The 15 Best Fantasy Films of the 21st Century so far
The real world is stressful and unpredictable. To endure it, we sometimes imagine something or someone that exists way over the boundary of realism but is somewhat real to us. It always starts from something small but with our limitless imagination, an entire plot of a movie can be created with fictional characters and creatures, even places. The most basic reason of all -people watching something that they know is not real is they somehow want to escape. Almost every genre including the fantasy one has always been a more of a productive way to escape reality. The growth of augmented reality and alternative universes combined with the immersive, high-quality experiences offered by cinema chains are evidence of enthusiastic consumers to accept this invitation.
Fantasy films are that explicitly unreal but a truly amazing genre where one can trust the entire story and submerge in it without thinking about the reality of it. I think it’s about time to address the new wave of escapism of the 21st century which is manifesting itself in a wide range of pursuits making us to escape into our imaginations, and to recognize the fluid nature of what constitutes a real or virtual experience.
This list does not contain pure science fiction or horror films as sometimes these genres overlap. Also, there are so many animated fantasy films that I think needs more attention so whole lot of that will be presented in another list.
Fantasy Film 15
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec (2010) – France | Luc Besson
It is evident that Besson, a brand in itself, and a man of excessive ambition in the cinematographic field, even though he is a prolific writer and producer, has made many dynamical/commercially successful films. The Extraordinary Adventures is easily his most determined films as they come. Though it lacks energy and breathlessly crams it in exposition, incident and wordplay, but still is adroit at showing modernism with fantasy. The titular Adele Blanc-Sec is a 25 year old adventurer, explorer. The ultimate motivation driving her is to find a particular mummy from Egypt, bring him back to Paris where her professor friend will attempt to revive him; and in turn this mummy (she believes) has the skills to cure her inconscious twin sister. Surprisingly enough, this adaptation of Tardi’s comic is a comedy. The atmosphere of Paris early century is there but it is not to lodge a climate of underground interest and police adventures. After a prologue in Egypt inspired Indiana Jones, the whole story revolves around the Pterodactyl, used quite simply. Yes, a pterodactyl.
Fantasy Film 14
Perfume: The story of a murderer (2006) – Germany| Tom Tykwer
High-class Euro adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s 1985 novel follows the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), a French Peasant who discovers a number of amazing fragrances…and assembles them by murdering various women and experimenting on their remains. “Run, Lola, Run” auteur Tom Tykwer – whose visual style accentuates the dirt and grime of 18th century France for all to see. Perfume is a gorgeous, spell bounding but woefully overlong and ultimately misguided mess of a film., the movie only from the start, continue engages you emotionally and then ends with a bizarre final stanza. Granted, not everyone wants to assail their nostrils with a drastic stench of sun-dappled fish viscera, the gloppy afterbirth of newborn orphans, or the unwashed virgins slathered in animal fat. Bit still…he might have at least made the effort. Visually, Tykwer does all he can to pack our 20th century nasal cavities with phantom, long ago horrors.
Fantasy Film 13
Upstream Color (2013) – USA | Shane Carruth
Meticulous and abstract, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is an idiosyncratic film that invites explication but defines total understanding. It is Carruth’s sophomore film and has been eagerly anticipated ever since his filmmaking debut in 2004 with Primer, a micro-budgeted film about time travel in the Dallas suburbs that received a Grand Jury prize at Sundance and amassed a cult reputation despite appearing on very few scenes. Deciphering Primer now seems like child’s pay in comparison to Upstream Color, even as the newer film is marked by its more precise imagery, camerawork, and narrative ambitions. Yet Upstream Color lures us in like fish attracted to worms on a hook, and soon we’re trapped within its complete universe. It is elliptically told and makes generous use of jump cuts. Dialogue, too, is kept at minimum, and much of what is spoken could be termed as “hard to follow”. Credits must be given to the film’s star, Amy Seimetz (who is also a filmmaker), for creating an actual character, one for whom we can feel and share about. In addition to playing Jeff and directing Upstream Color, Shane Carruth also composed the unearthly electronic score, and is also self-disturbing the film. There’s no question this is the work of an auteur. This is arthouse science fiction at its most compelling yet cryptic.
Fantasy Film 12
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) – UK | Alfonso Cuaron
Whimsical wizard Potter (Radcliffe) rides under the yoke of Helmer Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) in the third installation of the Harry Potter Franchise. With brilliant screenplay and writing, the result came out to be truly mesmerizing, changing the sweet, charming tale of ‘magicians’ into deep, dark and intriguing piece of enigma. The delicate Dementors of Azkaban prison could look cheesy, but they don’t, Cuaron shows them mainly in glimpses and long shots, enhancing their mystery. Nor do the Plentiful creature effects (hippogriff Buckbeak, a new animagi, and a werewolf make their debuts here) overshadow the story. The film doesn’t bother with much exposition – there are no flashbacks, It just chugs along briskly. Riding a wave of wonder and enthusiasm.
