Welcome to a new weekly segment, where I rank the filmography of a director and discuss why I enjoy certain entries over others. Keep in mind that this is just my personal ranking, and I’d love to hear about yours!
There are some of the more niche directors like David Lynch or Nicholas Pesce, with their weird imagery and damaged sensibilities. There are also populist directors, people like Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan, that pretty much anyone even remotely interested in film would be aware of.
For the cinematically inclined there’s one that serves as a sort of “starter director,” an auteur you can follow with an extremely distinct style and a thought process that appeals to the weirdo and outcast living in so many of these people. I was one of them and would count this guy as one of my starters in cinema as well. Yup, I’m talking about Tim Burton.
Having been in the big-boy-director seat for 34 years, with an impressive roster of 19 films, he’s someone to keep an eye on directly out of the gate. My aim here is just to rank, from worst to best, his filmography as I try to make sense of his career trajectory as well. His story beats and visual style have become the blueprint for enough lookalikes and Hot Topic teens that this should be as solid launch to this series of articles.
- Dark Shadows : Dear lord, I couldn’t stand this one. I like my Burton like I like my James Bond – either ridiculously horrid or absolute brilliance, but these boring ones are what really bum me out. Dark Shadows revolves around a vampire that wakes up after a 200 year nap to find that the world just ain’t the same. There’s a witch and some werewolves, that kind of thing. I promise you, it’s not worth the effort it would take to even rent it.
- Alice in Wonderland : I have a strange relationship with this one. I don’t hate it, but it’s a bizarre mishmash of ideas that feels like Burton both taking a paycheck and attempting to cater to fans that thought he might be losing his way. A sequel to the original animated film from 1951, this posits that Mia Wasikowski is now Alice and finds her way back to Wonderland (now known as Underland) to save it from villainous fiends. Scottish, bi-polar Johnny Depp ensues. This pops back to the idea of Burton without any wildness to it, despite the over-the-top CGI visuals. He just felt…checked out. I’m not sure what concession he was making here, given the films that followed, but his heart didn’t feel in this one outside of some visual design.
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children : Another heartless adaptation, Burton yet again took an adaptation into his arms and churned out a hover-hand hug. Asa Butterfield doesn’t help things, with his oddly meek performance as…sigh…”hero,” Jake Portman. He winds up, through a series of unlikely events and manipulations, at the house of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar wards. And what makes them peculiar? Little powers! Seriously, the powers range from boring to mildly interesting, but X-Men this ain’t. Burton’s visual style is also mysteriously absent from this film. I was expecting…more. Instead there are a few moments where you see that the light came back into his eyes as he saw a creature he could design or a hairstyle he could sketch in his own way. I don’t know, this one is something you can skip. It isn’t as bizarre visually as Alice in Wonderland, but the performances are more interesting?
- Big Eyes : This is where we hit the peak of my “bored with Burton” rants. While this made some waves with people on release, I found it bland and remember checking my watch a few times. The plot, at its most basic, is that Amy Adams paints excellent-yet-weird pictures of normal people. With big eyes. Anyway, Christoph Waltz plays her husband, who sells the paintings as his own work and a legal battle begins. It’s interesting as an outlier in Burton’s filmography, maybe the most “normal” of his films and lacking in almost everything that makes him special (yes, despite my detrimental statements thus far I DO find him special and wondrous).
- Frankenweenie : It’s cute. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, with the endless references to the original Universal Monster films and the black and white aesthetic. Do I find this one of his more special films? Nah, it’s nothing groundbreaking. This is a remake of a short film he made in 1984, a sweet little thing that’s charming and adorable. Like that short, this is both of those things and that carries the film. I weirdly watch this every Halloween, with it being a favorite of my niece’s. It’s also a film about resurrecting a lost pet, and who hasn’t wanted to get their beloved furry friend back? I’ve lost dogs, and this movie hits on those levels. Hell, I cry at parts despite having been somewhat underwhelmed by the whole of this one.
- Big Fish : There are those who would ream me for placing this one so low on the list, particularly when I’m placing some that are often thought of as bad much higher up on it. Still, I have trouble fully connecting with this one. It’s about a father and son who have trouble connecting, which you’d think would hit me right in the emotional gonads. This, though, doesn’t have the same flavor as my relationship with my father and in that it just doesn’t hit the same way. It’s about tall tales, exaggeration, and the art of storytelling. All that should ALSO draw me close and hold me tightly, but again I have issues connecting with it for some reason. I just…I’m not charmed by Ewan McGregor in his visual glory. This just doesn’t do it for me.
