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The M. Night Shyamalan Power Rankings
let's talk about one of our most polarizing figures
There was a time in this country when M. Night Shyamalan was being pitched as the next Stephen Spielberg. While that notion has waned in subsequent years, Shyamalan continues to be one of the more interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood today.
Shyamalan’s early reputation was built on horror/horror adjacent films that were widely acclaimed by both critics and audiences right out of the gate. He also earned a reputation for being a master of the capital tee Twist.
In a certain (sixth) sense, I get it. You’re talking about a guy whose first big studio movie has what is considered to be one of the GREATEST TWISTS OF ALL TIME. A twist that’s so good that people actively tried to not spoil it for those who hadn’t seen it in a theater, a feat that seems impossible today. A movie that has a line of dialogue that became so ubiquitous that it was essentially a meme before memes were a thing.
I think this reputation is unfair to Shymalan and undercuts his technical skills as a filmmaker when we talk about him. He is one of the best around when it comes to using a camera to tell a story. He moves the camera and films his actors with the best of them and that helps cover up some of his shortcomings, like his dialogue or his sometimes bizarre story choices.
One thing that always strikes me about Shyamalan is that he is a master of making me want to know what’s going to happen next. Whether it’s because I’m caught up in the momentum of the story or because I am baffled at the choices he’s making or some weird thing I’m watching on screen, he is great at getting me caught in the flow of his film. He makes me eager to head toward a conclusion for the simple fact that I want to know what the next beat of the story is going to be. He is far from perfect, but he is rarely boring.
Emphasis on that “far from perfect” bit. Despite how much I enjoy Shyamalan as a director, there is no arguing he has made some bad movies. Whether from overindulgence in his worst tendencies or a bad script, there have unquestionably been some stinkers in his filmography.
With the release of KNOCK AT THE CABIN, I wanted to take a look back at the last two decades of Shyamalan's filmography and take a stab at a personal ranking of his films. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this as we’ve ranked the BATMAN films and Nancy Myers kitchens here at Working Title.
As always, your mileage may vary with any of these movies and I make no claims as to creating definitive rankings on anything. These are all just personal opinions.
A couple of filmography notes. I have not seen Shyamalan’s first two films PRAYING WITH ANGER or WIDE AWAKE, so they will not be included in the rankings here. I don’t think I’m alone in not having seen these two films, but if you have and they’re in your top Shyamalan movies, then more power to you. We will also not be including DEVIL, which Shyamalan has a story credit on, but didn’t write or direct. The 13 films we’ll be ranking are:
THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
THE VILLAGE (2004)
LADY IN THE WATER (2006)
THE HAPPENING (2008)
THE LAST AIRBENDER (2010)
AFTER EARTH (2013)
THE VISIT (2015)
KNOCK AT THE CABIN (2023)
A couple of other small housekeeping notes. I will do my best not to spoil anything, as Shyamalan’s movies often hinge on a reveal more often than not. That said, I will be discussing general plot points and maybe lightly spoiling some things, so if there’s one of these you’ve been wanting to check off your list, maybe skip its write-up until you’ve seen it. As you’ve also potentially noticed, I mainly use Shyamalan’s last name because it’s how refer to him in real life when discussing him. I heard an interview the other day where someone called him Night (just Night, no M) and it sounded so weird. I think Shyamalan has earned his one-name status and I mean no disrespect by using only his surname.
Let’s rank some movies.
13. THE LAST AIRBENDER
Woof. Honestly, the less said about this movie, the better. I don’t mind ribbing or poking fun at movies that are mediocre, but I really don’t like bashing movies or directors in this newsletter. That’s not really in the spirit of what we do here. That said, this movie is just awful. An all-time fumbling of the bag. Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most celebrated animated television shows ever. It’s funny, and emotional, and has incredible action set pieces. None of that is anywhere to be found in this soulless husk of a film. The child acting is bad. The visual effects are a mess. DEV FREAKIN’ PATEL is somehow wasted in this. This film was made without joy and watched without joy. I have mostly erased it from my memory until just now when I had to write about it. Good riddance.
