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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
6. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 …