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.
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.
“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.
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