More than any other medium, cinema has the unique ability to bend time and space in ways that make us experience the creator's vision.
Whether it's the strange depiction of other dimensions in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar or the zigzagging through decades in the Back to the Future trilogy, films aren't tied down by scientific rules—and that's most apparent when a film incorporates dream logic.
Throughout cinema history, there have been all kinds of movies that seem to be realistic at first, but not all is what they first seem. Like in our dreams, strange things can happen that defy logic and physics.
Here are my picks for the most dreamlike movies that incorporate weird dream logic or take place in fascinating dreamscapes.
15. The Polar Express (2004)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Tom Hanks, Chris Coppola, Michael Jeter
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 40m)
"Are you saying this is all just a... dream?" the little boy asks while riding on a magical train towards a North Pole he doesn't quite believe in. "You said it, kid! Not me," replies the hobo-ghost.
He might as well be talking straight to us in the audience, as we continually question what's real and what's imagined.
To say all of Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express is "just a dream" would be far too reductive. The self-aware narrative frequently points this out, with the conductor even philosophically stating that "sometimes, the most real things in the world are the things you can't see."
The whimsical Christmas Eve train journey is as metaphorical as it is physical. The point of it is to sway the (unnamed) agnostic protagonist into believing that Santa Claus is real. Ironically, though, he isn't able to see any proof until he believes it.
The Polar Express could easily be read as a metaphor for believing in God, with the Holy Trinity symbolized by the conductor (as Jesus Christ), the ghost (as Holy Spirit), and Santa himself (as God). They're all voiced by Tom Hanks, which only adds to its dreaminess.
14. Last Night in Soho (2021)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith
Drama, Horror, Mystery (1h 56m)
Director Edgar Wright is famous for his distinctive style of filmmaking—in particular, his approach to editing. Snappy montages and whip pans make his frequent collaborations with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost stand out from the crowd of British comedy flicks.
You've probably seen them: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End, etc. And given the stylish flair of this auteur filmmaker, you'd think every film of his would be instantly recognizable.
But Last Night in Soho feels more like a Hitchcockian thriller than a Wright comedy! It's one of the few times when Wright has reached into another genre, this one's quite literally a nightmare come to life.
The psychological drama takes place in modern London and centers on the optimistic-but-troubled fashion student Eloise (played by Thomasin McKenzie), whose favorite era is the 1960s—and Eloise can experience the 1960s via lucid dreams, which seems like a miracle.
Whenever she falls asleep, Eloise awakens in her dreams as the beautiful singer Sandie (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). But soon her dreams begin to merge with reality, as she wakes up with love bites on her neck and even getting a makeover in Sandie's image.
And it gets even worse when her rose-tinted dreams suddenly turn dark and violent. There's no escape as Eloise realizes they aren't dreams at all, but memories from a life mysteriously cut short.
13. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
Directed by Adrian Lyne
Starring Tim Robbins, Elizabeth Peña, Danny Aiello
Drama, Horror, Mystery (1h 53m)
Jacob's Ladder reinvents the clichéd "it was all a dream" ending in a fascinating way that doesn't feel lazy at all, which is pretty impressive. I won't give away any details, but just keep in mind the Vietnam War context when trying to guess the plot twist.
Adrian Lyne's psychological horror takes place in 1970s New York, where a tired postal clerk is plagued by visions of vibrating demons. Are they real? Hallucinations? Is it mental illness? Or is Hell itself bleeding into Earth? Watch and find out!
The religious themes in Jacob's Ladder add to its strange, ethereal quality and it's hard to tell what's reality and what's a fever dream. Tim Robbins stars as the postman war veteran who's jokingly told he's already dead by a psychic and soon grows obsessed with demonology.
12. Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske
Starring Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Richard Haydn
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 15m)
Author Lewis Carroll purposely chose a dreamlike structure to tell his famous tale of Alice, guiding the reader through an illogical underworld of talking rabbits and mad hatters.
Without the laws of science, caterpillars are free to smoke and potions can shrink you down to the size of a pea. Oh, and it allowed him to safely mock the stringent rules of Victorian literature.
"Life... What is it but a dream?" Carroll asks in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. For young Alice, her life really is a dream but she doesn't realize it until her adventures are over. In the end, Carroll reveals Alice to be fast asleep—but you could already guess that.
At the dawn of the 1950s, Disney turned the children's novel into a movie. Opting for animation over their initial live-action plans, Disney brought Carroll's eccentric dreamworld to life.
Yet despite being a kids film, Alice in Wonderland often wanders into nightmarish territory, loved by artists of the Surrealist movement. Dalí was even commissioned to illustrate a limited edition collection in 1969!
11. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Directed by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams
Drama (2h 4m)
Surrealist movies go hand-in-hand with dream logic. Pioneers of the art movement, such as Salvador Dalí, often painted their own wild visions.
Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut was a bizarre, postmodern psychological drama with a crumbling Philip Seymour Hoffman at its center—one we're sure Dalí would approve of.
