And the Oscar goes to…*drumroll please*…sleep? Though those of us at Sleep Outfitters would like to formally award sleep with all the praise and accolades it deserves, typically the Academy Awards reserve their prestigious honors solely for accomplishments in film. Which is not to say that sleep has never influenced cinema. Throughout its storied history, Hollywood has explored the darkly fascinating worlds of sleep and dreams time and time again, to admittedly mixed results. (“It was all a dream!” has become a much derided trope in its stubborn persistence over time, as we’ll see below.) But when a film is able to tap into the magic and mystery of sleep, it can make for an undoubtedly compelling and, ironically, eye-opening experience.
Leading up to this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, hit up Netflix, iTunes, YouTube, Amazon, Redbox, or even your local Blockbuster Video (if you happen to be joining us from 2002), and check out a few of these 10 movies that touch on what happens when we shut off the lights and drift away.
The most recent film on this list to truly make a splash, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller Inception hauled in $800 million worldwide and was nominated for Best Picture among many others awards. It uses the structure of classic heist film but infinitely more complex, as the heist takes place within someone’s subconscious and our team of thieves travel through dreams within dreams to ultimately “incept” an idea into their victim so deep that he believes it to be his own. With a knockout cast and mindboggling storytelling and effects, Inception is a must see.
Part of Nolan’s success with Inception was somewhat indebted to Insomnia: he’d explored the world of sleep, or dangerous lack thereof, before. Insomnia is a murder-mystery, psychological thriller where the lead detective’s stress and insomnia are fueled by the setting: Nightmute, Alaska, plagued by perpetual daylight, a natural phenomenon known as midnight sun that occurs in summer months north of the Arctic Circle.
Only in a fairytale could sleep be a curse! But in Disney’s animated Sleeping Beauty, that’s exactly what it is, with the evil Maleficient imprisoning our titular lead in eternal sleep on her 16th birthday that she’ll only wake from with true love’s first kiss. Will our princess find true love and break the spell? Perhaps. This is a Disney movie, after all. But we hope she at least takes a moment to enjoy the rest.
Alice in Wonderland
Dreams can be a real trip. It took a drug-friendly counterculture to elevate this Disney animation to a bona fide cult classic, but anyone can enjoy this classic film’s colorful and surreal storytelling. And though I lamented the “it was all a dream” trope in the opening, for Alice’s sake there may be no happier ending.
Leaving far behind the whimsy of Wonderland, The Machinist details the downward spiral of an insomniac metal worker haunted by a mysterious past. Shockingly gaunt, Christian Bale infamously dropped 60-plus pounds for the lead role, emaciated by his insomnia, though we aggressively object to sleeplessness as a weight loss supplement.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
One of the most critically acclaimed films of our century, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless sports an award-winning script by the inimitable Charlie Kaufman that takes place almost entirely in a dream-space, as Jim Carrey’s lovelorn lead undergoes an experimental memory erasing procedure to wipe an old lover from his life while asleep, just as she had done herself. It’s a thrillingly high-concept affair that stays grounded thanks to terrific performances and a beating, romantic heart at its core.
The Science of Sleep
Not all the credit can be given to the script, however; Eternal Sunshine was just as notable for its bold direction, courtesy of Michel Gondry. He followed it up with another dreamy film, The Science of Sleep. Though not as fondly remembered as its predecessor, it’s full of creative direction that successfully blurs the lines between reality and dreams.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
A classic horror film by all standards, A Nightmare on Elm Street sees teenagers hunted and killed one by one in their sleep by immortalized slasher king Freddy Krueger. It’s also the least effective method to ease yourself to sleep at night, so perhaps watch this one in daytime if possible.
The Big Sleep
Alright, so this one isn’t “about” sleep. “The Big Sleep” is DEATH, get it? But it is a classic film that the U.S. Library of Congress has deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and added to the National Film Registry. It’s got star turns from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and a script by William Faulkner adapting Raymond Chandler. Hard to beat that pedigree.
The Wizard of Oz
Perhaps the most iconic film ever made, The Wizard of Oz is a Technicolor fantasy that needs no further introduction. Whether it was all a dream or as real as Dorothy believes it to be, experiencing the film is certainly dreamlike, even still after all these years. That the film came out in such a stacked cinematic year is a marvel and a shame: It ultimately lost the Best Picture Oscar to Gone with the Wind in a year that also saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach nominated. It did win Best Original Song for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” so there is some justice in this world.