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 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.”
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.
Throughout the run of The Sopranos, mob boss Tony (James Gandolfini) repeatedly edges toward psychological breakthrough, only to retreat and tamp it down beneath a blustering veneer of anger and resentment. Tony’s repression was such that, as the show would revisit again and again, the only place he could be truly honest with himself was in his dreams, where his deepest fears and desires were at last allowed to burble to the surface. The most effective of these many visions came in the second season’s “Funhouse,” where a food-poisoned Tony slowly awakens to the realization that his friend Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) has turned FBI informant. Over a series of surreal vignettes on a desolate Asbury Park boardwalk, Tony processes those nagging suspicions as a terminal disease, as a comic Godfather reference, and finally, as a talking fish with Pussy’s voice, who flatly tells Tony what he already knows yet refuses to accept. Throughout these fevered hallucinations, the distant squeaking of a boat foreshadows the climactic moment Tony knows is coming—and that, as his dreams tell him, he can’t keep putting off. It’s strange and silly, yet laden with poignant symbolism, and the exemplar of the dream sequence’s unique power of revelation.