The Fantastics: Magical Realism and Design

by misscabbage | created - 18 Sep 2011 | updated - 21 Sep 2011 | Public

Movies that capture the imagination and bring magic to life, where the design is part of the storytelling.

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1. Penelope (2006)

PG | 104 min | Comedy, Fantasy, Romance

48 Metascore

A modern romantic tale about a young aristocratic heiress born under a curse that can only be broken when she finds true love with "one who will accept her as one of their own."

Director: Mark Palansky | Stars: Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Reese Witherspoon, Richard E. Grant

Votes: 54,990 | Gross: $10.01M

The most perfect modern fairy tale shows an enchanted "princess" who breaks her own curse, and finds the loveliness of the real world. Penelope herself has a luxuriant room, costumes, and manner, a little girl in a grown up woman.

2. The Brothers Bloom (2008)

PG-13 | 114 min | Adventure, Comedy, Drama

55 Metascore

The Brothers Bloom are the best con men in the world, swindling millionaires with complex scenarios of lust and intrigue. Now they've decided to take on one last job - showing a beautiful and eccentric heiress the time of her life with a romantic adventure that takes them around the world.

Director: Rian Johnson | Stars: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi

Votes: 44,793 | Gross: $3.52M

Fantasy doesn't sweep the characters into adventure, they make it themselves, with lies and make-believe, until the story gets away from them. Eastern Europe provides a backdrop not often seen in films, as well as old trains, sailing ships, castles real and fake, and crystalline bars. Film noir simplicity modernizes the thieving caper costumery. But the best part is Rinko Kikuchi, who is her own piece of art among the brilliant cast.

3. Alice (2009)

Not Rated | 184 min | Adventure, Drama, Fantasy

Everything you know about Alice's adventures in Wonderland is about to be turned upside down in this modern-day miniseries event. Stars Kathy Bates, Caterina Scorsone, Matt Frewer, Harry Dean Stanton and Tim Curry.

Stars: Caterina Scorsone, Andrew Lee Potts, Matt Frewer, Kathy Bates

Votes: 8,670

Unlike Tim Burton's resplendent Alice, the sparseness of the scenes in the Syfy channel version sets a darker, cyberpunk edge to the story. And we like Andrew Lee Potts (okay, mostly ALP...)

4. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

PG-13 | 123 min | Adventure, Fantasy, Mystery

65 Metascore

A traveling theater company gives its audience much more than they were expecting.

Director: Terry Gilliam | Stars: Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Andrew Garfield

Votes: 134,170 | Gross: $7.69M

Put post-modernism together with magical realism, and add Heath Ledger. Then take away Heath Ledger! I don't have the words to capture the way theatrics and hallucination weave this unusual story, but you can't just watch it once.

5. Amélie (2001)

R | 122 min | Comedy, Romance

69 Metascore

Amélie is an innocent and naive girl in Paris with her own sense of justice. She decides to help those around her and, along the way, discovers love.

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet | Stars: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Lorella Cravotta

Votes: 612,911 | Gross: $33.23M

Magic and hope aren't limited to fairy tales, and this woman's journey through her imagination leads her to find her own happiness in others'.

6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

PG-13 | 112 min | Action, Comedy, Romance

69 Metascore

Scott Pilgrim must defeat his new girlfriend's seven evil exes in order to win her heart.

Director: Edgar Wright | Stars: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Alison Pill

Votes: 314,570 | Gross: $31.49M

Not my favorite movie of all, but our imaginations are stretched to accept the larger-than-life story by clever video game and youth culture references. And Michael Cera gives it the heart that I didn't feel in the comic book.

7. Woman on Top (2000)

R | 92 min | Comedy, Fantasy, Romance

41 Metascore

Brazilian chef Isabella Oliveira moves to San Francisco when her husband, frustrated by her motion sickness, cheats on her.

