M. Night Shyamalan films are among the most divisive. Do you love or hate his twist endings? Is The Village an unsung masterpiece or B-movie schlock? Does the ending of Signs ruin the whole thing? Which is his best film? Which is his worst? Still, he’s managed several number one openings, including his latest outing, Old, now in theatres.
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When looking at some of the negative sides of his legacy, it’s hard not to scoff at what are, in many cases, bad faith critiques of his work (including some blatantly racist jabs) and signature twist endings. In contrast to Robot Chicken’s “what a twist” bit, the vast majority of Shyamalan’s films don’t actually have twist endings at all, and those that do tend to be quite satisfying.
The two-time Oscar nominee blends elements of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and his own very distinct and original voice. Shyamalan’s deserves some major love for a mighty impressive career. From timeless greats like The Sixth Sense, to helming one of the best shows around for Apple TV Plus with Servant, Shyamalan is a singular artist who has earned our attention.
So, which are his best films, and how do they all stack up against one another?
14. After Earth (2013)
I truly wanted to like After Earth. Working with fellow Philadelphia native Will Smith and his son Jaden, Shyamalan had a pretty fun premise on his hands.
Far in the future, a father and son crash land on a post-apocalyptic Earth. With the skilled hunter father injured, it falls on the son to venture out into a wilderness full of creatures hostile to human life to retrieve a communications beacon that crashed elsewhere. Written from an idea by Will Smith, After Earth features the kind of father-son story that M. Night Shyamalan films have often handled expertly, and with a palpable sense of empathy.
But here it mostly falls flat.
After Earth lacks the soul and warmth of Shyamalan’s earlier Signs, or the compellingly strained family drama of Unbreakable or Old.
Maybe it’s the effects-heavy cinematography. Or maybe it’s that Jaden Smith has to carry too much of the film alone in the wilderness, without the communities that Shyamalan depicts so well elsewhere. Whatever it is, the film lacks the soul and warmth of Shyamalan’s earlier Signs, or the compellingly strained family drama of Unbreakable or Old. Whatever is to blame, the result feels surprisingly joyless and dull by comparison.
- Stream After Earth on Starz.
13. The Last Airbender (2010)
The Last Airbender was a departure for Shyamalan, who had previously mostly made small- to mid-budget features with elements of suspense and horror. A big-budget blockbuster based on a kids series was certainly not that (though Shyamalan was no stranger to children’s content, having written Stuart Little and written and directed Wide Awake years earlier).
The film takes place in a fantasy world, where four tribes each have the ability to control one of the elements: earth, air, fire, and water. “Benders” possess these abilities, and every generation, an Avatar who can bend all four provides a kind of balance in the world. The sudden return of the Avatar after 100 years away sets off a war for power as the young boy teams up with two Waterbenders to master his abilities.
The film was already off to a rough start when the main cast was announced. Petitions and boycotts marred the project before it began shooting. Based on Inuit and Asian cultures in the TV show, the good guys were to be played by a white cast, while only the evil Fire Clan would feature actors of South Asian descent.
The Last Airbender also just felt like a stunted version of the show, rushing through plot points without the more human moments that make the show an enduring gem. The ensemble cast worked together and injected some fun into it, but the elements that worked were far outnumbered by those that didn’t.
Planned sequels were scrapped when The Last Airbender bombed, which is probably for the best.
- Watch The Last Airbender on Netflix.
12. Wide Awake (1998)
The year before The Sixth Sense put Shyamalan into the public consciousness and helped define his career, he wrote and directed the family film Wide Awake.
Wide Awake likely won’t appeal to hardcore Shyamalan fans.
Wide Awake likely won’t appeal to hardcore Shyamalan fans, but you can spot a lot of the themes and imagery the director would return to in later works. Lost faith, precocious youth, the importance of family and community — these all feature heavily throughout. It follows a boy looking for confirmation that his recently deceased grandfather is doing okay in heaven. With help from friends and the adults in his life, he learns about different faiths and religions that might help.
While released in 1998, Shyamalan shot Wide Awake in 1995. It features solid performances by Julia Stiles, Rosie O’Donnell, Dennis Leary, and Camryn Manheim. It’s a well-told family drama, but its sentimental premise and overwrought religious themes hold it back a lot.
- Wide Awake is not currently streaming anywhere in the US.
11. The Lady in the Water (2006)
While it mostly misses the mark, Lady in the Water features so much of what makes M. Night Shyamalan films worth seeking out. Unlike in After Earth, we start to see the director’s recurring sensibilities: his love of the very idea of storytelling, his emphasis on found family and community, his interest in grief, and the long-tail effects of trauma.
