Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Fantasy
[Note: I moved this post up from its regular 13th publication date because that lands on Mother’s Day this month.]
This is the continuation of a series I began in January of this year that examines and remarks on The American Film Institute and its recent propensity to create Top 10 lists. Specifically, the organization’s need to gather publicity by documenting their celebration of cinema’s centennial via a series of TV specials. Each time, the AFI went about giving importance to a set of motion pictures based on criteria and judgments their groups of ‘experts’ determined. It has generated opinions among fans and film aficionados ever since in varying degrees of disagreement. If you’re unaware, the AFI is a non-profit organization created by the National Endowment for the Arts back in the 60s. One of its main charters is the preservation of American film legacy. As they put it,
“Each special honors a different aspect of excellence in American film.”
Unquestionably, their prime purpose was to get people talking about film. So be it. This series on AFI’s Top 10s (out of their 100s lists) for 2012 is my motivated response to compare their picks with a moviegoer (me) per each of their indexes. Naturally, I’m fully aware that readers’ mileage may vary (indeed, we know they will) when it comes to these selections. Fair enough. Either way, it’s going to be painful as picking one above the other always is in such endeavors. You’re invited to add your own and/or disagree all you want in the comments or your blog site (all I ask is that you leave a link so we, the readers, can peruse). Shall we continue?
AFI defines “fantasy” as a genre where live-action characters inhabit imagined settings and/or experience situations that transcend the rules of the natural world.
- The Wizard of Oz
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
- It’s a Wonderful Life
- King Kong
- Miracle on 34th Street
- Field of Dreams
- Groundhog Day
- The Thief of Bagdad
- It’s a Wonderful Life [AFI #3] – as I summed it up late last year: “This motion picture seems to be about dreams that turn into nightmares, and torments that transform to blessings. As film historian Jeanine Basinger once wrote about Frank Capra’s blend of optimism, humor and patriotism, it meant understanding, “… darkness, despair, and the need to fight for things you care about…“ This film personified that point. “Capra’s heroes often undergo real suffering“, she added. George Bailey wins, but also loses… and sacrifices, only to gain many fold. And with all that, It’s a Wonderful Life became the rare film that remains greater than the sum of its parts.“
- The Wizard of Oz [AFI #1] – Victor Fleming’s (with various inputs from George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, and King Vidor) grand musical fantasy has to be near the top in a list like this. If IaWL wasn’t in consideration, I’d have matched AFI’s top pick. It used to be an annual event when this appeared on television growing up, and which I never missed. Those flying monkeys still frighten my kids, too.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – in my opinion, Alfonso Cuarón‘s taking over the third installment singly saved the adaptation of this book series to film, and it remains the high point for this viewer with its beautiful mix of dark and light maturation. If only Cuarón would have done the rest, I’d have been more than happy.
- The Princess Bride – the sly wink by author William Goldman (done to perfection by director Rob Reiner) of a classic fairy tale, with swordplay, giants, an evil prince, a beautiful princess, and yes, some kissing, is just so much damn fun. Plus, “I swear you couldn’t find a more youthfully beautiful performer to center on. And, Robin Wright as Buttercup wasn’t bad-looking, either.“
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – the first one was great and the last film won all the friggin’ the awards there was, and yet it is the second one that remains the best in my mind. Peter Jackson’s middle installment hits on all cylinders for story, epic battles, and fantastic atmosphere. Why is it that many mid-point films in a trilogy are the strongest? I wonder.
- Pan’s Labyrinth – likely the darkest and most beautiful fantasy film on this list. Guillermo Del Toro’s remarkably sad and magical work is simply something to behold. It is original and brilliant, and a testament to this Mexican filmmaker. Who would have thought an examination of Fascism would have worked so well and poignantly through Fantasy.
- Edward Scissorhands – there are a number of Tim Burton films that could have made my list, but I think this one epitomizes the artful sense in his work. More so, this film captures the sentiment, appeal, and poignancy for those who only want to fit in, but their beauty simply won’t allow it. The film’s final scene still moves me to no end.
