There aren’t many directors who are known to the general moviegoing public, because they’re mostly unseen, but when a filmmaker comes along with a clear and unique vision that stands out, audiences tend to notice. That’s how it went with Tim Burton, a former Disney animator who has gone on to become the first name in gothic cinema.
Drawing inspiration from the German expressionist period and collaborating with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter so much that it’s become a joke, Burton has built one of the best-remembered careers in Hollywood. Here are Tim Burton’s 10 Best Movies, According To Rotten Tomatoes.
10 Batman Returns (78%)
Richard Donner might have created the superhero blockbuster with 1978’s Superman: The Movie, but Tim Burton created the dark superhero blockbuster with 1989’s Batman. He then followed it up with an even better sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns.
Michael Keaton continues to be the definitive big-screen Batman in the sequel, deepening the psychology of Bruce Wayne as a guy who moonlights as a masked vigilante, while Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito provide a brilliant double-whammy of villains as Catwoman and the Penguin, respectively. (This set the template for each subsequent Batman movie to have two villains – Warner Bros. hasn’t looked back since.)
9 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (83%)
Tim Burton might seem like an odd choice for an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but at least his quirky, bleak, gothic visual style helped to differentiate this version from the previous version starring Gene Wilder.
Johnny Depp played a Willy Wonka that was weirder than ever and Burton gave the factory an unusual steampunk look that made the film a dark alternative to its predecessor. It wasn’t as good as the original adaptation, and Wilder himself thought as much, but it was still a dazzling, sumptuous, compelling work of big-budget cinema.
8 TIE: Corpse Bride (84%)
If there’s one specific type of movie that has Tim Burton’s personal stamp all over it, it’s spooky, horror-tinged stop-motion animated movies with supernatural themes and elements of both comedy and romance. A terrific example of this from Burton’s repertoire is Corpse Bride.
It has all the makings of a great Burton movie – Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the lead roles (with Christopher Lee as a supporting character), a bleak visual tone, a paranormal storyline, a musical score by Danny Elfman – and it has the follow-through to give it some legs. In some ways, this is the quintessential Burton film.
7 TIE: Beetlejuice (84%)
If Tim Burton made Beetlejuice today, there’s no doubt that he’d cast Johnny Depp in the title role, so it’s a good thing he made it in 1988, before his collaborations with Depp began, because Michael Keaton was born to play this character (and Batman and Riggan Thomson).
He’s a gifted actor with an eccentric line delivery and a comic wit honed during his background in standup comedy. And he has the Betelgeuse look, because even under that makeup, it’s all in the eyes. A sequel to Beetlejuice has been mooted for years and it’s looking like it’ll never get made, which is a real shame.
6 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (85%)
It can be tough to make musicals work nowadays, because there were a ton of them in the ‘50s and then the genre died out like the Western did, or like the superhero blockbuster will. And it’s even tougher to make a musical work when its plot involves a barber who slits his customers’ throats and then bakes them into pies to serve to the public.
But if there’s anyone who could pull off that delicate combination of genres, it’s Tim Burton, and that’s exactly what he did with this grisly screen translation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical starring his regular collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.
5 TIE: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (87%)
It might seem as though a Pee-wee Herman movie is a million miles away from the kind of work Tim Burton does, and in many ways, that is true. But this was Burton’s feature film debut, back when he didn’t have the freedom to pick and choose projects (when no one knew what a typical Tim Burton movie was), and it turned out surprisingly well for a movie that doesn’t suit his vision.
In a ludicrous parody of the Italian neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, Pee-wee searches high and low for his missing bike. This simplistic premise led to some timeless slapstick gags.
4 TIE: Frankenweenie (87%)
This was a feature-length adaptation of one of Tim Burton’s earliest animated shorts, which went by the same title. In a spoof of the Mary Shelley gothic classic that its title paraphrases, Frankenweenie tells the story of a young boy mourning the loss of his dog who uses a risky scientific experiment to bring his beloved pet back to life.
As a black-and-white stop-motion animated movie, it wasn’t a huge box office success, because that style isn’t to every modern moviegoer’s tastes, but it’s a delightful, heartfelt yarn with an important message for kids about dealing with the death of a pet.
3 Edward Scissorhands (90%)
Based on a drawing that Tim Burton made as a bright-eyed teenager with ambitions to tell stories, Edward Scissorhands is a heartfelt and very personal suburban tale. The bright, sunny Californian neighborhood in which it’s set contrasts nicely with Burton’s bleak tone.
In many ways, all of Burton’s films are fairy tales (that’s certainly where his influences come from – disturbing stories dressed up with sentiment), but this one is the closest he’s come to a modern fairy tale. Johnny Depp plays the title character, a pale-skinned weirdo with blades for fingers, and the message is clear, simple, and warm: it’s okay to be different, and not all monsters are scary.
2 Ed Wood (92%)
This biopic of the titular director, shot in the same black-and-white format as his best-known films, presents a relationship that is familiar to Tim Burton. The relationship shared by hotshot young filmmaker Ed Wood and his has-been idol Bela Lugosi in the film mirrors Burton’s relationship with his own childhood hero, Vincent Price.
Ed Wood bombed at the box office – because, let’s face it, black-and-white movies about film directors hardly anyone has heard of don’t tend to make a fun Friday night at the multiplex – but it was acclaimed by critics. There’s a comic element in the fact that Wood saw his own movies as Citizen Kane whereas they were reviewed as the worst films ever made.
1 The Nightmare Before Christmas (95%)
If you need any evidence of the existence of karma, look at the fact that Tim Burton has screwed up two of Disney’s animated classics in the Mouse House’s ongoing onslaught of live-action remakes – 2010’s Alice in Wonderland and 2019’s Dumbo – and now, the studio is planning one for Burton’s own classic Disney ‘toon, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The stop-motion animated original is one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time. Everything works in tandem – the visual palette complements the plot, the animation style complements the musical numbers, the characters complement the message etc. – to make a fantastic movie.