David Lynch—you love him or you hate him. But either way…you’re not totally sure you understand what’s going on in his movies. Some people (like me) don’t mind that one bit. While other people (like, say, my college roommate who hated Blue Velvet with a raging James Caan-esque passion) cannot stand being that confused for that long.
Lynch owns that polarizing reputation, however, and unabashedly continues to churn out films and TV shows that are very, as we call them, “Lynchian.” His movies are strange, surreal, eccentric, abstract—pretty much every word you can throw at the wall that screams “Well, this is fucking weird.”
I’m more than happy to be one of those people who loves David Lynch. I’ve not only seen all ten of his feature films, but I’ve checked out his entire catalog of work (or at least what’s available of it), which includes shorts, music videos, etc. And I think, someday, I’ll rank them all.
But for now, we’re just going to concentrate on those feature movies. This is my personal ranking of David Lynch’s filmography.
10. Wild at Heart (1990)
I personally think that my reaction to Wild at Heart—even after several viewings—is warranted. Nicolas Cage’s snakeskin jacket, Laura Dern’s overbearing Wicked-Witch-of-the-West mother, Willem Dafoe’s gums—it’s all actively trying to make me hate this movie, right?
For the record, it didn’t work. I’m a fan of Wild at Heart. But of all of David Lynch’s movies, it’s the only one that doesn’t quite work. Wild at Heart tries to be so many things at once—from a heist movie to a road movie to a romance—and, for me, it never quite sticks the landing.
I feel like Wild at Heart is David Lynch’s reaction to being overexposed because of Twin Peaks. He clearly wanted to make something that was defiantly outside of the mainstream. And the result was a movie with lots of great parts…but I don’t know if all of those parts add up to a great movie. I both love it and hate it for being a tad all-over-the-place stylistically.
9. The Straight Story (1999)
I know there are a lot of fans of The Straight Story out there. And trust me: I am part of that crowd. But…ultimately, this isn’t really a “David Lynch movie” in my opinion. It certainly contains lots of Lynchian trademarks and energy, but the script belongs to someone else and never quite dips into the weird and insane territory that I expect from Lynch.
With that said, it’s a very humble film that hits all of the right spots for a G-rated Disney affair. It also highlights how Lynch is a master of extracting great performances from his actors.
8. Blue Velvet (1986)
This is where I part from most diehard David Lynch fans. Because, at the end of the day, I don’t think of Blue Velvet as one of Lynch’s absolute best films.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Blue Velvet. The way Lynch explores the nostalgia associated with the archetypal 1950s nuclear family is fascinating, as Lynch properly exposes the darker side of once-lauded American ideals. And the film is a visual treat, as Lynch really started to play with colors in a more contemporary setting.
But, if I can be frank, I think of Blue Velvet as more of a testing ground for the aesthetic Lynch would soon master in the 1990s and 2000s. Pretty much every awesome part of Blue Velvet exists in a more awesome format in Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
7. The Elephant Man (1980)
It’s funny to think of The Elephant Man as an “Oscar movie.” It was certainly billed as and received that way back in 1980. And, I mean, I get it: the script empathetically details the story of a famous, misunderstood English figure; John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins deliver a pair of legendary performances; the black-and-white aesthetic gives the movie a starkly dramatic feel.
But…it’s also a David Lynch movie. At times it can feel every bit as strange as Eraserhead, every bit as haunting as Twin Peaks, every bit as upsetting as Blue Velvet. There’s a strange-and-unnerving dread of tension that’s unmatched by anything else in Lynch’s entire filmography. Sure, the film is a tamed-down version of what Lynch would later fully embrace. But the eerie, dream-like world of The Elephant Man is anything but Oscar bait. And I love it for that.
6. Eraserhead (1977)
Every time I revisit Eraserhead, I’m convinced that it won’t hit the same. On the surface, it has that “student art” feel that screams “THIS FILM MEANS SOMETHING!!!” When, really, it’s just a film that’s stuffed-to-the-brim with metaphors and symbolism, made by some kid who’s really fucking apprehensive about things like growing up.
But…man. Am I always wrong. Because Eraserhead hits every. single. time. Lynch’s debut feature film previews the filmmaker’s ability to blend the fantastical and the reality. Eraserhead is both a horrifying take on sci-fi and a compassionate twist on coming-of-age. Henry’s fears about becoming a father are captured magnificently with Lynch’s defiantly independent, do-it-yourself approach. It’s all absurd and ridiculous…yet feels very, very real.
5. Lost Highway (1997)
Lost Highway is, as the kids say these days, “the shit.” It’s sleek, it’s stylish, it’s cool-as-fuck. It exudes charisma and feels like it’s saying “fuck you and everything you think movies should be” the entire time you’re watching it. It’s more than happy to receive “two thumbs down” from Siskel and Ebert. It wants you to feel confused and lost and frustrated all at the same time because…well, who cares?
