In 2002, after The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs made him a household name, M. Night Shyamalan was dubbed "The Next Spielberg" on the cover of Newsweek. He was a star in the way film directors rarely are. His movies were unpredictable and Shyamalan's signature was the twist ending. The Sixth Sense was a genuine blockbuster, thriving off word of mouth to the tune of a $672 million global box office take. Then it went to the Oscars. The Sixth Sense made Shyamalan. Nothing could stop him.
Then something strange happened. Shyamalan stopped making good movies. Critics feasted on his 2004 film, The Village, and haven't let up since. The odd bright spots — The Visit, Split — weren't that bright, and were overshadowed by years of contrived plots, silly twists, and plenty more. Had Shyamalan lost his touch? The director also wrote all his films and some critics wondered whether that was still a good idea. He seemed to run out of stories to tell. That Newsweek cover looked more ancient every year, like M.C. Hammer on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Where does Shyamalan stand today? He's made a recovery, thankfully. The Visit and Split broke the filmmaker's streak of disappointing films, although he's still got a ways to go. His latest movie, Glass, is far from his best work and more of a forced entry into the Shyamalan universe (but we'll get to that). Looking back on M. Night's career, the good films certainly stand out. But were critics too harsh on him? Perhaps in some respects. Shyamalan may not always fulfill our wildest expectations the way he did with The Sixth Sense, but his ambitions make him someone to always be aware of. M. Night Shyamalan movies are their own animals. Some are wonderful and mysterious while others look like they were made by the Hallmark Channel. You never know what you're going to get.
And so we keep watching, and hoping. Shyamalan will always have that "next Spielberg" potential so his movies will always raw interest. Looking back at his career, we're reminded why. It's rare when directors have resumes that span the quality spectrum, but he's one of them. From hackneyed, unwatchable crap like After Earth to suspense masterpieces like The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan continues making polarizing films. Which are the best ones? We'll be answering that question, and revealing the worst as well. These are the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, ranked.
(Note: SPOILERS lie ahead, and we're only counting movies directed by Shyamalan.)
13. The Last Airbender (2010)
The good: Dev Patel's scarred, villainous performance as Prince Zuko.
The bad: Everything else. The movie is a bastardization of the popular (and already not great) Nickelodeon series it's based on. The cast is whitewashed and terrible by all accounts. Wooden acting mars every scene, exacerbated by Shyamalan's embarrassing dialogue. The special effects are laughable. It's one of the worst movies ever made considering the budget ($150 million).
12. After Earth (2013)
The good: The idea of predators who hunt by smelling fear, and a human soldier adapting by becoming fearless is pretty cool.
The bad: After Earth is a futuristic movie made almost entirely with weak CGI. You are constantly being reminded how fake everything is. Not one, but two Smiths. Will is humorless for the first time in his career. His son, Jaden, is totally lost acting in green screen land. His swagger is unearned and inauthentic. The world building isn't there. Everything seems cobbled together with little thought.
11. Praying with Anger (1992)
The good: Endearing supporting performances.
The bad: Praying with Anger is basically a student film Shyamalan made the year he graduated from film school. It looks like one. M. Night stars and stammers his way through. It's completely amateur, but still more watchable than Airbender and After Earth.
10. Wide Awake (1998)
The good: Harmless movie that could help kids coping with death.
The bad: Shameless melodrama, overly sentimental, feels like a movie director robot from The Simpsons directed it. TV movie quality. Soap opera dialogue. Annoying kid actors. Rosie O'Donnell. Still somehow better than Airbender and After Earth.
9. The Happening (2008)
The good: Shyamalan creates a sense of dread. The supporting cast works well.
The bad: The heavy-handedness of the political eco-message that's more suited to Dr. Seuss than M. Night Shyamalan. The anticlimactic reveal of the terror (the wind) is a mockery of Shyamalan's penchant for twist endings. He forces it. Mark Wahlberg's silly B-movie performance. The Happening includes many horror tropes that are supposed to be odes to the genre, but they come off silly.
8. Lady in the Water (2006)
The good: Ambitious, original fairy tale. Talented cast. Professionally shot and executed. Paul Giamatti tries his best.
The bad: Predictable. Incoherent. Self-important. Shyamalan plays a supporting character, a writer, whose greatness will save the world. The fantasy is ludicrous, involving a "Narf" girl who lives in a swimming pool and a wolf-like villain called a "Scrunt." Bryce Dallas Howard's campy performance. It wants to a be profound statement on myth and the power of story inside all of us, but fails.
