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Movies where it was all a dream (or was it?)

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September 28, 2020
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This story originally appeared on Slumber Yard and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

Movies where it was all a dream (or was it?)

Was it a dream? Was it a hallucination? Is anything in the world actually real? These are the fundamental questions that many filmmakers have tackled from the beginning of cinema to regale audiences with mind-bending twists and confounding tales.

The concept of “was it all a dream” is a common trope in films that can help characters learn crucial lessons, find hidden truths, unveil dark secrets, or simply find the meaning of life. Movies like “The Wizard of Oz,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and “Inception” take audiences on wild rides in which guessing what is real is part of the fun and the mystery of the film.

While some movie critics deride the dream concept as a cop-out that allows a movie to get away with certain plot holes, audiences can never seem to get enough of them as everything from “The Matrix” to “La La Land” allows viewers to lose themselves in other worlds for a couple of hours.

To find a comprehensive list of movies that tackle the question of reality, Slumber Yard compiled IMDb data from June 30 on movies with dream twists or reality-altering endings and organized them chronologically.

The movies on the list are filled with all-time classics, littered with A-list actors, and filled with the best directors in movie history. Some of these movies have won major awards, such as “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

If you’re into movies that delve into the subconscious and keep you guessing all the way until the end, you’re going to love this list. But be warned: This list is filled with spoilers and reveals all the secrets and twist endings. So, if you haven’t seen these movies, get streaming, and come back to see if your favorites make the list.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

- Directors: Victor Fleming (credited); George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor (uncredited)
- IMDb user rating: 8
- Metascore: 100
- Runtime: 102 minutes

Based on the L. Frank Baum book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the movie adaptation is widely considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time. The story falls on Dorothy, played by Judy Garland, who is knocked unconscious during a tornado after running away from home. While knocked out, Dorothy dreams up the colorful world of Oz and ultimately learns the most valuable lesson of all: “There’s no place like home.”

Invaders From Mars (1953)

- Director: William Cameron Menzies
- IMDb user rating: 6.3
- Metascore: Data not available
- Runtime: 78 minutes

According to Paul Meehan, author of the book “Saucer Movies,” “Invaders From Mars” was the first film to show aliens in color. As for the plot, a young kid named David is awakened by a large UFO disappearing into a sandpit behind his house. When the military gets involved, it winds up blowing up the alien ship, which wakes David up from what was seemingly a dream. Feeling reassured, David attempts to go back to sleep, when he suddenly hears another noise and sees another UFO—for real this time?—disappearing into his sandpit once again.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)

- Director: Luis Buñuel
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 93
- Runtime: 102 minutes

“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1973 and has been confounding audiences with its interwoven dream sequences ever since. This French film focuses on a group of uppity friends who attempt to dine together but seemingly can never figure it out. Part of the film is about their outward outrage, but ultimately, it delves into the group’s inner insecurities through dream sequences that meld into one another in the most unexpected ways.

The Mirror (1975)

- Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: Data not available
- Runtime: 107 minutes

Some say it’s incomprehensible, while others call it a masterpiece. One thing’s for sure when it comes to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian film “The Mirror”—you can’t walk away without a strong opinion. The movie is a semi-biographical tale of Tarkovsky’s life that covers a time period before, during, and after World War II. The film has no chronology, though, and is unveiled through dream sequences, voice-overs, memories, and other unreliable narratives.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

- Director: Wes Craven
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 76
- Runtime: 91 minutes

Wes Craven’s masterpiece “A Nightmare on Elm Street” frightened moviegoers to the core when it came out in 1984, and spawned eight additional films within the horror franchise. The movie is about a killer named Freddy Krueger who murders his victims within their dreams while they sleep. Ultimately, the film is about confronting fear as Freddy preys on the secret fears of his victims.

Wisdom (1986)

- Director: Emilio Estevez
- IMDb user rating: 5.8
- Metascore: 37
- Runtime: 109 minutes

Emilio Estevez was already becoming a movie star when he decided to try his hand at writing and directing a film, while also acting as the lead. In “Wisdom,” Estevez teams up with Demi Moore, and the two portray sort of modern-day Robin Hoods mixed with Bonnie and Clyde. As the cops begin to chase the duo down, Moore’s character is shot, and Estevez is surrounded. When he reaches for his gun, the cops shoot him, and it’s at that moment he wakes up and realizes it was all a dream.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

- Director: Adrian Lyne
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 62
- Runtime: 113 minutes

In the Old Testament book of “Genesis,” Jacob’s Ladder is a stairway to heaven. In the movie “Jacob’s Ladder” starring Tim Robbins, the title is used as a metaphor for Robbins’ character letting go of his own demons. The movie is a brain-bending tale of a Vietnam War vet who was given an experimental drug and who can’t distinguish reality from his hallucinations and dreams. In the end, Jacob is able to die peacefully once he discovers the truth about the drug and what really happened to him in Vietnam.

