Best M Night Shyamalan Movies and Directing Style - StudioBinder

When you think of the most iconic film directors, you can often discount their first couple films — few filmmakers are geniuses out of the gate. Other directors start strong but end their careers with a painful series of flops. But almost no other director has had the rollercoaster trajectory that M. Night Shyamalan movies have had.

Some are masterpieces and some are just ‘pieces’ but his is one of the most fascinating Hollywood success stories. Here are the best, worst, and always divisive M. Night Shyamalan movies.

*I excluded his first feature Praying with Anger because it’s basically unavailable and I’ve never seen it.

M. Night Shyamalan Movies

12. The Happening (2008)

“You think it could be plants?”

The first time I saw The Happening, I was actually really excited because I was convinced it was all going to be a joke. At one point in the screening, the boom mic dropped into the frame and the whole audience busted up laughing. 

This was due to the projectionist’s failure to properly mask the aperture, but we didn’t know that at the time. Alas, the end credits rolled and there was no revelation that it was SUPPOSED to be terrible. 

It just was.

Wrapping Up

THE HAPPENING

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 1 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 18%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN MOVIES

11. The Last Airbender (2010)

“We could be friends, you know?”

The story and performances here are strangely bad. This is Shyamalan’s first big-budget feature as well as his first adaptation of very popular source material. 

Can we give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he was simply out of his comfort zone? Again, like his other lesser films, there are praise-worthy elements but the project as a whole is forgettable.

WRAPPING UP

THE LAST AIRBENDER

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 0.5 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 5%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHTLAN MOVIES

10. After Earth (2013)

“Permission to go to my room, sir?”

There are a lot of fascinating design elements in this film but they are not enough to keep this film afloat. It also has some strong themes about the nature of fear but the dots around that aren’t connected. 

Word ‘round the campfire is that Will Smith hired Night and became The Overseer (get it?) over the entire project. So, perhaps Shyamalan really didn’t have his hands on the wheel for this on. Either way, it lands far away from M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies.

WRAPPING UP

AFTER EARTH

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 0 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 11%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN MOVIES

9. Wide Awake (1998)

“Kids in uniforms don’t smile very much.”

Watching that trailer, it’s really hard to believe that it’s not just a clever SNL joke about an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Nope, it’s real. It is a straight forward comedy-drama, a family film that succeeds at being just that.

There’s nothing glaringly good or bad about the film, it’s perfectly ok. It’s competently made and that’s really all it takes to beat out three of his other films. It does mark Shyamalan’s rather successful ability to work with child actors, despite whatever happened in Airbender.

WRAPPING UP

WIDE AWAKE

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 0 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 40%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN MOVIES

8. Lady in the Water (2006)

“Hello, Story, my name is Cleveland.”

It is inspiring to watch a filmmaker take chances. It doesn’t always work out but you’ve got to admire the guts it takes to go as far out there as this film does. It is a meta-narrative that operates on a level above our paygrade (and probably above Shyamalan’s as well). 

Casting himself as “the writer who will save the world” was too much for people to swallow but there’s more to like with that particular misstep.

It’s the ultimate blank check movie (shout out to Griffin and David).

WRAPPING UP

LADY IN THE WATER

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 10 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 25%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN MOVIES

7. The Visit (2015)

“Would you mind getting inside the oven to clean it?”

It had been years since anyone made an interesting found footage film. When the first trailer came out, it felt like a giant palm-smack-to-forehead. No, Night, no! At this point, he really had nothing to lose — it was do-or-die. 

And then, Shyamalan found a way to use the medium to his advantage and crafted a horror-comedy that surprised everyone.

It’s a very effective film that has his trademark big swings. This time, they actually connected.

WRAPPING UP

THE VISIT

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 0 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 67%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN MOVIES

6. Glass (2019)

“They always underestimate the mastermind.”

In his follow-up to Split, and the conclusion of the Unbreakable trilogy, Shyamalan doesn’t exactly stick the landing. But he does give us a film with a lot to admire. McAvoy continues his exploration of Kevin Wendell Crumb, which is still captivating without developing it much further than what he did in Split

The climax is head-scratcher for a lot of people but when you consider the foundation laid by Unbreakable’s refusal to meet our expectations of a superhero movie, it makes a lot more sense.

