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10 best Tim Burton movies, ranked

A girl on a horse and a man talk in Sleepy Hollow.
Paramount

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Tim Burton’s directorial career. Before helming Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Burton was hired as an animator for Walt Disney Studios and was fired for focusing on his weird personal projects that the company felt were unsuitable for kids. Roughly a decade later, after establishing himself as a filmmaker, Disney invited Burton back for The Nightmare Before Christmas, which has since become a perennial holiday favorite and did not, in fact, scare children.

Burton has worked extensively as a director in the last four decades, with his most recent projects including Wednesday for Netflix and Beetlejuice Beetlejuice this fall. Before that sequel rolls around, we’ve decided to look back at the 10 best Tim Burton movies, ranked from worst to first. Note that only the films directed by Burton are on this list. That’s why The Nightmare Before Christmas – which was actually helmed by Henry Selick and based upon a story by Burton – isn’t on here. If Burton had directed that movie, it would have easily landed in our top five.

10. Mars Attacks! (1996)

The aliens have come to Congress in Mars Attacks!
Warner Bros. Pictures

Mars Attacks! is not one of Burton’s most beloved films, and it received a divisive response among movie fans. Regardless, Burton does capture the dark sense of humor from the 1962 Topps trading cards that inspired the movie. This film isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and it really does get a lot of comedic mileage out of the grotesque Martians zapping humans with their ray guns. Lisa Marie has a particularly fun extended cameo as a Martian pretending to be a beautiful woman in order to infiltrate the White House.

Jack Nicholson has duel roles as U.S. President James Dale and casino owner Art Land, both of whom meet their doom at the hands of the Martian invaders. That’s the same fate that befalls the vast majority of this all-star cast. A pre-Star Wars Natalie Portman emerges as one of the film’s heroines, Taffy Dale, alongside Richie Norris (Lukas Haas). But the most memorable turn in the movie may belong to the late Jim Brown, who plays Byron Williams, a former boxer who actually challenges the Martians to a fight in order to help his friends escape. That guy is the best.

Rent or buy Mars Attacks! on Prime Video.

9. Big Fish (2003)

Alison Lohman and Ewan McGregor in Big Fish.
Sony Pictures Releasing

A lot of tall tales are spun in Big Fish, a film that was important to Burton in part because he had lost both of his parents just a few years before. Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) and his wife, Joséphine (Marion Cotillard), visit Will’s dying father, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), during his last days. While Will is fed up with Edward’s inability to share the stories of his life as they actually happened, Joséphine is more open to the fantastical adventures of young Edward (Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s Ewan McGregor).

Edward’s stories provide a touch of fantasy in this film as he goes on misadventures and meets the love of his life, Sandra Bloom (Alison Lohman). It’s through these stories that Will and Edward finally find a way to connect with each other.

Rent or buy Big Fish on Prime Video.

8. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

The cast of Sleepy Hollow.
Paramount Pictures

The Headless Horseman is on a rampage in Sleepy Hollow, a very loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. As re-envisioned by Burton, Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane isn’t the cowardly type… at least not until he gets a first-hand look at the Horseman and realizes that this ghost is not a legend.

When Crane recovers his wits, he lives up to his reputation as a detective who has embraced forensic science well ahead of his colleagues. Crane also finds an ally in Katrina Anne Van Tassel (Christina Ricci), a wealthy young woman who doesn’t realize that the power behind the Headless Horseman is much closer than she suspects.

Watch Sleepy Hollow on Prime Video.

7. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Paul Reubens in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
Warner Bros. Pictures

How big was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure? Let’s put it this way: we’re still retelling the same Large Marge jokes nearly four decades later. This was Burton’s feature-length directorial debut, and many of his later films’ bizarre and eclectic sensibilities are on full display here. Paul Reubens had already created the Pee-wee Herman character before this movie, but this was the project that made both Reubens and his alter ego into stars.

After establishing Pee-wee’s Rube Goldberg machine breakfast routine, the film becomes a love affair between Pee-wee and his one-of-a-kind bike. When his enemy, Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), pays for the bike to be stolen, Pee-wee embarks on a cross-country journey to recover it…with stops at the Alamo and the Warner Bros. movie lot. There were two other Pee-wee Herman movies after this one, but neither one of them could compare to the whimsical joy of this film.

Rent or buy Pee-wee’s Big Adventure on Prime Video.

6. Batman Returns (1992)

Catwoman puts Batman in a tight spot in a scene from Batman Returns.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Perhaps unintentionally, Burton’s Batman Returns was the start of a comic book movie trope of sequels loading up on villains. This movie doesn’t just have Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Penguin (Danny DeVito), it also has a third bad guy: Christopher Walken’s corrupt businessman, Max Shreck. Between the three of them, there’s not a lot of time to focus on Batman (Michael Keaton), or his alter ego, Bruce Wayne.

