I shouldn’t be hitting directors this massive to me in such quick succession but…c’mon, you want to talk about them too.
So when I was a kid my parents called me into the front room to offer me something. I could stay up late with them, this one time, if I wanted to watch the movie they were watching. I didn’t care what it was, I was really young and got to stay up late! They turned the station over to a movie called The Elephant Man and proceeded to watch this long, depressing, black-and-white film about a massively deformed individual that proceeds to experience dignity for the first time in his life. I had no idea who directed it, who was in it, I just sat fascinated. Fast forward to 2017, when my parents have forgotten they ever saw the film, and I invited them to join me at a local screening of the same film. They loved it, were moved by it, and it made me happy to get to see the two enjoy the film for what they thought was the first time.
The director was David Lynch, and he would become a cornerstone of my understanding of film.
You see, as a kid I also watched Dune. I found it corny and ridiculous but also kind of wonderful. I proceeded to read the novels and realized the film was bunk, but in college, I discovered that it had been directed by some dude I’d never heard of. I recognized some of his titles and thought “okay, this guy isn’t bad.” Let’s press fast forward to 2015.
See, that’s the year I got really into the Criterion Collection and began seriously collecting obscure, brilliant films (and some fun trash). By then I knew who David Lynch was and thought he might be an interesting avenue to discover new types of film. I bought Eraserhead blindly, not knowing what exactly I was in for, and my brain fried. I laughed, I got terrified, and I was ultimately delivered something that many see as an enigma that I connected with right off the bat. I felt seen, which is unusual for a film and for me in general, but it felt nice.
I’m not going to spoil my rankings and if I keep rambling that’s assured, so let’s get to this list!
- Wild at Heart : Look, it’s a Palme d’Or winner and a beloved film, but this is my least favorite Lynch film. I enjoy some Nicholas Cage and I absolutely adore Laura Dern, but both have better films out there and I have to point out that this is a weaker entry for them and the director. It’s still something I love, don’t get me wrong, but they’d all do better. You should still watch this though! It’s the story of a lovestruck couple that goes on the run after the woman’s overbearing mother hires assassins to kill her. Seriously, that’s some crazy stuff and it’s a fun movie to watch. A lot of Lynch’s sensibilities are here, but after the huge punches from his first few offerings, it just feels like he’s taking a break. It’s beautiful, exciting, and sentimental as all hell but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t wholly come together for me.
- Straight Story : Haha listen people…David Lynch did a Disney movie. This is an absolutely charming little film about a sweet man who just wants to see his brother. Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is living with his daughter (Sissy Spacek) in a rural Indiana. She has a disability and his legs are too disabled for him to have a driver’s license. Alvin’s brother suffers a stroke in Wisconsin and he decides that he needs to go visit, so he hitches his trailer to a riding lawn-mower and sets off on a 240-mile journey at the breathtaking speed of 5 MPH. This is “the straight story” about what happened, but it’s also a sweet story about a man who just wants to be there for the people in his life. I connected really hard with this one, as the people in your life are those you always want to do the most for. The end of this is going to reduce so many of you to tears, it’s not even funny. The whole thing feels like a Disneyfied David Lynch and that’s not a bad thing. Kind, caring, and sentimental, it showed a whole new angle on the director later in his career that worked on so many levels.
- Inland Empire : Terrence Malick proved that you could make films without a script so long as you had a concept. David Lynch went further, proving that you could make them without even that. Inland Empire follows an actress that begins to align her personality with her new character, delving into a disjointed and nightmarish world. The plot makes absolutely no sense and is, in fact, written on the fly. What matters here is the visual structure of the film and the way it is designed to feel as though something your fevered brain is making up for you on the fly. Laura Dern is a national treasure and Lynch uses her that way, pushing her to use every ounce of talent she has to deliver a performance that is criminally underrated. It’s a shame that this is a film almost no one can connect with (understandably) because it’s beautiful and horrid all at the same time. I love beautiful tragedies (see my previous romantic history), and this film delivers on every level. It’s damaging, uncomfortable, brilliant, and utterly worthless. It’s something I can’t describe, a movie that needs to be seen to be believed, but I also can’t really recommend it to most viewers. It’s just…his brain. This thing is day-to-day, popped out on script, for the world to behold.
- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me : Look, I’m going to do an honorable mentions category so rest assured, Twin Peaks the series will be represented. The film, though, is a different animal that can stand on its own feet. Delving into murder and the final seven days of one Laura Palmer, each moment is built on a mounting dread where we know the outcome. There’s no saving her, no changing the fate of anyone else in the town, but we cling to them with such desperation that it feels painful. Hell, Kyle MacLachlan is in this still as Special Agent Dale Cooper and even that doesn’t feel weird with the series, instead building on the odd mythology that Lynch created with Mark Frost. By the time the inevitable goes down we’re left wondering, as the Lodge comes back into play and we experience an unholy amount of comfort in our return to this point. Lynch went on to further develop the story almost thirty years later in Twin Peaks: The Return and he cemented this series/film as the most David Lynch-y thing that he’s ever done.
