3. Unbreakable (2000)
Focusing on the stories of two men with distinctly opposite backgrounds coming together to discover something extraordinary, Unbreakable was hardly covert about the inspiration it drew from comic books, Shyamalan including direct references to the rules and lore of comic book storytelling to increase the drama and intrigue in his film, ultimately creating his own comic book fantasy that many consider to be among cinema’s most intriguing to date.
Stars Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson found the same level of chemistry they offered in Die Hard with A Vengeance 5 years prior and worked effectively to ground the fantastical elements of the story, notably improving upon the film’s overall appeal.
While Unbreakable was far from the follow up many critics and industry insiders had expected from Shyamalan after his breakout hit The Sixth Sense, its release was one that garnered a lot of admiring eyes and solidified the thought that Shyamalan was capable of being more than a one hit wonder.
Indeed, of all the routes for the filmmaker to take after such a hit as The Sixth Sense, a passion project inspired by comic books was individualistic (to say the least); undoubtedly one of his most intriguing and inspired films to date.
2. Signs (2002)
As great as Shyamalan’s number one film of all time is (more on that to come), there are no movies in the screenwriter-director’s career that can quite match the tension that radiates throughout the entirety of his 2002 release Signs.
Starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix as a pair of brothers protecting younger family members amidst an apparent alien invasion, Signs stretches out moments of nerve-shredding tension in such a profoundly impactful way that crop fields suddenly become terrifying and any hint of darkness sends shivers down your spine.
While The Sixth Sense had knocked its twist out of the park and Unbreakable had satisfied its notably less-mainstream audience with a twist of its own, Signs was unable to capture the same magic for portions of its audience, Shyamalan’s insistence upon returning to the religion-fuelled work of his first theatrical release Wide Awake proving to be a huge turn off for post-9/11 America – an audience notably more sceptical and less willing to accept the idea of “everything being alright in the end”.
Whether the twist worked or not, Signs had more than enough going for it for at least four fifths of its run-time to be considered a very strong offering from a director still only improving upon his reputation at the time, and the combination of his own willingness to let spooks simmer and actors gather empathy made for a remarkable sci-fi horror overall – one with all the marks of some of the industry’s great masters of tension, not least Alfred Hitchcock.
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1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
If the twist in Unbreakable was shiver-inducing and the tension in Signs Hitchcockian, then The Sixth Sense was something else altogether, Shyamalan’s 1999 release starring Bruce Willis being one of the most noteworthy and universally praised films in American cinema history; a combination of Hitchockian and Kubrickian filmmaking to rival anything put to screen in the contemporary era.
When thinking of cinema’s great twists, The Sixth Sense is one that instantly jumps to mind. It is also one that always lives up to repeat viewing.
Phenomenally chilling and meticulously put together, The Sixth Sense is a career high that many filmmakers will never reach, a zeitgeist-piercing moment in film history to rival that of the releases of Titanic and The Sound of Music, or the “I’m Spartacus” moment from Spartacus.
In bursting into the public consciousness in such a spectacular way, Shyamalan was handed the curse of carrying a massive amount of expectation, but for a filmmaker to achieve anything even in the realm of greatness like Shyamalan did here is a remarkable feat that cannot be overlooked and will likely never be forgotten.
The Sixth Sense is Shyamalan’s best film overall, but the fact that it would top the lists of 99% of all screenwriters or directors out there proves just how remarkable of a movie it truly is – the very best film of a career featuring many strong releases.
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Article updated 10th February 2023 to include Knock at the Cabin. Originally released 18th April 2020.