Top 10 Modern Magic Realism Movies

by Eric Melin on August 10, 2010

in Top 10s

Magic realism (also known as magical realism) is a literary term that’s applied when a book blends the real and fantastic together, usually to reach a deeper understanding of reality. But when you apply it to film, it’s a bit harder to pin down. Films tend to explain things, even when they revel in the uncanny. For instance, “Inception” lays out the rules for its alternate reality and different layered dream worlds. Sure, the things that happen are completely outside of our reality, but the characters go through great pains to explain why Paris is folding over on itself, etc.

In magic realism, things that can’t happen in the real world just happen and are usually meant metaphorically—they aren’t treated as weird by any of the characters involved or the film itself. Magical realism isn’t explained away as a dream and it’s not fantasy. The peculiar is either constant throughout the film or is the culmination of realistically portrayed events. This was a tough one to write, since the term is so amorphous, but here goes: In honor of the newest film to dabble in the world of magic realism (which opens Friday and comes in at #7 on this list), here are the Top 10 Modern Magic Realism Movies. If you’d like to submit a Top 10 of your own, email me at eric@scene-stealers.com.

Possible runners-up:

Groundhog Day, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Being John Malkovich, Edward Scissorhands , Purple Rose of Cairo, Big Fish, Field of Dreams, L.A. Story, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

LIFE_AQUATIC jaguar shark10. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Wes Anderson’s bizarre tribute to famed oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau features Bill Murray as the title character. A bitter and petty man, he’s on a mission to kill the glowing, fluorescent “Jaguar shark” that ate his best friend—not exactly a mission of peace and hope. The Jaguar shark isn’t the only magical thing in the film—many of the sea creatures were animated by Henry Selick (“Coraline”). In Anderson’s version of reality, underwater documentarians show films in ornate opera houses, script girls go topless as a matter of routine, and a crew member sings David Bowie covers all day in Portuguese. Everything is just a little “off” in “The Life Aquatic” (more so than any of his other films) although most of the land-locked world eerily resembles our own. Once the characters venture out into the ocean, they discover the frail nature of human existence—and Zissou finally learns to respect that.

pleasantville maguire allen9. Pleasantville (1998)

Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are siblings who get deposited in the black-and-white world of a 1950s sitcom in this overlooked film, written and directed by Gary Ross. As they bring modern attitudes about sex, race, and personal freedoms to this squeaky-clean don’t-rock-the-boat environment, the characters who change their habits begin to appear in color. The Pleasantville citizens who embrace these new cultural ideas are marked in this way and soon the old-fashioned town leaders turn against them too. David Lynch knows that something more nefarious is lurking below the white-picket fence (see “Blue Velvet”), but “Pleasantville” blows the lid right off of the façade as the town’s pent-up repression explodes into rage.

like-water-for-chocolate 19928. Like Water For Chocolate (1992)

Based on the popular Mexican novel from 1989, “Like Water For Chocolate” takes the idea of sexual heat and portrays it quite literally. Not only can sexual desire be transferred through cooking, but too much passion can result in actual fires—the kind that burn down houses. In addition, ghosts haunt the love-stricken protagonists Tita and Pedro—the kind of ghosts that represent repressive sexual attitudes and must be defeated. At the time of its release, “Like Water For Chocolate” was hugely popular for a foreign film, and became the highest-grossing Spanish-language movie in America. Speaking of closeness: The movie was directed by Alfonso Arau from the book and screenplay written by his ex-wife Laura Esquivel. (Even weirder—Arau played El Guapo in “Three Amigos.”)

scott_pilgrim_vs_the_world punch7. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

Being the movie version of a comic book that speaks to and for a generation of kids raised on videogames, director Edgar Wright has his selfish lead character (played by Michael Cera) lapse into otherworldly battles at a moment’s notice. The fight scenes are perfectly suited to the kinetic slapstick that’s also happening throughout the film, so when giant monsters appear during a battle of the bands, defeated enemies turn into coins, or Scott Pilgrim gets an extra life, none of his friends bat an eye. During the first part of the movie, Scott is almost anesthetized to the world around him. But as the movie progresses, he finds his passion (winning the right to date a girl named Ramona) and has his resolve tested the way he’s used to being tested—through a videogame fight to the death.