When an apartment complex superintendent discovers a mythical creature in the building’s pool, he has to assemble a group of fable archetypes to help her return to her world before a mysterious dark beast claims her.
Lady in the Water feels quite silly at times, and its self-reflexive plot built around storytelling itself is a bit too on the nose to work. The film just doesn’t gel. But it does hint at what Shyamalan does best.
- Stream Lady in the Water on Cinemax.
10. Praying with Anger (1992)
While Shyamalan often cites 1999’s The Sixth Sense as his first feature film, he did in fact write and direct two projects before it.
His actual first feature film, 1992’s Praying with Anger, is virtually impossible to find. Enterprising fans can find copies floating around online, but the film came out mostly on the festival circuit.
The drama won the 1993 AFI Fest “First Film Competition” for American independent filmmakers. Shyamalan stars as Dev, a young American who travels to his ancestral home of India after his father’s death. Shyamalan taking on the lead role combined with the absence of any fantasy or supernatural elements make the film feel especially personal. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but as Dev tackles his feelings towards America and India, his father, and faith, we see the director starting to explore his signature themes.
While Praying with Anger shows us that Shyamalan had a good eye for visual storytelling from early on, he truly shines in the realm of metaphor and hyperbole in his later genre pictures.
- Praying with Anger is not currently streaming anywhere in the US.
9. The Happening (2008)
M. Night Shyamalan has said of The Happening that he wanted it to feel like, “the best B-movie you’ll ever see,” and to his credit, a lot of what works in it comes down to its unpretentious throwback qualities.
Shyamalan wanted The Happening to feel like ‘the best B-movie you’ll ever see.’
In its finest moments, The Happening evokes Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing From Another World, and The Day of the Triffids. When the midwestern US is overtaken by an epidemic of mysterious suicides, a science teacher and his girlfriend escape the city center where the carnage seems to originate. As they seek safety, it becomes clear the threat isn’t a terrorist attack but something else in the air poisoning people’s minds.
With some striking shots evoking the horrors of 9/11 and an enigmatic survivalist plot that moves at a quick pace, The Happening deserves more credit than it ever got. But with its oddly disjointed tone and overall wooden dialogue, it’s hardly among the best M. Night Shyamalan films.
- Stream The Happening on Peacock.
8. Glass (2019)
The build-up of Unbreakable and Split leading into Glass sadly didn’t quite pay off. Glass is a fine film, and a solid M. Night Shyamalan outing, but it doesn’t quite live up to its two predecessors.
Seeing Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis reunited almost two decades after Unbreakable is a thrill, and adding in James McAvoy’s unhinged energy from Split is a welcome addition to the mix.
There are some truly fun set-pieces throughout, but ultimately Glass feels a bit too tethered to its Avengers-style team-up conceit to dig into the really rewarding character work that makes the first two films in the trilogy stand above most superhero movies.
- Watch Glass on FXNow.
7. Split (2016)
Split was greeted as something of a return to form when it came out in 2016 for many Shyamalan fans. Or rather, for fans of Shyamalan’s early hits.
Split was greeted as a return to form many Shyamalan fans.
After a mixed bag of blockbusters and experiments in new genres, Split was a tight thriller, full of mystery and grim ambiance. After a man abducts three teen girls, we follow their attempts to escape as we learn that he’s not quite what he seems. Played beautifully by James McAvoy, the kidnapper has dissociative identity disorder and wrestles with the 24 distinct personalities within him. Some want to let the girls go. Others have more sinister plans.
On the other hand, Split also raised some red flags among mental health advocates, who quite justifiably had concerns that the literal monster at the center of the film presented both an inaccurate depiction of dissociative identity disorder and one that stigmatized those living with the condition.
- Stream Split on FXNow.
6. The Visit (2015)
Shyamalan came to found footage horror pretty late in 2015, but still, he added a terrific entry to the subgenre.
The Visit follows brother and sister Tyler and Becca on a trip to visit their estranged grandparents. The whole thing is presented as the documentary footage of budding filmmaker Becca. While staying over, she slowly starts to capture signs that something isn’t quite right with Nana and Pop Pop. Could they be dangerous to the children? And what’s all this talk of the mental health clinic down the road?
The Visit does follow Shyamalan’s troubling pattern of stigmatizing mental ill health and misrepresenting its manifestations, which is the biggest mark against it.
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It’s also one of the best examples of how well Shyamalan can balance horror with a PG-13 rating. He does this in films like The Sixth Sense and Signs, but The Visit has, of all M. Night Shyamalan films, one the most straightforward claims to the horror label. (His family-based horror series Servant on Apple TV Plus checks a lot of similar boxes and would rank high if this list included TV.)
- The Visit is not currently streaming anywhere in the US.