Seriously: who cares. Lost Highway is David Lynch unhinged in the best way possible. Narrative coherency means nothing in this world. Yet, at no point are you not invested in the deeply troubled characters, not awed by the slick-and-snazzy filmic movement, not transfixed by the otherworldly sound design. Lost Highway is a beautiful piece of art that does everything we want a movie to do without seeming like it’s doing anything. Now that’s a fucking win.
4. Inland Empire (2006)
The way Laura Dern is looking at you right now—that’s pretty much David Lynch in the year of 2006. When he made Inland Empire nearly 40 years into his filmmaking career, it became undeniably clear how finished with Hollywood he truly was. Shot on digital, pretty much every single artistic decision made in this film is trying to push your general viewer away.
As a result, we are left with a fittingly isolated aesthetic. Laura Dern plays an actress, and as a result it feels like we’re watching the madness of working in Hollywood. She (and—as it soon becomes incredibly clear—Lynch) feels irreversibly lost at the movies. Screaming and running around, trying to make sense of it all. In Lynch’s mind, the fictional world of a film is no more outlandish and absurd than what’s going on in real life. If anything, Lynch is just accurately capturing the chaos. If we were truly forced to confront the horrors of this world, it wouldn’t look too different from Inland Empire.
3. Dune (1984)
I will defend David Lynch’s Dune until the day I die. (I will also continue to be very apprehensive about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune…) The 1984 film is so full of fascinating visuals and interesting ideas that I’m less concerned with the storytelling and more taken by the striking imagery and unique spin on the sci-fi genre. It’s such an ambitious film that I cannot help but root for and enjoy it (despite what the studio did with the final edit).
With all that said, I understand why people (and this includes David Lynch) don’t love it. It definitely feels dated compared to a lot of sci-fi movies from that time. Plus, any adaptation of Frank Herbert’s original novel is going to be met with skepticism, as the story is seemingly an impossibly gigantic undertaking. It’s hard to capture everything Herbert was going for in the book—which, in my opinion, is what makes Lynch’s Dune work. It’s very much its own entity that isn’t concerned about explaining every little thing (god, how boring).
Update: I recently watched this on 4K, and it made me love the movie more than I ever thought possible. I know Lynch is upset with how the movie turned out, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel more realized than most sci-fi movies made these days. The visuals are so fascinating, and they’re presented in an extremely experimental, avant-garde manner for big-budget cinema. I wish more sci-fi movies had this much courage and charisma.
2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Here is that strange moment. I would never definitively claim that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is the “best David Lynch movie.” Because that’s stupid—no movie is the “best movie.” Movies mean different things to different people. Some of ’em hit—they hit real hard—while others just don’t ever land that punch.
So…how do I accurately describe why I love Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me so much? Why do I feel such an inseparable, celestial connection to Laura Palmer? Why do I feel like David Lynch didn’t truly make a “great film” until this very moment?
I don’t know—I’ll never truly know. And the fact that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me made me realize that truth is why I love the movie so much. I could write for days about how Lynch created the most satisfactory “ending” possible to the greatest television show of all time. But to do so would take away from the experience. You don’t “understand” Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—you become it. You feel just as lost and confused as Laura Palmer does for 135 minutes before you are murdered by someone you love.
After that adventure, you don’t truly come back to reality. You’re then forever stuck in the world of a television show where nobody is ever able to make sense of an innocent girl’s inexplicable death.
1. Mulholland Drive (2001)
I’ll never shake my first viewing of Mulholland Drive.
The film takes you by the hand and guides you at first. Over here is the next Lauren Bacall, and over there is the reincarnation of Alfred Hitchcock. Around every corner you’ll find a crew of dreamers working on a soon-to-be classic film. The love of acting, the promise of Hollywood, the transcendence of great art—it’s all part of Mulholland Drive‘s familiar aesthetic. Nothing quite elevates like the movies.
Then you look down…and that hand is gone. You look up, and there’s a void. Everything that once felt so romantic and ethereal suddenly reeks of routine and corporeality. That new reality? It’s ugly. And scary. And frighteningly familiar. It’s only then do you realize that you’ve bought into the lie. The fulfillment you seek can’t come from another individual, that piece of art, this otherworldly entity until you’ve found that peace within first.
Some people can make that turn. But so many others are forever lost to the lie.
Update: This used to be #2 on this list. But after rewatching the movie on 4K and writing a definitive explanation of everything the movie is doing on a thematic and character level, I had to upgrade Mulholland Drive to #1. It’s just such an untouchable masterpiece. There really isn’t anything like it. In my opinion, one of the absolute best movies ever.