7. Batman Returns
Batman Returns is technically a Batman movie, but it’s far more of a Tim Burton movie than one that can be accurately described as a faithful adaptation of DC’s most beloved detective. It’s something of a minor miracle that Burton even got this film made. It’s a trippy homage to German expressionism that doesn’t seem to care all that much about Batman. Burton’s focus is far more on Danny DeVito’s gloriously grotesque take on the Penguin - a man literally raised by sewer penguins - and Michelle Pfeiffer’s tour de force turn as Catwoman. Burton turns Gotham's eclectic band of misfits into his own ensemble of oddities and blends high camp with over-the-top horror.
Batman Returns is a far less coherent movie than Batman and the plotting falls apart in the third act, but it's not hard to see why it's still beloved by fans. While the film made money, it wasn't the gargantuan hit its predecessor was, much to the disappointment of Warner Bros., so Burton left the franchise and was replaced by Joel Schumacher. But what remains is easily one of his most entertaining movies.
6. Sleepy Hollow
The best Tim Burton movies happen when he throws caution to the wind and freely indulges his stylistic whims. If there’s bloodshed, then all the better. His take on the legend of Sleepy Hollow is, at best, choppily paced with plotting that often feels thrown together at the last moment, but its old-school horror imagery sliced with knowing melodrama is endlessly enjoyable. Sleepy Hollow is easily one of Burton's prettiest movies, the sort of lavish affair that could only have been made by someone who has watched a lot of Christopher Lee vampire movies and wants to achingly recreate every piece of production design. How could it not look sumptuous at every turn when Colleen Atwood is designing costumes and the cinematography duties fall to the now legendary Emmanuel Lubezki?
Burton works incredibly well with camp, and while Sleepy Hollow doesn’t entirely indulge that whim, it is always aware of how silly its concept is and isn’t afraid to play around with that, from rolling heads to Depp as Ichabod Crane being sprayed with the reddest blood in horror cinema at inopportune moments. Sleepy Hollow features a veritable murderer’s row of talent, from Depp to Christina Ricci to legendary British talents like Richard Griffiths, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, and Emperor Palpatine himself, Ian McDiarmid.
Handing over the reins of the Batman cinematic universe to the mostly unknown Burton in 1989 was a major risk for Warner Bros. Granted, superhero movies weren’t the zeitgeist defining juggernaut they would become and the very idea of making a serious movie out of a comic book at the time was seen mostly as a joke by other studios. Yet the choice of the then-30-year-old Tim Burton, fresh from Pee-wee, proved unexpected compared to earlier rumored directors like Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante. The gamble paid off and then some, and Batman became the second highest grossing movie of 1989.
Nowadays, in a post-Nolan and DCEU world, it’s easy to dismiss Burton’s Batman as a weaker movie, one nowhere near as sophisticated as what would follow. However, that would ignore not only the film’s cultural impact but its genuine skill and enjoyment factor. Considered too adult for family audiences on release, it’s the giddily frenetic tone of the movie that makes it such a thrill to watch. The production design that Burton’s films would become famous for is on full show here as Gotham City comes to life in the most exciting way possible. Jack Nicholson as the Joker may be the over-the-top villain that the film was sold on, but Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne remains a sinfully underrated addition to the canon as he nails the quiet madness of DC’s tortured playboy. It may not be as much of a Tim Burton movie as its sequel, but Batman is an altogether more consistent affair, blending Frank Miller with the 1960s series to striking effect.
4. Big Fish
One of the most prevailing themes in Tim Burton movies is that of father issues. So many of this films feature fathers or father figures who have complex relationships with their sons, from Edward Scissorhands’ creator to Willy Wonka’s stern dentist father. Nowhere is that more evident than in Big Fish, his 2003 adaptation of the novel by Daniel Wallace. Nowhere is it more affecting either, as this story of a man trying to figure out how much of his father's fantastical tall tales of his youth are true allows Burton to delve into those themes with a Southern Gothic twist.
Big Fish is one of Burton’s more openly sentimental movies, but he’s clever enough to dial back the saccharine when necessary. Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor play Ed Bloom at both stages in his life, while Billy Crudup plays his exasperated son, two men who simply want to understand one another before they run out of time. The set pieces in Big Fish are, as expected with Burton, stunning, but the emotional core of this film is what elevates it to top-tier Burton. Burton’s never been afraid to make his audiences cry, but Big Fish is his most overwhelming tearjerker.