Top Ten: M. Night Shyamalan Films (as of July 2021)
Tell anyone the name M. Night Shyamalan, and the typical response will sadly enough not be one filled with joy or immense praise. A phenomenon around the time of his three landmark suspense hits—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs—Shyamalan ultimately spent the next decade languishing in flops and disappointment, only to finally make a return to greatness with a one-two punch of slick terror in The Visit and Split. With his newest film Old now in theaters, it’s time to discuss his ten best movies! And they are…
10. The Happening (2008)
So what goes last on the list? Is it his talky debut 1992 feature Praying with Anger, which never got a proper theatrical release? Is it his universally reviled 2010 adaptation The Last Airbender? Is it his disastrous star-not-making for Jaden Smith 2013 action film After Earth? Or is it the film he released in 2006 that almost got me to get up and walk out of the theater—the dreadfully dull Lady in the Water? No, those titles go on a separate list, one never to be written or published. For me the best of his worst movies is 2008’s The Happening starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel that at least has some effective scenes of tension and horror, along with a terrific supporting turn by the great Betty Buckley. This was Shyamalan’s attempt at a return to form after two disappointments, but it wouldn’t be until 2015’s The Visit that his suspense chops came back in full force.
9. Wide Awake (1998)
So many people think Shyamalan made his big, splashy film directing debut with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, but that was actually his third film, and before that he directed two non-genre movies—his 1992 film festival calling card Praying with Anger, and his butchered 1998 drama Wide Awake, which I just watched for the first time a few nights ago. Somehow this one had eluded me throughout the years, but it’s not half-bad, an entertaining if mostly inconsequential coming-of-age story about a ten-year-old boy searching for meaning in his world after the death of his grandfather. Rosie O’Donnell is mostly wasted in a supporting role, but a young Joshua Cross is excellent in the lead, another example of Shyamalan’s gift for directing children in his movies. You can see ideas and themes Shyamalan would later explore to better success in the following year’s The Sixth Sense (especially the last scene!), but word is Wide Awake was greatly ruined by its producer Harvey Weinstein during post-production, and so I’d be intrigued to see a Wide Awake director’s cut from Shyamalan.
8. The Village (2004)
With the release of Shyamalan’s newest film Old currently in theaters, many critics have been going back and re-assessing The Village and calling it his underrated masterpiece and possibly his best ever film and yada yada yada. We can re-assess this one all we want, but despite a lot of excellent craft and genuine suspense in the first hour, the movie goes so far astray in the ridiculous final act that most of what’s come before flounders, at least for me. A strong cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Sigourney Weaver, and Bryce Dallas Howard (one of the big acting discoveries at the time) all do what they can with a fairly thin story, but I’ll never forget the intense disappointment I felt seeing this one opening night in 2004 with a big group of friends as the slow realization settled in that the “twist” ending I had predicted an hour ago was indeed going to be the real ending. It’s not a terrible film, but in a way this was the beginning of Shyamalan’s low period that would continue with Lady in the Water.
7. Glass (2019)
There was a great sense of anticipation in seeing a true sequel to 2000’s Unbreakable with both Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson returning to those rich characters and that astonishing world I know and love. Split ended with a neat tease, but this was the real continuation, and yet since seeing Glass opening weekend in January 2019, I haven’t thought about it much since. There seemed to be something rushed and slightly off about the whole production, the movie feeling at times like a shrug-worthy epilogue to Unbreakable than a compelling new installment that built on what Shyamalan had developed before. I’m happy it exists, and it’s one I might revisit at some point, but it felt like a step down from 2017’s Split, which is a much better example of Shyamalan firing on all cylinders as a writer/director.
6. The Visit (2015)
This was the comeback film of all comeback films in the mid-2010s. I think we all had written off Shyamalan at this point, after the expensive back-to-back action catastrophes of The Last Airbender and After Earth. His name in a trailer was now a reason to snicker, not an excuse to get excited. Clearly, he understood that the way back to audience’s good graces was to go back to his roots and do something small, low-budget, clever, and ultra-terrifying, and that’s what he gave us with The Visit, a stellar if unmemorable chiller that might be slight at times but always entertaining, with terrific performances from the cast and a sense of playfulness from the director we hadn’t seen in years. I remember putting it on months after its release with zero expectations and by the end so jazzed and excited that I had finally seen a return to form for a director I had admired so greatly when I was in high school. Shyamalan was back, baby!
