May I suggest that you see Christopher Nolan's Inception as soon as humanly possible? It's a superbly-made picture that dazzles the mind as well as the eye. Don't forget to allow time for your mind to decompress and/or put itself back together after the viewing. The ideas may not seem quite as complex or brain-bending to science fiction fans as it will to unsuspecting mainstream audiences, because we've had years to assimilate the concept that reality is not all it's cracked up to be. Still, you'll want to be able to savor the experience and come to your own conclusions.
Nolan's dream logic, as expressed in the film, is not the same thing that you or I might imagine, and that rings true when talking about our dreams with other people. Dreams might share some similar concepts, but the details vary tremendously -- and wonderfully. So too with cinematic conceits that dare to question reality, whether by taking us into a dream world or by suggesting that we have no idea what we're talking about when it comes to reality. Does any of this make sense?
1. The Matrix
"Whoa!" Likely to be the most common basis of comparison to Inception, the superb action thrills mixed effectively with vaguely philosophical rambling and eye-opening visuals. It flies by at such an intense pace that it's over almost before it begins; I can still recall the smile on my face after a first viewing. At the same time, it's a vigorous wake-up call to sleepy, slothful humanity.
In stark contrast to The Matrix, Darren Aronofsky's ambitious dramatic epic features a relatively tiny amount of action and considerably more thoughtful meditation on the meaning of life, love, and spirituality. I will freely admit that I nodded off two or three times during my first viewing; The Fountain is not an easy movie to assimilate. It seems paced with very odd rhythms and the meaning of certain sequences is still obscure to me. In the same way that I often found myself lost within the labyrinth plot within a plot within a plot of Inception, yet didn't much care because of the audacity of Nolan's vision and the gorgeous eye candy, repeat viewings of The Fountain have inspired wonderment, even with a minimum of narrative comprehension.
3. The Man Who Fell to Earth
I've lost track of the number of times I've seen this movie, directed by Nicolas Roeg, and I'm still not sure which sequences are meant to be "real" and which are meant to be dreamed up by the alien consciousness that resides in the head of Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie). Initially, plot seems to drive the story forward, and then at a certain point it's as though Roeg and company threw the script away and started filming whatever struck their fancy. Fabulous.
4. Perfect Blue
Haunting and poignant, Perfect Blue follows a young woman who starts to lose her grip on reality. She's tired of being a teen pop star and decides to retire from music and pursue an acting career. But one of her fans is not ready for her to retire, and may be responsible for a series of mysterious deaths. Told largely through the former pop singer's POV, Perfect Blue offers shifting perspectives that are disorienting, guaranteed to keep you off-balance and guessing where the story's going next.
5. Waking Life
Animated existentialism never looked so pretty or sounded so confounding.
Satoshi Kon, who seems happily obsessed with the theme of reality vs. dreams, returned to the subject with his 2006 animated feature that posits a world where therapists can enter the dreams of their patients. Paprika plays around with notions of dream logic and the consequences of dream world actions, as well as dreams becoming a battleground for good guys and villains. The animation -- bright, super-colorful, slyly self-referential -- lends itself to the questioning of reality.
7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Some movies question reality in a very forthright manner. And then there are the ones that make you question your own sanity for watching them. David Lynch's film relates to the TV series he co-created in the same manner that The Godfather Part II relates to The Godfather: it's an extension of / reflection / commentary upon the original. There's no telling where the "reality" part ends and the "dream (or, more accurately, nightmare)" begins. It's psychological sci-fi in trippy form.
8. The Jacket
This movie flew in and out theaters five years ago and is remembered today, if at all, for Keira Knightley's bathtub scene. But I was riveted to my seat, first by the assaultive musical score by Brian Eno, second by Adrien Brody's intense performance as a wounded war vet wrongly accused of murder, and third by the very idea of someone having to prove their own sanity. Is Brody truly mad, having lost all touch with reality? How would we know? Brilliant and terrifying.
9. The Box
Roundly denounced by most critics, Richard Kelly's adaptation of a short story by Richard Matheson is definitely a flawed piece of work, but I draw your attention to one extended sequence in particular that is nothing short of gob-smacking genius: Arthur (James Marsden) and his experience at the library. I will say no more.
In compiling The Top Ten, I'm often confronted by the question: is that really a science fiction movie? Truth be told, Jean Cocteau's 1950 classic belongs more properly to the fantasy genre -- and even more accurately, to the genre of great cinematic poetry -- but it holds a special place in my heart as the first film that opened my eyes to the possibilities of wonder and imagination. And when Orphee (Jean Marais) walks through a mirror into another world, not only is it magic, it's also the same idea as all those time-traveling portals that have become so beloved in the half-century since. So, in my book, Orpheus belongs here.