Top 10 Films About Dreams
Inspired by the current success of Inception, here are what I judge to be the best films dealing with dreams and architectures of the mind, rated in descending order, not necessarily by their strength as films in general (otherwise Eyes Wide Shut would be much higher and The Cell at the bottom), but as "dream films".
1. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch. 2001. Critical approval: 81%. A dream-fable of Hollywood upturned by cruel reality, and a film that Lynch was clearly destined to make. The dream comprises the first two thirds of the story, and is made sense of by the devastating third part, a complete analysis of which can be found at Salon. Being inside the mind of Diane Selwyn amounts to a heady experience no other film has offered; I've seen this masterpiece many times, never tire of it, and never will. The manner in which various people from Diane's life fill the roles in her dream shows a brilliant understanding of projection and how dreams work in the context of frustrated wish-fulfillment. And the lip-synced Llorando, precipitating the intrusion of reality, is one of the most cherished musical moments in the history of film.
2. Amy's Choice, Simon Nye. 2010. It usually doesn't make sense to mix TV with film rankings, but this episode of Doctor Who is such a work of art it claims second place. Here the Doctor and his companions find themselves flicking back and forth between two dreams, one of which they are told is reality, and they are supposed to figure out which is which. The figure of the Dream Lord is a brilliant creation, a manifestation of the Doctor's own subconscious, his shadow self forcing him to see things about himself he can't stand. In the end, Amy's choice is a choice between the Doctor and her boyfriend more than between dream scenarios, a welcome introspective drama in a season dominated by themes of fairy tales and weird imagination. See my review for more details.
3. Inception, Christopher Nolan. 2010. Critical approval: 87%. A dream heist team is hired to implant an idea in the mind of a corporate executive so subtly that he will believe it's his own, and decide to allow his financial empire to dissolve. The idea must be planted on a deep level of the subconscious, a third-level dream -- a dream within a dream within a dream -- where minutes in the higher-level dreams expand into months and years, and the danger of never waking up and falling into limbo escalate exponentially. Convoluted, action-packed, but with an emotional side-story too, it's a film only Christopher Nolan could have made, and definitely demands repeated viewings. As for making sense of what's going on, see my detailed plot analysis.
4. Open Your Eyes, 1997. Alejandro Amenábar. Critical approval: 84%. A disfigured man chooses to kill himself and be preserved cryogenically in order to live out pleasant fantasies, but gets more than he bargained for as his catatonic dreams become nightmares. As with Inception (#3), it's not always clear what's real and imagined: does César's dream start after he passes out on the sidewalk, or after his earlier car crash -- or is the entire film a dream? Identities are confused, the roles of César's lady friends swap, and he kills the wrong one thinking she's the right one. Avoid the American remake, Vanilla Sky, at all costs, where higher production values, actors like Cameron Diaz, and other atrocities rob the story of the original's graceful etherealness.
5. Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick. 1999. Critical approval: 77%. Based on the 1926 novella, Dream Story, in which a man attends a bizarre orgy that parallels the dream of his wife going on at the same time. Alice Hartford's fantasy, involving adulterous sex with an endless crowd of strangers, is never actually portrayed on screen -- only related tearfully when her husband returns home from the orgy -- but it grounds the story to the extent that Bill Hartford's reality has a constant dreamscape quality to it, as he's been obsessing another of his wife's fantasies anyway. Kubrick's film is at heart about the compulsive power of dreams and what perfectly normal people are willing to seek out in order to live their obsessions. And as Bill Hartford says in the end, "no dream is ever just a dream."
80%. Released the same year as Mulholland Drive, as if to declare a new wave of artistry at the dawn of a new millenium, this head trip makes a philosopher out of you like it or not. The anonymous main character stands for us as he proceeds in a dream state that gradually becomes clearer, and he enters discussions about reality and the meaning of life. André Bazin enthusiasts will be pleased here, as Waking Life celebrates the idea of the "holy moment", which invites philosophical curiosity as means to a higher consciousness. The portrayal of potheads and slackers is especially brilliant, as their minds aren't slack at all. The critical point of the film is that reality is but a single instant which the brain falsely reconstructs as time, not itself novel philosophy perhaps, but in context this all adds up to a unique look at dreams.
7. The Cell, Tarsem Singh. 2000. Critical approval: 46%. A psychotherapist enters the mind of a serial killer and is pulverized by his warped universe. This isn't the best movie you'll ever see (and Jennifer Lopez is a hindrance), but it does contain some of the most disturbing architectures of the mind ever put on celluloid. Vincent D'Onofrio plays the killer, and in his inner world we see how he was terribly abused as a child, and has now become king of a world in which women are dressed up and painted to look like white dolls and tortured in hideous contraptions out of a new age Inquisition. Watch this for a taste. The resolution is fairly pedestrian, but the grueling journey to get there makes it worthwhile.
55%. A blazing canvas of the afterlife, where the experience of heaven or hell is shaped by one's dreams. Yes, Robin Williams stars (strike one), and the "love conquers all" theme too melodramatic (strike two), but the transcendental concepts are ragingly effective, and the imagery at every moment stunning. Chris' heaven is a literal paint job, and parts of hell are straight out of Dante's Inferno. The film is about reincarnation, though Christianized. Side note: be sure to watch the alternate ending on the DVD, which is viscerally faithful to the book, showing Chris and his wife reborn in a third world (among the pain and screams of childbirth) in order to pay off their debts of karma, instead of America again, as toddlers, just to have fun meeting each other again for the first time.
70%. About a young man's inability to reconcile his dreams with reality, and his childlike infatuation with a woman who shares his creative interests. Gondry serves up a lot of eye candy here -- cellophane-like water, cardboard television sets, giant rubber body parts, animated miniatures, and other forms of bizarreness that serve as the "building blocks" of dreams. As the film progresses, the line between his dreams and waking state blurs in direct proportion to his romantic obsession, and he tries to hurt himself (physically and emotionally) as a child would. This is the film of frustrated dreams, of self-invention -- he fancies himself a gourmet cook, a lover, and a music-maker, while in the real world slagging away at an unrewarding job (the production of nude calendars). A film Michel Gondry was made for, relying on inventive visuals.
10. Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky. 2000. Critical approval: 78%. A searing trip down the rabbit hole of drug addiction and dream worlds of delusion and desperation. Sarah is an elderly woman who gets hooked on amphetamine pills (by day) and sedatives (by night) in order to lose weight so she can appear as a guest on a TV game show; her son is addicted to the heroin he deals in hopes of opening a fashion store for his girlfriend. Both dreams are crushed: Sarah's TV invitation never comes, and she ups her dosage until she's hallucinating and must be hospitalized; Harry's drug business goes bad, his addiction gets out of hand, and his arm must be amputated; Marion prostitutes herself for money. The unhappy ending shows each "dreamer" curled in a fetal position after a climax that leaves the viewer stunned by its manic fury as much as by its brilliant symbolism.