It’s a wild time for David Lynch fans, as the third season of Twin Peaks premiered earlier this week. The hype around the revival is momentous, and the reviews have been polarizing. Amidst all of this unavoidable fan drama, we thought it was about time for a definitive ranking of every David Lynch movie.
It’s not easy to rank every Lynch movie, not least of all because of the director’s cult status. Lynch fans aren’t playing around, and debates can get heated (especially when it comes to Dune or Fire Walk With Me). And then there’s the fact that every movie is so jaw-droppingly different. There are certainly recurring “Lynchian” elements, which David Foster Wallace defined as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” More obviously, there are certain visuals you look for when watching a Lynch movie: red lips, a hallway, long red curtains, a highway at night, a stage lit by a single light. Then there’s that feeling that comes with certain Lynch movies—and lingers; that unshakable dread of being in someone else’s dream (or nightmare).
Of course, many Lynch films range widely in content and style and, at first, they appear incomparable. How can we compare A Straight Story to Eraserhead? Ranking Lynch’s films requires looking at each film individually, outside of the Lynch filmography. Then, slowly, as you move your way through the films, they begin to collide and overlap in unexpected ways. Lynch isn’t perfect, and some of his films are far from it—but his reputation as one of the most creative and unconventional directors of our time is well earned.
Twin Peaks fans wanted to like this movie. I wanted to like this movie. I tried to like this movie. Unfortunately, even with Twin Peaks’ massive, dedicated fandom, FWWM was a disaster.
Some die-hard fans advised watching FWWM as a stand-alone Lynch movie, rather than as a prequel to Twin Peaks. However, even without the burden of expectation, it still is undoubtably one of Lynch’s worst films ever. Even long-time Lynch aficionado Quentin Tarantino couldn’t quite get on board, infamously saying, “David Lynch has disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie.” Ouch.
It’s not like Dune, where Lynch’s signature style all but disappeared. The Lynchian elements are there, all right (awkwardly brilliant camera angles, a score by Angelo Badalamenti, dream sequences), but many of them feel forced and unfulfilled. The plot follows the final days of Laura Palmer (played by the excellent Sheryl Lee, who bears no fault in this farce), and the events leading to her murder. Addiction, incest and domestic violence all come into play, and its directness feels depressing, even exploitative. Lynch is much more adept as subtleties. Blunt abuse? Not so much. It’s not a dark psychological thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, a la Blue Velvet. It comes off as a hollow interpretation, by someone trying to make a movie like Lynch, and failing.
And if we watch FWWM in the context of Twin Peaks, it doesn’t do much better. Laura spirals toward her death as familiar character’s Bobby, Special Agent Dale Cooper, Donna and more flitter vaguely in and out (and yes, it is weird and hard to ignore that Donna is not played by the original Donna, AKA the lovely Lara Flynn Boyle). Oh, and Bowie shows up. Through all its disjointedness, Twin Peaks fans know what’s going to happen, and the film misses out on the opportunity to throw in some worthwhile curveballs. In the end, FWWM is an unnecessary film. It does nothing for the formidable Twin Peaks fandom, and as a stand-alone it is an absent-minded, dull and distasteful flop. But hey, this list had to start somewhere.
At best, Wild At Heart is entertaining and energetic, with charmingly exaggerated performances. At worst, it’s a shallow, misogynistic and overindulgent attempt by an otherwise fantastic director.
Like Blue Velvet, this film polarized audiences, but unlike Blue Velvet, it has not improved its ratings over time—not much, anyway. True, it won the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival. However, according to Lynch, approximately 80 people walked out of the first test screening. Not exactly an indicator of future success. Watching the film now, it’s easy to see why it turned so many people off. Almost immediately, we’re introduced to lurid scenes of sex and violence that somehow come off as juvenile. Are we supposed to laugh at the overblown drama, or is it just bad filmmaking? I lean toward the latter. Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with Lynch going over-the-top, but Wild At Heart often seems to slip into exploitation, particularly regarding the women characters.
