Ranking the films of Danny Boyle

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Ever since his introduction onto the world stage with Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle managed to carve a unique path without having to give in to studio pressures. He is always reinventing himself, always dabbling in new genres and working with new technology – and despite a string of less-noteworthy Hollywood films, Boyle returned in 2008 with Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win eight Oscars, and 127 Hours in 2010, which was nominated for six. Despite the recent acclaim, Boyle has always created frantic, highly-stylized films with characters often struggling with human vices and weakness. After directing the opening and closing ceremonies of The Olympic games, which nearly a billion people watched, Boyle is back with his latest project Trance, a psychological thriller in which a hypnotherapist helps an art auctioneer recover memories of where he stashed a stolen Goya. With the release of Trance, I asked our staff to list the films of Danny Boyle, ranking them from least favorite to favorite. Here are the results.

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9: A Life Less Ordinary 

It’s an indicator of Boyle’s considerable class that the ‘worst’ of his back category are simply the least great, a label which certainly applies to the not-too calamitous misstep A Life Less Ordinary, the Mancunian’s follow up to his ceiling breaking Trainspotting and first foray into the Hollywood mainstream. Featuring plenty of uncharacteristic unreality in a piece scripted by Shallow Grave collaborator John Hodge, it’s a jetlagged and two layered film dealing with cherubic angels and unlikely Stockholm Syndrome subversions was probably not what audiences expected following the gritty if non-linear worldwide hit.

Boyle does what he can with unbalanced and unhinged material, providing his traditional flair and stylizing a piece which needed a revision or two to shore up the excesses. His other time honored import is his leading man, with Ewan McGregor joining his star maker on the trip across the pond and immediately finding himself outclassed by a distinctly cosmopolitan cast. While McGregor didn’t have to wait long to make his break in Tinseltown, he misses his mark here with a limited performance misrepresenting him as a one trick pony, impeccable American accent notwithstanding. While the chemistry between he and Cameron Diaz is notable, it is mainly on a comic level in a film that often struggles to meet its own expectations.

Not quite funny enough to be a comedy, and not quite interesting enough to be an ethereal thriller, A Life Less Ordinary proves to be a badly timed bump in the road for Boyle, fortunately one he was quickly able to overcome.

– Scott Patterson

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8: The Beach 

After finding critical success with his debut Shallow Grave and his follow up Trainspotting, Danny Boyle made the transition to America. After dipping his toe in studio waters with A Life Less Ordinary, which starred rising actress Cameron Diaz and trusted collaborator Ewan McGregor, he fully embraced the blockbuster and helmed The Beach. Notable for being Leonardo DiCaprio’s first role post-Titanic megastardom, and for its troubled production history, The Beach is not remembered fondly. Upon its release, it was panned by both critics and viewers, and it is rightfully viewed as a major Hollywood bomb. A significant amount of money was lost, and neither the tropical scenery nor a half-nude Leo could do anything about it. The narrative is half-baked at best. and merely serves as an opportunity to move from one beautiful waterfall or pristine beach to another. Even with all of its narrative failings, though, The Beach remains situated at an important point within Danny Boyle’s oeuvre. While Shallow Grave and Trainspotting certainly contained visual flourishes, The Beach marks the first extended use of extreme visuals such as dynamic colors, complex use of light, and chaotic camera motions that would come to be a marker of his later films such as 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire. While Boyle has become quite successful at marrying heightened visuals with an engaging narrative, The Beach is a prime example of style over substance. While it may not come anywhere near the highs of Shallow Grave or Trainspotting, it is intriguing to watch the initial progressions of what has become Boyle’s signature style.

