A prominent voice in pop culture since the late ‘80s, visionary-director Tim Burton’s work has captured the imagination of audiences for decades. Bringing an untapped style of gothic-whimsy to the silver screen, that has since been coined as ‘Burtonesque’, the beloved director has cemented his status in filmmaking history, with a flurry of classics and colorful characters, that use his sense of macabre expressionism to the fullest. The guy is simply one of the most imaginative minds in film, and though the case can, unfortunately, be made for his most recent efforts being rather subpar, almost rudimentary imitations of his formerly treasured work, this will never detract from the director’s brilliance in his heyday.
So, here’s hoping for some much-needed creative magic in the near future, and in the meantime let’s celebrate the phenomenal films of the past. I will only be including feature films that Burton has directed, so written creations like “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, and shorts such as “Vincent”, will not be considered. And with that in mind, here are my picks for the top five greatest films by the wonderfully twisted Tim Burton.
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10. Frankenweenie (2012)
The feature-length stop-motion adaptation of an early Burton short film, 2012’s “Frankenweenie” is one of the director’s best concepts and most inspired films of the past decade. Drawing obvious parallels to “Frankenstein” and other classic horror films, with beats of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe, sprinkled in for good measure, Burton’s love for the macabre shines through in this gothic tale of grief and acceptance. Following a young scientist who resurrects his deceased dog after a tragic car accident, the film is a loving tribute to old school monster movies, sure, but at its core, a touching story about the power of childish belief and love triumphing death. In this fantastical Disney tale, the dog comes back from the dead. Obviously, this is not possible, but in a way, the memories and admiration we have for our loved ones keep them alive forever, and that is the simplistic beauty of Burton’s story.
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The quirky characters are brought to life welcomingly by Burton alumni, such as Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, and Catherine O’Hara, while likewise, the typical tropes of the filmmaker are also present. The heroic outsider, the biting satire of phony suburbia, and of course, some marvelous Burtonesque imagery, are all center stage; translated through seamless stop-motion and striking black-and-white cinematography. A fun delve into gothic fantasy, with a strong, heartwarming, message to be heard, Burton dazzles with brilliant animation, once again.
9. Batman Returns (1992)
The inevitable follow-up to the hit 1989 sensation, Tim Burton would return to the “Batman” series with a more serious, controversially darker portrayal of the Batman mythology. Presenting his return to Gotham as a more sprawling, character-driven piece than before, Burton covers more ground in this critically-acclaimed sequel, which would garner two Oscar nominations, for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Not too bad for a ‘90s superhero movie. Michael Keaton returns as the Caped Crusader, and newcomers Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito absolutely chew the scenery as the villainous duo of Catwoman and The Penguin. The costume and makeup designs strike an iconic balance between comic book accuracy and Burtonesque Gothicism, in a whimsical bit of genius.
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The story itself is much richer than the first, diving into a trademark Burton theme of the dangers of societal rejection, showing compassion for his ragtag group of outcasts, and providing human layers to otherwise vile villains, as well as exploring the similarities between Batman and his ruthless enemies. While this does present more depth than the original, the abundance of characters may have been too much for a single feature to handle, and the presence of Jack Nicholson’s Joker is sorely missed. Regardless, “Batman Returns” is a predominantly successful continuation of one of the most beloved films of the ‘80s, and for all of its ambitions, it gets one thing entirely right: It never feels obligatory. Burton clearly enjoyed the return as much as anyone.
8. Big Eyes (2014)
Chronicling the real-life events of the unbelievable Keene family art fraud, this ‘50s-60s centered crime-drama is a well-executed and impressively restrained Burton picture. Featuring terrific performances from both Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, “Big Eyes” is a fascinating look into the darkness of human manipulation, the struggle between true artistic passion, and the greedy commerce of the art industry, as well as the blatant sexism of the ‘50s and ‘60s culture. The free-flowing feel of the film gives the biopic room for bits of light comedy and dramatic exaggeration, without bordering on an unbelievable tone. Krysten Ritter and Jason Schwartzman’s small supporting roles also offer some fun depth to fend off any stagnancy in the story, which consists, primarily, of the two main characters for much of the runtime.
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It’s a surprisingly compelling story that doesn’t require big visuals or an overly artistic flair, and it’s Burton’s self-controlled simplicity that makes this such a refined and magnetic narrative. He never tries to awe or distract, though the bright colors and picturesque framing do feel distinctly Burton, and add an element of elegance to such an ugly story. The visual effects are never heavy-handed, with the only obvious use being the large digitally-imposed eyes, and they look fantastic, without being overused. Though the story may be a tad too predictable, every moment of the film is an enjoyable watch, making Burton’s ultimately uplifting tale of self-empowerment and newfound courage, one to remember.
