Tim Burton’s take on the Alice and Wonderland story opens tomorrow, and while there’s no denying — simply from the trailers — that it’s a visual phantagasmfest, advance word on the rest of the movie has not been kind (we’ll review it tomorrow). Burton has been limping for a few years, it seems — we even suggested earlier this week that his career could use a reboot. His visual acumen is still intact, and everything he does is still smeared with his goth imprimatur, but his narratives are lacking. They’re flat, uninspired, and emotionless, and at this point, Burton’s muses — Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter — seem to be replicating the same characters with different outfits.
It wasn’t always like this, however. Burton can be one of the best directors around, and when he imbues his stories with the Burton style (instead of the other way around), he can make one hell of a movie. Here are his five best:
5.Batman: A remarkable superhero film in 1989, Burton’s original Batman hasn’t held up spectacularly in the wake of Joel Schumacher’s terrible sequels and Christopher Nolan’s superior reboot. But this Batman was perfect for its time — dark, but campy, retaining the sensibilities of the Reagan era. It was noir, but it was kiddie noir, a black film meant to appeal to mainstream audiences. Burton deftly mixed his own style with that of the comic books, but it might have been the taste of this huge franchise — which was big on visuals and short on substance — that steered Burton toward the remakes and adaptations that epitomize his directing career now. And as superior as Nolan’s franchise is, I still think Michael Keaton is a slightly better Batman than Christian Bale.
4. Big Fish: Perhaps Burton’s most underappreciated film, Big Fish is a super-sweet movie about tall tales and the power of imagination. Big Fish was a perfect blend of Burton’s visuals and John August’s brilliant script about the truths of myth. It’s a charming and whimsical film, but it’s also Burton’s rousing tearjerker, so refreshingly earnest in the end as to almost not be a Tim Burton film at all.
3. Ed Wood: Ed Wood, a film about probably the worst director of all time, ironically happens to be Tim Burton’s most optimistic movie. It’s a intimate portrait of an outcast, a societal secret transvestite misfit who succeeds on his failures. It’s brilliant, funny, touching and even heart-warming, and so completely different from any other biopic you’ll ever see. It also happens to be a remarkable tribute to a filmmaker’s passion for making movies, as well as that old canard: The indomitable human spirit.
2. Beetlejuice: A magnificently surreal, macabre ghost story that’s gross in a way that mainstream audiences can enjoy. If you were a kid in 1988, this movie was just flat-out fucking candy. Off-the-wall, funny, completely charming and totally twisted. It also happens to feature Michael Keaton’s best performance. It was a black carnival of awesomeness that contained none of the self-indulgence that’s highlighted Burton’s later career. And despite the late 80s special effects and make-up, this movie has held up remarkably well.
1. Edward Scissorhands: The movie between Burton’s two Batman films is everything a Tim Burton project should be: The perfect amount of Burton style mixed with a heart-breaking Burton outcast story. The cinematography is gorgeous; the make-up effects are outstanding; it’s full of goofy supporting characters; it floats on fairy-tale whimsy; and Johnny Depp is perfect in the film that made him a star. More than anything, though, this enchanting, off-the-wall oddball love story is one of the sweetest romances of the 90s. Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton’s masterpiece.