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The Essentials: Tim Burton's 5 Best Films

by The Playlist Staff
May 10, 2012 3:10 PM
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"Edward Scissorhands" (1990)
After "Beetlejuice" and "Batman" proved huge hits back to back, Burton was allowed to make something closer to his heart, a return to the personal, melancholy feel of early shorts "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie." Avon Lady Peg (Dianne Weist) comes to a mysterious, Gothic old home that overlooks her suburban home, and discovers the titular Edward (Johnny Depp, in his first work with Burton), who was created Frankenstein-style by an elderly inventor (Vincent Price, in his final role) who died before he could complete his creations, leaving him only with fearsome scissors for hands. Peg adopts Edward into her home, where he befriends the rest of the family (including Alan Arkin as dad Bill), and soon falls for her daughter Kim (Winona Ryder), but the townspeople soon prove to be less welcoming than they first seemed, thanks in part to the machinations of Kim's boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall). Falling somewhere between a fairy tale and a classic Universal monster movie, it was easily the purest Burton experience yet seen on screen, but there's a humanism Burton has rarely matched since. Depp's heartbreaking, near-silent performance is, of course, at the heart of it, but Burton was for the most part sympathetic towards the townspeople too: the Boggs are about as perfect an adoptive family as you could ever ask for, and, while they're eventually turned against him, everyone else is initally warm and non-judgemental towards their freakish new arrival. Accompanied by perhaps Danny Elfman's finest ever score (well, that or 'Pee-wee'...), it's probably the quintessential Burton picture.

"Ed Wood" (1994)
Marking the end of the director's unbroken run of smash hits (presumably because it was a black and white biopic of an obscure, cross-dressing, failed director), "Ed Wood" has since rightfully taken its place as the favorite of Burton's films among cinephiles, and as one of the greatest pictures about making movies. Johnny Depp, in his second of eight collaborations to date with the director, plays the title character, the famed helmer of microbudget B-movies like "Glen or Glenda" or "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (the latter of which is widely regarded as the worst film in history), and it remains one of his very best performances. He brings a certain cheap '50s matinee idol charm, like a flea market Cary Grant, and a cheery hopelessness that makes him entirely winning and entirely human in a way that Depp's performances rarely do. As with "Edward Scissorhands," there's a wonderful non-judgemental quality to the film, from the crew of freaks and weirdos that Wood gathers around him, to his sexual proclivities and his total lack of talent, while the script from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski is hilarious and sweet, particularly in its tender depiction of the friendship between Ed and morphine-addled horror icon Bela Lugosi (an Oscar-winning Martin Landau), which gives it perhaps the greatest emotional heft of all the director's works. Perhaps most importantly, it's enormous fun, thanks to the supporting cast that includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Max Casella and a scene-stealing Bill Murray, and the general let's-put-on-a-show-right-here celebration of glorious low-budget filmmaking, which makes you want to pick up a rubber octopus and a movie camera as soon as the credits roll. Between this and 'Scissorhands,' maybe Burton and Depp should only be allowed to work together on movies that start with the letters E and D?

"Big Fish" (2003)
There was some debate internally as to what should fill this fifth slot: the "Batman" films had their defenders, some fought for "Sleepy Hollow," and even "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Sweeney Todd" have their fans. But ultimately, we landed on his 2003 literary adaptation, a film once intended for Steven Spielberg. Telling the tall tales of the life of Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor as a young man, Albert Finney as an older one), whose relationship with his son William (Billy Crudup) has become estranged over the years due to his far-fetched anecdotes of giants, werewolves, magical towns, conjoined twins and witches, in many ways it has the ingredients of a classic Burton picture. But despite the whimsy, which is admittedly sometimes overpowering, the director keeps himself on something of a leash. Bloom's stories are fantastical, but for the most part the trademark Burton look is refreshingly absent, with a brighter, broader, sunnier palette at play. And indeed, the film serves as something of a defense for the director's storytelling process: does it matter if stories are heightened if there's an essential truth beneath them? And there is an essential truth here, in the prickly, yet touching, relationship between Finney and Crudup, who are both superb; it's hard for any son who has a father not to be moved by the denoument, as Crudup embraces his father's tall tales. Indeed, many of the film's best moments are the quiet, grounded ones such as Bloom and his wife (Jessica Lange) sharing a bath. It's perfectly cast across the board, from Ewan McGregor's wide-eyed sincerity and Alison Lohmann's eerie evocation of a young Lange to Steve Buscemi's lovelorn poet-turned-bankrobber and a pre-Oscar Marion Cotillard as Crudup's wife. It's more imperfect than the director's early work, but it's also by a country mile his best output of the last decade. 