Fantasy Film 11
The Fall (2006) – USA | Tarsem Singh
The Fall is based on a 1981 Bulgarian film, Yo Ho Ho written by Valeri Petrov, who also receives a story credit here. But what a story it is: It’s the dawn of Hollywood, but cowboy stuntman Roy (Pace) is permanently out of the picture, gravely injured by an on-set mishap involving a horsebacked tumble, a girl, and his heart. Deep in despair and intent on suicide yet unable to move from his bed, he befriends the inquisitive, 5-year-old orphan Alexandria (Untaru) and immediately begins to spin for her a fantastical story straight out of Rudyard Kipling. The Fall is actually two films in one, with Roy’s fanciful sketch becoming the dominant film-within-the-film and providing virtually all of The Fall’s most astonishing and hyper stylized images. The two parallel stories eventually flow into and then collide with each other. There are tell-tale signs that Tarsem has spent no small amount of time wandering through Guillermo del Toro’s labyrinth imagination, and The Fall lives and dies on the strength of Pace and Untaru’s remarkable performances and of course it’s magical realism.
Fantasy Film 10
The Taste of Tea (2004) – Japan | Katsuhito Ishii
The Taste of Tea is refreshingly one of the most expressive yet bizarre study of human behaviour. A messy but heartfelt privilege into the wild, uncanny human psyche. Unfolding like a series of rough sketches, the film – through its observation of a small multitude of characters, young and old, at various points of intersection in their lives – suggests that the experience of growing up is not unlike constantly travelling from one point to the next, and life itself is a constantly evolving act of creation. Too many films falsely pretend that people aren’t inherently weird; here, that quality is one most celebrated. The sheer imagination of the character’s lives portrayed on screen is amazing. It is not just the beautiful cinematography, but the complex, wondrous, awe-inspiring images that are put on screen that make this one so good. It is more about sensations rather than following plot. And what makes it so interesting and powerful is that the exploring of those sensations has to do more with the viewer’s than with those shown by characters. Writer-Director Katshuito Ishii embellishes the film with a grab bag of fanciful CGI and flourishes the thoughts and feelings of his characters very appropriately. The Taste of Tea understands the impulsive irrationality of childhood just like “Little Miss Sunshine”, from the escape provided by an imaginative mind, it astoundingly goes to the ways in which the most seemingly trivial of moments greatly impact the people we become later on.
It’s also has been referred to as a “surreal” version of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982).
Fantasy Film 9
Under the Skin (2013) – USA | Jonathan Glazer
Scarlett Johansson is occasionally nude: That’s all a sizeable percentage of moviegoers need to know about Under the Skin. They’re in for a surprise, which is like saying Hal 9000 is just a computer. Easily the most unique science fiction film I’ve come across, Under the Skin defies, shatters, and ultimately consumes genre boundaries. However, Jonathan Glazer’s near-wordless film isn’t specifically or essentially a sci-fi picture. Although the film’s title and a minimal amount of story originated from author Michael Faber’s 2000 novel, but back to be naked and the dead: Johansson is an emotional blank as an alien on the prowl of earthmen, this nameless character is strictly-out-of-this-world at all. This film is extremely disturbing and unnerving at times and also, it never fully acknowledges her impassively eroticized nature which makes it rather engaging.
What makes Under the Skin such a mind-blower has everything to do with Johansson’s chillingly unempathetic turn as the, well, whatever she is, coupled with cinematographer Daniel Landin’s disorienting, hallucinogenic visuals. Johnnie Burn’s sound design – and to that the sublime, unsettling score and some startling visual work from UK effects house One of Us (Cloud Atlas, The Tree of Life) and you have a cinematic happening near-guaranteed to get under your skin and into your head for far longer than is comfortable.
