting creation.
“The Princess Bride” would later emulate the compelling story-within-a-story narrative device, which has the dual effect of drawing in young audiences as substitute protagonists while also blowing their little minds with an early dose of meta-theatricality. The whimsical puppetry is both crude and mesmerizing, namely with Falkor the fluffy white dog/dragon, creating a more natural character than the most expensive CGI effects could mimic. Upon re-watching as an adult, one is struck by how deeply sad the film is. The nothing, a malevolent force threatening to devour everything good, becomes an obvious metaphor for depression. Leave it to the Germans to make a kids’ fantasy film about nihilism. If more American films were so realist in their tone and intentions, maybe we wouldn’t all be so fragile. —JD
"Princess Mononoke" (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)
Set in the late Muromachi period of Japan, Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” follows the young prince Ashitaka as he befriends a young woman raised by wolves and finds himself caught in the struggle between the spirits of the forest and the humans who seek to destroy them and deplete the forest of its natural resources. With its environmentalist core and action-ready female lead, “Princess Mononoke” acts as a stirring continuation of the themes and characters Miyazaki first started playing with in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.” “Mononoke” takes the pacing of “Nausicaä” and elevates it with more brutality and visceral, immersive set pieces. Watching these two Ghibli films back to back helps to illustrate Miyazaki’s growth as a storyteller and his eagerness to push his own boundaries over a 13-year period. —ZS
"A Christmas Carol" (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951)
The Alastair Sim version of Charles Dickens’ popular Christmas classic (known as “Scrooge” in the U.K.) is arguably the best movie adaptation. That’s because of the depth of Sim’s portrayal as the miserable miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, after he’s already established such a droll comedic presence on screen (his bloodhound face displays a range of tragicomic delights), along with the suitably noir-like, black-and-white atmosphere.
Director Brian Desmond Hurst infuses the movie with elements of social realism and German Expressionism, which allow Sim to convey horror and comedy without ever going over the top. At the same time, the added backstory provided by screenwriter Noel Langley (“The Wizard of Oz”) offers new insights into Scrooge’s predicament, and Michael Hordern’s memorable performance as the tortured spirit, Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s late partner, is positively creepy. This version was the most relatable upon release (it was successful in Great Britain but not stateside until it found new life on TV, just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”) and remains so. —Bill Desowitz
“Mary Poppins” (Robert Stevenson, 1964)
What kid — or, hell, former kid, thus everyone — doesn’t dream of a whimsical, magical nanny sweeping into their lives to make everything better with, yes, a spoonful of sugar to help even the tough stuff go down easily? Like so many of its fantastical brethren, Robert Stevenson’s 1964 feature is built on childhood dreams and the hope that magic is powerful enough to enact real change. Inspired by P.L. Travers’ books about the eponymous nanny, the Julie Andrews-starring Disney hit weaves together live-action and animation to tell a raucous, winning story about a nutty nanny whose zest for life (and her large suitcase, filled with all manner of things) help set things right for the struggling Banks family.
While fans of the film — and there are, understandably, many, including multiple generations who were raised on “Poppins” — might most vividly remember its song-and-dance numbers and Andrews’ incandescent charm, it also packs a grounded, emotional bunch. For all its chimney-swept musical sequences and umbrella-assisted flying maneuvers, “Mary Poppins” is about how good people trying their best might affect positive change in the world, from saving a family to delivering necessary cheer, the kind of message so often best delivered by the most heightened of films. —KE
"A Matter of Life and Death" (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1946)
It might be hard to believe but Michael Powell’s favorite movie that he made with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger (who always shared directing credit) is this celestial fantasy, titled “Stairway to Heaven” in the U.S., starring David Niven and Kim Hunter as cosmically crossed lovers who thwart the natural laws of the universe with their passionate romance. Squadron leader Niven, his aircraft going down in flames, shares his last conscious moments talking by radio with Hunter, a pretty Yank he’s never met who works at the U.S. Air Force base in England.
Miraculously, he survives the crash (like Robert Montgomery in 1941’s “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”) and falls in love with Hunter. But their romance is interrupted by Conductor 71, a French aristocrat from the Revolution (Marius Goring), who escorts him to the black-and-white afterlife, where Niven appeals his case to a heavenly court and a prosecutor from the American Revolution (Raymond Massey). Fittingly, cinematographer Jack Cardiff achieved new aesthetic heights, particularly with the hyper-real Technicolor atmosphere surrounding the love story.
