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Ranking the Greats 5: The Films of Danny Boyle

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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2012

Is there a more interesting motion picture chameleon than Danny Boyle. From his early days in theater and his stint at the BBC, few could fathom what he would eventually turn into. Now, after introducing the world to his beloved home country as artistic director of the 2012 London Olympics, the Oscar winning filmmaker is back in the spotlight… and oh, how pretty the glare is. Few could have imagined, way back at the midpoint of the ‘90s, that this maverick would end up one of the best directors currently working. Yes, his films showed that flash of promise, but as quickly as he came up, he was set back by his own choices. It took a good five years for Boyle to get back on track, but when he did… in fact, it’s safe to say that, post problems, he has become one of most dependable and different auteurs. He has vision. He has ambition. And he takes risks. Lots of them.


With the games going gangbusters, it’s time to reflect on Boyle’s career behind the lens. A few caveats have to be mentioned, however. First, we are avoiding anything he did for television. This means we will not be ranking Strumpet, Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise, or the things he did prior to 1991. We also won’t be addressing his sole short (Alien Love Triangle) or his choices as producer. No, we will deal exclusively with the nine films he’s fashioned from 1994 onward, with one wild card thrown in for good measure. When viewed in total, this list becomes an unique perspective on an even more unusual talent. Boyle may be known for taking chances and exceeding expectations, but he’s far from perfect. In fact, the first two films here show that, when pushed and pulled by outside (read: studio) sources, he can come up with crap, beginning with…
  


 
#10: A Life Less Ordinary

This is just a mess from beginning to end. Angels, in what look like an ‘80s TV drama police station, are told by their ‘boss’ that they must help humans find love? They end up trying the Cupid thing on bumbling kidnapper Ewan McGregor and his intended prey, a spoiled rich girl played by Cameron Diaz? Sounds like the makings of a manic screwball comedy, and something Boyle would probably excel at. So why is this movie so mediocre? A lack of chemistry among the leads? Boyle’s odd sense of humor? Whatever the case, it deserves its critical drubbing.


 
#9: The Beach

Yes, this film was a success financially. It was, after all, DiCaprio’s first major effort post-Titanic (we don’t count The Man in the Iron Mask or Celebrity). Critically, however, it was called out as an overwrought piece of sunstroked celluloid. The idyllic island community with its commune like make-up and fringe-dwelling fantasy naturally turns dark and disturbing, but never convincingly so. It’s like a cliche wrapped in Boyle’s now patented stylistic shuffle. The cast tries, and the movie definitely has the feel of something hot and sticky, but the end result is ennui, not excitement or entertainment. A partial dud at best.


 
#8: Millions

A family film? From Danny “Trainspotting” Boyle? You betcha, and you know what, it’s great. The story centers on a little boy from a strict Catholic background who stumbles upon a bag of money. He wants to help the poor and unfortunate. His brother wants to spend it on more ‘practical’ things. The resolution plays into both the religious themes present as well as Britain’s switch to the Euro. It’s a delicate combination and Boyle was lucky to have author Frank Cottrell Boyce working closely with him throughout the shoot. Among his many notable works, this one demands immediate reevaluation.


 
#7: 28 Days Later

For a while there, it looked like Boyle would never recover from the one two punch of the regaled flops A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. So imagine everyone’s surprise when he went genre hopping, taking on the zombie tropes with this inventive horror romp. Applying digital technology and an unusual approach to the subject (these aren’t members of the living dead, just highly infected crazies) he reestablished his reputation, as well as arguing for his ability to effortless shift between styles. Sadly, he only produced the sequel, though there is talk of him coming back for 28 Months Later.


 
#6: Frankenstein

Okay… okay. We get it. This was a theatrical production that only made a brief “event” run in theaters during its critically acclaimed turn. Still, it’s classic Boyle—ambitious, overexcited, visionary, and just a bit gimmicky. In fact, the primary stunt here often threatens to overwhelm everything. Yes, the two lead actors actually switched roles, each one taking the other’s part on subsequent nights. Monster one day. Doctor the next. Those who saw both performances understand what Boyle was striving for. Never before has the notion of man playing God been so convincingly criticized and executed. A triumph which should be seen by more people.


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