Yes, he is probably never going to live down (or live up to) that 2002 Newsweek cover proclaiming him “The Next Spielberg.” But grant M. Night Shyamalan this: He’s never given up on himself, even when others have loudly mocked his pretensions of being a mass-appeal filmmaker who’s tried to inject soul and thematic depth into his blockbusters. But at his best, he’s managed to say something meaningful about mortality, childhood, and all the things that go bump in the night — all the while pushing the boundaries of ghost stories, superhero flicks, and sci-fi thrillers. And never forget that his cockiness has always been part of his appeal: Shyamalan is a showman who loves to enrapture you with a good yarn and then floor you with a killer twist.
Of course, his storytelling trademarks quickly became a crutch, leading to diminishing returns and a sense that Shyamalan was painting himself into a narrative corner. (Plus, seriously, man: Stop acting in your movies.) Not only isn’t he the next Spielberg, it’s fair to say he’s probably doomed to be remembered as a filmmaker who peaked with his early hits The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. It’s a legacy that he’s struggled with in recent years — sometimes fascinatingly — but with 2017’s Split and 2019’s Glass, some of his old commercial mojo may be back. So where does his latest rank among his all-time best? We promise our list doesn’t end with a surprise twist.
13. The Happening (2008)
The fates have to align just right for a movie like The Happening to exist. You need a director who had gone through a hot streak recently enough that he’d be given the freedom to make such a crazy movie, while still also being a bit antsy after a couple of flops in a row. You need that director, in a world of increasing climate anxiety, to be so convinced of his vision that he’ll let a tree be the ominous bad guy. You need the movie to have been done in a hurry, so that the massive, cavernous plot holes couldn’t be written over. And you need a star in Mark Wahlberg who is so precisely wrong for the part that it’s really sort of amazing he overcame this film (and Andy Samberg’s brilliant mockery of his performance) and kept his career going. The Happening is completely nonsensical yet also airless. It’s the strangest big-budget thriller to come out in the last 25 years. It also might be the worst.
12. After Earth (2013)
Funny to think that, in retrospect, After Earth was actually early on the whole “horror movies based on the five senses” trend that gave us A Quiet Place and Bird Box in 2018. Based on an idea by Will Smith, After Earth looks ahead 1,000 years in the future, during a time in which humanity is being hunted by frightening aliens who track them down by sensing their fear. The plot gets going when a brave intergalactic soldier (Smith) and his remote son Kitai (Smith’s own son Jaden) crash-land on a now-hostile Earth. Kitai must find help for his injured father, which requires going on a perilous journey — and also requires the audience to spend a lot of time with Jaden Smith. Where father and son were quite compelling in The Pursuit of Happyness, here they’re dull nonentities. After Earth is overrun with sentimentality and groaningly bad stabs at dramatic profundity. (Will Smith’s emotionally distant character is named … Cypher.) And on top of that, the movie felt like a cruel rejoinder to anyone who’d ever believed that the once-red-hot Shyamalan could right the ship.
11. The Lady in the Water (2006)
This was when the U.S.S. Shyamalan really started to wobble and take on water. You know a wunderkind director is in his Troubled Period when he starts writing critics into his movies and making them the bad guys. (Classic Roland Emmerich move!) That’s not all, though, as Shyamalan actually casts himself as a genius writer whose work will change the world if only the world will listen. The Lady in the Water involves a water nymph played by Bryce Dallas Howard and an apartment super played by Paul Giamatti and something called a “Scrunt.” The whole thing is a disaster. By the way, the book written about the making of this film, Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices, treats Shyamalan as a visionary whose art will save the world. The biography was funny then — Janet Maslin called it “a full-length, unintentionally riotous puff book” — but it is absolutely breathtaking to read now.