The opening encounter between Niven and Hunter is filled with lovely stylistic contrasts. He appears mythic in his fiery setting, while she looks angelic down below in a ray of white light. Meanwhile, Conductor 71 appropriately breaks the fourth wall to comment about being “starved for Technicolor” in the afterlife. Powell adored the subversive opportunity to challenge the austerity that had crept into post-war England’s social system and film industry. —BD
"The City of Lost Children" (Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, 1995)
The immediate follow-up to their visually arresting, raucously fun feature debut, “Delicatessen,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro conjured up another elaborately detailed fantastical universe in “The City of Lost Children.” Reminiscent of groundbreaking visual tours de force “Brazil” and “Time Bandits,” the film operates on a grand scale with eye-popping sets, ingenious special effects, Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes, and a must-be-seen-to-be-believed cast of characters that create an all-together unforgettable effect. It harks back to traditional fairy tales, staying true to those traditions by delving into wild, sometimes dark and scary flights of fancy, speaking to adults as much as, if not more than, children. —Tambay Obenson
"Kwaidan" (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi dramatically switched gears with this wonderfully stylized composition of four ghost stories. Adapted from the collections of Japanese folklore written by Greek/Irish scribe Lafcadio Hearn (also known by the Japanese name Koizumi Yakumo), “Kwaidan” features colorfully surreal sets and dazzling cinematography, in its telling of a quadrant of haunting tales of demonic retribution and spiritual trials, which are all thoroughly crafted and both theoretically and existentially frightening. It’s arguably a series of the most lavish theatrical sets, and the most imaginative theatrical lighting and direction, ever captured in Japanese cinema; simultaneously vivid and muted. —TO
"The Thief of Bagdad" (Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, and Michael Powell, 1940)
Though less well known than other older fantasy classics, such as “King Kong” and “The Wizard of Oz,” Alexander Korda’s massive early Technicolor production is as much a touchstone for the modern fantasy film. A remake of Raoul Walsh’s equally impressive 1924 film, based on a story from “One Thousand and One Nights,” this set the tone for decades of films with genies and magic carpets and, in particular, ground-breaking pre-CGI special effects for a swath of films.
Ray Harryhausen’s productions, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Disney’s “Aladdin” into Marvel today, with detours to a multitude of B-movies of the ’50s and later, all were sired in part by this epic. Few, if any, have matched it. Centered by its human core, including the irrepressible Sabu as the inventive youthful thief and Conrad Veidt as the arch-villain Jaffar, with spectacular production design by William Cameron Menzies as the peak of his talent. —TB
"The Princess Bride" (Rob Reiner, 1987)
The fantasy bonafides of Rob Reiner’s cult classic are established from the jump: this romance is literally straight out of a storybook. Unexpectedly dynamic duo Peter Falk and Fred Savage frame the story through a charming, if wholly relatable device that sees a grandfather (Falk, obviously) sharing a beloved story about beasts and princesses and kingdoms and drama with his ill grandson (Savage), who doesn’t quite understand what fairy tales have to do with them. Oh, but he’ll learn.
Both a clever rebuke to anyone who thinks that fantastical entertainment doesn’t have a place in the modern world and a sterling example of wondrous entertainment that doesn’t need to adhere to genre restrictions to delight, Reiner seamlessly moves between his fantasy world and the “real one,” with both satisfying in their own ways. While the film was only a modest hit when it was released in 1987, it’s become a beloved classic in the interim, charming audiences with its indelible storytelling and quotable lines (“aaaas youuuuu wiiiiiishhhh” became just one of dozens), genuinely sweet romance, and a generous dash of all the tropes that might the genre so much fun. Pirates and giants, evil princes and rodents of unusual size, a Pit of Despair and Billy Crystal and Carole Kane, it’s a truly a film that has everything, and shows the power of a little bit of imagination. —KE
"The Holy Mountain" (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)
“The Holy Mountain” is either the best or the worst movie to watch high, and I’ll spend the rest of my life figuring that out. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unholy vision of a messiah and his acolytes en route to the palace of wisdom on a path of excess and debauchery remains the ultimate trip, and a midnight movie as substantive in content as it is in form. With challenging and symbolic mise-en-scene, this psychedelic imagining of 16th century Spanish-Catholic texts finds Chilean filmmaker Jodorowsky doing his own production design and starring as an elusive alchemist leading a Christ figure (Horacio Salinas) and seven followers (who represent the planets of the solar system) to the titular holy apex.
