Few directors have such simultaneous high highs and low lows as M. Night Shyamalan. He’s gone from being described as “The Next Spielberg” to becoming a punchline, to making something of a comeback and regaining the adoration of fans.
However, he still deserves a great deal of respect given that he never compromises what he wants to do, and ever since The Visit, he’s financed his own films. He does the projects he wants, with his own money, and no one can stop him. Isn’t that sort of the American Dream?
Plus, on a personal note, I too hail from the Philadelphia area, and it’s always fun to see familiar locations pop up in his films. I also know a few people in the area who have worked either as extras or crew for him, and have described him as a really kind and down to Earth person.
So in honor of his new film Old being released, I went and re-watched every single one of his films from The Sixth Sense on to put together this ranking. These are just my personal opinions. Please comment your own ranking below!
Note: Only movies that he directed will count, so Devil or TV shows like Servant will not be on here.
12. After Earth
This was simply a mess of a movie, as well as a mess of a production that wasn’t entirely Shyamalan’s fault. More so a passion project for Will and Jaden Smith, Shyamalan’s name wasn’t even included in the film’s marketing (which probably had to do with poor reception of his last few films).
Some of his movies are so bad they’re entertaining, but he problem with After Earth is it’s just dull. Will Smith is normally one of the most charismatic and charming movie stars on the planet, but in After Earth he’s intentionally holding back and being stoic to try and let Jaden shine, but sadly he just doesn’t have the same presence.
It’s not easy for a single actor to carry most of the movie, while working against a green screen for the majority of the time. It would have been a challenge for anyone, and because of Jaden’s lack of charisma, it really shows.
History has shown this was definitely more so Will Smith’s failure than Shyamalan’s, it was even the movie that made him go to self-funding. So while it may be the worst movie that he’s directed, fortunately, he still had a lot more to say afterwards.
11. The Happening
This unintentional comedy remains the peak of Shyamalan’s “So Bad, It’s Hilarious” phase. On the surface, the idea of plants executing some sort of self-defense against humans is both creative and creepy. It was just in the absurd execution that this movie became so infamous.
Mark Wahlberg is usually a great actor, but in The Happening, it feels like he’s not sure if he’s meant to play it seriously, or if he’s in a parody. The results are scenes like “What? No!” and the infamous talking to a plastic plant, which both felt like something out of SNL.
The kills themselves, while brutal, almost have a Looney Tunes-esque over the top quality to them. From the sewing needles, to laying in front of a lawnmower. Some of the ways in which the plants get people to kill themselves seem pretty involved and detailed.
Finally, there’s just so much awkward dialogue where no one speaks naturally and no one believes in using contractions like “can’t”, “won’t”, or “don’t”. However, it’s still a genuinely entertaining movie in the same sense that The Room is.
10. Lady in the Water
This one is often forgotten about when discussing Shyamalan’s filmography. Its premise as a dark fairy tale seems like something that Guillermo Del Toro would do (albeit much better). It’s another movie that goes to some absurd and ridiculous places, with characters saying silly dialogue, but in a super serious tone.
Everyone in the apartment complex just sort of accepts that sea nymphs are real, and that they are part of this narrative. They take a child reading cereal boxes as some sort of prophecy, and Shyamalan himself has one of the most pretentious cameos ever as a writer who is martyred but changes the world.
It’s filled with great actors like Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Jared Harris, and others. But all of their talents are wasted on awkward dialogue that wasn’t quite as bad as in The Happening, but that movie came next.
9. The Last Airbender
Here’s an unpopular opinion that may break the internet: The Last Airbender is not Shyamalan’s worst movie, and in fact it’s not even that bad a movie at all. This was the first project of his that wasn’t his own story he was telling, as it was based on the hit TV show.
From an adaptation standpoint, there’s no doubt that the series is superior in every way. The film totally and completely fails as an adaptation of that show. However, judging it on its own as a movie, it’s sort of just okay.
Yes, the child acting is pretty wooden. Yes, it makes leaps and bounds that don’t make much sense. But it’s relatively well shot, and visually interesting. Dev Patel really shines as Prince Zuko, and the movie itself never really gets dull or boring, nor does it become so bad it’s funny.
8. The Village
This was really the first time that a lot of Shyamalan fans began to see cracks in the foundation. The Village is far from his worst, but it’s also a far cry from his earlier classics. What it really suffers from (other than an absurd twist that raises a million questions) is the fact that it seems like Shyamalan just wanted an excuse to make a historical movie so his characters could speak almost like Shakespeare.
Visually beautiful with some great production design, the movie suffers from long monologues where people speak like they’re trying to show off their vocabulary and syntax. And once you get to the end and whole “hoax”, nothing really makes sense anymore.
