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8 Movies That Showcase the Limitless Potential of Imagination

By  · Published on April 17th, 2014

Focus Features

This is a week of cinematic imagination. Tuesday brought the arrival of Ben Stiller’s journeying remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Joel and Clementine raced through his mind trying to hide in memories and avoid permanent erasure. While that film strove to take something from the memory, there are countless films that strive to add to it, relishing in the many ways the imagination manifests, from a little girl’s fantastical journey into strength, to one man’s struggle to break out of a dream.

Sadly, Figment isn’t taking us on this journey, but the imaginative movies that follow show the possibilities of the mind – as a childish pursuit, an adult coping mechanism, and a wonderfully idiosyncratic way of life.

Spirited Away

While journeying to her new home, Chihiro and her family take a wrong turn into a fantasy world that turns her parents into pigs and sets the young ten-year-old girl on a dangerous adventure. The Shinto-inspired, Oscar-winning film is a fantastical quest, but Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination is so present and powerful within the narrative that it breaks the monotony of formula we’ve come to expect from children’s stories.

It feels as much like an adventure into a young girl’s imagination as it does an actual journey into another world, and with the U.S. ending (where Chihiro assures her dad that she’ll be fine in her new home) imagination becomes a source of resolve and power.

The Singing Detective

While crime novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey Jr.) is bed-ridden and suffering in the hospital, he begins to plot his next novel as his medication makes the lines between fantasy and reality blur. Imagination becomes his escape from his painful present, and a vehicle for strange hallucinations as his many medications take hold. This exploration isn’t a template for artists painting the frame, but for genre to infuse reality – the noir world he’s creating in his head, and the musical numbers that temporarily take him out of the real world.

The journey can be taken with Downey Jr., or with Professor Dumbledore – the film is based on the Peabody-winning BBC series starring Michael Gambon.


The Fall

One of the most beautiful and devastating explorations of imagination is another film that uses it as an opportunity for bodily escape – Tarsem Singh’s The Fall. When stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) is paralyzed after an accident, he lures a child, Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), with a series of intricately woven stories in hopes to gain her trust and help him acquire morphine he needs to commit suicide.

As he relays the story of heroes hoping for revenge against an evil ruler, the girl imagines those around her as the characters in the stuntman’s tale. As it unfolds and gets darker, the now-invested Alexandria gets upset because their imaginations have set them on a collaborative adventure, blurring the lines between tale and reality. Roy insists, “it’s my story,” but Alexandria argues that it’s now her story, too.


Phoebe in Wonderland

Elle Fanning’s Phoebe is captivated by even the slightest glimpse of imagination, which gives her an escape from the stringent world of societal rules and her own obsessive compulsive shackles. When she writes her name on a board and signs up for drama, it’s the beginning of a distraction, an adventure, the (Harry Potter-reminiscent) sounds of Swan Lake scoring her choice. It’s her chance to be in Wonderland, where “things aren’t quite so fixed.” Imagination is escape for Phoebe, but it is also freedom from her struggles.

Stranger Than Fiction

Most explorations of imagination are about the creator’s relationship with their creation – crafting the world, living in it, or reacting to it. With Stranger than Fiction, however, the creation deals with the creator. Harold Crick is living his typical life when he begins to hear his author, Ana Pascal, plot and tease about his impending death. Instead of escaping into the imagination, the fantasy breaks into reality, giving each thought real-world consequences rather than the capriciousness of the pretend.


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Imagination is always an essential part of Terry Gilliam’s films; from the dystopian Brazil to the abandoned Jeliza-Rose in Tideland, audiences step into the ex-Python’s idiosyncratically particular mind. In Parnassus, however, imagination becomes the plot point, not the style – an imaginarium lures people into a dreamscape test between imagination and morality as one man battles the devil.

The film is full of imaginative worlds, but is actually most striking in its relationship between the film’s world and real life tragedy. Heath Ledger died while filming the movie, which gave the actor a type of immortality no other film could have offered. It was unsettling to see the actor hanging from a noose in his first scene, but as he gets pulled into the adventure, and fittingly morphs into Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, his world seems anything but finite. He’s not just immortalized in cinema, but also in this world where people live and evolve in their imaginations without life’s limits.

The Science of Sleep

Fantasy and reality also merge in The Science of Sleep, but where Gilliam is the dark king of imagination, Michel Gondry is the light king – one who relishes the wacky brightness of whimsy as Gael Garcia Bernal becomes Stéphane and woos Stéphanie. The imagination comes from practical reality, not a precise and professionally crafted artistic filter. Imagination becomes inventiveness – intermingling what’s real and tactile with what your imagination can see it as. Instead of carefully painted landscapes and fantasy, Stéphane creates soundstages with egg carton walls and cardboard movie cameras. He mixes household ingredients together and invents fantastical apparatuses with the most mundane materials, making imagination and its creative drive utterly practical and idiosyncratically mishmashed.

Waking Life

In Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped drama, imagination becomes not just creation, but life – not one that breaks down the structures of humanity and society, but rather life of the mind. Wiley Wiggins’ unnamed protagonist journeys from person to person, thought to thought, exploring everything from the particulars of lucid dreaming to existentialism and politics as he tries to figure out where he is and what’s happened to him. Each artist’s rotoscoping hand leaves a slightly different imaginative imprint on our dream hero’s journey – an unspoken way of visualizing a mess of words and ideas.

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