Horrifying ritualistic imagery and carnage made this the scandal of the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 — it’s abrasive, ugly, beautiful, and unforgettable. Cinematographer Rafael Corkidi’s hallucinatory tableaux are about as close to a consciousness-expanding LSD experience you can get without actually dropping acid. —RL
"King Kong" (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
The legendary movie about the gorilla-like creature of Skull Island still amazes; it even returned to the big screen at the start of this year (when theaters were still open), courtesy of Fathom Events and TCM. Produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, and starring Fay Wray as the object of Kong’s affection, the exotic, primeval jungle film veers between action and horror, serving as the template for every prehistoric monster movie to come.
And it was an industry game-changer. First, it featured the pioneering work of stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, whose cutting edge creature work launched the special effects industry. The towering Kong was an 18-inch animation puppet (created by Marcel Delgado) made of steel and covered with foam skin and rabbit fur, which was manipulated by O’Brien frame by frame. Additionally, the matte paintings (by Henry Hillinck, Mario Larrinaga, and Byron C. Crabbé), miniatures, and rear projection were also ground-breaking. And composer Max Steiner was innovative as well, marking the first feature-length original score for a Hollywood movie based on themes rather than background music, and recorded by a 46-piece orchestra. This was also the first score to be recorded on three separate tracks (sound effects, dialogue, and music). —BD
“A Little Princess” (Alfonso Cuarón, 1995)
Loosely based on Francis Hodgson Burnett’s stirring 1905 novel of the same name, director Alfonso Cuarón’s North American debut seamlessly weaves the harsher elements of Burnett’s story (any kid who read it has likely never forgotten the image of a young girl having her “ears boxed” by a caretaker) with a fantastical script from Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler that plays up the inherent magic of the tale.
At its heart, it’s the stuff of (particularly dramatic) childhood fantasies: rich young girl Sara Crewe (the wonderful Liesel Matthews, who burnt bright as a kid star before getting down to business as a member of the ritzy Pritzker family, canny casting on a whole new level) is shunted off to boarding school during World War I, where she’s already a bit of an outcast before horrible news arrives that her father is dead and she’s now an orphan. Packed off to the school’s dank attic and forced to work for her keep, Sara attempts to feed her soul through a two-pronged approach: staying true to her kind nature and imagining (quite literally) a rich world in which her horrible living conditions are plush, luxe, and satisfying.
Shot by Cuarón’s constant compatriot Emmanuel Lubezki (AKA Chivo), “A Little Princess” is a feast for the eyes and the heart. As Sara’s real world situation continues to crumble, she holds fast to fantastic dreams that allow her to experience all sorts of wondrous things, from tasty meals to a comfy bed and even a still-alive father. As the film’s plot accelerates, Cuarón begins to compress the two warring sides of Sara’s story, ending with a conclusion that makes a tear-stained case for the real magic of the world: love. —KE
"Big" (Penny Marshall, 1988)
Penny Marshall’s first magnum opus (followed just four years later by “A League of Their Own”) has captivated imaginations of all ages since its 1988 debut. In fact, “Big” was so successful that it became the first movie directed by a woman to gross over $100 million at the U.S. box office, and it’s not hard to see why.
While the magical elements of “Big” may not immediately scream “fantasy film,” there’s no question of its whimsical central premise qualifying it. Marshall took the simple idea of a 13-year-old boy waking up in the body of a grown man (an underrated Tom Hanks comedic performance) and turned it into a surprisingly deep romantic comedy brimming with heart. Elizabeth Perkins oozes big city charm as the film’s duped lover, it’s a shame her career never reached the same heights Hanks’ did. There are so many iconic images in this film, but FAO Schwarz owes Marshall a huge debt of gratitude for the years of free publicity from the Chopsticks scene alone. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save its flagship Fifth Avenue location. Still, we’ll always have “Big.” —JD
"The Red Shoes" (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s dazzling ballet drama “The Red Shoes” was released in 1948. At that time, and particularly in the directors’ native England, the planet was still reeling from the aftershock of World War II, and so this film’s swoon of color, sound, and emotion came as a gust of energy for audiences starved for escape — which is in itself grounds for classifying this film as a fantasy.
