Tim Burton is one of the most distinctive directors working today – even if you hate his films and many do, you have to admit, you know a Burton film when you see one. It seems to be pretty evenly split as to people who love his stuff, and people who think they are empty vessels with nothing but the same visual look every time out. I am more mixed then most – I enjoy most of his films, but do not love very many – many are enjoyable the first time through, but find don’t find much reason to revisit them after that first time. It has been 27 years since he made film debut, and this week, we’ll see his 15th feature in Dark Shadows. So let’s look back and what has come before that. (By the way, Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorites that Burton has been involved with – but he didn’t direct it, so it’s not on this list).
14. Planet of the Apes (2001)Perhaps the harshest thing I can say about Burton’s Planet of the Apes is that it doesn’t for a second feel like a Tim Burton film. If Burton is going to make a movie, he damn well better put his own spin on it, but this Planet of the Apes doesn’t feel like his – it doesn’t feel like anyone’s for that matter, just another anonymous would be blockbuster. Mark Wahlberg is a bland hero, Helena Bonham Carter not a very convincing ape love interest. I did love Tim Roth’s over the top villain, and the twist ending works, because while it’s similar to the twist of the original film, it isn’t the same. Still, when I see a Tim Burton film, I want to see a Tim Burton film – and this is the one film that doesn’t feel like his own.
13. Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985)Burton’s film debut is scattershot, but at times, absolutely hilarious. Overgrown man child Pee-Wee Herman has his beloved red bike stolen, and goes on a cross country journey to try and track it down – and meets some strange people along the way, and ends up in pretty strange places (like the Alamo). The movie is almost more like a series of comic vignettes than a complete film. Yes, at times it is hilarious, and remains a must for a certain type of film fan, but for me it perhaps Burton’s least complete film. Enjoyable yes, but a great film, no.
12. Alice in Wonderland (2010)There is probably not another director working today who I would rather see direct a live action version of Alice in Wonderland. Burton puts a kind of unique spin on the material – a quasi-sequel to Lewis Carroll’s classic if you will, because now Alice is older, and returning to a Wonderland she doesn’t remember – but certainly remembers her. But for whatever reason, this Alice is not wholly satisfying – perhaps it’s because Johnny Depp seems to be trying too hard to be too crazy as the Mad Hatter. The last act, which for whatever reason decides to pile on the action instead of keeping its demented fairy tale tone, certainly does not help. Alice in Wonderland is still a good film – enjoyable to see once, especially to see Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as The Red Queen, but still I have to say, I was a little let down by this one.
11. Beetle Juice (1988)Michael Keaton is brilliant as Beetlegeuse, a demon who specializes in “exorcising the living”, which a newly dead couple desperately need when a new family moves into their house, and they want rid of him. He goes brilliantly over the top as the demented ghoul, in the first film that truly showed what a Tim Burton film would look like – and it does look great from start to finish. The problem is, Keaton is a supporting character, and no one else is as interesting as he is – when he’s off screen, you wait for him to get back. Yes, it’s enjoyable, but if I run across it on TV now, and it’s a scene not involving Keaton, I breeze right on by.
10. Batman (1989)When I revisited Burton’s original Batman film a few years ago – on the eve of the release of Batman Begins – I was somewhat disappointed. I hadn’t seen the film is years, but it certainly had an effect on me as a kid. And Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is still a thing twisted comic genius. And the Gotham City Burton invents is as distinct a visual environment as he has ever created. And yet, everything around The Joker was somewhat disappointing, not as good or as magical as I remembered as a child. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia playing tricks on me, but while I can continue to watch Batman Returns again and again and again, I won’t be revisiting the original any time soon.
9. Big Fish (2003)Big Fish was Burton’s attempt to be taken a little more seriously as an artist – and yet, it is still undeniably his film. It is about a dying old man (Albert Finney), who has been telling tall tales about his life to his son (Billy Crudup) for his whole life – and now, as he lies dying, his son finally wants to hear the truth – but Finney, of course, cannot help but embellish his life, and the romance between him and his wife. Seen in flashback, Ewan McGregor is a young Finney, who goes from one outlandish experience to the next. It is an enjoyable journey, and visually exciting just like all of Burton’s films. And yet, despite the fact that Burton is trying to be more serious here than in the past, the film feels even emptier than much of his work. Yes, Big Fish is fun, but it doesn’t really add up to as much as Burton thinks it does.
8. Mars Attacks! (1996)Tim Burton followed up his tribute to the “worst director in history”, Ed Wood, with a film that feels like Wood could have directed it. It is a purposefully cheesy homage to the not purposefully cheesy 1950s sci-fi movies that Wood, and other made, and which Burton loved so much as a child. And taken as a purposefully cheesy comedy, Mars Attacks is utterly hilarious – with its aliens with their oversized heads, who vaporize humanity, to Jack Nicholson’s delirious triple performance, to the over acting by the entire cast, and of course, the brilliantly nonsensical way the human defeat the Martian invaders. I know many hate Mars Attacks, and I cannot really argue with those who do, but I find it hilarious if I’m in the right mood.
7. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005)Burton may not have had a directing credit on The Nightmare Before Christmas, but he certainly took the lessons he learned from it (not to mention his early short films, like the brilliant Vincent) to direct so far his only animated feature. His films are so stylized; they often resemble live action animated films anyway. His distinctive look makes this animated film – about a shy young man (voiced by Johnny Depp, of course) who is set to marry the woman he loves, but accidentally ends up marrying a corpse instead. This film does not have quite the same magic of Nightmare Before Christmas, but it is still one of the most entertaining films Burton has made – uniquely his own, funny, stunningly animated, and a couple of nice songs to go along with it.