moulin__rouge flying6. Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Yes, it’s overly loud and grandiose and in your face for most of its 2-hour running time, but Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” also has some of the most inspired scenes of magical realism in the last decade. Conceptually, it is peculiar from the start, since all the songs performed in this musical were written about 70-90 years after the film is actually set (which is during the turn of the 20th Century). The setpieces are extraordinary, each one a more heightened version than the last. Whether they are stagebound (surrounded by Bollywood-style costume and design) or flying through the sky, the tragic lovers played by Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are in the throes of a passionate affair that can literally touch the moon.

adaptation-cage 20025. Adaptation (2002)

Directed by Spike Jonze, this Charlie Kaufman-penned battle between Charlie and his fictional brother Donald (both played by Nicolas Cage) takes some pretty strange turns, putting it in the category of a film that culminates in magic realism. When anxiety-ridden screenwriter Charlie watches his real world become the same kind of clichéd action film that his talentless twin Donald has been trying to write, the only one who notices is Charlie. Does this introspective meta-journey conform to the rules of a bad Hollywood picture at the expense of plausible character development? You bet it does. It ends with—of all things—a car chase. Remarkably, through all of the movie’s convoluted third-act turns, it also manages to enlighten Charlie and make some kind of emotional sense.

run-lola-run 19984. Run Lola Run (1998)

Here’s another movie with some videogame-like parallels. German director Tom Twyker burst onto the international filmmaking scene with this thriller, starring Franka Potente as a girl who has 20 minutes to get 100,000 Deutsche Marks or her boyfriend will be killed. Everything about this world is exactly like ours, except when Lola fails to save her boyfriend, she says “stop” and the movie starts over with her running again. Like a second life in a videogame, she now applies all the things she learned to this new life in order to navigate her mission with success this time. By the third run, her boyfriend is saved, but Lola is the only one with knowledge of her previous two tries. She isn’t the only one with multiple destinies, however: the people she bumps into get snapshot still-frame fast-forwards that reveal wildly different fates as well.

barton-fink hallway 19913. Barton Fink (1991)

Possibly the strangest Coen brothers movie ever made, this one involves a self-absorbed playwright (John Turturro) who goes to Hollywood to write a movie script while remaining true to “the common man.”Besides a general feeling that something is “off,” the film is loaded with dread—unbearable heat gives way to peeling wallpaper in Barton’s hotel room, which eventually gives way to him waking up with a bloody corpse next to him and a firey visit from very possibly the Devil himself. And considering how these things change the stakes, the uncanny is not all simply in Barton’s head. Is the hotel like a nightmare rest-stop for people who are between stable times in their lives? Maybe. Either way, Barton certainly comes to realize that he was probably fooling himself when he thought he had enough experience to explore “the life of the mind.”

pans_labyrinth_20062. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece skirts fantasy and horror, but I believe it falls into the category of magic realism because the film doesn’t try to separate the fantasy world from the real world—one is constantly intruding on the other. It is a fairy tale after all. During the Spanish Civil War, a young girl (Ivana Baquero) and her mother come under the protection of a cruel Captain while frightening creatures start appearing around her. The magic portions of the film exist as a mirror to the horror of the malevolent real world and one informs the other. Like the best tales infused with magic realism, the very idea of this world brings us closer to that feeling of wonderment that can only be experienced in childhood.

Synecdoche New York 20081. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Whether its small fires burning in every corner of Samantha Morton’s house that nobody seems to mind or the fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman is casting and rehearsing an ever-changing play about his lifestory in a giant warehouse with an unlimited budget and cast of hundreds, the reality of Charlie Kaufman’s remarkable directorial debut is peculiar to say the least. As I wrote in my original review, “There is no way to dissect ‘Synecdoche, New York’ in order to find out what really happened; no surefire method to construct a realist narrative. But when the screen went white at the end, I felt as if I’d viewed a very intimate and somehow complete snapshot of one man’s life and how he saw the players in his story as they weaved their way in and out. Kaufman has succeeded in portraying an unflinchingly honest and deep examination of the soul of a person without jumping through traditional hoops of ‘this happened here, this happened next.’” OK, so maybe the whole movie did happen in the main character’s head. In that case, the POV would disqualify it as a film that supports magical realism. I guess that’s why the term is up for such debate. In that case, get your engines revved up for comments …

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Aaron Weber August 10, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Anglo lit (and film) has an uneasy relationship with Magical Realism, unlike our Latin or Asian pals, but c’mon… No Wim Wenders? Fellini?

