Here at SYFY WIRE, it’s no secret that we enjoy celebrating the things that we love. Sometimes that takes the form of unranked lists. To us, that’s love.
Join us as our entire staff celebrates anything and everything in genre through our series of “25 Greatest from the last 25 years” lists. They are all unranked, because all of the people, movies, shows, comics, props (and so on) have equal standing for us.
Whether it’s looking for an escape from our modern world or trying to make sense of it, the worlds created in fantasy films transport and inspire us in ways other genres just don't. Come grab your Hogwarts letter, check the back of your wardrobe, or just wait for Gandalf on the front porch as we take a look at our 25 favorite fantasy films from the last 25 years (P.S. our list of sci-fi films is right here, don't ye worry).
Being John Malkovich
A puppeteer working on the 7-and-a-halfth floor of an office building finds a portal that takes him inside the head of John Malkovich for a few moments before spilling him out on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. Bored with his marriage and obsessed with his manipulative co-worker, the puppeteer decides to go into business selling tickets for people to go on this ride. Who wouldn’t want to live out their fantasy of being John Malkovich, even if he’s just talking about bathmats over the phone? Welcome to the world of Charlie Kaufman, everyone. An unforgettable masterpiece, this film of puppets and portals put the screenwriter on the map. Director Spike Jonze directs Kaufman’s script with an outstanding cast (John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, and John Malkovich as himself) and the results are crazy, hilarious, and horrifying. “Ever wanted to be someone else? Now you can.”
Based on the novel of the same name, this latter-day Tim Burton wonder deals with the tall tales told by an old man close to death and his son that no longer goes in for such stories. With a main character played by both Ewan McGregor and the always incredible Albert Finney, we experience the larger than life story of Edward Bloom and watch as his son gradually relents and becomes enraptured by his father’s tales once more. But is it all just a story? If you’re not already crying, you will be by the time his son (Billy Crudup) and widow (Jessica Lange) arrive at the funeral in time to meet all of the characters from Edward’s stories. Some are not as fantastical or as heightened as Edward may have made them, but they are real. They have basis in reality. His son looks at them all in wonder and his father, the biggest fish of them all, gleefully swims away.
The Cabin in the Woods
The less you know, the better. If you haven’t seen this film, skip to the next entry.
Thought this was just another slasher-fest in the woods? Think again. Any and all preconceived notions you may bring in about this film are most likely dashed the second it starts and for some reason you’re in a control room of some sort with Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. You get the usual band of wide eyed college kids waiting to be picked off one by one, but in this extreme genre subversion you also see the folks behind the madness pulling the strings. According to this film, most stories that follow the traditional slasher model are actually elaborate sequences designed and detailed to appease and entertain very bloodthirsty gods that live beneath the Earth. We, the viewers, are made to feel complicit right alongside the shirt and tie control room operators, except luckily enough for us, we stand less likely to be eaten by a mer-man. We hope. Every single time you think the film has gone as far as it’s going to go, you are proven wrong. It has roots in horror for sure, but the perversion and double crossing of that genre pull it into delirious fantasy. Plus, it features a unicorn bloodily gutting someone, which is something you don’t realize you need to see until you actually see it.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Yes, the Tim Burton version! Heresy, you may shoutity-shout, but oompa-loompa-please hear us out. It’s impossible to recreate the mad genius of Gene Wilder, and this film wisely doesn’t attempt it. Instead you get a Willy Wonka who is damaged and very much in need of therapy. You also get chocolate rivers that don’t look like sewer drainage, and candy that makes you want to eat it rather than throw it up. Much more in line with the original book, this film shows the aftermath of the tour, as the awful kids who were picked off one by one come staggering and rolling out of the factory with their parents. Are they any wiser than when they went in? Perhaps not, but at least they’re alive. Freddie Highmore’s Charlie has a great rapport with Johnny Depp’s damaged Wonka, and Deep Roy’s portrayal of every Oompa Loompa is playful and fun instead of being the stuff of nightmares. In the end, Charlie goes to live in a magical factory which is more a place of fantasy than acid trip terror, and he gets a classic Danny Elfman score to accompany him.