- Lost Highway : Now we’re getting to some of the wild stuff. Lost Highway follows a man accused of a murder that has also been receiving creepy tapes of him and his wife. He vanishes, replaced by a bewildered mechanic, and things spiral out of control further from there. I won’t divulge too much on this one because it’s completely eerie and best if you go in blind. Some of the surrealistic imagery and tone that made Lynch a household name among art film fans is present, coupled with creeptastic characters and makeup effects that make for a sense of discomfort and a knotted stomach. There’s magic here, and the absolute darkness of the film is captured in everything from the title to the finale. It’s decipherable, but only with an understanding of the director’s sensibilities and skewed perspective on life. Dive in, you won’t regret it!
- Dune : Shut up, I love it! It’s not bad, you’re bad! Seriously, this is an absolute mess of a film that so many just write off. Hell, Lynch himself had his name taken off of it because of studio interference. I can fault the film for all of that, but the whole thing is such a blast that I don’t care. Right down to some of the plot points of the film the whole thing reeks of Lynchian oddities that I can’t hate it. Little curios like the sound-based weapons (one of the things Lynch is beloved for is his use of sound design) are purely his own. This makes me feel like a kid in love again, someone that saw some sci-fi schlock that made his heart burn to talk about stories. From the matte paintings to the practical effects to the cast (what a freaking cast this is) I adore it. If you can find a copy of the televised version I urge you to watch it, there’s a really cool intro that delves into the backstory of this universe with painted images and a cool narration. Sure, it’s expository, but who gives a crap? It’s fun and I love it. I don’t mean to, but I often revisit this movie on a regular basis because it’s like a security blanket – I always know that David Lynch will be there to comfort me in rough times.
- Blue Velvet : This isn’t for the faint of heart. Seriously, if you have any triggers this movie is going to poke them so steer clear. That said…it’s brilliant. The plot revolves around a young man who comes home to visit his father. He finds a severed ear in a field and begins to unravel this absolutely BONKERS mystery surrounding a local criminal organization and winds up in a romantic entanglement with a lounge singer. Look…it’s got Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, and Kyle MacLachlin. If that doesn’t tell you that it’s worth watching let’s delve in further. The absolute insanity of this film can’t be boiled down into words but we keep trying. It earned Lynch a second nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards and has gone on to become a cult classic. This is what a lot of people use as a gateway drug to David Lynch. Shouldn’t surprise anyone, it’s the easiest of his films to dive into with the exception of The Straight Story. While the plot is straightforward, the concepts are not and this cements it as one of the most important works in Lynch’s filmography.
- The Elephant Man : Look, I’ve already discussed why this film is important to me. Most kids remember those seminal movie moments. For me it started as the first chance I had to stay up late and watch a disturbing adult movie, but it became so much more for me. When I saw it last I cried in front of my parents. My mom was a bit uncomfortable around that. So was my dad, but he’d seen it happen during a Star Wars film at that point and at least knew I was a weeper. This is the story of someone shunned by society that still has a sweet heart and loving dispositions, why wouldn’t that appeal to me? Also…John Hurt and Anthony-freaking-Hopkins, what more do you want? For something based on a true story it really does appeal to the ideas behind David Lynch, from the imagery to the sound design, and parts of it feel wholly his own creation. I’m sure some of them are, but this is such a touching piece of cinema that I can’t contain myself during viewings of it.
- Eraserhead : Look, it’s hard for ANY film to have come out in the same year as Star Wars so I understand if you don’t know this one. When I picked this up I experienced something new and original, a thing I’d never seen before. Black and white, completely confused, messy, and utterly impenetrable for some, I swooned for this goddamned thing. I watch it every 6 weeks on principle to reevaluate what I think about it. Stories about sex, about love, about death, and about acceptance, all of this shit appeals to me on such a visceral level that the film entered my top 10 almost immediately. This is one of the absolute weirdest films I’ve ever seen and I cannot sing its praises enough. It opens with a man controlling another man’s brain via levers to create a weird sperm before firing it into what I can only assume is an egg. How does that not call to you?
- Mulholland Drive : This is a cinematic tour-de-force, no questions about it. Seriously, I did a whole article on cinematic doppelgangers and I think this has yet to be surpassed by that trope. It’s a strange version, with unsettling performances and awkward editing that leaves one laughing while feeling unhappy. The first time I watched this I cracked up, freaked out, and at one point openly wept. Roller coasters like this don’t come around often and this one is their crown jewel. I couldn’t love a mixture of cinematic visuals and tone more than this because of how absolutely strange it is. Naomi Watts gives the performance of her life, and none of it is more on display than in her scene auditioning. That moment alone makes the whole film worth it, but couple in the work of Laura Elena Harring and Justin Theroux to create a wild story that will inflame the senses. Seriously, even Billy Ray Cyrus gets in a great few bits here. There’s almost nothing negative to say about this film. The only thing bad I have to say is that there isn’t enough of it because I’m always left wanting more while knowing there’s nothing else coming.
And that’s the list! Do you love Lynch like I do? Well…if not, what’s wrong with you?