Reel Life? Or Just a Dream…Inception and the Top Ten Dream Movies

As Inception plows through its second weekend of box office glory, Christopher Nolan’s lucid thriller is simultaneously solidifying its legacy as a classic of contemporary cinema.  From the early days of film making (dare I say, since its inception?), theorists have speculated about the dreamlike nature of the cinematic experience and movies have perpetually tried to bring dreams alive on screen.  Inception couples innovative art-house sensibilities with blockbuster thrill tactics to take on the dream genre with ingenuity and intelligence.  Like Inception, these next ten films deftly negotiate the world of dreams with real life to earn the distinction of being one of the top ten dream movies of all time.

10.  Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990)

Kurosawa based this series of visually stunning vignettes on dreams he had throughout his life.  It’s no Yojimbo or Throne of Blood, but Dreams is yet another triumph in the career of one of the mediums greatest craftsmen.

9.  Dreamscape (1984)

The 80’s are much like the controversial eighth season of “Dallas”: a terrible, terrible dream.  But some good did come out of the decade, including Dreamscape, a sci-fi thriller starring Dennis Quaid and Sweden’s best export Max von Sydow.  From the primitive synth heavy score to the distinctive color filters in each dream sequence, Dreamscape is inescapable 80s and undeniably fun.

8.  Waking Life (2001)

Richard Linklater’s cerebral foray into rotoscoping is not only a weaving lucid-dream for its protagonist, but a philosopher’s dream as well.  Exploring themes of existentialism, Freudian and Lacanian dream psychology, and just about every major cinematic theory of the last century, Waking Life is less like a movie and more like a doctoral thesis on acid.

7.  Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali teamed up to make this surrealist, hallucinatory experience fraught with religious and sexual imagery that scream repression.  The disjointed chronology mimics the sporadic structure of dreamscapes and is an unadulterated portrayal of the inner-workings of two prolific artists.  The next year, the pair reunited to make L’age D’or which slipped by the French Board of Censors disguised as “the dream of a madman.”

6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

While Eternal Sunshine isn’t technically a film about dreams, it is a film about manipulating memory, and what more is a dream than our subconscious manipulating our memory to play out our most base desires?  Gondry’s films are consistently dreamlike, and the decision to honor this instead of Science of Sleep, which deals more explicitly with dreams, was simple.  Kaufman’s writing adds a much-needed depth to the whimsy of Gondry’s direction, and although Science of Sleep has wonderful performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gael García Bernal coupled with Gondry’s visionary art direction, it does not assess dreams with the stakes that make Eternal Sunshine a profoundly great film.

5.  Wizard of Oz (1939)

I salute Dorothy for realizing so quickly that she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.  I was, however, a little disappointed that it took flying away in a hot air balloon with a self proclaimed Wizard for her to realize she was dreaming.  Nonetheless, Dorothy’s musical homeward odyssey is not only one of the greatest dreams in cinematic history, but the most timeless American fairytale of the twentieth century.

4. Abre Los Ojos (1997)

There’s nothing more painful than living an idyllic dream only to wake up to the austere reality of the actual world.  In Abre Los Ojos, Cesar has it all (i.e. Penelope Cruz).  That is, until his vengeful ex shatters his perfect world.  Living in a manufactured dream world, Cesar ultimately chooses to “open his eyes” to reality, rather than living a lie.  Certainly more worth your time than Cameron Crowe’s remake Vanilla Sky, which is an admirable albeit misguided departure from his standard rom-com fare.  Expect to see Vanilla Sky on the top ten list for ugliest faces in film, which we’ll write up next time Owen Wilson’s nose makes a movie.

3.  Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Nightmares might be scary, but they don’t compare to a dream unfulfilled.  Each main character in Requiem is faced with the challenge of reconciling their dreams with reality and each fails in the most tragic way possible.  Aronofsky’s magnum opus is evidence to the fact that the chasm between dreams and reality can be subsuming and catastrophic.

2. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

The last two movies only scratched the surface of what a nightmare could be, but Wes Cravens nightmare on elm street is the real deal. The former king of the modern slasher film brings his signature exploration of the real and the imaginary to the horror genre.  The film that kept a generation pinching themselves to stay awake is still scary over twenty years later and a frightening suggestion that dreams can have their consequences in reality.

1.  8 ½ (1963)

As a movie about making a movie, Fellini’s 8 1/2 seems an unlikely choice for the most coveted spot on this list, but when you consider how much filmmaking owes to dreams, the choice begins to make sense.  While critics and fans alike were comparing Inception to sci-fi blockbusters like The Matrix and Avatar, Leonardo DiCaprio cited 8 1/2 as its most comparable predecessor.  Fellini dismisses the conventional narrative in favor of protagonist Guido Anselmi’s dreams, memories, and subjective relationships with his parents and friends.  8 1/2 is a reminder that real life is often more like a dream than we even realize and movies are just narrativized versions of the dreams of their creators.

Zachary Goldbaum is a freelance writer and proprietor of a local produce stand in the D.C. metropolitan area.  Follow his blog at

By Zachary Goldbaum
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