Tim Burton: Top Five/Bottom Five

Tim Burton is film's dark, big-haired prince, the Robert Smith to Hollywood's Cure. And when his creative madness and singular style hit, there's nothing better. When they miss -- not so much.

Top Five:

1. The Nightmare Before Christmas

This startlingly original stop-motion fairytale follows Jack Skellington, the well-meaning Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who kidnaps Santa. Part dark fable, part love story, part musical, the witches and vampires and mummies are eerily well-imagined and the relationships at the movie's core pack real emotional punch. Thanks to Danny Elfman's score (and his performance as the singing half of Jack), the movie features some of the best original film music to appear in decades. It trumps Chicago, hard.

2. Ed Wood

Fine, I have a soft spot for the man renowned as the worst director ever, but this story of his hand-to-mouth operation is as much about loving movies as it is about Wood, the transvestite schlock master behind Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Johnny Depp plays Wood, and Martin Landau is great as Bela Lugosi, the past-his-prime Dracula who died in the middle of the movie that would become Plan 9. Bill Murray makes a brief, great appearance as Bunny Breckinridge, and -- whaddayaknow! -- Burton's girlfriend, Lisa Marie, plays Vampira. A great portrait of the underbelly of the blockbuster -- the army of people eking out existence on the fringes of Hollywood.

3. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure

This was Burton's first feature, co-written by the great Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens (that'd be Pee-Wee). The Pee-Wee character was born in the Groundlings and incubated in a five-month run at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip -- an adult venue, not for kids -- and after an also not-for-kids special on HBO, Reubens and Burton got together for this weirdly innocent tale of a man-child's search for his bicycle. (Then Pee-Wee went on to his Playhouse, which actually was a kids' show.) Burton's first film mapped out a pattern that holds true for almost all of his later work: an essentially sweet story wrapped in strangeness.

Edward Scissorhands4. Edward Scissorhands

This parable of suburban alienation starred an unrecognizable Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder as a blonde high school cheerleader (complete with pompoms, fulfilling at least someone's teen fantasy). Depp plays Edward, a mechanical creation with scissors for hands. When an Avon saleswoman finds him she takes him back to suburbia, where he's first embraced by the pastel Stepfords, then misunderstood and demonized. It's supposedly a metaphor for Burton's own angsty adolescence, which explains a lot.

5. Batman Returns

This is my favorite Batman movie P.D.K. (pre-Dark Knight), even though I never thought Michael Keaton was well cast as either Bruce Wayne or Batman. The gothic excess of Return's Gotham City was beautiful to see, and both Danny Devito's Penguin (basically a Nightmare character come to life) and Michelle Pfeiffer's stitched-up Catwoman were stylish, iconic figures whose shadows stretch tall, even in the P.D.K. (post-Dark Knight) world. It's apparent that I'm going have to refigure my acronyms.

Bottom Five:

1. Planet of the Apes

Who would ever think that a remake could actually be worse than the campy 1968 Charlton Heston vehicle? Come on, it had Charlton Heston in it. Miraculously, Burton found a Heston for the new era: Mark Wahlberg, just as wooden and hokey as the "Damn you dirty apes!" original. Helena Bonham Carter was also terrible as Ari, the chimpanzee who helps Wahlberg start a human slave revolt against the ape overlords. The whole thing took itself way too seriously, and the confused time-traveling ending (wait, how exactly did the bad guy get there first?) just made things worse. I was in the audience the first day this hit the theaters, and Mr. Burton, you owe me money.

2. Corpse Bride

I wanted to like this animated feature, done in the same stop-motion style as The Nightmare Before Christmas, I really did. But that ended up being the problem -- it was done in exactly the same style. The look, the feel, the big heads and skinny bodies. The ads even recycled one of Nightmare's songs. Everything that had worked so well twelve years before fell flat here. Let's put it this way, there's a reason you don't see them dressing up Disneyland like Victor and Emily every Halloween.

Apparently, this was created especially for Helena Bonham Carter, and that may be part of the problem; Burton's always carved out parts for his girlfriends, and ever since meeting Carter on the set of Planet of the Apes (and dumping Lisa Marie, his previous girlfriend/star), she's been in every movie he's made. That's not always a good thing. The whole thing felt like an afterthought, and not just because two Burton movies came out in 2005.

Sleepy Hollow3. Sleepy Hollow

The wheels on the dark 'n' edgy storytelling machine started to come off with this, well, dark 'n' edgy version of the old Washington Irving fable about the Headless Horseman. The plodding back story was mixed up with a lot of bloody violence, and the uneven mix never quite worked. The movie starred Johnny Depp (duh) and Christina Ricci with a bad blonde bleach job, and while Ricci has her moments, Sleepy Hollow wasn't one of them. Let's put it this way: Burton is famous for reusing the actors who perform well in his movies. Ricci has been in one. (Oh, and the tagline was "Heads Will Roll." Awful.)

4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Aha, the other Burton movie of 2005! This unnecessary remake of the 1971 Gene Wilder classic (both from the Roald Dahl children's novel) starred, of course, Johnny Depp, with a swoopy hairdo and big Bono sunglasses. Sure, Depp looked creepy, and the art direction and costuming was pretty amazing. But frankly, it's disappointing to see a creative mind like Burton giving in to the remake again, especially when he was just a hired gun. Warner Brothers had started the project with a different director and a different script, and Burton only stepped in after a handful of other directors had been considered.

5. Mars Attacks!

I certainly didn't hate this movie, but it doesn't hold up nearly as well most of Burton's work. The worst offender: the effects. The Martians, with their pulsing brains and bendy-toy arms, look like the cheesy sixties trading cards they're based on -- in other words, just right. But their green death rays are totally laughable, and even though the movie is purposely campy, I don't mean laughable in the good way. The "skelitizing" effect they have on the many, many humans they kill is laaame. Throw in Jack Nicholson hamming it up with a goofy prosthetic nose, Sarah Jessica Parker as an annoying fashion maven, and Annette Bening as a really annoying flower child, and you have a recipe for blah. At least most people died. (Tom Jones, by the way: awesome. Always.)

Warning: Language, Violence, general debauchery.