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The Best Movie of the 21st Century: Why Critics Keep Voting for David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’

Film critics and one of the producers of "Mulholland Drive" weigh in on the movie's extraordinary staying power.

“Mulholland Drive”

Universal Pictures

Getting film critics to agree on the best movie from a particular time period can be like herding cats. David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” is the exception to that rule.

Prior to being voted the best film of the 21st century in a BBC poll this week, the 2001 movie claimed the number one spot on “Best of the Decade” polls from Film Comment, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), Reverse Shot, and IndieWire. The BBC list polled 177 film critics from 36 countries around the world.

Ironically, “Mulholland Drive” wasn’t originally conceived as a movie at all. The project started as a television pilot that Lynch shot in 1999 that was rejected by ABC. French producers Pierre Edelman and Alain Sarde put up additional funds for Lynch to finish the project as a feature film in 2000 through StudioCanal. Tony Krantz, another producer on the movie who had previously packaged the director’s hit series “Twin Peaks” while working as Lynch’s agent, said “Mulholland Drive” almost didn’t get made.

“David was reluctant to finish the movie,” Krantz told IndieWire. “I sort of convinced him to actually do the deal that [StudioCanal’s] Canal+ offered him, and he finally did.”

A fever dream of a movie set in Los Angeles, “Mulholland Drive” stars Laura Harring as young woman who becomes amnesic after a car wreck in the Hollywood hills and Naomi Watts as an aspiring actress who helps her search for clues to her life. Summarizing the plot of the film, however, is close to impossible due to the narrative twists that leave it open to interpretation as to what is a dream and what is reality.

“Like a lot of critics who adore the movie, none of us got it the first time,” said Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang, who managed the LAFCA poll in 2010 and ranked “Mulholland Drive” as the best film of the 21st century in the recent BBC poll. “Any person who says they did is lying.”

One aspect of the film that helps give it a timeless quality is the way it looks both forward and backward, serving as a kind of “poisoned valentine” to Hollywood, according to Chang. “It very lovingly recreates the grand old Hollywood of yesteryear and yet it’s a movie about the evils underlying the industry and particularly what it does to actresses and to women who dream of working in the business,” he said. “It’s about the allure and also the toxic underbelly of the dream factory.”

David Lynch and Naomi Watts on the set of "Mulholland Drive"

David Lynch and Naomi Watts on the set of “Mulholland Drive”

Shutterstock

The film also features one of the most acclaimed performances from an actor in recent memory, with Watts playing the parts of both Betty and Diane. “The shape-shifting brilliance of her performance in that movie I think really has not been paralleled,” Chang said. “That is still to this say kind of what always draws me back to ‘Mulholland Drive.'”

Reverse Shot co-founder Michael Koresky is another critic who voted “Mulholland Drive” as number one on the BBC poll. Now the Editorial Director of Film Society of Lincoln Center, Koresky said that despite the fragmented nature of the film’s story, there is a singular quality about the movie that endears viewers. “You get the sense that you’re seeing something that comes from one pure, emotional vision, which is how all art should be,” Koresky said.

Interestingly, Koresky was not a fan of Lynch’s prior films when he saw “Mulholland Drive” shortly after graduating from college. “This was the movie where it all cohered,” he said. “Even if I didn’t understand it on a narrative level when I first walked out, I understood David Lynch. I suddenly just got him.”

So what does it say that one of the most challenging and unconventional films in the history of movies is a critical darling that still resonates with people 15 year’s after its release? “It says that audiences don’t only want the obvious and the easily understood,” said Krantz, who refers to Lynch as a genius and one of the great artists of our time. “People are prepared to look at things that are ambiguous and mysterious and uncertain. They’re along for the ride in the same way that they’re along for the ride in their own dreams.”

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