Tag Archives: anime

All That We See or Seem: Nate’s Top Ten Films on Dreams and the Subconscious

What happens to us when we sleep? How does our collective and individual subconscious influence the way we exist both awake and dreaming? It’s roughly half our lives, so time spent in the subconscious realms, land of the dead and places beyond mean a lot to our existence as a complete life cycle. There are many films out there that explore these concepts. Some visually, some emotionally but always with a good deal of creativity and imagination. From virtual prisms to nocturnal demons to tangible alternate realities and the deities that dwell therein, it’s a complex, mysterious sub-genre! Here are my personal top ten..

10. Neil Jordan’s In Dreams

A psychic link is established early on between a small town housewife (Anette Bening) and a bizarre, elusive serial killer (Robert Downey Jr). But why are they connected? What do the visions she has even mean, manifesting to her in vague images and abstract impressions that only suggest the evil lurking out there? Jordan is a filmmaker obsessed with mood and style but also dutiful in making sure that such things serve that story and have weight. This is a gorgeous looking psychological fairytale with an avant-garde performance from Downey, breathtaking visuals and excellent supporting work from Aiden Quinn, Stephen Rea and Paul Guilfoyle.

9. Calvin Reeder’s The Rambler

This abnormally surreal piece of midnite movie madness sees a stoic Dermot Mulroney as the titular Rambler on a post-prison meander through a version of America’s southwest that’s been poisoned by abstract qualities and turned on its head. It isn’t explicitly about the subconscious other than a subplot in which a bemused scientist (James Cady) records people’s dreams onto a VHS doohickey, an endeavour that goes wrong in the most hilarious of ways (think Scanners except bloodier). However, I’ve rarely seen a film that captures nightmare logic like this gnarly little piece does. It isn’t ever said whether the Rambler’s journey is all a dream or not, but the feeling one gets as he ambles dazedly from one bizarre encounter to the next, the nonsensical fashion of language used and the overall feeling that one has been lost in some threatening netherworld where sensory input has been scrambled and people are indistinct grotesqueries is overpowering. Be warned with this one, there’s nothing pleasant about it, it exists purely to shock, disgust and disorient, areas in which it thoroughly earns its keep.

8. Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape

The most playful film on this list sees Dennis Quaid as a young psychic recruited by government scientist Max Von Sydow to enter the dreams of the US president (Eddie Albert), who has been having some disturbing nightmares. There’s a conspiracy afoot involving a shady government big-shot (Christopher Plummer) and time is running out to decipher the mystery. This is a colourful kaleidoscope of a flick with dazzling special effects, especially in the impressive dream sequences. A giant cobra rears it’s head, mutants leer out from a nuclear wasteland, an eerie, endless staircase descends into darkness and the visual aspect overall is exceptional.

7. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street

Dreams get the slasher treatment with lucrative and legendary results in this lean, mean horror flick that would go on to span a mammoth franchise. Using clever practical effects, an ambient score and Robert Englund’s now iconic performance as dream demon Fred Krueger, Craven sculpts an atmospheric aesthetic for the ages. Johnny Depp’s first role in cinema as well, and he gets eaten by a bed no less. I dare you to google the true story that inspired Craven to write this film, you might just have some nightmares of your own.

6. Satoshi Kon’s Paprika

Dreams as a collective and quite literal parade come tumbling into our world when a therapist’s machine to enter them is stolen by a terrorist. This film truly breaks some boundaries in what storytelling can do and show with animation, and requires several viewings to appreciate the full scope of vision. Kon and his animators thoroughly paint in all the corners and write a dense, chaotic script full of moving parts and wild ideas in telling the story of dreams run amok, with a deft subplot about cinema itself thrown in seemingly just for fun.

