Quick cuts of color and close ups are superimposed upon black and white images. A droning soundtrack from Angelo Badalamenti, complete with low hums and an ever looming sense of dread. Uncomfortably long takes. Harry Dean Stanton shows up for a couple minutes. If any of these are present in the film you are screening, then you're probably watching something from the mind of David Lynch.
Let's just get this out of the way - I am a huge David Lynch fan; his films are partially what gave me the drive and motivation to pursue filmmaking as a career. There is just something mystical and thought provoking about his films that I cannot find anywhere else. I have seen all of his works multiple times now, and with each viewing I always discover something new or appreciate things that I never gave much thought before.
Ranking his cinema portfolio was not an easy thing to do. I restructured this list four times and re-watched a handful of his movies just for this list. On any given day of the week I could still probably change this list up. But as of now, this is how I rank his films.
ALSO! This list has to be published with an ascending order (1-10) as opposed to descending order (10-1). In other words, number one is the worst and number ten is the best. With that being said, on to the list!
1. "Dune" (1984)
This is the only film I believe that Lynch has done that is truly bad. Why he was hired on to do a science fiction epic will forever be a mystery to me. Dune is a wonderfully hot, surreal mess of a film. While I have not read the book, I have heard this film strays so far away from the original source material it's laughable. It just never flows well as a narrative. Nothing feels as though it has any impact in the story.
Despite actor Kyle MacLachlan doing an excellent job in the main role, he couldn't salvage this mess of a film. To be fair though, Lynch never had final cut privileges. Supposedly, the studio massacred what he had shot originally to make it all more "consumable" for a general audience. While that may be true, it doesn't make the movie any more worth a watch.
2. "The Straight Story" (1999)
Don't get me wrong, I really do enjoy The Straight Story. Like if you told me it was your favorite Lynch film, I'd be happy! The reason why this is so high on my list is because of how safe and conventional it is as a whole.
It's the most straight and easily digestible film Lynch has directed, which is fine! It's just missing everything that I love and adore in a Lynch film. It's a well executed and emotional movie - it's just not something I come back to often.
3. "Wild at Heart" (1990)
Wild at Heart might be the film you are most familiar with if you have never heard of Lynch before because it has Nicholas Cage in it. Again, I think this is a great movie. Hell, it won the Palm d;Or at Cannes in 1990. It's just one of the movies I find myself not wanting to re-watch as frequently as others.
The film is almost like a dark comedy, if I were to place into a sub-genre. It's a beautifully shot film with plenty of bizarre imagery to keep you thinking about it. This would be a good starting off point for entering into Lynch's filmography, if I'm being honest.
4. "The Elephant Man" (1980)
One of Lynch's most emotionally driven films, The Elephant Man is a biopic about John Merrick, a man with a severely deformed face and the struggles he faced in the Victorian era.
It's a movie about a guy who just wants to be treated as an equal. It feels like an incredibly sincere movie. Like, you really feel the pain and misery that the protagonist is experiencing. Definitely one you should watch at least once in your life.
5. "Lost Highway" (1997)
Here we go. Now we are getting into territory where I could go either way on this ranking. Number six goes to the surrealist-horror cult classic Lost Highway. This film demands multiple viewings to have a full understanding of what the hell is happening. I dare you to watch this film once and come to me with a clear and concise plot synopsis. I don't think you could do it.
It's a neo-noir surrealist horror classic that is about a man convicted of murdering his wife as he is transforming into another person in a parallel reality. That's the only way I could sum it up into one sentence. If you like feeling dread, paranoia, and a sense of existentialism, Lost Highway might be the perfect film for a lonely Friday night.
6. "Blue Velvet "(1986)
You HAVE to have heard of Blue Velvet. Regarded by many to be one of the best films of the 80's, Blue Velvet is a mesmerizing, dreamy, neo-noir film that will stick with you long after the credits roll. Without giving away much of the plot, the films main focus is one small-town innocence and how it may not all be sunshine and roses.