Fantasy Film 8
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Spain | Guillermo del Toro
Set in Spain during the country’s most brutal civil war, Pan’s Labyrinth processes the fairy tales and enchantment in the minds of children trying to negotiate the complicated world of adults. Ofelia (Baquero) is a young girl who moves with her very pregnant mother, Carmen (Gil), to the outpost of new stepfather (Lopez), who is a military captain. Small group of resistance fighters still occupy the mountainous areas surrounding them, but the captain is a harsh man who unflinchingly eradicate all those who oppose him. Ofelia escapes his domination by retreating to the surrounding woods, where she encounters a whole world of fauns, dragonflies, and other creatures that believe her to be their lost princess. She is given tasks to perform to prove she’s the real deal. And the conflicts Ofelia faces are no less frightening to the child’s mind than the captain’s vicious assaults are against his enemies. The creature of the underworld are the passionate fabrications of del Toro’s imagination: More than once they will catch you by surprise and make you gasp- but so will some of the actions of the captain.
There are no happily-ever-afters here despite the exquisite beauty inherent in the face of the young actress Baquero. Pan’s Labyrinth catapults del Toro to the top ranks of international filmmakers.
Fantasy Film 7
Tale of Tales (2015) – Italy | Matteo Garrone
Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales is an adaptation of three stories from Basile’s fable collection. The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, and The Flayed Old Lady. All three tales are lightly connected, and each one centres on a woman at an important point in her fairy-tale life. Large Scale Productions and especially non-CGI creatures overwhelms the viewer with their colourfulness and their richness in detail. Fantasy worlds that are in no way inferior to those of Peter Jackson. Stories that are so good on their own but captivate the viewer with their nesting and the accompanying cliffhanger effect. Every story is connected by the themes of blood and duplicity: how obsession seems like love and makes you do things without caring for the consequences. Its screenplay is mixed feeling of innocence remanent and utter preservation, make no mistake, these stories can be downright disturbing to some. This movie is a grenade that grabs beautifully narrated stories in unbelievable pictures and carries the viewer effortlessly into a pure fairytale world on which they smoothly hold on to it. All three tales are crisscrossed into a coherent narrative, one has no difficulty to understand the plain condemnations beneath each tale and places favourite as one feels.
Showing the fairy tales with the perspective of an adult make the tone of this movie quite serious. Serious as in a classic Italian genre film: hard, bloody, dirty. It’s a film that is indeed a cinematic spectacle in its own terms, one should not miss.
Fantasy Film 6
II mare (2000) – South Korea | Lee Hyun-seung
Shortly before the dawn of the millennium, the young voice actress Eun-Ju Kim moves out of a lonely beach house called “II Mare”. Foreknowledged that her new tenant will send her an important letter she has been waiting for days, she leaves a message in the house’s out-of-the-way mailbox. In fact, shortly afterwards Eun-Ju receives a reply from a young engineer/architect, but his message is dated to the year 1997. Eun-Ju, at first does not take this seriously and reacts rather unruly to this strange letter but doesn’t forget about this. When Sung-Hyun Han (the architect) sends more and more news from the past, she too suddenly believes that the mailbox is a kind of time-slot that allows the two of them to communicate over this distance. In short, it is the love story of a couple that is connected only by a mailbox. A couple that doesn’t live in the same timeline, but can communicate with each other from their respective eras, which is not only interestingly designed, but also fantastically staged. Over an unbearable distance, the two introduce themselves to each other through their letters and slowly becomes more open. The scenes are partly tragic and funny at the same time. So tragic, that after an hour and a half, you do not have to be ashamed of a shed tear. However, the film is by no means geared to a particular audience; The fabulous story should inspire anyone who loves fantastic content and emotions, especially as they were undoubtedly ingeniously integrated into the plot.
Fantasy Film 5
Big Fish (2003) – USA | Tim Burton
On the surface of it, this film is a journey between the relationship of a father with his son. A father – Edward Bloom (Albert Finney as Elder, Ewan McGregor as Younger) – who tends to propagate himself in reports of fabulous actions and events that occurred earlier in his life. His son – William Bloom (Billy Crudup as an Adult, Grayston Stone as a Child) – only problem is that he has heard them a hundred times. And slowly as he becomes more mature, he becomes more aware of the ‘events’ that occurred in his father’s life are nothing but stories of fairy tales. Director Tim Burton represents this state of relationship between them very carefully and precisely from the start, different narration and stories within stories somewhat blurs the line between what’s real and what is made up. When William receives a call from his mother that Edward is dying. From his residence in France, William returns to the childhood home with a high-gracious Josephine (Marion Cotillard) by his side. Big Fish then zooms in on the kernel of the father-son conflict, which is the heart of the movie. It is not just about attention and recognition. William is on the verge of becoming a father and has himself struggled to learn from Edward’s example. William’s appeal is that he has never found the real Edward. Edward’s life has only been transferred to him in the form of imaginative anecdotes about fighting, witches, adventurous roads to secret cities and…yes, a big fish, for the last long song in Edward’s repertoire is of course the story of how he caught this Big Fish at the same time as his beloved wife gave birth to William.
