The Films of Danny Boyle, Ranked Worst to Best

The Films of Danny Boyle, Ranked Worst to Best

Danny Boyle is one of the most uneven major filmmakers working today, just as often exasperating as he is thrilling. But that also makes him someone who’s always worth checking out, as even his worst films are rarely boring. Boyle started as the one of the most exciting new British filmmakers of the 1990s with the back-to-back hits of “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting,” and he’s since become a Best Director-winner. Through it all, he’s maintained the same boyish enthusiasm, hyperactivity and optimism, with a near-constant belief that people deserve another shot at a good life.

[ Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s Throwback Thursday pick is Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” which is now available On Demand.]

10. “A Life Less Ordinary” (1997)

Give “A Life Less Ordinary” this much: it’s really going for something, even if its attempts to blend supernatural whimsy, “It Happened One Night” road movie/classic rom-com and Boyle’s signature “throw in everything and see what works” style. The miscalculation begins with the fatal miscasting of Cameron Diaz as a spoiled heiress willingly kidnapped by Ewan McGregor’s out-of-work janitor. She plays every note as shrilly as possible. To be fair, though, she doesn’t give the film’s worst performance (that’s Holly Hunter’s mannered work as a cheerful angel trying to bring them together), and she’s only following Boyle’s tone-deaf, histrionic lead. Cloying when it’s trying to be romantic and deeply unpleasant and mean-spirited when it’s trying to be daring, “A Life Less Ordinary” belongs near the top of any list of ambitious disasters from talented filmmakers.

9. “The Beach” (2000)

Boyle followed up that flop with another dud, though this one was at least commercially successful. Following a callow American tourist (Leonardo DiCaprio) who joins a beach community on a hidden Thai island, the film has a seductive quality given by Darius Khondji’s lush cinematography and Angelo Badalamenti’s dreamy score. But Boyle tries to draw comparisons to this community and the Kurtz compound in “Apocalypse Now” (his favorite film) that don’t really gel, making the film’s final act in particular a slog. And while DiCaprio admirably gives himself over to the director’s vision, the film soft-pedals his character’s narcissism, and he mostly comes off as a pretty blank because of it. 

8. “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)

If there’s something to be said for Boyle’s Oscar-winning white elephant, it’s that his direction is the reason to see it. His relentless energy, his and Anthony Dod Mantle’s gorgeous compositions, and the often breathtaking edits (an early cut from Dev Patel on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to his interrogation by the police gets things off to a stunning start) make the film go down somewhat smoothly. But the film’s marriage of Dickensian social criticism and Bollywood fairytale is an uneasy one, with poverty and suffering coming off at best as a contrived triumph-over-adversity narrative and at worst as touristic. All of it might be more bearable if the characters were more interesting, but Patel and true love Frieda Pinto are two of the least charismatic actors to ever headline a Best Picture-winner, and with the exception of Anil Kapoor’s oily “Millionaire” host, the Fagins and Sykeses of “Slumdog” are an unmemorable bunch.

7. “Millions” (2004)

“Millions” has the opposite problem of “Slumdog Millionaire”: while its depiction of familial grief following the death of a mother is often moving and its plot (kids find millions of British pounds shortly before the fictional UK switch to Euros and try to figure out whether to keep it or donate it) is enticing, but Boyle’s touch here is aggressively magical and wearying. Whenever the film calms down and finds a intimate detail, like father hugging a pillow to help forget his wife’s absence or his sons’ innocent curiosity about an underwear ad, “Millions” feels like it’s on its way to righting its course. But Boyle lays on the sunshiny daydreams and John Murphy’s cloying score awfully thick, and his idealization of young Alex Etel’s obsession with saints and saintliness turns what might have been a sweetly religious character into a grating and preachy one.

6. “Trance” (2013)

Boyle’s most recent film is also one of his few cynical ones. He’s a populist at heart, one who believes in second chances and overcoming impossible odds. “Trance” warps that into crueler territory, in which second chances have terrible consequences and perseverance leads to cold truths. The twisty-turny noir falls apart a bit in an ending that’s dully explanatory and ludicrous in its contrivances, especially in its attempt to justify some gratuitous nudity as an essential plot point (this is probably the first case of Chekhov’s gun applying to pubic hair). Yet “Trance” is enjoyable anyway for its surface pleasures – hyperactive and off-kilter compositions and montage, where-is-this-going lunacy – and to see a director so prone to uplift go for a much trickier tone.

5. “127 Hours” (2010)

At first glance, the eternally kinetic Boyle seems like an ill fit for a film about a guy trapped under a rock for 5 days and change. And sometimes Boyle’s style is a bit much, particularly whenever he whips the film out of the canyon and into flashbacks in order to bring us a predictable moral of how everybody needs somebody. But his choices are just as often inspired, like when he cuts rapidly from one angle to another in the canyon to simulate Aron Ralston’s frantic state of mind, the use of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” in a montage of people drinking energy drinks and sodas just as he’s running low on water, or his unflinching depiction of Ralston’s self-amputation. James Franco’s performance is among the actor’s best, particularly in a mock-interview scene that oscillates between goofy self-mocking and sincere regret. It’s not a rich film, but it’s often a gripping one.

