Choosing the top 10 fantasy movies is not straightforward. Early films, even up to the 1990s suffer from serious quality and tone issues (1997’s risible Kull The Conqueror), or while worthy, are not so easy to watch; the much revered, but now severely dated, Wizard of Oz sits squarely in this category.
Also excluded are sf and superhero fantasies (sorry Hellboy) because they have enough fantastic material for their own top 10 lists (sf, see here and superheroes here). And, no cartoons (Fantasia, Shrek) or other forms of 2D animation (ruling out the excellent Corpse Bride and Coraline); magnificent though they are as slices of fantasy their format deserves a separate category altogether.
So, here the list, it’s pretty broad, but does emphasise watchability and the dark, mysterious places of the mind.
Truman Show, 1998.
Director: Peter Weir. Featuring Jim Carrey (The Mask, Grinch) and Ed Harris, Natascha McElhone (Solaris)
Jim Carrey, a talented actor who generally lacks control both over his limbs and facial muscles transcends this natural inclination to create the performance of a lifetime in a simple, brilliant fantasy about the dangers of a modern life conducted in the glare of the camera. Carrey’s character is born on an utterly believable TV set, and his life is examined, minute by minute, something the Myley Cyruses and Britney Spears of today have had to endure. Remarkably prescient, with cringe-inducing moments of dramatic irony this truly deserves its place in the top 10.
Based on a novel by Neil Gaiman this brilliant movie maintains the exquisite, muscular imagination of its source. This is a modern fairy tale, with falling meteors, hidden worlds, dark threats and imaginative twists that cast a cynical eye on the fantasy genre while revelling in its freedoms. Curiously also includes Henry Cavill (Superman) and narrated by the inestimable Ian Mckellan (Magneto, Gandalf and one of the greatest theatre actors of his generation).
I know this is new but it’s a terrific ride and better than the its predecessor. Jennifer Lawrence is active and powerful as the everygirl thrown back on her own resources. The brilliant character acting of Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson, the set piece flames and landscapes, and a silky Donald Sutherland make this hugely entertaining. Not to be missed though is the subversive battle against brutality in a dystopia that pits the downtrodden poor against the lavish lifestyles of the ruling folk; it’s not an original theme but certainly a cautionary tale for the modern teen generation.
This movie has haunted me for decades. I saw it when it was first released and it made a deep impression on me: the iron elevator doors, the long shadows, the grainy storytelling, the devil dressed smart and sharp. This could easily fit it a crime and mystery top ten but the dark themes, the depths of personal redemption and enigmatic, suggestive visual imagery draws it into the realms of fantasy.
This justifies its place not just on its own, but as representative of the entire series of Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Although the third and fourth were a touch too flabby, this first movie is incredible, with Johnny Depp’s outrageous take on the untrustworthy pirate trope, and the gallery of colourful characters with Geoffrey Rush and Orlando Bloom acting their socks off. It could have been really cheesy, with the inevitable love story dominated by the feisty Keira Knightly character Elizabeth Swann, but add an ancient curse, a deadly search for treasure and the dark, supernatural deeds, and this becomes a thrilling, triumphant fantasy.
The legend of Arthur has been tried so many times, (from the brilliant 1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Clive Owen’s turgid King Arthur of 2004), but nothing so powerful, or just plain dirty as Boorman’s dark epic. The decidedly peculiar voice of Merlin still gives me the creeps, and the tension between the grim landscape and the shiny armour of the Knights offers a constant reminder of man’s attempt to conquer the unconquerable. With an incredible cast including Liam Nielsen, Cherie Lunghi, Patrick Stewart and Gabriel Burne it’s lopsided, over suited, but pure magic.
This is a fine film and a worthy end but represents the whole series, which saw improvements in each of the eight outings. The Harry Potter movies had such a grip on a generation of readers and movie goers it’s impossible to ignore. At first the splitting of the final book into two movies seemed to be a cyclical marketing ploy but the final film is solid fantasy action and even teases some passable performances from the main characters. As ever the mood of the film is the killer feature complemented by the stunning old-school talent that graced each of the entire series, from Ralph Fiennes‘ rasping Voldemort to the doddering, arch deputy head Dame Maggie Smith. A fine ending, it holds no punches and finally we have the Harry Potter vs Voldermort we all wanted, with Potter being old enough to hold his own in a proper magical battle.
