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Best Fantasy Movies of the Decade: 2000-2009

January 21

When I was asked to write a companion piece to my Best Science Fiction Movies of the Decade list, I thought it would be equally as easy.  I was wrong.  There were a lot of kind of good fantasy movies over the last 10 years, but not really a lot of great ones.  I think a top five or a top 15 list would have been easier–I had a hell of a time deciding on the last two slots on this list, because I think compelling arguments could have been made for other movies for each of those last picks.

Some of the readers of my SF list took issue with my use of the astronomical decade; I retained it here for two reasons.  First, my personal preference for that method of counting decades; second, the parallel to my previous list; and finally, the fact that there were about 15 fantasy movies which came out in 2010 that I had not seen.  Given that there were almost that many from earlier in the decade I felt I needed to watch or re-watch to create a fairly judged and measured list, the number would have been insurmountable in the time I had for research.

I went back and forth and back and forth on whether to include slightly paranormal elements and traditionally horror elements that have shifted simply to fantasy in the past ten or fifteen years (such as vampires).  I decided for consistency’s sake my choices were both or neither, and ultimately I decided in favor of both.

Children’s movies were by necessity considered; the ones that made the list were those that seemed equally enjoyable to adults, because, the fact is, any kids movie that transcends the age boundary will appeal to both children and grown-ups.

An interesting trend I noticed was how many more fantasy movies outside of large franchises were being made by 2008-9 (and continuing into 2010) as opposed to the previous years.  The success of Harry Potter, Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, et al, has raised a generation into young adulthood on fantasy, instead of breaking away from it in the tween years, and that has led to more fantasy movies overall.  Will it lead to better ones?  That, I think, will be seen in my next decade list.

But enough about my criteria and method.  Here is my list of what I consider to be the ten best fantasy movies of 2000-2009, or the decade better known as the Aughts.

10. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Note that I am not including the entire trilogy.  By the third movie the warps in story were pulling it apart, and the whole thing was just a giant orgiastic mélange of CG effects.  But this first movie, where the effects are fewer and further between, and the sense of delight at seeing this story on the big screen was sharpest, was a highlight of fantasy movies at the movies for me this decade.  It’s just too bad that the trilogy as whole, or even this establishing element, really can’t stand up to the ravages of time and the advancements in imaging to claim a higher spot on my list.

9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

This might be a controversial pick from the various Harry Potter movies released in this decade, but it’s my personal favorite of the films.  I think it made the best movie, period—it captured the feel of the book without slavishly following every plot twist; it covered the salient points without sacrificing its watchability as a film, or its re-watchability.  This is the only HP movie that is comfort viewing for me, something I pop in when I’ve had a bad day or am too sick to read.

8. Mirrormask

This is easily one of my favorite movies for its visuals alone.  The creatures are just off-center enough to be disturbing without becoming incomprehensible.  The costuming is beautiful.  The premise is terrifying and heartbreaking all at once.  Saw it twice at the theater good.

7. Howl’s Moving Castle

Another book to film adaptation.  I can’t say this is better than the book, because this is so different from the book that there’s really no comparison.  What the movie kept were the whimsy and adventure; what it added was a layer of darkness, modern referents to highlight the time-bending aspects of this world (as it relates to ours), and a deepening of the anti-hero motif.  Total enjoyment to watch, visually and story-wise.

6. Lady in the Water

This movie got panned, and I can’t really figure out why.  Because it lacked Shyamalan’s signature twist?  Because it made fun of movie critics?  Because it was, in fact, exactly what the tagline advertised—a bedtime story?  I thought it was a wonderful take on a fairy tale in a modern setting, exciting and full of both danger and mystery that took our mundane world and made it for a brief time something magical.

5. Stardust

This is one of those rare movies that is better than the book it’s based upon.  I think the movie conveys a much better a sense of wonder and whimsy, while also maintaining an earnestness that the book simply lacked, at least for me.  This is the quintessential fairy tale adventure, full of as long a list of “assets” as The Princess Bride:  fencing, fighting, fratricide, lightning-gathering, witches, ghosts, cross-dressers, magic, revenge, true love.  It’s one I can watch over and over again without getting tired of, and that is a rare quality, indeed.