Plagued by an unknown condition that's shutting down his immune system, theater director Caden Cotard (named after Cotard's Delusion, also called "walking corpse syndrome," which is a mental disorder where the patient believes themself to be dead or dying) becomes a reclusive and obsessed artist who forces his wife and child to leave.
Cotard's stout commitment to realism for his elaborate new stage production means his real life and work life begin to blur. Kaufman parallels Cotard's play with the film itself, both morphing reality and fiction together using a sort of abstract meta logic.
The title itself is a play on Schenectady, New York (where the film is set) with the concept of synecdoche, which is a figure of speech where one part represents the whole of something.
Though some critics dubbed the film pretentious, no one can deny its cleverly written storyline and superb acting. It's a very strange—and often confusing—film, but it's brilliant for anyone who likes to pick apart meanings and theories!
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Starring Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger
Adventure, Family, Fantasy (1h 42m)
The Wizard of Oz takes a more literal approach to the dream narrative, but it was a studio film made in the 1930s so we can forgive that.
The famously hellish production reads like a nightmare in itself, which included abused actors, agonizing costumes, and munchkin-suicide conspiracies. It took four directors to finish the movie, which quickly became a festive favorite despite its dark context.
Based on the children's novel by L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz opens on a Kansas farm during the early 1900s. When a tornado sends young Dorothy's house flying, she moves from a sepia world to a Technicolor one—and she must follow the yellow brick road back home.
While in the magical land of Oz, the story unfolds like a dream with talking animals, singing munchkins, and the glittering palace of Emerald City. It quickly turns sour when the booming Wizard says he won't grant Dorothy's wish unless she brings him the Wicked Witch's broomstick.
Once Dorothy does make it home through the power of her ruby slippers, she wakes up back at the farm with an injured head. The same actors who appeared in Oz are by her bedside ("And you were there... and you..."), making us wonder if it really was all just a dream?
9. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Fantasy, Mystery, Romance (2h 16m)
Vanilla Sky is one of those movies that becomes a completely different experience on second watch. Once you know what's really going on, you can spot the hints and details everywhere—the ones which were subtly hiding in the background.
A remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes, Cameron Crowe's daring mix of genres will surely keep you on your toes. Not only does Vanilla Sky cross genres—including sci-fi, psychological thriller, drama, crime, and romance—it also crosses realities.
Cutting between two time periods, we have two Tom Cruises: first as a typical rich playboy throwing parties in his Manhattan apartment, and second as someone in a creepy mask being accused of murder.
While a doctor tries to draw out the truth behind David's crime, he recalls how he lost his grip on what's real and what's hallucinated, between his memories and his dreams. I won't spoil the plot for you here, but be prepared for some reality-bending explanations.
8. Enter the Void (2009)
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Starring Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy
Drama, Fantasy (2h 41m)
Enter the Void is one of the trippiest movies you might ever watch, hovering about a neon-lit Tokyo as the spirit of a dead drug dealer who follows his sister around.
Half silly, self-indulgent nonsense and half mesmerizing psychedelia, Enter the Void extends a hand out to the netherworld, where Oscar (played by Nathaniel Brown) hangs in limbo.
The narrative is one suspended in a dream state; a boundless, glowing orb of DMT-inspired dimensions where time becomes fluid.
Gaspar Noé's fantasy drama feels like walking through a night club on acid and finding yourself in the afterlife. It's ambitious, to say the least, and it's shot entirely through POV angles.
7. 3 Women (1977)
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 4m)
3 Women doesn't just use dream logic. It is dream logic. The entire premise came directly to Robert Altman—writer, director, and producer of the film—in a dream, like Gabriel appearing to Joseph.
Altman intended to shoot 3 Women without a script to emphasize its incoherent quality, but he ended up writing one that was partly inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Persona (which is similarly illogical).
Like many vivid dreams, the plot of 3 Women came to Altman during a fractured sleep. In this case, it was while he was waiting to find out if his wife would make it in hospital.
Altman described his psychological drama as "empty vessels in an empty landscape," which calls to mind the image of a Salvador Dalí painting with clocks melting in a hypnagogic realm.
Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek star as two polar-opposite women who aren't just unlikely friends: when one of them awakens from a coma, they begin to switch personalities as their mannerisms, demeanor, and habits start to crossover in a strange imitation, and then back again.
The third woman (played by Janice Rule) is basically a mute who paints surreal murals, courtesy of artist Charles Kuklis. Random, huh?
6. The Trial (1962)
Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 59m)
Orson Welles's most famous film will always be Citizen Kane, and Anthony Perkins's most famous performance will always be Norman Bates in Psycho. But if you take context out of the equation, The Trial might just be the greatest work of both.
Based on Franz Kafka's 1925 novel—who loved all things fantasy, surreal, and existential—The Trial is about a man accused of a crime and the women who get involved in it.
Orson Welles doesn't even tell us what the crime is! We just follow Joseph as he runs around trying to get advice and figure out what's going on.
