• Lost Highway

On Thursday, February 6, at 9 PM, as part of an ongoing series dedicated to actor Nicolas Cage, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films hosts a screening of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), in which Cage plays an amalgamation of Elvis Presley and every character in The Wizard of Oz not named Dorothy. It’s precisely the sort of barbed, eccentric role Cage has come to perfect, though the film itself, particularly when framed against the rest of Lynch’s filmography, has a far less serrated edge. The best of Lynch’s work, as is well-known, is far more incisive, the stuff of nightmares and sex and all sorts of other weird shit. I’ve always been fascinated with Lynch, particularly with how indifferent and occasionally resentful he is toward traditional (though not necessarily “classic”) film form, something that singles him out from most great directors. By his own admission, he became a filmmaker only because he wanted to see paintings move, a concept so indicative of his work that it’s become the default adage to describe his films. You can catch my five favorite after the jump.

5. The Grandmother (1970) This early short film illustrates Lynch’s ongoing interest in surrealist imagery and impressionistic storytelling. In particular, it anticipates the Freudian elements of Eraserhead; both films depict the nuclear family as some sort of nightmarish trap, procreative sex some sort of mythical curse. The film borrows elegantly from the work of Francis Bacon, specifically his Figure With Meat, whose black background with white framing is sampled prominently throughout the film. You can watch the whole thing here.

4. The Straight Story (1999) Many consider this Lynch’s most conventional film, which I suppose it is, but as Jonathan Rosenbaum astutely notes, “if some of the imagery suggests very-high-level calendar art, Lynch’s use of the ‘Scope frame is even more attractive than in Blue Velvet, and the film’s reflective rhythms are haunting.” Indeed, Lynch’s trademark eccentricities exist surreptitiously on the margins of the film, noticeable but not enough to muddle what is a perfectly entertaining drama.

3. Mulholland Drive (2001) A auteurist breakfast buffet, and a great movie about how we watch, interpret, and, for lack of a better word, fetishize movies. Lynch litters the material with mysterious Buñuelian symbols and images that are completely devoid of meaning but entirely captivating. To follow any one strand for too long leads one into a veritable rabbit hole of empty metaphors, which is itself a sort of simultaneous narrative to coincide with the film’s central mystery involving an amnesiac woman attempting to make sense of unfamiliar surroundings, an obvious surrogate for the audience itself.

2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1986) Viewers need not have seen Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks to appreciate this scatterbrained riff on innocence, Americana, and, uh, fingernails, though it certainly helps. A sort of postscript to Blue Velvet, it envisions a small town where unspoken tensions and repressed desires manifest themselves in ways both hilarious and disturbing. Laura Palmer, perhaps Lynch’s most alluring creation, is seen here in the form of an angelic harbinger of her own demise. The fact that there are virtually zero dramatic stakes (particularly if you’ve seen the TV show and already know Palmer’s fate) somehow makes the whole thing that much more terrifying.

1. Lost Highway (1997) Throughout his career, Lynch has toyed with narrative structure and the systematic nature of storytelling. Again, it’s telling that Lynch entered filmmaking because of his desires to “see paintings move”—clearly, he has little interest in conventional narratives, and he’s all the better for it. Lost Highway features his most elliptical narrative, filled with inner rhymes and dualistic themes made all the more engrossing by its bipartite structure. It’s a movie that never seems to stop, even after it ends.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.