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Lynch’s creativity is unparalleled

I've been prompted to rank his films between 1977-2006

David Lynch works with Naomi Watts on the set of Mulholland Drive.

Greg W. Locke

Whatzup Features Writer

Published October 19, 2022

The Criterion Collection’s recent reissue of David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway prompted me to revisit the 10 feature films Lynch made between 1977-2006. I’ve seen all his films several times, but there are many I haven’t seen in a good long while, including Lost Highway.

Reappraising Lynch’s filmwork was a much different experience than I had expected. I’ve long thought of him as a genius-level creative, not just for his film endeavors but for his painting, writing, music, photography and, well, philosophy. I saw most of his feature films before I had ever dreamed of making one myself, so I only really understood his work as a viewer. Needless to say, revisiting Lynch’s 10 feature films after I’ve been working “in the film industry” the last 10 years has resulted in a pretty profound appreciation of his craft.

Lynch’s work has been written about so much, and I don’t want to run through the greatest hits of what will ultimately become the his legacy. Yes, his work is dark, dream-like, and abstract. The two things I don’t think are discussed enough are Lynch’s remarkable mastery of tone and, of course, his sound design, which is perhaps the most creative in the history of major cinema.

If you don’t consider the last film Lynch made, Inland Empire, which is a pretty ugly-looking movie (it’s supposed to be?), he could be in the conversation for being one of the great visual filmmakers ever. If you’ve not seen Eraserhead, I’d recommend starting there. Not just Stanley Kubrick’s favorite film of all-time, Eraserhead is often considered to be the art film of art films. I agree. Nothing looks like it, nothing sounds like it, nothing feels like it. It’s as if the film was sent over from another galaxy, made by a being whose mind worked completely differently than humans. 

I ranked Lynch’s films below (because that’s what I do), and while doing so I was tempted to leave Eraserhead out because it feels wrong to compare it’s visual beauty to anything. It’s just sort of its own thing.

Back to Lost Highway

When I first saw this film in 1998 or so, I thought it was boring, weird, and didn’t work. I assumed I’d never watch it again. I revisited it in 2005 or so and had a similar response: abstract, boring, formless, nonsensical, odd, a slog. Now, age 42, I’d call it a masterpiece. 

Lynch’s ability to take you out of the world you know and put you in his imagination is remarkable. Almost every shot is gorgeous in a painterly way. So, do I recommend the Criterion reissue of the film? Of course. I recommend the Criterion edition of every Lynch film.

Before I get on with the rankings, I want to pose a question: How will Lynch and his work be remembered? I’d argue that seven of his 10 films are masterpieces that will be in the cinema conversation for generations to come. That being said, while his fans and film scholars and critics can recognize how singular and impressive Lynch’s filmography is, these aren’t exactly films made for broad audiences. 

So, while Lynch’s filmography will certainly go down as one of the best of any American filmmaker (and he’ll almost certainly go down as one of the most important arthouse filmmakers ever), it’s hard to imagine him being a Spielberg-like household name in 20 years. But I might be wrong. Lynch has TV shows, feature films, more short films than just about anyone, albums, books, and paintings. For all I know, Lynch might end up going down as the great creative of his time. The hivemind might look back on Lynch someday and crown him a Picasso-level art god.

But I digress. Here’s how I feel about Lynch’s feature films.

10. The Straight Story (1999, B)

9. Inland Empire (2006, B)

8. Dune (1984, B)

7. The Elephant Man (1980, A)

6. Fire Walk With Me (1992, A)

5. Lost Highway (1997, A)

4. Wild at Heart (1990, A+)

3. Mulholland Drive (2001, A+)

2. Blue Velvet (1986, A+)

1. Eraserhead (1977, A+)

No bad movies in sight. Seven drop-dead masterpieces and, in my opinion, three of the best films ever made. Not to mention the 100-plus short films, the books, the writing, the music and, of course, the incredible work as a painter. Wow. Lynch is just a guy out there walking around among us. A god with the best haircut. 

Now, into his late 70s, it’s anyone’s guess how much more work we’ll see from Lynch. What we know is that if he does make a new film, it’ll be good. Probably great.

Send your David Lynch lists my way at gregwlocke@gmail.com.

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