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20 Great Magical Realism Movies That Are Worth Your Time

12 February 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Nathalia Vélez

pans-labyrinth

One of the main characteristics of magic realism is that it eludes definition. Sure, the Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a few definitions, including “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” It’s a start. But as the genre has made its way into other art forms such as film, it has become harder to define.

The point of this literary device–made famous by authors like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges and Arturo Uslar-Pietri–is to renounce the need for clear definition and accept the magical elements as part of life. The magical elements are largely used to give a better understanding of reality. They reflect the human experience by illustrating emotions that can be hard to describe with words.

Magic realism–or magical realism–is most effective when it’s blended so seamlessly into reality that viewers don’t bother to try to figure what’s behind the magic. Instead, it’s best to allow your imagination to lead you into the wondrous world of the story being told. To celebrate the blend of magic and reality, here are 20 Great Moments of Magic Realism in Film.

 

20. Electrick Children (Rebecca Thomas, 2012)

Electrick Children

In the innocent, sheltered mind of Rachel (Julia Garner) anything seems possible because she’s seen so little of the world. So it’s not crazy for this 15-year-old, brought up in a fundamentalist Mormon community, to believe that she got pregnant from listening to music on an old cassette tape. As this sweet story about the search for identity unfolds, viewers are coaxed into believing it as well.

Rachel and her sisters learn about love and sex from their mother’s stories, which hide the details behind a veil of mysticism. But Rachel finally gets to experience them firsthand when she finds a tape that holds a cover of The Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone.” Listening to this music is such a transformative experience for Rachel, and it gives her such strong sensations, that she’s convinced that it’s responsible for her immaculate conception.

The magical tape sends Rachel on a journey in the search of love, and we get so caught up in this naive girl’s first visit to the outside world that we no longer wonder how exactly she could possibly be pregnant.

 

19. A Little Princess (Alfonso Cuarón, 1995)

A Little Princess

The ultimate story about the power of fairy tales, this film was a staple in the childhoods of many. Adapted from the 1905 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess tells the tale of a young girl, Sara (Leisel Matthews), who grew up in India listening to magical stories, and now finds herself an outsider in a strict boarding school. Her father (Liam Cunningham) has always told her that all girls are princesses, but this idea is challenged in her new environment.

While Sara’s stories are not encouraged by Miss Minchin, the other girls marvel at her fantastical tales. But they prove to be more than just that. These stories have taught Sara compassion and bravery, and it’s these attributes that save her when her happiness and freedom are at stake.

This tear-jerking adventure reinforces the importance of telling children fairy tales and ensuring that they grow up believing that people can be good. As Sara’s father always reminds her, “magic has to be believed.”

 

18. The Future (Miranda July, 2011)

The Future

Narrated by the high-pitched, almost pathetic voice of an injured cat, The Future defies it viewers to get past the cutesy, self-conscious details and understand the emotions that they try to amplify.

Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are in their mid-thirties and realize that they haven’t accomplished as much as they thought. They try to fill the void by committing to something, namely an injured cat. In the month before they can bring the new pet home, they try to shake up their lives.

Their crisis is tinged with little magical moments, aside from the narrating cat. In his search to slow down the oncoming future, Jason develops a relationship with the moon, and even finds a way to stop time. While the metaphor is obvious–Jason and Sophie are not ready to be adults–it’s a simple image that many can relate to. We all wish we had the power to give ourselves a little more time.

 

17. Cashback (Sean Ellis, 2006)

Cashback_Stills

A young painter named Ben (Sean Biggerstaff) finds that he has an extra eight hours to fill when his first breakup leaves him with a bad case of insomnia. So he starts working the night shift at a supermarket, where he has to find a way to fill those boring hours. He soon realizes that he can manipulate time to the point where he can freeze it.

This young artist likens manipulating time to an art, and he uses his newfound powers to admire beauty in its frozen state. Yes, he has some issues with objectifying women that stem back to his youth. But true beauty shines through when he uses his power to get closer to the girl he loves.

The sweetest, saddest moment comes when he knows he’s ruined his chances with Sharon (Emilia Fox), so he stops time just before she walks out the door and spends two days just sitting by her, admiring her and trying to think of a way to show her his love.

 

16. The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, 2014)

The One I Love

There’s no way to talk in depth about this film without completely spoiling the premise that makes it so weird and unexpected. It’s way more fun to watch The One I Love when you have no idea what’s going on, so we’ll stick to the basics: Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) are trying to work out their issues of trust and revive their marriage.

Their marriage counselor (Ted Danson) sends them on a couple’s retreat, ensuring them that all couples that he’s sent there have come back renewed. What they find in the guest house certainly proves that to be true, but you’ll have to watch to find out how. The point is that the film blends reality and elements of sci fi that go relatively unexplored to understand what it can feel like to be in a long-term relationship.

The result is a sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling glimpse into relationships, identity and how hard it is to actually know someone.

 

15. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006)

science-of-sleep

Writer and director Michel Gondry is known for his seamless use of magical realism in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He gets to play more with the blurred lines between dream and reality in the lesser known film, The Science of Sleep.

Artist and inventor Stéphane (Gael Garcia Bernal) has always had trouble differentiating between the real world and the world of his dreams. While others don’t seem to understand the limbo world he lives in, he finds a fellow creative soul in his neighbor Stéphanie. He can be himself around her because she accepts his world, and doesn’t think his silly little inventions are any stranger than her own creations.

