Occasionally, and for good reason, director M. Night Shyamalan was once hailed as the next Hitchcock, following the success of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). But unfortunately some people said Shyamalan lost his way as a filmmaker soon after with a series of duds in the 2000s. I am not of that school of thought. In fact, I believe his films like Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) are respectively both underrated masterpieces in their own right. A lot like Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense they have a disquieting unease about them that brings me to watch them again and again. Importantly one of the things that also continually draws me to Shyamalan’s films is his unwavering ability to pull out all the stops, especially with his twist endings. But while The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) might be considered failures or minor bumps in the road in a career that has stretched across three decades, I believe Shyamalan undoubtedly has still more to offer. If he keeps making films like the critically acclaim Split (2016), he may yet surprise us with another thought provoking psychological thriller worthy of our attention in the new decade ahead. But while we await his next big screen project, here is my attempt to rank Shyamalan’s top ten essential films that all movie buffs should take the time to see. Enjoy!
No. 10 Lady In The Water (2006).
Lady In The Water is probably the most divisive of all the entries here in this top ten list. When it was released back in 2006, Shyamalan copped a lot of flack from critics and fans alike for his wayward fantasy film. I think most people thought his ego had got the better of him in creating an off-kilter fairy tale about a mysteries sea nymph who springs out of nowhere. Well, ok, maybe not actually out of nowhere, but the underneath a swimming pool in a Philadelphia apartment complex. In truth, while Lady In The Water doesn’t rate very well in Shyamalan’s best films, it doesn’t mean we can’t give it a bit of love, especially the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard, who is for my mind perfectly cast as ‘Story’, the sea nymph, who must deliver an important message. Moreover, worthy of a mention is Paul Giamatti’s admirable performance as the deeply troubled complex superintendent.
No. 9 The Happening (2008).
While some critics praised The Happening‘s 50s style B-movie attempt at giving nature a front row sit in this ecological disaster horror film, the majority though including most fans considered it too absurd a premise, which saw trees and plants exacting revenge on humanity. One of the sticking points was the sight of people committing mass suicide which was presumably a result of inhaling dangerous toxins released by tress and plants. It was a little on the nose back then, as it is arguably still now, with mental health a touchy subject that doesn’t deserve ridicule. But, a little over a decade now after its release, many movie fans are slowly revisiting the film looking at it through different eyes, especially since we are seemingly continuing on a trajectory of losing our respect and connection with the environment. I know I have been asking lately how I might respond to a wake-up call from nature? It doesn’t seem so far fetched anymore when things like climate change and covid-19 are testing our resolve. How we react in the face of adversity is one of the questions The Happening is posing to us. More importantly, do we have the spirited initiative to change our behaviour, even when we seem powerless to do so.
No. 8 Wide Awake (1998).
Wide Awake was made prior to Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense fame and while it doesn’t contain the jaw-dropping suspenseful twists of his later films, he still does manage to throw in something special in this beautiful family-friendly comedy-drama about a fifth grader in search of God after the death of his grandfather. As a friend pointed out to me more recently Wide Awake to some degree illustrates Shymalan’s knack for working with young actors, primarily kids. The movie is definitely an oddity, cheesy at best, but I can’t help but like the warm performances of Joseph Cross as Joshua, the film’s young hero and Rosie O’Donnell as Sister Terry.
No. 7 Glass (2019).
In 2016, Shyamalan blew us away with Split his unnerving psychological horror thriller. Interestingly in a real plot-twister, after Split’s villain is almost caught by the authorities, Shyamalan stitched onto the film’s ending a big reveal in a diner (click HERE to view the scene) that finally set up the long anticipated sequel to what would become the Unbreakable trilogy. Of course three years would pass before audience would finally get to see the characters from Split and Unbreakable battling it out in last year’s superhero film Glass. That said the exciting premise of Glass saw good guy David Dunn (Bruce Willis) from Unbreakable in pursued of ‘The Beast’, the superhuman persona manifested in the mind of Kevin (James McAvoy) from Split, with Unbreakable villain Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) menacing presence foreshadowing the whole film.
No. 6 The Visit (2015).