His other films with twist endings felt like clues were woven throughout, and when you really thought about it, everything made more sense. This ending was just out of left field and creates more logical problems than answers.
All that said, The Village has one saving grace and that is William Hurt. While many of the other actors just sort of awkwardly recite that very heavy dialogue, Hurt is able to deliver his lines as they’re written, but with emotion and subtlety. He’s a talented enough actor that he could thrive, despite the script.
Following the release of Split, this movie became probably the most anticipated of Shyamalan’s career, but sadly it was something of a letdown.
Crossing over iconic characters like Kevin Wendell Crumb and David Dunn, Glass very quickly halts the momentum and spends most of its runtime with them in an asylum trying to make the audience question whether they’re truly superhuman (which we already knew they were).
In a weird way, this movie came out far too late. When Unbreakable was made, comic book movies are not what they are now. And by the time of Glass’ release, audiences were much more familiar with the tropes and ideas. So it could have found ways to explore these tropes in clever ways, rather than just tell the audience about them.
As far as action goes some of those scenes could have been better directed. The movie itself teases this huge showdown, just to end in a front lawn and one of our most beloved characters being killed in a completely unceremonious manner.
Overall, Glass was more frustrating than it was bad. It had so much potential, but felt like it just wasted it on ideas that we’ve already explored and known about.
Much like Glass, Old was frustrating but in a different way. The way that Shyamalan took his own fears and anxieties about aging, and translated them into film was both disturbing and relatable. And for the duration of the movie that takes place on that beach, it’s engaging and unsettling.
That said, the entire movie starts to fall apart in the last 20 minutes. I won’t get too into spoilers or details (see the full review here), but it almost becomes another movie at the end that has all the same exposition-heavy awkwardness that Shyamalan is known for.
So if you’re going to enjoy it, best to turn it off right around the 80/85 minute mark…
Disgraced racist, anti-Semitic lead actors aside, Signs remains a pretty solid movie, even 19 years later. Sure it has some of the awkwardness here and there, but it’s a genuinely suspenseful movie that builds tension right from the very first scene.
It does a great job of blending this massive global event with the fate of this one family that we come to know. Making it so that during the climax, the stakes feel small but real, as we’re primarily concerned with that happens to just these characters.
And be honest, when you first saw that scene of the alien on TV at the Brazilian birthday party, it either made you jump or terrified you to your very core!
The fact that James McAvoy wasn’t nominated for any Oscars or Golden Globes after playing close to 10 different characters here is a travesty. Even before that ending that blew everyone’s mind, the movie itself was extremely well-acted with immense tension.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey was a down to Earth, relatable protagonist who has a really strong arc. It’s easy to overlook her performance with McAvoy sealing the show, but she deserves recognition. Split was the first time in nearly 2 decades that it felt like the same Shyamalan who made Unbreakable, which is probably why this movie links to it.
3. The Visit
This movie is something of an anomaly. Following the frustration and box office bomb that was After Earth, Shyamalan decided to finance his movies himself, and The Visit was the first to do so. Its budget (only $5 million) and scale were much smaller than he had done in a while. And it was his first time doing found footage.
The characters are just as awkward and strange as any other Shyamalan characters, but the difference here is, it really works. The fact that the movie is partially played for comedy makes his usual unintentional humor intentional. It might be the only movie he’s ever made that the tone was perfect 100% of the time.
It successfully makes the audience cringe, laugh, and scream, all in a matter of minutes.
2. The Sixth Sense
There’s no denying this film’s massive impact on pop culture and cinema overall. Following its success, we definitely had a phase where every movie needed to have a twist. It was Oscar nominated for a reason, and it remains a legitimately terrifying but compelling movie.
But it wasn’t just about the scares. At its core, The Sixth Sense is a touching drama about two lost souls who manage to help each other. Malcolm helps Cole accept his gift and use it for good, while Cole helps Malcolm accept his fate that he had been in denial about up to now.
For many, this is an obvious choice for the number 1 spot. And the fact that it’s 2nd is more a reflection of the next film and its own brilliance.
There is simply no other way of putting this, Unbreakable is M. Night Shyamalan’s masterpiece. At a time before superhero movies took over the world, Shyamalan gave us a superhero origin story that remains the most grounded and realistic one ever made.
David and Elijah are two amazing characters that are both three dimensional, and have a really fascinating chemistry with each other. Even before the shocking twist, it’s just fun to see them play off of each other.
It features incredibly tense moments like Joseph pulling a gun on his father, and has some amazingly shot sequences, particularly the train station scene. The acting, writing, directing, even the score of this movie remain the best among Shyamalan’s films.
Which one is your favorite and least favorite? Let us know in the comments!