Adaptation over Being John Malkovich? Or more recently: Stranger than Fiction? (which is a beautiful example of MR, since all the characters come to accept Ferrel’s status as a literary creation).

You can say that magical realism is SCI-FI/Fantasy for pretentious people, but it’s a genre that we (being so in love with metaphor) could do well to embrace more fully. It’s the fantastic that allows us to explain the mundane.

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2 Greg August 11, 2010 at 10:02 am

I’d probably move Adaptation up to #2. I would drop Pleasantville for Being John Malkovich. I’d put Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the list, but not sure it really qualifies? I did like Stranger than Fiction better than several that received consideration. Overall, I have to say I like every movie mentioned (that I’ve seen…)

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3 Eric Melin August 11, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon works because of all the wire work that was never explained, even though that has become a genre tent since then, that ‘magical’ quality was a big part of that movie…

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4 Jezza August 13, 2010 at 6:47 am

The Golden Compass would have been a consideration.

The concept of actually seeing your soul (in daemon form) is intriguing.

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5 Vincent Scarpa August 16, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Couldn’t agree more about #1, Eric. That movie still trips me out.

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6 Tworkman August 16, 2010 at 3:09 pm

non sequitor, i love your comment verification tool…the words(?) make me giggle

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7 sefankje December 30, 2010 at 10:13 pm

I have never posted a comment on anything, but this is bothering me. Magical Realism, as configured by its father (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), is not sci-fi / fantasy. It’s not just about characters believing their world is real or the world serving as metaphor for reality–it is what could, within the vast realm of crazy possibilities, in fact happen–but is so strange that it is difficult to take as reality, because its probability of happening is so slim. Marquez was a journalist and stole many of his ideas from actual events.

I try to remember the cultural mindset of where he was coming from–Colombia’s coast, where crazy things happen all the time between natural disasters, unstable government and revolutionary events, even driving there is like Russian Roulette. American / Western mindset is more the cool, certain kind of animal, the type that feels reality as stable and orderly. So, it’s harder to digest the Magical Realism with the realism.

Note: magic / magical is the adjective. Realism is the noun–the actual form. Magical describes the type of realism. So, in other words, Pleasantville definitely doesn’t work. Why not Big Fish?

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8 Tara October 23, 2012 at 10:07 am

To that measure, I would include Australia in here as well – another Baz Luhrmann piece that more clearly seems to embody, at least to me, the ideal of Magical Realism. It was the first thing that popped into my mind, and as sefankje says, we’re not dealing with the absolutely abusrd in this movie. Much of it is based on actual events – the bombing of Darwin, the abduction of half-breed children, and really, it is only Nullah’s belief in his ability to control through song that would bend the ‘reality’ as we think it.

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9 Eric Melin October 23, 2012 at 11:53 am

Interesting. I would have never thought of that — good call. Since I’ve written the list, I’ve seen “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which definitely applies….

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10 Eric Melin January 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm

“Big Fish” would be a perfect example of magical realism, even if it is a story told by one person (the unreliable narrator). It just so happens that I thought the 10 above were better examples of Magic(al) realism.
I also agree that magic(al) realism is not strictly defined by genre lines, but I don’t agree with your strict definition. I think we all can agree it’s a little more amorphous than that — especially since its originally a literary form and I’m talking about movies.
That said, I will agree that “Pleasantville” does have some kind of explanation, however unclear, for its “other” world and that acknowledgment by its characters may take it out of the realm of strict magic(al) realism.
Thank you, sefankje, for a great comment!

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11 Sattymike March 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Lord of Illusions blended modern world with magic.

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12 Ruggles Maxabillion April 2, 2011 at 7:35 pm

A list of ‘top 10′ magical realist movies that only has 2 spanish language titles?? C’mon. That’s like a list of the top 10 Baseball movies that only includes two films from the United States.

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13 michelle April 3, 2014 at 7:24 pm

You forgot Groundhog Day.

:)

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