Total Recall (1990)

- Director: Paul Verhoeven
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 57
- Runtime: 113 minutes

The Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller “Total Recall” takes place in the not-too-distant future where humans have colonized Mars and fake memories can be implanted into their brains. When Douglas Quaid, played by Schwarzenegger, wants a trip to Mars implanted in his mind, it triggers a series of memories that reveal him to be an unwitting participant in a scheme to take over the red planet and kill the leader of a rebel group. Quaid ends up thwarting the bad guys, unleashing an endless supply of oxygen on Mars, and of course, getting the girl.

North (1994)

- Director: Rob Reiner
- IMDb user rating: 4.5
- Metascore: Data not available
- Runtime: 87 minutes

Not exactly well-received by critics, or by moviegoers—it was a box office bomb—“North” is about a kid who thinks his parents don’t appreciate him, so he sets off around the world to find new ones who will. North, played by Elijah Wood, emancipates himself with the help of a scheming lawyer who tries to kill North in the end for ruining his practice. Just as he’s about to be shot, North wakes up and realizes his adventure was all a dream; or was it? When North awakens and goes back to his parents, he finds a silver dollar in his pocket with a bullet hole in it. It’s the same silver dollar that he got while on his trip to Texas earlier in the movie.

Perfect Blue (1997)

- Director: Satoshi Kon
- IMDb user rating: 8
- Metascore: Data not available
- Runtime: 81 minutes

“Perfect Blue” is a beautifully animated psychological thriller that follows the main character Mima as she goes from innocent pop star to serious actress. With legions of fans, including stalkers who know way too much about her personal life, Mima begins to struggle with distinguishing real life from her on-set life as the two worlds intertwine and nearly get her killed. It’s revealed in the end that her manager Rumi was her real stalker and imitating her through an online diary. Rumi tries to kill Mima and ends up in a mental institution.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

- Director: Taylor Hackford
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 60
- Runtime: 144 minutes

Starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino, “The Devil’s Advocate” is about a lawyer named Kevin Lomax, played by Reeves, who is recruited to work at a bigger law firm in New York by John Milton, played by Pacino. The movie begins with Lomax defending a child molester, and despite knowing his client is guilty, he still wins the case. When Lomax and his wife Mary, played by Charlize Theron, move to New York, strange things start to happen. Mary starts to go crazy as she sees demons everywhere, and it’s revealed that Milton is actually the devil and Lomax is his son. The climactic moment comes when Lomax has to choose to join his father or not, and instead kills himself. At that moment, he wakes up, staring at a mirror back at the original trial with the child molester. He then decides to recuse himself because he can no longer defend the man, knowing he’s guilty.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

- Director: Stanley Kubrick
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 68
- Runtime: 159 minutes

Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-sexual thriller starring a then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is a morality tale that delves into the theme of infidelity. The movie is adapted from a 1926 novella titled “Dream Story” where Dr. Bill Hartford, played by Cruise, explores the underbelly of illicit sex hiding among the uber-wealthy amid secret societies. After Hartford has a brief encounter with a prostitute and crashes a masked orgy in a mansion, he comes clean to his wife about everything when he discovers the mask he wore at the orgy lying on his pillow.

American Psycho (2000)

- Director: Mary Harron
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 64
- Runtime: 101 minutes

Adapted from the Bret Easton Ellis book of the same name, “American Psycho,” starring Christian Bale, is a story about a yuppie 1980s serial killer. Patrick Bateman, played by Bale, eventually confesses to his crimes, but when he does, it’s revealed that one of his victims is alive and well, so he couldn’t have killed him. Bateman doesn’t know if he’s been hallucinating his murders or not and realizes he’s going to get away with everything.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

- Director: David Lynch
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 85
- Runtime: 147 minutes

Known for his mind-bending narratives, David Lynch does not disappoint with the hard-to-comprehend “Mulholland Drive.” The movie follows the exploits of two women played by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. The twisting tale—not unlike the actual Mulholland Drive itself—unravels when it’s found out that Betty, played by Watts, dreamt most of the movie and is a failed actress whose affair with Camilla, played by Harring, went awry. She ends up killing herself as she’s unable to shake her hallucinations.

Donnie Darko (2001)

- Director: Richard Kelly
- IMDb user rating: 8
- Metascore: 88
- Runtime: 113 minutes

“Donnie Darko” follows Donnie, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, after he’s told by a giant, freakish rabbit that the world is going to end in 28 days. Throughout the movie, Donnie keeps seeing the rabbit, which leads him to discover secrets about different people around town. You don’t find out if Donnie is hallucinating or not until the end, when he wakes up in his bed on the same day he started seeing the rabbit. Suddenly, a jet engine crashes through his house and kills him, revealing everything was a dream, except for the déjà vu certain characters experience after seeing the engine crash through the house.