Director: Fina Torres | Stars: Penélope Cruz, Murilo Benício, Harold Perrineau, Mark Feuerstein

Votes: 9,177 | Gross: $5.02M

The vibrance of Latin America and San Francisco set the energy for this movie, more analogy than love story. A great modern folk story.

8. (500) Days of Summer (2009)

PG-13 | 95 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance

76 Metascore

An offbeat romantic comedy about a woman who doesn't believe true love exists, and the young man who falls for her.

Director: Marc Webb | Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Geoffrey Arend, Chloë Grace Moretz

Votes: 420,366 | Gross: $32.39M

Not quite fantastical, but the way a vintage LA is shown reflects the main character's moods and emotions in a bittersweet way. Zooey Deschanel's outfits are envy-worthy.

9. Mirrormask (2005)

PG | 101 min | Adventure, Fantasy

55 Metascore

In a fantasy world of opposing kingdoms, a fifteen-year-old girl must find the fabled MirrorMask in order to save the kingdom and get home.

Director: Dave McKean | Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon, Gina McKee

Votes: 21,217 | Gross: $0.86M

Each of Neil Gaiman's creations is an amazing world, but this one takes the golden prize for ethereal, exotic creation. It's both alien, and also frighteningly internal. Leonides' acting is the thread that ties together the whimsy and the gravity.

10. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (2007)

G | 93 min | Comedy, Family, Fantasy

48 Metascore

Molly Mahoney is the awkward and insecure manager of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, the strangest, most fantastic, most wonderful toy store in the world. But when Mr. Magorium, the 243-year-old eccentric who owns the store, bequeaths the store to her, a dark and ominous change begins to take over the once-remarkable Emporium.

Director: Zach Helm | Stars: Natalie Portman, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Bateman, Ted Ludzik

Votes: 38,465 | Gross: $32.06M

There is a magical toy shop, run by a magical little man, who find the magic in everyone he sees. Who would you cast? Dustin Hoffman, of course! Brimming with delight, the movie is also gently sentimental, and got a tear from me at "These are my last pair of shoes."

11. A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

PG | 108 min | Adventure, Comedy, Family

62 Metascore

When a massive fire kills their parents, three children are delivered to the custody of cousin and stage actor Count Olaf, who is secretly plotting to steal their parents' vast fortune.

Director: Brad Silberling | Stars: Jim Carrey, Jude Law, Meryl Streep, Liam Aiken

Votes: 177,226 | Gross: $118.63M

How to capture the brilliant tongue-in-cheek sincerity of the books? Let Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, and Billy Connolly bring it to life, giving it just enough outlandishness to paint the blundering idiosyncrasies of the adult world that the children must navigate to solve mysteries and save themselves.

12. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

PG-13 | 105 min | Drama, Fantasy, Romance

74 Metascore

A gentle man, with scissors for hands, is brought into a new community after living in isolation.

Director: Tim Burton | Stars: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall

Votes: 395,192 | Gross: $56.36M

In every Tim Burton film, the design is integral to the story, but this is one of the few that embed surreal characters in a supposedly real world. The cookie-cutter houses and marshmallow fruit jello people inside them, though, reveal that outlandish Edward is the most human of all.

13. Big Fish (2003)

PG-13 | 125 min | Adventure, Drama, Fantasy

58 Metascore

A frustrated son tries to determine the fact from fiction in his dying father's life.

Director: Tim Burton | Stars: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange

Votes: 376,985 | Gross: $66.26M

Another Tim Burton film that takes an ordinary "how I met your mother" story and makes something extraordinary out of it.

14. The Secret of Moonacre (2008)

PG | 103 min | Adventure, Family, Fantasy

When 13-year-old Maria Merryweather's father dies, leaving her orphaned and homeless, she is forced to leave her luxurious London life to go and live with Sir Benjamin, an eccentric uncle ... See full summary »

Director: Gabor Csupo | Stars: Ioan Gruffudd, Dakota Blue Richards, Tim Curry, Juliet Stevenson

Votes: 8,585

This movie teeters between kid flick and fantasy film, not quite satisfying either, but it's set on a gorgeous palette, and the heroine's scrumptious Victorian gowns are more dreamy than historical.

