20 Great Magical Realism Movies That Are Worth Your Time

7. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)


It’s hard to explain Donnie Darko, no matter how many times you’ve watched or how many hours you’ve spent trying to untangle it. The film follows an introverted, unsettled teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) who receives clues about the impending end of the world from a giant figure in a bunny suit named Frank.

If that sounds scary, it’s because it is. But this isn’t exactly a horror film. It defies genres, with a mix of psychological drama, dark teenage comedy and science fiction. While the physics of a rift in the space-time continuum play out in the background, the film focuses on the state of mind of this disturbed young man, who just escaped death when a jet engine landed in his bedroom. Of course, he wasn’t there when it happened, because Frank appeared to warn him.

There is plenty of late ‘80s imagery that gives this film its style, but the most iconic moments involve the absolutely terrifying Frank, appearing not just in the film but in your nightmares.


6. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson, 2004)


Most of Wes Anderson’s films take place is a realm that resembles reality but has those little elements that slightly skew it from the world we know.

The magical elements are prevalent in the world The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which ocean documentarians are treated like movie stars. Zissou (Bill Murray) has lost the passion that drove him out to explore sea, and he’s now on a mission to exact revenge on the elusive tiger shark that ate his partner and friend.

As we dive into the ocean with his crew on a tiny submarine, a bright, magical world is revealed, where sea dwellers are colorful and mysterious. While the crew on the boat are caught up in their personal dramas, re-discovering this world is what ultimately helps Zissou wake up from his state of inertia.


5. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)


This American classic blends comedy with an element of fantasy as weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) gets stuck in a time loop while he’s visiting Punxsutawney on an assignment to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. While there’s no explanation as to why Phil is stuck on this particular day, it’s obvious he has something to learn.

There’s no exact consensus on how long Phil is stuck in this loop–at least long enough to learn how to play the piano and sculpt ice. At first he takes advantage of the time by being generally horrible, since he doesn’t have to worry about the consequences. But even this thrill wears out eventually and he tries to exit his time trap by attempting to commit suicide.

The true magic shines through when Phil decides to stop being a misanthrope and instead help others. This helps him gain the attention of his co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell), finally leading to the magical moment when the time loop is broken.


4. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)


While it can be hard for some to endure the decidedly disgusting scene where Renton (Ewan McGregor) dives into “The Worst Toilet in Scotland,” it’s one of the most iconic moments in the cult favorite Trainspotting.

This film uses magic realism to illustrate the hilarious highs and the painful lows of heroin addiction, and it does so without shying away from the uncomfortable or the grotesque. The unusual moments that depart from reality are not only used when the characters are high. In fact, Renton is quite sober when he finds himself swimming into a filthy toilet bowl that somehow turns into a deep blue ocean.

Whether sobriety is making him delirious or he’s just using his imagination to make a terrible situation less grueling, the scene successfully places the viewer in Renton’s troubled mindset–a mindset that he tries to get out off, but it proves to be harder than he expects.


3. Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003)

Big Fish

Magic realism is often used to show the power of storytelling, how stories can shape people from childhood, and the little freedoms that the storyteller can take to make the tale even more powerful. Tim Burton uses this genre beautifully, injecting the mundane with doses of weirdness and magic, in many of his films, but the epitome of this is Big Fish.

Will (Billy Crudup) doesn’t appreciate his father’s stories as others do, mostly because he feels they’re a lame substitute for the actual presence of a father in his life. But as Ed (Albert Finney) nears death, he wishes for his son to assume the role of storyteller, preserving the adventures of his youth (in which he’s portrayed by Ewan McGregor) that made the man into legend in the eyes of all that met him.

While at the beginning Will separates fact from fiction, he eventually sees the value in his father’s beautiful tales, once he realizes there’s more truth to them that he thought. As fantasy and reality begin to blend together, Will sees the beauty that he was missing in the world, and he ensures that his father lives on in the tales that are not entirely tall, but they’re definitely not short.


2. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

This is another one of those films where it’s best not to say too much, so that viewers can get the full, enchanting experience of watching it for the first time.

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in the fictional town of Bathtub, where the fearless six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry). When Wink gets sick, Hushpuppy’s world begins to fall apart–the ice caps are melting, flooding the rivers and unleashing ancient beasts called aurochs.

It’s up to Hushpuppy, who was raised on tough love and is not afraid to fend for herself, to restore the order of her universe by finding her mother. Her journey unfolds in a world that is recognizable but permeated with a mythology of its own.


1. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth not only illustrates the importance of storytelling, it is the epitome of a fairy tale, complete with a battle between good and evil and a magical quest.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is torn away from her home when her mother marries the ruthless General Vidal (Sergi Lopez) in Facist Spain in 1944. She’s encouraged to leave her world of fantasy behind, but she finds herself even more deeply ingrained in it when she meets a Faun (Doug Jones) who tells her she is really a princess of the underground realm and sends her on a quest to save her kingdom.

Yes, the underground realm can be a little scary, but it’s not any scarier than the brutal, war-torn reality that Ofelia inhabits. So she bravely sets on her mission, in which the worlds of fantasy and reality collide, willing to put her life at risk for the sake of innocent baby brother.

Author Bio: Nathalia Vélez grew up in Venezuela and now lives in Denver, where she works as a freelance journalist by day and blogger by night. She likes to write reviews, analysis and lists about film, television, books, art, culture and creative people.