From Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, we reassess every film from the master of the surreal.
Twenty years ago today, Twin Peaks ended with one of the most brutal unresolved cliffhangers in television history. We're still upset about it, so we're ranking all of David Lynch's film work from worst to best.
10. Wild at Heart (1990)
After establishing himself as one of the most uniquely stylish and idiosyncratic filmmakers of his generation, Lynch was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes for this bizarre, violent love story. So of course it's the film of his that I like the least, a meandering, excessive freakshow in which Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern's Sailor and Lula are almost afterthoughts. But at least it has Willem Dafoe's delightfully sleazy Bobby Peru.
9. Lost Highway (1997)
Lynch is at his best when following his muse into realms of nightmares and darkness. But when he tries too hard to make "a David Lynch film," the results can verge on self-parody. Still, Lost Highway's nightmare logic and overpowering sense of dread help redeem it from its pop psychology and trendy post-Pulp Fiction violence.
8. Dune (1984)
George Lucas offered Lynch the director's chair on Return of the Jedi (imagine the Ewoks!), but he made this space opera instead. It's hard to dislike the only Lynch film to feature spaceships and sandworms, but in retrospect Lynch was woefully mismatched with Frank Herbert's sprawling sociopolitical epic.
7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Fire Walk With Me is probably the most-hated movie on this list. Fans of the canceled TV show were hoping this follow-up film would resolve some of the lingering questions left by the series' abrupt cancelation. Instead, Lynch made a prequel in which half of the show's cast barely appears. If you can leave all that aside, the portion of the film focusing on the last days in the life of Laura Palmer is haunting.
6. The Straight Story (1999)
The one title in the Venn-diagram intersection of "David Lynch films" and "Walt Disney Studios" is probably his least characteristic, a character-based road movie that also serves as a metaphor for the end of life's journey. It's pleasant, but doesn't leave much of an impact.
5. Inland Empire (2006)
The ultimate Lynch-fan litmus test, this three-hour collection of tragic prostitutes, anthropomorphic rabbits, and unexplained musical numbers is like soaking in a deep bath of someone else's nightmares. Inland Empire shows that if he wanted to, Lynch could be one of the greatest horror directors of all time.
4. The Elephant Man (1980)
Lynch supposedly agreed to make this movie based on the title alone, having no other idea what it was about. As his most conventional film, this serves as a good example of how an artist can channel his vision into material that, in different hands, could be boring or trite. Just because John Hurt is covered in makeup and pumping for a Best Actor nomination doesn't mean he isn't incredibly moving.
3. Blue Velvet (1986)
The breakthrough movie in Lynch's career, this is still as powerful and shocking as ever in its mixture of sadism, voyeurism, and Oedipal madness. Dennis Hopper was never better than as gas-huffing sociopath Frank Booth. The only thing holding this movie back, for me, is the slight smirk in its depiction of small-town life.
2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Almost certainly the best thing to ever be salvaged from an abandoned TV pilot (there's still hope, Wonder Woman!), Mulholland Drive is the greatest blend of dreamlike weirdness, black comedy, and heartrending drama of Lynch's career. A huge amount of credit has to go to Naomi Watts, who delivers an amazing performance (or two) as the small-town girl gone adrift in the city of dreams.
1. Eraserhead (1977)
This is the one that started it all, the purest distillation of everything Lynch has ever done in one ninety-minute package of industrial decay, hideous puppets, and the deadest of deadpan humor. Lynch's other films mesmerize us with visions of murder, chaos, killers, and freaks; in this film, Lynch shows us the horror inside the typical American family, from a disastrous dinner with the in-laws to the terror of mishandling a baby. It's not the kind of movie you follow for story or character — it's something you just have to feel.