By Christian DiMartino
Tim Burton turned 64 on August 25, and with that and the upcoming release of his Netflix series, The Addams Family spinoff Wednesday, I thought it would be a good enough excuse to talk about his body of work. Of which, I am honestly a big fan of. Many think that Burton lost his touch after the 90s, but I’m not in that hive. The guy has had a few movies that don’t necessarily work, but there’s also a number of them that I love.
What has always made him stand out to me is his style, or at least, the look of his movies. Although I’d say there are three of his movies that I genuinely didn’t go for, I often find myself defending the Burton films that people hate because they at least worked for me on some sort of level. Some are guilty pleasures; some are at least visual feasts that I admire from a technical standpoint. Others I at least find something of merit in, and some of them I happen to truly love. So to highlight his ups and his downs, here is a ranking of all 19 of his movies (note: this excludes The Nightmare Before Christmas, because even though it’s often believed that he directed it, and even though it’s very much a Burton movie, he does not have a directing credit on it).
19. Mars Attacks!: Burton followed up his Oscar winning Ed Wood with what was pretty much an homage to Ed Wood movies. On paper, this sounds great, and the cast (Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Pierce Brosnan, Annette Bening, and many, many more) is out of this world. I just can’t remember a “comedy” being this unpleasant. You could argue Burton has had bigger blunders, but this was the first time that things went sideways. Because this is a comedy that isn’t really sure what the joke is. You can see the ideas and you can understand, to a degree, what he is striving for. Yet this is at the bottom of the list for me because for my money, it didn’t work in the slightest. I’ve heard that if you watch this movie in black and white it’s a better experience. Which sounds right, but that would also mean that I have to watch this again.
18. Planet of the Apes: The existence of this film feels like a fever dream. What drove Burton to do a remake of Planet of the Apes starring Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Roth, and Michael Clark Duncan? Not sure, but the wheels really came off here. As usual, the movie looks good and the make-up is first rate. Yet this rendition of POTA is one that fails to burn in the memory, or achieve really anything that the Charlton Heston original was able to pull off. And the ending is a load of crap. They tried to recapture the original, but honey, it wasn’t happening here.
17. Alice in Wonderland: Alice in Wonderland is among Burton’s biggest financial successes, and it nabbed two deserved Oscars for production and costume design. It’s also maybe his biggest letdown; one that I admittedly haven’t seen in many years, but I also don’t feel the need to return to. On paper, again, this sounds perfect, considering Burton’s knack for the macabre, weird, and ghoulish. Yet he just doesn’t really give you what you want from an Alice in Wonderland adaptation. It’s just this weird, unnecessary movie that should’ve also featured a great Johnny Depp performance, but even that felt underwhelming. Not a terrible movie, but it should’ve been more.
16. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: When I was doing these rankings, I was able to remember every single title on his filmography… except for this one. As usual, the movie is visually sumptuous, as you’d expect from Burton. Yet it just didn’t really come together in the ways you’d hope or expect. Again, this is one I haven’t seen in many years, but it’s also one I haven’t thought about in many years. I don’t remember hating it, but I don’t exactly remember… it, so yeah, 16th place sounds good.
15. Dumbo: Alright, so I’m going to admit it: I actually like, and will defend, Burton’s last movie, Dumbo. Is it great? No. Yet visually I think this ranks among his very best. It was also released around the time of Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin and Jon Favreau’s The Lion King– neither of which were necessary, and both of which just felt like retreading cash grabs. Dumbo might’ve been a cash grab, but it at least tried to do something else with the source material. Most of all though, I think I just like it as a Tim Burton movie. If you know his movies, like I do, there are Easter eggs of his other work sprinkled in there (it’s also a Batman Returns reunion). Perhaps not a complete success, but a movie that I dig more than most.
14. Dark Shadows: Burton’s Dark Shadows, on the other hand, may be a little less easier to defend. Critics and audiences didn’t really go for it. I have always liked it. Mind you, it’s been a few years since I last saw it, and I intend on revisiting it for my Feelin’ Spooky segment in October. Sure, the movie is one that Burton and Depp (their last collaboration to date) might’ve done in their sleep, and sure not every joke lands, and sure the movie really falls apart in the last 20 minutes. But I’ve always thought that it was a mostly funny movie, with Depp doing what he does best even if it’s not a great stretch of acting. It’s a fun movie, and yet again, a beautiful looking one (the Bruno Delbonnel cinematography is really luminous). I’m very alone on this island though, I get it.
13. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: This one is also pretty polarizing. Fairly critically acclaimed when it came out but has since found its share of detractors, Burton’s 2005 rendition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory doesn’t quite recapture the magic of the original Gene Wilder film (the songs lack a spark, and as much as I adore and defend Johnny Depp, his performance isn’t in the same league). But I’ve always enjoyed this movie a fair amount. The Roald Dahl book of the same name has enough weird in it to match Burton’s visual flair and energy, the movie is (again) gorgeous-looking, at least, and there are moments of comic inspiration and fun. I also like how they provide an origin story for Wonka, because I mean, what is up with that guy anyways? Not a great remake, but like Dumbo, it’s good to see them switch it up a little.
12. Corpse Bride: Corpse Bride is a movie that I hardly ever hear discussed, and my guess is it’s because if you’re comparing it and The Nightmare Before Christmas, we know which movie is better. That being said, Corpse Bride is a pretty good, darkly funny, pure Burton fantasy, with stellar voicework, a brisk pace, and rather intricate, marvelous animation. Of the three animated projects Burton is associated with, it’s probably my least favorite, but it’s still a pretty enjoyable movie that’s just kind of gone forgotten.
11. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure might’ve been the last of Burton’s films that I got around to… and it happened to be his first. At that point in time, I’d never laid eyes upon Pee-Wee’s Playhouse or anything like that, so I just sort of assumed this movie wouldn’t be for me. How wrong I was. Perhaps you have to have a certain sense of humor, but Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is a work of comic inspiration that I couldn’t help but laugh at and with. Paul Reubens is certainly an interesting little man… and maybe a comic genius. Probably.
10. Edward Scissorhands: It’s been a long while since I’ve seen Edward Scissorhands (maybe I’ll revisit it for Christian’s Christmas? A stretch maybe) and although I’ve never fully loved it, it has to at least be in the top 10 because it’s pretty iconic, weird stuff, but also purely original. The first collaboration between Burton and Depp, Edward Scissorhands is the kind of weirdo vision that could’ve only came from Burton’s brain. At the point of this film’s release, he’d already proven himself to be a distinct, unique visual filmmaker, and although it’s in the 10th slot, I won’t deny Edward Scissorhands was further proof of that.
9. Frankenweenie: Alright y’all, hear me out: Frankenweenie makes me cry every time I watch it. Every time. I witnessed my dog die before my eyes back in 2011, and when I saw this movie it wrecked me, and still does. As for the movie itself, it’s honestly just really fun. The black and white is really gorgeous, the voicework is delightful and hugely enjoyable, and what really makes this movie tick is that you know that this is one of those films that Burton made from the heart. It’s own version of a monster movie, and it’s a joyous, very charming and hugely underrated movie that deeply enjoy. And the fact that it elicits tears every time is what ultimately really sells me. Those of you who wrote Burton off after the 90s should really seek this sweet little movie out.
8. Big Eyes: They should also check this one out too, because lord knows nobody really did during its very brief 2014 theatrical run. I have felt alone, and like I’m on crazy pills, for the last 8 years, because nobody ever talks about Burton’s Big Eyes. This was kind of a shift in gear for Burton, who really hadn’t done anything close to it since Ed Wood (this film also happens to be written by the same screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski). Honestly, I’ve always found this movie hugely effective; a fascinating true story that really gets your blood boiling, anchored by two marvelous, overlooked performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz (Adams, in particular, should’ve received Academy Award recognition). Though things get a little over-the-top in the final act, Big Eyes is a timely, richly entertaining little movie that deserves a second life.
7. Sleepy Hollow: After the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a number of filmmakers set out to replicate that success (Kenneth Branagh did a Frankenstein; Stephen Frears did a Jekyll and Hyde, etc). In 1999 though, Burton came and showed them all how it was done with Sleepy Hollow. God, do I love this movie. Burton’s dark, grisly and audacious stab at the Headless Horseman tale is a nutty and hugely entertaining (and fairly scary, even when it’s wildly over-the-top) homage to the Hammer horror films of the 1960s. Most of all though, Sleepy Hollow is absolutely gorgeous, from the Oscar-nominated cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) and the Oscar-winning production design from Rick Heinrichs. Expect a Feelin’ Spooky entry on this one, because it’s a Halloween staple.
