The list of living filmmakers who basically everyone in the world knows is pretty small. Steven Spielberg definitely. Martin Scorsese maybe. Quentin Tarantino probably. A few others for sure, but one that’s absolutely on that list is M. Night Shyamalan.
With his third feature film, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan made himself into a brand name. Sit down for an M. Night Shyamalan film and you had no idea what you were going to get, but it was going to surprise you — maybe even scare you. At the start of his career, he piled up mega-blockbusters like they were nothing, but things eventually slowed down. He made a few stinkers. And years later, he was forced to reinvested himself, going from making big-budget blockbusters to lower-budget films with blockbuster potential.
The gamble paid off. Only a few years after rising to stardom, and then falling from grace, the Shyamalan-aissance began. And it continues — today is the release of the director’s 14th feature film, Old. Like his last several films, it’s a high concept idea executed on a smaller scale. For the occasion, we decided to rank Old as well as his other genre films. That means his directorial debut, the self-funded indie Praying With Anger, and his second film, the uncharacteristic Rosie O’Donnell dramatic comedy Wide Awake, aren’t on here. But everything from 1999 to 2021 is. Let’s see where they all fall.
12. The Last Airbender
You knew it. Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most beloved franchises in modern fandom. So the news that a filmmaker like Shyamalan was going to tackle it probably sounded good at the start. But that all changed once people saw the movie and realised it was a lifeless, almost complete misunderstanding of what makes Avatar so good. It was also in 3D. Yikes. It’s a bad movie and also hurt a great franchise.
11. After Earth
After Earth has a great backstory and a great cast (Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith), but on screen, none of it comes together. The story of a futuristic father and son who crash land on a long-abandoned Earth and try to get home is seemingly interesting, but the movie doesn’t really go beyond that. The result is an utterly forgettable, borderline awful piece of work.
10. The Happening
That Shyamalan made this film, and the two prior on this list, in succession basically explains why he needed to reinvent his career. Of that downward spiral, we rank The Happening as the best (of the worst) because it actually starts like other Shyamalan movies: there’s an intriguing, deadly mystery afoot. When it’s revealed to be the freaking plants, well, things go off the rails a bit and become goofy. At least it started off in the right direction and starred Zooey Deschanel.
This being ranked as low as it is might come as a shock, but bear with me a second. Glass was the long-anticipated sequel to Unbreakable. After the fantastic tie-in from Split, the director returned to the world he created almost 20 years earlier and… made it so, so boring and stupid. It’s not a godawful film but it squandered so much potential and broke so many hearts (mine included) that it gets dropped way down.
8. Lady in the Water
Lady in the Water is just flat out… weird. It’s about a building manager (Paul Giamatti) who finds a mythical creature (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the pool and helps protect her from being hunted. Ultimately, it doesn’t really work all that well, but the sheer audacity and originality of it, as well as some nice moments of poetic lyricism and wonder, move it up the charts slightly.
7. The Village
This is where the shift happens. This was arguably the last “good” movie Shyamalan made before a few years of stinkers. The Village has about the most obvious twist of the director’s entire career but before that, it’s creepy, atmospheric, and incredibly mysterious. It doesn’t quite live up to the films before it, but it’s impactful and interesting nevertheless.
6. The Visit
From here on out, all of these movies are legitimately great — but The Visit is one you maybe missed when it came out. It was the film that changed everything for the director, as he pivoted to smaller films, financially, but were still equally creepy compared to his best-known works. Two kids (whose mum is played Kathryn Hahn! Bonus!) go to visit their grandparents, but nothing is right at this place. Things get scary and funny and it’s just a hell of a ride.
Signs has one big thing going against it: Mel Gibson. The onetime Hollywood darling’s star has long since fallen due to his anti-Semitic ramblings, but if you can get past that, this movie is fantastic. It’s a family-centric, worldwide alien invasion story with a few surprising twists, an excellent cast (Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin), and huge payoffs. This right here was Shyamalan at the height of his powers.
If Split was just the story of a woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) kidnapped by a person (James McAvoy) with dissociative identity disorder, it would be really, really good. The performances, the tension, the reveals, all of it works exceedingly well. But, after a few years without one, Shyamalan hit us with his biggest twist ending yet. This seemingly separate thriller we’d been watching was also a sequel to Unbreakable. It took the film to a whole new level.
Yes! Shyamalan’s latest film is this good. He stays within that very contained, very small scale he’s been using since The Visit but adds a story with huge philosophical and scientific ramifications and an avalanche of edge-of-your-seat intensity. Old is never scary per se, but it’s super hard to watch, and that’s just pure Shyamalan using all of his filmmaking powers to take the audience on a ride.
There truly was nothing like sitting down in a theatre in 2000 and watching this film. We knew Shyamalan loved a good twist ending, but Unbreakable — starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson — has a twist beginning too. He took all the goodwill from his previous film and used it to make a modern spin on the comic book genre almost a decade before Marvel and DC would start dominating the box office. It’s just a masterpiece of mood and message that still holds up today.
1. The Sixth Sense
Obviously, right? The film that put Shyamalan on the map is still, surely, his best. In later films, he’d spread his wings and make stories that were bigger, more intense, and just as surprising, but the quiet, creepy nature of this story — about a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who could see dead people — was already a winner before the twist ending that changed the filmmaker’s career. To this day it remains a shockingly restrained and expertly crafted rumination on death, regret, and more.
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