One of my favorite movie genres is fantasy. I decided to make a list of my 10 favorite fantasy films. Making the list was difficult for me because there are a lot of really excellent fantasy films. So I had to put some constraints in place to keep the size of my candidates manageable: no more than one Lord of the Rings film, no more than one Harry Potter film, no more than one Ray Harryhausen film, only fantasy films that feature mostly human characters (so no Dark Crystal), no animated films (so no Spirited Away), and no films with primarily children as lead actors (so no Nanny McPhee).
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). This movie, the first of the three, absolutely astonished me when I first saw it. I had been waiting for this movie for decades after reading the books, so much so that I used all my will power NOT to watch this movie until after all three films in the trilogy were released in 2003 so I could see them all in one weekend. I had huge expectations but this movie surpassed them in every way.
2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). Of all the Harry Potter films, I have a special fondness for the first one. Every scene was something new and special (I had not read the books). I particularly liked the scene when all the students were arriving at Hogwarts for the first time in small boats at night.
3. The Brothers Grimm (2005). This movie doesn’t make most top-10 fantasy lists but I think it’s an excellent film. Directed by Terry Gilliam who did many of my top-10 category movies. Matt Damon and Heath Ledger are early 1800s con-artists who run into a real, evil witch. Good combination of humor and tension.
4. Alice in Wonderland (2010). This is the version with Johnny Depp. Great special effects and a surprisingly coherent plot. I thought all the actors/voices were very strong, but I especially liked Depp as the Mad Hatter, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Most critics didn’t like the action-movie-like ending, but I did.
5. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Another Terry Gilliam film. Strange movie. The main actor, Heath Ledger, died during filming but the script was rewritten very cleverly to deal with his absence. Gilliam certainly does not dummy-down his movies — the plot was a bit tricky to follow. Terrific cinematography.
6. Legend (1985). Many of my friends were not aware that Tom Cruise starred in this full-on fantasy movie until I told them. Tim Curry makes a very evil-looking Darkness. Mia Sara’s dance scene was really beautiful but creepy. The movie has two versions with different soundtracks. I’ve only seen the version scored by electronic music band Tangerine Dream.
7. The Wizard of Oz (1939). Gosh, what can you say about this classic that hasn’t been said many times before? Like many children, I was permanently psychologically scarred by the Flying Monkeys. For years I wondered if they were real trained monkeys or small actors. Apparently some of the Flying Monkey actors were injured pretty badly when their flying wires broke.
8. Jason and the Argonauts (1963). There are many really good, older, movies with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Of all of them, I like this one the best. Some of the great effects are the talking ship’s head, the giant statue of Talos, the flying Harpies, the Clashing Rocks and Triton, the Hydra monster, and the army of skeletons.
9. Jack the Giant Slayer (2013). I saw this movie on a whim one evening – the advertising previews did not impress me. But I was pleasantly surprised. Apparently I was one of the few people who liked the film — the movie was a financial disaster, losing well over $100 million dollars.
10. MirrorMask (2005). I really can’t explain exactly why I like this movie as much as I do. Apparently this was a straight-to-DVD production, made with a relatively small budget. Helena, played by exotic looking actress Stephanie Leonidas, is bored with her life working in her parent’s small circus and ends up in the City of Light which is being consumed by shadows. The plot is pretty confused, but the visual imagery is brilliant.
Honorable Mentions and Notes:
One of my all time favorite movies of any genre is Matilda (1996), about a young girl with telekinetic powers, but even though it’s a great movie, it just doesn’t quite fall into my definition of fantasy movies. Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman are terrific as Matilda’s bizarre parents.
I really liked Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) with James Franco a lot but hated the origin of the Wicked Witch (sad to see good-to-evil because of love).
Many people like Life of Pi (2012) but I was not very impressed.
I like the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans with Harryhausen effects, but did not at all like the fancy CGI-laden 2010 version.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is really good but any movie where a child dies disturbs me.
The 1990 film The Witches, based on the Roald Dahl book, is truly scary at times.
I like all three Sinbad movies a lot: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) with the cobra woman, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) with Kali, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) with the creepy baboon and good troglodyte.
Both versions of The Thief of Bagdad are really good — the 1924 silent version with Douglas Fairbanks and an amazing Anna May Wong, and the 1940 version with Sabu and a really cool, huge genie.
The Princess Bride (1987) is on almost all top-10 fantasy lists but doesn’t quite make my personal cut. Inconceivable.
Labyrinth (1986) with David Bowie is good but hasn’t held up over time so well. Same thing for Time Bandits (1981).
I like Big Fish (2003) but felt Scottish actor Ewan McGregor absolutely was not the right person for the lead role in a Southern gothic movie; I kept waiting for McGregor to pull out a light saber.