Given what we know about Burton’s visual imagination, Burton puts high on agenda in the effort to visualize the scenarios onto his production designer, it is quite remarkable how much is spoken about the different production designers, in comparison with the photographers worked in this film, because of them Big Fish had a huge impact on people’s lives, emotionally. Note, that there is no friction and dynamics between the fantasy track and the everyday track as it could have been.
Big Fish is an uplifting and magical tale, which entices us on a spectacular journey where hearts and lives connect and collide. Also, it’s an unforgettable and joyous entertainment that tugs at every emotion is true but what it really is…many things at once.
Fantasy Film 4
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – New Zealand | Peter Jackson
Frankly, this is one of those times when a reviewer knows going in that little, if any, of what he has to say about a particular film will have any impact on reader’s decision to see the movie. Good or Bad, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in Kiwi director Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy is going to bring them in like nothing since George Lucas’ last Jedi outing; J.R.R Tolkien’s sprawling novels are as much a part of pop culture mythology as anything else I can think of. Lord of the Rings works on atleast a half-dozen different levels, from the casting to the score, and from the special effects and computer-generated imaging to Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, which manages to both capture the inhenrent hugeness of the storyline while focusing on the film’s individual characters. The story, simply put, is one of the classic quest variety, albeit in reverse: The hobbit Frodo Baggins (Wood) and eight friends, among them Rhys-Davies’ dwarf Gimli, Mortensen’s human fighter Aragon, McKellen’s sage wizard Gandalf, and a host of other hobbits, elves, and assorted Middle-earth races, must destroy the dreaded Ring of Sauron (which threatens the safety of the entire world) by casting it into the fiery belly of Mount Doom, where it was forged long ago. There’s none of the whipcord camera theatrics and inexplicable editing choices that was in Harry Potter’s bewildering Quidditch match. Your head spins less than the characters’, and it’s easy to keep mental score as the Fellowship of the Nine engages the Black Riders and whomever else is out to get them at any given moment.
This is high fantasy of best kind. I think Lord of the Rings captures the same fantastic flourishes that Harry Potter aimed for and failed to achieve.
Fantasy Film 3
A Ghost Story (2017) – USA | David Lowery
Time and Love, both infinite and metaphysical are most probably the only two things in this world that we cannot comprehend, if goes together, no matter how much we dwell in it. Time passes, things change. The direction or way we look at things and their nature changes. But one thing remains which may interdepend on other. A Ghost Story with its unconventional elements frightens us, questioning about the existence of life after death and the passing of time. It’s funny that most contemporary indie films about the supernatural fail because they aren’t scary enough. Instead, the director changes the theme entirely and still frightens us using something that is not scary at all. The story starts with musician “C” (Casey Affleck) moving into a quiet house with his girlfriend “M” (Rooney Mara). Then, offscreen, he’s killed in a car accident. After the scene of “M” leaving the hospital, “C” rises from his deathbed, concealed by his sheet, and returns to the house with her. IT IS a story about a ghost but in a whole other different direction.
This arthouse drama engages us with long, carefully composed shots – a shot of Mara eating a pie, watched silently by Affleck, lasts about five minutes – that force the viewer to reflect on what may be happening. The film is almost completely without dialogue, except for a long monologue about cosmology towards the middle, a scene which contains the key to the movie’s existence. Just like the several layers made up under the flowing sheet that the ghost wears, the movie has also well over many layers that deals differently towards the aspects about metaphysical ruminations about time and space. To understand that there is no concept of time for an entity that is already ‘dead’. To establish that things will never go back to normal, no matter how much you wait for something to happen enduringly and invariably.
Fantasy Film 2
Enter the Void (2009) – France | Gasper Noe
The detailed visual representation of the distorted images and memories continually building and breaking up in our psyche after taking a chemical hallucinogen or a psychedelic drug is basically the plot of the highly acclaimed film Enter the Void. The images that our drug induced protagonist sees are stunning (pretty accurate too, if you ask me).
Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void starts with Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) who is a young, drug-dealing American in Tokyo with an unusual close relationship to his stripper sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), and a taste for a psychedelic drug named DMT. Unsurprising enough, after taking DMT within the first 5 min into the film, Oscar gets a call to a drug deal in which he gets shot by cops and then – fade to black, cut to pulsing lights – he floats above his own body and becomes conscious of his soul’s separation from his physical form. Now, from the P.O.V of his conscious soul, Oscar’s entire life from the start flashes before his eyes, and we learn a little bit about his bond with Linda, to whom he made a childhood pledge: “If I die, I’ll come back, and we’ll always be together.” Finally, Spirit Oscar after flying over Tokyo, observing how the world which goes on without him, follows Linda and his buddy, Alex (Cyril Roy), into some kind of magical orgy hotel, where neon sparks, murky lights flicker. After observing in several other rooms, he enters his friend’s body, becomes one of his sperms, fertilizes his sister’s ovum, and is reborn.
