Perhaps the most popular surrealist director, Lynch has carved out a truly uncompromising cinematic niche. His films trust emotional instincts to banalities like logic or chronology, meaning you may need to mentally prep before immersing yourself in Lynch’s dreamy head-trips.
As such it may be difficult to take Lynch in large doses, which is perhaps why I’m not a huge fan of Twin Peaks, the TV show he created with Mark Frost back in the early 90s. Cinema, on the other hand, allows him concentrated bursts of creativity. While not easily interpreted, his films prove rewarding to those who surrender to the dream logic and leave conventional film expectations at the door. In his best moments (and there are many), Lynch has the power to make the reality we take for granted as trippy and surreal as his art. I believe it’s possible to appreciate, and yes, even love his work.
10. Dune (1984)
As a sheer, deranged spectacle of the grotesque, I suppose you could say this film satisfies. As a coherent narrative, however? Forget it. While it’s fun to see people wrangling giant sand worms or Sting parading around in blue underwear, they can’t invest us in a nonsensical world populated by one-dimensional characters. The reams of voiceover narration only muddy the already obscure plotline. What frustrates me is that the rich lore of the Dune universe doesn’t strike me as Lynch’s forte, and it clearly shows when Lynch concentrates on imagery over story. Even a visionary like Lynch has his limitations as a filmmaker. Make no mistake, this sci-fi epic is his one true dud.
9. Inland Empire (2006)
I realize this film has its supporters, with some heralding it as an underseen masterpiece. But at three hours, Lynch’s supposedly most ambitious film also feels like his most meandering (and that’s saying something). Laura Dern is a bright spot, delivering an utterly convincing performance as an actress whose movie role bleeds into her personal life. By shooting the film on digital video, Lynch achieves messier, more lifelike feel. Dirt and grime seem to permeate bizarre visions of monsters and interdimensional portals. But the numerous settings (including a sitcom about rabbits) feel slapped together, detracting from some true wow-worthy moments.
8. The Elephant Man (1980)
What does it say about Lynch (or me?) that I have his only Best Picture-nominated film so low in my rankings? It says this is probably Lynch’s most sentimental film, in which his earnest sympathy for John Merrick, the eponymous character, results in a more traditional character study. Yet the film has more to say about science’s treatment of Merrick’s deformities than about Merrick himself, a surprising but still interesting angle. As the eponymous figure, John Hurt makes a distinct impression in every scene (few actors make grunts so expressive). Lynch even launches into some surreal industrial imagery that belies the conventional storytelling. It’s riveting stuff, but you leave wondering what exactly Lynch planned to accomplish with it.
7. Lost Highway (1997)
It’s been written off in some circles, but Lost Highway offers a vivid dream experience, particularly through characters who use fantasy to sustain their fragile sanity. Bill Pullman plays a shifty saxophonist whose conversation with a pale “mystery man” leads to sudden transformations and dire consequences. Circumstances change so quickly here that it may be difficult to follow, or care (especially when a completely new set of characters appears midway through the film). Still, it’s a fascinating take on the way the human psyche can create whole new worlds and characters to make sense of irrational, ghastly decisions. In a way, this is the prototype that Lynch would imbue with more feeling in Mulholland Drive.
6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
As I noted above, I’m not the biggest fan of Twin Peaks; I found the show drifted too far away from its creepy premise over time. But in this prequel film, Lynch returns to the medium that better suits his style. Regardless of your knowledge of the show, Fire Walk with Me represents a powerful tragedy that details the final days of the murdered Laura Palmer. Drifting between surrealist soap opera and full-on horror, the film explores family trauma through waking nightmares and small town naiveté. When the people closest to us do the unspeakable, who do they become? And who do we become as a result? Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Sheryl Lee, the film proves Lynch can probe tough issues without sacrificing his artistry.
5. The Straight Story (1999)
The only film not written or co-written by Lynch, this might also be his most “normal” in terms of execution. Yet the characters that populate this Midwestern fable very much fit in with Lynch’s proclivities. It’s a simple tale of elderly farmer Alvin Straight (a superb Richard Farnsworth) who feels compelled to visit his physically ill but estranged brother. Lacking a driver’s license, he hops on his riding lawn mower and heads out across the heartland. The film is an embarrassment of well-observed moments, from Alvin’s relationship with his mentally challenged daughter to the swapping of old war stories in a dim-lit bar. It may be “straighter” than his other films, but it’s no less Lynch.
4. Wild at Heart (1990)
Referencing everything from Elvis Presley to The Wizard of Oz, it’s easy to see why this eclectic road movie has polarized so many moviegoers. Yet despite its oversized, operatic nature, the film addresses marriage and the nightmare of duties that go along with it. I’d wager most married couples like Sailor and Lula caught up in a live-fast, die young romance aren’t running from hired assassins, but they may be running from the expectations that come with settling down. Nicolas Cage cultivates the oversized personality he would fall back on for less artistic ventures, but it’s Laura Dern’s portrayal of the conflicted Lula that lingers. While occasionally threatening to go off the rails, the film stays grounded in universal anxieties.
3. Eraserhead (1977)
If Lynch exploited pop culture and film tropes to explore marriage in Wild at Heart, then he relies on industrial hellscapes and alien iconography to plumb fears of parenthood. Jack Nance plays the crazy-haired father whose offspring its mother describes as “I’m not sure if it is a baby.” Shot in stark black and white, Lynch aims for anything but realism in what could be the world’s longest art installation. Eraserhead is a true horror film because it perfectly encapsulates the fear of sudden responsibility thrust upon us. Lynch maintains nearly unbearable tension through impeccable sound design and truly terrifying imagery. There’s a reason Stanley Kubrick screened this one for the cast and crew of The Shining.
2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
It’s hard to believe this was Lynch’s first Hollywood-set dreamscape, because his sensibilities work expertly for the absurdity of show business. Yet this movie also pulses with deeply felt emotion, namely through the relationship of Naomi Watts’s Betty and Laura Harring’s Rita. When the latter suffers amnesia after a grisly car crash, Betty does the neighborly thing and attempts to help her regain her memory. What starts as a Nancy Drew-type mystery (complete with Watts’s indomitable pep) transforms gracefully into a struggle of identity that deepens and complicates the women’s supposedly random relationship. Watts and Harring shift daringly between personalities, resulting in a beautiful and tragic love story perfectly suited for a Hollywood movie (but so much more satisfying).
1. Blue Velvet (1986)
Lynch went from making Dune to making a genuine masterpiece that shocked 80s filmgoers out of their minds. On the surface, it’s the story of a college boy returned from college, exploring the seedier side of his small hometown. In truth, it’s the tearing down of the thin veil between false fronts and human darkness. With the voluptuous Dorothy Vallens and diabolical Frank Booth as his guides into adulthood and sexual awakening, Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey embarks on a trip through the underworld he’s never truly prepared for. Lynch has us constantly reexamining characters and the people they purport to be, while constructing disturbing set-pieces of primal rage and stark beauty. Yet even as it invades the heart of darkness, the film can move us unexpectedly; I’ll never forget the sight of Dennis Hopper’s face softening as he takes in a beautiful song. There’s nothing else like this film, and likely never will be.
As much as I’d love to see Lynch return to what he does best, it appears he may have retired from the film industry in favor of Internet projects. Currently a Twin Peaks season is in production, which may prompt me to give the original series another go. In any case, if Lynch decides never to return to cinema, he will have left behind a rich tapestry of work that cinephiles will agonize over for decades to come.