What is the best David Lynch Movie?
How many filmmakers can you think of that have their own verb? “Lynchian” is a part of even the most casual cinephile, though it’s often used erroneously. All too often, anything a little out of the ordinary, with a vague sense of the uncanny, earns the term. Looking back at the man’s filmography, however, it’s clear that there’s much more to Lynch’s work than mere eccentricity, especially given that he’s made films that don’t easily fit into common ideas about what it is for a film or a work of art to even be “Lynchian.” Beyond that, Lynch himself is such a singular presence beyond his films – as a thinker, a writer, and even as a musician – that attempts to Xerox his work are doubly pointless. In honour of one of our favourite filmmakers David Lynch, a while back I decided to poll our writers on their favorite Lynch movies and asked them to share a few words on the subject.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on our old brand Sound On Sight.
Maverick Italian film mogul Dino De Laurentiis chose David Lynch to direct his ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune on the strength of the weird-cinema extraordinaire’s work on The Elephant Man. You can probably tell where this ironically minded assessment is heading. The final product left critics and audiences baffled, belying the epic novel’s inaccessibility to short and sharp retelling, and alienated seemingly everyone other than a small audience core who turned it into cult. A hasty and clumsy television cut was so misjudged that it forced Lynch to invoke the Alan Smithee treatment, and only the sensational Blue Velvet restored Lynch’s promising reputation amid nasty aftermath that included a place in Siskel & Ebert’s Worst of 1984 list.
But despite all the doom and gloom, there is a lot to take from his desert planet epic, and much of it can be attributed to a director bringing his very particular sense of flair and the surreal to a genre lacking such uniqueness. Visually it is a feast and somehow stands up fairly well among 80’s sci-fi that has become embarrassingly dated, while the dark tone and nightmarish atmosphere is mystifyingly hypnotic. Lynch regular Kyle McLachlan may lack the chops to properly convey Paul Atreides’s transformation from momma’s boy prince to all-powerful messiah figure, but he makes good work of it, while there is inspired casting and performances from a cosmopolitan supporting troupe including Francesca Annis, Jurgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart, and Brad Dourif. Just don’t mention Sting.
Further, a wonderfully off-beat score from Toto fuses with action that is often highly memorable and resonant, whether it be Virginia Madsen’s beautifully foreboding opening narration as Princess Irulan, the malignant oozing menace of the Harknonnen’s Giedi Prime, or the symphony of cinematic magic that is the ‘Sleeper has Awakened’ scene, featuring a wonderful contribution from Brian Eno and not just the film’s most emotional moments, but one of the most resonant scenes Lynch has put to film. While Dune falls considerably short of his high standards, and the level of quality expected from devoted fans of the groundbreaking book, it none the less earns its place as badly flawed but often a brilliantly different guilty pleasure. (Scott Patterson)
9: The Straight Story
A quiet look at an elderly man’s earnest journey to see his dying brother, The Straight Story is an emotionally rational entry in David Lynch’s largely wild and strange body of work. With poor eyesight and no car, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) determines that he has no other recourse than to drive a well-worn tractor over 300 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin in order to see Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) one last time. Alvin’s trip appears foolishly outlandish at first but grows sensible as we spend time with a man confronting mortality and stripped of any illusions. Lynch’s respectful portrait of forthright people who live low-key lives stands in stark contrast to the lustfully bizarre characters that lurk in the shadows of Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway, and Blue Velvet. Like The Elephant Man, the script comes from a true-life tale and bears little to no resemblance to the deeply disturbing visions that stem from Lynch’s eccentric mind. Taking on someone else’s work again with competently restrained direction only reaffirms his exacting flair for storytelling. He tactfully deals with looming death by way of sweeping shots of lonely, neverending crops and casts a kind eye on the years of struggle embedded in the deep wrinkles of Alvin’s face. One keeps waiting for this to veer into the ludicrous because Lynch is in charge but the journey stays simple, steers clear from being overly sentimental, and is demonstrably keen to show that Alvin has no ulterior motives. A stunt double for decades before becoming a respected character actor, this movie belongs to the supremely talented Richard Farnsworth. Giving his no-nonsense (and Oscar-nominated) performance added poignancy is the fact that The Straight Story would be his last movie before passing away. Alvin sincerely wanting nothing more from life than to reconnect is touching and seeks to value how real people are sometimes able to meet the end with a dignity that isn’t flashy but meaningfully all their own. (Lane Scarberry)