Waking Life (2001)

- Director: Richard Linklater
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 82
- Runtime: 99 minutes

Any list of dreamlike movies would be incomplete without Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” which is an investigation into the world of dreams, lucid states, and even the meaning of life. The animated film follows a young man as he engages with seemingly random people on topics of metaphysics, the concept of time, and free will, among others. The young man comes to realize that he’s perpetually in a dream state, which is only interrupted by small awakenings. The film ultimately presses the questions: what is reality and what is the true nature of life?

Vanilla Sky (2001)

- Director: Cameron Crowe
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Metascore: 45
- Runtime: 136 minutes

David Aames, played by Tom Cruise, is drastically disfigured when he gets into a car accident with his jilted lover. Trying to repair his life and his face, Aames finds himself experiencing the world in strange ways with bizarre hallucinations. Aames comes to realize that he’s been placed in a dream state for well over 100 years since the accident and ultimately has a choice to stay in his dream world or come back to reality. He decides to come back to reality, but has to make a literal leap of faith off a building to wake up. We don’t know what is real and what is a dream until he’s told to open his eyes in the very last moment of the film.

Click (2006)

- Director: Frank Coraci
- IMDb user rating: 6.4
- Metascore: 45
- Runtime: 107 minutes

Starring Adam Sandler as Michael Newman, “Click” is about a dad who discovers a magical universal remote control that can change his miserable life. Soon enough, the powers of the remote begin to backfire, and Newman can no longer control his life the way he wanted and starts missing important milestones. Newman learns the ultimate lesson, that life is short, and you need to savor every moment. But after waking up and thinking it was all a dream, he sees the remote again, but this time throws it in the trash.

Repo Men (2010)

- Director: Miguel Sapochnik
- IMDb user rating: 6.3
- Metascore: 32
- Runtime: 111 minutes

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker play Remy and Jake, two men whose job it is to repossess artificial organs from people who can’t pay their debts. Getting squeamish about the job, Remy tries to quit, but then finds himself on the run from the repo men who are trying to get his own artificial heart back. In the end, you see that Remy is actually in a dream state, hooked up to a neural machine that places him in an artificial reality. His partner Jake is still in the real world, and ultimately saved Remy’s life after an accident that left him in a coma.

Inception (2010)

- Director: Christopher Nolan
- IMDb user rating: 8.8
- Metascore: 74
- Runtime: 148 minutes

“Inception” is about a thief who steals information from inside the heads of high-profile targets while they’re asleep. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Dominick Cobb, the story follows Cobb as he tries to do one last job that will clear his name and allow him to go home to his kids. Throughout the movie, Cobb uses a spinning top to help him know if he’s in a dream or in reality. If the top spins indefinitely, he’s still in a dream. As he gets deeper into dream states of his victim, Cobb doesn’t know if he ever fully reemerged. In the end, you see that he’s back with his children, and as he spins the top, you don’t find out if it topples over or not.

Life of Pi (2012)

- Director: Ang Lee
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 79
- Runtime: 127 minutes

Based on the award-winning book of the same name, “Life of Pi” is about a teenager who is stranded on a life raft with a tiger after a storm sinks the freighter on which he was a passenger. As the story unfolds, Pi tells an incredible tale of survival that includes crashing on an island with meerkats and acid tide pools. In the end, you find out that the tiger, and other animals stranded on the life raft, were really people: his mother was the orangutan, a sailor was the zebra, the ship’s chef was the hyena, and he was the tiger all along.

Enemy (2013)

- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Metascore: 61
- Runtime: 91 minutes

A brilliant analysis of the subconscious, “Enemy,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Adam/Anthony, is about the duality of life and how people are able to hide their deepest, darkest secrets. The movie slowly unfolds as Adam discovers Anthony is identical to him. The two men become obsessed with one another, uncovering secrets and sleeping with each other’s wife and girlfriend. Anthony ultimately dies in a car crash, leaving Adam with Anthony’s wife, but also in a seeming loop of consciousness that plays out over and over again.

Swiss Army Man (2016)

- Directors: Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
- IMDb user rating: 7
- Metascore: 64
- Runtime: 97 minutes

“Swiss Army Man” is about a person stranded on an island who encounters a corpse and finds that he can manipulate the body like a Swiss Army knife. The two men, Hank and Manny, played by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, form an odd bond as Hank teaches Manny how to live like a normal human after having been a corpse for so long. The film culminates when Manny brings Hank to the house of a woman whom Hank was stalking. When they arrive, Manny turns into a corpse again, Hank is arrested, and Manny ends up floating away in the ocean.

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