M. Night Shyamalan has had a rocky career, to say the least. After 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan was hailed as the future of cinema and received his first (and only) Oscar nominee. Steadily, his movies got worse and worse. What used to be must-see cinema soon became a punchline. With a string of films that included “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” everyone counted him out. Then came “The Visit,” which gave some hope. Once “Split” arrived in 2017, it became a surprise January hit. Suddenly, Shyamalan’s status as punchline was put on hold. With “Glass” opening this weekend, he combines characters from 2000’s “Unbreakable” with “Split” for a new cinematic universe. In honor of that film’s release, let’s take a look at the ten best performances from his wildly variant career.
10Mel Gibson – “Signs”
M. Night Shyamalan loves his stoic father figures played by A-list actors. Mel Gibson, pre-Passion and pre-(some) controversy, takes on that role in “Signs,” Shyamalan’s 2002 hit. As Rev. Graham Harris (yes, Reverend Mel Gibson), Gibson conveys both strength and skepticism in equal measures. As crop circles appear throughout his field, Gibson bravely investigates, only able to see logical explanations. Yes, the film hardens him in all the expected ways. His wife was killed in a car accident. He takes care of his younger, less responsible brother (Joaquin Phoenix). These character developments all clumsily collide for an alien finale. However, as a skeptical Reverend trying to keep his family together, Gibson anchors the first half of the film.
9Deanna Dunagan – “The Visit”
What’s scarier than an evil Grandma? M. Night Shyamalan recovered from nearly a decade of critical flops with this nifty thriller in 2014. Part of the charm of the movie belongs in its central villain. The film follows two kids who are dropped off to spend an extended weekend with their grandparents, whom they’ve never met. Deanna Dunagan plays Nana, a woman who seems kindly and eccentric at first. However, after a mountain of adult diapers, projectile vomiting spells and forced Yahtzee playing, Nana comes off a bit differently. Dunagan leans far into camp with Nana and makes her an incredibly fun villain, played to the hilt.
8Bruce Willis – “The Sixth Sense”
Bruce Willis’ central role as psychologist Malcolm Crowe in the blockbuster “The Sixth Sense” looks easy upon first watch. He’s the cool, calm center that Osment can bounce his horrors off of. However, once the full picture of the movie comes together his role seems deceptively easy. There’s a lot that Bruce Willis has to do to be the steward of the film’s plot. He comes into Cole’s life with a very simple drive, to help this kid like he would any of his patients. The film gives Malcolm even more to do as it appears he’s trying to win back his wife (Olivia Williams). There’s a sense that there’s something missing from Malcolm’s life. Willis conveys this emptiness very well as he attempts to figure out how to take hold of his life.
7Anya Taylor-Joy – “Split”
There’s a reason Anya Taylor-Joy has been singled out as the next big thing in horror. Between “The Witch,” “Split” and “Thoroughbreds,” Taylor-Joy adapts well to each changing mood. She uses her expressive eyes to draw the audience in and give them a viewpoint and someone to root for (or love to root against, in the case of “Thoroughbreds”). As Casey Cooke, Taylor-Joy finds herself captured by a mysterious man with multiple personalities (James McAvoy). The film later saddles Casey with a horrific backstory of molestation in an effort to further contextualize her experience. However, there’s no need for it when you have an actress as terrific as Anya Taylor-Joy in the part. From the moment she wakes up in that basement, we feel her calculating. She commands the screen and traps you within the momentary hell that Casey finds herself in.
6Bryce Dallas Howard – “The Village”
Not all star vehicles are created equal. “The Village” signals the beginning of the end for M. Night Shyamalan. The twist provokes jeers, rather than shock. However, among all the nonsense throughout the movie, Bryce Dallas Howard makes a strong acting debut as Ivy, a blind woman. Ivy lives in this peaceful colonial town where everyone lives off the land. They also live in fear of creatures from the woods who terrorize the villagers. Ivy demonstrates a heroic resolve and Howard takes us along for the entire wild, unbelievable ride. It takes a lot to carry and elevate a bad movie. Howard nails the role and shows promise for a career that is still going strong.
5Samuel L. Jackson – “Unbreakable”
When has Samuel L. Jackson not been the best part of any film he’s in. “Unbreakable,” M. Night Shyamalan’s follow up to “The Sixth Sense,” gives Jackson a rare opportunity. It’s one of the few leading film roles that really allows him enough meat to make a performance. No, I’m not counting the camp-tastic “Snakes on a Plane.” Jackson plays Elijah Price, a man with brittle bones who imparts destiny on crash survivor David Dunn. As we talked about with Willis in “Sixth Sense,” it’s tough being the keeper of the Shyamalan twist. However, Jackson knows how to contort his performance so we always question his intentions. With “Glass” upcoming, it will be interesting to see how well Samuel L. Jackson slips back into this role.
4Haley Joel Osment – “The Sixth Sense”
Getting a fantastic child performance takes a strong, patient director. Few performances by a child are as iconic as Haley Joel Osment’s work as Cole Sear. Cole struggles with day-to-day life as he (famously) sees dead people throughout his day. He works with child psychologist Malcolm Crowe to understand his horrifying gift. Osment always plays Cole as a kid, rather than some special boy wonder. There’s a sad, understated heart to his performance that exists underneath the jumps and scares. While already an accomplished child actor (see “Forrest Gump”), Osment owes a great deal of the performance to M. Night Shyamalan’s direction. Shyamalan conveys a clear vision and knows how to direct young performers to get across the central drama of the piece.
3Betty Buckley – “Split”
Playing a psychiatrist in a horror movie can often be a thankless task. One must dispense a great deal of exposition throughout. Usually this role culminates in that character’s death. Betty Buckley’s Dr. Karen Fletcher gets very little more to do than that on the page. However, the actress brings quite a bit more to the part. Buckley develops a unique relationship between Karen and all of the personalities within her patient Kevin (James McAvoy). She cares for his well being and takes the time to understand and believe the logic of the film, and Kevin’s affliction. When we spend time in Karen’s world, we see her as more than a plot device. Instead, she becomes one of the most well rounded performances in an M. Night Shyamalan film.
2Toni Collette – “The Sixth Sense”
Critics and audiences were raving about Toni Collette’s performance in “Hereditary” this summer. However, one only needs to look back at 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” to see her proficiency in the genre. Collette plays Lynn Sear, the mother of Cole. Lynn takes her weariness in stride. She desperately loves and wants to understand her son. This all builds to a tearjerking finale as Cole confesses his ability to see dead people to her. Collette understands that Lynn’s biggest fear is Cole not getting the help he deserves. To date, “The Sixth Sense” marks Toni Collette’s sole Oscar nomination. Yes, she fully deserves that nomination. However, the fact she hasn’t been nominated since is the most horrific thing of all.
1James McAvoy – “Split”
In all truth, James McAvoy gives enough distinct performances in “Split” he could’ve almost filled out this entire list alone. His work as all 24 personalities within Kevin Wendell Crumb is extraordinary. Each member of the Horde feels undeniably unique, especially as the film defines factions within Kevin’s alters. Among the more sinister alters, “Dennis” and “Patricia” both exude horror in different controlled, yet terrifying ways. Floating in and out is “Hedwig,” the personality of a young man who just wants the attention of the girls that have been kidnapped. McAvoy devours the exciting challenge “Split” provides him. If “Glass” gives McAvoy another chance to explore so many vivid personalities, it will be a movie worth seeing.