4. “28 Days Later” (2002)

“28 Days Later” is Boyle’s first feature shot on digital and it came at a period where the format seemed incapable of not looking ugly. Working with Anthony Dod Mantle for the first time, Boyle made one of the few films in the early DV era to use that ugliness to its advantage (see also: “Dancer in the Dark”), capturing a post-apocalyptic London in all of its terrible glory. The film does feel a bit like an over-caffeinated mix of “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead” (particularly in a finale that doesn’t totally work), but its unlikely mixture of primal fury and pleas for a humane society – even in a demolished, zombie-ridden world – makes for a thrilling and strangely moving film all the same. 

3. “Shallow Grave” (1994)

It’s strange to think that a director as fundamentally optimistic as Danny Boyle might begin his film career with one as nasty as “Shallow Grave” and stranger still that it remains one of his best films. Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox are all wonderfully venomous as a trio of misanthropes who seem to have befriended each other out of dislike of everyone else more than anything else. When a new roommate dies and leaves behind a briefcase full of money, they agree to dispose of the body, but their distrust of each other (and Eccleston’s slide towards madness) proves their undoing. Though the film is clearly influenced by “Blood Simple,” Boyle’s visual flair and John Hodge’s pitch-black wit keep it from feeling too familiar. The film’s final touch, in which the second-chance that Boyle so frequently uses is given to the film’s least likable character, is a doozy.

2. “Sunshine” (2007)

“Sunshine” is arguably Boyle’s most ambitious effort, a deliberately paced, atmospheric sci-fi film about the hard choices that have to be made in order to save the world. The film’s characters are types, but to a purpose: these characters are supposed to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, all accepting of their impossible mission and need to be sacrificed to give the world a second chance. Even with this in mind, they’re never less than human, most of the issues coming from human error and imperfection. Boyle’s visual scheme is stunning as well, emphasizing not just the enormity of the dying sun our heroes are trying to save, but the potential deadliness of the object that’s so essential to life. The film goes haywire in its finale, where a natural threat gives way to a physical one, and yet for all of its ridiculousness it’s still fascinating for its swing into questions of whether or not humanity deserves a second chance.

1. “Trainspotting” (1996)

For all of his missteps, even within his best films, Danny Boyle still has goodwill leftover to burn. “Trainspotting” is the one where all of Boyle’s instincts work. His stylistic abandon is perfectly in tune with the reckless energy of his characters. He captures the appeal of heroin without underselling the miserable lows and he keeps the humor lively enough to prevent things from becoming too miserable. His fantastical sequences – Ewan McGregor climbing into a toilet for lost suppositories, sinking into the ground on an overdose set to “Perfect Day,” a nightmarish sequence that brings all of his guilt into one claustrophobic room – serve the story rather than turning into the needless distractions they’d be in “A Life Less Ordinary.” A great punk and British rock soundtrack help, as do game supporting performances from a psychotic Robert Carlyle, an amoral Johnny Lee Miller, a lovably pathetic Ewen Bremner and a precociously confident Kelly McDonald. But the film’s ultimately positive view of a struggling addict works because John Hodge and Danny Boyle make it feel so hard-won and because for all of McGregor’s misdeeds, he remains the most charming and likable addict in the world, someone we want to see get clean. Boyle, Hodge and McGregor are planning to reunite to adapt Irvine Welsh’s sequel, “Porno.” Even if it can’t recapture the magic of the original, it won’t be able to cancel out its power either.
Indiewire has partnered with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand to kick off Indie Film Month. Enjoy exceptionally creative and uniquely entertaining new Indie releases (“Under the Skin,” “The Congress,” “The Trip to Italy,” and more) along with classic, Throwback Thursday indie titles (“Swingers,” “Black Swan,” and more) – all month long on Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand. Go HERE daily for movie reviews, interviews, and exclusive footage of the suggested TWC movie of the day and catch the best Indie titles on TWC Movies On Demand.

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Comments

Justin Z

I still don’t get this retroactive hate for Slumdog Millionaire. There’s nothing wrong with a film being a little more sentimental in its approach and I think that Boyle found the right balance to show the suffering even with it’s more optimistic approach. It’s well shot, well acted, well written, well edited and well realized as a narrative in terms of structure and tone. Everyone was largely saying the same, even some of the more hard to please critics. And I just don’t think Trance works well at all. It feels like it just had no clear direction to go with all of the great actors and filmmakers it had at its disposal, making it a promising but convoluted mess.