5. Jamin Winans’s Ink

This is one I’ve been championing for years, a low budget indie that defies description in ways that you won’t see coming. The multifaceted story is free from the bonds of time and space and sees a mysterious supernatural demon named Ink kidnap a young girl (Quinn Hunchar) and drag her off into the dream realms for some vaguely nefarious purpose which soon becomes appallingly clear. Meanwhile, the forces of light and darkness that rule over our unconscious bodies while we sleep both race to track Ink down and engage in a furious war for the girl’s soul. That seems like a chunk of exposition, doesn’t it? Well it doesn’t even hint at the wonders, revelations, trips to alternate dimensions, flashbacks to several different pasts and narrative twists to come. This is a gorgeously moving fantasy film that works wonders with a scant budget but also gets surprisingly deep and psychological in exploring its human characters, a mini masterpiece that I will recommend until the end of time.

4. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

This is technically my favourite film of all time but I’m trying to gauge this list on which films provide a provocative and comprehensive view of dreams and the subconscious, so here we are at #4. Lynch’s challenging masterpiece involves many aspects and moving parts, but a big influence on narrative is the creeping presence of mysterious spiritual beings that reside in the mythical plane of The Black Lodge and manifest in dreams. Protagonist Laura Palmer has harrowing nightmares that present an illogical, fractured view of the dark forces amassing against her and others who live in the Pacific Northwest town that is filled with secrets. David Bowie also shows up, literally escaping a tangible nightmare very briefly to incoherently warn his FBI buddies about something before being dragged off back to the netherworld.

3. Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky

Yes this is a remake of a Spanish film that also starred Penelope Cruz in the same role she plays here, and I’ve had the discussion many times on which film is better. This one speaks to me far more than the original though, Crowe’s hazy hued, autumn in New York aesthetic is gorgeous and don’t get me started on the amazing soundtrack. Tom Cruise is a bratty publishing heir who discovers the danger of his ways in encounters with two very different women, angelic Cruz and unstable Cameron Diaz. The story is about much more of course but to say too much here would be to ruin it. It’s a fantastic piece of heartbreaking filmmaking with a haunting conclusion and solid supporting turns from Jason Lee, Tilda Swindon, Michael Shannon, Timothy Spall, Jason Lee, Noah Taylor, Alicia Witt and Kurt Russell.

2. Christopher Nolan’s Inception

An obvious choice no doubt, but this is every bit the magnificent game changer its reputed to be, and a blockbuster with a brain in its head. Combining elements of corporate espionage with dreaming, Nolan tells a magisterial, hugely ambitious tale of Leonardo DiCaprio’s thief of the subconscious and his crew in pulling off a dangerous, near impossible task. What really makes the film work for me though is the relationship with his deceased wife (Marion Cotillard) and how it highlights the toll that entering dreams would take on your psyche as the forces that sculpt reality begin to crack and there’s danger of getting lost in these realms. It’s so much more than just a pseudo heist flick that happens to take place inside a dream world, there’s psychological depth, a rubik’s cube of a narrative to feast on and some truly heartrending moments when we discover just how much power the unconscious mind has over our souls.

1. Tarsem Singh’s The Cell

The hunt for a heinous serial killer ends with his dramatic capture in a spectacular FBI raid. End of story? Not so much, as he’s in a permanent coma and his last victim is still out there somewhere in captivity, with time running out. Jennifer Lopez is a compassionate child psychologist who uses futuristic technology to enter the man’s terrifying subconscious and look for clues, as well as appeal to the side of him that still retains innocence. Singh is a master stylistic storyteller and the images, sound, costumes and visual dreamscapes on display are like eye candy for the spirit and tell this story in an otherworldly fashion that I can’t even describe here. Vincent D’Onofrio is hauntingly complex as the killer, Vince Vaughn grounded and intense as the agent spearheading the search and the eclectic cast includes Patrick Bauchau, Dean Norris, Tara Subkoff, Peter Sarsgaard, Jack Conley, Dylan Baker, Marieanne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Pruitt Taylor Vince, scream queen Musetta Vander and the late great character actor James Gammon. This is top of my list and one of my favourite films of all time, partly for the gentle yet arresting way it dives into the psyches of several characters, also the pure artistic innovation present in the visuals that are constantly changing, shaping and mapping out the subconscious using picturesque poetry, startlingly graphic horror and an ever present, bewitchingly ethereal score from Howard Shore.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to share some of your favourites of this genre in the comments!! More to come as well!