– Nick Usen

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7: Millions

Danny Boyle’s ability to dexterously tackle any subject matter is evident in Millions, a warm-hearted family film that was his unexpected follow-up to the raw terror of 28 Days Later. At breakneck speed, we are introduced to two little boys fresh from the loss of their mother, who have a bank robber’s loot fall right into their laps. The movie’s first half pulses with an exuberant energy and a bright color palette that evokes the kids’ dizzying imagination. The youngest brother Damian (Alex Etel) enthusiastically obsesses about saints and their humble deeds. His frank, often funny conversations with visions of them are his way of dealing with grief and are deeply rooted in hanging onto the goodness that his mother instilled in him. Damian sees the money as a gift from God and is inspired to do whatever he can to help the poor. His idealistic altruism getting brutally pummeled by his family’s more realistic world views allow the story to seriously reflect upon how terribly people can behave around money. As the menacing bank robber zeroes in on the children, the violent crime from Boyle’s other films suddenly and alarmingly seems a possibility in this otherwise sunny vision of suburban childhood. The cleverness and selflessness of Damian make him a character to be genuinely afraid for as he goes up against a world steeped in cynical greediness. The pacing of Millions is often brisk and inventive like Trainspotting or Shallow Grave but the investment in the safety of wholesome Damian and his mourning family make it feel like a more emotionally complete cinematic experience than previous works. The movie is firmly time-stamped back in the weeks leading up to the Bank of England’s Christmastime transition of the pound to the euro. The expiration date on the money gives urgency to the action and is the perfect plot for Boyle to explore the fleeting nature of wealth. Alternatively adorable and full of dread, Millions is a Christmas film that by focusing on Damian is as much about how an excess of money can complicate the purity of connections as it is about how giving rather than taking is significant to building a better society.

– Lane Scarberry

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6: 127 Hours

127 Hours tells the unfathomable story of Aron Ralston, the confident yet eccentric rock climber who, after getting his forearm trapped between a boulder and canyon wall, boldly decides to cut it off after five days of being stranded in the wilderness. Treading the fine line of grotesque portrayal and spiraling amusement, Boyle does the unimaginable by making a compulsive film with both watch and entertainment value. By playing on our fears of being trapped and not understanding how to escape, Boyle hooks us into the story by testing the fabrics of our emotions. Using extreme close-ups and tight camera angles, whether it’s on Franco’s face as he resiliently uses his multi-purpose toolkit on himself, or of the last drops of water slurping down his sports bottle, the film exquisitely stoops the audience down to the level of Ralston. By doing so, our uncertainties become vested intrigue and our relatability becomes experience. So much is presented on screen, but nothing compared to what is not. For the audience, the most horrifying scene is not seen but heard. Pain is amplified through noises in which we can not comprehend nor would want to. Thus, we too are beside the boulder sawing away at our limbs. We, for a fair moment, experience what Aron experiences, yet knowingly at a comfortable distance. We become enamored, amerced, and ultimately entertained. Joyrides become horror stories, suspense becomes relief, and the film becomes all encompassing defying genres. So becomes a great film and an equally as great director.

– Chris Clemente

Slumdog Millionaire

5: Slumdog Millionaire 

Danny Boyle thrives on energy. More than any other film he has directed, Slumdog Millionaire highlights this point with unrelenting ferocity. Here is a film as much about the important decisions in life as it is about the trivial answers on a TV game show. Boyle not only creates a world of very real poverty, violence and strife, but populates it with a cast of characters each representing a separate ideology of those very circumstances. Filtering optimism through the naivety of a slum-born child, idealism through a young orphaned girl and fear breeding skepticism through a nation of contradiction, Boyle creates an India that is at once wondrous and tragic.

Set in a sprawling slum in Mumbai, Boyle casts his location itself as a colorful, living, breathing character. The narrow corridors beneath makeshift tin huts become the veins of the slum, emptying to arteries of filthy waterways flowing into massive public toilets and obtrusive pipelines. This is one of the most dangerous and hostile places on earth, yet Boyle is careful to avoid becoming too preachy on human rights and religious violence, keeping focus on the rich culture itself.

The camera moves with swift, organic purpose. Tilts, pans, and skewed angles are inter-cut with deliberate hyperactivity. In the slums, life moves fast, and its residents must always be aware and engaged. Through editing, the film takes on a life of its own, organically interweaving stories past and present with an overlapping element of destiny. Using the globally popular Who Want To Be A Millionaire game show as its focal point, the film traces back the lifetime of Jamal, a slum-born orphan whose resolve beats strongly at the heart of the film. Boyle substitutes the metaphoric beating of the heart with a ticking clock, the game shows device of urgency and the films metaphor for the fast-on-your-feet lifestyle of slum-life. The clock creates a narrative that moves in and out of time with nervous energy. A.R. Rahman’s music only adds to this frenetic pacing.