6. Sweeny Todd (2007)As someone who loves the stage version of Sweeny Todd – a brilliant musical by Stephen Sondheim, it took me a little while – and more than one viewing – to truly fall in love with Burton's film version. The musical is a very demanding, difficult one for singers – that requires big, versatile singing voices, and I have to be honest, and say that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do not have those voices. And yet, on a second viewing, knowing that these two weren’t going to go big with their voices, the creepiness of their underlying performances came through – Depp as the demented barber hell-bent on revenge, and Bonham Carter as the pathetic woman who loves him. I’m still not sold on the two young lovers – which Burton never makes as crazy as they should be (they are, in a different way, as insane as the central characters), and yet I did love the visual look of the film, and I eventually fell in love with the lead performances. I have seen this a few times in the last five years, and its perhaps the only Burton film I feel gets better each time I see it.
5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)I know what I am about to say will be seen by somewhat blasphemy, but yes, I prefer the Burton/Depp version of Roald Dahl’s classic more than the Mel Stuart/Gene Wilder version – and it’s mainly because of Depp’s wildly eccentric, daring performance as Willy Wonka. Unlike Wilder’s performance, where he is somewhat lovably eccentric, Depp turns Willy Wonka into a creepy, sad little man. He is essentially an overgrown man child, prone to cruel, sadistic, childish outbursts. Depp is said to have been inspired by Michael Jackson, and it shows in his performance – his Willy Wonka is as creepy as I always though Jackson was. Of course, the Chocolate Factory allows Burton to indulge in his usual over the top, yet brilliant, art direction, costume design and cinematography – and Freddie Highmore is appropriately lovable as young Charlie, but to me, Depp elevates the movie with his brilliant performance. I know many hate his performance, but I could not help but love it.
4. Sleepy Hollow (1999)Sleepy Hollow is absolutely wonderful comic horror film – a masterpiece of art direction, costume design and cinematography that make it perhaps the most visually distinctive of all of Burton’s films. Johnny Depp makes a wonderful Ichabod Crane, ahead of his time in terms of forensic science, who uses devices of his own design (the creepiest looking fictional tools this side of Dead Ringers) to investigate a series of deaths that the locals of Sleepy Hollow insist were committed by the Headless Horseman – which of course Crane does not believe. When he finally does see it with his own eyes – he does the only logical thing – hide under his covers. The ending of the movie is too conventional, and yet, you have to admit that any explanation for how and why a headless horseman is committing murders would be somewhat unsatisfying. Still, Sleepy Hollow is a visual masterwork – and contains one of Depp’s best performances.
3. Edward Scissorhands (1990)Edward Scissorhands is the saddest of all Tim Burton films – and Tim Burton characters. Played by Johnny Depp, the title character is the creation of a mad scientist (Vincent Price, of course), who finds himself abandoned and alone, not knowing what to do with his life after the death of his father – and finding himself trapped in suburbia, with a strange, but loving family – but a world that does not want him. This is Burton’s take on the monster movies he loved in his youth – when the monsters were objects of sympathy, who simply did not understand why the world hated them so much. It is also a visual wonder of a film. This was Johnny Depp’s first appearance in a Burton film – and remains one of his best. His performance is silent, but heartbreaking, in one of the only Burton films I can watch again and again and not get bored.
2. Batman Returns (1992)This will likely be the most controversial placement on this list for many people – but for me, Batman Returns remains one of Burton’s very best films, miles beyond the original film, and so creepy that every time I see it, it brings me back to my 11 year old self who was freaked out by the film. Michael Keaton is fine as Batman, but the Burton Batman films were always about the villains. Danny DeVito’s demented penguin is an absolute treat – even if he bears no resemblance the comic book villain. But for me, this film will always be defined by my favorite performance by Michelle Pfeiffer ever, as Catwoman. That cat suit remains transfixed in my mind, as does the sexy purr of her voice. The film is exciting from beginning to end, dark violent, creepy – another visual masterwork by Burton – but it is elevated by Pfeiffer well beyond most superhero movies. I do not envy Anne Hathaway, who has big shoes to fill this summer in The Dark Knight Returns.
1. Ed Wood (1994)I don’t think Burton is ever going to top his 1994 film Ed Wood – it is his most personal film, and the one that perfectly marries his visual style with its subject matter. Ed Wood is commonly called the worst director in film history – he had no idea how to make a movie, and was so in love with every shot, no matter how many mistakes there were, he never sees the flaws in his own work. And yes, Burton’s film mocks Wood – but it does so in a good natured way. It also has a fair amount of respect for the man – Wood had the passion to be a filmmaker, if not the skill. For me, this will always be Johnny Depp’s best performance – he dives headlong into the role and goes for broke. Martin Landau won an Oscar for his performance as the legendary Bela Lugosi, who late in his life, addicted to morphine, found himself working with Wood. The black and white photography is brilliant - and–perfect for Burton’s sensibility (I have a feeling he’d shoot more in black and white if they let him). The film is a hilarious comedy, and a heartfelt tribute to the passion that goes into filmmaking. Burton has never made a better film – in fact, he’s never even come close. This is his masterpiece.