To vote in this lineup, scroll to the poll at the bottom of the page, then head back to the bracket to see all of round one of The Best Pop Culture Dream Sequence, The A.V. Club’s no-holds-barred competition to see which dream sequence from TV or film deserves the title, “Greatest Of All Time.”
The idea of infiltrating another person’s subconscious has been around in Hollywood at least since Dennis Quaid snuck into Kate Capshaw’s dreams for a little nookie in 1984’s Dreamscape. But Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending time-twister Inception takes a nebulous idea and applies a bold upgrade of metaphysical philosophy (and special effects), fitted to the structure of a popcorn thriller. No longer are dreams just the repository for our unspoken fears—in this story of a group of corporate espionage experts tasked with implanting an idea in the mind of a budding young titan of industry, dreams become the landscape in which we grapple with who we want to be in real life. Led by Leonardo DiCaprio’s haunted father seeking a way home, the team enters a dream with three layers, each one operating with progressively more stretched-out time, in a quest to convince Cillian Murphy’s faithful heir to go his own way and break up his father’s company. As the events in each layer of the dream reverberate throughout the other two, the film manages to make forward-thinking cinema out of the oldest conceit of movie-making—bringing dreams to life. In so doing, it also makes the case for letting go of the past, before it prevents you from having a future.
Dreams are the garbage soup of the subconscious. They take everything we’ve been mentally chewing on for the previous few hours, days, or even weeks, and make something new out of the combination. Joel and Ethan Coen acknowledged as much in one of the most celebrated sequences in one of their most celebrated movies, the 1998 Raymond Chandler spoof The Big Lebowski. About midway through, hapless stoner sleuth Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) does what movie detectives (even the inadvertent kind) are expected to do: He gets knocked unconscious. This allows Joel and Ethan, ever the whip-smart film brats, to put their own eccentric spin on the classic noir trope of the dream sequence. True to the way brains often function, this delirious set-piece—framed like a spectacular adult movie, staged like a Busby Berkeley musical number—mashes together recent events of The Dude’s life, from his dalliance with an avant-garde artist (Julianne Moore) to his impending bowling tournament to the Iraqi dictator he regularly glimpses on television. The dream then becomes a nightmare, as castrating anarchists kill the good-times vibe set by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition. It’s an unforgettable expression of the way the human mind turns daily problems into surreal art—even if our own dreams rarely boast such a killer soundtrack or elaborate choreography.