15. Hook (1991)

PG | 142 min | Adventure, Comedy, Family

52 Metascore

When Captain Hook kidnaps his children, an adult Peter Pan must return to Neverland and reclaim his youthful spirit in order to challenge his old enemy.

Director: Steven Spielberg | Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins

Votes: 202,593 | Gross: $119.65M

We've seen many beautiful, elaborate recreations of Neverland over the years, but nothings matches the youthful exuberance of this one. I want to live in that tree house, too.

16. The Lovely Bones (2009)

PG-13 | 135 min | Drama, Fantasy, Thriller

42 Metascore

Centers on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family - and her killer - from purgatory. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.

Director: Peter Jackson | Stars: Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon

Votes: 137,893 | Gross: $43.82M

Not the feel-good fantasy of the others on this list, but a haunting other-world presence. The best moments are glimpses of her riding the bike, meeting a boy, and moments when the camera shows her full of life.

17. Marie Antoinette (2006)

PG-13 | 123 min | Biography, Drama, History

65 Metascore

The retelling of France's iconic but ill-fated queen, Marie Antoinette. From her betrothal and marriage to Louis XVI at 15 to her reign as queen at 19 and to the end of her reign as queen, and ultimately the fall of Versailles.

Director: Sofia Coppola | Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn, Judy Davis

Votes: 88,827 | Gross: $15.96M

Sofia Coppola proved her worth right out of the gate with this movie, like history books on drugs.

18. Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

R | 118 min | Drama, Fantasy, War

98 Metascore

In the falangist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.

Director: Guillermo del Toro | Stars: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú

Votes: 538,116 | Gross: $37.63M

The organic world that a little girl falls into is ancient and eternal. The creatures are inhuman enough to be frightening, yet buried somewhere in our cultural memories. What's wonderful about this film is that it doesn't overdo the detail and keeps its secrets hidden in the dark.

19. Wild Wild West (1999)

PG-13 | 106 min | Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi

38 Metascore

The two best hired guns in the West must save President Grant from the clutches of a nineteenth-century inventor-villain.

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld | Stars: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Salma Hayek

Votes: 139,695 | Gross: $113.81M

This film is one of the few truly steampunk flicks from Hollywood, and it's a tough genre to sell. Kevin Kline, and a flurry of creative gadgetry, try very hard. Without the lovely brassy things, it would be just a 19th century version of Miami Vice, and not a very good one. I suggest a sequel, without the chick, involving air travel, a booby-trapped house, and more beautiful waistcoats.

20. Stardust (2007)

PG-13 | 127 min | Adventure, Family, Fantasy

66 Metascore

In a countryside town bordering on a magical land, a young man makes a promise to his beloved that he'll retrieve a fallen star by venturing into the magical realm.

Director: Matthew Vaughn | Stars: Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Sienna Miller, Ian McKellen

Votes: 229,681 | Gross: $38.63M

Honorary Mention: This story is almost full fantasy, but the designs have a fun mix of traditional and quirky. And that pirate airship makes me happy every time.

21. Labyrinth (1986)

PG | 101 min | Adventure, Family, Fantasy

50 Metascore

A 16-year-old girl is given 13 hours to solve a labyrinth and rescue her baby brother when her wish for him to be taken away is granted by the Goblin King.

Director: Jim Henson | Stars: David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud, Shelley Thompson

Votes: 106,288 | Gross: $12.73M

Honorary Mention: Again, too much fantasy and not enough realism to make it onto the big list, but Brian Froud's designs are so gorgeous, we fall head over heels into Sarah's journey. 80's fantasy movies stay with us through the CGI revolution because of the attention Jim Henson put into making and building every set and character, giving a level of detail you can't replicate on a computer. Take a look at the boat scene in Dark Crystal. And another look. And another. You still haven't seen everything there.