8: Wild at Heart
David Lynch evokes a surreal, menacing world: Wild at Heart is brimming over with explicit sex, murder, rape, eccentric kitsch, sleaze and some horrifying violence, ranging from the opening scene where a man is beaten to death to a moment late in the film where a shotgun to the head sends someone’s brains splattered across the frame. Based on the novel by Barry Gifford, and the winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, Wild at Heart is a perverse and over-the-top Southern Gothic road movie. Here, the director is working with pulp conventions; tangential metaphors, a reoccurring motif of fire – and interwoven into the cross-country odyssey are numerous references to Lynch’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. Appearing is both the Wicked Witch and the Good, along with a crystal ball, ruby slippers, and a strange world immersed with even stranger characters, themselves immersed in stranger fantasies. It’s a road movie about a pair of seemingly doomed young Southern lovers named Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) and a hot-tempered, violent ex-con Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) on the run from Cape Fear, North Carolina to Big Tuna, Texas. Luna’s wicked witch of a mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), fearing Sailor’s knowledge of her plot to murder her husband, arranges with a mobster (J. E. Freeman) to have him killed. Sent to hunt them down is “black angel” Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) and Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini). Lynch presents an adult fairy tale, brought to life with vivid imagery, outrageous performances, and the sweet sounds of Nicolas Cage cover song of Elvis Presley. Angelo Badalamenti’s operatic score along with the meticulous sound design and rocking soundtracks makes Wild at Heart Lynch’s best sounding film. Throw in the insane performances by Willem Dafoe and Crispin Glover and the exquisite photography by Freddie Elmes, and you have one of the best films of the ’90s. (Ricky D)
7: Inland Empire
Simultaneously a disturbing distillation and a sprawling expansion of all of David Lynch’s most distressing impulses, Inland Empire is Lynch’s most difficult feature-length watch, even for hardened fans. Make an attempt to breach its ultra-lo-fi visuals and imposing three-hour runtime, however, and you’ll find that it features some of Lynch’s most tactile and subliminally powerful filmmaking. Laura Dern is beyond incredible in the lead role, both in her capability to morph into whatever each individual sequence demands and the level of synchronicity she seems to have with Lynch’s mad, inscrutable vision. What’s truly odd about Inland is that for all of its visual nightmare fodder and almost maddening need to evade even a complex reading with every new locale and set of characters, it’s actually pretty easy to make a case that it lays out a more optimistic vision of Hollywood and the power of storytelling than Mulholland Dr. For Lynch, a happy ending might be the strangest twist of all. (Simon Howell)
6: Lost Highway
Lost Highway is in many ways one of Lynch’s most divisive films. Adopting an unusual structure, difficult characters, and strange elliptical devises, it is confounding and disturbing to first-time viewers. The opening credits (set to David Bowie’s song, “I’m Deranged”), utilize a point of view shot speeding down a dark highway with no situational context. This becomes the road without beginning or end and the enduring symbol of the film is the Mobius strip – a dynamic marker of continual motion, but one charged with uncertainty. Lynch seems to outright reject the idea of a linear universe, suggesting that everything folds over, that we may be leading different lives concurrently and that birth and death are not certain, though are perhaps doomed to pre-destination and endless repetition. This is further engaged through the use of media technology, in this case, the video-camera, as the body is reborn, transformed, and destroyed through its depiction on tape. This is an enduring theme in Lynch’s work and is crucial to a greater understanding of both Twin Peaks and Inland Empire, as well as Lost Highway. It is the idea that even the most beautiful face can be distorted into ugliness, and ugliness can be equally turned into beauty. It also suggests that we ourselves are transformed through the recreation or repetition of our own image, that can continue to live through these taped images, or that we can die with them as well. Lost Highway challenges out ideas of life, time, and individuality as it creates an entirely fragmented perspective on chronological thinking or understanding. (Justine Smith)
Not only is David Lynch’s 1977 feature-film debut a good indicator of things to come from the director, it’s also an important landmark amidst American independent cinema. Alongside the splash of Cassavetes, Corman and the Hollywood Renaissance came a handful of isolated independents, among others, are Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and later, Lynch’s Eraserhead.
