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Ranked: The Films Of Danny Boyle

Ranked: The Films Of Danny Boyle

“I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it ‘pushing the pram.’ You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff —that’s what people go to the cinema for.” This is one piece of sage advice on filmmaking that Danny Boyle, director of this week’s hot-ticket “Steve Jobs” (our giddy review here) gave to Moviemaker magazine back in 2013, and it sure seems to be a maxim he’s lived by.

The Oscar-winning, boundary-redefining director exploded onto the scene after a start in theater and TV in the mid-90s, and although he continues to work in other media, it feels like he is one of the most complete filmmakers at work today. Which is to say that he has a total command of the tools at his disposal in moviemaking —from directing actors to cinematography to editing and in particular to creating great soundtracks. Sometimes it almost feels like his filmmaking talent outpaces the material he works with —maybe the pram gets pushed all the way off that cliff— but it’s never less than exciting to watch. 

Boyle’s films, even when they are nothing else (and they are usually quite a lot more), are intensely pleasurable filmgoing experiences —visceral, energetic, playful— in which the grimy and banal can occupy exactly the same space as the frighteningly surreal or the wondrously transcendent. Over the course of just ten films to date, he has established himself not just as a consummate filmmaker, but also one with a unique authorial voice: his films are disparate yet seem to be facets of the same personality, albeit without the kind of narcissism that might imply. This means that, even within such a short back catalogue, there is plenty of room to argue the toss between any given two of his titles, so here we’ve ranked all ten. Argue with us about it in the comments below.

10. “A Life Less Ordinary” (1997)
The year was 1997, and a massive fan of Boyle’s first two films (Hi there!) put her dukes up to defend the third  —sure, “A Life Less Ordinary” was nowhere near as good as either of his other films, but nor was it as bad as people were saying… was it? Sadly, even muted contrarian bravado cannot survive a rewatch: it actually probably is as bad as everyone was saying all along, and it’s aged horribly. An awkward, chemistry-free love story between Cameron Diaz as the spoiled daughter of a super-rich asshole plutocrat (Ian Holm), and Ewan McGregor as her hapless reluctant kidnapper, the film aims for the true romance of “True Romance” but ends up closer to the excess baggage of “Excess Baggage.” In fact, the only thing that really separates this narrative from that Alicia Silverstone vehicle released the same year is the sour-tasting supernatural subplot in which two angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo) are for some reason tasked with making this mismatched duo fall in love —otherwise they’ll be condemned to stay among the humans they despise forever. As ever on a Boyle film, the soundtrack is a neat time-capsule of the era, featuring Oasis, Faithless, Underworld (of course), The Cardigans and Squirrel Nut Zippers (God, remember that late-90s swing revival? What were we all on?), but even that can’t really compensate for karaoke scene/musical number in which Diaz and McGregor cheerfully murder “Beyond the Sea.” Like so much of the film, it feels forced: a fake stage smile plastered on to conceal the fact that no one here —not the actors, not Boyle, not screenwriter John Hodge, not the audience— is actually having any fun.

9. “The Beach” (2000)
Boyle’s first big Hollywood movie and perhaps most crucially the first film Leonardo DiCaprio made after becoming a worldwide obsession thanks to “Titanic,” “The Beach” was feverishly anticipated at the time. But while notable for marking the beginning of a new era for Boyle (he fell out with Ewan McGregor for some time after failing to cast him in the lead, and didn’t work with writer John Hodge again until “Trance”), it’s easily his least interesting movie, if not quite the tonally unsure mess that “A Life Less Ordinary” is. Based on Alex Garland’s novel, it’s a sort of “Heart Of Darkness”/”Lord of the Flies” for the gap year set, as Richard (DiCaprio) comes to Thailand, where a cameo-ing, deranged Robert Carlyle tells him of the existence of a semi-mythical beach paradise on an island. With a French couple (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet), he finds his way to the archipelago, run by Sal (Tilda Swinton), but the utopia swiftly unravels. There’s stuff to like in the film, like strong supporting turns from Swinton and Paterson Joseph and the gorgeous scenery, but the central tale feels crashingly obvious and is not helped by the utter blandness of DiCaprio’s lead turn. Boyle rarely lets his freak flag fly, and the end result feels like talking to someone who spends the entire conversation scrolling through their Facebook photos of their year abroad and telling you about how they were at a Full Moon Party in Goa and looked up at the stars just as the molly kicked in and were like why do we even need money we could just like swap the things we want for things other people want do you know what I mean?