Adapted from a morbid Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about an orphaned dancer freed from sin by the amputation of her feet, “The Red Shoes” remains influential not only for Jack Cardiff’s glorious Technicolor cinematography, but for screen newcomer Moira Shearer’s fancy footwork as a woman pirouetting between romance and a career. It’s an iconic story, and urgently modern. The tense dynamic between Shearer, starring as Victoria Page, and her company owner, played by Anton Walbrook, served as the inspiration for “Black Swan,” which similarly explored the toxic world of ballet, where women are controlled like marionettes by domineering men. But Victoria chooses dance over her love for a composer, played by Marius Goring. The luridly staged, tragic finale, while it certainly snaps you out of the film’s dreamlike alternate universe, is what solidifies “The Red Shoes” as a classic, where so many other films of its contemporary, especially in America, would’ve tied things up in a pretty box. —RL
"Orpheus" (Jean Cocteau, 1950)
We think of fantasy as usually removed from everyday reality. That was the case with Jean Cocteau’s 1946 “Beauty and the Beast.” The acclaim and success of that film led the multi-faceted artist to return to directing with “Orpheus” in 1950. But instead of returning to the myth’s original Greek setting or otherwise giving into a typical fantasy milieu with a more distant setting, Cocteau placed this in post-war Paris and its vicinity, with multiple non-studio scenes.
Staying with the original story of a poet encountering death and going on a journey to the underworld, this center film in the three he made in his Orpheus trilogy is considered the best of all, indeed perhaps the most realized of all his art. Influenced by recent American films, then the rage as France caught up, it suggests Cocteau may have been inspired by Val Lewton’s RKO horror films like “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie,” and unquestionably Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai,” among others. Its own subsequent influence can be seen in Kenneth Anger’s experimental films and in non-fantasy ones like Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad.” —TB
“Edward Scissorhands” (Tim Burton, 1990)
Tim Burton’s obsession with the seedy, deceitful underbelly of the modern American suburb has been well-documented over the course of his storied career, but his 1990 romantic fantasy — sandwiched, sort of unbelievably, between his pair of Batman films — is perhaps his most personal. Inspired by the auteur’s own childhood in Burbank, the film vividly lays out seemingly dueling sides of the California dream: a pin-neat neighborhood filled with lovely neighbors (read: repressed, nosy people), candy-colored houses (everything so very much the same), and nothing but the cleanest of fun (did we mention the repressed, nosy people?). It takes an outsider — played by Johnny Depp in a star-making role — to upend the status quo and force everyone to consider their own issues.
Fairy tale-like in its telling, this different and clever spin on the Pinocchio mythos (perhaps don’t build an entire being out of scraps and think everything will be just honky-dory) packs an unmistakably sexy romance at its heart (Winona Ryder has never been quite this delicate and lovely) and the kind of wrenching lessons everyone must learn at some point. Fun, right? But it is, even in its darkness, because of the rich, insular universe Burton constructed around his characters. The fantasy might not be too far off from harsh reality, but the pastel bubble that encloses the world of “Edward Scissorhands” is the kind that’s easy to get lost inside of. That’s the point, and the toughest lesson of all. —KE
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)
Deliciously outrageous fun the whole family will enjoy, this mind-bending, genre-crushing gumshoe story comes with almost every popular cartoon character but definitely does not rely on hackneyed, cartoon comedy devices. Released in 1988, it was ahead of its time, with a cutting-edge blend of live action and animated characters, and elements of film noir, complemented by an admirable performance from the late, great Bob Hoskins.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is a landmark film that sparked the most recent era in American animation, which suffered a recession during the 1970s and ’80s, when even giants like The Walt Disney Company were considering giving up on major animated productions. This $70 million production — a staggering amount for the time — was a major risk for the company, but one that paid off handsomely. —TO
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Ang Lee, 2000)
Almost 20 years since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” reignited the traditional Chinese genre of wuxia and invited the entire world to feast on its wonders, Ang Lee’s soaring, swooning masterpiece is every bit as glorious as it was on the day it came out. Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen all give career-best performances in this woozy (and still heartbreaking) epic about star-crossed lovers who trip over their own destinies, but the real star remains martial arts guru Yuen Woo-ping, whose balletic fight choreography is some of the best ever committed to the screen.