If you enjoy found-footage horror movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007), then it’s time for you to check out The Visit. It is without a doubt one of the more exciting inclusions to the subgenre in which we follow two siblings (Becca and Tyler) as they visit their grandparents, who they soon find out are bat shit crazy. As horrifying as it sounds, one of the best scenes occurs in the kitchen, where Becca’s Nana ask her to clean the oven, insisting that she crawls all the way in. It’s a laugh out loud moment that has you soon after completely gobsmacked, when Nana slams the oven door shut. It is this blend of comedy and horror that makes The Visit absolutely fun, yet frightening at the same time to watch. More than anything else, I love that Shyamalan delivers a whopper of a climax almost worthy of the twist ending of The Sixth Sense.
No. 5 Split (2016).
Shyamalan’s straight-up horror-thriller film Split was a surprise hit and huge return to form for the director everyone loves to hate. In short, at the centre of this intense film is James McAvoy’s performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a troubled psychopath with 23 distinct personalities, who has kidnapped three girls and locked them in a basement. Interestingly, as the film plays out with terrifying brilliance, it is teased that ‘The Beast’ is in danger of being unleashed. But before that happens, it’s fair to say we are all rooting for the kidnapped girls to escape, especially Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her attempts at negotiating her way out, by playing Kevin’s personalities off of each other. Importantly, while Split success doesn’t necessarily hinge on a satisfying Shyamalan twist ending, its final scene which is more of a big reveal rather than a twist is nonetheless more than satisfying for fans of the Unbreakable universe.
No. 4 The Village (2004).
Between the line that divides the quaint utopian existence of Covington and the forbidden forest of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village live these mysterious, scary monsters who dress in red cloaks and have claws fashioned from sharp sticks. They are simply known to the villagers as Those We Do Not Speak Of. [Spoilers ahead] In fact these mysterious monsters are the kooky invention of village patriarch Edward Walker (William Hurt), who believes their existence will help keep the fearful villagers from venturing out into the real world (Philadelphia), which over decades he and his fellow elders had come to detest because of its cruel and corrupt nature. Of course, their old-fashioned existence is ultimately put to the test when the death of a child begins to haunt a young man called Lucius (Joaquin Pheonix), who wants to journey through the dangerous woods to buy medicine in case others suffer the same fate.
Intertwined within this premise is also a love story between Lucius and Ivy (Dallas Bryce Howard), the headstrong blind daughter of Edward Walker, which almost plays out like a tragedy, until Ivy picks up from where Lucius could not and journeys to the ‘towns’ beyond the forest for modern medicine that will save Lucius. This all sounds like a wonderful and beautiful story about a blind heroine in love, and it is, except for the perceived problem that The Village plods along at an excruciating pace. (Moreover, because the twists and turns and dreaded horror doesn’t come in spades, that too generally disappoint some moviegoers.) But isn’t that the point of Shyamalan’s sombre story!? It’s meant to be savored as a slow cautionary tale. In short, The Village is a film that no one expected, and that alone makes it is one of Shyamalan’s best films. An underrated masterpiece.
No. 3 The Sixth Sense (1999).
It is both a blessing and a curse that M. Night Shyamalan will be forever associated with his breakout hit about a very troubled boy that sees (and communicates) with dead people. Those who talk about Shyamalan’s film in terms of style and tone, especially his fondness for twist endings, always rate The Sixth Sense as his greatest film. Why most critics consider it his best film definitely has everything to do with its shocking reveal, in which we discover right at the end that Bruce Willis as child psychologist Malcolm Crowe has been walking around as a ghost. Shyamalan of course gave us several clues throughout the film that Malcolm was dead but we just never picked up on it. In defining where The Sixth Sense sits as entertainment, I’d argue that it’s more a psychological drama than a horror classic but admittedly there are great moments that really creep you out, especially the scenes where our young protagonist Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) is tormented by visions of ghosts who have died violently. The scenes where a young girl, who sits in Cole’s bedroom tent uncontrollably vomiting and the boy in the kitchen scene with a gaping gunshot wound on the back of his head still freaks me out! In my opinion while Shyamalan’s film is brilliant in every way, it is not the yardstick by which his career should be judged.
No. 2 Signs (2002).
The late great film critic Roger Ebert in 2002 said: “M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” is the work of a born filmmaker, able to summon apprehension out of thin air. When it is over, we think not how little has been decided, but how much has been experienced. Here is a movie in which the plot is the rhythm section, not the melody. A movie that stays free of labored explanations and a forced climax, and is about fear in the wind, in the trees, in a dog’s bark, in a little girl’s reluctance to drink the water.”