Coming at us before any and all Neil Gaiman properties started getting gobbled up for movies and films (rightfully, and thankfully, so) this deceptively simple children’s tale from acclaimed animation genius Henry Selick is the perfect match of story and style. We say “children’s tale” but the reality is if we had seen this film as a child, we would have left the theater scared out of our minds. It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland, but Walt Disney is nowhere in sight. A buttons-for-eyes, hallucinogenic cautionary tale, the fantastic world of this film isn’t always nice. It pulls no punches in its lessons, and even though the animation is sublimely beautiful, the dark truths about mothers and daughters are quite hard to bear. “Be grateful for what you have, and never take it for granted” the film seems to say, because this person you think you’d prefer to be your mother could be a damn-you-to-hell witch. The original tagline was “An Adventure Too Weird for Words.” They were right.
A young girl has a fall, a broken arm, and a hospital stay. To pass the time, she makes an unlikely friendship with an injured stuntman (Lee Pace) who has a knack for telling stories. He promises to tell her an epic tale, asking her “Do you know what epic means?” If she didn’t, it’s safe to say that she does by the end. Moving between the story and the storyteller, the stuntman’s truly odd tale unfolds. Beautifully illustrating the malleable craft of storytelling, the tale changes based on certain preferences of the little girl. One character suddenly becomes French, a princess takes the form of a nun from their hospital, and so forth. The stuntman’s motives for telling the story in the first place are dubious as well. At one point, he refuses to go on until the girl steals him morphine. She’s hooked on the story (as are we), so, of course, she does it, but this begs the question of whether or not the stuntman is making all of this up as he goes along. The epic tale of revenge (which involves a bowler hatted Charles Darwin) proves to be a living thing, changing as often as the dynamic between the girl and the stuntman. Both parts of this Tarsem Singh directed film, full of beautiful fantasy images, evoke how magical the simple act of telling a story can be.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Just as the third Potter book set the tone for the rest of the series and took it to the next level, the film does likewise. As we follow Harry, Ron and Hermione through their third year at Hogwarts, we venture away from the safe choices of the first two films and enter a cinematic fantasy that is as technically magical as the school it’s depicting. A very large thank you to director Alfonso Cuaron is in order. As the characters themselves grow, the three actors playing them start making more challenging choices. Not only that, but this is the first film where we meet series favorites Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, played to perfection by Gary Oldman and the always welcome David Thewlis. Michael Gambon also assumes the role of Dumbledore for the first time, and the character is perhaps at his most enigmatic here. His response towards the end of the film of “Did what? Goodnight…” may be Gambon’s finest line delivery in the series. More than anything else though, this is where things start getting dark, specifically with the introduction of the soul sucking entities of utter despair, the Dementors. It’s not all just a world of magic candy and flying brooms now, these beings of pure evil will strike a chord with anyone who has suffered depression in real life. Dealing with real issues while ascending moving staircases and waving wands is when the fantasy genre is at its best. Also good? The entire rest of the series.