5. The Village (2004)
The Village takes place in a small, isolated Pennsylvania village sometime in the 1800s. The inhabitants all fear unnamed creatures who live in the surrounding forest, keeping everyone cut off from the world at large. But when a villager is stabbed, Ivy, a blind girl, and daughter of the village’s chief elder, is given unprecedented permission to brave the woods and travel to a nearby town for medicine.
The Village is a truly beautiful film and one of Shyamalan’s best.
In leaving, Ivy has the chance to uncover secrets about the village elders as well as, “those we don’t speak of.” Will her inability to see the world outside the village protect the elders though?
The Village is a heartbreaking portrait of people wracked with guilt, longing, and a tragically human desire for safety. It’s also a warning against trying to control the uncontrollable. It’s messy, and it doesn’t make every shot that it takes by any means, but The Village is a truly beautiful film and one of Shyamalan’s best.
- Stream The Village on Peacock.
4. Old (2021)
Shyamalan’s latest film Old strikes all the right notes, combining a cleverly dark and mysterious premise with a whole lot of silliness.
At a remote island resort, a vacationing family is invited to a pristine beach. Once there, they and the other guests realize something isn’t right. No one can leave, and everyone is aging alarmingly rapidly. Every hour on the beach represents years of the beachgoers’ lives, and they need to figure out what’s wrong before time runs out.
Old represents the best and worst of Shyamalan. The dialogue struggles to keep up with an otherwise stunningly original film, with a mix of comedy, drama, suspense, and some pretty wild horror.
You can’t help but poke holes in it as soon as the credits roll, but somehow that makes the whole thing feel even more fun.
- Old is not currently streaming anywhere in the US.
3. Signs (2002)
Despite a hokey final act, Signs has all the hallmarks of a classic. Strong performances, a simple and effective set-up, a moving musical score, and Old Hollywood sci-fi charm make it a standout among M. Night Shyamalan films.
A former priest and recent widower discovers crop circles in his cornfield. These omens are the first signs of global extraterrestrial phenomena building up to an invasion of Earth. As news trickles into their small town, the priest and his family lean on each other to survive through the night of the invasion.
Signs is a small-scale, intimate take on The War of the Worlds. It’s a quiet meditation on grief, faith, and family, showing how a global emergency impacts local communities, and it makes no attempt to hide its 50s sci-fi and later horror influences, with nods to everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Night of the Living Dead to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
It’s hard not to love The Sixth Sense, often ranked number one among M. Night Shyamalan films.
It was impossible to avoid it in the summer of 1999, when it dominated the box office along with its fellow horror sleeper hit The Blair Witch Project. It also arguably helped pave the way for today’s spoiler culture, for better or worse.
The film follows a child psychologist, working with a troubled boy only to realize the problems aren’t in the boy’s head at all. His various anxieties and antisocial behaviors are a result of interacting with the dead. The film’s big reveal remains a benchmark twist ending. The twist by which other twists are measured.
Outside the final twist, though, it isn’t until about halfway through The Sixth Sense that Haley Joel Osment utters his iconic line: “I see dead people.” Until then, we’re watching a slow-boiling drama, in which a man struggles to keep his marriage together while trying to prove to himself that he can make a difference in the lives of the children who depend on him. Strip away the supernatural elements, and The Sixth Sense was already working on several other levels.
- Stream The Sixth Sense on Peacock.
1. Unbreakable (2000)
When M. Night Shyamalan re-teamed with Bruce Willis just one year after his breakout hit The Sixth Sense, the bar was high. Critics and fans were primed for another massive hit, but Unbreakable got a slightly more tepid response.
Maybe the hype was just too much, or maybe Shyamalan’s more idiosyncratic sensibilities turned people away. Whatever it was, Unbreakable deserved better.
True to Shyamalan form, it’s a family drama at its core. Security guard David Dunn’s marriage is on the rocks, and he’s struggling to live up to his son’s vision of him as a kind of superhero. But what if he is a superhero?
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Heading home one day, David’s train is in a massive accident. He’s not just the only survivor. He’s also completely unharmed. There isn’t a scratch on him. Soon, David is approached by a mysterious stranger, Elijah Price, known since childhood as Mr. Glass because of a rare genetic disease that makes his bones remarkably brittle. Elijah thinks David might be his opposite. Just as Elijah is especially vulnerable, perhaps the world also contains people who are nearly unbreakable.
Often ranked behind The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable offers an original twist on the superhero genre and rises to the top of Shyamalan’s body of work.
Unbreakable took the moody brilliance of The Sixth Sense and replaced its horror elements with a completely unconventional superhero origin story, all in the earliest days of the superhero renaissance. It spawned two sequels much later, but Unbreakable stands alone as M. Night Shyamalan’s very best film.