BEST MAGIC MOVIES EVER
Who better to create this specialized list for you on the best magic movies of all time than a UCSD theater Ph.D., magic scholar, university professor, author, and movie lover. Grab your popcorn, sit down, crank up your speakers, and read on...
The 10 Greatest Magic Movies of All Time
by Dr. Will Given
University of California, San Diego
For an art form that is so focused on the visual narrative, one would think that there is an overabundance of movies dealing with magic to choose from for this list. Sadly, this is not the case. We have had to search diligently to find what we feel are the Top 10 Magic Movies of All Time. Some of the movies on this list are indicative of the shallowness of the pool of films to choose from. Others are simply brilliant. The fact is, we need stronger films dealing with magic to be made, wouldn’t you agree?
10. Terror Train
1980 | Dir. Roger Spottiswoode
A formulaic slasher film where the mysterious killer stalks college kids on a train (I’m serious), Terror Train makes it onto the list due solely to the fact that the train's onboard entertainment is a magician, originally referred to as “The Magician.” Now, cast David Copperfield (yes, THE David Copperfield) in the role of The Magician and you have yourself a movie. In this film, you can see David and his butterfly-collared tuxedo shirt perform card manipulations, levitate a lady, and float a rose for a swooning Jamie Lee Curtis. As cheesy and poorly executed as the rest of the film is, it is worth a watch to see some vintage Copperfield.
1953 | Dir. George Marshall
This biopic on the celebrated magician is famous for the liberties in presenting the “facts” of Houdini’s life. Take a look at our The Top Magic Tricks of All Time list for how the Water Torture Cell as depicted in the film differs from reality. Starring real-life couple at the time, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as Harry and Bess Houdini, the pair of Hollywood royalty effectively and convincingly capture the Houdinis’ relationship with one another. While much ink has been spilled about the historical inaccuracies of the film, the fact is, Houdini most likely would have approved. Houdini himself was a self-created and self-curated larger-than-life myth, so a film that bent the truth about his life would have simply helped add another layer of mystery to the story.
8. The Grim Game
1919 | Dir. Irvin Willat
While on the subject of Houdini creating his own mythos, the role of motion picture superstar needs to be added to the fold. Not content being the best magician in the world, Houdini also set out to dominate other fields as well including being the first to make a controlled powered flight in Australia. Houdini set his sights on the movies, feeling that his star power would directly translate to box office success. He first appeared in the serials The Master Mystery in 1918, as Quentin Locke (because Houdini was an escape artist, get it?), but making your way through all fifteen episodes is a painful marathon to endure. If you want to see Houdini on the silver screen, then you need to check out The Grim Game. Long thought to be a lost film, a print was found, restored and premiered in 2015. The film is famous for the midair collision of two planes that wasn’t scripted and luckily was an accident which everyone miraculously survived. (You may want to jump to minute 1:30 on the clip above.)
7. The Illusionist
2006 | Dir. Neil Burger
Starring Edward Norton, The Illusionist was one of the two films dealing with magic and set at the end of the nineteenth century, released within a two-month period in 2006. You will have to read ahead to see if the other film makes our list! While the acting in The Illusionist is stellar with terrific performances by Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, and Rufus Sewell, the romance the plot focuses so heavily on ends up feeling a bit too familiar. Coupling this with how similar the visual aesthetic is to its rival film, The Prestige, The Illusionist never really feels like its standing on its own two feet unfortunately. There are some reinterpretations of illusions made famous by Robert-Houdin in the film, including his “Marvelous Orange Tree,” but the filmmakers decide to focus a bit too heavily on the fantastical with CGI being used to “enhance” the magicality of the tricks that one doesn’t get a close representation of what stage magic was like at the end of the nineteenth century.
1958 | Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Known in the U.S. as The Magician, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman deals with the perception of illusions and brings up interesting questions of magic and reality. Even today, there are those who see illusions and immediately attribute supernatural powers to the performer. There are others who demand a scientific explanation for what they witness. Bergman’s film explores the oftentimes blurry lines separating illusion, science, magic, and reality and what happens when our foundational beliefs in the definition of any of these elements are challenged in any way.
5. Now You See Me
2013 | Dir. Louis Leterrier
Leterrier’s modern heist movie is set in the world of magic and illusion. Four magicians are brought together to perform as “The Four Horsemen,” where they pull off large heists during their shows and then shower the audience with the money. The movie skirts the line between actual illusion and “real” magic but is a fun and flashy ride through Vegas grand illusion shows. What sets this film apart though is its original thinking about what illusion can be in the twenty-first century. Instead of magicians spending time trying to retread centuries old illusions, the thinking behind some of the illusions in this film, though they may at first appear to be technically not feasible or even remotely possible, still demonstrate how magicians need to be consistently challenging themselves to push the boundaries of their art.