4. Shrek & Shrek 2

I’m conflating these because they’re part of the same story.  Shrek is one of my favorite modern fantasy cartoon stories because it re-made the fairy tale—it made it modern, hip, fun for adults as well as kids, boys as well as us romantically inclined girls.  My one beef?  It also destroyed the traditional fairy tale, because now all of them have to try and be like Shrek instead of the more straightforward adaptation.  But you can’t be revolutionary just by changing your own self, I guess, so I can’t hold the lesser imitations against the greatness of the original.

3. Spirited Away

This movie has rocking animation, a great premise filled with both a real sense of threat, a real sense of wonder, and a real sense of hope for redemption.  It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s just…magical.  And the uniqueness of it (at least for an American) audience is also refreshing; it’s a fairy tale in the best sense of the tradition with pretty much all-new elements because it’s not drawing inspiration from the Western tradition.

2. Let the Right One in

And I mean the original, subtitled version, thank you very much.  This movie is still, silent, uncomfortable.  It is also a beautiful love story and a reclaiming of what vampires should be.  The last couple scenes are all the more impactful for their subtlety—more intense in their restraint than they could ever have been in full-gore sensationalism.

1. Pan’s Labyrinth

I can’t say enough good things about this movie.  It is dark.  It is beautiful.  It is visceral.  It is terrifying and tragic and ascendant all at once.  The creatures are the apex of Del Toro’s* imagination (so far), test-driven in the Hellboy movies but perfected here.  Much more complex and disturbing than the average fantasy movie, without sacrificing the sense of wonder and delight that mark the best of them.

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And, as with the SF list, I have a few movies that I want to talk about.  Some of these were my runners-up, others are just important movies that more people need to see.

Death Note (TV series) – I haven’t finished watching this series, so perhaps this is a premature inclusion.  But the animation is great, the idea is haunting, and it offers some of the most difficult to execute but all-time awesome Halloween costumes.  I am saddened by the inevitable American live-action movie supposedly on its way.  Bah!

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – I love me some Alfonso Cuarón, and this is my second-favorite of the Harry Potter movies.  But I just don’t think it stands alone from the book quite as well, but for being the best filmed of the movies so far I couldn’t not mention it.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus – How I wanted to be able to put this movie in my top 10!  It started so wonderfully, but it devolved into something either too cliché or too confusing to stand.  I don’t know if that was a function of the original idea fizzling out or the necessity of doing away with Heath Ledger’s character inside Parnassus’s mind, where his face changed, but whatever the case this movie didn’t live up to its potential despite the great costumes and a rare sense of wonder.

Bridge to Terabithia – I loved this movie as an example of how wonderful and powerful imagination is.  However, I had no idea what it really was from the previews—there is no way to accurately advertise this movie without spoiling it—but knowing what it is, after the fact, however much I like it I can’t put it on this list because that would be a dishonest description of the film.  Still very worthy of watching, though, and one that stuck with me much more so than I expected right after finishing it.

The Secret of Kells – This is an interesting animated piece, a mingling of Christian mythos with that of old Irish folklore and a bit of history.  Beautiful and filled with wonder.  And did I mention the amazing art of its unique animation?  Nominated with very good reason for an Academy Award.

Wristcutters: a Love Story – I just couldn’t consider this one a fantasy movie, however close it comes, but this is one of my favorite love stories and a hilarious black-comedy look at the afterlife.  Extra points for its Arrested Development reference.  A must-see for anyone who loves weird true-love stories.

Coraline – third Neil Gaiman reference is a charm, right?  This was one of my runners-up; I really enjoyed this movie and found it absolutely breath-taking to watch the first time around, but the re-watchability factor for me is kind of low, and that ended up one of the deciding factors in putting it here versus in the numbered list.