The Happiness of the Katakuri’s
A family of failures tries once more for success with a bed and breakfast, only for coincidence and destiny to land them with a cadre of dead guests. What will they do now? In this film, it’s most likely time for a musical number. Described as a “musical comedy horror film in the farce tradition,” this Japanese gem directed by Takashi Miike in 2001 has it all. Music, dancing, dreams, even claymation makes an appearance, because why not? The story is as unrelenting to the characters as it is unrelentingly entertaining to us. A hilarious tragicomedy that will have you questioning your own sanity, this film will have you rooting for the Katakuri’s all the way through. Will they succeed? Oh, boy, do we want them to. Will they solve the mystery of all of these dead bodies? Absolutely! As long as that volcano doesn’t erupt, they’ll be fine! (Rumbling begins in the distance)
The Nazis are at it again: messing with the occult, as per usual. This time, they’ve brought along Rasputin, and they’re planning to open a portal to another dimension. Maybe THAT will finally destroy those pesky Allies! It doesn’t, of course. The gateway they do manage to open mostly just brings a baby demon into our world. Since he's red, with a horned head and a huge stone hand, the allies nickname him “Hellboy.” Soon enough, he grows into Ron Perlman, and works for the (kind of secret) Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Based on the popular character from the classic comics from Mike Mignola, Hellboy (real name Anung Un Rama) goes on to become “the world’s greatest paranormal detective.” He also eats chili by the tub and loves cats. Director Guillermo Del Toro shows off his own magic in this origin story that enriches the genre with tales of the occult, a gallery of Hellboy’s fantastic co-workers, clockwork Nazi assassins, a pitch perfect appearance from master actor John Hurt, and eternal questions of destiny and purpose. Ron Perlman owns this character completely, and by the time it’s over, he will own your heart. It’s not just his cigar chomping wisecracks, as great as they are—it’s the staggering vulnerability he’s able to convey through all of the makeup and prosthetics. When he goes to the love of his life and says he wishes he could “do something about this” and motions to his sawed of horns and big red face, I dare you not to fall in love with him. Side note- if you love this film as much as we do, then you should also check out its whiz popper of a sequel where Del Toro ups the fantasy through the roof.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
This is a bit of a cheat, because really we’re talking about Peter Jackson’s entire Hobbit trilogy. While An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies may not hit the heights of Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are so many delights to be found here that these movies are impossible not to include. Ian McKellen triumphantly returns as Gandalf, and Martin Freeman plays a young Bilbo Baggins to perfection. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield has a powerfully tragic arc, and Thorin’s friendship with Bilbo gives the trilogy an incredible backbone. The films also add so much of Tolkien’s lore to the original trilogy, and they do it with style. Plus, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) might be the greatest dragon ever seen on a movie screen.
Ah, the old fantasy about a board game becoming real, except, in this instance, the game ruins a young boy’s life, destroys a town, dooms a little girl to a life of failed psychiatry, and causes a pith helmeted gun fanatic to shoot up a discount store. What a fun game! Well, it is if you read the rules. If you finish the game and stand up to your fears, all will be made right again. Robin Williams will get to grow up with Bonnie Hunt and they’ll meet young serial liar Kirsten Dunst again in 26 years. Director Joe Johnson weaves the madcap tale of a jungle taking over a house (and then a town) with a sense of the fantastic despite the limited technology of the time. Still, we’re left wondering who created this murderous board game and why? Ultimately it doesn’t matter. The film, like the game itself, offers a magical time for those who seek to leave their world behind.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Another cheat, because when we say The Fellowship of the Ring, we secretly mean all three movies that fall under the banner of The Lord of the Rings — so The Two Towers and The Return of the King are included. Whatever, go with us. A young hobbit and his gardener travel across a dangerous world to destroy a magic ring, which is the ultimate embodiment of all that is evil. This is the gold standard. Tolkien defined the genre with his books, and Peter Jackson defined the fantasy film genre with these adaptations. They were so large in scope and ambition that this trilogy of films pretty much required an entire country to pull it off, and the world responded. Even the fantasy-averse Academy responded. They said it couldn’t be done, and it only takes about five minutes into the first film to realize that not only can it be done-- it’s going to be done better than you had ever dreamed. Using a crazy mix of old school camera tricks and cutting edge digital effects, Jackson and company bring this story to life more as a lost history than a fantasy. Blindly point to any moment and it’s bound to be a classic: the characterization of the ring itself in the prologue, Andy Serkis, Sam fighting Shelob, Helm’s Deep, Andy Serkis, Gandalf vs. the Balrog, “I AM NO MAN”, every single moment Sir Ian McKellen is on screen, the charge of the Rohirrim, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”, the beautiful sorrow of the Grey Havens, oh, and did we mention Andy Serkis as Gollum/Smeagol? The list is endless. We’ve already mentioned that Jackson’s second trilogy (based on The Hobbit) is great in its own right, it’s this first trilogy that stands shoulders above any and all comers. In terms of the fantasy genre, this is the map you follow. These are the films that taught us that even the smallest person can change the course of the future, that there is good in this world and its worth fighting for, and that not all tears are an evil. This is magic. This is truth. This is…precious.