The thing that disturbs me the most about Blue Velvet is the lack of morality. It makes you feel angry and disgusted at the antagonist and some of the things that he does. The haunting, terrifying, emotionless things he does in this film. It's as if he crawls into your mind and tears you apart. And I love every second of it.
7. "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me"
This is an insanely divisive film; you either love it, or you hate it. I'm on the side of loving it (almost). Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a prequel (but also sequel) to the hit early 90's television show Twin Peaks. Fans who were coming into this movie thinking it would have the same campy and cozy vibes of the show were understandably disappointed.
FWWM explores the more dark and complex side to the show that was never fully realized because of studio restrictions. I honestly think this is the most horrifying Lynch film because of the context. If you have seen the original show (which you NEED to watch before this) and The Return, this film is one-thousand percent better in terms of horror.
I'm hesitant to say it's his best work, but I think it is far better than what some critics and fans think. It's a darker, more rich take on Twin Peaks. And I love it.
8. "Inland Empire" (2006)
A woman in trouble. Lynch's description is the best you're going to get out of me in terms of plot regarding Inland Empire. Because frankly? I still have no idea what it's truly about. As of now, this is his last feature length directorial outing. But my God, did he go out with a bang. This is a three hour experimental horror film that feels like a nightmare.
Many people think it's too much for them to handle, and in some areas I could see where they are coming from with that. You really have to be in a certain mood to really sit down and take this onslaught of cinema in. It's as if Lynch is slowly guiding you from rabbit hole to rabbit hole, until he suddenly disappears and you are left alone to try and figure out the exit. This is truly an experience to be had. Lock your door, shut the blinds, crank the sound, and open your mind.
9. "Mulholland Drive" (2001)
Confession time! I wasn't too hot on Mulholland Drive the first time I watched it. After hearing from so many people how good and bizarre it was, I had my expectations high. Maybe a little too high. I thought it was simply okay. However, it wasn't until I watched it twice more recently that I realized it's brilliance.
You see, the main thing that is supposed to make you lose your mind is the puzzle throughout the film. There are hundreds of articles and fan-theories online about what actually happened that are all excellent and interesting to read. I have my own dumb interpretation of the plot, as I'm sure you do if you watch the film.
Thinking about it more though, the puzzle isn't the most interesting thing to me. You see, it's the manipulation that Lynch implements.
Lynch manipulates the audience (and main characters) in such a unique and emotional way that I haven't seen it done in any other film or artistic medium. He really got me thinking about art and the concept of cinema itself - we are so emotionally invested in make-believe characters and scenarios.
We know they don't exist, we know what's happening on screen isn't really happening, we know that everything will be fine for the people involved with the film. But why do we get so invested? Why? Well, that's what art is.
And in turn, that's what cinema is. The artist (or director) taps into their audiences most primal and emotional feelings and plays with them, bending them to their will.
Then all of a sudden, poof! Something happens and we, the audience, are left with our mouths agape and hearts hollowed out. This film is an emotional and psychological roller-coaster that I will gladly get in line for again and again. I agree with the people that say this is going to go down as one of the most important films of the 21st century. What a phenomenal experience. Please, watch this movie. You owe it to yourself.
10. "Eraserhead" (1977)
The one that began it all. Eraserhead. This film helped to usher in the modern aesthetic usage of surrealism in film, and it's impossible to say just how influential this has been on the industry as a whole. This is David Lynch's debut as a feature filmmaker. He wrote, directed, and produced this film all under a scholarship he received from the American Film Institute. I do not want to give ANYTHING away regarding plot for this film. Go in as blind as possible.
Saying Eraserhead is a technical marvel is an understatement. The horrific imagery combined with the innovative and elaborate sound design builds an atmosphere full of dread and desolation that I have never felt with another film. It's a truly visceral and draining experience, and I love every second of this.
While I do think that Mulholland Drive is Lynch's magnum opus, I have a special connection with Eraserhead. It's difficult for me to exactly describe why though. Find a way to watch this with the best sound setup you can afford. This is truly a life-changing film for me, and I will forever be grateful for it.