12. AFTER EARTH
It’s really unfortunate that this was the movie that immediately followed THE LAST AIRBENDER because it also was terrible and the film before that (which we’ll get to here shortly) was also critically panned. This film is the tail end of a 3 movie run that just didn’t do Shyamalan any favors. It’s terribly paced and Will Smith finds himself in the middle of a movie he doesn’t particularly seem to enjoy being in. His son Jaden is somehow even worse than him. This movie barely beats out TLA but not by a lot and that’s not saying much.
11. LADY IN THE WATER
To me, this marks the beginning of the “bad Shyamalan” arc. It’s not one of the “big 3” that everybody talks about but to me, it should be. This movie is a mess. It makes no real effort to get the viewer involved in the stakes of the story, which are ostensibly pretty important. It’s also wildly self-indulgent. Shyamalan is known for making cameos in his films and they’re usually bit parts. They’re honestly kind of a fun thing to look for, but in this movie he makes the wild decision to cast himself in a major part. Not only that, he plays a writer whose writing, quite literally, changes the world. It’s not subtle. It’s also not good.
10. THE HAPPENING
Here’s where things start to get interesting, IMO. Remember that “big 3” of bad Shyamalan movies I was talking about earlier? If you were to ask a random person/moviegoer on the street, this is probably the movie they think of when they think of a Shyamalan bomb. I used to count myself among this movie’s haters, but now I don’t think I would. I can’t in good faith defend this thing or call it good, but I’ve seen it four or so times now and it’s got some stuff in there that could have worked. The first ten minutes of this movie absolutely rip. When people are *lowers voice* killing themselves in absolutely insane albeit creative ways, it feels like the beginning of a vintage Shyamalan film. Then we smash cut to Mark Wahlberg’s face where he’s uh, the least believable science teacher of all time. He’s not necessarily bad in this movie, but he’s not good, and he and Zooey Deschanel’s chemistry is approximately negative one thousand. John Leguizamo is in this movie though and he’s absolutely cooking. Like genuinely good and understands what this movie is. The reveal in this one is still so dumb, but it’s definitely not the worst Shyamalan movie, despite its reputation.
I really wanted to like this movie more than I did. It’s the conclusion to Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE trilogy and I really like the first two movies (more on them in a second) in the series. This movie shows flashes of the stuff that makes Shyamalan so fun. When he really wants to build a world, he’s great at it. James McAvoy is once again amazing in this film. Ultimately, however, it’s a disappointing finale of a promising trilogy. It’s a movie where there’s a lot going on on the screen, but where nothing is actually happening. I think what really might have sunk Shyamalan here was revisiting this world so quickly. There were 16 years between UNBREAKABLE and SPLIT and only 3 between SPLIT and GLASS, with the latter being the movie that immediately followed the former. While it is in the Shyamalan “comeback” phase, it doesn’t feel as fleshed out or thoughtful as the other movies in the series and that lands it here.
8. THE VISIT
This movie was a nice little surprise when I went and saw it in theaters! It was the first movie coming off AFTER EARTH and, after the dumpster fire of THE LAST AIRBENDER, Shyamalan was on thin fuckin’ ice, buddy. It ended up being a nice return to form for him. It’s a nice little thriller with some fun scares and it’s also pretty funny. While the “twist” in this one is a little predictable, the steps to get there are fun ones and it was genuinely a nice feeling to be excited about a Shyamalan film again. This movie kicked off what many consider his “comeback” arc one that he’s more or less been in since its release.
I think a lot of people skipped over this one because of how bad Shyamalan’s run had been up until that point but they’ve done themselves a disservice in doing so. Give it a whirl if you haven’t seen it. At the very least, it’s got Kathryn Hahn in it.
7. KNOCK AT THE CABIN
Shyamalan’s most recent film is also maybe one of his most subdued. He’s working from the novel “The Cabin At The End Of The World” by Paul Tremblay, a novel I particularly enjoyed. This movie was good, but I think there was still a little gas in the tank left when the credits rolled. Shyamalan is usually so good at leaning into weird, intense moments and there are plenty in this book. This movie feels more like one sustained note, although it’s a note that’s sustained very well. This movie also showcases Shyamalan’s extraordinary skills with the camera. He’s able to move it and tell the story with it with the best of them. Dave Bautista gives an incredible performance, as good as everyone says.