Another story by Neil Gaiman, so you know you’re in for a treat. Designed and directed by Dave McKean in 2005, this under-the-radar fantasy teaches us once again that there’s no place like home. Young Helena is tired of her life working in her family’s circus (??) and longs for a “normal” life. Blaming herself for her sick mother’s condition, Helena is carried into a dreamlike fantasy world and right into the thick of a conflict between the City of Light and the Land of Shadows. This fantasy world has a great deal to offer—flying towers, doppelgangers, princesses and charms of immense power. At the heart of the tale is the battle between light and dark, and more importantly, balance between the two.
In one of Pixar’s earlier efforts, they took their “X have feelings too” formula to a magical place, exploring the monsters under your bed as well as the company politics that put them there. In their world, the screams of a child power their city, so under the beds these mostly benign monsters go. Sully is the company’s top producer of scares, and alongside his trusty producer/best friend Mike and his state-of-the-art-at-the-time blue fur, he does what he does best. Of course, all of that is disrupted when he and Mike are faced with what every monster fears the most, which is a child. As is usually the case with Pixar films, there is so much more underneath the premise than meets the eye. The bonds of friendship between Mike and Sully (a perfect Billy Crystal and John Goodman) anchor the film, but it is the bond between the child, Boo, and Sully that will really pull your heart out. What really puts the film over the top, however, is a late story revelation that laughs from a child produce more power than screams. Fun, it turns out, is more powerful than fear, so the company changes their monsters from frightening, to funny, and now every child has a comedian under their bed. If you’re lucky, you might get the monster who walked to work with a watermelon and a hammer. Pixar has gone on to create many, many more masterpieces but moments like these are why we keep coming back to the powerful messages and outright fun of Monsters, Inc.
“Am I am a man, or am I a muppet?” A question for the ages. Look, the Muppets must always be in the world. Full stop. We went many years without them, and humanity was the worse for it. What could bring them back? What could introduce these brilliant felt creatures to a whole new generation? The answer came in the form of this 2011 film. Assisted by Jason Segel and the always-welcome-in-anything-no-matter-what-it-is-Amy Adams, the Muppets returned in what is more a continuation than a reboot. A couple of pros from the brilliant Flight of the Conchords” (James Bobin and Bret McKenzie) added their directorial and musical talents, and the result is a film where young Walter lives out a fantasy any Muppets fan has had—not only to meet the Muppets, but to join them. Also, Chris Cooper raps. Beat that, Tree of Life!
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Do you watch this movie on Halloween, or on Christmas? The answer is both. You can also watch it on the 4th of July. Any day is a fine one to watch this Henry Selick classic that comes from the mind of Tim Burton. The Pumpkin King is brilliant at pulling off Halloween, but he’s longing for more and decides to try his hand at Christmas. When he and the ghoulish denizens of his land kidnap Santa Claus and make Christmas a full on nightmare, the magic and imagery are absolutely stunning. What’s even better is that it’s a musical, full of songs that will stick in your brain whether you’ve watched it once or ten or one hundred times. Fantastical oddity and a ghostly beating heart make this a singing, dancing classic for the ages that demands to be revisited every year, and maybe every month.
