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The Essentials: Tim Burton’s 5 Best Films

The Essentials: Tim Burton's 5 Best Films

Tomorrow “Dark Shadows” will hit theaters, the latest gothic entertainment from director Tim Burton and his muse Johnny Depp. And, as per our review and many others, it’s sadly another disappointment; another wonderful-looking, empty picture that seems to have been derived from the filmmaker and his star taking on the kind of film that’s expected of them, rather than something to push or challenge them.

But once upon a time, Burton was one of the most exciting filmmakers around, a former Disney animator who moved into the live-action world with an enduring family comedy classic, and went on for a nearly-decade-long run of critically acclaimed box-office hits that established him as having one of the most distinctive, unusual voices in Hollywood. With “Dark Shadows” bumming us out this weekend, we’ve decided to provide an antidote by examining five of the most essential Burton directorial efforts in the filmmaker’s career. Disagree? Let us know in the comments section below. And let’s all keep our fingers crossed that this October’s “Frankenweenie” turns out to be the return to form that it looks like it could be.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1985)
With all the Best Movies lists circulating the web this week (though they should more accurate be read as “My Favorites” rather than Best), it’s a bit of a head scratcher that Tim Burton’s feature-length debut (and pièce de résistance), “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” remained absent. A modern day riff on “The Odyssey” or “On the Road,” this fruitful Burton/Pee-wee collaboration is one of the big screen’s most classic and epic journeys, centering on an innocent and eccentric young boy who embarks on the biggest adventure of his life across the U.S. in search of the beloved bicycle that was stolen from him in broad daylight. After a feverish and desperate examination of the facts, chance and fate send Pee-wee across the country to Texas. Along the long and winding road our hero meets and befriends escaped criminals, dangerous Hell’s Angels, a kind Francophile waitress, and eventually ends up on the Warner Bros. studios film lot where he finds his precious best friend bicycle. Deeply funny, absurdist, endlessly quotable and yet, somehow strangely poetic and beautiful, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” arguably Burton’s masterpiece, is perhaps the perfect movie: It’s 90 minutes on the nose, its three act structure is impeccable, Danny Elfman’s score is his best, and Burton stays out of the star’s way. Its meta-conclusion, as Pee-wee shirks off the James Bond-style action film based on his life starring James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild, because hell, he already lived it, is just brilliant. It also raises the great Shakespearean existentialist question that lingers far after the movie is over: I know you are, but what am I? Criterion Collection, it’s your move.

Beetlejuice” (1988)
After “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Burton had already been hired by Warner Bros. to develop “Batman,” but the studio was reluctant to greenlight the picture until the young director had further proven himself. Fortunately, a script for a dark supernatural comedy called “Beetlejuice” came along from writer Michael McDowell, who’d penned “The Jar,” an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” that Burton directed in 1986. After a rewrite by Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren to lighten the tone a little, the film turned out to be a monster hit, and saw the go-ahead given for “Batman.” And it’s no surprise. A canny subversion of haunted house cliches, which sees recently deceased couple Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) trying to evict a garish family from their marital home, aided by their goth-y daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) and the sinister ‘bio-exorcist’ of the title (Michael Keaton), the film was fiercely original and visually extraordinary, truly marking Burton as a talent to watch. So much of what would become his hallmarks are pioneered, from the intricate production design (by Bo Welch) to the like-nothing-else stop-motion special effects, but it’s also funnier and looser than much of the director’s work, the spirit of Pee-wee still running high. One forgets, given the merchandising that followed, that the title character (a comic tour-de-force from Keaton) is featured relatively little, but it’s a mark of how good the rest of the cast, from the game duo of Baldwin and Davis to future Burton favorites like Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Catherine O’Hara and Ryder, that you’re never biding time waiting for his next reappearance. Talk of a sequel, to be penned by “Dark Shadows” writer Seth Grahame-Smith, has resurfaced in recent months, but one hopes that all involved only go ahead if they can match the original.
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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This is indeed a fantastic resource. Thank you for making this publicly available.


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".


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.

Jr Cigar

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

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:


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.


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

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


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


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.


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

cory everett

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


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 =/


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


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.


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.


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.


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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