- Oliver Lyttelton & Rodrigo Perez

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  • Morocco group tour | June 11, 2012 6:20 AMReply

    This is indeed a fantastic resource. Thank you for making this publicly available.

  • J-Jo | May 25, 2012 11:33 AMReply

    Mostly agree. "Edward Scissorhands" is the quintessential modern fable, and "Ed Wood" is remarkably nuanced and subtly emotional. I would've put "Batman" on there, given its iconic and revolutionary status. Certainly not "Sleepy" or "Charlie".

  • Ang | May 18, 2012 9:58 AMReply

    Good list! I agree. Even though I was thinking Batman Returns has to be on there, it's really only Michelle Pfieffers and Danny Devito's performances that I watch it for.

    Though I have to say none of these films top Nightmare before Christmas and The Corpse Bride for me. I love those so much, they are fast becoming my go to movies at Christmas to counter-act all the shmolsch.

  • Joe | May 17, 2012 8:37 PMReply

    Tim Burton hasn't made a good film in a decade. He is wholly overrated. He also needs to stop using the exact same visual style in every film, with various blacks and shades of grey. It's getting ridiculous.

  • Marvin | May 14, 2012 8:59 PMReply

    Winona Ryder's character in Beetlejuice is not the daughter of the recently deceased couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin, as the article claims.

  • Koutchboom | May 11, 2012 2:09 PMReply

    Man is there is another moment in history of film half as epic as the reveal of Michael Keaton in Batman Returns about 15 minutes into it, I've yet to see it.

  • Sam | May 11, 2012 12:26 AMReply

    I’ve always thought Tim Burton is a genius, I realize that a lot of reviews see his work as disappointing, but I see it as imaginative. I’m looking forward to his newest film, ‘Dark Shadows’ and especially given that Tim Burton, and Johnny Depp are teaming up again, so it should be fantastic. I have a friend, and colleague who works with me for Dish, and we both are film fanatics, but have a special connection to rare, and unique films. We both decided that it would be great to catch up on Tim Burton films, before seeing ‘Dark Shadows’. I subscribe to Blockbuster @Home for this reason as we can get whatever films shipped that we need. I think this weekend is the perfect movie weekend as it has been stressful, so relaxing and enjoying my favorite activity sounds perfect to me.

  • Ang | May 18, 2012 10:06 AM

    You sound like a bot advertising Blockbuster...if you're not excuse my rudeness...if you are...sod off!

  • TimParker | May 10, 2012 9:10 PMReply

    Why are people so anti-Big Fish? It it just not dark/macabre enough? I would say you can't credit Burton as much on this maybe as on some of the others on this list, given that (like usual) he didn't write the screenplay, but also it was based on a novel. But the story is fantastic and Burton nailed the visuals, the acting, great economy. I don't know, it's hard not to at least appreciate that ending--gets me teary-eyed just thinking about it

  • Lee | May 11, 2012 12:25 AM

    hear, hear. The Big Fish is Tim Burton's coming out of his safe zone, without losing his trademark. Not many director have the courage to do that, Burton did that, and succeeded.

  • Dryer | May 10, 2012 8:04 PMReply

    Excluding Sweeney Todd & Corpses Bride, which are lowered standard exceptions, anything prior to 2000 would suffice for Fish. It was just another paycheck film that has come to define Burton for the past decade. You nailed the initial appeal of Burton for an 80s kid perfectly with your second paragraph. It's a shame he continues to sell himself out.

    PeeWee -Beetlejuice-Batman-Ed Wood-Sleepy Hallow

  • padre | May 10, 2012 7:53 PMReply

    Tim Burton can do no wrong. There is no "best of" list, because they are all the best! Except for Planet of the Apes, which was oddly boring. But it's the exception that proves the rule.