Fantasy can provide an escape for the viewer, as we’ve written about in many of these films so far, but here is a film where the central character herself uses a fantasy to escape the true horrors of the world she is actually living in. In 1944 Spain, young Ofelia and her mother are sent to live with one of cinema’s most vile characters, the truly evil Captain Vidal. In an attempt to deal with the very real horrors surrounding her, Ofelia retreats into a world of faeries and fauns, embarking on a quest that could potentially free her and her mother from their situation. Things don’t go exactly as planned, and occasionally her fantasy world shows itself to be as unrelenting and horrible as the real one. This film needs to be seen to be believed. Another magical masterpiece from genre giant Guillermo Del Toro, it offers for our very eyes a vision of how truly powerful and transporting fantasy can be. Doug Jones plays Pan, the faun of the title, and he guides our heroine through her ordeal. He's at times kind, other times angry, and at all times mischievous, and you never know whether to trust him. More than that, you never quite know if he’s even real. Jones brings a seemingly effortless precision to Pan’s movements (helped by some incredible digital effects) that make even the handing off of a piece of chalk downright glorious. On the other side of this fantasy coin, Sergi Lopez gives one of the most terrifying performances of all time as Captain Vidal, certainly in the running for Worst Person Alive, 1944 edition. Is Ofelia’s fantasy real, or was it just something she created to cope with her world? The film doesn’t answer this, and it shouldn’t. The viewer is left to decide that for themselves. What is without question, however, is the eternal brilliance of this film that surpasses fantasy and is one of the greatest films ever made in any genre.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
A film based off of a theme park attraction? Nobody thought it would work. Five films later, it’s safe to say that it did. Though, these days, this series has run its course for most people, there is no denying the greatness of the film that started it all in true swashbuckling fashion. It's a wonderful love story involving a strong heroine in the form of Keira Knightley, a ship of ghost pirates led by Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce fighting over his wig with an undead hand. What more do you need? Two words: Captain Jack. From his hilarious entrance and first fey steps down a dock, you know you’re in for something different. As the catalyst of the story, Johnny Depp plays this divine fool to perfection as he drunkenly totters around spouting joyous one liners and retorts. It’s hard to remember how fresh this character was when this first film came out, and that’s why it’s always worth a revisit. Captain Jack Sparrow has never been sharper or more fun than he is here. “A pirate movie based off of a theme park ride? Not possible!” they might have said, to which Captain Jack could retort— “Not probable.”
It would be easy for the legendary animation master Hayao Miyazaki to dominate this list, but we had to reign it in. His unforgettable fantasy images so often represent the best the genre has to offer, and none more so than in this film. In a clever play on fantasy expectations, the movie is not about a fantasy princess named Mononoke. Instead, it is a name that one of the protagonists has given to herself. The word in Japanese means “spirit” and we find it fitting that it is assumed by a heroine who was raised by wolves. A timeless tale of nature vs. the industrial age, the film evokes certain Tolkien-esque themes as forest spirits die, only to begin to grow anew. The cycle of nature is eternal, and more powerful than the dark side of human ambition.
Reign of Fire
Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, and a whole mess of dragons. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? Few things spell out “fantasy genre” as well as dragons do. Long before Emilia Clarke arose from Khal Drogo’s pyre, we had this film that will get you as dragon-high as you could possibly wish. The story is somewhat simple—after being accidentally awakened due to mankind tunneling where they shouldn’t have tunneled, dragons are back and they mean business. They’ve reduced the world to an apocalyptic wasteland and are going to wipe out humanity just like they wiped out the dinosaurs. Who stands in their way? Our intrepid heroes, Quinn (Bale) and the American Denton Van Zan (McConaughey). Before they can beat the dragons however, they need to find a way to work together. If not even a little bit of this sounds interesting to you, you may be reading the wrong list. We’d love it for the absurdly named Denton Van Zan alone. It’s Batman and Wooderson fighting dragons in the future. We are mightily entertained, and you will be, too.