Made with a small AFI grant and money from friends, Eraserhead is both big-city, industrial menace, and personal nightmare. Infamously inspired in part by the director’s hatred of Philadelphia, Lynch has said of the film, “My original image was of a man’s head bouncing on the ground, being picked up by a boy and taken to a pencil factory.”
While it’s easy to find Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Dr. in some of Eraserhead’s eerier scenes – memorable sequences with the deformed Lady in the Radiator in particular – the film’s unnerving atmosphere is unwaveringly personal in a way that many of Lynch’s later works are not. Whether oddly-coiffed Jack Nance is a stand-in for the director or not, Eraserhead makes a strong case that the plight of fatherhood might just be as terrifying as the big bad world outside. (Neal Dhand)
4: The Elephant Man
David Lynch’s name has become synonymous with bizarre, surreal works that sometimes just make no darn sense. It’s ironic then that his best film, at least in this reviewer’s humble opinion, is one of his most straight forward “Hollywood” type narratives. John Merrick (played magnificently by John Hurt in one of his most underrated performances), better known by his stage name of “The Elephant Man”, is possibly the most infamous freak of all time. A sideshow oddity for his monstrous façade Merrick is eventually rescued by Victorian surgeon Frederick Treves (a very young-looking Anthony Hopkins) once it is discovered that his deformation has not affected his cognitive abilities. With veteran acting and brilliant cinematography, The Elephant Man feels like a film lost in time. The presentation and feel gives a fabulous sense of yesteryear filmmaking and was smartly presented in black and white to enhance the period setting and possible to aid the believability of the make-up work. The scene where Merrick, cornered by a hateful crowd of observers, cries out “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” is as iconic and identifiable as any other line from any other film. A huge hit in 1980, nominated for 8 Academy Awards, it is still highly regarded today and the only Lynch film on celebrated movie site IMDB’s top 250. Most of Lynch’s pieces are an acquired taste and even his most celebrated works are not for everybody, but The Elephant Man is a film that should engage all viewers and is an absolute must watch. (Matthew Younker)
3: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
When Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me made its debut at Cannes in 1992, it was received with a chorus of boos and quickly divided critics into two camps; those familiar with Twin Peaks the Television show, and those who were not. Some of the critics called it a contrived work, while others dismissed it as being accessible only to the small minority of fans of the series. Still, others looked at the work as a brilliantly bizarre addition to David Lynch’s rich, surrealist landscape of artful obscurity.
Fire Walk With Me is an inter-dimensional detective story glowing with quirky characters, Hammett-esque dialogue and dark undertones of pulp noir, sexual horror, and demonic fantasy. Here, in the setting of neon pulsing diners, trailer parks, and mysterious backwoods Lynch adapts the fictional Washington logging community of Twin Peaks for a film that works as both a bizzaro-mystery-fairytale for newcomers and a mystery-solving prequel for fans of the ABC series. Sure, there exists 30 hours of source material behind it, but Fire Walk With Me does well at avoiding the trapping of being labeled a pure insider narrative. Quite the contrary, it works nicely as a standalone film.
