What better way to construct a narrative than with a conflict everyone experiences on a nightly basis, whether they realize it or not?
The following movies are a ranking of the best cinematic examples that feature a dreamscape as its primary setting or object of utmost pursuit. Ruled out of contention – but worth receiving honorable mention – are the selected works from the filmography of directors who staunchly refuse to provide definitive interpretations of their suspected dream-based narratives, such as David Lynch.
Updated on January 24th, 2021 by Mark Birrell: As an art form that itself mimics the experience of a dream, movies are home to some of the most fascinating meditations on dreaming and imagination ever released for mass consumption. We’ve added an extra 5 movies to our list to further flesh out the very best examples of movies that revolve around dreams, though it should be noted that they appear in no particular order. Some are more recent thrillers that have yet to garner the reputations that they fully deserve and others are iconic avant-garde films that advanced the medium of filmmaking itself.
- 1 15 8 1/2 (1963)
- 2 14 Take Shelter (2011)
- 3 13 Brazil (1985)
- 4 12 Wild Strawberries (1957)
- 5 11 Prince of Darkness (1987)
- 6 10 Total Recall (1990)
- 7 9 A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
- 8 8 The Science Of Sleep (2006)
- 9 7 Wayne’s World 2 (1993)
- 10 6 Dreams (1990)
- 11 5 Open Your Eyes (1997)
- 12 4 The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
- 13 3 Inception (2010)
- 14 2 Waking Life (2001)
- 15 1 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
15 8 1/2 (1963)
Federico Fellini analyzed dreams, creative drive, and the relationship between cinema and religion, amongst many other things, in this massively influential art film that paralleled his own life and career in many ways.
The story follows Marcello Mastroianni’s director as they struggle to materialize their next ambitious movie, with Fellini’s psychoanalytical look at the mind of a filmmaker being strikingly honest, even by today’s standards.
14 Take Shelter (2011)
Dreams and visions of an impending calamity of biblical proportions trouble the father of a small family in rural Ohio. As his need to protect his family against an unseen–and quite unbelievable–apocalypse grows frantic, it tests his wife’s faith in him and his trust in his own sanity.
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain shine in this intense drama from writer and director Jeff Nichols and its ambiguity allows plenty of room for audience interpretation, as all good movies about dreams really should.
13 Brazil (1985)
Surreal comedy icon Terry Gilliam brought much of the strangest charms of Monty Python into a much darker and more complex science-fiction satire about a dystopian future made up of heartless bureaucracy.
A downtrodden pencil pusher dreams of fantastical romance and adventure against the monsters seeking to crush his spirit as well as a beautiful woman that he spots in real life. As much as Brazil explores imagination and escape, it’s ultimately as much about nightmares as it is dreams, and its ending lives on in nihilistic infamy.
12 Wild Strawberries (1957)
Revered writer and director Ingmar Bergman created one of his most enduring and well-respected works with this strange road movie about an aging professor traveling with his daughter-in-law to receive a prestigious honor.
Plagued by mildly sinister and often humiliating dreams, and joined by an assortment of starkly familiar guests, the professor explores his past loves and is forced to confront his coldness to the world around him and how it has spread throughout his family.
11 Prince of Darkness (1987)
The middle child of cult director John Carpenter’s so-called Apocalypse trilogy, Prince of Darkness progresses from the relatively straightforward sci-fi horror of its spiritual successor The Thing with a story about the discovery of the physical representation of the literal Devil. Which, in true 80s body horror fashion, manifests as a big jar of green goop, in this particular instance.
Dreams are a part of the movie’s many musings on metaphysics and human notions of reality viewed on a subatomic level. while that may sound weighty, the movie is really quite a simple siege movie in the vein of Carpenter’s earlier and most famous works.
10 Total Recall (1990)
As one of the slew of action-packed blockbusters fronted by Arnold Schwarzenegger back in his heyday, the film – based on a Phillip K. Dick short story – still holds up.
When viewed purely for its sci-fi elements, the film becomes something else entirely. Its plot – a construction worker unsure if he is dreaming or not while wrapped up in the epicenter of espionage on Mars – reels in audiences who remain for the payoff. Those who do not sleep on Total Recall will be rewarded in the form of not having to endure through the nightmare that was its 2012 remake.
9 A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
Long before movie heroes demonstrated their talent for inserting themselves into others’ dreams, the market for such was cornered by an all-time villain in horror cinema.
