We've all had sleepless nights that left us groggy and useless the next day, right? Sleep is a funny thing sometimes, and it can elude us for all kinds of reasons—both within our control or beyond.
Whether it's from late nights at the club, skyrocketing stress levels, or deep-rooted health issues, sleep deprivation and insomnia are never fun the following morning. Even worse when they're for life!
Here are my picks for the greatest movies about characters whose lives are affected by insomnia and other sleep problems.
15. Sleepwalk With Me (2012)
Directed by Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish
Starring Mike Birbiglia, Lauren Ambrose, James Rebhorn
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 21m)
Mike Birbiglia writes, directs, and stars in this indie comedy that might have flown under your radar. In this feature-length exercise in breaking the fourth wall, he plays a fictionalized version of himself named Matt and tells us the story of how he started sleepwalking.
It all began eight years ago when he moved in with his girlfriend (played by Lauren Ambrose). As that relationship intensifies and marriage begins to rear its head, Matt's sleepwalking worsens.
Matt wakes up in increasingly dangerous situations, like the time he jolts awake in shards of glass—from jumping out of a window.
Although it never gets to the severity seen in Side Effects, Matt does end up having to buy a sleeping bag to restrict his movements.
14. Whirlpool (1950)
Directed by Otto Preminger
Starring Gene Tierney, Richard Conte, José Ferrer
Crime, Drama, Noir (1h 38m)
Insomnia is a near-perfect match for film noir, a genre in which characters tend to pervade the night-time streets as if walking through shadowy dreams while solving crimes instead of sleeping.
Charles Bickford plays Lt. James Colton, the conventional detective in Otto Preminger's Whirlpool, with Gene Tierney leading as the not-quite-femme-fatale Ann Sutton.
Ann has guilt-induced insomnia after she's caught shoplifting at a bougie department store, but little does she know things are about to get a whole lot worse...
Lost in a sleep-like trance from a trained hypnotherapist, Ann awakens to find she's been charged with murder. Whirlpool is a hypnagogic melodrama that manages to smooth over implausibilities with style.
13. Light Sleeper (1992)
Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Willem Dafoe, Susan Sarandon, Dana Delany
Crime, Drama (1h 43m)
You might not have heard of this Paul Schrader and Willem Dafoe collaboration as it somehow slipped through the box office like sand through fingertips, all despite positive critical reviews.
Willem Dafoe stars as drug dealer John LeTour, who questions his morality during a midlife crisis. Insomnia is partly to thank for John's sudden change in tune, as he spends his nights mulling over the consequences of his actions.
Sadly, this new start comes a little too late for John, who's propelled into the chaos of crime following a fatal tragedy.
Insomnia and addiction often go hand-in-hand, a relation that Schrader explores in this slow-burning, Taxi Driver-esque character portrait that's made up of mood rather than action.
12. Buster's Mal Heart (2016)
Directed by Sarah Adina Smith
Starring Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil
Crime, Drama, Mystery (1h 36m)
When Rami Malek signed up to lead Buster's Mal Heart, he'd just started playing the drug-addicted hacker Elliot Anderson in Mr. Robot. Here, he's not causing a worldwide digital crash; he's terrified of one.
Remember the Y2K scare at the turn of the millennium? Basically, computer systems around the world were at risk of collapse because the year 2000 would've been indistinguishable from the year 1900. (Luckily, it was addressed in time and nothing actually happened.)
Buster's Mal Heart takes place before the Y2K scare. After Buster meets the "Last Free Man," he goes from family man to crazed conspiracy theorist on the run from police.
It doesn't help that he works hotel shifts, which amplifies his sleep deprivation and makes him more susceptible to paranoia. Sarah Adina Smith writes, directs, and edits this surreal indie mystery.
11. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Directed by Nora Ephron
Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Ross Malinger
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 45m)
As you might infer from the title, the stars of this feel-good rom-com live sleeplessly in Seattle, Washington.
The fates of Sam (played by Tom Hanks) and Annie (played by Meg Ryan) accidentally collide when insomnia keeps them awake on the same night. Despite being strangers in different states, the two happen to meet via radio talk show. How's that for destiny?
In reality, Sam's sleep deprivation renders him hazy, scatterbrained, and piling on the pounds. Still, Nora Ephron's comedy-drama, inspired by 1957's An Affair to Remember, has us yearning for late-night love.
10. Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman
Drama, Thriller (2h 1m)
Even though the title is a reference to a sketch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and even though a thread of humor runs through it, Bringing Out the Dead is actually an intense psychological drama.
Nicolas Cage stars as an overworked Manhattan paramedic who has—you guessed it—insomnia. Plus burnout. Plus depression. Not a great mix when your job requires sharp mental focus (although sadly it's true for many real-life medics who work the night shift).
Frank is used to being a fast-acting, life-saving hero whose hands work on autopilot. Now, he's seeing the ghosts of his dead patients and practically begging to get fired, and it's all because he can't sleep. This is an underappreciated gem from Martin Scorsese's canon.
9. Last Night in Soho (2021)
Directed by Edgar Wright
Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matt Smith
Drama, Horror, Mystery (1h 56m)
Ellie (played by Thomasin McKenzie) doesn't suffer from a sleep problem so much as a dream problem—one that, at first, she's completely fine with.
When studying fashion in London doesn't work out, Ellie moves into a single-room occupancy unit while pursuing her 1960s designer dreams. And we don't just mean dreams as in life goals!
