Ranking the Greats: The 10 Films of David Lynch

Thirty-five years ago, the American movie going public was put on notice that the artform they so desperately worshipped would never be the same again. Then, before a lengthy fun on the Midnight circuit, David Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead, premiered, and the concept of what could and could not become commercial cinema was forever challenged (note to the uninformed — celluloid lost). Since then, the eccentric writer/director has carved a niche within indie and arthouse genres, experimenting with type while letting his approach journey into hallowed, hallucinatory places. In celebration of his initial foray into filmmaking, we will take a look at the man’s output, and list them accordingly. This is not really a best to worst. Instead, it’s an overall assessment, a career consideration that should be longer, but frustratingly, and fascinatingly, is not.

Let’s start off by saying the following. At least three things that Lynch has been associated with — the TV shows Twin Peaks and On the Air, as well as the multimedia piece Industrial Symphony No. 1 — cannot be considered. They just don’t meet our “movie” standard. We will also avoid his sensational short films, as well as the experiments on his DavidLynch.com website. So by sticking to his features, we end up with ten titles to rank and reevaluate. That makes things a bit simpler…if not easier. You see, for those devoted to all things Lynch, his waking nightmare fever dreams are nothing short of sensational. Rating one higher than another is almost an unthinkable task. Still, we will put our nose to the cinematic grindstone and come up with a way to compare/contrast The Elephant Man against Lost Highway for proposed placement. In fact, it’s safe to say that there is no greater collection of motion pictures as the one’s filling this man’s amazing oeuvre, beginning with his one considered failure (?!)…

#10: Dune

First off, as we said before, it’s a little disconcerting trying to organize Lynch’s creative canon into anything remotely resembling a definitive list. This is especially true with the bottom films mentioned, since each one is special in their own right and worthy of support. So what if Frank Herbert’s infamous novel gets a bit of short shrift here — who could turn that massive tome into a single Star Wars style spectacle, after all. Still, Lynch’s love of texture and the grotesque is ever-present here, from the look of Baron Harkonnen to the fetal Guild Navigators. And the sets are luscious and oversized, perfect for the narrative.

#9: The Straight Story

A G-rated film from the man who made Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart? As Lynch himself might say, “You betcha.” The subject seems to fit him well. It’s based on the true story of an aging farmer who wants to see his estranged brother before he (or both of them) dies. Unable to get a driver’s license, he instead gets a riding lawnmower and begins the 240-mile trek. For many, this is the oddity in Lynch’s catalog, the weird Disney-backed attempt at mainstream acceptance. But by following the real life journey accurately, and filming in sequence, the director determined that this was his most ‘experimental’ effort.

#8: Inland Empire

It’s been six years since Lynch last helmed a motion picture, with this digital oddity being his, to this date, creative swansong. As with many of the movies he made late in his career, it defies convention while it delves into the typical Lynchian themes (dreams, split personalities, double identities). It took two and a half years to make, and was really just a series of camcorder canvases before he discovered a way to put it all together. Many find it maddening. But when you look beneath the insanity and focus on what he is saying, this becomes one of Lynch’s most intriguing, underrated gems.

#7: The Elephant Man

Imagine you are Mel Brooks. You are trying to expand your brand beyond humor and you have the perfect motion picture project to do just that — the life story of John Merrick, otherwise known as the title character. So who do you choose to direct this dark and dramatic vision? Why, the man who made Eraserhead, that’s who. Indeed, the comedy legend loved what Lynch did with his surreal first feature and gave him the go ahead. The result is one of the most mesmerizing and emotionally deep films the director has ever made. And John Hurt’s portrayal of the afflicted character is equally devastating.

#6: Wild at Heart

For some, this is Lynch at his very worst — overindulgent, obtuse, and obsessed with sex. But for those who can look past the perversity and see the allusions he’s working with (The Wizard of Oz, Elvis, crime noir) this is a brilliant genre-jumping breakdown. Heck, any movie that has Crispin Glover as an alien and Christmas fixated psycho who puts roaches on his anus can’t be all bad. From the fantastic cast to the incredible acting, this is a tour de force that barely lets up once it starts. Even the bizzaro world ending that combines Glinda the Good Witch and “Love Me Tender” works.

#5: Lost Highway

Here’s a creative caveat for you. If you didn’t like the Emerald City meets road movie of Wild at Heart, you really won’t like this eccentric look at crime and personal punishment. The story starts with a man haunted by videotaped visions of his home life. After a horrific crime, our lead suddenly transforms into a teenage mechanic in love with a murderous mobster’s moll. Huh? And then Robert Blake shows up in Kabuki makeup to speak spurious omens. In the end, it all becomes a wild ride, a circular schism where the beginning is actually the end, and visa versa. Cool, complex, and aesthetically satisfying.

#4: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Lynch literally rewrote the hour long TV drama landscape with the landmark mystery about the seedy underbelly of a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When the show stopped being “fun”, the director and his partner, Mark Frost, decided to deconstruct the entire Peaks purpose with this controversial “prequel”. Featuring a performance by Sheryl Lee that deserved serious Oscar consideration (she was definitely better than a mute Holly Hunter) and enough oddball backstory to make fans livid, the opening shot of a television being smashed should have signaled viewers where Lynch intended to go. As difficult as it is direct, it stands as a masterpiece of media misdirection.

#3: Mulholland Dr.

Here’s the genius of David Lynch in a nutshell. ABC loved Twin Peaks, just not how it ended. So they contacted the filmmaker about another attempt at the TV serial. Lynch mulled things over, and then came up with this unusual look at the dog-eat-dog dynamic of Hollywood. The network bailed, and Lynch reconfigured the footage into a feature film. The result? What many consider to be the Best Movie of the 2000s… and it deserves every accolade. It’s a stunning achievement, brilliantly shot and acted, avoiding easy explanation but offering a wealth of wonders once allowed to flow and ferment. A true work of art.

#2: Eraserhead

As a young student, Lynch used a residency at AFI to create his first fully realized film. He had been making shorts for years, but this would be the moment where he would take his artist approach and work it into a single storyline. What he came up with touches on biology, paternity, love, lust, and the life changing challenges of children. It’s all wrapped up in a dour industrial backdrop where monochrome factories seem to dictate our fate. Sure, some of it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that’s who Lynch operates. It’s more about what a sequence makes you feel than trying to find the hidden meaning.

#1: Blue Velvet

Talk about a divisive title. The late Gene Siskel adored it. His pal and critic partner, Roger Ebert, hated it. Together, they started a discussion firestorm that has barely let down some three decades later. Lynch used his commercial clout post-Elephant Man to make the movie he always wanted, a simply story of the sour Hell buried beneath suburbia. As with any specific statement, Lynch overloads his narrative with everything he ever wanted to do, including musical obscurities (Roy Orbison) and blood-soaked violence. Offering a career rebirth for Dennis Hooper and Dean Stockwell, as well as a boost for the unknown Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern, it remains a stunning cinematic masterwork.