Warning: some spoilers throughout
The American public’s taste and appreciation for non-narrative cinema isn’t exactly high — the most celebrated contemporary American movies have middlebrow aspirations at best. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, and it’s not like the avant-garde faction of the art world isn’t to blame for making deeply unapproachable works that most people don’t want to bother understanding. In the United States, few film directors with truly experimental inclinations manage to break through to mainstream success. David Lynch is one of the most notable exceptions.
David Lynch, a true master of surrealism, is a noted painter, photographer, sculptor, writer, interior designer, TV showrunner, musician — and most importantly, film director. His works since the mid-’80s have explored the darkest parts of the human psyche — a motif that is juxtaposed starkly with his characters’ inherent kindness. His works have been cited as an influence by countless enthusiasts who have emerged in his wake.
Most Lynch works have a lot in common: An emphasis on dreams, a visual appreciation for texture and unexpected color palettes, a strangeness found in banality, explorations of America’s underbelly, and a whole lot of gaping, oozing wounds. But to define Lynch’s universe as only nightmarish ignores the hopeful messages hidden in the gloom.
Because Lynch’s works are often inter- and intra-textual, it’s hard to know where to start with his obscure oeuvre. We’re taking a look at Lynch’s greatest works in this (highly subjective) ranked list of his best movies. Hopefully it helps you figure out what’s essential and what’s worth skipping:
Dune has gone down as one of the biggest cinematic failures in history, and quite frankly it deserves that reputation. Although Lynch’s visuals are occasionally breathtaking, the plot is incomprehensible — and not because it’s surreal — just because it’s badly made. It was sort of an unreasonable task from the start: The mythos of the Dune novel is far too vast and complex to capture on screen anyway, and Lynch had already inherited the absurd project from fellow auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose wild and out-of-control vision made any realistic adaptation even more impossible to achieve (see: Jodorowsky’s Dune documentary for more info on that). Last-minute meddling from the studio in an attempt to turn the movie into something actually intelligible might have made the situation even worse — prompting Lynch to take his name off the project entirely. Oddly, the biggest problem is the sound design: The vocals are mixed so low, much of the movie is literally inaudible. What a mess.
A young Nicolas Cage and an even younger Laura Dern play a pair of lovers on the run in this film based on the Barry Gifford novella of the same name. Lynch puts some truly weird spins on the source material, entirely re-writing the ending such that his movie concludes in a sort of non-sequitur featuring Sheryl Lee inexplicably descending from the sky dressed as Glinda the Good Witch. Wild at Heart is still a great film offering campy delights throughout (thanks, of course, to Cage’s overacting) but it lacks the finesse and beauty of Lynch’s more refined works.
Well here’s a real twist: The Straight Story is a totally family-friendly, G-rated, Disney-produced David Lynch film. Based on a true story, Lynch explores the simplicity of the American midwest in this narrative about a sickly 70-year-old who takes a multi-state journey on a lawnmower to visit his ailing brother and make amends. Along the way, he meets several kind-hearted individuals who help him arrive safely at his destination. That’s really it: No hideous dream sequences, no sexual violence, no rotting orifices. The movie is absurdly gentle, lushly shot, patently melancholic, and ludicrously slow-paced — but its heart is undeniably sweet. Its biggest flaw is that its kind of boring.
Inland Empire is Lynch’s densest film: With a runtime of 3 hours and 17 minutes, the audience is assaulted with a barrage of mostly disconnected scenes that barely amount to a story at all. Segments of Lynch’s ghoulish web series “Rabbits” are randomly introduced in between scenes of Laura Dern apparently losing her mind. But is her character an actress playing several different roles or is she experiencing a psychotic episode? Although Dern’s performance is some of the most frightening dramaturgy ever committed to film, it’s simply impossible to recommend this movie to anyone considering most audience’s inability to tolerate non-narrative cinema. That being said: If inscrutable and ominous surrealism is what you’re into, Inland Empire may be Lynch’s best work.
Elephant Man is Lynch’s most celebrated film when it comes to mainstream audiences (it was nominated for eight Oscars), and it definitely carries a lot of emotional weight. Although the film is a deep and meaningful exploration of human sorrow, something is lost when Lynch’s more artsy inclinations are taken away from him. The acting from John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins is stupendous, and the visual styling (and makeup design) remains impeccable. It’s no surprise that the studio attempted to re-write the vaguely abstract ending into something more pedestrian, but Lynch’s refusal to compromise mostly saved the movie from becoming platitudinous dreck.
Lynch’s quirky TV series had amassed a serious cult following before an internecine war over creative control caused him to abandon the show in the middle of the second season. He ultimately came back to conclude the soap opera in a grand finale that offered more questions than answers. A year after that, Lynch released a sort of prequel that — again — provided almost nothing by way of clarifying the show’s unusual narrative. That being said, Fire Walk With Me, is one of Lynch’s most emotionally impactful and beautiful films. The problem is that it’s barely coherent, even for some who know the ins and outs of Twin Peaks cosmology. It’s pretty much unwatchable as a stand-alone art piece, but it’s devastatingly gorgeous if you’ve really studied TP lore.
Eraserhead is Lynch’s first feature-length film, and it’s as ambitious and bizarre as you’d expect from a fresh-out-of-art-school auteur. In it, Jack Nance plays a new father whose monstrous child inspires murderous fantasies. Although in many ways, Eraserhead remains the purest distillation of Lynch’s key themes and motifs, its nauseating visual effects and stomach-churning sound design (done by Lynch himself) make the film truly hard to watch. Perhaps no movie has ever captured the feeling of being trapped in a nightmare as accurately as Eraserhead — but that’s not exactly what most audiences want. Even if it’s too grotesque for anyone but diehard horror fans, many would admit that it’s a masterpiece.
Taking aesthetic cues from film noir classics like Kiss Me Deadly, Lost Highway begins with a couple that discovers a video of themselves sleeping left at their doorstep and quickly devolves into an apocalyptic and body-swapping nightmare. Although it’s technically a whodunnit, Lynch incorporates elements of horror into the story, especially in a famously unhinged “the call is coming from inside the house” scene. Bill Pullman is the wide-eyed protagonist of this strange tale — although three-quarters through the film, he mysteriously vanishes from a jail cell. Once again: Don’t expect a coherent analysis to suddenly emerge and explain away the film’s uncanny events, it’s better to just let the visuals wash over you than to hope for it all to come together in a sensical narrative.
Mulholland Drive is a bizarre puzzle of a movie. The main actors play multiple characters or roles each, switching names and identities without warning or explanation, as if in a dream. Naomi Watts and Laura Harring play women with loose grips on reality, inadvertently becoming involved in an otherworldly crime scheme beyond their comprehension. There’s no real resolution, no definitive interpretation, no clear explanation that makes perfect sense of what actually happens in the movie — which will inevitably alienate audiences who crave more simplistic or straightforward storytelling. However, Lynch’s eye for gorgeously complex visuals and his insights on depravity and darkness make this movie a true work of art.
Blue Velvet tops this list mostly because it hits a perfect balance between strange and surreal while still being accessible to those without masters degrees in the arts. In this unnerving exploration of America’s seedy underbelly, a teenage detective encounters a subterranean world of forbidden and dangerous desire. The dark, sexual violence will certainly challenge many viewers but the stunning cinematography, exquisitely sensual acting, and haunting music (from frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, of course) throughout the film has been casting its spell on dreamy cinephiles since 1986. Isabella Rossellini, Kyle MacLachlan, and Dennis Hopper form a (un)holy trinity of perverse melodrama.
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