At its core, Wild At Heart is a road trip movie, following young lovers played by Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage (who gives a surprisingly delightful performance). Dern’s mother, played by the great Diane Ladd, is determined to have Cage killed, but of course, her plans go horribly awry. Willem Dafoe makes a particularly sleazy and notable appearance, as does Harry Dean Stanton, who would go on to quickly join the ranks of other Lynch regulars. There’s an obvious—and perhaps somewhat goofy—reoccurring Wizard of Oz theme that starts out subtly and turns full-blown by the final few minutes. Speaking of those last few minutes, is Sheryl Lee descending as the Good Witch ridiculous or kind of fabulous? It’s easy to roll your eyes, but, like… is it too late for a Sheryl Lee/Good Witch spin-off?
One of the first questions asked when embarking on a David Lynch film ranking is inevitably, “So, where are you going to put Dune?” The answer is not at the very bottom, but… definitely not near the top, either. In the years since its commercial flop, the film has gradually gained a small but vocal fan base that insists the production and visual language are not just sentimentally fun, but actual creative genius. Still others maintain it to be an artistic bomb in every sense. Fight, Facebook comment section, fight!
Sure, it was an overly ambitious, badly constructed project that Lynch has spent the rest of his career attempting to disassociate himself from. But before we hone in on its faults, like Jim Vorel on a Blonde IPA on Nitro, let’s talk about its good qualities. The special effects, which in 1984 were equivalent in inspiration to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, now have a certain vintage charm. While sometimes disappointingly typical, the costumes can be fun and exciting, particularly Francesca Annis’ pre-Russian revolution meets Balenciaga haute couture look. The sandworms, which resemble something between a Muppet and a giant fire hose, have a certain kitschy-ness that feels welcome. Also, Sting looked pretty good in his spacey-gold speedo thing.
Dune is not a great Lynch film. In fact, most of the time, it barely feels like a Lynch film at all. At times, we get a glimpse of the kind of cinematography, set design and camera angles we know and love, but not often. If anything, the director was holding back. Lynch is a master of dream sequences, but the ones Kyle MacLachlan experiences in Dune fall woefully short of anything meaningful or interesting. Another big problem is Lynch and his team were banking on their audience having already read the book, and therefore cut so many corners with the plot as to render the story practically incoherent. There are so many complicated and unexplained relationships between characters that the final half hour of the film feels like a badly played out Spark Notes version of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece.
There are rumors (that are quickly becoming reality) that Arrival director Denis Villeneuve is planning a forthcoming Dune movie. At this news, Lynch’s film adaptation promptly rose out of the bottom of the Goodwill bargain bin to scream-laugh it’s clear warning: Don’t even try it.
The Elephant Man is one of the rare Lynch movies that received widespread acclaim immediately upon its release. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and inspired the creation of the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Unfortunately, the film has not held up well—or, at least, not as well as when it was first released.
The film covers the true story of the short, tragic life of “elephant man” John Merrick (AKA Joseph Merrick), a severely physically afflicted man in the late 19th century in London. After escaping an abusive “freak show” job, Merrick is taken under the wing of Frederick Treves, a surgeon who takes an interest in the young man. At first, Treves just wants to show off Merrick as an oddity to his fellow surgeons, but as time progresses the two strike up a friendship. Merrick turns out to be quite the intellectual, and the film becomes a kind of “don’t judge a book by its cover” morality tale. In a fairly unbelievable scene, Merrick goes from barely able to make a coherent sound to suddenly quoting the Bible word for word. Next thing we know, he’s quoting Shakespeare to upper class women, who’ve come for tea. There’s a particularly good scene in which Treves wonders if he’s simply created a different form of exhibitionism.
Critics and fans admired the black-and-white cinematography and the make-up work from Chris Tucker. Whereas in Eraserhead, the use of black and white alienated some viewers, those same viewers flocked to The Elephant Man. Many found the story of Merrick inspirational and heartbreaking, but today it feels overly sentimental. It’s a constant repeat of “Ah, he’s hideous!” followed by “Ah, he’s brilliant and I was wrong! I have learned a Lesson™.” It’s predictable, accessible and ultimately makes a martyr of Joseph Merrick.