10. The Last Airbender (2010)
Or, Shyamalan Tries to Sell Out. After making one too many original horror-thrillers that turned off audiences and enraged critics, the writer-director turned his attention to adapting someone else’s work — specifically, the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is his most expensive movie, and every dollar seems to have been spent on the most garish, soul-deadening CGI as a humble boy named Aang (Noah Ringer) discovers he alone can defeat the forces of evil — which, in this movie, are represented by a silly character played by Aasif Mandvi. Shyamalan showed very little aptitude for crafting a family film, and the whole enterprise felt like a very blatant attempt to deliver a hit just so that the Oscar-nominated auteur could still be relevant in Hollywood. It’s true that The Last Airbender is better than some of his more personal and ambitious debacles that came before. But this might be his most disposable offering.
9. Praying With Anger (1992)
Shyamalan’s little-seen debut — it’s not available on streaming or DVD; we found it randomly lying around on YouTube — is nothing like anything he’d make again: a deeply personal, seemingly autobiographical drama about an Indian-American college student (played by Shyamalan himself) who goes back to India as part of a student-exchange program, experiences rather obvious culture shock, and learns about himself and his homeland in the process. Allowing for the fact that watching a VCR rip on YouTube is hardly the way any filmmaker would want their work seen, the movie is rather obvious and consistently clunky. Revelations that are supposed to be moving and heartfelt feel hackneyed and clichéd, and it’s not helped by Shyamalan’s amateurish performance. The only thing it shares with his later work is its unimpeachable earnestness, though it is worth noting that not once do we get a scene where we are supposed to be scared by a tree.
8. Glass (2019)
His career rejuvenated by The Visit and especially Split, the former boy wonder seemed to have successfully completed an unlikely Lazarus act. But that feel-good story should probably be put on hold after Glass, a laudably daring but deeply silly culmination of the so-called Eastrail 177 Trilogy. Here we are reunited with Unbreakable’s David Dunn (Bruce Willis) and Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), who wind up in the same mental-health facility as Split’s Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy). A psychiatrist (Sarah Paulson) is convinced that their supposed superpowers are actually just figments of their imagination, which leads to many chin-stroking discussions concerning our cultural obsession with comic books and the ability of ordinary people to do great things. As per norm, Shyamalan conjures up plenty of mood while spinning his web of intrigue and twists. But unlike the relative low-budget kicks of his previous two films, Glass has lots of portentous self-importance that the movie never quite earns. It’s fun to see these misfit superheroes and villains all together, but in the end, it’s another misfire.
7. The Visit (2015)
After the unrelenting beating he took for his previous four movies, Shyamalan received his first positive notices in a decade with The Visit, a scaled-down “found footage” thriller — though it’s a found-footage movie in which characters keep name-checking great film directors, as if Shyamalan were letting us know he’s secretly above all this — about two kids who go to their grandparents’ house just in time for all hell to break loose. The movie feels different than the lesser Shyamalan films, but not necessarily better. If anything, it’s a palate-cleanser for him, one that cleared the way for him to actually get back on track with Split a year later.
6. Wide Awake (1998)
If you were trying to predict who would have the big breakout hit in the very next year, you’d be hard-pressed to predict the writer-director of this coming-of-age weeper, about a 9-year-old boy (Joseph Cross, now old enough to be playing a murder suspect on Mindhunter) who is struggling with his faith in God. The movie is an odd mix, childlike in tone and mind-set but also ponderous and slow, a deadly mix. But it’s still a step forward for Shyamalan, who was still honing his art of audience manipulation. And it should probably be said that Rosie O’Donnell is really good in this movie. (As a nun!)
5. The Village (2004)
Shyamalan was on a nearly unprecedented roll, at least at his age, when he made this clunker, the first sign that his magic was starting to wear off and, more to the point, his Big Twist gimmick was starting to feel strained and desperate. (It occurs to us, this far into the list, that Shyamalan has only made four good movies.) Of all the Shyamalan backlash movies, though, this is the best one: The Village does a good job of building its tension, and all told, the way it pulls out the rug from under you is sort of clever, even if it’s done in clunky fashion and is without question the most improbable of all his twists. Still, though, this cast! Joaquin Phoenix! Sigourney Weaver! Brendan Gleeson! William Hurt! Cherry Jones! Judy Greer! Even Jesse Eisenberg! Shyamalan might have been the most powerful filmmaker in the world at this point … but not for much longer. And credit where credit is due: The movie was still a hit.
