Saturday, March 22, 2008

Top Ten Must See Fantasy Films

I don’t know what you think of when you think of Fantasy films. I honestly can’t even tell you what I think. I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is fairies and other mystical creatures. But, so many of those movies exist that are just awful. Just awful. So, we have to expand our definition of fantasy. A film where the impossible is possible. A film where the non-existent exists. A film where people fly and animals talk. All of that and then some, I suppose. But, it seems only right that we move from Science Fiction, a genre which feels it must always justify itself, to fantasy, which couldn’t need to justify itself less.

The quintessential film about filmmaking, Federico Fellini’s post-La Dolce Vita surreal masterpiece is often discounted as pretentious and self-serving, but this assessment completely misses the point. The imagery in this film is remarkable. It is composed mostly of one fantasy sequence after another, beginning with the traffic jam from hell and ending with an equally disturbing circus. Fellini is adept a representing reality in fantasy, and nowhere is that talent put to better use than here.

Back to the Future

Not the first time travel movie and certainly not the last, but Back to the Future may be the most fun out of all of them. In the 80s, the film was nostalgic and deconstructionist in its depiction of America’s cherished decade of innocence, the 1950s. Now, it has ironically become a time capsule of the 1980s. Most of the movie is pure buttery popcorn escapism, but with Robert Zemeckis at the helm and Michael J. Fox as our tour guide, our reminiscences were never more entertaining.

Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête)

Hands down, this is the best rendering of this story ever put to film. And, yes, of course, I realize that there exists a much celebrated animated version of this classic fairy tale. However, Jean Cocteau’s film is beautifully constructed in the way that it makes the audience fall in love with the beast, not because he will turn into a prince but because he is worthy of love. So many renderings of this story fail because the message is lost. Cocteau’s film preserves that message and demonstrates it beautifully.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Beautiful and heartbreaking, Michel Gondry’s film about love and memory is an intensely moving experience from first to last frame. Jim Carey gives the best performance of his career, and Kate Winslet is as impressive as ever. But, the real star of this film is the wonderfully delicate story of a life, long-forgotten, and the fragmented memories of the past. Equal parts haunting and gorgeous, this is a picture that stays with the viewer long after it is over.


Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of the story of Peter Pan and the lost boys couldn’t have strayed farther from the source material in text, but couldn’t have gotten closer in heart and spirit. Robin Williams finds the nexus between his comic instinct and his dramatic presence, and the audience believes him both as an out of touch father and as a lost little boy. Spielberg takes the imagined world of Neverland and makes it physical and palpable. The film is a perfect blend of childish escapism and adult fantasy.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Much parodied, much referenced, and much revered, sixty-two years after its original release, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has lost none of its power to move and to inspire. Jimmy Stewart is awe-inspiring as George Bailey, a flawed man but decent to the core. A much darker film than many remember, the themes are very adult but very universal. Most of us can relate to that feeling of hopelessness and desperation, and we ride the ups and downs of the story as if they were our own.

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

As much historical drama as it is dreamscape, this grueling, beautiful film is fantasy in its most necessary form. Pan’s Labyrinth centers on the story of a girl who, to escape the horrors of fascist Spain, becomes enveloped in a world of fairies, fauns, and monsters. None of these are more frightening than the reality of her step father’s cruelty, and when the two worlds collide, be it a real or imagined collision, the world of hope and the world of tragedy somehow learn to coexist.

Star Wars: A New Hope

George Lucas’ film is not so much a pure fantasy as a pastiche of other genres (western, science fiction, Saturday morning serial, etc.) that work together to create a fantastical world of the worst villains and most virtuous heroes. Certainly one of the most beloved films of all time, its devoted following speaks for itself. Taking Kubrick’s 2001 effects and expanding them beyond art and into entertainment, Lucas delivered one of the great all time date movies. Here’s to hoping, however, that you can find a copy of this before Lucas got CGI-happy and forever altered his perfectly schlocky masterwork.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

For about 95 of the film’s 100 minute running time, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays as like a dream turned into a nightmare. Often, it is, in fact, quite frightening and bordering on sadistic. For all of these reasons, it is undeniably fantastic, the Oompa Loompas, the mind trip of a boat ride, the shrinking boy, all of it. But, most remarkable of all is the performance of Gene Wilder as the eponymous candy man. He is, by turns, vicious, whimsical, and more than a little crazed, but he is always entertaining, as is the film.

The Wizard of Oz

Gorgeously conceived and beautifully executed, Victor Flemming’s The Wizard of Oz is still as magnificent to behold today as it was upon first release in 1939. Through magic of Technicolor, Dorothy, Judy Garland’s finest creation (L. Frank Baum who?), is transported to a land far greater than anything she could have ever imagined from her drab Kansas home. The songs are memorable, the performances are B-movie perfect, and the setting is that agonizingly glorious place that exists between childhood and adulthood, a place we have all been and know in our hearts.

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