- Planet of the Apes : Oh boy, I’m deep in the weeds on this one. I can already hear the mob amassing nearby, their torches blazing and their pitchforks sharp. If I don’t make it out alive, please remember…this one just ain’t that bad. Look, I think the original is a masterpiece and I think the new trilogy is incredible, but in between them came this baffling wackadoo nonsense that doesn’t completely mesh together, but manages to feel charming anyway. Is Mark Wahlberg grossly miscast? Yes, but there’s a fun aspect to that in the idea that he ultimately feels embarrassed to even be in the film! That’s fun! There’s also Helena Bonham Carter, who commits so hard to the idea of an ape/human romance that Tim Burton wanted (despite the studio nixing that quick) that you buy her as the only true dramatic performance in the film. Oh, and how about Paul Giamatti as Limbo the slave-trader, in a performance that seems to be the only one aware of what movie it’s in? He tries to sell kids Asprin. Asprin! This is a bad movie, but I saw it for my birthday in 2001. You’d think I would have grown out of it, but I’ve found enough that’s silly in it to stay happy with the final cut (baffling though it is) a whole 18 years later. It’s bad, but in the best way!
- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure : MY BIKE! Seriously, this is so much fun. This is where we stop finding negatives and start just having fun with stuff. I’d like to point out that, like the beautiful Rube Goldberg breakfast machine in the intro, this film is full of unnecessary silliness and pointless gears and whatchamacallits, but they all manage to form a coherent and fun story that is a feel good, nourishing romp. Let’s just…ignore the fact that Pee-Wee brushes his teeth before breakfast, because that is the action of a monster. Whether you get a kick out of this intro, the dance to “Tequila,” saving the animals from a burning pet shop, or any of the other silly stuff in this movie, I can pretty much straight up guarantee a good time to be had by all.
- Dumbo : Yes, Dumbo! This one is much better than I gave it credit for, a self-aware film with a very Tim-Burton-esque cast and the cutest CGI elephant you could ask for, and it speaks to the state of the director that it is mostly a treatise on capitalism and maintaining appearances. It’s astounding that a satire on the Disneyfication of a more artistic, but dying, art form was released by…well, Disney. Besides bringing back some new and old favorites of Burton, this film also makes wonderful use of Colin Farrell as a haunted-looking man who has lost his arm in a war only to come home to his nigh-on orphaned children. Is his Southern accent unfortunate? Yup, and there are other parts of this movie that are as well. Bottom line, though, is that this was ignored and basically flopped despite being a solid and sweet little release.
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory : I like it, to hell with the rest of you. I think it’s sweet, weird, and an absolute blast. Deep Roy is a treasure, and we should all take very good care of him. Seriously though, this one has its flaws and still manages to be a charming and exciting little ride. I adore the Gene Wilder film/performance, but I can also like this. Is it as good? Not to me, but I still have a wonderful time watching it. It’s silly, awkward, perverse, and weird in the ways that I like my Tim Burton to be. I saw this in theatres and felt awkward leaving, aware that so many had trashed it in critical or personal reviews. I felt like I enjoyed it and years later just decided that I did.
- Batman : Okay, so is this a seminal moment in film history? Of course it is, it’s the first time a Batman movie was taken seriously. Is it a good performance in the main two roles? Yeah, they’re weird and eccentric and depressive. But what’s the real star here? Architecture! That’s right, Burton made the visual aesthetics of Gotham City the real star of the show and it leads the charge, followed closely by Jack Nicholson as The Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman. You can kind of tell that Burton wasn’t fully feeling this one in things like the editing and some of the shots, but he made it just well-enough to make a landmark classic. With this he guaranteed that he could make anything he wanted for years to come, and he guaranteed that both superhero fans and eventually fans of Burton himself would flock to the theatre on his name alone.
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street : “No there’s no place like London!” How good is this movie!? In 2007 I saw it over Christmas break, all by my lonesome because my friends didn’t like musicals (I didn’t either, but I liked the idea of the story), and was captivated. I wound up seeing this a whopping 5 times in the cinema, taking various groups of people with me to show them what I’d experienced. I’ve only done that with one other film, 2007’s The Mist, and both films awoke something special in me. Cannibalism, razor blade kills, Rube Goldberg barber chairs, this movie has it all! I was enamored with this and it brought me back to Burton in my cynical late teens.