8. “Trance” (2013)
“Film is so technical that there’s always a danger that it becomes a trick. There are so many technical things you can do with music, with movement, with manipulation… but you’ve got to try and keep a naivety in there somewhere —a delicious naivety— if you can.” It feels pretty ironic that Boyle said these exact words just prior to the release of “Trance,” perhaps his very least naive film. It’s technically virtuosic, but like many movies in the who’s-gaming-who, mindgames genre, it has little substance at its heart, maybe because it has little heart at its heart. Less a plot than a series of Russian nesting dolls, the film follows a tortuously tricksy story involving a double-cross during an art heist which is complicated when the inside man, auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), develops amnesia as to where he hid the stolen Goya. With ruthless gang leader Frank (Vincent Cassel) demanding delivery, Simon visits hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) and she proceeds to unlock various layers of Simon’s memory about that day… or does she? (It’s the sort of film that relies on “…or did he?” “…or is it?” twists to every scene). The conflation of reality, memory and hypnotically-induced suggestion means we’re never too sure if what we’re watching is really happening until the end which, despite a mounting, increasingly grisly body count, can’t help but feel deflating. Oh, and completely preposterous. It’s still a glossy, frequently enjoyable ride, thanks to Boyle’s undeniable kinetic prowess and the extremely watchable performers, yet just two years later everyone, even fans like us, have forgotten about this film entirely. Well fine, except maybe for Dawson’s boldly bald lady garden in that one scene.

7. “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)
Boyle is pretty close to a genius, and as such wholly deserves a Best Director Oscar. It’s just annoying (if predictable, given the Academy’s tastes) that he got it for “Slumdog Millionaire” a film that at best squanders his talents, and at worst uses them to paper over the cracks in a contrived, wish-fulfilment story, from the screenplay by Simon “Full Monty” Beaufoy and loosely based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup. The tale of Jamal (Dev Patel), a poverty- and love-stricken ex-Mumbai street kid who through a credulity-stretching series of episodes throughout his life happens to learn exactly the factoids that will help him win India’s “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?“, the film also stars Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor and Freida Pinto, within a cast further populated with non-professionals. Later, there was controversy over the suggestion that some of those amateur actors, among them the children who played the younger versions of Jamal and his brother Salim, had been returned to poverty afterwards, as well as a more academic ruckus caused by the use of the word “slumdog” and the portrayal of Mumbai’s poorest neighborhoods. But even without knowing all that at the time, the film’s massive success and immense Oscar haul (8 statues, including Best Picture, from 10 nominations) felt a bit cynical: ‘Slumdog’ is an easy way of acknowledging the shocking squalor in which millions of India’s slum-dwellers live, but wrapped in a colorful, easily digestible, ultimately pretty reactionary package. As such, it’s a “feelgood” film that doesn’t really earn its feelgood factor anywhere except in Boyle’s reliably effervescent direction.

6. “Millions” (2004)
It was “Slumdog Millionaire” that got most of the attention, but it’s the earlier “Millions,” another fable about young kids, poverty, magic realism and a fantastical injection of cash, that proves more deeply satisfying. Written by “24 Hour Party People” scribe Frank Cottrell Boyce (who, by the time the movie opened, had turned his script into a Carnegie Medal-winning novel too), it’s the very charming story of Damian (impressive newcomer Alex Etel), an 8-year-old schoolboy in the North of England still mourning the death of his mother. Along with his brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), he finds a bag of money thrown from a train, and, as a Catholic fixated on saints, sets out to try and share it among the poor. It’s an unusual premise for a family film, and one that was hard to sell (though it actually did better than either “Sunshine” or “Trance” in the U.S.), but through Cottrell Boyce’s script and Boyle’s direction, it approaches the tale with the kind of winning sincerity that feels closer to classic ’70s British Children’s Film Foundation pictures than to a Christian parable. In a good way. Boyle’s facility with a fantasy sequence also finds its happiest and most natural home here with some inventive visual sequences, giving the picture real zip, but he’s mostly happy to let his two charming leads (and some only slightly better-known supporting players, James Nesbitt the most recognizable among them) carry the film. Kids should have a good time, but aside from a few overly sentimental moments, parents should be carried along by the film’s surprisingly grown-up treatment of morality, charity and responsibility as well.