4. Split (2017)
Pairing Shyamalan with the Blumhouse crew was a masterstroke. What Shyamalan has needed more than anything over the last decade was a strong viewpoint other than his own. Making him tell a straight-ahead “horror” story with inherent constraints produces his best work in maybe 15 years, with a terrifically unrestrained performance from James McAvoy and a likable, strong female lead in Anya Taylor-Joy. To be sure, there are still problems here — an overloaded backstory, dialogue that can be an unnecessary mouthful – but it all feels more streamlined, more focused. Of course, Shyamalan still can’t help himself, giving the film a coda that’s fun (and clearly profitable down the line) but takes a bit away from the main story line we’d been invested in. But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth here: This was Shyamalan starting to maybe get his groove back.
3. Signs (2002)
The last of the director’s three-picture run of smart, mainstream thrillers, Signs is as absorbing as it is messy. But the film’s shortcomings are tied to its strengths — namely, that Shyamalan wanted to deliver big, emotionally nuanced, psychologically probing blockbusters. So we have the tale of a Pennsylvania family, led by Mel Gibson’s former pastor Graham, who discover that there might be extraterrestrials in their midst. Signs wants to be an alien-invasion flick with a mournful post-9/11 tone — and it also wants to be a story of family and a look at a man who’s turned his back on God but regains his faith. That’s too much, but Shyamalan was so fully confident in his storytelling style that he mostly pulls it off, eliciting a relatively subdued performance from Gibson and continuing to demonstrate his ability to work well with young actors (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). Yes, the ending is still dumb — “Swing away, Merrill” — but as Hollywood has become a more franchise-centric business, we’ve grown nostalgic for the nervy weirdness of a Signs.
2. Unbreakable (2000)
Unbreakable opens with a series of facts about comic books, including this: “The average comic collector owns 3,312 comics and will spend approximately 1 year of his or her life reading them.” For his follow-up to his Sixth Sense breakthrough, Shyamalan wanted to make a movie for people who would gasp at those numbers — and also for those who thought, “Only 3,312? I’ve got way more than that!” Unbreakable is only 19 years old, but in terms of industry life cycles it might as well have come from another century — one well before Marvel films ruled the world; the first Iron Man wouldn’t arrive until 2008. It’s an origin story from before you got one of those at your multiplex every other week — about an ordinary guy named David (Bruce Willis) who miraculously survives a train crash without a scratch and slowly realizes that he’s a superhero. He’s paired off with Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a man with brittle bones who’s spent his sickly life obsessing over comic books — and patiently waiting for a worthy nemesis. It’s hard now to explain what a revelation Unbreakable was at the time: Here was a film that took comic-book movies seriously but also recognized the danger inherent in devoting your life to caped crusaders. In the two decades since, we’ve tuned out Unbreakable’s cautionary message as the superhero movie seized box-office dominance. But revisit this somber gem now, and it’ll still haunt you.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The boy sees dead people, and when he tells the psychologist that, the older man doesn’t realize that it’s not a confession — it’s a warning. The Movie With the Twist That Shocked the World, The Sixth Sense can be enjoyed for numerous reasons, but once you know its big reveal, you can also appreciate it as an incredibly moving story of self-deception. Malcolm (Bruce Willis, excellent) died when his former patient shot him, but because he’s so absorbed in his work — so cut off from observing what’s going on around him — he just keeps going, focusing on spooked young Cole (Haley Joel Osment). The Sixth Sense is not a particularly “scary” movie in the traditional sense — it’s got frightening scenes, but they’re more about atmosphere than terror — but here’s where Shyamalan established his mastery of mournful mood and solemn performances. Toni Collette is so damn good as Cole’s mother, who loves him but can’t help him.
But what’s pointedly powerful about the film is how Malcolm becomes a metaphor for every workaholic who has no time for anyone else. Before he loses his life, he’ll have already lost everything — including his wife (Olivia Williams) — but never realize it. Malcolm cannot stop for Death, so Death kindly stops for him. It’s a ghost story featuring a man who has no idea he’s been cast as the lead.