Best Magical Realism in Film, from Being John Malkovich to Birdman

Magical realism is a difficult genre to define, as it often spawns a setting that falls somewhere between our reality and a surreal fantasy. The genre, which became very popular in the 20th century due to its prevalence in Latin American literature, has seen a steady rise in filmmaking around the world. In the genre, fantasy situations often occur in realistic settings, resulting in mythical events that the protagonist must fight or reckon with. However, each of the following films, from the minds of filmmakers ranging from Spike Jonze at Alejandro G. Iñárritu, go beyond these parameters; they use magical realism to create metaphors of the human condition in unique ways, and thereby enhance their stories far more than if they had stuck to a standard “realistic” world.

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Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

Based on the 1989 novel of the same name by Laura Esquivelthis romantic drama from the Mexican filmmaker Alphonse Arau won 10 Ariel Awards and was nominated for the 47th British Academy Film Awards. The story follows a young woman named Tita (Lumi Cavazos), who lives with her controlling mother (Regina Torne) in Mexico in the early 1900s. When Tita discovers that due to tradition she is forbidden to marry the love of her life, Pedro (Marco Leonardi), she pours out her intense emotions in her kitchen.

From the foreground of Like water for chocolate, one cannot immediately assume that the film is a magical realist story. However, it’s the brilliance of the genre when done right: the film’s setting, characters, and tone all feel realistic, but as Tita’s frustration and sadness literally spill out into the food, the results are mysterious and occult. In one memorable scene, Tita’s tears, falling into a cake batter, cause all the guests at the table who ate the cake to cry uncontrollably. Arau seamlessly blends moments of fantasy and reality throughout the film, weaving them into a beautiful, often tragic journey for Tita.


Pleasantville (1998)

This teen comedy from the writer-director Gary Ross is led by an all-star cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Tobey Maguireand Joan Allen. Polar opposite siblings David (Maguire) and Jennifer (Witherspoon) constantly find themselves at odds with each other. When they fight over the TV remote one day, they inexplicably end up on David’s favorite TV show, a 1950s sitcom.

Magical realism will often elevate a story’s message through its exaggeration. Indeed, Ross navigates the story beautifully. Ross illustrates the conflict that arises when we repress our inner emotions through the physical change of colors in David and Jennifer as they navigate their new lives in Pleasantville. It is a unique use of magical realism to reflect the difficulties that accompany both adolescence and adulthood.


Being John Malkovich (1999)

The whimsical genius of the director Jonze and the writer Charlie Kaufman came together in this iconic comedy, which was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Screenplay. The story follows unemployed puppeteer Craig (John Cusack) who discovers he can enter the mind of an acclaimed actor John Malkovich. Malkovich satirizes himself in the film, resulting in a highly original story that intertwines ideas of existence, art, and identity.

Kaufman is known for his surreal and existential work, but Being John Malkovich stands out as one of his best uses of magical realism. The lines between reality and fantasy are often blurred, but not a single fantasy moment is wasted. Each scene is imbued with Kaufman’s irony and wit.

Amelie (2001)

The film that made a small cafe in Montmartre famous after using it as a filming location, Amelie quickly became one of the most popular French films upon its release. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet won best director for the film at the Cesar Awards, and it was also nominated for a total of five Oscars. The story follows the introverted waitress Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), who, in his quest for meaning, decides to carry out only good deeds to change the lives of those around him.

From the film’s first frame, with its saturated colors, whimsical music, and rapid editing pace, it’s clear that the setting isn’t quite grounded in reality. If Jeunet had decided to make this totally realistic film, however, the message would have been completely lost. Amélie is an unforgettable protagonist who desperately seeks to make sense of society. It is only through the visionary and unique use of magical realism that blends the surreal with the banality of modern Paris that audiences can see the world through their eyes.


Big Fish (2003)

This Tim Burton classic, which features all of Burton’s trademarks, from full-scale production design to ethereal, dreamlike characters, was based on the 1998 Daniel Wallace novel of the same name. This acclaimed fantasy drama garnered six BAFTA nominations, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for the longtime Burton collaborator. Danny Elfman. When will bloom (Billy Crudup) learns of his aging father Edward’s illness, he travels to talk to him while he still has time. Despite Will’s skepticism of his father’s outlandish stories, he decides to investigate these stories and strives to separate what is real from what is not.

