"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