Welles warns us directly of The Trial's dream logic in the opening prologue, stating: "It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream, of a nightmare." This nightmare mainly symbolizes the dark side of bureaucracy, accentuated by the shadowy cinematography.
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry
Starring Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson
Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi (1h 48m)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film about memories—something people often confuse with dreams. Although Michel Gondry's sci-fi romance doesn't take place in a dream, it's largely set inside Joel's mind (played by Jim Carrey) and follows a complex dream logic.
When Joel has the unexplainable urge to board a train to Montauk, he meets a blue-haired woman named Clementine (played by Kate Winslet). She's completely different from Joel—extroverted, chatty, bold—but something about them just fits together well.
As it turns out, they've already met before. In fact, they've been together for two whole years! But how do two people simply forget that they were together for two years of their life?
Well, Joel rediscovers a tape recording of his own voice, which was sent to a New York City firm called Lacuna that erases your memories for you. Or, at least, part of your memories.
As it turns out, when Joel and Clementine's turbulent relationship reached a breaking point, Clementine had Joel erased from her memories—and a heartbroken Joel did the same thing, except he changed his mind partway through the procedure.
Gondry navigates the vaults of Joel's mind with creative flair, turning his thoughts and emotions into physical settings. The nostalgia, joy, and pain of Joel's past is brought to life as he tries to hide Clementine in old memories that the procedure won't be able to find.
4. Suspiria (1977)
Directed by Dario Argento
Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci
Horror (1h 32m)
Horror movies tend to have dark color palettes, and dream logic tends to use blurry cinematography. Dario Argento defies both of these rules in his formidable 70s Euro horror, and it still became a cult classic.
Suspiria is drenched in electric, blood-curdling reds and shrouded in an atmosphere of mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Moreover, the aggravatingly vague narrative keeps you pensile in the dream state from hell, where Suzy (played by Jessica Harper) unknowingly attends a ballet school run by witches.
Argento doesn't just make the colors pop for the sake of it. Bold yellows, blues, and reds feel out of place in such a darkly themed movie, enhancing the feeling that something doesn't quite add up...
Luca Guadagnino remade the interdimensional occult movie in 2018, but it doesn't leave a scratch on the original in which the laws of nature mean nothing and evil is an overwhelming presence.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Horror (1h 31m)
A Nightmare on Elm Street is up there with the greatest horror classics, made during a booming era for the slasher genre. Director Wes Craven—pioneer of the horror genre—used supernatural elements to fuse "the boundaries between the imaginary and real."
The first in what would become an iconic franchise, A Nightmare on Elm Street follows all the tropes of 1970s and 1980s horror: a relatively low budget, teenage victims, and an iconic villain.
You probably know about Freddy Krueger and his distinctively burnt face and finger blades. But what does he actually do? Instead of hiding in your closet, this serial killer hides in your dreams. Literally.
In the dream world, Freddy can unleash his violent powers on teenage victims, causing them to die in real life. However, when pulled into the real world, Freddy's spirit is shrunk down into ordinary human mortality.
2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Directed by David Lynch
Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 27m)
What is David Lynch's style if not dreamlike? Perhaps nightmarish.
The auteur director is a known lover of transcendental meditation to get the creative juices flowing, and that has resulted in some wild movies. Crossing astral planes in a lucid dream state means surreal narratives and dreamscapes appear to the filmmaker as if by magic.
And one of Lynch's most elaborate films? Mulholland Drive, starring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. When an amnesiac turns up at a fresh-faced actress's house, still optimistic about her chances in Hollywood, they put their heads together to work out a stranger's identity.
Of course, a simple answer—or even your run-of-the-mill plot twist—would be far too easy for Lynch.
You'll find plenty of forum threads trying to dissect the meaning behind Mulholland Drive but few definitive answers. The hypnotic, neo-noir thriller uses its overarching mystery narrative as a red herring to what's really going on, which is... well, we're not entirely sure.
The film switches between characters, like some guy in a diner describing his nightmare to another customer, who then collapses in fear when it comes true... and never seen again. Many minor characters seem to evaporate after their brief screen time, or only briefly reappear.
Yet everything is connected and no identity is fixed. People and events migrate into each other in an incoherent tapestry of vignettes.
1. Inception (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 28m)
Christopher Nolan loves to play with time. We don't just mean going forwards and backwards, but even inverting time, repeating time, and time across different dimensions.
In 2010, he went beyond time and instead played with alternate cognitive models of reality—a fancy term for dreams—in his sci-fi hit Inception.
It's no surprise that the idea for this film about dreams came to Nolan in a dream. After initially penning an 80-page treatment for a horror film about "dream stealers," he changed the protagonist's career from stealing dreams to manipulating them.
Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of "extractors" earn money by entering people's minds through their dreams and extracting information from their targets' subconscious.
But what if you could also plant an idea inside someone's mind, such that the dreamer thinks they came up with it themself when they wake up?
Nolan complicates the classic dream-within-a-dream scenario by forcing his characters to enter multiple levels of dreams before this idea-planting "inception" can take place. And not only does each dream level move at a different speed, they also risk losing themselves in limbo.