Much of the magical realism throughout the film is grounded in Will Bloom’s difficulty in distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Burton knows exactly how to blend the two to create a world that is neither entirely realistic nor entirely invented. In one of the most memorable scenes, Edward Bloom recounts, “They say when you meet the love of your life, time stands still.” Right now, Burton is freezing everything in the circus except a young Ed (Ewan McGregor) as he walks towards a young Sandra (Alison Lohman), before speeding everything up again. It is this use of magical realism, which exaggerates truth, that allows Burton to uniquely convey the beauty of life.


Black Swan (2009)

Darren AronofskyThe psychological thriller proves that magical realism can manifest in any genre and work brilliantly. Indeed, the film’s obsessive themes resonated deeply with audiences and was positively received by critics following its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in 2010. When Determined Ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) gets the dual role of the Swan Queen in her company’s revival of Swan Lake, she slowly descends into madness as she tries to prove to the theater and to herself that she’s perfect for the part.

The film’s opening, while having a distinctly ethereal tone, is still grounded in realism. All seems well in Nina’s world, until the pressure of her job mounts, and she begins to hear and see things that aren’t actually there. As Nina competes with her polar opposite, the charming Lily (Mila Kunis), Aronofsky uses a darker and more sinister magical realism to contrast his reality with his illusions. It reinforces the idea that perfection is unattainable and highlights the consequences such a strong obsession can have.

Beasts of the Wild South (2012)

Quvenzhane Wallis made history with this film at the Oscars in 2013, being the youngest person at 9 to be nominated for Best Actress. The nomination was simply well-deserved, as Wallis transforms into Hushpuppy, an imaginative and intelligent child. Hushpuppy travels through her flooded community in Louisiana’s Bayou as she struggles to make sense of a difficult relationship with her father Wink (Dwight Henry), whose health is rapidly declining.

The film’s world is seen through Hushpuppy’s eyes, and every frame is covered in the beauty and magic of childhood wonder. However, director Benh Zeitlin slowly begins to incorporate elements of magical realism as Hushpuppy begins to encounter prehistoric creatures called aurochs. In this way, Zeitlin mirrors the real problems of Hushpuppy with imaginary obstacles. It’s a great use of technique and a staple of Wallis’ performance.

Birdman (2014)

It’s the black comedy of the filmmaker Iñárritu which won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. Rigan Thompson (Michael Keaton) is a former action movie star who decides to make his Broadway debut in a theatrical adaptation. However, as a series of hurdles leading up to opening night begin to mount, Riggan wonders if he deserves to be a respected performer.

The first time we see Riggan in the film, he’s sitting cross-legged, levitating in the air. However, it is not in a magical setting. He’s in a dimly lit, messy, unremarkable theater box. Throughout the film, Iñárritu uses this exact juxtaposition between the real and the surreal to emphasize the manic nature of Riggan’s emotional state. This, combined with the legendary cinematographer Emmanuel LubzekiThe long, regular shots create a beautiful, often hypnotic use of magical realism.


Frontier (2018)

This Swedish film from the director and co-writer Ali Abbassi is an unforgettable tale that brought a whole new layer to the fantasy genre. Based on the short story by the Swedish writer Ajvide Lindqvist, the film was well received at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the 91st Academy Awards. The story follows customs officer Tina (Eva Melander), which uses its highly developed sense of smell to spot illegal contraband in suitcases. However, everything she knows about herself and her world is challenged when she encounters the mysterious Vore (Eero Milonoff).

At the start of the film, the world around Vore and Tina looks exactly like our daily lives. However, the two form a bond, Tina, despite knowing she is different, realizes there is more to her identity than she ever could have imagined. Abbasi mixes elements of horror, supernatural realism and magic to elevate Tina’s emotional journey. Everything is clinical and sterile until she finds magic and beauty in a life with Vore. It’s magical realism that creates a new sense of hope for Tina and ultimately creates one of the most unpredictable films of the genre.


About Herbert L. Leonard

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