I think this film perfectly encapsulates what the rest of Shyamalan’s career could potentially look like. A perfectly fine thriller with some solid actors delivering a good story. He could make one of these a year for the next 20 years and I’d see them all
That’s right, baby. OLD. I think this movie is ~pretty good~ and I believe I will be exonerated by history for this opinion, you cowards. The first 2/3rds of this movie absolutely whip nuts. It’s a BEACH and it makes you OLD. That rocks! Watching people age at a rapid pace? Kids becoming adults? Having to deal with the stages of grief in minutes? The lady who keeps breaking her bones and because of the time speed they keep healing before the set making her into some sort of weird freak? That is all extremely good shit!
This is another movie that shows off Shyamalan’s wizardry with the camera. OLD features some of my favorite shots in his filmography and the way he moves it clockwise at certain points to echo the themes of this movie is cool and good. There is also a character called Mid-Sized Sedan.
Unfortunately, this movie does happen to feature one of the worst endings he’s ever offered which is so disappointing given how much I like the first 2 acts. If he had landed the plane, this movie would be in the top 5 with ease. Unfortunately, the plane blew up on approach so it’s sitting here at 6.
I really like this movie for a lot of reasons, the first and foremost being James McAvoy’s incredible performance. He plays a man with dissociative identity disorder who has developed 23 distinct personalities and while he doesn’t play all of them, he showcases 8 of them in this movie and it is truly remarkable. He brings an extreme physicality to the role that is unlike anything else in his filmography. Secondly, it features Anya Taylor- Joy in one of her early film roles and it’s clear she’s going to be a star. (Additional shoutout to WHITE LOTUS Season 2 girlie Hailey Lu Richardson).
It’s also a true “return to form” movie for Shyamalan. The action is tightly paced and fun. It’s his most Hithcokian film and (not to harp on it too much) his camera work is once again on point and a major part in telling the story. The reveal of McAvoy in a car early on in the film is awesome.
I also love the twist being in an after-credits scene, something Shyamalan has only done once in his career. The fact that this ended up being a stealth sequel to UNBREAKABLE was truly something I didn’t see coming and added another level to this one. I rewatched it a little bit ago and it’s still solid.
4. THE VILLAGE
I wrote extensively about this movie for our Good, Actually, series and will link that below, so I won’t go too in-depth here, but I will say a few things. First, Roger Deakins shot this movie and it is BEAUTIFUL. Secondly, the cast of this bad boy is absolutely stacked. Finally, I’d like to reflect on this: The twist in THE VILLAGE was largely viewed as disappointing, unoriginal, and easy to spot. It was one of the first times people called out Shyamalan’s movies for not holding up to any sort of logical arguments or dissections (which is the case with a lot of horror movies). Instead of embracing the twist, people turned on Shyamalan, saying his reliance on the “twist ending” was now a weakness, when just a couple of years prior, it had been his biggest strength. The movie the public was expecting wasn’t the one they got and that was somehow Shyamalan’s fault.
For what it’s worth, I like the twist, even if it isn’t particularly shocking, but I don’t think it needs to be shocking to work. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but the whole point of THE VILLAGE seems to be no matter how much you want to run from and hide from your trauma, it’s impossible to do so. Nothing reflects the futility of that more than trying to pretend society isn’t right outside your door. I also think the twist (and this movie) have aged very well. There are more and more weirdos out there that seem intent on dragging us back to the 19th century and would live this agrarian lifestyle at the drop of a hat if it meant ignoring the problems of the world writ large.
3. THE SIXTH SENSE
The OG. The one that made Shyamalan a household name. I would not argue with anyone that would want to put this on the list at number 1. You could make the argument from both the historical and quality angle and I wouldn’t fight you on it all that hard. There are just a couple that I happen to like a little bit more.
I saw this movie when I was 10 and that was probably a mistake, but wow was it effective. Haley Joel Osment is really, really good in this, especially considering his role and what it entailed. I will never forget the scene with him hiding in his makeshift tent when the little girl who was poisoned appears next to him. It scared the shit out of me at 10 and it scares the shit out of me at 32, even when I know it’s coming. As mentioned previously, it also gave us one of the most memorable catchphrases in all of film history and a twist so good it became a phenomenon. Good stuff.