5. Old (2021)
A lot of the success of Shyamalan’s newest film Old has to do with how best you’re able to suspend your disbelief and just go with the compelling, oddball premise of a group of vacationers who arrive on a secluded beach and find themselves rapidly aging as the hours quickly pass them by. For me this is easily one of Shyamalan’s best thrillers in years, a sense of dread building right from the opening scene and never letting up until the final few minutes. He makes some missteps along the way, like casting himself again in a crucial supporting role and delivering a so-so ending that feels like it goes on one beat too many, but for a good hour and fifteen minutes, Shyamalan draws us into this unusual world in a way only he can, with clever cinematography, fantastic performances from a game cast, and fantastic tension throughout. It’s a film that works as a gleefully entertaining work of suspense while also asking its audience difficult questions about mortality and how important it is to never take a moment for granted.
4. Split (2017)
If The Village showed signs of promise that Shyamalan’s career might no longer be on life support, Split was the applause-worthy return to form that blew all our minds with an amazing performance by James McAvoy that might have received more notices at awards time if the film hadn’t been released in January of 2017. This movie is scary and hypnotizing, always surprising the viewer as the film’s protagonist Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, tries to outwit the villain with his split-personality disorder and find an escape from his madness. A clever twist at the end that ties the film’s events with the world of Unbreakable is a delicious cherry on top of an already loaded and delicious sundae. In a way, this one is almost McAvoy’s success more than it is Shyamalan’s, but regardless it’s a damn fun time at the movies.
3. Signs (2002)
Despite some mini-successes from Shyamalan the last few years, there was no bigger and more exciting time for his career than the turn of the century, that much is for sure. His one-two-three punch of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs was remarkable at the time, with his imagination on fire and his skills as a suspense writer and director already so honed when he was only in his late twenties and early thirties. For Signs he teamed up with Mel Gibson, still a huge movie star in 2002, and this marked one of the biggest hits for both men both critically and at the box office. I saw it opening night in a crowded theater, and it was unlike few experiences I’ve had before or since, with just constant raucous laughter and loud screams from the teen girls nearby and everyone aware they were watching something extraordinary. Oh, if only we had known he wouldn’t have a genuinely good film for another thirteen years. Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are terrific, and even though the twist ending has always struck me as a tad corny, there’s so much that goes right in this one that it’s difficult to nitpick it too much. It’s not The Village we need to re-assess; it’s Signs, which is even better than we remember.
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
If Signs was a thrill because we knew what kind of film we all were getting, The Sixth Sense was even bigger thrill because when I saw this one opening night, I had no clue what I was in for—only that it was a ghost story starring Bruce Willis. None of us had any idea that this movie would deliver in all the ways it did, with one of the best performances of a child actor ever on film in Haley Joel Osment, probably Willis’ best dramatic work ever, and not just solid scares throughout but countless haunting moments filled with powerful emotion, like the father who discovers his wife was slowly killing their daughter, and the truly amazing car scene between son and mother that rightfully earned Toni Collette her first (and amazingly enough still only) Oscar nomination. If the movie had ended in that scene, we’d probably still be talking about it today, but then the wow of a twist ending about Willis’ character comes, and it was so shocking and unexpected that many of us had to go back to see the movie a second time and put all the pieces together.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable almost tie as my favorite Shyamalan movie, but if I had to pick only one to take with me to a desert island, it’s his gorgeous, thrilling, immensely engrossing 2000 film Unbreakable, which was a slight disappointment at the box office and for some audience members at the time, but it’s this kind of restrained comic book origins movie I love best, one that takes its sweet time with scenes of somber family drama and unusual friendships and the slow realization that one man might be more powerful than he ever thought possible. This film marks one of Samuel L. Jackson’s best performances on film, his arc so chilling every time I watch it, the twist ending always filling me with so much dread, anger, and sadness. You can just tell the huge success of The Sixth Sense freed up Shyamalan to tell the story he cared about the most while at the same time evolve so beautifully as a filmmaker. The man has done some great work in the world of cinema in the last thirty years, that is for sure, but the movie that still works the best that he will likely never top again is Unbreakable, one of my favorite films from the turn of the century!