Ranking the Greats: The Films of Danny Boyle

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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#5: Shallow Grave

Talk about your impressive debuts. After working in television, Boyle channeled his inner Hitchcock by taking the story of three flat mates and a suitcase loaded with cash and turning it into a classic exercise in suspense. Sure, there are some obvious directorial flashes that get in the way of the dread, but overall, this is a forgotten gem in Boyle’s often brilliant oeuvre. In fact, it’s hard to understand why more fans don’t consider this their primary introduction to his work. Trainspotting is often cited as his first real “film.” For those of us familiar with it, we beg to differ… greatly.

#4: 127 Hours

How, exactly, do you make an exciting and uplifting film out of the true life story of Aron Ralston, a man who had to sever his own arm to rescue himself after a hiking mishap? Better still, how do you keep such a gory, graphic event from overwhelming the rest of your narrative. If you’re Boyle, you broaden the subject beyond the sensationalism, taking into account who this man really was and what the event meant to him as a son, a friend, and an adventure seeker. With James Franco nailing the lead, you have a film that shouldn’t succeed, but does so astonishingly.

#3: Trainspotting

While our number five choice was his impressive debut, this second film in Boyle’s creative canon announced what a very special and highly unique filmmaker he was aiming to be. The story of heroin addicts in Scotland should have been an insular entertainment, only interesting to those within a specific demographic. Instead, Boyle experienced a burst of false phenom idolatry. Luckily, he would be brought back down to Earth with his next two efforts. Still, this is an amazing movie, almost interactive in how it propels you through the difficult, dead end lives of these characters. There’s talk of a sequel. Here’s hoping.

#2: Slumdog Millionaire

The hit. The mainstream acceptance. The Oscar run and eventual win. Boyle deserved it, especially in light of the years where he and his particular muse were overlooked by the Hollywood system. Still, Slumdog is no sell out. Instead, it’s an expertly controlled mystery, the manner in which our hero can answer these otherwise difficult questions leading to powerful vignettes filled with insight and empathy… and when you consider that it was a British man commenting on the social situations in India, the discourse has even greater meaning. Sure, it’s a feel good fable about overcoming adversity, but the realities go much, much deeper.

#1: Sunshine

Imagine is Stanley Kubrick had turned 2001 into a standalone thriller, the main focus being on HAL, his two astronaut companions, and that fatal flight to Jupiter. Now leave in all the philosophizing and deep thought subtext, and add in new fangled high tech imagery. As the perfect companion piece to that 1968 masterpiece, Boyle explores man’s relationship to the cosmos and himself in the same sensational manner. There are moments in this movie that are so moving, so awe-inspiring both visually and intellectually that you have to wonder how it ever got made. It’s an aesthetic mantra for most of Boyle’s work.