Compared to the first Batman movie, this is more like a typical Burton film with a lot of weird and macabre touches. Warner Bros. practically ran away from it screaming because Batman Returns‘ dark tone wouldn’t let the studio easily sell toys to children. But compared to the two Batman movies that came after this, Batman Returns was a lot more fun.

Watch Batman Returns on Max.

5. Batman (1989)

Michael Keaton in Batman.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Before 1989, comic book movies were mostly in the realm of Howard the Duck, Dolph Lundgren’s Punisher flick, and two horrible made-for-TV Captain America movies. Even the Superman films dramatically dropped in quality with the third and fourth movies. Burton and his collaborators changed that with Batman, which finally freed the Dark Knight from the campy confines of Adam West’s Caped Crusader of the ’60s.

Casting Michael Keaton as Batman got a lot of blowback at the time, but he was more than able to hold his own opposite Jack Nicholson’s Joker. By modern standards, even this film is a little goofy at times. But Batman still set the template for comic book movies as we know them. For better or worse, it all started here.

Watch Batman on Max.

4. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

DreamWorks

There aren’t a lot of horror-slasher musicals, which is why Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street largely has that category to itself. Burton adapted the musical with two of his most frequent actors in the leading roles: Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Sweeney Todd (Depp) was once Benjamin Barker, an ordinary barber who married Lucy Barker (Laura Michelle Kelly). Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) ruined Benjamin’s life by sending him into exile and stealing his wife and child.

To get his revenge, Todd murders people in his barber shop who wronged him, while Nellie Lovett (Carter) turns their remains into meat pies. However, Todd’s bloodlust overtakes everything else, and he goes too far. He’s the ultimate villain in his own story.

Watch Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Paramount+.

3. Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands.
20th Century Studios

Depp had a considerably more sympathetic role as the title character in Edward Scissorhands. Some time ago, Edward’s inventor (Vincent Price) gave him humanity, but he neglected to give Edward actual human hands before passing away. Peg Boggs (Dianne Wiest) takes pity on Edward and brings him into her home, where he falls in love with her daughter, Kim (Stranger Things star Winona Ryder).

Edward and Kim’s connection does not go over well with Kim’s boyfriend, Jim (Anthony Michael Hall), and it doesn’t take much to turn the town against Edward. His only talents are in his hands, but Edward’s hands are also the reason why people are scared of him. Burton has said that he considers Edward Scissorhands to be among his most personal films, and perhaps it’s because he relates to Edward’s dilemma.

Watch Edward Scissorhands on Max.

2. Ed Wood (1994)

Martin Landau and Johnny Depp in Ed Wood.
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

The real Ed Wood was the Tommy Wiseau of his era … except Wood was more prolific. Burton clearly has an affinity for Wood’s story, which led to Ed Wood, a mostly true biopic. Johnny Depp was cast in the title role as perhaps the most unqualified director of all time. But Ed is just so passionate about his movies that he usually finds someone who can believe in him. Burton’s film also presents Ed as a hero who doesn’t let his lack of talent get in the way of following his dreams.

Martin Landau won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as horror legend Bela Lugosi, whom Ed befriends and persuades to act in his movies. The film eventually gets around to the making of Ed’s disasterpiece: Plan 9 From Outer Space. But if you’ve never heard of that movie, don’t spoil it for yourself before watching this film.

Rent or buy Ed Wood on Prime Video.

1. Beetlejuice (1988)

Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice.
Warner Bros. Pictures

An argument could be made for Ed Wood topping this list, but we went with Beetlejuice because it’s Burton’s most complete movie. It’s funny from start to finish, it has a great cast and dozens of zany and bizarre visual flourishes. But most of all, Beetlejuice has Michael Keaton in the title role, and he is absolutely hilarious every time he’s on screen. Even though his name is the title of the movie, Beetlejuice is only used sparingly throughout. That’s one of the reasons why Beetlejuice’s scenes have so much life when he imposes himself on the film’s primary story and characters.

Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis play a recently deceased couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland, both of whom are horrified when the Deetz family moves into their dream home. Lydia Deetz, a teenager with a morbid worldview, discovers that she can see the Maitlands’ ghosts even though her parents can’t. Meanwhile, Beetlejuice attempts to manipulate the Maitlands into unleashing him on the Deetzs.

Beetlejuice also has darker plans to marry Lydia so he can escape the afterlife for good. Burton and company really hit a home run with this movie, and there’s even a sequel called Beetlejuice Beetlejuice that’s coming this fall with Wednesday‘s Jenna Ortega as Lydia’s daughter. Here’s hoping that Burton can recapture the magic of the first film.

Rent or buy Beetlejuice on Prime Video.

Editors' Recommendations

Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
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