From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Top Ten Magical Realism Films

Times have changed. It used to be that people would recoil from someone claiming to be a fan of fantasy, as if at any moment they’d be swarmed by pixies and carried to a strange land, where they’d be forced to fight unicorns for money. Now, if you say you like fantasy films, people are more likely to lean in and whisper their favorite Hogwarts house affiliation. It’s a brave new age for the fantasy fan.

However, not every fantasy movie has to be a 3D extravaganza. Sometimes you want your fantasy a little subtler, just enough to skew the standard. Below, in no particular order, our ten favorite flicks with a magical-realist bent.

1. Lawn Dogs

This film is ostensibly a class drama about a girl from a gated community who strikes up a friendship with one of the hired lawnmowers. In fact, the trailer goes to great pains to make it look exactly like that. It is a story about that friendship, but the effects of their bond are more powerful than anyone expects, and things seem just surreal enough throughout that when magic begins to bleed through the seams, you saw it coming all along.

(Additional fantasy element: young Mischa Barton actually delivering a believable performance.)



2. Whale Rider

Paikea is the granddaughter of a Maori chief who resents her for surviving her twin brother. When he sets his sights on finding a (male) candidate for succession, Paikea sets out to prove that she’s the leader her people have been waiting for, either by passing her grandfather’s tests, or by tapping into a more powerful legend. Paikea is so painfully real as a character that her supernatural powers seem nothing more than an extension of her determination, just as the movie intends.

(Additional fantasy element: Lisa Gerrard score and Keisha Castle-Hughes’s expressions may combine and create sea of tears on which viewers may float away.)



3. Donnie Darko

An instant classic with fans of the grim and surreal, Donnie Darko tells the story of a very special young man who feels a little out of place in his world, and his very special imaginary friend, a monstrous rabbit with a built-in Armageddon countdown. (…the kid has a point.) Aside from the mind-bending plot, Donnie Darko‘s tone and visuals are both a little twisted, and it’s already become a fixture in the dark-spec canon.

(Additional fantasy element: If you play the Sparkle Motion performance backwards, it opens a portal to another dimension.)



4. Big

The sneakiest fantasy film of them all. Josh Baskin tangles with the wrong street-fair fortune-telling machine, and wakes up with a severe case of chronomorphia that forces him to flee into a bizarre new life where he must try to understand the strange and hostile beings around him before he’s overwhelmed. But then he gets a job at a toy company, which ends up working out pretty nicely for everyone!

(Additional fantasy element: wearing that white tux takes some kind of magical power, and you know it.)



5. Pleasantville

After a creepy repairman drops off a new remote, feuding siblings David and Jennifer find themselves transported into black-and-white 50s sitcom Pleasantville with no way out, unless they’re willing to risk seriously shaking things up. Pleasantville is a parable about the powers and pitfalls of change, but the high-concept premise often flies under the fantasy radar (the same fate that greeted Woody Allen’s similarly-themed Purple Rose of Cairo).

(Additional fantasy element: a woman over 30 gets a romantic plot. This MUST be an alternate dimension!)



6. Paprika

Atsuko Chiba is a scientist testing prototypes of the DC Mini, a device that allows doctors to enter their patients’ dreams for therapeutic reasons. Of course, some prototypes quickly go missing, and soon both Chiba and her alter-ego Paprika are on the run from a mad scientist and a rogue dream that threatens to spill into the real world. Satoshi Kon’s imagery swings from beautiful to terrifying, but it’s always arresting, and the movie is a fantastic exploration of the very thin line between imagination and reality.



7. Lola rennt

Because we’ve all wanted to call a do-over on a really bad day.

(Additional fantasy element: magical sweat-blocking spells are in abundant use.)



8. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

First clue it’s magical realism: it’s a Wes Anderson movie. Second clue: the actual movie. Steve Zissou is a scientist on a mission to find the jaguar shark that ate his friend Esteban (as happens). But this is much more than a quest; though the idea of man-fights-nature is realistic enough on the surface, the movie is set in a world where scientists sell out concert halls and have entourages, which makes the menagerie of just-askew creatures that Zissou encounters the very least of this movie’s quirky world-building.

(Additional fantasy element: as if Owen Wilson would ever score Cate Blanchett.)



9. Death Takes a Holiday

If you can forget that this 1934 flick was the inspiration for the execrable Meet Joe Black, then you’re in for a treat. (If you can’t forget, we understand.) Death, wondering what it is that makes mankind so wary of him, takes a holiday to discover the secret passions of a man’s life. He discovers triumphs both minor (small talk) and major (the alluring Grazia), and soon must make a choice between family and career that’s more awkward than when that question usually comes up. It’s a delightful slice of Old Hollywood, from the dry script to the mannered acting, and a must-see for film buffs.

(Additional fantasy element: its online invisibility. Be prepared to shell out twenty bucks for the DVD, or keep your eyes peeled on TCM.)



10. Groundhog Day

“What did you DO today?”

“Oh, same old, same old.”

Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Federations, and more. She is a columnist at Tor.com and Fantasy Magazine. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is forthcoming in 2011. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.

12 Responses »

  1. Sorry, but I’m not seeing how Donnie Darko is magical realism.

  2. A few of these are not magical realist at all. Very strong fantasies, yes, but not magical realist. It’s a good list anyway, but mis-titled a bit.

  3. I would have put Stranger Than Fiction at no. 2.

  4. almost anything by Emir Kusturica.

    Tuvalu by Veit Helmer.

    Amelie and A Very Long Engagement by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

    two or three titles by Giuseppe Tornatore.

  5. The Life Aquatic is an awesome movie.

  6. If you list DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, then you needs must consider ON BORROWED TIME, a charming lil’ movie that lets Death take an entire family (including both parents and their child) simply because he’s miffed Old Gramps got him up a tree… literally.

  7. the number one should be “perfume”- the story of a murderer. Its the best

  8. Very helpful list. But I’m curious… Would you regard Gremlins as Magical Realism? I’d imagine Edward Scissorhands fits the genre, too…?

  9. Surprised to see Amelie missing from your list. For my money it’s one of the best examples around.

  10. what is your definition of realism

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