7. The Visit (2015)
The good: Genuinely creepy and disgusting play on the safety of grandma's house. Works mostly as a straight-up horror movie. Shyamalan's storytelling is grounded, attuned to the material. Nothing fancy. Sharp, modern update of a old-fashioned fairy tale. Effective villain reveal.
The bad: Stuck between being a horror movie and a comedy, which dulls both effects. The docu-style lensing is annoying, distracting, cheap-looking. Disgusting happenings may be too much for some. Forgettable.
6. Glass (2019)
The good: The third film in Shyamalan's Eastrail 177 Trilogy brings the characters of Unbreakable and Split together in a compelling crossover. Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy, and Bruce Willis in a psychiatric hospital. McAvoy goes off, playing 20 of his 24 personalities. Sarah Paulson's ability to play smart.
The bad: Pretends to be a standalone movie, but it's not. You need to see Unbreakable and Split before this one. Seems resolute to exist as a commentary on comic book movies instead of being a solid comic movie itself. Too much exposition, not enough action. Exploits a medical condition (DID) for scares and laughs. Feels extremely rushed and incomplete. The film's three twists are unearned and illogical. Forced in every way.
5. Split (2016)
The good: Genuinely frightening, imaginative, and completely absurd. James McAvoy's performance as 23 different personalities within the Horde. He can't do American accents well, but he makes the character believable, which is all you can ask for. "The Beast," the frightening 24th personality and the idea of changing McAvoy's physiology to coincide with each personality change — the Beast being the ultimate example. Anya Taylor-Joy's strong, terrified performance. The daylight kidnapping at the beginning is beautiful, evocative of The Vanishing. The Beast savagely eating people is gross and awesome.
The bad: Derivative, predictable. Final girl, Taylor-Joy, is never really in danger. Exploits the idea of child sexual abuse and depicts it in all-too-real ways for a movie that doesn't take it seriously. Trigger-inducing.
4. The Village (2004)
The good: Bryce Dallas Howard (in her screen debut) as Ivy, a blind woman. She makes the ludicrous dialogue sing, and you want to protect her. Roger Deakins's eerie cinematography. The stellar veteran supporting cast. The "period" production design. Shyamalan's talent for framing and cutting suspense sequences. The movie remains watchable, fun, and scary even though...
The bad: The entire movie is a plot hole, based on the premise an insular community could exist for so long in modern times, as if planes never fly overhead, or outside noises are ever heard. The silly creature costume design. Adrian Brody's hammy performance. The movie gets worse every time you watch it. The Village proved Shyamalan's stubborn dedication to surprising the audience over all else, even reason.
3. Signs (2002)
The good: Everything up until the end, and the end isn't terrible. The alien reveal. The chittering alien sound effect. The use of crop circles. Joaquin Phoenix at the Army recruitment office. Joaquin's entire character. Cherry Jones's dignified performance as a local cop. Shyamalan's use of flashback and foreshadowing via Abigail Breslin's character. ("This water is old.") Mel Gibson's loving, angry performance. Rory Culkin's alien expertise.
The bad: The film's twist creates a big plot hole. Why would aliens who can be killed with water invade a planet 70 percent covered by it?
2. Unbreakable (2000)
The good: Includes the greatest ending/twist ending in comic book movie history. An original comic book movie — a very rare thing. Samuel L. Jackson's ferocious, brilliant performance as Elijah Price. Shyamalan's brilliant dual origin stories highlight a fantastic script. The Hitchcockian filmmaking. The attention to detail (silver gun with a black grip). The bench press scene.
The bad: Gloomy, plodding at times. Robin Wright's character is underused. Spencer Treat Clark is too eager as the superhero's proud son.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The good: Includes one of the greatest twist endings of all time. Includes one of the greatest child performances of all time (Haley Joel Osment). The ultimate example of Shyamalan's meticulous paper snowflake style, in which the director snips and cuts for two hours before revealing something wonderful and satisfying at the end (h/t Wesley Morris). Donnie Wahlberg's possessed performance. Toni Collette's frustrated performance. Bruce Willis's restrained performance at the end. The use of darkness and shadow to heighten suspense.
The bad: Nothing. Mischa Barton puking is gross.