- Field of Dreams [AFI #6] – probably the most memorable (and loved) fantasy film for most men I know (me, included). If director Phil Alden Robinson is known for anything in film, it’s this one. Adapted from W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe novel. The film wears its 60s heart on its sleeve most proudly, though tempered with a latter decades viewpoint. We connect with it in ways most men tend to keep to ourselves, which is at times its own detriment.
- Dragonslayer – I’ll finish up my last two slots with some distinctly 80s films, the first of which still incorporates the best dragon ever portrayed on the big screen. Matthew Robbins took a Disney film to new dramatic heights with this tale, which also unexpectedly examined the move away from the occult and multi-deities to the belief in monotheism. And yes, we all know the virgin sacrifice aspect could have been solved another way, but don’t let that get in your way.
- Legend – this Ridley Scott film (his fourth, right after Blade Runner) is an adult fantasy that looks simply stunning, as you’d expect from this filmmaker. It’s imagery pre-dates Peter Jackson’s trilogy, but you can see the commonality and influence it had upon the younger director. My tenth pick refers to the latter director’s cut of the film (as just about every DC is superior than the studio’s theatrical cuts for most of his films). Believe me, watching Tim Curry as the Lord of Darkness is something to behold.
Note: this is one of those interesting genres as, seemingly, the AFI does not recognize horror as its own separate entity. Fantasy inherently is the closest to that category as it conjures up the fantastic and horrific with equal aplomb and ease. It’s why those filmmakers who create them can have some very dark elements in their tales, though most viewers can incorporate or look passed them in this genre, even when some of those same moviegoers won’t go near horror. I choose my list with both light and dark components within for, as I mentioned in a post from last December for my number one pick:
“… you’re not going to have a silver lining without that dark cloud to show it off.”
Yes, I dropped King Kong entirely. I think of it more a “monster” flick than fantasy, but that’s just me. As well, Miracle on 34th Street was kicked as I considered it more as a straight Christmas/Holiday film. I know, I’m splitting hairs, here, given my selection for my #1 slot. But since it’s intrinsically more dark, I ignored that aspect and went with one of my all-time heroes, George Bailey. LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring was replaced with the stronger, middle film in the trilogy (though an argument could be made that all three are one big, very long single movie with two long-ass intermissions). I have no real qualms about Harvey, Groundhog Day, The Thief of Bagdad, or Big. They’re all good, though I adore Groundhog Day‘s cynicism, I like those on my fantasy list a bit more. Their mix of dark and the dramatic deliver for this make-believer ;-).
For those keeping score, only three of AFI’s picks were kept on my list (the lowest so far).
What would be yours?
Next Up: Mystery
The Complete Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 Series:
46 Responses to “Versus AFI: 10 Top 10 – Fantasy”
I like your list better than AFI’s. I don’t know what my top 10 would be, but It’s a Wonderful Life, Field of Dreams, and Harvey would probably be at or near the top.
I hated to leave off ‘Harvey’ from this list. Like ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’, it’s one I would have loved to have seen in its original stage production. Many thanks, Naomi.
Hi, Michael and company:
I do enjoy ‘The Wizard of Oz’, outside of the flying monkeys. ‘Harvey’ is very light and whimsical, though I’d opt for Jessica Rabbit.
Completely missed ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Couldn’t wrap my head around Tolkein’s novels. I’d caught Ralph Bakshi’s animated, Roto-scoped ‘The Hobbit’ ages ago. And that was enough for me.
‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ is still the best developed and executed of the Harry Potter films.
I wouldn’t mind seeing Peter Jackson take on the Harry Turtledove’s ‘In the Balance’ series. Where lizards from outer space invade Earth (Or, Tosev-3) during WWII.
Great to have you chime in on this, Kevin. I remember that Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of ‘The Hobbit’, it had quite the vocal talent: John Huston, Hans Conried, Otto Preminger, Richard Boone, and Orson Bean all participating.
Glad to see another fan of ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’. I’ve not heard of that Harry Turtledove series, I need to check that out. Thanks for reading and commenting, my friend.