So there you have it. My picks for best fantasy movies from the first decade of the 21st century.  But what would yours be?

*originally attributed as Cuarón, which was a mistake on my part and everyone who pointed that out was absolutely right to do so…who edits the editor?, I guess.

  1. Uh…

    Cuaron didn’t direct Pan’s Labyrinth or Hellboy. So, that’s awkward.

  2. Pan’s Labyrinth absolutely tops for me too with Spirited Away close behind. I know you weren’t sure whether or not to consider Eternal Sunshine sci-fi, but surely then it would be in fantasy and up top.

  3. Lord of the Rings all the way down at #10? Shrek, Shrek 2, Spirited Away, and Lady in the Water better fantasy movies than LOTR? I call shenanigans on this list.

  4. Very happy to see Pan’s Labyrinth as your #1, but it’s Guillermo Del Toro’s work. I know you knew that, right?

  5. Uh… Pan’s Labyrinth, like Hellboy, was directed by Guillermo del Toro, not Alfonso Cuaron.
    Anyway, I agree with most of the ranking.

  6. Great list! I don’t think LOTR has degraded as much as some do, but I can’t argue with most of the choices here. (Also, I think you meant del Toro, not Cuarón, in the “Pan’s Labyrinth” entry.)

  7. Just thought you might want to fix a mistake. Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy are directed by del Toro, not Cuaron.

  8. You include Shrek and Shrek 2 as one entry (but not Shrek 3) because they’re “part of the same story” and then single out Fellowship of the Ring? I’m going to report you to the Inconsistency Police.

    Also, Stardust as a movie had potential but somehow it just never took off for me. I found the overblown Hollywood ending a bit ridiculous – none of that was in the book and the book was better for it.

  9. good choice for the 1st position but, alas, you’ve mixed up the name of the film’s creator – it’s Guillermo del Toro rather than Alfonso Cuarón;)

  10. While I agree with most of your choices (I do believe LOTR deserves a higher spot), I need to mark a mistake on your list. It is Guillermo del Toro and not Alfonso Cuarón who wrote, produced and directed Pan’s Labyrinth.
    Same nationality, a whole different guy.
    Other than that, you’ve made me want to go re-watch some movies.

  11. Interesting mix with a few obvious big-hitters mixed in with some less obvious choices. Not here to question any of those choices, of course, these lists are always about personal opinion so it defeats the object for me to say “yeah, but I thought X was better than Y” etc. Just a correction, then … Pan’s Labyrinth represented the apex of Guillermo Del Toro’s imagination, not Alfonso Cuaron’s. (Excellent choice in the number one slot, though. Wonderful film!).

  12. Hehe … just noticed I’m, like, the 8,000th person to make that comment about Del Toro/Cuaron. Sorry! 🙂

  13. I disagree vehemently about “Lady in the Water” and the “Shrek” films.

    The Shyamalan film had numerous plot holes, made the director out to be the ‘savior’, didn’t make a lick of sense, and was above all else BORING.

    The Dreamworks films were also terrible because they relied too heavily on both gross-out and pop culture ‘humor’ and as such are completely dated already.

    I’d have stuck Gilliam’s brilliant ‘Imaginarium’ somewhere in the middle, and put “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army” at the bottom of the list, moving other films up.

    Aside from that, I agree strongly with your picks. “Death Note” is ultimately more a brilliant psychological thriller with supernatural elements than a fantasy story, so as awesome as it is, I don’t think it should be considered, and I agree that ‘Wristcutters’ really isn’t fantasy either, but it’s still fantastic too.

  14. By the way, since you mentioned a series (“Death Note”) in the honorable mentions, your REALLY need to watch “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (NOT to be confused with James Cameron’s “Avatar” or Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” which is the a condensed version first season of the show… except with all the sense, heart, quality, humor, etc. removed completely).