From the stunning rooftop showdown that kicks off the first action sequence, to the iconic treetop duel some two hours later, the combat here is almost supernaturally fluid. And that’s because the film’s violence is never for its own sake. On the contrary, every punch, kick, and swing of a sword is an urgent act of self-expression, as these unforgettable characters lash out at a world they long to transcend. —DE
"My Neighbor Totoro" (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Hayao Miyazaki’s fourth directorial effort and his second to be released under the Studio Ghibli banner, “My Neighbor Totoro” is the director’s most passionate love letter to the power of childhood imagination. The story centers around Satsuki and Mei, sisters who cope with their mother’s illness by befriending the title creature and going on a series of adventures that help strengthen the girls’ bond with their parents.
If there was ever a testament to the fantasy genre being one of cinema’s best coping mechanisms for processing traumas, “My Neighbor Totoro” is it. One of Miyazaki’s best decisions is to play fast and loose with the film’s plot. “Totoro” seems aimless for awhile, Miyazaki’s boundless animation style and fantastical creatures keeping the viewer occupied (Catbus is another Studio Ghibli icon). Only in the second half does the painful reality of the sisters’ situation seep into the energetic adventures, the result of which is an emotional wallop that’s become a trademark of Miyazaki’s best Ghibli movies. —ZS
"It's a Wonderful Life" (Frank Capra, 1946)
From failure to Christmas classic, Frank Capra’s masterpiece about the importance of community and the immigrant contribution to the American Dream has become a beloved touchstone of classical Hollywood cinema. Jimmy Stewart’s crucible as idealist turned cynic George Bailey, who wishes he had never been born after being stuck all his life running the family savings and loan in Bedford Falls, has its obvious roots in “A Christmas Carol.” It’s as though Capra turned Christmas Yet to Come on its head with his own apocalyptic vision.
With the aid of apprentice angel Clarence (Henry Travers), Bailey witnesses an alternate noir nightmare of despair as a result of the ripple effects that occur without his benevolent influence. Capra tapped the dark side of Stewart’s everyman persona a decade before Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann took it to its logical extreme, and the result was staggering. So much so that audiences rejected it and the movie flopped in its initial release.
It was only after it slipped into the public domain in the ’70s and became a perennial holiday favorite on hundreds of local TV stations that it was miraculously revived and appreciated for its naked emotions and narrative complexity. The way Capra and Stewart explained it was that Bailey’s anxiety was palpably real. That’s because they had no idea what to expect when resuming their Hollywood careers after World War II. For Capra, he reached his creative peak, but, for Stewart, it was just the start of a new dramatic direction. —BD
"Groundhog Day" (Harold Ramis, 1993)
A weatherman (Bill Murray) is trapped in a personal time-loop on the worst day of his life. The end. It’s not often that a comedy is funny and profound, while also having broad appeal. But “Groundhog Day” is also remarkable as a film, because it legitimized the inclusion of fantasy aspects in a mainstream comedy format.