5. “127 Hours” (2010)
Faced with an unprecedented level of success with “Slumdog Millionaire,” not to mention the solid return delivered by most of his projects, Boyle picked a surprisingly modest project for his follow-up to his Oscar-winner: “127 Hours,” the true-life story of Aron Ralston, the man who hacked his own arm off after it became trapped under a rock during a day of canyoneering. Then again, maybe it was less surprising in retrospect: Boyle always loved a challenge, and found one in a story that on paper is a man stuck in one place for five days until he enacts a horrific act of violence on himself for survival. We can consider the challenge met: for the second time in a row, he found himself with a critical hit and a Best Picture nominee —in our eyes, the movie’s better than “Slumdog” by some distance. Boyle throws all his hyperactive style at the set-up, to a point that it feels a little enervating at first, but once we’re down in the hole with Ralston (James Franco), it starts to feel like it had a point —reminding us that just a few moments ago, he had endless freedom, and now he’s trapped like a bird in a (painful, non-gilded) cage. Remarkable photography by Anthony Dod Mantle and cutting by Jon Harris means the film reaches a soaring emotional peak in the end, but the real MVP here is Franco. It’s by quite some distance the best work the actor’s done —brash and vulnerable and deeply human— and it serves as a reminder of what he can achieve when he’s paired with a great director but is not simultaneously teaching a college course, appearing in a play and making a documentary about himself.

4. “28 Days Later” (2002)
It’s difficult to imagine now, given the degree of omnipresence that the undead have in popular culture now, from “World War Z” to “The Walking Dead” and far beyond, but that was not at all the case back in the early ’00s. In fact, the genre had essentially lain dormant for at least a decade (Sam Raimi’s “Army Of Darkness” and Peter Jackson’s “Braindead” being the last notable theatrical features). And then came “28 Days Later,” a stunning reinvention of the genre that must stand as one of the most influential horror movies ever. Reteaming with “The Beach” author (and future “Ex Machina” director) Alex Garland, Boyle’s film was shot in a striking Dogme-ish lo-fi digital video manner, which only helps the eerie verisimilitude of the film’s remarkable early sequence, as bike messenger Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma to find London eeriily deserted. But it’s worse than that: it’s actually full of people infected with a virus that turn them into rage-fuelled killers in the blink of an eye. Hardcore Romero fans were skeptical of the speed of Boyle and Garland’s ‘zombies’ (which, to be fair, aren’t actually dead), but in a moribund genre, their sheer ferocity, combined with Anthony Dod Mantle’s verité camera, proved to be a completely terrifying new spin, especially combined with unusually strong character work, thanks to the performance by Murphy, Naomie Harris and Brendan Gleeson. The third act delves disappointingly into more traditional man-is-the-real-monster genre territory, but on the whole this film delivered a much-needed boost of both art and adrenaline to the horror film.

3. “Sunshine” (2007)
Boyle and Garland’s second genre team-up (“The Beach” was based on Garland’s novel but he did not write the script) is in some respects similar —the films share similar flaws, for one— and in others entirely different, up to and including their totally different sense of aesthetics. But it’s the sheer weirdness and breathtaking ambition of “Sunshine” that ultimately vaults it over its predecessor. Arriving a half-decade or so ahead of the current vogue for space movies (“Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “The Martian” et al), “Sunshine” sees a motley international crew (Cillian Murphy is the ostensible lead, with Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada and Benedict Wong as the rest of the crew) on a mission to prevent a new Ice Age by reigniting the sun with a huge payload of nuclear weapons after the failure of a previous mission a few years earlier. So far, so “Armageddon,” but the life-giving, live-take-away-ing destination of the Icarus II’s mission lets the filmmakers go into far more existential territory: it’s far more Tarkovsky and ancient mythology than Michael Bay. There’s an extraordinary richness underneath the more familiar space-walk/airlock thrills (though they’re brilliantly handled), and it’s Boyle’s most visually and sonically extraordinary film— the star-haunted visuals meld perfectly with John Murphy & Underworld’s much-copied score. And the cast are impeccable (Evans, proving his acting chops in a surprising role, is arguably the most impressive). Like “28 Days Later,” Garland’s script moves it into slasher movie territory in the final third, which is a disappointing turn, but the very conclusion, as time and space warps around the movie and things go positively experimental, is such a swing for the fences that it almost redeems it all over again. And it certainly brings it closer back in line with the pristine, offbeat brilliance of its first half.