    That show is arguably the traditionsl best fantasy epic saga since Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. (I specified ‘traditional fantasy’ in contrast to ‘modern fantasy’/’urban fantasy’ like ‘Dresden Files’ or the ‘Harry Potter’ series. Both are great, but they’re two different types of fantasy, really.)

  15. Any such list which doesn’t even mention INK is flawed, especially one with Lady In The Water & Shrek on it. Please, try this film… a Gaimanesque low-budget fantasy with real imaginative scope and heartbreaking performances.

  16. No offence, but if Neil Gaiman wasn’t attached to Mirrormask, it wouldn’t have been made. It bored me to tears, and the mask designs were HORRIBLE, they looked like the rubber latex they were. Stardust was more like Stardud, it thought it was wittier and more cleverer than it really is.

    But hey, anyone can make a top ten list. Anyone.

  17. Fantasy movies that deserve to be in a top ten (moreso than Shrek and a few of the others in this list):

    Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003) should be in any top ten.
    Bridge to Terabithia is a gorgeous film.
    Where the Wild Things Are is a terrific kids movie for adults, particularly Gen X.

  18. Agree with most of this, some great films. Personally though I would’ve included The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

  19. My top ten, in no particular order (because it’s all personal taste, right?):

    * The LOTR trilogy (Fellowship being the best)
    * Spirited Away
    * The Secret of Kells
    * Harry Potter (Prisoner of Azkaban best of the bunch)
    * Pan’s Labyrinth
    * The Bridge to Terabithia
    * Big Fish
    * Where the Wild Things Are
    * Paprika (anime by Satoshi Kon)
    * Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

    Honourable mentions:

    * Amelie
    * Howl’s Moving Castle (not Miyazaki’s best effort, alas)
    * The Forbidden Kingdom (Jet Li is brilliant as the Monkey King)
    * Up
    * Fantastic Mr Fox
    * Coraline

  20. Remove Up, Mr Fox and Coraline, they’re 2010 and miss out by a year. :-/

    Anyway, top tens are subjective, it’s all a matter of taste. LOTR should be #1 in any list though, it set the bar for fantasy films — and it hasn’t aged a day.

  21. I’m glad you mentionned Wristcutters. It’s an amazingly funny and original movie, and I was very sad to see how it’s generally ignored. What an underrated movie ! I very hope to get my hands on a DVD copy one of those days.
    Great list overall !

  22. I really thought The Fall, directed by Tarsem Singh, should have made the list in some way, either on it or runner up, but the striking visuals, the powerful story behind the sequences, and the how it all seemed to fall apart and piece itself back together is was so amazing. I can watch that one over again without losing my enthusiasm.

    Someone above mentioned the movie Ink. I thought this one had some great potential. it was a really good story though it was severely limited by its lack of budget, in my opinion. The acting was a little hard to tolerate but I thought Jeremy Make’s character, Jacob, stole the movie and made it worth sitting through. But again, the story was engaging enough to keep it from becoming the B-movie it really is.

  23. Oh yeah, You mentioned Let The Right One In, the original Swedish version was fantastic. I feel no need to see the American version at all. The problem with American movies nowadays is the separation from good storytelling to in-your-face extravagance. I happened upon a list a while back which mentioned this quiet little Swedish movie and found it streaming on Netflix. It was great because it reminding me so much of the old Alfred Hitchcock movies where he really let your own imagination do the work. His movies tended to be subtle, dark enough to make you question what you think is happening, and very teasing in the way of delivering the impact of the story. Let The Right One In really came through as something meaningful and definitely far beyond your common vampire movie – and the best thing, this a real vampire, not a glittery whining homo beset by a girlfriend with cow eyes!

  24. @ everyone who pointed out the mistake in naming the director of Pan’s Labyrinth – it is now corrected with a note to explain the confusion. my apologies for the mistake, and thank you for pointing it out!

    @ everyone who shared your own list/partial list – thank you. the replies that are just “your list sucks” (as came up PLENTY on my SF list) have no meaning without the second part of “here’s what it should have had.” keep ’em coming!