And don’t discount film’s refusal to reveal how the film’s protagonist — Murray in one of his finest performances — came to be stuck in his loop: no amusement park device as in “Big”; no mantra, as in “Shallow Hal”; no curse, as in “What Women Want.” Nor does it specify the amount of times he repeats the same day. It could be a single year or a thousand. That withholding of information is radical, and arguably makes it something of an arthouse film in mainstream clothing. Co-starring Andie MacDowell, it’s a movie that audiences will want to watch over, and over, and over, and over, and over… —TO
“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (Peter Jackson, 2001)
It’s tempting (and perhaps more constructive) to think of Peter Jackson’s unimpeachable trilogy of Tolkien adaptations as one holistic work, but each one of these films is also an epic treasure in its own right. And while “The Return of the King” is impossible to beat for scale, and “The Two Towers” is a nimble masterclass of a second act, none of the chapters in this saga are more perfectly crafted than “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
For one thing: no Ents. For another: Everyone is still alive, and they’re all together! But what’s most impressive about “Fellowship” is how beautifully it manages to breathe life into Middle Earth and its myriad denizens. “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” are only so effective because of the emotional foundation that Jackson establishes here. In a series of strong and subtly bold choices, his film manages to liberate its legendary characters from our collective imagination. It reanimates them with the spirit of a great adventure, endows them with the urgency of a home worth saving, and chases them with deathless Nazgûl. After getting those things right, everything else just falls into place. —DE
“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are often discussed in terms of their sophisticated metaphors and dreamy, hallucinogenic pace, but with “Uncle Boonmee,” the Thai auteur embraced the mystical heart of his country’s identity. The result is a solipsistic fantasy-drama, in which an aging man looks back on the darker passages of his life, while ghost monkeys haunt the surrounding jungle and a princess engages in a sultry affair with a catfish. Even these more outrageous passages unfold with the measured pace and surreal rhythms that distinguish Apichatpong’s filmmaking, to the point where one doesn’t watch “Uncle Boonmee” so much as experience it, submerging in a vast and mysterious world where fantasy, history, and personal existential yearning blur together.
While “Uncle Boonmee” bears some similarity to the jungle setting of his earlier “Tropical Malady,” it transforms that backdrop into a fascinating meditation on Thailand’s history of violent militancy and how it sits at odds with the more entrancing qualities of its milieu. It’s a magical poem as rich with world-building possibilities as anything in Tolkien’s oeuvre but enhanced by a deeper sense of purpose. Explore the deeper contours of its historical backdrop — or just relish the experience of diving into Planet Apichatpong, with the rich sights and sounds that entails. —Eric Kohn
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
“Pan’s Labyrinth” has cemented its place in popular culture thanks to the Pale Man, a monster that eats children and has eyes on its palms for no obvious evolutionary reason than, well, it’s terrifying as hell. But the greatest appeal of Guillermo del Toro’s haunting gothic fantasy is the way it hovers somewhere between reality and dreams without bothering to sort out which is which. Like the filmmaker’s “The Devil’s Backbone,” the movie uses the historical trauma of the Spanish Civil War to explore a young child’s attempts to make sense of a dark world beyond her grasp.
At once a fairy tale about a princess’ epic return to the underworld, and a touching drama about a 10-year-old girl and her ailing mother, “Pan’s Labyrinth” finds the child embarking on a grim and eerie spin on “Alice in Wonderland,” as she undergoes a series of imaginative tasks that double as a means of resisting the Francoist dictatorship. Del Toro doesn’t sugarcoat the story — after all, Franco ruled Spain for decades — but through the profound struggle of an innocent finding her way through a bleak and upsetting world, he finds some measure of hope in her persistence, right down to the tearful finale. —EK
"Beauty and the Beast" (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
The first feature adaptation of the classic story was made just after World War II by multi-media artist and sometime director Cocteau. It remains the most artistic and cinematic version of the story of the young woman who offers herself to a beast to save her father, with unexpected results. This classic of French cinema — an early domestic arthouse hit — starred Cocteau’s lover, the impossibly handsome Jean Marais, as the beast who turns into a prince.
Very much an expressionistic tour de force that opened the door for fantasy in world cinema at a time when Neorealism was in vogue, it benefited from Henri Alekan’s brilliant cinematography as well as exquisite production, costume design, score, and, particularly, makeup, all making it a timeless classic. The fantasy genre is at its best when great artists unleash their imaginations. This is a prime example. —TB
"Ugetsu" (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
One of the best films ever made, ghost-content or otherwise. But there is a ghost — a lifelike one involved in a relationship with a living person and whose presence takes on a particularly devastating significance: As it is with most of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films, the real horror involves a woman living in a patriarchal society. The most remarkable thing about this late Mizoguchi masterpiece is that the ghost doesn’t really appear until the second half of the film, but his moving camera (mounted on a crane for nearly every shot) grounds the audience in a cinematic space that has an otherworldly spiritual resonance.
