For October's favorite director ranking, I thought I would choose one of my two favorite directors of horror films that are not exactly horror films. (The other is Roman Polanski, whom I bumped last month to cover Tony Scott and who will receive his spotlight later this month.) Lynch's work digs under the image of postwar American society—parenthood, bourgeois suburbia, the glamor of Old Hollywood—to find the terror beneath, which is itself usually rooted in grotesque exaggerations of classic pulp. Lynch exists always in the past and on the forefront, sublimating noir and melodrama of the '40s and '50s into an ambitious, massively influential television program and an exploratory use of the capabilities of DV. Nearly all of his 10 features are great, and despite the occasional characterization of his work as weird for its own sake, they reward multiple viewings rather than suffer from them. A year ago, it would not have occurred to me to rank Lynch among my favorite filmmakers, but after viewing and revisiting the gems below, he now sits near the top of my list.
You know you're in for a mess when the director credit not only lists "Alan Smithee" but reads "A Alan Smithee Film" rather than "An Alan Smithee Film." Dune, in theory, might have been perfect for Lynch to explode the scope of his weirdness on blockbuster scale. Instead, it is a work of profound soullessness, weighed down at every turn by impersonal sets and a dreary slog of expositional dialogue. To mention that the film has expositional dialogue, though, is to suggest it ever has dialogue of any other kind. Indeed not, and the endless tedium (not to mention bewilderment) of listening to every single character explaining every single thing in excruciating, unnecessary detail offers no respite from the big emptiness of the sub-Star Wars production design. The best that can be said of the whole affair is that Lynch himself clearly must have endeared himself with some of the actors, as performers like Kyle MacLachlan and Dean Stockwell would return for later, better films.
9. The Elephant Man
Had Dune been a commercial success and a fulfilling project for Lynch, would the rest of his career departed from this smash sophomore effort rather than the magnificent mulligan that was Blue Velvet? If works in the mawkish, stilted vein of The Elephant Man might have been the true groundwork for a commercially successful Lynch, it is hard not to be glad the director soon moved far away from this brand of filmmaking. Buoyed by two strong performances by Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt, The Elephant Man nevertheless suffers for its oppressively static construction, suffocating in a way that could be intentional but does not matter either way because it saps the film of any impact. Occasionally, Lynch cuts away to the roaring underbelly of the hospital where Hopkins makes Hurt a glorified prisoner, and these jarring blasts of noise and symbolic imagery, like the jolts in Haydn’s “Surprise,” are the cleverest, most engaging bits of the whole work.
8. The Straight Story
Moving past the aforementioned two stinkers, ranking Lynch’s filmography becomes nearly impossible, as the remaining eight features are all of exceptional quality and striking vision. That is true even of this stylistic departure, a movie so pared down from Lynch’s usual weirdness that practically everyone sees the title more as an admission on the director’s part than a description of the subject. Yet the most remarkable aspect of The Straight Story is not the absence of Lynch’s weirdness but its application toward a positive, even wholesome narrative. Try not to fall in love with Alvin Straight, the old, broken man forced to take the oddest transportation imaginable to see his even more decrepit brother. Filled with an assortment of endearing characters but powered by Richard Farnsworth’s quiet, real performance, The Straight Story is not an outlier in Lynch’s canon so much as the uncovered heart that pumps blood through even his most despairing work.
7. Blue Velvet
One of the greatest films of the 1980s, Blue Velvet got Lynch back on track after two disappointing Hollywood features threatened to kill his early promise. Refining Eraserhead’s psychological surrealism into a broader social portrait of weirdness, Blue Velvet peeked out from the freakish individuals that dotted earlier work to suggest that society itself was twisted. In light of what came after this, Lynch’s first feature-length immersion into the underworld of Rockwellian suburbia seems relatively conventional, gas-huffing psychopath Hopper and icy, Golden Oldies voguer Stockwell included. This may be Lynch’s most satiric work: MacLachlan and Dern blatantly look too old to be in high school (probably intentional, as Dern looks younger in Wild at Heart, made four years later). Meanwhile, Hopper’s sadistic relationship with Isabella Rosselini’s tormented torch singer, however frightening, is absurdist farce, Frank regressing to infancy as he bites her blue robe and slides his hand up her (Freudian) slip. A gaudy, and gauzy, counterpoint to visions of middle class Shangri-La in Reagan’s America.
For some, Lynch never topped this 1977 feature debut, made with the AFI's assistance and surely the greatest student film ever made. With an impressive grasp of film technique, young Lynch set about breaking all the rules he understood so innately. The sound design and carefully ordered but...off mise-en-scène establish Lynch’s stylistic foundations and his penchant for drawing almost unbearable tension from ordinary objects. In fact, take out all the grotesque people and effects Lynch inserts into the film and you still get one of the most chillingly effective horror films of all time. No wonder Stanley Kubrick studied it so judiciously when making The Shining, another movie in which interiors are the true villain.