  25. Hi Lee, well, yes, that was inconsistent of me. but if I had liked all 3 LOTR movies as well as the first one, I’d have included the trilogy. I just…didn’t.

    see, I actually found the book’s ending to be disappointing after seeing the movie…

  26. hi Totz, I figured the Lady in the Water would be controversial. funny thing is, I wasn’t even aware that was the director when I saw the movie in the theater (knew his name not his face). So I had zero baggage and just looked at it as a story, and I found it delightful.

    for me Shrek was important because it revitalized an interest in children’s movies in the fairy tale style. but as i mentioned, the flip side is now no one will make a straight fairy tale because they’re trying to be like shrek, and that makes me sad.

    i have heard of the last airbender but never seen it. will try and check it out – thanks for the rec!

  27. hi Strange,

    thanks for the excellent alternate list (below). I thought of Big Fish but like Terabithia it read for me not as a true fantasy but just as a movie about imagination. Which I know some of these others are mind trips, but I think my sort of cut-off point was when the point of the story was the mind-trip, it was okay, when that was just part of a bigger story, not. i could see an argument for those being included, though, for sure.

  28. yes it IS fabulous, isn’t it! but it’s not for everyone…hence its lack of press.

  29. I have seen The Fall, GORGEOUS movie–was lucky enough to catch it the theater, actually. but while it is a movie about imagination, I didn’t see it as having really any of the magical elements that the other “imagination” movies i included have, so I didn’t think it quite fit. you’re right to point it out, though (I maybe should have called it an also-ran), because it’s a film not enough people have seen.

    LTROI definitely has a hitchcockian feel to it. one of the things that struck me most watching it was how silent it was, how often there was NOT a sound in the background. it’s almost uncomfortable just to watch. i haven’t seen the american version either. i’m curious about it because i like both of the kids in it, but at the same time i know it will just piss me off, so i haven’t actually sat down to see it yet.

  30. Anyone who can’t figure out why a movie as shit as Lady in the Water was shit really doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Very little else in this list that I can agree with. Stardust about the only exception.

  31. I guess just even the title might freak a lot of people out – while i found it very undark for a film about suicide and the afterlife. I actually think that a lot of people might like it if they went with no preconceived ideas on it, and went past the first 10 minutes.

  32. I loved Pan’s Labyrinth, fantastic movie. Personally, I would have put LOTR higher and Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire are my favorite Potter movies (I think Half-Blood Prince is the worst). Without going to the trouble to make a list of my own, movies not on the list that I would consider if I did make a list:
    Spiderwick Chronicles, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Reign of Fire, Pirates of the Caribbean (Curse of the Black Pearl), 300, Ratatouille

  33. Awesome list with one huge exception: Pan’s Labyrinth was the absolutely worst movie I have ever seen and I am a huge fantasy fan! Disturbing and aimless throughout with an only slightly satisfying finish to tie its loose ends together. The other movies are exceptional though, thanks for mentioning a couple that I hadn’t heard of – I will check these out :).

  34. Hi Elena, thanks for taking the time to share your views with us, I do however have a few comments i would like to raise, There are not many who would agree with me about them which is fine I just hope though that they do get people thinking…

    M. Night Shyamalan’s movies are all Fantasy as they are based on “old school” childrens fables, just portrayed in his own flavour, some of his best works in my opinion are, Signs, Lady in the Water, avatar the last airbender, not a hundred percent sure whether any of them “belong” in any top 10 list because like in “The Village” the story always gets lost on most viewers, most of the time i tend to “try” watch these kinds of movies kids eyes to fully get the “feel” of the movie, something i find lacking when adults crit these movies…

    Also i’m not sure i would classify “Let the right one in” (hollywood version a.k.a “Let me in”)as a Fantasy, its more a thriller if not more so a Horror, as i have not yet seen the original yet i can only comment on its Hollywood counterpart, and have to say it was better then i expected, the 2 child stars played their part very well although i found the pool scene a bit “off the track” something you would find in a Marvel movie, but all-in-all quite good, I plan to watch the original very soon, judging from other comments i won’t be dissapointed

    Pan’s Labyrinth, was very good but i found the movie a times too much, almost as if my brain/imagination, kept getting left behind in trying to process the Fantasy part, only to have missed some of the movie/story-line, so i found myself “loosing the plot” as for the Hellboy movies much easier to follow but lacking in the “fantasy” department.

