There are thousands of fantasy movies out there set in magical realms with witches and sorcerers, packed with spellbinding escapism.
But what about the magic we encounter in everyday real life? Although stage magicians might not actually break any laws of nature or physics, they do entice us with their promise of illusion.
We can spend hours trying to figure out how they pulled an entire bunny from thin air, or we can just sit back and enjoy being enchanted.
Here are our picks for the best movies featuring stage magicians, tricksters, and illusionists, from Victorian times to present day.
12. Red Lights (2012)
Wherever miracles occur, there will also be those who try to debunk them. From ghost hunters to disgruntled scientists, people may seek to expose charlatans for many reasons—but mostly it's because they hate seeing people take advantage of folks who are naïve or grieving.
In the case of Professor Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom (Cillian Murphy) in Red Lights, their aim is to demystify paranormal phenomena using the science of physics.
So, who's their target? The world-famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro). Rodrigo Cortés directs this crowd-pleasing thriller that, despite being a little predictable, is still a fun watch.
11. Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
A Woody Allen rom-com that may have slipped under your radar, Magic in the Moonlight tells the love story of an English illusionist and American mystic who accidently fall for each other.
On the surface, they seem like the perfect pair—but the only reason they meet is because Stanley (Colin Firth) is called upon to unmask Sophie (Emma Stone) as a fraud!
Like Woody Allen's other film Midnight in Paris (2011), Magic in the Moonlight is set in a dreamy 1920s where there's no such thing as technology to help Stanley catch Sophie out.
10. The Clairvoyant (1935)
Also known as The Evil Mind, The Clairvoyant shows us the danger that true psychic powers would hold.
Unlike the other mediums on this list—who aren't actually magical—Maximus really does have telepathic abilities.
He doesn't know it at first, and it only works when his new lover Christine is around. When all of his tragic predictions come true, the media whips up a frenzy and everyone believes Maximus is the cause.
Claude Rains and Jane Baxter headline Maurice Elvey's black-and-white drama, not to be confused with the 1985 horror by Armand Mastroianni.
9. Now You See Me (2013)
Louis Leterrier combines the heist genre with a bunch of magicians who apply their skills to rob banks.
"The Four Horsemen" break into vaults while performing on stage, then throw all the money at their audience. Of course, this makes them a prime target for an FBI investigation.
Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Michael Caine, Lizzy Caplan, and Morgan Freeman make up the ensemble cast, with Fisher almost drowning to death in one of the stunts!
Now You See Me got a sequel in 2016, and a third movie—which might just be a spin-off—is supposedly in development.
8. Ghost (1990)
When Ghost released, a shirtless Patrick Swayze making pottery with the love of his life had audiences swooning in theaters. Since then, it's been parodied to this day. Too bad he's actually dead in that scene.
No, that isn't a spoiler—Sam dies at the beginning of the movie and spends the rest of the film's runtime as a ghost stalking his girlfriend, played by Demi Moore.
The only person that can sense Sam's spirit is psychic Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg), who didn't even realize she had real powers until hearing Sam's voice.
7. Nightmare Alley (2021)
Guillermo del Toro recently directed this neo-noir remake of Edmund Goulding's 1947 film, based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham.
As is Del Toro's usual style, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, atmospheric drama that fuses fantasy with realism, painted with dark color grading.
Bradley Cooper stars as a drifter-turn-carnie-turn-psychic in the 1940s, who accidently kills the clairvoyant act that taught him their secret code.
After he makes a fortune off his rigged act, he gets greedy and falls into the same carnival trap he was warned about years ago.
6. Hugo (2011)
Why do people love cinema? Because it feels like magic.
"If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they're made," says George Méliès in reference to filmmaking, played in Hugo by Ben Kingsley.
But where did Méliès start all this dream-building? On the stage, of course! Before the moving picture was invented, the real-life Frenchman was a celebrated illusionist who translated his vision to stages.
Martin Scorsese dramatizes the end of the filmmaker's life in Hugo, starring Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz.
5. The Illusionist (2006)
Back in the 19th century, social class had the ultimate ruling over who could be in love with whom.
In The Illusionist, Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) uses magic tricks to work around this little obstacle and reunite with his lover, the Duchess von Teschen (Jessica Biel). Unluckily for him, this idea gets Eisenheim arrested for necromancy.
Eisenheim first appeared in Steven Millhauser's short story collection The Barnum Museum (1990). Neil Burger brings the magician to life in this romance mystery set in beautiful Vienna, incorporating a fictionalized storyline of the Mayerling incident.
4. Ghost Stories (2017)
Nowadays, it's hard to pull the wool over an audience's eyes with plot twists. Movies are increasingly predictable and repetitive, which makes it such a treat when a plot twist does manage to catch you off guard.
Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman gift us a box of tricks with their eerie horror anthology, Ghost Stories. Nyman also stars in the movie as a loner workaholic who spends his life debunking fake psychics.
Philip Goodman (Nyman) does this to stop them taking advantage of people. He probably regrets taking on this particular case, though...
3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The eponymous Wizard of Oz isn't actually a wizard at all—he's a normal man who's simply posing as one.
This is terrible news for young Dorothy (Judy Garland), who goes through hell to find the wizard so she can be magically sent back home.
Not only does the wizard's terrifying, huge head turn out to be just an old man at the end of the movie, he then abandons Dorothy!
MGM's infamous musical was a Technicolor feat that brought the vibrant land of Oz to life in a way viewers had never seen.
2. Don't Look Now (1973)
Nicolas Roeg's British horror Don't Look Now has slowly risen in popularity over the past few decades.
Most clairvoyants are shunned for exploiting people's grief because that can have a huge effect on their psychology and belief systems, plus it makes them more susceptible to future manipulation.
Roeg explores this in Don't Look Now, diving into the psychology of loss—in this case, the loss of a child.
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland star as a recently bereaved couple who are told their daughter is trying to reach them from beyond the grave.
Flashbacks and flashforwards muddle our perception of the narrative, making Don't Look Now an intelligent piece of filmmaking.
1. The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan is a pro at red herrings and puzzle movies, which is perfect for a film about magicians! The Prestige is basically a magic trick itself, just like all cinema is (as George Melies showed us).
"Now you're looking for the secret... but you wont find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled," Michael Caine's Cutter explains, referring to both the magician's trade and The Prestige's plot twist.
Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star as two rival illusionists in 19th century London, with David Bowie making a cameo appearance.