However, the black-and-white filming is a nice touch, and paired with Lynch’s artistic direction adds an ominous, old-school horror film feel. We’ve also got several great performances, particularly from a very young Anthony Hopkins as the conflicted surgeon and John Hurt as the tortured Merrick. It’s no secret that Lynch is fascinated by physical abnormality, by “others”—we’ve seen it in the lizard baby and Jack Nance of Eraserhead and Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune. But with The Elephant Man, the focus is so heavily on the other character’s reactions to Merrick, that Merrick himself ends up getting lost in all that moralism.
Lost Highway never quite received the attention to match the pop culture ranks of Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet, but it wasn’t bad enough to get the Dune or FWWM treatment, either. Roger Ebert, in a fit of wry humor, wrote that the film “is like kissing a mirror: You like what you see, but it’s not much fun, and kind of cold.”
The film, like others of Lynch’s, is bifurcated at the center, a story divided between two clear narratives that seem simultaneously completely separate and irrevocable connected. For the first 45 minutes (the half considered by some to be the superior), you certainly like what you see. A tense and dysfunctional couple (Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman) begin receiving video tapes of their house, first the exterior and then, much more sinisterly, the interior. Their home, already uninviting, becomes a distinctly unsafe space. In fact, most of the film feels unsafe. The pivotal and best scene of the first half, and perhaps the entire film, comes during a very Los Angeles-esque party. Pullman, who is obviously not having a great time as his wife flirts with other men, downs two drinks at the bar before being confronted by a Mystery Man in white makeup. The Mystery Man (Robert Blake) tells Pullman they’ve already met: “We met at your house. As a matter of fact, I’m there right now. Call me.” It’s a fantastically creepy and unsettling moment, and a few scenes later, Pullman is arrested for the brutal murder of his wife—which he doesn’t seem to remember and categorically denies.
As Pullman waits in his prison cell for death, the movie splits. Pullman suddenly disappears from his cell, only to be replaced by the James Dean-like young man Pete (Balthazar Getty). Getty returns to his job repairing cars, falls for a fabulous femme fatale also played by Patricia Arquette and winds up in a sticky situation. Arquette is great, especially compared to the male leads, but her role feels a little too similar to Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet. The double plot is essentially a murder mystery, but don’t expect any kind of conclusion, or much logic—by the end, we’re back listening to the opening song, David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged.” We’ve come full circle, with not much to show for it.
There’s a lot to like about Lost Highway. It’s got a great soundtrack that immediately hooks you in with many an ominous tone, and the design of the couple’s house is fantastically weird and detached. As for a theme, you could offer denial of reality—or one’s own reality, which is false—as a strong contender. Unfortunately, Pullman and Getty’s performances fall flat, even shallow. By the end of the film, it’s easy to feel like the whole experience was a bit pointless. We’re used to a lack of reason and the occasional false symbolism in Lynch’s works, but at times Lost Highway feels a little too vague and meandering.
The Straight Story is Lynch’s simplest film, and perhaps the most beautiful. In direct contradiction to Lynch’s other work, it moves slowly, coherently, and as the title suggests, linearly.
By the end of the 20th century, we’ve come to expect the wild and weird from Lynch—if not full on Eraserhead, then certainly Twin Peaks-level of bizarre. The Straight Story doesn’t go there. It follows the story of Alvin Straight, an elderly man played by 79-year old Richard Farnsworth, who rides his lawnmower across 370 miles of Midwestern land to visit his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who recently suffered a severe stroke. His daughter Rose, played by the brilliant and heartbreaking Sissy Spacek, tries unsuccessfully to talk him out of it. Along the journey, Alvin meets a charming run of characters, including a pregnant girl who’s run away from home and a group of neighbors that help him repair his lawnmower after the brakes give out. Sounds dull? It’s not.
While watching The Straight Story, we’re waiting for something crazy to happen, something, well, Lynch-y. I was certain that the story would take a dark turn. Perhaps Alvin would be robbed while on the road, beaten, his lawnmower destroyed, all launching him into a Lynch-esque nightmare. Or maybe his brother would die before Alvin could complete the two-month long journey, resulting in fevered delusions. Instead, The Straight Story is calm, almost serene—and yet, still true to Lynch’s dreamy style. The dialogue is a bit different from what we’d expect, and that’s because it was actually written by John E. Roach and Lynch regular Mary Sweeney. Roach and Sweeney do a fantastic job, particularly with one memorable scene, in which Alvin and another veteran trade war stories they’ve held onto their whole lives. The artistic direction is clearly Lynch’s—it’s just that instead of using his powers to create scenes of surreal horror, Lynch creates scenes of aching beauty. Somehow, he takes common events, like bikers in a marathon, or the final stretch of road, and makes them otherworldly and lovely.