    I think LOTR really has to be taken in to consideration as an entirety in other words the whole story line not just one part, i mean isn’t that just as bad as “judging a book by its cover” besides i’m very anxiously awaiting the Hobbit, which i imagine is going to be a top seller

    Spirited away was a master piece of fantasy but is not alone there are quite a few Anime/manga movies that deserve to be on any fantasy list like Howl’s moving Castle”, so much so that they really should remain in there own best of list.

    Harry Potter remains to have the same input from me as LOTR, it should be looked at in its entirety not just one installment.

    Stardust suprised me, to frank i found it very lacking in both Fantasy and story line, almost as if a bunch of very good actors didn’t have enough to do so decided to “slap” something together, “the Golden compass” was a much better movie all together, though not deserving a place in the top 10.

    The twilight saga series, well what can i say that hasn’t already been said… Nothing?

    James Cameron’s Avatar should belong in this list as according to IMDB was released 2009, any way regardless of whether it belongs or not no one can deny that its a fantasy masterpiece, but i do feel that he could have used a bit more of Del-Toro’s input rather then drowning us in CGI, there is so much CGI, it should be classified as “Animated”, whereas del-Toro, I’m sure uses a lot of CGI seams to make it look more physical, like real make-up instead of pure CGI, and that is what catches me with Del-Toro’s movies, any way other then those comments, a really good list of fantasy’s thanks again for taking the time

  35. First, like so many other comments, you are spot on with Pan’s Labyrinth! Absolutely incredible film. Mirrormask, Stardust and all the Shrek movies, I absolutely loved!

    Lord of the Rings is an absolutely amazing book to read and I can’t wait for The Hobbit to come out in cinemas next year, but I believe it deserved a higher spot on your list!!

    Now, Harry Potter is a touchy subject for me, as I am a HUGE book fan! The worst movie was The Goblet of Fire. It was just so wrong in so many way. Yes, the FX were great and Voldemort turned out just as I had pictured him, but it failed to capture the books amazing grasp on fantasy and the real story. It was a huge muss. Worthy of a mention for me is The Philosophers Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. Both stayed true to the book and looked amazing on screen! At least one of these deserved a mention!

    Another few you could have chosen from are Tin Man, The 10th Kingdom, Hellboy 1 or 2, Pirates of the Carribean(any) and maybe a Discworld movie!!!

  36. I can’t believe I forgot to mention Narnia! Fantastic book and fantastic movies!!!!! The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe definitely deserved a spot, I’m so sad it isn’t on the list 🙁

  37. Tbh with LOTR trilogy it would be wise to rank the extended versions… since they seemed to me heavily focused for fantasy audience on contrary to cinematic versions that were… more for teenagers… for me especially the Return of the King was a failure as a cinematic version, but the best one in trilogy as an extended edition.

  38. @Elena Nola, I loved “Let Me In” ( American version of LTROI)I will have to check out the Swedish version now. You may just like the new one as well!
    Also have you saw “El Orfanato”(The Orphanage)? Another favorite of mine.
    Nice list!

  39. Still – this is an awesome list of movies. I missed Caroline first time – so I havce just put in an order for it!

  40. um, sorry i love LOTR too, but TROTK was a joke of a film with about 12 endings cos they cut most of the story out of the ending, agree that fellowship was the best of the 3 but surely is a better film than shrek… you can´t downgrade a film because of time, Star Wars (the originals) are still amazing to watch and the CGI in those 70s blasters (oops pun) is well dodgy, even the remakes, LOTR still very rewatchable…

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