The 20 Best Movies about Dreams and Dream Worlds

7. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)


With a singular title and a heavy Orwellian influence, Terry Gilliam went on to create a cult classic for the sci-fi genre. Brazil is a timely film, released just one year after the title of the acclaimed novel of whose fountain it drank honourably, and whose own title reflects – very indirectly, mind you – the bureaucracy, totalitarianism, and social elitism of the Brazilian state back in its dictatorship years.

Sam Lowrey is a simple individual who works for one of the several bureaucratic bodies of the fictional world that the film portrays. His own dream world consists of recurring images of him flying in a splendorous metallic armour with wings; a steampunk Icarus reaching for the sun and for freedom from the chains of a cold reality. Sam dreams also about a mysterious woman, whom he later discovers to be a rebel named Jill, a connection between him and the world outside of the bubble of authorities.

The dystopian telling of a man suffocated by social trivialities, governmental oppression, and anti-humanistic constructs lead him to dream heavily, and repeatedly, of his transcendence. Sam Lowry may well reflect the inner aspirations of many of us, trapped in the expectations and auguries of the modern world. Such a world may be the primordial force to make him/us dream, the constant pressure that ends up pushing one away from the brick forests and into the human-free landscapes.


6. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)


Beginning with an artistically exuberant scene in which a circus exhibition begins distorting itself, revealing to be a recurring dream of the detective Capt. Toshimi Konakawa, Paprika is a somewhat mature anime adapted from the homonymous novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, published back in 1993.

DC Mini is a virtual reality device of sorts that allows therapists to observe their patients’ dreams and analyse what might be causing trouble in sleep or strong traumas that repeat themselves in bad dreams. That is the case of Capt. Konakawa. His personal psychiatrist, Dr. Atsuko Chiba, helps him try to identify the real-life sources of his neurosis, and in the process, the film shows us its proposal for DC Mini.

Yet again, an anime deals with virtual reality and action at the same time; and despite the problematic plot order, Paprika makes good use of its aesthetic tools to convey symbolism – as with the butterfly scene.

The tension of the film lies directly in DC Mini’s failure in maintaining its ethical foundations. A thief enters other people’s dreams to facilitate his own actions through diversion. The dreams and reality begin intertwining. The minds of the specialists themselves start breaking down. Several twists make Paprika a thoughtful experience full of ingenuity.


5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

“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.


4. An Andalusian Dog (Luis Buñuel, 1929)

Un chien andalou (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.


3. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

mulholland drive dreams

A visceral and psychologically violent experience, David Lynch’s acclaimed neo-noir touches the ordinariness of people’s lives as opposed to their utmost aspirations and the potential frustrations thereof. It is a piece about contingencies of living, and about the sacrifices of putting everything on the line for something cherished that is not still attained.

Still open for heavy interpretation, it is quite shocking how the film changes its tempo and unimaginable plot twists start to arise during the transition from the second to the last third of the story.

Lynch’s attention to detail is golden, and minutiae of mise-en-scene are scattered here and there to evince tension and drama (the infamous blue key, Adam’s golf club being held before we know that he is actually going to wreck the Castiglianis’ car, the stained napkin, the two chairs by the pool, etc.). Speaking of tension, few scenes from acclaimed films terrify as much as the body being found by Rita and Betty as they are searching for Diane Selwyn.

The dream of this film starts revealing itself when the Cowboy tells Betty to “wake up.” Then everything falls apart, and characters shift names, personalities, and realities. Betty becomes Diane Selwyn, which reminds one of the line in which she and Rita investigate the latter’s background, and as they are calling Selwyn’s house, Betty remarks: “It’s strange calling yourself.” In the dream world of the first portion of the storyline,

Betty achieves her aspirations quite comfortably, already having connections with people from the film industry. After she wakes up, her life is a bit grimmer, and her anguishes lie in the sphere of relationships as well.

Dream is a word that can take on some different meanings. Mulholland Drive acknowledges that, and tackles the most popular ones: a reflection from the unconscious, and an aspiration for something invaluable. Diane just happens to exist in both universes, and as her world scatters across the images of her human contacts, her hopes fade away and she dives into oblivion.


2. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)


Often erroneously compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s awe-inspiring record in the science fiction genre has originated its own following and a myriad of interpretations. It is a psychological drama that converges with several thematic layers, and explores them so harmonically that it is difficult to express which theme is most prominent.

What is perceivable, however, is its proximity with concepts of lost memories and psychological traumas. The protagonist, the psychologist Kris Kelvin, faces the grave mission of travelling to a distant exoplanet called Solaris to replace a former member of the exploration team stationed there.

Upon arrival, Kelvin realises that order in the station is somewhat disturbed, seeing as one of the crewmembers is dead, and another one could not bear the pressure of isolation before leaving (the member Kris is replacing). Solaris is entirely covered by an ocean, and such an ocean causes an odd effect on the men: it creates neutrino figures of people whose memories are deeply rooted into the individual’s mind. Kris soon starts seeing an apparition of Hari, his wife, who had long before committed suicide.

Both start developing an intimate bond, one that Kelvin perceives as closer than the original relationship he had with her when she was alive. The psychologist reconciles with his mistakes of the past, and confesses the lack of care and affection in the marriage. For Kelvin, this is an appropriate moment to confide his previous flaws, as well as the opportunity to contemplate the love he could not fulfil.

The end of the film helps structure the interpretation of Kelvin’s experience on Solaris as a dream-reality conflict. He does not fully realise the figures that the planet creates, and especially does not realise that his house and his father are also part of the reflection that Solaris triggers in his consciousness. The story finishes with Kelvin still being a part of that illusion, that dream-planet where fragments of his mnemonic horizon take shape before his eyes.


1. 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)

fellini 8½

Fellini put some of his intimate experiences and annoyances into a blender and gave birth to this cult classic. 8 ½ tells the story of a tormented filmmaker having to deal with creativity issues, women, and the pressures of the artistic industry. The film was so close to resembling disturbance to him that he is said to have stuck a note on the camera that read: “Remember, this is a comedy.”

Guido Anselmi, played brilliantly by Marcello Mastroiani, turns to his constant memories and starts a mnemonic transition from his mind to his creative process. As with several films on this list, the dreams here frequently dialogue with the protagonist’s reality, and filmmaking techniques sometimes do not make the distinction clear, which makes up for compelling interpretations of the film’s chaotic crescendo.

Author Bio: George is a PhD student on Comparative Studies of Cinema and Literature. He is in deep love with post-apocalyptic films from the Cold War era, and has special affection for Gothic fiction as well. George loves writing short stories, painting, and playing some RPG.