With most any other director, you’d put this list “worst to best.” With M. Night Shyamalan, you order it “best to worst.”
The reason is simple—there’s not a ton of debate about Shyamalan’s best film. Unless you’re one of those intense Unbreakable fans who exist on the fringe, you pretty much know that the top film on any such list is going to be The Sixth Sense. It’s the thriller that made the Indian-born director a household name and anointed him as the next Hitchcock. But it’s the films he’s made since that dragged that once-optimistic outlook back down to Earth and into the muck. For as little debate as there is about Shyamalan’s best film, there’s a healthy, passionate debate on what his worst film to date has been.
Suffice to say, it hasn’t been a strong decade for Shyamalan, but now he appears to be turning things around. After the surprising critical and commercial success of The Visit, his new movie Split has arrived in theaters to more positive reviews, including out own. This seems like the ideal time to reexamine Shyamalan’s career to date with a complete ranking.
1. The Sixth Sense, 1999
Featuring great performances by Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, along with a legitimately chilling atmosphere, The Sixth Sense was nothing short of a phenomenon when it hit multiplexes in 1999. Critical examination aside, it really is a truly frightening film, from the scene where Cole is locked in a box with an abusive ghost to the little moments—I always found the scene where all the kitchen cabinets and drawers open at once while off-screen to be particularly effective and creepy.
For better or worse, though, this is the defining film of Shyamalan’s career, and its success was a double-edged sword. It bestowed the “brilliant young director” label on him, but also pigeonholed his personal style as a writer to the extent that his next five features at least were all reshaped by the aftershocks of The Sixth Sense. Rarely has the danger of success been so clearly illustrated for an artist—Shyamalan crafted a great, effective, scary film that still holds up today, and then spent most of the next decade chasing that same accomplishment with rapidly diminishing returns.
2. Unbreakable, 2000
Unbreakable is probably Shyamalan’s best overall script, and I can’t help but think that’s linked to the fact that for once, the story isn’t completely tied to his typical themes of faith or his own personal experience. Rather, it’s more like a genre meditation, and the thing he’s considering is “the superhero film.” This is interesting, because it’s not exactly how the film was marketed—rather, upon release, it appeared to be more of a supernatural thriller once again teaming Shyamalan with Bruce Willis, as in The Sixth Sense.
The actual film, however, is ultimately more of a drama, and a good one, if somewhat morose. It never gets the chance to fully explore the ideas of what Willis’ character is capable of, but the way it handles the slow realization of his “powers” is both unsettling and mesmerizing, as is the casting of Sam L. Jackson as the physically frail villain. It’s a type of pseudo-superhero film that no one had ever made before, which earned Shyamalan points for having originality on his side—what would you do if you’d essentially drifted through your whole life, unaware of the depths of your potential? That’s the question Unbreakable asked, and it’s probably the only other “objectively good” film in the director’s filmography.
3. The first 100 minutes of Signs, 2002
I’m taking the unprecedented measure of breaking Signs into two separate entries, because rarely has such a promising thriller been so thoroughly and catastrophically derailed by its conclusion. There’s just so much good stuff in the first 95 or so minutes that it’s very difficult to rate accurately—including some great performances by Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Up until the moment it jumps off the rail, Signs is creepy and occasionally very frightening—just as scary as The Sixth Sense, if not moreso at times. The reveal of the first footage of the alien via a news broadcast in particular is just a masterfully directed sequence, cheesy though it may appear today. Perhaps the highest compliment you can pay Signs is that the majority of it is good enough that there are still people willing to attempt to rationalize one of the worst endings ever seen in the history of wide-released Hollywood cinema.
4. Split, 2017
The director’s follow-up to the surprising success of The Visit is more deserving of the phrase “return to form” than that previous film was, succeeding as a legitimate thriller without the wink-and-nod comedy of killer grandparents. The story of a trio of young women abducted by a man with dissociative identity disorder and “23 personalities,” it features a powerhouse performance by James McAvoy as the antagonist and secondary protagonist, depending on which personality is currently in control. Beautifully shot and evocative of many of Shyamalan’s Hitchcockian influences such as Vertigo and Psycho, it’s an unexpected visual feast of the likes that the director hasn’t given us in more than a decade. Though the conclusion may not entirely pay off the arcs established for each of its characters, Split is mercifully free from a twist that is meant to be mind-blowing or redefining of the entire story in the closing moments. That alone is refreshing, in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
5. The Visit, 2015
Shyamalan’s new film, The Visit, is the least serious offering he’s ever given audiences, and this is for the best. Ostensibly a horror movie about kids being menaced by the creepy grandparents they’ve never before met, it’s in actuality a surprisingly funny horror-comedy that finds a degree of success on multiple levels. It features above-average performances from its teenage leads, and that’s really all it needs to coast to acceptability. Interesting, though, is the way the film seems to almost satirize the director’s previous storytelling conventions—it at times feels slightly apologetic, as if he’s come to understand (and perhaps even agree with) past criticisms of his pretension. Regardless, it’s the most entertaining film that Shyamalan has made in quite a while—not one that reaches for a profound goal, but a pulpy little picture that shares DNA in common with Devil but executes better, with better performances. Unfortunately, the studio marketed it as a serious horror film in the hope of reaping bigger box office grosses, so hopefully audiences weren’t led astray on what kind of film they should be expecting.
6. Wide Awake, 1998
This is the dividing line between “effective filmmaking” and entries that earn a decent position on the list simply because they’re less bad than the ones further down. Wide Awake is actually a comedy of sorts, although an undeniably preachy one. It was made in 1995 but not released until 1998 (always a great sign), starring ’90s kid actor Joseph Cross as a Catholic school boy who goes on an intellectual quest to seek for the existence of God in order to feel more comfortable about the passing of his religious grandfather played by Robert Loggia. Sounds like a laugh riot, right? It also stars Rosie O’Donnell prominently as “Sister Terry,” a baseball-obsessed nun at the Catholic school who takes the protagonist under her wing. So yes, there IS in fact an M. Night Shyamalan comedy starring Rosie O’Donnell out there, and no, it’s not completely awful—although it is rather boring. Still, it’s almost refreshing to see today, and it presents the questions of faith and spirituality that Shyamalan has grappled with in most of his works, delivered in a straightforward, literal way. Still a year away from the release of The Sixth Sense at this point, it catches Shyamalan in a much more humble, less auteur-centric moment.
7. Praying with Anger, 1992
This is Shyamalan’s first feature, and by far his least-seen film. He stars in it himself, and for once that appearance doesn’t seem totally vain—more like a necessity, given that he was simply an indie filmmaker trying to make a name for himself. It’s a very personal drama, about an Indian-American young man who returns to India for a year and is reunited with his family. Shyamalan really seems to draw on personal experience all the time in his work, and this one simply feels like a series of diary entries as the American-born Indian runs afoul of different cultural customs that eventually lead to misunderstandings and violence. It’s a perfectly forgettable but competent little indie drama that earns a higher spot on the list simply because it doesn’t have any of the messiness you’ll see in pretty much every film from this point onward.