  • [A] | May 11, 2012 7:17 PM

    You can do a lot of 'wrong' -- like this comment, to name one

  • Jr Cigar | May 10, 2012 6:56 PMReply

    It's sad to think that if Beetlejuice was made today, Johnny Depp would most likely play the title character... kinda unfortunate that Burton's got stuck in a holding pattern.

  • Keil Shults | May 10, 2012 6:42 PMReply

    Ed Wood and Pee-Wee, by a wide margin.

    I've always been a huge champion of the latter, and here's a link to my review of it:

  • Daniel | May 10, 2012 6:02 PMReply

    Good article. I'd also swap out "Big Fish" (I'd go for "Sweeney Todd," myself), but I'm glad we can all agree that "Ed Wood" rules. In fact, I'm going to put it on right now.

  • Leyna | May 10, 2012 5:34 PMReply

    I'm surprised that so many people don't care for Big Fish..I thought that was a fantastic film. Definitely one of my Burton favorites.

  • Wes Anderson | May 10, 2012 4:59 PMReply

    I'd swap out Beetlejuice and Big Fish for Batman and Sweeney Todd. Though the former are still pretty interesting to me.

  • Josh | May 10, 2012 4:41 PMReply

    Basically anything pre-2000 should replace "Big Fish".

  • Meredith | May 10, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    Also despite being a short, the original live action "Frankenweenie" is a amazing and one of my fav films of all time. I also have a soft spot for "Sleepy Hollow", but I think that stems from a childhood obsession with that story.

  • rodie | May 10, 2012 4:25 PMReply

    This is funny because Burton only has 5 good films. The rest are average to disasters.

  • [A] | May 11, 2012 7:18 PM


  • cory everett | May 10, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    "Batman," not "Big Fish." By a large margin.

  • cirkusfolk | May 10, 2012 10:29 PM

    Uh I did make my own list when I said Tim Burton only has 5 good movies and then listed all these films with the exception of Big Fish and the inclusion of Batman. That comment is under their Dark Shadows review from like two days ago. So yea, I guess I did this first.

  • Frank | May 10, 2012 6:11 PM

    Circusfolk dropped the ball again.

  • fdssdfdfs | May 10, 2012 5:58 PM

    @cirkusfolk & others - can't you just make your own lists?

  • cirkusfolk | May 10, 2012 5:37 PM

    You said it. Batman not Big Fish would've made the list perfect. They dropped the ball on this one.

  • Meredith | May 10, 2012 4:28 PM

    Totally agree! Batman and Batman Returns definitely not Big Fish

  • Alex | May 10, 2012 4:18 PM

    I second this. A no brainer, if you ask me.

  • Ted | May 10, 2012 4:03 PMReply

    I've never been much of a Burton fan, but I don't understand the choice of Big Fish at all. Honestly, I thought that Alice in Wonderland disaster was superior to Big Fish =/

  • JD | May 10, 2012 3:49 PMReply

    What about Sweeney Todd? Definitely Burton's most underrated film.

  • rotch | May 10, 2012 3:48 PMReply

    I couldn't agree more with the first four, but I'm not a fan of Big Fish. I'd replace it with the criminally underrated Mars Attacks!
    Ed Wood is without a doubt his all-time masterpiece, and in my opinion, Depp's best role ever.

  • Burton | May 10, 2012 3:47 PMReply

    Yeah, I have to agree these are his best films. I have a weakness for 'Batman Returns'... wait no I don't cause Returns is amazing! But the work he has pushed out in the past decade or so has been weak & unremarkable. I really enjoyed 'Chocolate Factory' & 'Sweeny Todd' when I saw them in theaters - arguably even though they were great - but when I revisited both films I was shocked how little I enjoyed them on a second viewing. They didn't hold up.

  • Eric | May 10, 2012 3:45 PMReply

    read the headline and thought for a second "Does he even have 5 good films?"

    but you pretty much nailed it. I wish somehow Nightmare Before Christmas could be on the list.

  • ralch | May 10, 2012 3:40 PMReply

    Despite being a short, "Vincent" (1982) beats them all. Never been too much of an "Edward Scissorhands" fan. It becomes awfully conventional after a while, but it's a good list anyway.

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