Here is where Boyle’s style takes what could have been a mediocre film and turns it into something memorable. As every character in the film reflects on the purpose of each moment in their lives, Boyle executes each cut and camera move with just as much purpose to create a truly personal storytelling experience.

– Tony Nunes

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4: Shallow Grave

There’s nothing neat clean or pretty about Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle’s debut film. The movie is populated by disgusting characters with little to no redeeming value, their frequently cruel and when they set about their criminal activities it’s not so much what they do but how they do it (and for that matter why) that makes it so shocking and frankly incredibly disturbing. Shallow Grave shows just how cold and callous people can be and how things as simple as money and pure fear can cut deep to the bone. Boyle has always toyed with showing his audience the worst in his characters and what makes it really great is the fact that Boyle never gives these characters a break (if you don’t count the still debated ending). He never makes any excuses for the characters like a lesser director would. If it were anyone else David, Juliet and Alex would have some kind of redemptive quality. But Boyle just puts them out there, runs them through the ringer and then gives us an ending where Alex, the one character we’re lead to believe is the worst out of the three is actually the one who defends Juliet and ends up walking away with the money and relatively clean hands. Shallow Grave is one of the most effortlessly brilliant film debuts of a director in recent memory and probably one of the best depictions of friendship gone way wrong. Or as David put’s it early on in the film “If you can’t trust your friends well what then”?

– Tressa Eckermann

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3: Sunshine

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine takes all of the things that Event Horizon (1997) should have been and makes them better – the claustrophobia is more present, the backstory more developed, the horror more potent. A decidedly different turn for Boyle post-Millions, Sunshine is a strong palette warmup for the Bollywood-saturation to come. Though the closest genre cousin to 28 Days Later in Boyle’s filmography, Sunshine is actually nearer to Shallow Grave in terms of interpersonal paranoia and brooding distrust.

Sunshine falters in its third act, choosing slasher-theatrics over the slow burn it favored to that point. Though things come apart at the seams, the first 80 minutes are so penetratingly tense that this is the rare film where the anti-climax is nearly rendered a non-issue.

– Neal Dhand

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2: Trainspotting

A more effective anti-drug program than DARE, and far more entertaining, Trainspotting officially put Danny Boyle’s frenetic style on the map. Showing off the visceral power of cinema, Boyle makes the viewer feel the glorious highs and terrifying lows of drug abuse. This energy that is the film’s strength is also a bit of its weakness, as it can be a bit of a bumpy ride with characters appearing and disappearing somewhat at random through the film, with various subplots ending up underdeveloped as a result. If the film’s many memorable scenes were not enough to mark the film’s impact, it launched or boosted many actors, from Ewan McGregor in the lead to Robert Carlyle, Ewan Bremner, Kelly Macdonald, Peter Mullan and Kevin McKidd. Perhaps most important, though, was firmly establishing Boyle as a director of influence, allowing him to make so many subsequent films of note.

– Erik Bondurant

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1: 28 Days Later

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later helped changed our definition of zombies. No longer re-animated dead bodies, being a zombie was not a disease, which eliminated all semblance of humanity, replacing it with an uncontrollable desire for human flesh. Stark, minimalist and incredibly modern — the digital quality of the film makes it feel more real than real. There is a real sense of the spontaneous in the use of digital film, handheld camera and in the energetic editing style. The film feels desperate, very much like the characters fighting for survival. Evoking very primal fears of isolation, abandonment and (obviously) the fear of death, 28 Days Later very effectively utilizes dread in the creation of its horror.

– Justine Smith

4 Comments
  1. Joe says

    Millions, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 127 Hours, and Shallow Grave are all FANTASTIC FILMS in their own rights.

    Ranking them is just stupid! See all of them ASAP!
    You know you’re talking about Greatness when a film that won 8 Oscars is ranked 5th.

  2. Jack Haworth says

    On what planet is 28 Days Later better than Trainspotting?

    1. Ricky says

      Jack – I sent out an email asking everyone to participate. You should have taken interest. I agree with you but considering you didn’t vote… how can you complain. I should complain about you not voting. :P

  3. Stendhal says

    the firt time i totally agree with a list, but between the first two places its very hard choice trainspotting is the landmark most emblematic film of danny boyle

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