2011 | Dir. Martin Scorsese
Based on the wildly successful 2007 book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Scorsese’s film follows a young boy who lives in a train station and befriends the famous filmmaker and magician, Georges Méliès (Sir Ben Kingsley). The film is remarkable for its production design and cinematography. The film also features an element that was incredibly popular in late-nineteenth-century illusion shows – the automaton. Automatons were intricate mechanical creations, oftentimes presented as “characters,” who could write, draw, make predictions, and even seemingly bake specific cakes selected by the audience. Automatons remind us of how the technological can be magical and Scorsese does a beautiful job showing this in his film.
3. The Prestige
2006 | Dir. Christopher Nolan
The second film to be released in the battle of the 2006 “magic themed movies set in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century,” The Prestige easily wins. The magic in Nolan’s film is set much more firmly in reality than that of the fantastical interpretations of The Illusionist. The Prestige focuses on two rival magicians’ game of one-upmanship with an illusion dubbed “The Transported Man” and “The New Transported Man.” The illusion involves two doors on stage separated from one another by quite a distance. The magician bounces a ball, walks through one door, and emerges from the other door in time to catch the ball. The illusion would be stunning to see for an audience, even today, and the methodology, as is often the case, is far simpler than one may imagine. With strong performances by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, and even an appearance from David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and with its original screenplay filled with numerous twists and turns, The Prestige is a great magic movie you should see.
2. Harry Potter films
2001 | Dir. Chris Columbus; 2002 | Dir. Chris Columbus; 2003 | Dir. Alfonso Cuarón; 2005 | Dir. Mike Newell; 2007 | Dir. David Yates; 2009 | Dir. David Yates; 2010 | Dir. David Yates; 2011 | Dir. David Yates
It would be impossible to have a list without acknowledging the influence Harry Potter has had on the world of magic. Yes, it is true that this series of eight films is presenting fictional magic to audiences. Yes, if you were to pay top dollar to see a magician in Vegas stand on stage with a magic wand, exclaiming spells such as, “Expecto Patronum,” you would most likely be seriously disappointed waiting for something, anything, to happen. The fact is though, the world that J.K. Rowling created with the Harry Potter universe made millions of kids across the world excited about magic again. At many midnight book release parties, magicians performed for kids and their parents waiting patiently in line, helping to bridge the gap between the fictional and the real. Harry Potter is responsible for inspiring an entirely new generation with magic and its possibilities.
1. Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin
1896 | Dir. Georges Méliès
In just over one minute of screen time, Georges Méliès pretty much delivers magic into the twentieth century and also helps establish the foundations for film editing and special effects. In the short film, Méliès walks onto stage and acknowledges the audience. He welcomes a lady (Jehanne d’Alcy) onto stage. Méliès places a newspaper on the ground to demonstrate that no trapdoors are being used and places a chair on top of it. He has d’Alcy sit down on the chair and carefully covers her with a large cloth. He pulls the cloth away to reveal that she has disappeared. While the jump cut used to achieve the illusion is obvious to today’s audiences, audiences in the late-nineteenth century were astounded. Méliès effectively created a new methodology for a de Kolta chair (see our list of the The Top Magic Tricks of All Time) and with it, opened up an entirely new realm of possibility for the intersections of technology and magic.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
2013 | Dir. Don Scardino
While the comedy never seems to truly materialize in this film, it is notable for pinpointing a shift in the magic community many actual performers have had to navigate. The film deals with a famous magician who has built his career performing a “traditional” magic show and what happens when a younger magician appears on the scene who brings an edgy and modern performance style to the mix. The film echoes a lot of the grumblings that took place when magicians such as David Blaine and Criss Angel began gaining notoriety and attempts to deal with the question artists throughout time have had to deal with – how do you maintain artistic relevancy in a constantly changing society?
So, what do you think? What magic films have you seen that you feel should be included on the list? Do you also feel that there have not been enough quality films about magic? Would you like to see more serious films like The Prestige, more humorous and satirical magic films like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, or more fantastical movies like Hugo being made today? Are you yearning for Terror Train 2 and the return of Copperfield’s butterfly lapel shirt? Or do you prefer magic shows on tv? Write us and let us know!