Ellie literally has dreams about living in the 1960s, and these dreams are so lucid that they actually bleed into her reality. When she sleeps, Ellie transforms from awkward student to gorgeous blonde singer (portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy).
Of course, these visions quickly turn into nightmares and start pressing against the walls of Ellie's real life. Director Edgar Wright delivers this psychological thriller in his usual punchy, dynamic style, and the end result is an amazingly thrilling ride.
8. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz
Fantasy, Mystery, Romance (2h 16m)
Vanilla Sky features a lucid dreamworld, this time in early-2000s Manhattan. Tom Cruise plays rich playboy David, whose face is disfigured in a car crash.
Recalling the events through a creepy prosthetic mask, David 's memories start to move and distort like his face.
A US remake of the 1997 Spanish film Open Your Eyes, Vanilla Sky is one of those films where the viewing experience is totally different your second time around (assuming you catch all the little details).
7. Hour of the Wolf (1968)
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gertrud Fridh
Drama, Horror, Mystery (1h 28m)
Like many of my picks, Hour of the Wolf deals with the psychological more than the physical. After all, sleep problems are mental disorders that disturb how people experience reality.
Johan Borg (played by Max von Sydow) is a painter who expresses his innermost fears through his art. All through the long nights of insomnia, Johan sketches out his terrifying visions to try and make sense of them... to his wife's dismay.
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman is known for his reflective movies that probe deep into his characters' souls and psyches. Hour of the Wolf is no exception, playing out like a waking nightmare where demons roam free in a lucid dream state.
6. Inception (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Elliot Page
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 28m)
Filmed in classic Christopher Nolan style, Inception features lots of complex storybuilding, shifting timelines, and crescendo music. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dom Cobb, an "extractor" who enters people's dreams to find secrets and plant ideas.
Nolan began work on Inception shortly after completely Insomnia (which is also on this list down below), inspired by its sleepless plot to write a treatment about "dream stealers."
Deeming the original idea far too ambitious, Nolan shelved the concept until he was able to gain more experience (which he eventually did with the creation of his The Dark Knight trilogy).
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Directed by Wes Craven
Starring Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund
Horror (1h 31m)
People literally need sleep to survive, but for the kids on Elm Street, sleep guarantees their death—and a gruesome one, at that.
Teenager Nancy (played by Heather Langenkamp) relies on coffee to stay awake, but it doesn't quite do. Whenever she inevitably dozes off, Freddy Krueger is there waiting with his metal claws.
Krueger has become a standard Halloween costume nowadays, what with his melted face and brown fedora. He's not your usual child-killer, but a spirit who attacks his victims in their sleep.
When brought into the real world, his supernatural shapeshifting powers are rendered useless—but he can still kill you!
4. Insomnia (2002)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 58m)
Insomnia might not be Christopher Nolan's most hailed movie, but he did set a high bar for himself with it. (Notably, Insomnia is Nolan's only movie for which he didn't write the screenplay himself.)
Led by a solid cast—Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, Robin Williams—this psychological thriller follows a police investigation in Nightmute, Alaska where people spend entire months in perpetual daylight.
Detective Dormer (played by Al Pacino) doesn't quite live up to his usual investigating standards thanks to his chronic insomnia. His inability to sleep is brought on by a mixture of guilt and sunlight, and the killer uses it to his advantage to tease him.
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd
Crime, Drama (1h 54m)
Light Sleeper didn't try to hide the inspiration it took from Taxi Driver, and that's because Taxi Driver is such an iconic film!
The first collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver has an atmosphere of insomnia that somehow makes a physical issue feel abstract and tonal.
Instead of snoozing, Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) spends the night hours as a taxi driver, meandering through the "scum" of the streets. Everything about Travis is contradictory, such as him being a junk food-eating gym freak who picks up passengers he hates.
Travis is a character who undergoes transformation following a midlife crisis, but this one's a little more extreme. (I mean, he shaves himself a mohawk and tries to assassinate a presidential candidate!)
2. Fight Club (1999)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter
Drama (2h 19m)
The main plot twist of Fight Club (which might be a spoiler, but it's been over two decades and nearly everyone on the planet knows it by now) is the fact that Edward Norton and Brad Pitt play the same character.
While they're presented as two separate, polar opposite best friends for most of the movie, one is imaginary. Experts say that Tyler Durden's Dissociative Identity Disorder is likely exasperated by his insomnia.
"With insomnia, nothing's real. Everything is far away."Tyler Durden
As if a soul-crushing office job doesn't make you enough of a zombie, Tyler's insomnia has him stumbling red-eyed through work, barely even a person at all. And that leads to some serious consequences.
1. The Machinist (2004)
Directed by Brad Anderson
Starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
Drama, Thriller (1h 41m)
In The Machinist, Trevor is a skeletal man who's so consumed by guilt and paranoia that he becomes anorexic. He also has insomnia.
His inability to sleep or eat stems from the fact that he (accidentally) ran over a young boy in the past, and he's been suppressing the reality of this hit-and-run ever since. Now he works as a machinist—a dangerous trade for a man who can't focus.
Christian Bale is known for undergoing extreme physical transformations for his roles, but his weight loss for The Machinist no doubt takes the cake. In fact, it's still the biggest example of weight loss for a role in cinematic history.