-Nate Hill

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Satoshi Kon’s Paprika

It’s always fascinating to me how other countries use the animation genre to do much more innovative and imaginative things than the states. Don’t get me wrong, Disney Pixar films and such are brilliant, but the potential in a visually boundless medium like that is somewhat more untapped than those studios realize. Japanese filmmakers, however, have been diving headlong into it for decades now, and Satoshi Kon’s Paprika practically reinvents the genre with it’s extreme brand of surrealistic storytelling and dense, provocative mind games. The film focuses on the R&D of a device called the DC Mini, a dangerous contraption that brings one subconscious mind into another for a dream-melding process that’s supposed to break new frontiers in psychiatry. The technology is soon hijacked by an elusive terrorist though, and used to create all kinds of pseudo-synaptic chaos in which elements from inside the collective unconscious bleed over into the real world and make the line between reality and dreams awful blurry. It’s up to lead scientist Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara), her dream alter ego Paprika, a police detective (Akio Atsua) with his own trippy demons, and the techies at their research firm to stop this dimensional crossover before existence as they know it turns into one big kaleidoscopic nightmare. That’s the over-simplified version though, for director Kon uses the template to go simply wild and ballistic with both the visual and written narrative, for an utterly confusing, hypnotic tapestry of future-shock imagery, primal forces at work and intangible mood-scapes that defy description. Once the dreams invade the conscious plane, a deranged parade of nonsensical beings marches through the film, turning people mad and making the illogical take centre stage, as the film truly manages to capture that ‘other’ set of feelings and impressions we all know of in dreams but can’t quite articulate. It’s one hell of a confusing film though, and multiple viewings are in order before one can unravel every elliptical plot point and reason behind each of the carefully constructed yet audaciously impulsive visuals. Speaking of visuals, rarely has animation been used to this mind blowing extant, a colourful, fierce blast of artistry and storytelling that fires on all cylinders. There’s a disturbing quality to it as well, a subtle doomsday vibe with the subject of technology, the human mind and the unwitting dangers we set loose when we meddle around with forces bigger and badder than us, and as playful as the tone sometimes gets, there’s a cautionary tale hinted at that gives the whole thing a grounded, ‘adult’ feel. Not to mention a haunting, endlessly catchy score by Susumu Hirasawa that adds to the film’s own vibrantly memorable personality. A classic.

-Nate Hill

Aeon Flux


Before Ghost In The Shell, Dragonball (fucking shudder) and a host of other attempts at making anime content work as a live action film, there was Aeon Flux, a supremely weird dystopian Sci-Fi palooza that should have just been the first and last of it’s kind, ground zero for moving forward, lesson learned in terms of knowing that such specifically artistic material just *doesn’t* translate at all beyond the original animation versions. You’d think they would have learned with this one, but nope. Charlize Theron can practically carry any material on her own, she’s just that dynamic, and when supported by an impressive vessel of visual effects and a clinical, sleek stylistic palette she’s even better, but this beast has no heart beating at the centre of all that, and it shows. Theron is Aeon, a powerful assassin working for the Handler (Frances Mcdormand), assigned to bring down a dangerous regime in a utopian city where humanity’s last vestige of populace exists following some viral plague decades before. Of course nothing is as it seems and when she gets to the man behind the group (Marton Csokas) she discovers all kinds of secrets. There’s plenty of inventive future-world action, including a neat sequence where Aeon sends in wicked fast micro-bot marbles to blast through a door, and interesting aerobics courtesy of a character played by Sophie Okenodo, who has hands instead of feet, an anomaly the film finds little time to coherently explain. Even less explained is the sudden appearance of Pete Postlethwaite as someone who resides in a giant floating thingy far above the city, kind of like the man in the moon in the midst of chemotherapy. It all makes not a great amount of sense, through no fault of it’s own. That goes back to my thoughts at the beginning of the review though: Sometimes, a specifically drawn or written anime saga is just too much in it’s own abstract, perfectly balanced embryonic harmony, and trying to shunt it along into the very different realm of live action storytelling just isn’t possible. That’s certainly what has happened here, and with pretty much every other attempt I’ve seen to adapt the medium. 

-Nate Hill