I really believe Ebert hits the nail of the head with his opening critique of Signs. M. Night Shyamalan’s truly captures a film that is a wonderful blend of B-movie sci-fi, paranoia and tight suspense. While you might think Signs is a film solely about alien-invasion and ‘little green men’, it is in fact also a story of one man’s redemption after losing his faith upon the death of his wife. It stars Mel Gibson, in one of his best roles as a former reverend, who is thrown into a predicament beyond his understanding, when he discovers mysterious crop circles in his cornfield. What unfolds is an insular look at how a family copes when impending doom reaches their doorstep. That said, Shyamalan is a master of suspense, keeping a tight rein on the drama, even teasing us with fleeting glimpses of the alien invaders – until the end of the movie. And while on the subject of endings, let’s talk about the white elephant in the room, which is Shyamalan’s controversial twist, which many have poked fun at its silliness or simplicity. All I will say is that the idea that water is like kryptonite to Shyamalan’s aliens is pure genius. He could have easily gone with something far more elaborate or outlandish, but the simple fact that something right under our noses can harm these aliens is pretty clever in my books. In short, Signs is a spellbinding drama, which should also be remembered in particularly for Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant performance.
No. 1 Unbreakable (2000).
In the two decades since Shyamalan released Unbreakable it has steady grown in stature even arguably surpassing The Sixth Sense with its brilliance as a stunning drama and love-letter to comic books. Yes, it’s a superhero movie, that isn’t quite a superhero movie, one that in fact takes itself seriously without the need or want for an obvious caped crusader hero type. It’s an origin story about a seemingly ordinary guy named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who incredibly survives a train crash without a single scratch. He of course soon realizes after countless questions thrown at him, that there is nothing ordinary about him. Forced to revaluate his own life, Dunn soon realises that he is superhuman, or for a better word a superhero in the making. Someone who realise what Dunn is capable of, is Elijah Price aka “Mr. Glass” (Samuel Jackson), a sickly man with fragile bones who evidently spent his life obsessing over comic books. Interestingly Elijah Price is what we might call a snake in the grass, a villain in the making looking for his place in the world. It’s no mistake that he sort out Dunn, who he believes is his arch-nemesis. On a final note, watch for what happens when Price invites Dunn to shake his hand at the end of the third act. It acts as the catalyst for Unbreakable’s incredible twist. It is as good as anything our benchmark The Sixth Sense twist had to offer.
I have seen only one of these films – “The Sixth Sense”. I tend to shy away from thrillers and horror films, plus I just don’t see nearly as many films as I did in my youth.
Nice list! I definitely am in the camp that thinks Shyamalan lost his way. He relied too much on tricks and twists once he hit it big. But the Sixth Sense and especially Unbreakable are excellent films, and Split and Glass were somewhat of a return to form for him (though not all the way there). His talent is unquestionable and I hope he can make some more great films in the future.
I think Signs and The Village are brilliant. I think Signs has a much better build up of suspense than many of his films to that point and Phoenix was an excellent choice, even Mel Giibson was a pleasant surprise – The Village was just plain gorgeous in terms of cinematography and pacing. I lost track after The Lady In The Water didn’t do much for me but it seems I’ve been missing out.
Great list! I think everyone just set their expectations too high after The Sixth Sense. It is like Luc Bresson with Leon, after such films, one can only step down a bit, really. It’s only natural. I agree that The Village is underrated, and very much enjoyed both The Visit and Split. I do believe that Shyamalan tried to drive his own vision and style through his later films, but, as it so often happens, it transpired to be the exact opposite of the box office and commercial success. I am really enjoying your film articles. I do have a passion for film myself.
Shyamalan is a polarising filmmaker and gets a lot of grief from critics who can’t get over the fact that he doesn’t always adhere to their rules. Have you seen his new series Servant?
By the way, I’m thrilled you enjoyed my take on M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Film is a wonderful medium, unfortunately I tend to spread myself thin in all my different interests. I hope to get back at it soon.
I have not seen The Servant, but probably I should and I think I now will, if you recommend. I don’t usually tend to watch TV series, but in the last year or so I feel like we don’t have much choice because it is gaining its momentum, isn’t it? My interests are very diverse too and sometimes I feel torn apart – and like yours, they include art and history. So many interesting subjects and things in the world, but so little time for everything, right? 🙂