WRAPPING UP

GLASS

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 7 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 37%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN MOVIES

5. Split (2016)

“Are you trying to trick me, et cetera?”

If this movie was just a supercut of James McAvoy’s scenes, it would be worth the price of admission. How that performance was ignored by the institutions tasked with handing out awards is beyond me. You can feel Shyamalan’s creative muscles flexing just like The Beast’s — the idea that The Visit wasn’t just a random blip of promise, maybe he’s back?

In addition to McAvoy’s performance, we have a film crafted and presented with the confidence and skill we haven’t seen from Shyamalan in far too long. There’s some very strong production design and directing choices.

For a lot of people, it might be too soon to start waving the Shyamalan flag but go back and watch this again. It’s very good.

WRAPPING UP

SPLIT

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 6 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 77%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN FILM

4. The Village (2004)

“Papa, I cannot see his color.”

What many consider the beginning of the end for Shyamalan is actually a lot better than that. Think of it this way: take out the unnecessary and unearned 2nd twist at the end and what do we have left? A beautifully realized, tense, and well-crafted fable.

Sure, you can give a lot of credit to Roger Deakins’ painterly images but everything else around them is also rock solid. Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance is impeccable, William Hurt’s speech patterns are curious but fascinating, and the music really sings.

WRAPPING UP

THE VILLAGE

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 4 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 44%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN FILMOGRAPHY

3. The Sixth Sense (1999)

“I don’t wanna be scared anymore.”

Shyamalan’s third feature and breakout phenomenon with the best plot twist ending ever. Like a lot of his early work, the genre is just an outer covering for a deep and resonant drama. The suspense is top-notch, with just the right amount to keep us on edge but not enough to get in the way of the film’s heart.

The final scene with Cole and his mother in the car is superbly written and performed. It is scenes like this that turn this “almost gimmick” into a film worth watching and re-watching. The twist would not have worked and the film would not have become cemented into our cultural fabric if it didn’t have substance.

WRAPPING UP

THE SIXTH SENSE

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 1 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 86%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN MOVIES

2. Signs (2002)

“This is exactly what the nerds want.”

Signs lands high on this list for one simple reason: it captures a range of emotion and tone. Shyamalan doesn’t typically get credit for humor in his films but this is Shyamalan’s funniest movie. It is also his most emotional. And, after all that, it is a fat slice of suspense. 

To balance any one of these tones in a single film is a tall order. To bring all three together like this is masterful. It’s a B-movie premise with more heart and drama than...a drama. It is also one of Shyamalan’s strongest directorial movies. Long takes, complicated blocking, using all 3 planes of space to tell different stories — there is a LOT to watch in this movie.

Again, he went for a “WOW” ending and it doesn’t quite stick but there is way more in this movie to like.

WRAPPING UP

SIGNS

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 4 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 73%
  • Watch Now

M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN FILMOGRAPHY

1. Unbreakable (2000)

“We’re on the same curve, just at opposite ends.”

To call it a comic book movie isn’t an insult. It is proof that a story about superheroes can also be about real people. The relationships in the Dunn family ground this story. The mythology is just present enough to give the movie its edge but never overwhelms the human drama.

Bruce Willis gives another somber Shyamalan performance but it fits so well in this world with this character. Acting that isn’t “show-y” often gets overlooked and understatement doesn’t earn headlines. This is also one of Sam Jackson’s best performances, with the “Samuel L. Jackson Dial” turned down to a 3 / 10. 

The filmmaking is confident and mature, as bold as it is subtle. It is an exhibition of restraint on all fronts. The action is a footnote, Bruce Willis’ performance is somber and internal, and the bar for the subgenre is set high. Shyamalan’s confidence as a director matches David Dunn’s newfound strength. 

This is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie.

WRAPPING UP

UNBREAKABLe

  • Shyamalan Cameo Cringe Factor: 3 / 10
  • Tomatometer: 70%
  • Watch Now

Up Next

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M. Night Shyamalan movies are known for elaborate plot twists. Another filmmaker who loves a twist ending is Denis Villeneuve. With films like Sicario, Prisoners, and Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is on a hot streak and his films are filled with inspiring directorial choices. In this article, we’ve analyzed some of Villeneuve’s techniques and strategies, making him one of today’s best filmmakers. 

Up Next: Denis Villeneuve Filmmaker's Guide →
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