- Batman Returns : It’s odd that in 2016 I’m annoyed with Batman killing people, but in 1992 when Batman straps a bomb to someone and tosses them into the sewer to explode I find it comical. It all comes from the fact that Tim Burton was completely let off the leash here. This feels like a director deciding what they’re interested in. Batman/Bruce Wayne is, essentially, a side character. What Burton’s interested in is the tragedy of life outside of the norm, alongside the tragedy of succumbing to the norm, and the idea that being the freak or weirdo isn’t so bad. This was also a watershed moment for me, even in an era where I’d already seen Return of the Jedi-era Leia, because of Michelle Pfieffer. Say what you will about that, but it cemented this as an important film to me.
- Beetlejuice : Look, everyone is wonderful in this film. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis make a sweet couple, Winona Ryder is adorable, and Jeffrey Jones/Catherine O’Hara are wonderfully mismatched as a weird rich couple. I adore them all, but we have to acknowledge the scummy elephant in the room – Beetlejuice himself. Michael Keaton and Tim Burton had to have had Lionel Richie’s “Hello” playing when they saw one another for the first time, because they match each other in the weirdest ways. Between Burton’s gross stop-motion ghost visuals, Keaton’s gross horny ghost performance, and the absolute sweetness of the main three characters…this is just a great little film. Amazing that it was his second, yet it defines his visual style and will carry on for the rest of his directorial career.
- Corpse Bride : Yup, I like this better than Beetlejuice. The adorable story of a nervous groom that winds up accidentally married to a dead woman is fun. Burton has produced stop-motion films before, but this is his first feature-length attempt and it works like a charm. The songs are a blast, the visual imagery adopts his pale and pasty characters into an afterlife that feels like it was just how he decorated his basement, and all of it meshes to deliver a fun time. I will admit to one gripe with this – Victor (Johnny Depp) should have wound up with the corpse bride herself (Helena Bonham Carter) instead of Victoria (Emily Watson). Seriously, he was unable to really connect with Victoria but had the time of his life in deathworld with his dead wife. That’s the only issue I’ve got, but other than the last 60 seconds this one is one of the best Burton has to offer.
- Mars Attacks! : This is another placement that’s going to confuse people. I stand by it. This is the most star-studded cast he’s ever worked with, and it’s in the center of a film that is so ingrained in being a trashy sci-fi C-movie that it just delights me every time I watch it. Riding on the coattails of Ed Wood, Burton decided to direct his own Ed Wood-esque movie and absolutely nailed the silly feeling of the entire thing. Between a myriad of cameos, dual-role casting, snarky aliens, and bureaucratic idiocy, Burton delivers all of an homage, a satire, and a comedy all in one delightfully silly package.
- Edward Scissorhands : Despite being the Hot Topic blank slate, this film manages to be the sweetest of Burton’s catalogue. With this being the moment he decided he was married to wine-vampire Johnny Depp, I’d say it’s pretty damn important to remember this one. Besides all that, this happens to be an almost autobiographical film about Burton and how he felt among the “normal” people of the era. Fairy-tale-ish, romantic, cliche, and fun, Edward Scissorhands is one of the best Burton has ever had to offer. It’s the birth of a lot of different things that would become part of our culture, such as emo-romance memes and that one guy at every Halloween party that dresses like Edward.
- Ed Wood : I’m not usually a sucker for a biopic, considering them incredibly unreliable mish-mashes of history and director agenda. This is certainly that, but it’s also a loving portrayal of a weirdo that made movies with people he loved and never sacrificed his (unfortunately uneven) vision. Ed Wood has become popular again after this film and MST3K popularized his movies with love and riffing, and now his work is considered landmark camp cinema. The film is an absolute marvel, shot in black and white with a cast to die for, and is about a director that lived as an absolute failure that also liked to wear women’s angora clothing. Nothing like this should have worked and it didn’t make much in theatres, but it’s found an adoration
- Sleepy Hollow : This isn’t going to sit well with many Burton fans, but I consider this my favorite of his offerings. It’s personal, stylized, exciting, thematic, and I’m going to watch it before I go to bed tonight. An update on the Washington Irving short story, Burton tried to infuse his film with sympathy for all weirdos out there. Be they nerds, witches, practical puppets, all are welcome in his world and they deserve love. He shoots them that way, with loving awkwardness like he’s just happy to see that they still exist. Full of obviously fake blood, puppetry, beautiful sets, and goofy characterization, Sleepy Hollow is an absolute wonder to watch and is the most fun I’ll ever have watching a Burton film
That’s my ranking, and it took forever because…well, the good ones you really have to think about! What’s yours?