7. Mars Attacks! (1996)
A stirring excursion into the cheesy b-movie territory, Tim Burton’s full-throttle sci-fi extravaganza is a newly appreciated cult classic. Taking inspiration from a series of trading cards under the same name, “Mars Attacks!” tells a simple alien invasion story, with a brand of schlocky fun for all ages. It’s far from a masterpiece, but this is a film that understands exactly what it is and just rolls with it, and it makes for an infectiously delightful viewing experience. The star-studded cast (Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Danny DeVito, Natalie Portman, and many more), all shine in the hilarity of the over-the-top campiness, with their commitment to the outrageous humor being a key selling point of the movie.
Burton clearly takes great pleasure in letting the story run wild, with little to no restraints given, despite a relatively low budget. The cheap effects add to the idea of being a ‘50s sci-fi flick spoof, and the design of the Martians remains iconic, to this day. For such a respected filmmaker to try a carefree, full-tilt picture like this, for the pure thrill of it, speaks volumes to Tim Burton’s dedication to working on new and exciting things for audiences to enjoy; especially at that time. It inevitably sticks out as an odd film, in a filmography full of bizarre entries, but that’s what’s so great about it. This cheeky homage to disaster b-movies of the past never fails to entertain.
6. Big Fish (2003)
Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, make-believe and actuality, Burton’s foray into the magic and wonder of storytelling is possibly his most human film, to date. The heart-tugging tale of a man questioning his father’s eccentric stories, and searching to make an honest connection with him before he passes, “Big Fish” is a look into the life of a man who sees the utmost potential out of life, by fabricating his way to a dreamworld of unattainable myths and legends. Burton cleverly explores the concept of lies versus stories, in a truly enchanting tightrope-walk between imagination and authenticity. Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney take on the double role of Edward Bloom, the daydreaming father, in his younger and older days, respectively, and each gives incredibly engaging performances.
The character is captivating from start to finish, with a distinct charm that pops on screen in each performance. Inspired framework and delicate editing offer a smooth transition into unforgettably eye-catching flashbacks, that fully capture the themes of the film, while the ensemble of side characters, played by Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, and Danny DeVito (to name a few), all employ those same ideas, and have a blast with the rich, childlike material. A fairytale-esque adventure with a grounded father-son drama in the middle, this monsterless expedition is one of Burton’s finest efforts.
5. Batman (1989)
Breaking the mold for comic book films and freeing the Dark Knight from his cartoonish live-action past, Tim Burton would set a new standard for superhero movies, with this 1989 classic. Proving that you could take the Batman mythology and turn it into a successful action blockbuster while taking the material seriously, Burton and company delivered on a groundbreaking film that encapsulates both the character of Batman and Tim Burton’s style as a director. Everything from the vibrant wardrobes to the atmospheric production design evokes the essence of the comics – while maintaining an unmistakable Tim Burton aesthetic.
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However, the main draw of the film will forever be Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker. Playing opposite Michael Keaton’s Batman, Nicholson delivers an unforgettably high-octane performance; stealing scenes and fully committing to the comic book theatrics, making for an excellent contrast to Keaton’s brooding Caped Crusader. The movie may be light on refined story and significant narrative, but that was never the point. This, for all intents and purposes, is a living, breathing comic book, and Burton delivers on that spectacle with a refreshingly dark and gothic take on the mythos. Boasting an iconic score from Danny Elfman, that has since become synonymous with the character, as well as a few excellent homages to some of the all-time greatest Batman stories, Burton’s creation stands among the top of his filmography, as one of the most exhilarating films in ‘80s cinema.
4. Beetlejuice (1988)
Burton’s first concrete step into the morbidly whimsy style that moviegoers know and love today, remains entrancingly unique. Following his successful debut of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” with something more up his alley, Burton delved into a world of cartoonish ghouls, and brought to the big screen an ambitious monster-ridden comedy, with the Halloween season staple, “Beetlejuice”. They just don’t make horror comedies like this anymore, that can be fun for the whole family, without sacrificing all of their grotesque edges. Burton dives headfirst into this story and has the time of his life doing it. We follow a recently-deceased couple as they find themselves haunting their old home, trying to ward off newcomers, with the unwanted help of the fraudulent Beetlejuice.
