While David Lynch is known for his filmmaking, he’s really more of a cinematic painter who uses film as a canvas for expressing his uniquely surreal perspective of the world.
Many of David Lynch’s movies are so profound that their meanings often require time to seep into the viewer’s understanding. In fact, it could be said that Lynch’s skill as a master storyteller works with the audience’s own maturation to produce great films.
You’ll see a lot of Lynch’s movies appear on “Greatest Movies of All Time” lists across the internet. There was even a BBC poll of 177 critics from around the world that concluded Mulholland Drive to be the best movie made in the 21st century.
Ranking Lynch’s movies is no easy feat, but we’re going to take a stab. Here are the best David Lynch movies that you really ought to see if you haven’t yet!
10. Dune (1984)
When David Lynch began adapting the Dune novel for the big screen, many rejoiced for thinking the work had fallen into the right hands.
However, Dune suffered endless behind-the-scenes problems that led to a power struggle between Lynch and the studio. The final nail in the coffin came when the executives saw Lynch’s four-hour rough cut of the film, which they expected to be closer to two hours.
In the end, Lynch was removed from Dune’s post-production and the studio edited the film without him. The final cut of Dune is a wildly confusing mess with a potentially amazing plot underneath, just waiting to burst at the seams.
But unrealized potential is nothing. Dune was panned by critics and failed to earn back its budget at the box office. Lynch even took his name off the film, being credited as Alan Smithee instead.
To this day, David Lynch hates to discuss the film and has done his best to forget that he was even involved—so much so that he’s rejected multiple opportunities to release a Director’s Cut.
9. Lost Highway (1997)
In many ways, Lost Highway is David Lynch’s transition movie from his (slightly) more restrained works to his fully realized sense of expressionism. It shares more in common with Mulholland Drive than it does with his other films like Blue Velvet or Wild At Heart.
While it’s still a fascinating watch, and even though Lynch’s use of a surreal narrative gives the film an ending that’ll keep you thinking about it for days afterwards, Lost Highway lacks Lynch’s usual grip on a tight execution of vision.
Upon first viewing, Lost Highway will have you wishing for a more conventional narrative. It’s only when you put that aside that it becomes clear that Lynch was moving on as a filmmaker to find a “truth” that most other films just don’t have.
Today, Lost Highway enjoys a much better critical embrace and has even gained a dedicated following.
8. Wild At Heart (1990)
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Nicolas Cage and David Lynch working together is an unforgettable sight to be seen. In Wild At Heart, Nicolas Cage’s vivid acting style is allowed to explode for the audience.
Wild At Heart is a gripping story of young idealistic love, set against the backdrop of a cruel and unforgiving world, and what effect such a world can have on two people that just want each other.
Given the energetic performances by Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage showcasing pure lust, Wild At Heart might just be David Lynch’s most whimsical film. Yet as the world slowly pulls them down, they grow pained and darkened by the negativity that surrounds them.
Wild At Heart plays with the notion that idealism and powerful love aren’t enough to save you from the world, as well as the idea that accepting one another’s flaws can find you redemption.
7. Eraserhead (1977)
Eraserhead’s own journey to the big screen could fill an entire article itself. However, looking at the finished film, it feels like the one project that most defines David Lynch to this very day.
It’s the story of Henry, a print worker, who unexpectedly has a “child” with his on-and-off girlfriend. The “child” in question ends up being a smooth lizard-esque creature that acts in much the same way as a baby would, in that it cries a lot and needs feeding.
The whole film is permeated with dream sequences and surreal twists on a working-class existence. To learn the film’s true meaning would be something that only Lynch could provide.
However, it does have a hold over the audience and feels like a nightmarish twist on new parenthood, the death of one’s freedom, as well as becoming stuck without being able to scream.
Eraserhead was a film that demonstrated what Lynch could be as a filmmaker, and though he’d spend years afterwards making more “conventional” projects, he did eventually get back to his utterly surrealist roots that were promised here.
6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
David Lynch picked up his masterpiece of a TV series in Twin Peaks and decided to make a film to go with it. Usually, when a film is made of a TV series, it accompanies it like butter does with bread—but “usually” isn’t David Lynch’s style.
The movie is a proper prequel to the TV series, but it also serves as its own self-contained story. It’s about what happened to Laura Palmer before the series started, representing a far darker glimpse into the Twin Peaks universe.
It has all the hallmarks of a David Lynch film and isn’t just another chapter in the Twin Peaks narrative. But because it lacks the thematic tone and the humor of the TV series, fans of Twin Peaks were initially disappointed with this film.
In the end, Fire Walk With Me was its own demon—and once the first wave of critical evaluations passed, it sat on its own for years as it slowly built up a cult following.