Actually, Bakshi did the animated theatrical film “Lord of the Rings,” which actually told a condensed version of the first one and half books. The animated version of “The Hobbit” was for TV and was done by Rankin/Bass, the same people who brought all the stop-motion Christmas specials.
I watched The Hobbit on disc as I missed it when it debuted on TV. Thanks for the info, Jamie.
I love the animated version (“Down down to goblin town…”) and can’t wait to see what Peter Jackson does with this story.
An excellent list of fantasy classics, my friend.
I can’t quibble with your selections of The Wizard of Oz, Edward Scissorhands, Dragonslayer and Legend. All wonderful films. I’m glad It’s A Wonderful Life made your final tally as well.
I know it isn’t a popular view, but the Lord of the Rings movies bore me to tears. In my opinion, they are overlong, undisciplined in terms of editing, and short on meaningful narrative. I know…I’m in the minority, regarding this opinion.
Right now, and pending deeper contemplation, my top ten fantasy list would include, probably, the following films:
The Wizard of Oz
King Kong (1933)
The Dark Crystal
Big Trouble in Little China
It’s A Wonderful Life
And I wonder, does Ed Wood fit on this list, or is that a biography?
If it’s a biography, it’s certainly…a fantastical one. If this is the right place, I might sub out another title for Ed Wood, though three Tim Burton films on one list may be gilding the lily…
All my best,
Hey, John. Great to have you stop by and comment, my friend. As with you and Kevin, not everyone is into the LOTR saga. That’s quite alright as there is so much out there in this genre. I find it surprising, but wonderfully so, you have Walter Hill’s ‘The Warriors’ in this category. It does have some fantastic elements. And I knew you’d have Tim Burton’s simply splendid and heartfelt ‘Big Fish’ film. I came very close including it in my top 10.
I think an argument could be made for ‘Ed Wood’ to be either fantasy or biography. That one has only come up in stature every time I re-watch it. Kudos for including ‘Big Trouble in Little China’. I’m kicking myself for not even considering it (and I recently screened it for my son some weeks ago). Thanks so very much for reading and offering up your top 10, John.
How can “Ed Wood” be considered a fantasy? It’s pretty much a straight-forward biography, even if the characters are a little strange.
Here’s another one for you: “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
Well, even Burton doesn’t consider it a straight biopic. It is a more upbeat telling of the filmmaker’s life. Plus, the Ed Wood meeting with his hero Orson Welles and the movie reception of ‘Plan 9’ is pretty fantastic, don’t you think ;-)?
Well, Wood and Welles meeting may be fictitious, but it’s not fantastical. If, let’s say, he met Santa Claus or one of his on-screen characters came to life, then it would enter into the realm of fantasy…unless, of course, Orson Welles was actually a fantasy character.
Oh, here’s another one: Purple Rose of Cairo, where a movie character walks off the screen into the real world.
Fair point. Yep, Purple Rose of Cairo certainly qualifies.
Oh, I like your suggestion for ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’. An underrated Coppola, if there is one. Thanks, Jamie.
This criteria makes it possible for films to be included that aren’t traditionally thought of as fantasy, though it makes sense that they’re on the list, though I would argue that “Miracle on 34th Street” only possibly has fantasy elements at the very end, and even that is questionable. I actually like both the AFI’s list and your list. However, I’m not sure I would include either “Dragonslayer” or “Legend.” I like both movies a lot, but they are not perfect movies and their problems knock them down as being lesser movies than, say, “Big” and “Groundhog Day.” Also, I really count all three “Lord of the Rings” movies as one big film. They tell one continuous story and are just broken into three volumes. But I know that’s not the way they are officially considered. I’m glad you included one of the Harry Potter films, and “Prisoner of Azkaban” is my favorite.
Very true, Jamie. A number could well be on this type of list. Ever watch all three LOTR one after the other? Last year, my son, and his schoolmate, attended the American Cinematheque 12-hour, triple header at the Egyptian Theatre (the first two film as extended cuts, too). One big, big film, alright.
And Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ just keeps getting better and better on each re-screening, doesn’t it? Many thanks for offering your thoughts on this and the other genres, my friend.