Another masterpiece from Miyazaki, and another fantasy movie dealing with a young heroine being whisked way to a world of fantasy! We don’t mean that as a bad thing. Chihiro isn’t running away from her family; she’s trying to save them after a witch has turned them into giant hogs. During her quest, she scrubs floors in a magical bathhouse, rides a dragon that can turn into a boy, and meets a truly mystifying creature called No-Face. Miyazaki’s animation takes another gigantic leap forward with this film, not only with its fantasy imagery and downright weirdness, but in small details like the precise picking up of rings by an aged hand. Early in the film, night descends and a ghostly boat arrives on the shore. Magical lights come up, and spirits begin a procession to the aforementioned mystical bathhouse. It’s a magical moment, and thus begins a film where you will feel just as spirited away as the young heroine is.
Toy Story 3
What do our toys do when we’re not in the room? It’s something most kids have pondered, and as usual Pixar is here to answer their question with their holy trilogy of masterpieces (Note: we've selected Toy Story 3 for the list, but honestly any of them could go on here). What first began as a full length film experiment in computer animation soon blossomed over the years into a trilogy with more heart and emotion than most live action films. By the time the remaining toys join hands and about to go into the incinerator in the third film, you’re not thinking of them as talking toys at all. For a moment, you think the movie might actually have them fall in. The mere notion that you may think that is a marvel. In the end, kids outgrow their toys, as Andy does at the end. He plays with them one last time before gifting them to a bright young girl who will treasure them. He goes off to college, Woody gives a him a solemn farewell, and we’re crying buckets over sentient toys. Not an easy thing to accomplish.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
Another subversion of the horror genre, this film posits that the only evil that our unlikely heroes face is judgement and bad communication. Tucker and Dale are living their fantasy when we meet them. Entering a rundown shack in the woods, they don’t see it as a slasher deathtrap. They see it as a palace. They may look like hillbilly killers, but they have hearts of gold. Try telling that to the group of college kids camping nearby, however. Through several cruel twists of coincidence, an all-out war soon erupts between them, with both sides judging the other without really knowing them. Even the stereotypical horror movie blonde turns out to be sharp, kind, and good at digging latrines. The film is hysterically funny and farcical, but the message underneath is still as potent as any--don’t judge a book by its cover, because everyone’s a little bit hillbilly. Everyone is allowed to dream, and as Dale declares, “dreams aren’t stupid.”
Gal Gadot might as well actually BE Wonder Woman, as she shines brighter than the sun. Blending the fantasy world of the amazons and the horrors of World War I, this film soars almost as high as Robin Wright flying through the air and shooting three arrows at the same time. The entire film is remarkable, but it’s the “No Man’s Land” sequence that really takes the cake. Told it’s a place where no man can go, Gadot’s Diana says she is going anyway. She climbs the ladder, emerges in her full costume for the first time in the film, and charges to the other side deflecting bullets the whole way there. It’s instantly iconic and makes an already great movie an all-time wonder. Come for this scene, but stay for the way Diana marvels at seeing snow for the first time, her chemistry with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor, a gorgeous backstory illustration of the Greek gods, Lucy Davis as Etta Candy and the always extremely 100% welcome anytime David Thewlis.
Video game characters come to life! Once again, it shouldn’t work, but it does. Disney answers the problematic issue of video game to film adaptations by just creating its own fictitious video games. Ralph, the “wrecker” of the title (perfectly voiced by John C. Reilly) feels he is not really the monster the game makes him out to be. He wants to be a hero, but is it for the right reasons? In his quest for greater glory, he unleashes a horror upon the entire arcade. Being a true hero has nothing to do with glory, as Ralph finds out. It takes sacrifice, which is nowhere near as flashy, but necessary nonetheless. This movie could have gone so very wrong (as video game related films tend to do) but this underappreciated gem succeeds with dazzling visuals, a fantastic voice cast, and a great deal of heart.
Those were OUR choices. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which fantasy films from the last 25 years you’d put on your list. And check out our complete "25 Greatest" lists here.