5. Ed Wood (1994)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones
Plot: An ambitious but talentless director, a lonely outcast “artist”, aims to make a name for himself in Hollywood, befriending a faded horror icon along the way.
If you were going to watch Ed Wood for one thing, it would be for Martin Landau’s poignant turn as an ailing and melancholy Bela Lugosi, who is “planning on dying soon” and measures himself for coffins to prove it.
This is the most affectionate tribute to cinema’s ultimate outsider, a man who wasn’t lacking in passion or drive but unfortunately fell rather short in the talent department. Edward D Wood Jr was absolute crap at his job, and made the same (have you actually seen Plan 9 from Outer Space?). Some of the characterisation don’t really scratch beyond the surface but generally this is stylistically restrained, grown-up filmmaking; perhaps only one of a handful of examples of such in Burton’s long career.
4. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Kathy Baker, Vincent Price
Plot: The loneliest of outcasts, an artificial man with scissors for hands, is adopted by a suburban family and becomes the talk of the town.
The quintessential Burton picture – white picket fences, luridly coloured and shallow small-town America, a fatherless and pale outcast who is quite literally unable to touch anyone or anything without causing damage and pain.
A lot of people have seen this as a heightened Burton autobiography, and there’s probably some truth to that. What keeps it tugging at the heartstrings is Depp’s gentle performance, his chemistry with an unusually blonde Winona Ryder and the way Burton wraps Edward in a plausible world that will never accept him, framing the whole thing as fable with an essential lesson to impart on the world.
3. Beetlejuice (1988)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara
Plot: A recently-deceased couple befriend a lonely outcast teenager and employ a devious ghost to scare away her insufferable family who have moved into their house.
“What if the afterlife was run by civil servants?” doesn’t on the face of it sound like a winning basis for a horror-comedy, but it works seriously well in Burton’s hands.
Michael Keaton’s titular Ghost with the Most isn’t actually on screen for that long, but like Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter his presence is always felt… no, smelt… yeah, probably smelt.
Not many movies have the lead couple killed off unceremoniously before the 10 minute mark, and Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin are at their best as an on-screen couple who Hollywood clearly want to be classic stars but are resolutely determined to make more interesting acting choices. Visually it’s deliberately mundane with a good splash of sideshow Gothic, the concepts of purgatory and extra-dimensional travel are dealt with as everyday concerns on a par with mortgages and redecorating. It’s easily Burton’s funniest comedy and cleverest satire. As Lydia would say,”Live people avoid the strange and unusual… I myself am strange and unusual”.
2. Big Fish (2003)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Helena Bonham Carter, Danny DeVito, Billy Crudup
Plot: A man struggles to connect with his ailing father and his stories, particularly the tall tale of his entire life. His father may have never been lonely, but the series of strange incidents with unusual outcasts who share his story has thrown up a seemingly insurmountable wall between them.
Burton, much like Spielberg, has daddy issues to work through. But, in this his most grounded movie, he delivers a mature and emotion-fueled essay on men not being able to really talk to one another.
A charmingly wide-eyed Ewan McGregor guides us through the tallest of tales while Albert Finney takes over to give the elder Edward Bloom gravitas. In and amongst the flights of fantasy that may or may not have happened, we get an affecting and intimate tale of Bloom the elder and Billy Crudup as his alienated son passive-aggressively avoiding admitting that they love each other. It dips into folklore and Burton’s usual bag of striking visual motifs, only with a far more melancholy and reflective air than is usual in his work.
1. Corpse Bride (2005)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracy Ullman, Paul Whitehouse
Plot: Victor Van Dort, a lonely outcast too clumsy and awkward to be taken seriously by his family or anyone else, is betrothed to a woman he has never met. But, just as he is coming to terms with the idea of marriage, he accidentally proposes to a long-dead jilted bride and is swept off to the afterlife.
This is far superior to the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas.
While that Burton/Henry Selick production may captivate the young ‘uns and Goths with more scares and silliness, this is a whip-smart Victorian comedy of manners for adults, and a film that is ultimately about accepting death and about remembering those we have lost. Burton’s fascination with the macabre and his lifelong place as an outsider is perfect fuel for the vividly imagined and meticulously crafted worlds of the living (austere, cold and colourless) and the dead (raucous, welcoming and bright). Danny Elfman’s songs, particularly the Gilbert and Sullivan-tinged “Wedding Song” are really catchy and every claymation character, whether grotesque, lovable or a bit of both, feels like they have a beating heart, complete with wants and desires, bringing together each major aspect to make the most significant in Burton’s filmography; a truly Burton-esque masterpiece.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through 19 films across a 31 year span. Agree with my ranking? Disagree? What’s your favourite Tim Burton movie? Let me know in the comments.