Michael

I think your analysis of 127 Hours is way off. It’s not about needing somebody. It’s about being on the brink of life and death, and being faced with the challenge of what you’re going to do. Are you going to choose to live or die? This is directly paralleled with the challenge of what kind of person you’re going to be. The flashbacks reveal that Aaron was kind of a jerk in his life, and now he’s faced with the possibility that he will die and that will be his only legacy. The difficulty to overcome the rock to survive is paralleled with the difficulty to change the person you are, when it’s so much easier to just accept it.

Uh...

Slumdog is comically low on the list. There’s no way it should be behind Millions, Trance, 28 Days, and Shallow Grave. 127 should also be much higher.

Kyzle

I am pleased with this list, if only for the recognition that ‘Sunshine’ (aside from the zany third act), was a gorgeous, inspiring film. However, 127 Hours is my least favorite of Boyle’s films. It should switch places with Slumdog. ’28 Days Later’ is, and will most certainly remain, my favorite of his works. If anything, Trance deserves it’s position, but I was never all that impressed by ‘Trainspotting.’ That’s just a personal opinion, however.

David

I agree with David Brook. Slumdog has to be one of the most overrated films of all time. I am so happy to see it so far down this list. I too have a soft spot for A Life Less Ordinary-maybe because it came around that certain period in the 90’s when we tried to love every little "indie" film.

Bill Reynolds

WOW. This may be the closest to an accurate list I’ve ever seen of anything. Shallow Grave should have been 1, of course, and Trainspotting and 28 Days Later each knocked down a notch to make room, but, otherwise spot on.

Lixx

The Beach is far, far better than it’s given credit for here. One of his best for my money. And thanks to some truly wooden performances, 28 Days Later is sorely overrated.

Chick Mitchell

"Trance" is better than Slumdog Millionaire? That’s ridiculous. You even admit that the film falls apart but "is enjoyable anyway for its surface pleasures". While Slumdog certainly has flaws, it also has myriad "surface pleasures" to latch onto. Had Slumdog Millionaire missed the Oscar, I guarantee people like you would shift gears and call the film underrated, rather than trying to tear it down constantly.

FIXED:
1. Trainspotting
2. Shallow Grave
3. 28 Days Later
4. 127 Hours
5. Sunshine (incredible until the 3rd act derails it)
6. Slumdog Millionaire
7. Millions
8. Trance
9. The Beach
10. A Life Less Ordinary

Ana

I loved "A life less ordinary" even if it’s a mess! At the end one of the most valuable things to rescue of Boyle’s cinematography is that he is not afraid of taking risks and the results are never boring

Stephanie

28 Days Later should’ve been second.

Marc Schenker

And for the unteth time: THE CUT-OFF TYPE IN THE SLIDING LIST UP TOP DOESN’T WORK. GOT IT, CRACK DESIGNERS?

marc schenker

I just don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have Max and Indiewire to tell me what movies to enjoy and what movies to skip. What’s next: Spielberg’s Most Overrated Films. Why is it necessary to do these lists, except for the gratification of the author? How about "Danny Boyle’s Best Films." What am I saying? How about Indiewire is taking "judgemental" a bit too far. I love the phrase, "Surface pleasures." God, give us a break.

angie

28 Days Later should be higher on the list. I love Shallow Grave but 28 days later changed the zombie film forever. Without it, there would be no Walking Dead. The montage with the girls hiding from the military men and Cillian trying to save them has been copied millions of times. If they don’t buy the track from this scene they buy a stock version of the track and edit it the same way. Also, The Beach is way better than Trance and Sunshine is just boring. Trainspotting of course is number 1. It’s one of the best movies ever made by any director.

Samuel Williams

Trance was not good. It was very bad, in fact. And 28 Days Later is much better than Sunshine.

James

The fact you rated 127 Hours higher than The Beach shows how much of an incompetent arsehole you are.

Marco

Nice to see ”Sunshine” gets some attention! 127 Hours en Millions are my least favourite movies of the master. 127 Hours is still enjoyable thanks to the marvellous direction, but in the end it`s ( surprise, surprise ) too predictable. I read somewhere years ago that A Life Less Ordinary was Boyle`s favourite? Can`t help it, but i love the quirkyness of that movie!

Melynda

Shallow Grave is one of my favorite movies and I never realized Danny Boyle directed it. While I agree that A Life Less Ordinary suffered greatly from Cameron Diaz (what movie that she’s in doesn’t, though?) I still enjoy it.

diego

buena película un excito

David Brook

I pretty much agree with this one. I’m glad to see Slumdog get knocked down a few notches. I was gobsmacked by all the awards and praise it got on release. I do have a bit of a soft spot for A Life Less Ordinary though. I know it’s a mess and doesn’t quite work, but it’s so bonkers I can’t help but be fascinated by it.

Nathan Duke

I typically agree with these lists, but I don’t know about this one. I personally think "28 Days Later" is miles ahead of "Sunshine" and "Slumdog Millionaire," although I understand the objections here, is way better than "Trance."

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