2. “Shallow Grave” (1994)
From its opening moments, as the high-speed camera zips through the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, a percussive Leftfield track rings out and a voiceover murmurs drily in an authentic Scottish accent about friendship, trust and betrayal, Boyle’s electrifying pitch-black comedy “Shallow Grave” announces itself (and introduces about ten recurring Boyle motifs). A supremely confident feature debut, it demonstrates that Boyle had seven years’ TV experience under his belt, yet it’s also a neophyte director’s headrush of a film: there is nothing safe or complacent or small-screen about the cinematic imagination and experimentation that Boyle displays. Infused with a palpable joy at being able to stretch his muscles, he pulls out every flashy stop —rotating camera, perspective clashes, fast-motion, porous locations (where we can sink through walls and floors), non-naturalistic framing, film noir lighting, low-angle shots, adrenaline-junkie music cut with Nina Simone classics and plinky Hitchcockian score— and somehow the result is exhilarating rather than incoherent. Focusing on three hilariously loathsome flatmates (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox in kind of a triple breakout), it’s the twisty, amoral story of each of them trying to out-awful the others when a fourth flatmate (Keith Allen) dies suddenly, leaving a mysterious briefcase full of cash behind. But it’s the rare kind of delirious, vicious dark comedy that manages to be genuinely gory, twisted and also laugh-out-loud funny (the sequence where they interview prospective housemates is an indelible touchpoint for anyone who’s ever been on either end of that process). It made those of us around at the time really anticipate Boyle’s next film, and he did not disappoint.

1. “Trainspotting” (1996)
A little like a U.K. version of the trajectory Quentin Tarantino had plotted, following “Reservoir Dogs” with “Pulp Fiction,” Boyle chased his explosive, scabrous debut “Shallow Grave” with his unalloyed, inarguable masterpiece “Trainspotting,” based on Irvine Welsh‘s novel. Defining Boyle’s career (and that of star McGregor, who’d broken through with Boyle’s first but became a star somewhere about 2 minutes into this film), and pretty much putting the definitive stamp on British cinema in the 1990s, “Trainspotting” is still revelatory today: it was borderline miraculous at the time. It’s a pacy, funny, tragic, horrifying, surreal, beautiful and heartbreaking tour through the lives of a collection of heroin addicts scrabbling out their ridiculous, transcendent and banal lives in depressed late-’80s Edinburgh. For those of us lucky enough to wander into a theater one day knowing little about it, it’s hard to convey the riveting shock-of-the-new feel it emanated. Pulsing to one of the greatest film soundtracks of all time (and probably at least as responsible for the subsequent career of Underworld as it was those of Kelly MacDonald, Ewen Bremner, Kevin McKidd and Jonny Lee Miller), it also features a towering performance by Robert Carlyle as the vicious, spitting, pint-glass-hurling Begbie, and, hell, even the marketing campaign, with its black-and-white and orange schematic, has become completely iconic. But perhaps the most amazing thing is that, as stuffed with memorable, quotable moments as it is, in Boyle’s hands “Trainspotting” attains an overarching level of emotive connection that he only ever really found sporadically thereafter: seldom has a film this entertaining managed to also be this sad, this angry and this wise about the stupid, wasteful mythos of marginalized, doomed youth. We’re wary of the sequel if only because of how much we adore this original, but if anyone can do it, Boyle can. But then, to watch “Trainspotting” again —to feel that high of controlled delirium once more—  is to suspect that if anyone can do anything, Danny Boyle can.

In addition to his feature films, Boyle has a variety of other credits on stage, on the small screens of all sizes and, er, in stadiums. From his pre-“Shallow Grave” years, in addition to a couple of episodes of the hugely popular “Inspector Morse” TV show, he directed a few hour-long dramas for the BBC, including the memorable “The Venus De Milo Instead” written by playwright Anne Devlin and “Scout” by Frank McGuinness. After breaking into the movies, and perhaps as a reaction against the Hollywood machine he encountered working critical and commercial disappointment “The Beach,” he shot two grittier TV projects on digital video, then in its infancy. “Strumpet” reteamed him with Christopher Eccleston in the low-key story of a street poet who teams up with a singer and launches a music career, while “Vacuuming Naked In Paradise” stars Timothy Spall as a vacuum cleaner salesman, which is essentially an elevator pitch all by itself.

In 2008 came “Alien Love Triangle,” a 30-minute short starring Kenneth Branagh, Courtney Cox and Heather Graham. Originally intended to be part of an anthology, it was orphaned when its two stablemates, “Imposter” and Guillermo Del Toro‘s “Mimic” become standalone features.

In 2011, he mounted an ambitious restaging of “Frankenstein” in the National Theatre, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and “Trainspotting” alum Jonny Lee Miller alternated the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster on different nights, and then in 2012 he puppeteered a little sporting event known as the opening ceremony for the London Olympics. Since then he’s also executive produced and directed the pilot for the underrated U.K. TV show “Babylon,” with Brit Marling, Daniel Kaluuya and James Nesbitt.

And as for the future, Trainspotting 2” is in the works, as we mentioned, while Boyle teased a further two projects when we interviewed him recently. In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear just how much time we have for Boyle, let’s state for the record that we can’t wait for him to deliver whatever he has up his sleeve next, but “Steve Jobs” which opens on Friday, is just going to have to tide us over till then. 

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