I’ve seen all of the LOTR films repeatedly, but have yet to see them in one sitting. When “Return of the King” was released, there was a special screening of the entire saga (including the extended cut of the first two installments), but I was unable to see it. However, I did sit through a screening of the first five Harry Potter films! I also saw a back-to-back screening of the “Back to the Future” films (and got a special T-shirt to boot).
I’ve always wanted to take in “Back to the Future” films in one gigantic triple-header. It’s one of my all-time favorite trilogies. Do you have a pic of that BttF Tee-shirt? Love to see it. Thanks, Jamie.
Thanks for getting the best of the Harry Potter series into your top ten list. It annoys me that the AFI and the academy snub these films. Some flaws aside, the series is a wonderful achievement, especially since adaptations of children’s literature can get so mangled and messed with.
Though they are probably not Top10 material, I would give honorable mention to Time Bandidts, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Being John Malkovich. #1 & #3 have big pacing problems and conk out before the end, but I still love them.
So here’s a question: what about Hugo? Can we categorize it a fantasy? I haven’t enjoyed a film as much as I enjoyed Hugo in years, so would put it highly on my top 10 list for fantasy or favorite films in general. Perhaps it is the way that it rides the line of fantasy and reality so closely that makes it so extraordinary. Certainly a movie lover’s movie.
“Hugo” isn’t fantasy. It’s a straight-forward story about an orphaned boy maintaining the clocks in a French train station and his discovery that the old toy shop owner is actually a famous filmmaker from days gone by. I’m not sure how accurate the portrayal of the workings of the clocks are, but it seemed realistic. Also, the robotic man that the boy tries to fix is actually fairly historically accurate, as machines like that existed (though possibly not quite as complex). The fantasy elements are in the films that Georges Melies made, but in “Hugo” those are films within a film, and not part of the world the characters live in. There is also the dream sequence of the train crashing through the station, but that also is not representative of the movie’s reality. Now, if the mechanical man had begun to talk or came alive, then the movie would be fantasy.
Okay, I’ll buy that, but it was the amazingly sophisticated automaton and the clockworks that made me think it might cross the line.
Here’s an article that you may find interesting about an “automatic man” circa 1900:
Thanks for the article. Fascinating stuff.
Oh, that is a very good article. Thanks, Jamie.
Thanks for jumping in and offering up a great response and info, Jamie.
Hey, janderoo92 :-). I’m with you about the snubs the AFI and vaunted Academy gave the Harry Potter series (not nominating Alan Rickman for his stellar character work by the time the last film was done is still criminal in my book). Good point concerning the Time Bandidts, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Being John Malkovich (I have not seen the middle film and should make the effort to check it out).
I’m with Jamie on the question of ‘Hugo’. Since I came to that film cold (though my daughter had read the novel) and did expect a fantasy going in. I was surprised by its content and unexpected cinematic story. Thank you for joining in on this post and its comments. Much appreciated.
Thanks, I’m glad I did! Re Hugo, I read the novel after I saw the movie. I know it made a splash as a book when it came out, and it was very cool genre-bender for young readers, but the screen adaptation is masterful and in my view improves on the source material.
Roan Inish is a real treat. A departure for John Sayles, I would say.
I think my daughter thought the same (as she read the novel). Thanks for your thoughts on this and the other films you recommend.
Great list Mike 🙂
I would have similar list as yours but The Lord of The Rings would be number 1. As a book, LOTR is my number 1 fantasy book
Great minds think alike, Novroz ;-). Many thanks.
Great list! Glad to see one of the LOTR trilogy and It’s a Wonderful Life on here, they’d be on my list as well. I actually have seen most of these except DragonSlayer and [gasp] The Wizard of Oz. Yes I have not seen the latter for some reason, ahah.
Thank you very much, Ruth. Ah, now you have an ample reason to give “DragonSlayer and [gasp] The Wizard of Oz” a chance and a screening ;-).
I enjoyed the post, but it’s such a broad genre and really eclipses alot of fringe material here. This one is tough to rein in. And I’m not really sure where to start.