This movie was a bit undervalued when it was released, but hot damn did it (intentionally or not) have its eyes set on the future of what our movies would become. I came to this movie a little bit later, when I was about 14, so about 4 years after it came out. I remember the thrill of watching it and realizing that what was unfolding before me was, in fact, a superhero story. I also remember some of my friends thinking it was boring compared to the likes of THE SIXTH SENSE or SIGNS.
At their core, superhero stories are pretty basic. They’re about the push/pull between good and evil. A character knows he needs to do something good and another character wants to stop that person because they want to do something terrible. That might be an oversimplification, but I don’t think it makes it untrue. There is no movie that establishes this dynamic better than UNBREAKABLE. From the moment the movie starts, the intentions of the characters are clear. It opens with the villain of the movie, explaining his backstory, and then moves into the hero discovering his powers, and then sets up these two characters’ inevitable meeting. This is not a dig at this story because it is executed so extremely well. It is an anti-MCU movie. It is thoughtful and has a hero who is vulnerable and who might actually not make it through the challenges he faces. There are real stakes here.
This movie is also about the stories we tell ourselves so that the reality we find ourselves in could hopefully make sense and about a kid who believes in his father more than his father believes in himself. It features some of my favorite performances from both Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson (especially Samuel L. Jackson, I think he’s astounding in this). An incredible origin story and an incredible movie.
Maybe it’s because of when I saw this movie (I was 12) but SIGNS has always stuck with me. It’s always been my favorite Shyamalan movie and while I sometimes consider switching it with UNBREAKABLE, I never seem to be able to do it. I’ve recently learned after talking about it with some friends that this is a bit of a hot take and SIGNS, while good, usually ranks behind some of the other movies on this list for other people. I’m still willing to go to bat for this movie.
I will start by saying Mel Gibson is not an easy or enjoyable person to talk about in 2023. He is pretty obviously a bad guy and I do not want to give him some sort of pass because I like this movie. I don’t think I need to qualify my love of this movie by distancing myself from a scumbag. That’s not a hard thing to do. But it also feels silly to not talk about it. I don’t even think he’s the best part of this movie, but I do think he’s effective in this movie, especially in the scenes with his wife.
This movie is a pretty different take on the “alien invasion” genre. In this film, he’s using aliens to talk about family trauma and they’re used as tools for this family to work out all of the things they’re going through. That’s honestly a pretty unique setup in Hollywood and one that Shyamal pulls off impeccably well.
That doesn’t mean the aliens aren’t terrifying. The first reveal of the aliens is an all-time scene. It still gets me to this day. It’s not exactly a unique stance to take in saying that, but man, does that scene rock.
I really think this movie is Shyamalan’s opus. He really puts his ideas and beliefs out there for the world to consume and that takes guts, especially in a movie like this. This is a guy who clearly believes in and fears capital G God and a guy who clearly thinks there’s nothing more important than family. That really shines through in this movie. More and more when I watch it now, I am less preoccupied with the aliens and more with if the family in the movie is going to be okay because I need that more than anything.
This movie is also FUNNY. Everything Joaquin Phoenix’s character is doing is insanely funny. Part of what makes the reveal of the aliens so effective is the Joaquin Phoenix character yelling “VAMOS” at the kids on the screen as if they can hear him. It makes you laugh and takes your guard down just in time for the reveal to make it pack that extra punch.
Like all Shyamalan movies, the ending of this movie is a bit clunky. In the last 15 minutes, the movie has to start explaining itself and to be quite frank, it doesn’t do a good job of that. I think this movie would be even better if Shyamalan thought the main question of faith that weaves throughout this movie was unanswerable. Unfortunately, he thinks it IS answerable and it doesn’t really do the story we just told the best of justice. That said, up until that last 15 minutes, he is absolutely dialed in on all levels IMO. I think this movie absolutely cranks. If I’m in a bedroom and somebody has 2 or more glasses of water, I’ll just point to it and say “Signs” and see if they catch it.
Could the ending of this movie be better? Sure. Does it take away enough for me to knock this down a peg? Not really. SIGNS has always been it for me. Maybe one day I’ll have my own personal plot twist when I re-evaluate these rankings and finally move UNBREAKABLE to number one.
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