Posted on Monday, June 13th, 2016 by Peter Sciretta
We often publish best of lists on this site, but this one is different — this one is more special to me. Ever since I was a little child, I’ve always been fascinated with magic and illusions. After seeing David Copperfield‘s television specials as a kid I was gifted a magic set produced by Fisher Price (which was awesome by the way) and became obsessed with the art form. While I wouldn’t consider myself a serious magician, I do perform a few magic tricks every once in a while for family and friends.
And what initially pulled me into film geekdom is not what you might expect: the old movie magic specials that used to play on television. Those TV shows would show how Hollywood created illusions using, for the most part, practical effects, make-up and miniatures. Not that I didn’t watch movies like every other child, but it was the art of making the impossible possible that is responsible for sucking me deep into the world of cinema.
So come with me as I count down my favorite movies involving magicians in the best magic movies of all time.
The Best Magic Movies of All Time
Before I begin, let me list off some things you should know before reading this list.
In preparation for this list I looked at a couple other Best of Magic Movies lists from around the web and discovered that most of the listings include films where magic is real. For example, the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films. I’m honestly not interested in doing that list. This list is mostly dedicated to films that involve magicians, stage illusionists and escape artists.
There are a few great documentaries that profile magicians that I decided not to include in this list. Maybe it’s that they seem to be more personal than about magic, but for some reason I didn’t want to include them even though they are great films. Those movies include:
- An Honest Liar: This fascinating and touching film about James Randi chronicles his career from magician to noted skeptic, and even delves into his personal secrets quite a bit.
- Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay: This is perhaps the most acclaimed but least seen movie on any of the magic movie lists.
- Magician: The Astonshing Life and Work of Orson Welles: In addition to being a writer, direct and producer, Welles was also a magician (in fact, you should seek out the trick David Copperfield did with Welles after his death). This documentary is more about Welles’ Hollywood career (as it should be) but is definitely worth checking out.
There is another magic documentary that I would have liked to have included titled Magic Camp, about kids from around the world who gather every year at Tannen’s Magic Camp.
And if it’s not obvious enough, while I call this a list of the best magic movies of all time, this is really a list of my favorites. It’s a subjective listing, and the point is not to say “this film is better than this movie” but instead to talk about some good films and hopefully point out and spotlight some movies you have never seen or heard of before or maybe never seriously considered. But I’m sure many of you will disagree with what films did and didn’t make the list, and in which order I placed them. Feel free to comment below and tell me which films I should have included but didn’t, or how wrong I am to put whatever movie I placed in the top spot.
15. Our Magic
This is one of the only movie on this list that treats magic as an art form. It’s a great look behind the curtain into the inner circle of magicians, a world that is usually not seen by the public. There are some great stories here, and the team behind this documentary interviewed so many big names from this world. It’s also a more progressive and honest look at the magic industry than you might expect from people inside the industry of secrets. If there is one complaint about this film it is that it’s one of those documentaries which is mostly talking head interviews. When they do show more, it’s beautifully shot, but I just wish it wasn’t so heavily interview-based.
I almost didn’t include this film on the list because it’s not really about a magician as much is it about the discovery of a secret. Martin Scorsese‘s Hugo briefly gives a glimpse into how magician Georges Méliès helped create the cinematic art form. I loved this film, and it’s still one of only a handful of 3D films which I think prove the usefulness of 3D as a storytelling tool. As a film, this movie deserves to be higher than most of the films on this list, but as a list of movies about magic I couldn’t reason with myself to place it higher.
13. Now You See Me 2
Now You See Me 2 might be more fun than the first film, but it’s also too silly and lacks the great twists and reveals of that first film. This sequel earns its place on this list for just one big action sequence alone, which involves the Four Horsemen having to make use of their cardistry skills to pull off a test and conceal the pirated goods as they make their escape. You can tell that so much love and magic artistry went into this sequence, and it’s probably the most fun segment of the entire movie. While this film uses CG to a better effect than the first movie did, there are still moments in this story that could have been accomplished with practical magic versus a too-glossy computer-generated effect.
12. The Illusionist
Sylvain Chomet‘s beautiful and remarkable French animated film was nominated for an Oscar in 2010. The story follows a French magician who travels to Scotland after he finds himself out of work, where he meets a young woman. This is more of a character story than a movie about magic, but it’s magical none the less and deserves a spot on this list at #12.
11. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
A lot of people do not like this comedy, but I quite enjoyed The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The story follows Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi as a Vegas-headlining magician duo a la Siegfried and Roy but less flamboyant. Wonderstone finds himself at rock bottom after his longtime partner quits, he gets fired from his long-time casino gig, and an edgy new street magician “steals his thunder.” And I feel like I haven’t liked anything Jim Carrey has done in years, but I really admire his performance in this film as a kind of David Blaine meets Criss Angel-style street magician by way of Jackass.
The film has a ton of references that fans of the magic world will pick up on, but might also be alienating as it’s mostly making fun of this world, the crazy publicity stunts and the cheesy performers who are part of it. But still I enjoy it. The film also features a cameo from magician David Copperfield, who was a consultant on the film helping design an illusion that Wonderstone performs. As part of the film’s junket, I got to take a tour of David Copperfield’s secret warehouse and magic museum, which to this day is one of the most special places I’ve ever been lucky to visit (and this job has allowed me to visit a lot of cool and special places). You can read my report about that visit here.