Skip to content

David Lynch is probably the most consistently great American filmmaker working today, so long as your definition of “working today” includes somebody who hasn’t made a feature-length film in over ten years. Really, it’s easy to forget that he hasn’t released a new movie in such a long time. His work is discussed and screened so often that it’s never felt like he’s made some sort of grand departure from the world of directing. And with his return to Twin Peaks coming later this year, plus a new documentary about him in release this week (David Lynch: The Art Life), Lynch is maybe as much at the forefront of the public’s mind as he’s ever been. 

So what better time than now to take on the impossible task of ranking David Lynch’s movies? It’s a fool’s errand, sure. Anybody familiar with him is bound to read this ranking and have some sort of major disagreement (including me when I reread it) — but that’s the true proof of how great his career has been. So, here it is: A Much-to-be-Disagreed-Upon Ranking of the Movies of David Lynch.

10. Dune (1984)

Okay, so this one wasn’t that hard to rank. Depending on who you ask, Dune could be considered anything from a disaster, to an interesting failure, to a secret masterpiece. Adapting Frank Herbert’s novel wasn’t ever going to be easy, even for the best of directors. The film was a disappointment at the box office and received largely negative reviews. Over the years, several new cuts have been released and Dune has gained a small but notable cult following. But even Lynch has distanced himself from Dune, which is truly remarkable considering he was once so enthusiastic about the project that he turned down the director’s job for Return of the Jedi in order to make it.

9. Wild at Heart (1990)

There’s already somebody screaming at their computer now that I’ve ranked Wild At Heart second from the bottom. And that’s totally fine! Wild at Heart is a really fun movie. Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage are both great! It’s full of awesome stuff! It even won the Palme d’Or at Cannes! For any other filmmaker, Wild at Heart might be a signature achievement. As far as David Lynch movies go, it’s (almost unbelievably) a little forgettable.

8. The Straight Story (1999)

Making this ranking is torture. I’ve long been one of those people who says that The Straight Story is incredibly underrated and deserves to be discussed alongside the rest of Lynch’s movies. And here it is, in eighth place. This is remembered by many as Lynch’s G-rated Disney movie — yes, the guy who’s been the source of countless nightmares once worked with Disney. It’s a really simple film, telling the story of a man who drives his tractor 240 miles to visit his brother, who’s just suffered from a stoke. The catch is that his tractor only moves at five miles-per-hour. Forgive the cliche, but it’s so different from Lynch’s other work,  while at the same time, so similar.

7. Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway is a really interesting movie. Like many of his other films, Lost Highway exists in something of a dreamlike reality. I’d argue, though, that the things Lynch is doing here, he does better in his later work. That’s not to say Lost Highway is bad at all, because it’s very good (or maybe even great) — it’s just that the movies he’d make after it are better. Nevertheless, Lost Highway is always fun to revisit, and, at the least, Robert Blake is really creepy in it. If I sound like I don’t like it that much, it’s only because I’m trying to justify to myself why it should be ranked seventh! Ranking Lynch is not a winning game.

6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Fire Walk With Me occupies an odd space in Lynch’s filmography, seeing as it functions as both a prequel and a sequel to the Twin Peaks television series. And, man, when it first came out people really hated it. This reception probably had something to do with the fact that it was released less than a year after the series was cancelled due to low ratings. But of all Lynch’s movies, this one has received the biggest change in perception since its release. Many wouldn’t hesitate now to call it one of his masterpieces. It’s certainly one of his genuinely scariest movies. And here’s my bold guess: with more and more people revisiting it when the Twin Peaks revival premiers this spring, Fire Walk With Me is only going to get more and more popular.

5. The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man wins the award for the David Lynch movie most likely to make you cry. It’s the closest he’s ever come to making a “prestige” movie, but it never feels overly sentimental or Oscar bait-y. A lesser director could’ve screwed this story up and turned it into treacle very easily. Of course, you also can’t forget the beautiful black-and-white cinematography, or the incredible makeup job that turned John Hurt into John Merrick. The makeup was so good, in fact, that it inspired the creation of the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

4. Inland Empire (2006)

This is where the ranking gets even tougher. Inland Empire is one of the best movies to watch in a dark room with the volume on your television turned up uncomfortably loud. It’s a really scary movie, for reasons that aren’t abundantly clear even to the viewer. Lynch shot the entirety of this three-hour (!) movie on standard definition digital video,which definitely adds to its nightmarish quality. Inland Empire is easy to follow at the start, but slowly, the narrative unravels. Never has the phrase “descent into madness” been more fitting. It’s all centered around an incredible performance from Laura Dern, who brings it all together. If David Lynch never makes a feature-length movie again, at least he ended with something both idiosyncratic and wonderful.

3. Blue Velvet (1986)

Okay, so “descent into madness” describes this one pretty well, too. It begins with Kyle McLachlan discovering a severed human ear in his idyllic little town, and, yes, things just get weirder from there. And let’s not forget Dennis Hopper! In Blue Velvet, he plays Frank, one of the best villains of all time, and the perfect personification of the dark underbelly of suburbia. His line deliveries manage to be both absolutely hilarious and completely terrifying, usually at the same time. Blue Velvet, for my money, is the best introduction for newcomers to Lynch — the narrative is never difficult to follow, but it still contains all the hallmarks of Lynchian weirdness.

2. Eraserhead (1977)

So if Inland Empire and Blue Velvet are descents into madness then Eraserhead is just madness. From the very beginning, watching it feels like living a nightmare. Truly, some of the most memorable imagery in all of film can be found here: the deformed baby, the chipmunk-cheeked girl in the radiator, the gross food. And the sound design can best be described as punishing — the droning, ambient noise omnipresent throughout the movie just makes the images on the screen all the more disturbing.

1. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive isn’t just Lynch’s best film, it’s also probably the best movie if the 21st century so far. It functions as the perfect synthesis of all of David Lynch’s work. It’s got everything! It’s dreamy, strange, sad, frightening — really, just pick an adjective and it probably applies. It’s clever without being cutesy, bizarre without being pretentious. If Erasehead is a complete nightmare, Mulholland Drive is a little more dreamlike (an occasionally awful dream, but still). But while it’s certainly Lynch at his “dreamiest,” it’s not actually nearly as hard to follow as some people might have you think. It’s the David Lynch movie with the most re-watchability, with tiny details always waiting to be discovered. Honestly, Mulholland Drive is just perfect. As tough as ranking Lynch’s films is, placing this one at the top was my easiest decision.

Make yourself heard!