For essentially two decades, Robert Englund took to the silver screen to play Freddy Krueger, the King of all things night-time terror. The vengeance-seeking, hat-wearing burn victim’s reign began with Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, a film that helped lead the charge in franchises specially tailored to late-night audiences.
8 The Science Of Sleep (2006)
The understated surreal romantic comedy was not director Michel Gondry’s first foray into the genre. It served as his follow-up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry’s Oscar-winning collaboration with irreverent-brother-in-arms, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation).
The Science of Sleep tells the story of a reality-confused artist burdened by the creativity his frequent vivid dreams supply him. Those in a day-to-day funk are left compelled to identify with a character who basks in the unreal to override the mundane parts of life he downright loathes.
7 Wayne’s World 2 (1993)
The sequel to 1992’s Wayne’s World – based on the Saturday Night Live skit of the same name, and also starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey – arguably entertains as often as its more successful predecessor. However, due to the understandable mass preference for the franchise’s first feature-length outing, one may at first fail to remember the lucid dream inciting incident that adamantly drove not just the bulk of, but the entirety of Wayne’s World 2‘ plot.
Following a spiritually-fueled visit from The Doors’ Jim Morrison, Wayne wastes no time in making the late musician’s wish his command: putting on a music festival to-end-all-music-festivals called “Waynestock.” Game On!
6 Dreams (1990)
Late in his career, Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa continued to shape his legacy that spanned over 50 years.
One such instance: Dreams, for which Kurosawa drew from his own recurring dreams to tackle his views on topics like childhood, spirituality, death, and disaster. The film brought him in touch with a pair of American directors – George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – who each listed the director as a creative hero. Together, they helped Kurosawa gain the funds needed to tell the vignette-segmented tale on the big screen.
5 Open Your Eyes (1997)
Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 film – originally released as Abre Los Ojos, the Spanish translation of its mass-marketed title – followed the vain César (Eduardo Noriega) on his quest through the hellscape that has become of his native Madrid after suffering facial disfigurement in a car crash.
Those familiar with both Open Your Eyes and its American remake, Vanilla Sky (starring Tom Cruise) know each of the open-to-interpretation mind-trips culminates in a major “the second half of this film was a dream” reveal. A fact that encourages revisitation, where the dream-of-it-all becomes even more clear with each repeat viewing.
4 The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
Over eighty years later, the MGM film’s parts have often been poached for regurgitation by way of declarative homage, rendering it near impervious to critique – and negating all those who would cry “spoilers” as well.
Thus, the equivocally-known fact that Dorothy’s yellow brick road, Oz-bound voyage with The Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, and the Tin Man was nothing but a dream does not undo what was learned along the way. And while the film proved “there is no place like home,” it still seems pretty tough to compete with whatever Aunty Em was putting in Dorothy’s tea.
3 Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight Trilogy) pursued uncharted territory with his 2010 crime thriller that brought audiences into dreams-within-dreams-within-even-more-dreams.
Determined to plant an idea inside the mind of a major corporation’s heir apparent (Cillian Murphy), Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his specially-skilled partners set out to pull off the con of a subconsciously-on-point lifetime.
2 Waking Life (2001)
Sometime after breaking out with Dazed and Confused (1993) and Before Sunrise (1995), and before embarking on the ambitiously long-form Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater sought to provide his apt-to-philosophically-chitchat characters a new backdrop.
In 2001’s Waking Life, Dazed and Confused‘s Wiley Wiggins finds himself smack in the middle of a cutting edge, rotoscope-animated dream world. Actual existentialist researchers cameo to break down the many rules of REM sleep while Wiggins’ unnamed protagonist attempts to find requiem among the overwhelmingness of lucid entrapment.
1 Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
In Stanley Kubrick’s final film, then-Hollywood power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman star as a pair of upper eschaton New Yorkers in for a rude awakening.
After learning his wife dreamed of having an affair, Cruise’s Dr. William Hartford impulsively wanders off into the night on an odyssey involving a bone-chilling encounter with an occult-worshipping secret sex society. With his version of the erotically-charged fantasy tormenting his ego-rocked mind, Eyes Wide Shut by-design plays like Hartford’s own personal nightmare; where New York’s streets are London-wide, while Long Island plays host to the devil hidden behind a masquerade mask.
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