The 20 Best Movies about Dreams and Dream Worlds
Dreams are the sleeping routine for most of humanity. One takes a physical rest from the world and from their fears and desires, only to encounter these same elements of existence in magnified or softened versions. Distorted universes and members of one’s life, sometimes added to old regrets and wishes, or simply the absurdity of an action that one would never imagine doing, but whose consolidation is quite realistic during the experience.
It is the state of consciousness in which one is separated from visions of the palpable world and closest to reflections of the unconscious. Yet we can hardly conceive anything close to many of them being a part of us.
Many an art form has explored the theme, and cinema has done it in various versions and using various strategies. Some of them envision dreams as the paradise of the psyche, others prefer to engage in the representations of nightmares, or suffocating experiences full of symbolisms and self-reflections.
1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
“Step right in. Here for the first time ever you can see Cesare, the 23-year-old somnambulist.” It is with this call that Caligari advertises his exhibit at the Holstenwall annual fair. The poor devil who has slept day and night for the entirety of his lifetime has become a veritable freak for the little town’s public to be amazed at. And this premise, together with a unique aesthetic structure, made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a classic from the Silent Era.
Caligari’s ultimate goal was to know if someone could do the most abhorrent things their lucid minds could conceive whilst in their sleep. So, the plot reveals not only a tale of mysterious crimes, but also of a sadistic man who is willing to manipulate a somnambulist’s sleep to take him down his worst nightmares and make him murder strangers.
The mystic was shown to be an already infamous figure and subject to superstitious stories elsewhere when the Holstenwall authorities are investigating the murders.
Besides being a testament to the origins of German Expressionism in film – be it through the intense mannerisms of its performers, or through the uncanny and jagged architecture of its unique set, or still through its constant resemblance to the drama of the visual and theatrical art movements that begot it, the film tackles innovative thematic spheres.
The mad scientist creates his own Frankenstein monster; only this time the latter is already amongst the living, although he is to be condemned to the eternal night of his manipulated dreams.
2. Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923)
A pompous dinner is held at the manor of a rich nobleman and his wife. Four guests feel a bit too invasive and start flirting with the woman, whereas the husband thinks little of the moves. A shadow-player attends the event and displays his talents to the people present.
Warning Shadows, the second item of the German Expressionist cinema in this list, displays the range of creativity in tinkering with film techniques uncommon in an early age of cinema. Lighting here is crucial, and the shadow-player arranges the dark silhouettes of the guests skilfully, entertaining them just as much as he inspires estrangement in the room. That estrangement reaches its peak when the man absorbs everyone’s shadows and puts them to sleep.
In such a dream world – referred to in the original German title of the film as a hallucination; and since there is no dialogue whatsoever, that is the bit of verbal narrative that we have access to, he warns the nobleman, his wife, and the naughty guests of the tragedies that could happen should they go on with the flirting and a culminating betrayal. As they are brought back to reality, sadness takes over the countenances of the four guests, whereas love is re-established between the couple.
Arthur Robison and his production team played with shadows and the power that the unconscious has to reiterate or ignore morality, but also with the power that cinema has to amaze with use of simple “magic” in an era with primitive special effects possibilities (the name Méliès comes to mind, inevitably).
3. An Andalusian Dog (Luis Buñuel, 1929)
This is perhaps the most popular piece of surrealism in film. A short film with a considerable weight on it, An Andalusian Dog is a series of highly symbolic images that may or may not make sense. Some events in the film came from dreams Buñuel himself had had, others are clever literary references. All in all, it is a film of notable experimental editing and cinematography.
Relevant conceptual scenes such as the sliced eye, also originated from one of Buñuel’s dreams, define the narrative line of the film. The sequence in which the protagonist, after attempting to commence intercourse with the main female character, is almost dragged by rocks being pulled by seminarists also reveals a political argument. The entire continuity of the film is sincere: it never proposes lucidness, but instead ventures deep into the apparent vagueness of the human dormant imagination.
This is not the only result from a Buñuel-Dalí collaboration, and this is not the Spanish painter’s only contribution to cinema. His interest in the audiovisual medium gave way to his partnership with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock – in a film also discussed here –, Jodorowsky,
Walt Disney in the short animation Destino, and even made his only film, Impressions de la haute Mongolie. However, with Un Chien Andalou, together with Spellbound, he acquired fame in the cinema world for daring into the experimentalist method and imagining dreams on the silver screen.
4. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the most renowned pieces of child literature in English language. It tells the story of Dorothy Gale, a young girl from a small farm in Kansas, and her dog Toto, whose dull lives are disturbed by a tornado that mysteriously takes them to a new, fantastic land. There the girl meets some distinctive friends, each with their own quality and their own flaw. The film is an audiovisual, musical trip across this story.
The film’s particularity lies in the fact that it differs from the novel concerning the reality that Dorothy lives in. And that is the film’s virtue. The novel presents the world of Oz as a distant land in a real plane; the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion… everybody is there. The film portrays Oz and his kingdom as part of Dorothy’s dream, and these same characters are people from her real life.
A touching story about the quest for sensibility and understanding of the humanity within us drives The Wizard of Oz in its beautiful musicality. Extraordinary acting and lines, among other qualities, have put Victor Fleming’s film as one of the most celebrated masterpieces in the history of cinema.
5. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)
“My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh / resting between my breasts,” says the Song of Songs, referred to early in this film. The Woman in the Window explores the sexual desires and the innermost fears of a psychologist scholar and professor Richard Wanley, who goes through intense dangers and unimaginable conflicts that result in murder and betrayal, himself being closely involved with criminology.
The plot ultimately reveals that all the crimes and tensions were just a dream, and that his affair with the woman in the painting – Alice Reed – had been part of it. The characters of his dream were no less than friends and acquaintances that he had met at the club where he was after the departure of his son and wife.
Fritz Lang’s braving of the American industry proved to be fruitful, with him complementing the film noir genre closely with his Expressionist imaginary. The Big Heat and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse are examples of such a blend, and The Woman in the Window proposes a distinct approach by delivering themes related to the complexities of the human consciousness.
6. Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945)
Bringing a singular premise for thematic exploration to cinema, especially for its time, this film has a Hollywood narration style intimately aligned with superb performances, cunning dialogue, and a myriad of precise medium and close-up shots. Hitchcock, being a pioneer in many elements of suspense and narrative construction of tension, this time flirted with psychoanalysis, a fertile field of study back then, and which up to this date has incited instigating explorations on the deepest recesses of dreams.
Spellbound works within those boundaries. Dr. Petersen is an applied psychoanalyst, often regarded as someone too optimistic for her research area, and a cold person, falls in love with the recently arrived Dr. Edwardes, a man with a shifty past and even shiftier motivations who has apparently had traumatic experiences involving a very specific style of clothing tissue which he cannot recall.
Hitchcock plays with the reasons why psychoanalysis was so interested in studying unconscious traces of guilt, pleasure, and desire. In touching the subject, it was impossible not to touch the matter of dreams as well. During the marvelous dream sequence planned by Salvador Dalí, the spectator gets to witness how cinema was, even at the time, capable of displaying its edges of creativity and possibilities of audiovisual narratives for such abstract concepts and visions.