For almost 40 years David Lynch has been producing some of the boldest, strangest and most divisive feature films around. His idiosyncratic approach to character and love of non-linear story structures have seen him dismissed as ‘weird for weirdness’ sake by some quarters, while he is hailed by others as a visionary and a genius. I am firmly of the latter opinion and from ‘Eraserhead’ to ‘Inland Empire’, I’ve always found something in his movies to draw me in – almost always for several repeat viewings. I found it difficult to narrow down my choices for this list, but nevertheless here are my personal top 5 films from Lynch’s canon.
5. Blue Velvet (1986)
While Lynch’s unique approach and keen eye for life’s strange details had been evident since ‘Eraserhead’ (and indeed the lesser known short films that preceded it), it was ‘Blue Velvet’ that first established his quirky and disturbing take on small-town America. The dark heart and demented characters that can be found beneath the pleasant, folksy veneer is something that the director would return to on numerous occasions, most notably in ‘Twin Peaks’.
Speaking of which, Kyle Maclachlan also stars here as the inquisitive Jeffrey Beaumont, a young man who makes the grisly discovery of a severed ear while wandering his hometown of Lumberton. His curious nature leads him to beautiful and mysterious nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and eventually into the deranged world of gas-huffing, depraved and violent kidnapper Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
Many people seem to see Maclachlan’s character as an earlier version of Agent Cooper, and I can see why. His earnestness and vulnerability play well against Hopper’s genuinely monstrous performance, while Rosellini is painfully believable as the poor, broken target of Frank’s torment. Make no mistake, ‘Blue Velvet’ is often difficult to sit through, but if you have the stomach for it you’ll be rewarded with perhaps the most fully realized, emotionally affecting film noir since the genres 1940s heyday.
4. Lost Highway (1997)
I’ve already reviewed this 1997 mobius-strip style thriller a few months ago, so rather than repeating myself I’ll just explain its placement as fourth on my list. I think this was the point at which fence-sitters who may have enjoyed ‘Blue Velvet’ and some of the less mind-boggling aspects of ‘Twin Peaks’ but found ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘Wild At Heart’ too self-indulgent were turned off for good. After ‘Fire Walk With Me’ received caustic criticism – which Lynch has commented on being particularly stung by – it seemed he was left with two options of how to proceed with his next film: go mainstream or go for broke. Despite the casting of relatively mainstream stars Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, it’s clear Lynch took the latter option. From here on out, the air of mystery that had already permeated his best work would be extended to the ways in which the stories were presented to the audience. It’s a polarizing choice, making the films infinitely more involving for those who are willing to be taken on a long, strange journey but infinitely more alienating for those who prefer a clear beginning, middle and end. ‘Lost Highway’ was Lynch’s first film to fill me with an overpowering sense of intrigue that continued to grow long after my first viewing, and repeat viewings were even more satisfying as a result.
3. The Elephant Man (1980)
At the other end of the spectrum is ‘The Elephant Man’, perhaps Lynch’s most universally accepted and palatable work (with the possible exception of the sadly, comparatively little known ‘The Straight Story’). In fact in my experience many people who love the movie are very surprised to find out that Lynch was the director of this moving, relatively straightforward tale. Based on the true story of the severely deformed (due to neurofibromatosis) Joseph Merrick (or John as he is referred to here), it stars John Hurt in the title role and mostly takes its version of events from surgeon Frederick Treves’ memoir.
Treves is played here by Anthony Hopkins, and we follow the story of his friendship with and care for Merrick, whom he first discovers being exploited as an act in a Victorian freak show under the management of the cruel and abusive Bytes (Freddie Jones). The film is powerful, if unashamedly sentimental in its depiction of Merrick’s plight as he struggles for his dignity, acceptance and some sort of quality of life free from the torment of Bytes and the jibes and judgement of the ignorant.
While this is certainly not one of his weirder movies, some touches are recognizably Lynch – the dreamlike vision at the tear-jerking end of the film, for example echoes ‘Eraserhead”s Lady in The Radiator and later Laura Palmer’s angelic redemption at the end of ‘Fire Walk With Me’. Lynch’s stylistic choices, including the decision to film in black and white, as well as many superb flourishes deserve praise of course, though much of the credit has to go to his collaborators. Hurt in particular gives an outstanding performance, striking all the right notes in what must have been a daunting role, even for an actor of his calibre. Christopher Tucker’s mask/make-up work is also key to the character, shocking enough to convey Merrick’s condition but without going overboard. That Merrick’s personality and genteelness eventually overpower our reactions to his appearance is precisely what the story called for, and that this works so successfully is to the credit of all involved.
What’s your favorite David Lynch film? Let me know in the comments below and please check back very soon for my own two close favorites.