I have a weird relationship with the films of one Mr. Tim Burton. When I was a kid, which is when most of his best movies came out, his name was attached to things I wanted to see but also couldn’t, for awhile anyway, because my mom maintained they were too “spooky.” And yet I was obsessed with seeing them precisely because they were spooky. As an adult, though, I’m sort of torn by my love of his visual style and my general disdain for a lot of the subpar scripting. I know, it’s a weird thing. But here are the seven films of his that are my favorites.
7) Batman Returns (1992)
This is a prime example of the dichotomy I feel about Burton’s work. I think this movie is a complete visual feast and easily one of the most stylized and gloomily gorgeous films I’ve ever seen; the art direction and cinematography are top notch and every single image in the movie could hang in a museum of pop culture. This is possibly one of the best scores of Danny Elfman, one of Burton’s frequent collaborators. However, I think every single line of dialogue in this movie is terrible–just terrible. The storyline tends not to make much sense either, which I think is a problem. I really don’t understand the motives of The Penguin or how he does stuff (where did he get the blueprints for the Batmobile, for instance?). If the Blu-ray for this had a score-only track option, I’d probably have it on once a week. As it is, it’s pretty low on my list of good.
6) Sleepy Hollow (1999)
And to prove that I’m a complete hypocrite, here’s a movie that doesn’t have a particularly great script either, but I think I like it more because I have no attachment to the characters or the world the way I do with Batman and Gotham City. At any rate, this movie is just Gothtown Races, with one of Johnny Depp’s earliest “The Hell Is He Doing?” performances. Depp seems to want to be in the farciest of farces all the time, and seeing as this came out just a couple of years before the first Pirates movie, it’s a pretty clear through-line of dot-connecting. Revealing Christopher Walken as the Hessian prior to the beheading, with filed-down teeth and no lines of dialogue, was a pretty genius thing, too, as was having Christopher Lee involved at all. That guy rocks.
5) Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Now, I know a lot of people worship at the altar of Edward Scissorhands, but I’m not entirely sold on it being any more than a sweet little Gothic love story set in the cookie-cutter pleasantness of Suburban America. That being said, it’s really good for what it is, and might well be Burton’s most auteurist film. The antithesis of Depp’s Sleepy Hollow performance, he’s very subdued, and just the right mixture of weird and scared that makes the quirkiness of the comedy work well. It’s such a weird notion, too: an inventor makes an artificial man, but gives him the sharpest implements on Earth as placeholder hands. It works, though, and allows Burton to mix his two most prevalent visual styles, arch darkness and Easter-egg utopias.
4) Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
This is a childhood favorite for me times a billion. I was a huge Pee-wee’s Playhouse fan and I remember how my little mind was blown when I found out there was a movie featuring Paul Reubens’ signature character that was made earlier. I also wasn’t really prepared for the movie to be as weird and kind of terrifying as it was (I still get anxiety while Large Marge tells her story or when Pee-wee dreams about bike surgeons). This began the collaboration between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman and it was a doozy; the Pee-wee march is the background of most of my internal monologues. (There are lots of great stories about the making of the film in the Nerdist Podcast with Paul Reubens from last year.)
3) Beetlejuice (1988)
Another surprisingly successful movie early in Burton’s career, his follow-up to Pee-wee was a hit of “ghostly” proportions, as I’m sure Gene Shallit said at the time. Beetlejuice is the movie where Burton’s sensibilities really started coming to the forefront, especially when our newlydead couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) go to the Neitherworld for the first time, and of course when the titular Ghost with the Most tells us it’s showtime. Michael Keaton is the titular character and his performance was good enough to warrant spinning off the movie into a series (where he’s surprisingly not the villain and is Lydia Deetz’s main ghost pal), even though Betelgeuse is only on screen for 17.5 out of the film’s 92 minute running time. Sandworms… you know I hate ’em.
2) Batman (1989)
There is really no overstating how important this movie was when it came out, to the face of movies as we know them today and especially of the superhero genre. It proved to studio heads that a comic book property could be taken seriously. And, since I was 5 year-old when this movie came out, I of course wasn’t permitted to see it, but boy did I ever get those wonderful toys. And when I finally did see the movie, on tape a few years later, I was pretty well and truly blown away. As an adult, after years of being inundated with the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, I still think Burton’s first Bat film can be watched as at least a separate but equal jaunt into Gotham City. Granted, this version of Batman bears little to know resemblance to the comic book one, but who cared in 1989? We were just excited to see the Batmobile and Jack Nicholson’s wild-ass take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Cesar Romer-WHO?!?
1) Ed Wood (1994)
My favorite Tim Burton film also happens to be his best film; funny how that works, huh? This is one of the best biopics of all time, and Burton was the exact right person to do it, working from a truly phenomenal script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. It’s funny, it’s weird, it’s sad, it’s heartfelt, it celebrates the outsiders, and that’s exactly what both Edward D. Wood Jr and Tim Burton were/are all about. Did Wood truly make the worst films of all time? He certainly loved them, and certainly tried to make them the best he could; that should count for something to counteract the inherent ineptitude of movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster. Depp is perfect in this role, with the right mix of weird carnival barker and misunderstood artist. Oh, and Oscar-winner Martin Landau is obscenely great as the foul-mouthed, opium-addicted Bela Lugosi. Man, I really need to watch this movie again very soon.
These are my 7 favorite Tim Burton movies, but what are yours? Let me know below, won’t you please?
Image: Warner Bros