Now the question arises, “Is this all happened because of DMT or because of the childhood pledge? What would have happened if he hadn’t smoked any drug before he was shot? Although, Noe never answered or at least showed anything that relates to the movie. Instead, he just briskly moves his plot seamlessly just as the spirit of Oscar moves in time.
If there’s a word that leaps to mind thinking of Gasper Noe, it’s probably “uncompromising”. Though a filmmaker since the mid-1980s, he garnered international recognition when his 2002 film ‘Irreversible’ prompted mass walkouts at Cannes (and around the world) for it’s graphic, brutal scenes of rape and violence. As has become his custom, Noe begins this film with fast, strobed-out, insane credits, some of them in Japanese, some looking like they were dropped out of an anime film.
At the end of the day Enter the Void is unquestionably fascinating – it’s skilfully done and admirably experimental. I have no doubt that Noe made exactly the film he wanted to. The question is if you’re the person to sit through it.
Fantasy Film 1
Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (2010) – Thailand | Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s magnum opus Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives, is a ghost story told with the calm and patience of a prosaic tale of country living. The film concerns the final days of the titular protagonist, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), an old farmer suffering from a kidney disease. He’s visited by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and her son Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and in his last days Boonmee’s remote farm is haunted by ghosts of his own past, as well as visions of alternate lives both past and future. The film is certainly awash in surreal elements, presented with the deadpan nonchalance that characterizes much of Weerasethakul’s work. Boonmee is visited by both his dead wife, Jen’s sister Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), and their son Boongsong (Jeerasak Kulhong), the latter of whom reappears as an apeman, having long ago wandered off onto the jungle to commune with the mysterious “monkey ghosts” that inhabit the dense forests surrounding Boonmee’s home.
Huay appears without fanfare, simply fading into existence in an empty seat while the family is eating dinner. At first, she’s a kind cinematic ghost within the frame, a hovering reflection where there is no mirror, a faint photographic afterimage layered within the film stock. But as she fades in, she becomes tactile and physical, as real-looking as the non-ghost people sitting around her, and the scene loses its subtle air of unreality to become simply a prosaic family dinner again, a group of people sitting around talking and reminiscing. It’s a subtle point: within the cinema, everyone is a ghost, an image, and no figure is any more “real” than any other. Weerasethakul allows the film’s ghosts to be as physical, as concrete, as the living people, just as he allows past, present and future to coexist without separation.
The same slow adjustment to strangeness occurs with Boongsong arrives. The “monkey ghosts”, from a distance, are haunting and creepy figures, pure black shadows with glowing red eyes set into their faces. Boonsong slowly walks up the stairs towards the family, his red eyes the only visible sign of him, the rest of his body blending so totally into the darkness that the twin red orbs appear to be floating in mid-air, disconnected from any concrete figure. Once he steps into the light, however, his creepiness is diffused, and he’s revealed as a simple man. As he talks with his father, describing the circumstances of his long-ago disappearance, it is both poignant and strangely ordinary: the emotions of the reunion, a son revisiting his father after many tears of absence.
There are so many things relating to the matter of past lives, almost every creature or simply a fairy tale shown in his film is interconnected to the past life of Boonmee. Rewatching it makes it even more intriguing, it is truly a pinnacle in filmmaking, an underrated masterpiece.
There were a number of other contenders that didn’t find their way into the article for one reason or another – some weren’t quite good enough to make the cut, some felt a little too far out the game – but in the interest of providing the best list possible here are a few honourable mentions.
Pablo Berger’s Spanish-noir Snow White “Blancanives”, Lynch’s short horror/fantasy film “Rabbits”. Since this list contain one film per director so that meant films like Luc Besson’s “Angel–A”, Weerasethakul’s “Tropical Malady”, Cemetery of Splendour” and of course his debut “Mysterious Objects at Noon” falls here. Also, who can forget Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy, especially “The Curse of the Black Pearl” when we’re talking fantasy.
Special Mention to Australian Filmmaker Hugh Sullivan’s Time Travel/Fantasy drama “The Infinite Man”, which is easily one of the rarest film ever made in Science Fiction/Fantasy movie genre.