Some Lynch fans aren’t crazy about The Straight Story. It was commonly derided as the G-rated Lynch film for the whole family. But if Lynch fans want experimental, in many ways The Straight Story is the most experimental (Lynch even said so himself, though this was before Inland Empire). What’s more outside the box than a clear, gorgeous and easily watched Lynch film?
If you aren’t a fan of The Straight Story, you’re probably a fan of this one. Inland Empire is probably the Lynch-iest David Lynch movie the director ever made—it was also potentially his last feature film. It’s one, long hallucinatory trip into the artistic director’s brain, in which tomorrow is today and events can happen at multiple locations through multiple characters. It helps to think of Inland Empire as a kaleidoscope, with characters and events turning in on one another, expanding, contracting and repeating in vaguely familiar patterns.
At first, the film seems to be one of Lynch’s standard Hollywood movies. We see actress Nikki Grace (played by the absolutely mind-blowing Laura Dern) land the lead role in a film opposite Devon, played by Justin Theroux. Pretty quickly, it’s revealed the film, titled On High in Blue Tomorrows, is actually a remake, but the first version was never finished due to the fact that the two lead actors were murdered. The director hints the film may be cursed. Soon, it becomes hard to tell what is acting from what is reality, and soon Inland Empire turns into a wild, mega-meta surreal film that grabs you in and doesn’t let go. As Ebert puts it, “a fractal telenovela.” Is it a bit too much, sometimes? Definitely.
Lynch spends much of the film playing with our expectations and perceptions of time and reality. He knows the viewer, like Dern, will try to grasp at logic and reason, only to be completely contradicted. The final hour and a half of Inland Empire plays out like a nightmare that won’t end—images and plot lines intersect and collide, and the familiarity of many of the actors from previous Lynch films adds a layer of deja-vu, as if this is actually several Lynch films coming together in one. Dern’s performance is formidable, and her joy, terror and constantly shifting persona makes it hard to look away. If you’re ready to take a trip inside Lynch’s inner thoughts and stand witness to the full power of his cinematic imagination, look no further than Inland Empire. Just a heads up—it’s going to be absolutely exhausting.
There are some who would put Eraserhead in the top spot on a Lynch film rankings list, and, in truth, there are some good arguments for that. It was Lynch’s first film, the one that put him firmly on the map and on the radar of other great directors. It even caught the eye of Stanley Kubrick, who asked his crew to watch the film before the making of The Shining, in order to get in a proper horror-movie mood. Even with a low budget of $10,000, production was frequently halted due to lack of funding. Despite a fairly low-key release, Eraserhead would go on the dominate the midnight movie scene, eventually earning its spot as an (in)famous cult classic.
I’m not going to try and explain Eraserhead—as with many Lynch films, to seek explanation would be to miss the point. Like its future protégé Blue Velvet, watching Eraserhead is a mind-blowing, jaw-dropping experience that lingers with you far after the 89 minutes have passed. The combination of the vaguely dystopian black-and-white cinematography by Frederick Elmes and Herbert Cardwell and the grinding, industrial score by Alan Splet verges on hallucinatory.
The film begins with probably the best and most cringe-worthy meet-the-parents scene in history. Our protagonist Henry Spencer (played by a young Jack Nance) endures his girlfriend’s mother’s inappropriate questions, a catatonic grandma and an aggressive dad. The scene ends with this reveal: Nance’s girlfriend Mary (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth prematurely to something, and they must get married at once. Enter the horrific lizard baby, which cries continuously in a high-pitched, mewing cry. Mary takes off pretty quick, leaving Nance to try and take care of the creature himself. There’s also a seductive next door neighbor, men who turn heads into erasers and a mysterious diseased man pulling at levers.