Oh, oh, this nearly made number one, and i the middle of the night when I dream of dark corridors and deep pits, it still is. It’s mood reminds me of Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson stories of the early 19th Century, full of weird, spooky, hands with eyes, but its starting point is German occupied Spain, 1944 and a young girl’s attempt to escape the awfulness of the life around her. Doug Jones (Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four) makes a fantastic horned faun. A must-see film for any fan of dark fantasy
And so, to the pinnacle, The Return of the King. Another representative of a series of films, Peter Jackson‘s lovingly detailed serving of Tolkein’s vision is as complete and scrupulous as one could ever imagine. Tolkein was a stickler for the realization of the whole world in his novels and surely would have been delighted with the detail and the romance (in a medieval sense) of the films. Of course there are great battles, dark moments, the brilliant Andy Serkis as Gollum, the exhilarating Orlando Bloom, and a truly satisfying end, this is the culmination of over 8 hours of movie watching, and worth every single second.
Plenty of really good movies just didn’t quite make the top Ten, and some didn’t make the Special Mentions either: 2005’s Brothers Grimm, (with Terry Gilliam, Matt Damon and Heath Ledger offering a typically skewed view of the original tales), Clash of Titans from 2010 and The Mummy of 1999, were very close indeed. Some of the older movies such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Beauty And The Beast (1946) were groundbreaking but are difficult to watch now, without tearing into the production values of the time. Below the movie posters gallery is the list with directors and actors.
- Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013. Director: Peter Jackson. Featuring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis and Benedict Cumberbatch (as the voice of the dragon).
- Serenity, 2005. Director: Joss Whedon (Buffy, Avengers). Featuring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave).
- Time Bandits, 1981. Director: Terry Gilliam. Featuring Michael Palin, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall.
- Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1989. Director: Terry Gilliam. Featuring John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley.
- The City Of Lost Children, 1995. Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Featuring Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet.
- Delicatessen, 1991. Directors: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Featuring Marie-Laure Dougnac, Dominique Pinon.
- MirrorMask, 2005. Director: Dave McKean. Featuring Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon. (Neil Gaiman script).
- Pleasantville, 1998. Director: Gary Ross. Featuring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen.
- The Fall, 2006. Director: Tarsem Singh. Featuring Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004. Director: Alfonso Cuarón. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grinch.
- Twilight, Breaking Dawn Part 2, 2012. Director: Bill Condon. Featuring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner.
This fantasy top 10 is heavily biased towards the dark and moody end of the fantastic but there are some fine examples of family oriented, playful movies, from Mary Poppins (1964), Nanny McPhee (2005) and 2007’s enchanting Enchanted.
- The Wizard of Oz, 1939. Director: Victor Fleming. Featuring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley and Billie Burke.
- Alice in Wonderland, 2010. Director: Tim Burton. Featuring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter.
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005. Director: Tim Burton. Featuring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly.
- The Witches, 1990. Director: Nicolas Roeg. Featuring Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher .
- Jumanji, 1995. Director: Joe Johnston. Featuring Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst.
- Where The Wild Things Are, 2009. Director: Spike Jonze. Featuring Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker.
- The Dark Krystal , 1982. Director: Jim Henson, Frank Oz. Featuring Jim Henson, Kathryn Mullen, Frank Oz.
- Willow, 1988. Director Ron Howard. Featruing Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley, Warwick Davis. George Lucas script.
- Labyrinth,1986. Director: Jim Henson. Featuring David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud.
- Neverending Story, 1984. Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Featuring Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach.
Well, that’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll shift things around over the next few months, and with the last Hobbit coming at the end of the year, that might affect the top 10.
Other sf and fantasy related posts include:
Please take a look at these and let me know what you think. Thank you.