The reckless antics of Michael Keaton’s lunatic poltergeist never fail to entertain, giving an electric performance that is now an iconic piece of film history. Even when Keaton is off-screen the film shines, in the hands of Winona Ryder, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, and Catherine O’Hara – who all give exceptionally lively performances. Showcasing a bundle of endearing practical effects and Oscar-winning makeups, the film has a certain sense of childish fun and awe that makes a passionate, ambitious project like this, really gleam and resonate with an audience; hokey sound effects and all. It may be dated in areas, and not every moment lands, however “Beetlejuice” has stood the test of time, not for particularly masterful filmmaking, but for its pure exuberance and originality.
3. Ed Wood (1994)
A loving homage to Hollywood’s ‘worst director of all-time’, Tim Burton’s critically-acclaimed biopic is largely considered one of his greatest efforts, despite being a financial dud. An empathetic view of a struggling director who just can’t put the pieces together to make a good film, no matter how hard he tries, Burton’s compassion for an underdog director oozes through, undoubtedly because he knows the feeling of being a Hollywood outcast, and a misunderstood artist. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Ed Wood is brilliantly balanced, as an entertainingly high-spirited, multi-dimensional character, who at the core, is actually just someone desperately trying to be accepted. It’s a wonderfully layered depiction of a figure that Depp clearly respects, but never hesitates to have fun with, and it lends itself seamlessly to the endearing nature of the film, while never mocking or poking fun at Ed Wood, himself.
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The tale of self-identity and disillusioned creative aspiration is told through eye-popping monochrome cinematography that puts a fantastical gloss over the entire experience; adding some flair to the otherwise unflattering life of the conflicted b-movie filmmaker. With help from some marvelous supporting performances from the likes of Patricia Arquette, Bill Murray, and Martin Landau (who would win an Oscar for his unforgiving role as the late Bela Lugosi), Burton crafts a sentimental love letter to film enthusiasts, unsung artists, and outsiders everywhere; hitting home the inspiring message that failing is fine, as long as you keep your passions high, and stay true to yourself.
2. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Slightly toning down his usual whimsical fun to present a rather horrific retelling of this classic folktale, Burton digs deep into the world of “Sleepy Hollow”, and gives the fairytale some much-needed teeth. Presenting the legend as a slasher film with a fantastical edge, Burton crafts the most conventional horror film of his career, going R-rated and gritty, while at the same time staying true to his trademark aesthetic and typically lighthearted character work. This is where Johnny Depp shines: showing off his knack for oddball character-acting, with his eccentric portrayal of the squeamish detective, Ichabod Crane, making for an entertaining juxtaposition to the chaotic violence around him, and adding some levity to an otherwise pretty dark Burton film.
Christopher Walken’s imposing Headless Horseman is the perfect foil for Depp’s Crane, but it is not only the terrific acting that sells the eeriness of the film. Burton’s use of muted colors, gothic set design, and 18th-century period-piece costumes, all blend together to enforce an unshakable atmosphere. The camerawork and lighting are at the top of not only Burton’s game, but among the best in horror, in general – leading to tons of extraordinary visuals, and some of the best awe-inspiring shots in all of Burton’s filmography. Truly one of the last projects where you can tell Burton put his entire heart into it, this gothic endeavor screams passionate filmmaking from one of the best in the business, at the top of their game. A true artistic triumph.
1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
On the last stop of his brilliant three-year run, Burton would follow up “Beetlejuice” and “Batman”, with this modern-day spin on “Frankenstein”. Reflecting on the idea of the kind-hearted misfit being cast out by humanity, Tim Burton holds up a disheartened mirror to society, to convey how things haven’t changed since the original telling of “Frankenstein”. Swapping out the fabled monster for a soft-spoken outcast with scissors for hands, that has since become a pop-cultural icon, the character of Edward is brought to life, charmingly, by the great Johnny Depp, in what may go down as his most beloved role. Everything from the look of the character, to Depp’s delicate, childlike portrayal, gets across the point of the film wonderfully – with the scissor-hands being a brilliant metaphor for the restraints that society puts on the rejects of the world.
From a storytelling standpoint, the film is absolutely incredible, but Burton’s signature artistic eye is also on full display, with the bright and colorful suburbia making for a clever contrast to Edward’s deceivingly dark exterior. Danny Elfman’s elegant score gives the film a pleasantly uplifting tone, despite the underlying tragedy of it all, and Winona Ryder, Alan Arkin, Dianne Weist, and even Vincent Price, all give tremendous supporting outings that buy into the quirky nature of the film. Everything meshes effortlessly in what is quite possibly the most fully realized product of Burton’s formula. The master of gothic-whimsy telling a powerful story through the lens of a dramatic-comedy, “Edward Scissorhands” is Burton’s time-tested masterpiece.