While it’s easy to identify his outlandish dreams–the giant papier mache hands are not a subtle hint–it becomes more muddled when Stéphanie and Stéphane interact. Together they can make his one-second time machine work and they can turn cellophane into water.

 

 

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  • The Future was shit. It’s one of the worst films I had ever seen. It was idiotic. It features one of the worst endings in films with characters who are essentially losers you don’t even root for. Fuck that shit!

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who felt this way. One of the worst of all time.

  • Seif

    Birdman should be here! I’ll check some of the other titles though.

  • Wolfgang

    The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Really? And what about La Belle et La Bête from Cocteau?

    • Klaus Dannick

      I think the author of this list is confusing subtle formalist moments as legitimate credentials for inclusion in this genre. Some of these films are probably only “magical” by virtue of a camera setup which the narrative would render unlikely but the director chooses for their cinematic impact. By this criteria, the bathroom story scene in Reservoir Dogs would qualify as “magic realism”: that doesn’t make it so.

      • Steve McGarrigle

        I think you are correct with this and you have kind of rendered my suggestion that Birdman should be included as incorrect “by virtue of a camera set-up”.

    • Cygnifier

      Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete is a great example — the mystical flows so seamlessly with the actual: it’s like a dreamscape. Would the Truman Show really be magical realism. It’s been a while since I watched it, but what I recall is two layers of reality, but both are real: the one the producers create to place Truman in artificially (but which is still real, if not authentic) and the reality outside the show (the real reality). I dont’ remember anything magical or mystical.

  • Harold

    Pan’s Labyrinth was awesome. Great list!

  • K.

    You have no idea what the magic(al) realism is :/

    • Boom!

      “portrays magical or unreal elements as a natural part in an otherwise realistic or mundane environment.” The description fits to most of these movies, that I watched.

      • Mr D

        No it doesn’t. Pleasantville and Groundhog Day in particular (and a couple of the others here) are most certainly not from this genre. The film must be anchored in realism, not anchored in fantasy as the governing reality.

  • Daniel Pinto

    Biutiful epitomises magical realism

  • adamzissou

    The Brass Teapot is a good one too

  • Volker Lohr

    Jeunet’s Delicatessen is a great example of this genre I would add the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, Tony Bui’s Three Season, Kalatozov’s I am Cuba and a lost Argentinan gem later remade as K-Pax: Eliseo Subiela´s Hombre Mirando al Sureste

  • Fatih Çam

    The Fall ?

  • Klaus Dannick

    I’d add “Like Water for Chocolate” and “Breaking the Waves” to this list.

  • Abdeldjalil E.

    Eternal Sunshine ? Birdman ?

  • Anson J

    I tend to think of Magical Realism as story that is told from a such a subjectve point of view that it incorporates the teller’s imagination or/and mystical beliefs into the storytelling. Like Water for Chocolate and The Cooler would fall into this category.

  • Camilla Katharina

    Great list but Tideland is kind of missing…

    • This was one of the first that came to mind for me, too.

  • Steve McGarrigle

    Birdman should totally be here and is probably the most recent example of this. There were a number of Birdman scenes in the film that can be attributed to seeing inside Riggan Thompsons ( Micheal Keaton ) head but ( attempting to avoid spoilers here ) the last scene with his daughter Sam ( Emma Stone ) at the end felt like a filmic device purely for an uplifting ending. I love the movie but that last scene i’m not sure about personally. It’s totally open interpretation though so you can make of it what you will.
    There are some films on the list here i haven’t seen before – i’m looking forward to checking a few of them out soon.

  • DyanSwan

    I like magical realism that doesn’t feel like it’s magical realism, which is why I tend to favor movies like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Pleasantville. The stories feel plausible in an implausible way.

    For me, Pleasantvile brilliantly showed the downside and pain of exclusion, I think it’s a classic.

  • Tom Barkhouse

    Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Time Bandits…almost any T.Gilliam movie.

  • Sandeep Prasad

    You apty put Beast of southern wild to 2nd spot. The film and movie is enchanting. Benh Zeitlin- Once there was a Hushpuppy is a masterpiece!

  • Ruby Sparks is awful.

  • Mr D

    The author doesn’t understand magic realism at all. Pleasantville and Groundhog Day are NOT magic realism. They take place purely within a fantasy context. Massive fail.

  • Lokǝƨh Ƨingh

    where the wild things are?

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  • Carlos João Santos

    I do believe About Time would make a nice addition to this list. Quite a nice simple chasing love movie at first, that turns wrong and compensates with time travel that halfway through turn it into a movie about family, in the good way.
    It’s not exceptionally great, but it’s quite a nice experience, and it’s certainly Magically Realistic.

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  • Rollyn Stafford

    What a wonderful list! Thanks for posting this one!

  • Faraz Masrur

    loved the list 🙂

    great job! (Y)

  • SCParegien

    It’s funny but I was once part of an online argument about this very same topic concerning literature. This can be quite subjective in cinematic terms. Dancer in the Dark would qualify if Birdman does. Are we seeing a truly magical or mythical moment occurring in an otherwise “realistic” environment when we see what the protagonist imagines they see? In a way all cinema is magical realism. Musicals? Horror? Is any of it “real” without some element of deus ex machina? Toy story? The list goes on.

  • Ontell Kwisatz Haderach Babbit

    *insert classic white wonder bread meme*