The 20 Best Movies about Dreams and Dream Worlds

14. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)

Waking Life

A film shot in an esque style, Waking Life has a singular narrative. The protagonist – name here – is a man in search for his awakening to the material world, while living in one that seems stranger and stranger as the story progresses. He meets several individuals, each with their personal views on existential and political matters, and each discussing such matters in a never-ending series of intuitive dialogues.

The virtue of Waking Life starts to unfold itself when the spectator notices that (protagonist) actually begins to fancy the idea of living his own dreams, while also crafting them and making them bend to his will. His enthusiasm, however, does not last long, and he soon sees himself desperate to comprehend the life-dream frontier, as he is exposed to numerous surreal experiences, nihilistic characters, and bothersome déjà-vus.

Make no mistake when scrutinising the dialogue of the film; everything makes perfect sense. Some lines are harder to connect to the rest of the film’s mythos than others. Some are more didactic and cathartic, while others incite self-reflection. Once one finds the path through the internal allusions of its daring discussions, one can better understand why the film refers so reiteratively to the pathetic existence in which we are inserted and how dreams are personal safe havens unexplored by our still shallow minds.

Dreams that could be touched upon through a deeper understanding of what makes such a life so pathetic. Its rotoscope style – this is not the only one of Linklater’s surreal narratives told in such a way – only adds to the careful designing of a fictional universe where bodies bend, minds find themselves in eternal dreaming, and old memories unite with new ones.


13. Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923)

Warning Shadows (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).


12. The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)

The Woman in the Window (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.


11. 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.


10. 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.


9. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)


Another chef d’œuvre by a Japanese master. Miyazaki paved his way into worldwide recognition with the making of animations such as Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro, but it was with Spirited Away that he pierced his feet into the ground and stood there like a pillar of animation cinema.

First anime winner of an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, this sweet adventure tells the story of Chihiro Ogino, a rather imaginative girl on a journey to her new home with her parents. They suddenly stop by a strange tunnel and come out into a fantasy world where spirits inhabit in a complex system of elitism and an aversion towards humans.

After her parents are transformed into pigs, she is hired into a bathhouse and takes on several duties under a different name, while starting to realise uncanny events, such as the apparition of a polluted river spirit that wishes to cleanse itself and be free of the burden of filth. Such is the rhythm of the film’s allegories, and Chihiro witnesses these events first-hand while she attempts to bring her parents back to their natural state.

When Chihiro finally comes back to her family and they claim that they do not know of any magical world of spirits, the spectator cannot help but wonder about the process of illusion that the little girl has just been through. Illusion not in the sense of deception, but in the sense of contemplation, of realisation of becoming somebody else, and of loving somebody else.

Her romance with Haku, together with the strong responsibilities that she is left with while in the bathhouse, demonstrate that the whole dream-like experience served as a reminder that maturity is drawing nigh for her, and that making life-saving choices can sometimes be part of this process.


8. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)

Inception (2010)

Probably the most popular film in this list, this action drama carries elements of heist films, psychological thrillers, and mystery films together in one. Nolan decided to offer his public food for thought with the several theories about a dream within a dream, all told in a very self-explanatory manner, now quite characteristic of the British-American director’s style.

Dominick Cobb is a specialist in entering people’s dreams and retrieving very intimate information from deep down into their unconscious. People like him are called “extractors,” and they work specifically with contracts for important people or groups of people to perform missions of the like.

Cobb, together with his partner Arthur, are summoned for one last operation: one that will give the former the chance to finally reunite with his children, whom he has not seen since the tragic suicide of his wife. After much resistance, Cobb gives in, tempted by the prospect of family reestablishment.

He then gathers a dream team of extractors for the ultimate job: to convince a young entrepreneur to eliminate his estranged father’s – who is on his deathbed – company, so that the contractor (Saito, played by Ken Watanabe) can take over competition in his market. The idea, called “inception” in the film, is to successfully plant an idea into someone’s mind by reiteratively hacking through the many layers of consciousness and activate or terminate memories and emotions, while sabotaging others.

Nolan’s idea is an instigating one, although clumsy when it comes to aligning it with nuances of fast-paced conventional action. Inception is certainly a film that can give way to fruitful discussions, especially concerning the virtues and flaws of his materialisation of dreams within aural and visual contingencies.