That eventually led to a critical re-evaluation that praised the film as a masterpiece. Many of Fire Walk With Me’s original detractors even admitted that they’d got it wrong the first time around.
5. The Straight Story (1999)
To this day, The Straight Story is the only David Lynch movie that wasn’t written by David Lynch.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a David Lynch movie at all, what with its simplicity and understated tone. However, in stripping away all of Lynch’s usual trademarks, The Straight Story showcases something that he’s always had in his films: raw emotion.
The Straight Story is the true story of Alvin Straight, an elderly man who rode his lawnmower across two states to see his infirm brother. The people Alvin meets along the way are bettered by Lynch’s against-type direction, and Richard Farnsworth’s performance is incredible.
While this film has none of Lynch’s traditional surrealism, The Straight Story does have the same visceral core that exists in all of Lynch’s work. It’s for the seeming normality of the film that Lynch called it “his most experimental movie.”
4. Inland Empire (2006)
Quantifying Inland Empire and all of its symbology is a task made for no person. What can be said about the film is that it’s the story of an actress who’s part of a remake of a film called 47, which was abandoned because both lead actors died.
Honestly, any further description about Inland Empire would make zero sense if you haven’t seen it. But what does it say about Lynch?
Inland Empire is a modern movie with Lynch at his most linear. There’s nothing in the film that doesn’t have an impact on the plot, and even the smallest things end up being profoundly integral.
Lynch’s choice in using a Sony Camcorder over film stock adds another interesting dimension. He even declared later that he’d never make films on stock again. Though the look of the film is vastly different from his other films because of this, even that fact adds to the overall picture when you reach the end.
What Inland Empire demonstrated upon its release was that Lynch showed no signs of becoming a parody of himself, like so many others have done before him, and it was met with critical adulation.
3. Blue Velvet (1986)
Unearthing all of the hidden meanings in Blue Velvet would take years of dedicated work by qualified professionals. Even so, that doesn’t stop it from being a masterpiece upon first viewing.
Blue Velvet is about a small idyllic American town and the darkness that hides just beneath the surface. When Jeffrey Beaumont finds a severed ear while walking through a grassy lot, he’s exposed to a great mystery and a tense journey through the town’s seedy underbelly.
When Blue Velvet came out, it was met with critical division. It wasn’t until later that Blue Velvet rose in stature and came to be known as one of the best David Lynch movies ever made.
It’s a masterpiece of its genre. The performances by everybody involved are stellar, and the film was arguably the first that really showcased David Lynch’s modern subversive style.
Thematically, Blue Velvet feels like a response to the politics of the era—especially the Reagan administration—and features Lynch’s own twisted mutilation of the idealized feeling which was potent in any typical 80s American town.
2. The Elephant Man (1980)
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The Elephant Man was the second film that David Lynch ever made, and it’s still one of his most famous projects—if not THE most famous.
It tells the heartbreaking story of John Merrick, the eponymous Elephant Man. This movie doesn’t feel like a natural progression after Lynch’s first film Eraserhead, but the massive difference between the two films really showcases Lynch’s ability as a director.
For those who have never heard of John Merrick, he was a severely deformed man who lived in Victorian London and was horribly mistreated by others. Merrick was eventually examined at The London Hospital, striking up a friendship with Doctor Frederick Treves in the process, and allowed to stay there indefinitely.
Lynch brought Merrick’s story across with as much emotion and heart as any director would have been capable of doing. While there are some of Lynch’s surreal aspects to the picture, they only serve to complement the film.
The Elephant Man is a cinematic masterpiece. Lynch’s direction and Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Dr. Treves are astonishing accompaniments to John Hurt’s iconic performance as Merrick.
1. Mulholland Drive (2001)
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It’s a very close call between The Elephant Man and Mulholland Drive, but one thing pushed Mulholland Drive that little bit further to first place: the fact that people still talk about it so much.
Mulholland Drive is a deep and twisted mystery about an aspiring actress, a hotshot director, and a woman who survives a car crash.
To explain the film’s meanings would be a futile exercise, as Lynch has never divulged the true intentions behind it. There are hundreds of theories surrounding it, but none have ever been confirmed or denied.
We can definitely say, however, that Mulholland Drive is the most absorbing film that Lynch has ever made. It’s a full-on representation of how he sees the world, showcasing some of the finest storytelling that the movie industry has ever seen.
Mulholland Drive is a tale of passion, desire, jealousy, sexuality, pain, and discovery—all wrapped up in a story about the dark nature of Hollywood. The performances by Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Harring are ones of great complexity, on top of the hyper-surreal narrative put forward by Lynch.
At release, the film was both acclaimed and derided by critics. Today, Mulholland Drive is considered one of the best films ever made and an example of pure auteurism in cinema. It can’t be ignored.