6. Batman: I have no idea why, but for whatever reason, I only recently fell in love with Burton’s Batman. Recently as in the last few years. Growing up I thought it was kind of slow. As an adult, this movie friggin’ rocks. Once again, another feast for the eyes, but also, this is the kind of comic book storytelling I wish we could return to: a standalone, complete story with fully-fleshed characters that works on its own terms, and doesn’t go out of its way to set up the next installment. Batman was a revelation when it was released in 1989, and still kind of is, with the performances from Michael Keaton (still probably the best Batman portrayal) and especially Jack Nicholson (not quite the best Joker portrayal, but a memorable and wonderful one) standing the test of time. Don’t know what took me so long, but yeah, it’s a great movie (P.S. the Prince music really doesn’t fit, but I’m all here for it).
5. Big Fish: There is a hive of people who believe Burton’s massively overlooked gem Big Fish is his best work. I’m not quite in that hive, but I don’t think I’d dispute that either. Because Big Fish is a lovely movie, filled with the visual flourishes that are of course a Burton signature. What sets this apart from your usual Burton experience though is that there is something deeper beneath the visual razzle dazzle. Big Fish is an honest, moving and just completely charming and sweet film about acceptance, loss, and tall tales. It might not be talked about as much as some of these others, but it really deserves your time.
4. Batman Returns: There are Batman people, and then there are Batman Returns people. The case can be made for both, but I adore Batman Returns. Particularly because this is a case in which Burton really got to let his freak flag fly. Dressed to the nines and passing the test of time from a visual standpoint, he made a movie that is really bizarre, creepy, kinky, even kind of grotesque. Yet it’s pure Burton, with him basically receiving a blank check to make whatever the hell he wanted, and boy did he. It’s always a shame to think about the fact that audiences found this movie off-putting to the point where Burton was replacement and the tone of the series completely shifted (I will always have a soft spot for Batman Forever, but it ain’t this movie). It’s easy to see why it didn’t gel for everyone: it’s certainly pretty out there. But if you’re a weirdy like me, it’s like catnip. Speaking of which, the Michelle Pfeiffer performance in this is an all-timer (Danny Devito as well).
3. Beetlejuice: Dayyyyyy-o! In 2020, I had the honor of witnessing Beetlejuice on the big screen. As always, it was a pleasure. This movie is comic gold; like something like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice is the work of one very weird man’s particular, strange vision. Yet it’s a movie of unique, constant comic invention. Was anyone making anything like this in the 80’s? I think not, and who better than Burton? I think the majority of people (besides Roger Ebert, who didn’t really buy into Burton until my next movie) bought into Burton right here. It’s a really hard movie to explain my love for, because it’s really just one of those great fantastical comedies that needs to be seen to be believed. What I will say though is that Michael Keaton should’ve gotten his first Oscar nomination here. They were just too busy rewarding… I don’t know, something else. Also, since it’s the last opportunity I’ll have here (they did not collaborate on my top two), the Danny Elfman score, as it typically is in Burton films, is great.
2. Ed Wood: Ed Wood was for Burton in 1994 what Big Eyes was for him in 2014. After doing his thing and bringing us memorable, macabre, ghoulish, visually arresting and richly entertaining stuff, Burton decided to scale it back and tell a normal story. Er, somewhat normal. His second collaboration with Depp, Ed Wood tells the story of Edward D. Wood Jr., the filmmaker behind disasters such as Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Atom, as he struggles to find financing and make it in Hollywood. It also details his relationship with Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, incredible) and his occasional dabble with crossdressing. The movie looks great, production design and cinematography wise, but ultimately, this movie is just absolutely hilarious and utterly charming, with a great cast having a blast and a stellar performance from Landau, and an overlooked, delightful one from Depp. There’s not a thing I would change here.
1.Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Yeah baby. If you think that you love Burton’s 2007 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, I assure you, you don’t love it as much as I do. I believe this to be one of the greatest films of my lifetime: a grim, lugubrious, haunting little movie that is Burton’s finest piece of filmmaking. It’s his finest because he is going for something bigger than usual, and yet it still manages to be very much his. In fact, this was the film he was put on this earth to make. The movie is a visual stunner, finding beauty in Dariusz Wolski’s hues of gray and black and white, while also having some of the greatest, Oscar-winning production design from Dante Ferretti. The songs as well are a stunner, with each of its actors (Depp, giving his best performance, and former partner Helena Bonham Carter giving hers) sticking the landing. I love this movie so much that I’m kind of burnt out of talking about it; I have been singing its praises for the last 15 years and will continue to do so, because you know what I never get tired of? Sweeney Todd. Even though many may have written Burton off these days, he will probably forever have my investment based on this movie alone, and he has a slew of absolute bangers. This being, in my humble opinion, the finest.
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