Lynch constructs memorable moments throughout Fire Walk With Me that blur the gaps between reality and fantasy; dancing girls providing clues with sour faces, Ray Wise as a maniacal father/demon, a transcendental musical score, David Bowie as an enigmatic FBI Director and Lynch himself as an almost screaming, near-deaf FBI Field Agent. Perhaps Fire Walk With Me’s greatest achievement is the Black Lodge and its Red Room, a -dwelling where demons move in and out of bodies and Michael J. Anderson plays the backwards talking Man From Another Place. It’s here, in the Black Lodge where Lynch merges genres, crossing horror with pulp-noir and offering an origin for the pain, sorrow, and evil of Twin Peaks; the Garmonbozia. Regardless of what boos and critics may assume about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch actually triumphs, perhaps more than any other filmmaker before him, at congregating the vastness of television with the singleness of film. (Tony Nunes)
2: Blue Velvet
David Lynch’s Blue Velvet announces the beginning of the major phase of the director’s career – and not only because it marked his first collaboration with sonorous soundscape master Angelo Badalamenti. In slipping his camera behind the blooming roses and white picket fences of “Lumberton” (a civic ancestor of Twin Peaks), Lynch struck psychological pay dirt, crawling with magnified ants. Sometimes interpreted as an “expose” of small-town life in Middle America (in the muckraking tradition of Peyton Place and Kings Row), this film is nothing of the sort. David Lynch is many things, but sociological criticism just isn’t in his aesthetic wheelhouse. The man apparently still believes Ronald Reagan was a good joe, so perhaps we should be grateful that he never comes close to making anything resembling coherent political commentary in his films.
Lynch’s astonishing vision is powered by the ongoing tensions between his pre-modern, willfully naïve cosmology and his uncannily assured insights into 20th-century mass media symbology. Only David Lynch could make something worthwhile of the coincidence between the déclassé tradition of “American Dreaming” and the surrealist theory that all film is essentially oneiric. That’s the central enigma of Lynch’s art, this business of egging actors like Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth) on to career-defining Roy Orbison-drunk incarnations of demonism while holding fast to the untroubled belief that Lumberton really is the swell place that its Chamber of Commerce says it is. But it’s a mystery that has generated several of the greatest films ever made – and it all starts here, with Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan)’s agonized question “Why are there people like Frank?” and Sandy (Laura Dern)’s a tenderly hopeful reply about waiting for the robins to come home. And when the robins do come back to roost with squirming bugs in their mouths? Lynch doesn’t worry about these things – he leaves the hard work of grappling with the problem of evil and suffering to us. But he does know how to drop the Blue Velvet curtain on a swelling emotional note – seeding our hearts with a glorious intimation of what a world without Frank would feel like (for Isabella Rosellini’s Dorothy Valens and her helicopter-hatted son). (David Fiore)
1: Mulholland Dr.
Much like Inland Empire, it is almost impossible to summarize Mulholland Dr. in a brief capsule review. Many will say Mulholland Dr. makes little if no sense, but upon a second viewing, one will find interesting new ways to interpret Lynch’s mesmerizing dreamlike thriller. Mulholland Dr. is a thing of dark arcane beauty – a highly reflective piece of filmmaking that leaves many obsessed with attempting to decipher the mysteries lurking deep within. This is a horror picture that deconstructs Hollywood as the dream factory and continues to explore the director’s obsession with dreams, nightmares and film, and the blurry line between each. Mulholland Dr. conveys the simple idea of multiplicities, or better yet the notion that the main characters have an impulse to mask themselves, often taking on multiple personalities – and sometimes to their detriment. The director’s picture-perfect period re-creations, unique sound stages, experimentation of film noir tropes, and his very unusual aesthetic (which puts a heavy emphasis on using colour to help tell his story) – all make Mulholland Dr. essential viewing for any true cinephile. (Ricky D)