David Lynch‘s super-cryptic L.A. mystery Mulholland Drive has just been named the greatest film of the 21st century (so far) by BBC Culture – ahead of Boyhood, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Lost In Translation. The BBC polled a total of 177 film critics from 37 different countries, so it’s fair to say Lynch’s sprawling drama is now at the very least “revered”, and quite possibly on its way to being considered a modern-day masterpiece.
When it opened in 2001, though, Mulholland Drive wasn’t quite as rapturously received. Lynch’s film currently holds an 82% approval rating on review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes – very enviable, sure, but some distance from the near-universal praise lavished on the likes of Boyhood (98%), Selma (99%) and Toy Story 3 (98%). Of the 159 critic reviews listed for Mulholland Drive, a not insignificant 29 are “rotten” or negative. In 2001, the Greenwich Village Gazette called it “an infuriating film” and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer branded it “just too annoyingly incomprehensible to recommend”; the following year, Philadelphia Weekly wrote that “it feels like the flabby greatest hits medley from an over-the-hill pop star’s oldies circuit tour”.
The discrepancy between the film’s position right at the top of BBC Culture’s poll and its very good but not-quite-stellar showing on Rotten Tomatoes is easy to reconcile. It’s very possible that some critics who didn’t rate Mulholland Drive when they first saw it in 2001 have now changed their minds. It’s the sort of multi-layered, shape-shifting, intentionally ambiguous film that improves not so much with age, but with repeat viewings. The more you watch it, the more you understand or at least appreciate. At the same time, the BBC Culture poll didn’t require every single film critic to endorse Mulholland Drive‘s brilliance; it asked each critic to submit an individual Top 10 and awarded points from 1 (for 10th place) to 10 (for 1st place) to every film listed. Mulholland Drive is clearly loved by enough of them to have topped the poll, but this doesn’t mean the dissenting voices have completely disappeared in the last 15 years.