The story itself, set in the 16th century and adapted from 18th ventury ghost tales by screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, is a fatalistic tragedy about the delusional foolishness of two husbands during a civil war, and the wives they leave at home to fend for themselves. One of cinema’s purest creations, these fables about a world made unstable by the whims of men is a ghostlike experience itself. —Chris O’Falt
"Being John Malkovich" (Spike Jonze, 1966)
Spike Jonze. Charlie Kaufman. Few collaborations have registered with such perfect synergy right out of the gate. Jonze’s directorial debut takes Kaufman’s outrageous screenplay, which sounds so ludicrous on paper that that even over 20 years later it’s a miracle that it exists in the world. John Cusack as a broke puppeteer? A portal that leads to famed character actor John Malkovich’s mind? A decade-spanning history of body switcheroos and sexual awakenings? Jonze built on a decade of mind-bending music videos to turn Kaufman’s surreal conceits into a remarkable black comedy about fame, desire, and the general claustrophobia of every person’s quest toward self-discovery.
The whole thing is a literal head trip, rich with the eerie uncertainties of people chasing worlds that don’t belong to them — and sometimes stealing them. When Malkovich himself ventures into his own mind, only to find an entire universe of himself staring back at him, “Being John Malkovich” transforms into a comic body-horror riff on the nature of the ego, but even then, its homegrown rules remain consistent, so that the end result is never weird for weirdness’ sake. Jonze and Kaufman understood that in order to make their ridiculous concept click, it would have to be convincing, and the greatest magic trick of “Being John Malkovich” is that they pulled it off. —EK
"The Wizard of Oz" (Victor Fleming, 1939)
Good luck finding another American movie as influential as “The Wizard of Oz.” But when was the last time you really saw it? A pioneer in Technicolor innovation, a star-launching showcase for Judy Garland, and a culture-defining musical showstopper, Victor Fleming’s L. Frank Baum adaptation changed the world in 1939. This story of a Kansas farm girl who dreams of somewhere over the rainbow — and don’t we still all? — has been endlessly homaged, parodied, and remixed, but always with a loving hand. From the films of David Lynch, to the stoners who’ve hunkered down to experience the film set to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” to the truthers who swear they saw a munchkin hang himself on camera, “The Wizard of Oz” will never stop being a movie with plenty to obsess over.
The epic musical chairs of directors who took and decamped the helm, the makeup and costumes that literally injured people, the post-production process that put MGM executives through hell — it’s all the stuff of movie-legend fodder that invites bottomless fascination. But the final product remains an untouchable classic that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, or ever. —RL
"Spirited Away" (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar winner from Studio Ghibli is surely his most elaborate and captivating fantasy adventure. It serves as a summary statement concerning his views of Japanese culture and animation, and marked the first time that he embraced a 10-year-old girl’s rite of passage (influenced by five girls who were family friends).
It’s about Chihiro and her parents stumbling into an abandoned amusement park, which turns out to be a resort for spirits. After Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs for their gluttony, she must figure out how to set them all free. Chihiro works in a bathhouse run by a witch and is given a new name, which could potentially trap her in the spirit world. Miyazaki was influenced by Japanese Shinto-Buddhist folklore, and his spirits (kami) exist everywhere as forces of nature.
Miyazaki utilized symbolic imagery to expose the worst aspects of Japanese society at the dawn of the 21st century. At the same time, he instilled a love and respect for the environment. Chihiro’s journey of self-discovery in this cautionary tale ultimately reflects the director’s desire to help Japan reconnect with past values, and provide a sense of optimism for its youth. —BD
“The Seventh Seal” (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” remains an everlasting well of inspiration for filmmakers and moviegoers, and a genre-defying turning point for world cinema. Max von Sydow gives his all-time iconic performance as the disenchanted knight Antonius Block, who faces off against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in a chess match that takes on biblical and existential dimensions, as Antonius believes he can survive as long as the game is played. Bergman conceived of the script, adapted from his own play “The Wood Painting,” while convalescing in the hospital.
While such a rumination on mortality from a director’s own deathbed could probably explain away any Ingmar Bergman movie, he was never at higher powers than he was when transporting his fatalistic worldview to the terrain of plague-rattled Europe. “The Seventh Seal” has endured endless parody for better or worse — from the entirety of Woody Allen’s oeuvre to “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — but its legacy has endured even further, and will, influencing film critics, film scholars, and filmmakers for what is likely eternity. —RL