Films about magicians have been a perennial favourite throughout the movie halls of fame. From animated comedy shorts to full length mysteries, magicians in movies with a good screenplay never fail to capture the public’s imagination. I’ve made a list of what I think are the seven best magic movies in the past twenty years. Let me know in the comments below what you think of these and if you have a favourite one that I missed…
Dealt (2017) – Recent Films About Magicians
A film everyone has been talking about on my magician movies list is a documentary. Don’t let the ‘D’ word scare you. I’ve met people who don’t particularly like documentaries or magic who loved this film. I did too. Sensitively directed by Luke Korem, this film follows the mind-blowing story of ‘card sharp’ Richard Turner. It’s an inspiring story of incredible passion, obsession and dedication. It’s about a man known amongst magicians as a ninja with cards. And of course now I must say why his achievements are exponentially more than you first may think. Richard Turner is blind. To witness what he can do with cards is so remarkable that the most-searched question about him on Google is “Is Richard Turner actually blind?”. Yes, Google. He is.
The film takes us through his life, his relationships with his family and with cards (which comes first, you decide), and other seemingly insurmountable achievements. Magicians will enjoy interviews with the likes of Max Maven, Johnny Thompson and Armando Lucero. Some movie reviewers seem to have wanted Korem to push for more grit and blood but I think he got across exactly what he was going for. You can watch it streaming as a magician movie on Netflix or Amazon.
Deceptive Practice (2012) – Ricky Jay as Actor Magician
The next film is also the last documentary of my list. Directed by Molly Bernstein, this film looks at the actor, historian and magic legend Ricky Jay (1946 – 2018). To the uninitiated, you might recognize Jay from one of his films as an actor. For example he was well known for his part in David Mamet’s heist film House of Games (1987). Magicians will appreciate how this documentary explores the influence of other 20th century magicians on Jay. These include Dai Vernon, Cardini and Charlie Miller who all influenced his development. The also film captures rare footage from his appearances in 1970s TV shows including doing three card monte with Steve Martin on the Dinah Shore Show.
Dealt is a documentary that appeals to a wider audience. Whereas Deceptive Practice is pitched more to magic enthusiasts. Ricky Jay is a legend in magic. This film is a well-spent one and a half hours with the master himself.
Hugo (2011) – The Magician of the Early Films
Martin Scorsese’s fantasy film Hugo takes us to 1931 Paris with the story based on pioneering filmmaker and magician Georges Méliès. Ben Kingsley portrays the inspired clockmaker in a Montparnasse toy shop and you’ll enjoy a surprise visit from Sacha Baron Cohen as a police inspector.
As movies about magicians go, this one is full of rich historical references to the creepy and magical automata that dovetailed with magic innovations of the day. There’s a spectacular scene with a haunting clockwork doll that produces a beautiful intricate drawing. While in the film the drawing action is of course sped up, it’s even more spectacular when you find out that the automaton on set can actually produce the entire drawing. No movie magic required!
The film also has a Harry Potter connection as the magic consultant Paul Kieve (read more on him here) was the only magician to work on the Harry Potter films.
L’Illusioniste (2010) – Fantasy and Storytelling Charm
This magician film is an enchanting animated feature-length film by director Sylvain Chomet. It takes place in Scotland and London in the late 1950s. The movie follows a struggling illusionist who is unable to adapt with the times of rock and roll. But then he meets a young girl who admires him. They do not speak the same language but meeting her will change his life.
This semi-silent film is visually evocative with a beautiful old-fashioned hand-drawn animation feel. Lots of mumbled unintelligible dialogue leaves the viewer to soak up the vivid atmosphere. Full of subtle gags and super watchable scenes, if you are able to downshift to its gear, this magical film will sweep you away.
L’Illusioniste is especially magical for me because I was fortunate enough to perform on stage for its opening night at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre for the Edinburgh Film Festival. I performed silently on stage as my alter ego Norvil before the curtain parted to debut the film to the audience of 2,000 film industry professionals.
Presto (2008) – The L.O.L. Short Film Delight
Before we stop talking about animated films about magicians, we must touch on another one of my animated favourites: Presto. Pixar created this spirited slapstick breakneck speed short film full of Loony Toons style panache. Under Doug Sweetland’s directorial wand, the debonair magician’s rabbit turns on him when he keeps forgetting to feed the poor thing. And from then, all sorts of magic hell breaks loose for the doomed stage magician. Vibrant characters and zany action-packed scenes that will leave you smiling fill this film. But enough talking about it, here you can enjoy Presto for yourself!
The Illusionist (2006) – Artistic Brilliance
2006 was an unusually big year for movies about magicians. The Illusionist hit cinemas just a few months after The Prestige (see below). Neil Burger directed this film about a magician. It stars Ed Norton alongside his character’s love interest played by Jessica Biel. Compared to The Prestige (as any magician themed film released the same year is bound to be) this film is much more romantic and poetic, set in 1889 Vienna. It’s full of sumptuous detail which may not be everyone’s taste. For example, the production team lit the love scene entirely with kerosene lamps. An authentic feel for sure, which supposedly choked out the production crew by the end of the shoot.
Magic nuts will be interested to know Ricky Jay (see the movie Deceptive Practice above) and Michael Webber provided historical consultation for the film. There is a beautiful portrayal of Robert Houdin’s mythical orange tree illusion which will leave magician enthusiasts drooling.
The Prestige (2006) – A Top Pick of Movies about Magicians
This one is directed by Christopher Nolan and comes from an adaptation of a novel by Christopher Priest (of Memento fame). It’s set in 1890s London. If you like slow-burn horror or thriller films, there will be lots here for you. The Prestige stars Hollywood A-listers Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as the feuding magicians. Michael Cane also has a strong supporting role (Cane went on to play a (jaded, death-obsessed) magician in the film Is Anybody There (2009)). But in the Prestige, Cane’s character delivers the premise of the film as he explains what ‘the prestige’ actually is. This framing all makes sense come the big twist at the end.
Released the same year as The Illusionist (above), The Prestige is much darker. It explores themes of envy and competition between rivals as well as revenge. Magic buffs will love the references to historic stage illusions such as the bullet catch, the water torture and Chung Ling Soo. It all leads to a fantastical climax. See if you can figure out what’s going to happen.
So there you have this London magician’s take on the seven best films about magicians this side of the year 2K! It’s hard to make a definitive list of ‘the best’. But based on artistry, creativity, storytelling and maybe even just a je ne sais quoi, these are seven of my favourite magic films so far in the 21st Century. (That sounds epic, doesn’t it?) Tell me yours in the comments below. It would be great to get more of a list here from all of you.
Thanks for coming along. Say hello and drop me a note in the comments below. I hope to see you again after a few more turns in the trail.