5. Lost Highway
Noirish elements creep into many of Lynch’s films, but none dives into the genre’s black soul like Lost Highway, which seems to take the POV of film noir itself. Of particular note to Lynch, who has often given the most weight and nonjudgmental affection for his women characters, is the misogyny subtly put on parade in the movie’s shape-shifting narrative. The extended middle section, filled with all the seedy details that riddle Lynch’s sub-suburban nightmares, is the self-justifying projection of Bill Pullman’s character, who murders his frigid wife in paranoid delusion and attempts to run away from himself for the rest of the film and the cycle it promises to restart at the end. Plenty of filmmakers have had fun with the femme fatale archetype, but Lynch suggests that it is a fabrication by men to justify their own sexism, so that even the woman who refuses to be a victim is made a victim of male thought control. Through it all, Lost Highway makes the case for David Lynch coming the closest of perhaps any filmmaker to even partially replicating the effect of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, another work about sexual guilt that it always morphing and yet fundamentally cyclical.
4. Mulholland Dr.
Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks won Lynch legions of fans he spent the ‘90s gradually bleeding out, their interest in his trippy surrealism hitting the wall when they saw in his first three ‘90s movies how far Lynch could go with that style. The Straight Story won back some acclaim but seemed a departure more than a comeback. Then came Mulholland Dr. Collecting all the aspects of his ‘90s movies that appeared in such raw form, Mulholland Dr. distills all the weirdness into easily the director’s most focused work. Lynch repurposes the obliterating guilt of Lost Highway; into a cloud of denial over unrequited love and, perhaps worse, the realization of one’s lack of talent. As such, this poisoned love letter to Hollywood may be Lynch’s most tongue-in-cheek film, but as filtered through Naomi Watts’ performance and the lush formalism that meshes with its hazy dreamscape, it is also one of his most gripping and affecting.
3. Wild at Heart
I figured out Wild at Heart when Nic Cage’s character upstaged a show by speed metal band Powermad and led the group in a sudden cover of Elvis Presley. Up to that point, Wild at Heart is a mad jumble of freaks cranked up to 11 to show all Lynch’s post-Blue Velvet admirers what they were in for. It is still all of that after this moment, of course, but this scene acts as a skeleton key that reveals the film as a swirling collage of 20th century pop culture, where Elvis and Wild One-era Brando flow in and out of thrash metal and gaudy snakeskin. It also revamps The Wizard of Oz and reworks it to make dull, repressive home life the evil force it always should have been in that story and the thought of permanently escaping it the greatest wish one could ask from a ruler who could grant anything. Nic Cage has never been more attuned to the subject matter of one of his movies, and Lynch has never so casually touched metal to a raw nerve.
2. INLAND EMPIRE
The Joycean aspects of David Lynch’s filmmaking reach their pinnacle with INLAND EMPIRE, in which the temporal simultaneity of Wild at Heart and Möbius-strip cycles of Lost Highway are laid together, joined by mortar made from the ground-up shards of Lynch’s entire filmography. Lynch’s other films contain tendencies of Finnegans Wake, but this is the full thing: a basic plot rendered insensible and inexplicable through a stacking of time, space, even dimensions of reality into one simultaneously, flowing moment. Trading Irish national guilt for American pulp and a sense of complicity in the misogynistic exploitation he abhors, Lynch delivers perhaps his ultimate statement on the bonds of abuse that ground our loftiest fantasies, and how he perpetuates that as much as anyone. Laura Dern handles the constant slip between realities and places better than anyone could be reasonably expected to do, and Lynch finds in DV the smeary grime he wanted film to have all along. Indeed, INLAND EMPIRE, with its raw lighting and expansiveness of visual scope, is perhaps the quintessential visualization of digital as a different method of image capture than film, not merely in the ease of shooting but how that image is programmed and saved.
1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
If one views Fire Walk With Me solely as a narrative link to Twin Peaks, it will seem an unnecessary (and unnecessarily obtuse) rehash of a story we all know. Laura Palmer’s inevitable death, and the sufficient piecing together of her life’s horrors on the series proper, admittedly saps the tension of the piece. As an emotional landscape, however, the film displays Lynch at his best. Featuring an early, half-formed bifurcated structure that Lynch would later refine, Fire Walk With Me opens with the director’s most abstract, surreal, alienating humor before switching gears to plunge into the heart of the depravity and despair that lurks beneath the surface of all Lynch’s films. As the director ignores the wishes of fans and throws out narrative closure for the sake of honing in on a detail they already know, he provides a more resonant sense of emotional clarity to the show for those paying attention. No other Lynch film so plainly makes the case that the director’s schtick isn’t just easy, cynical irony. He really cares about his characters, even—especially—when he puts them through the worst hell.