It’s the details that make Eraserhead so fantastic, from the dead tree sitting in a pile of dirt on the bedside table, to the oozing mini chickens. We could debate the meaning of the film as a commentary on American domesticity in a post-apocalyptic world, but what’s more important to Eraserhead is how it makes you feel—cold, hard dread. The film turns 40 this year, and in the time since its release, Lynch has gone on to become one of the most recognizable and original directors of our time. Eraserhead started it all.
When it comes to the best Lynch movie of all time, it is a very, very close call between Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Part Hollywood noir, part crime drama, and all wrapped together in Lynch’s finest surrealist casings, it’s a film that smolders.
The film centers around two women protagonists, the sultry Rita (Laura Harring) and the blonde, Nancy Drew-like Betty (Naomi Watts). It begins with Rita surviving an attempted murder, and taking refuge in Betty’s aunt’s empty apartment. Betty arrives at the apartment with hope of becoming a movie star, but finds a traumatized and amnesia-ridden Rita. Instead of kicking her out or calling the cops, Betty takes Rita in, and the two try and discover Rita’s true identity. Eventually, they begin a romantic relationship. Of course, like many Lynch movies, the film bifurcates and goes in a completely different direction for the second half, leading many viewers to speculate on whether the first half was simply a dream.
Yes, dreams again. In so many of Lynch’s films, he exercises his talents at creating a kind of waking dream, or nightmare. Sometimes he goes a bit over the top, as in Inland Empire, and other times it seems like he’s holding back, like in Dune or Lost Highway. With Mulholland Drive, he gets it exactly right. Even Blue Velvet doesn’t quite compare to how this film perfectly captures the dream state. There are many intense scenes (particularly in the second half), but many of the moments are surprisingly gentle, even tender. There’s the first time Betty and Rita are intimate with each other, or when they go to Club Silencio (a truly unforgettable scene) and listen in tears to a Spanish rendition of a Roy Orbison song. Lynch is as manipulative as ever, once again playing with our sense of time and reason, our sense of safety and danger. If you want to, you can find symbols everywhere—but you don’t have to. Like his other great films, you don’t need to try and find a logical narrative. What Lynch thinks doesn’t matter. Mulholland Drive is your dream.
It’s hard to overstate the divisiveness of Lynch’s Blue Velvet. When it debuted in 1986, Roger Ebert gave it a single sad star and decried it a “sick joke.” Other critics hailed it as a postmodern triumph and new form of cinema. Today, people are still somewhat divided, but the criticism has turned largely positive as it becomes more and more apparent just how deeply Blue Velvet influenced other filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is often cited as one work strongly influenced by the unflinching violence of Blue Velvet. In fact, Tarantino borrowed a lot from Lynch over the years, so much so that David Foster Wallace dismissed Tarantino almost completely for taking Lynch’s idiosyncratic surrealism and turning it into shallow commercialism: “Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching somebody’s ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.” Indeed.
Watching Blue Velvet is harrowing, and there’s no escaping its mesmerizing, stomach-churning, woozy horror. Lynch rips rather than peels the lid off 1950s idealism to show the sadomasochistic, rotting underbelly. Viewers are thrown through a wild tornado of contradictions. One minute we’re laughing (“Fucking Pabst Blue Ribbon!”), and the next both characters and viewers are subjected to intense brutality. Along with Jeffrey, we are dragged constantly between two worlds that are simultaneously identical and fiercely separate—the world of suburban lawns and white picket fences and the horrific, dizzying world of Dorothy. This made people uncomfortable, not least of all Ebert, who chided Lynch for choosing “to interrupt the almost hypnotic pull of that relationship in order to pull back to his jokey, small-town satire.”
Ebert’s criticism about the frequent switching between intense horror and suburbia is misguided—he’s misinterpreting what Lynch wants to do. Feeling disoriented is exactly how you should feel, especially the first time you watch it. It’s easy to stress-drink an entire glass of wine in the space of the famous Ben’s apartment scene alone. By the time Blue Velvet endsm and you’re left with the undeniable feeling that something is still just a bit off, you’ve got an empty bottle to add to your recycling. That’s just one of the many things that makes Blue Velvet worthy of the top spot. It stays with you long after that final robotic robin fades away.
E.C. Flamming is a writer living and working in Atlanta. Her favorite Twin Peaks character is the Log Lady.