Maybe my problem is I’m just not that in tune with fantasy films. It’s like Harry Potter… eh, Lord Of The Rings … eh,
I’m with you on King Kong, feels like a monster movie, Field Of Dreams feels like a drama, It’s a Wonderful life feels like a Christmas drama, but I guess they all have elements of fantasy.
I love Ridley Scott, but I’ve tried to love Legend, I really have, and it just doesn’t get me going at all, which makes me wonder if I am just not a huge fan of fantasy. Legend looks AMAZING, but falls flat as a story for me.
I’m really intrigued about Naomi’s choice of Harvey. I’ve always wanted to see that film. Did you like it?
I would never have thought of The Warriors as fantasy, but again elements are there I suppose. I really want to see Big Fish along with Harvey and Hugo.
Okay, but enough reading and I’ll give you a few of my fantasy qualifiers.
1. King Kong [I love any of them including the Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges film; I’d even go with Toho’s King Kong Escapes]
2. Mothra and anything by Toho [those Japanese sci-fi fantasy films were amazing. Of course many were monster films, but Ishiro Honda knew how to make a fantasy film like MOTHRA- a classic]
3. It’s A Wonderful Life [since it’s included, I just love the film… it’s wonderful]
4. Sucker Punch [as you know, I thought it was an amazing fantasy film].
5. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
6. Watchmen [alternate history]
7. Jason And The Argonauts and anything Sinbad or Ray Harryhausen
8. Journey to The Center Of The Earth 
9. Doctor Doolittle 
10. The Land That Time Forgot and anything Doug McClure
11. My Neighbor Totoro and anything by Miyazaki
12. The Wizard Of Oz
13. Field Of Dreams
14. Time Bandits – nice choice.
Okay, maybe not entirely specific, but a nice list of films that I just never tire of seeing.
Nice post my friend
Yeah, this particular genre can be rather broad. There is so much that, as you say, certain aspects don’t draw everyone in. I’m curious, did you watch the Director’s Cut of ‘Legend’? The theatrical cut is nowhere near my favorite and wonder if you screened that version.
‘Harvey’ is a wonderful piece that’ll have you wondering if it is, initially, a fantasy. The story and James Stewart’s performance in it make it fantastic, so to speak. I recommend it.
Ooh, ‘Mothra’. That is a great selection from the Japanese sci-fi/fantasy films from that era, alright. Y’know, I see ‘Sucker Punch’ here, too. Another interesting pick with Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ — the Wuxia film do have a fantastical element to them. I could watch your list without any hesitation, SFF. Thanks so much for reading and putting together a great list of films, my friend.
The best thing about the director’s cut of “Legend” is the music. Jerry Goldsmith originally did the score, but was then replaced by Tangerine Dream’s synthesized instrumental, which gave it an oddly modern (for the ’80s) feel. I believe the Goldsmith score was included on the European release, and was later restored to the director’s cut of the movie. It’s so much better than what TD did!
I always wondered if “Legend” was actually just an extended dream sequence from “Blade Runner,” given that Dekker dreamed of unicorns (at least in the director’s cut of that film.
Excellent point re: the restored musical score in the Director’s Cut of ‘Legend’. Jerry Goldsmith was one of the great film composers of the last couple of decades. Thanks, Jamie!
Dream sequence of Blade Runner…. that’s a terrifically interesting thought.
I never thought of It’s a Wonderful Life as fantasy, it felt so real to me, in spite of its more fantastical elements. Great list Michael, good call on The Two Towers as the obligatory LOTR inclusion. I might have gone for the Fellowship myself but now that I see Two Towers on your list I can’t disagree with your choice, they’re all fantastic. Haven’t seen the last two on the list or Field of Dreams or Princess Bride. Love Pan’s Labyrinth. Enjoyed your words on each film, great post Michael.
Thanks very much, Ronan. It’s great to read your thoughts about this genre and those listed, my friend.
Great stuff here, Michael. I actually prefer your list over AFI’s, especially with the inclusion of The Princess Bride. I never get tired of that film.
Thanks, my friend. And yes, ‘The Princess Bride’ never gets old ;-).
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