The following feature was originally published in March 2017, and was last updated in June 2019.
Feature Photo by Heather Kaplan
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle’s dizzying filmography.
If you ever need a solid example of what a truly eclectic filmmography looks like, consider the case of Oscar winner Danny Boyle. Ever since Shallow Grave blindsided audiences in 1994, Boyle has dedicated himself to reinvention with every passing feature, jumping from genre to genre and reinventing each one along the way. Whether it’s horror, sci-fi, Bollywood melodrama, “drug films,” survival stories, biopics, or family films, Boyle’s hyperkinetic style and exhilarating visuals make for an oeuvre that’s always distinct, challenging, and decidedly unlike anything else you’ve seen before.
(Interview: A Morning with Danny Boyle)
As Boyle pairs himself with the Fab Four through his new musical dramedy Yesterday, we’ve decided to walk back through his 20+ years of exciting output and return to the interesting experiments, the memorable digressions, and the handful of all-time greats that the filmmaker has left for audiences. (Unfortunately, after much discussion, we decided to omit the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, one of Boyle’s most lavish directorial outings and certainly the only one of his works in which Daniel Craig parachutes out of a plane with a stuntman dressed as the Queen.) We’ve dissected the music, the locations, the unforgettable shots, and anything else we could think of to honor one of modern cinema’s most unconventional voices. So kick back, relax, and choose life.
13. Trance (2013)
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.
Press Release: After art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) is hit in the head really hard in the middle of an art heist in which he hides Goya’s Witches in the Air, he loses his memories of where he hid it in the process. The thieves, led by Franck (Vincent Cassel), force him to go to Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist, so she can unearth the location of the Goya from his memory.
Cast: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel, and Rosario Dawson
The Sounds: In an amusingly on-the-nose move, Boyle’s Trance refers not just to the film’s themes of hypnotism, but to the progressive trance-laden score provided by Underworld’s Rick Smith (whose music was featured in Trainspotting and who scored Boyle’s 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony in London).
Location, Location, Location: Franck’s house is a neon-soaked, modernist art gallery of a domicile, which makes for an especially frantic scene as Simon attempts to escape it, with help from Elizabeth over the phone.
Key Image: Trance’s love of neo-noir tropes is admirable, but it was a misstep to keep the genre’s outmoded gender politics as well, especially relating to Elizabeth’s role as the seductive femme fatale. However, one of Trance’s most undeniably affecting images is Dawson displaying her fully nude body as part of her seduction of Simon, Boyle lingering over her in the same way her male compatriots do.
Can I Be Franck: Funnily enough, Vincent Cassel was not the first choice to play Franck; originally, Michael Fassbender was going to take the part. As serviceable as Cassel is in the role, it’s hard to deny it would have been nice to see yet another movie (one about controlling people’s minds, to boot!) in which Professor X and Magneto would square off.
The Room of Stolen Paintings: The room filled with stolen paintings from Franck and his men include such works as Manet’s “Chez Tortoni”, Degas’ “The Chorus”, Caravaggio’s “The Nativity with Saint Francis and St. Lawrence”, and replicas of several other famously stolen paintings. I guess this is where they all went.
Analysis: While this one is at the bottom of our list, it’s hard to really fault Trance for being anything other than misguided. As a director, Boyle’s in top form here — he really leans into the film’s neon-tinged neo-noir feel, with his bobbing-and-weaving camera making each scene feel frenetic and alive. The three leads turn in fine work, with Dawson’s bravura performance absolutely stealing the show out from under McAvoy’s patented twitchiness and Cassel’s disaffected laconicism.
Where the film really fails Boyle is the script; written a decade earlier by British TV writer Joe Ahearne and spiced up a bit by Trainspotting’s John Hodge, Trance feels noticeably like a film whose director has been sitting on the script for years, waiting for a slow period to crank it out. Its mind-bending crime-caper logistics (involving a bevy of secret histories, hidden memories, and several layers of hypnotism) feel out of place and tone-deaf, and even Dawson’s amazing performance can’t wipe away the stink of objectification on her character. The cartoonish, ridiculous climax, featuring flaming cars flying into the river (and into McAvoy) also comes out of nowhere, leading to a head-scratching denouement that’s too clever for its own good. As a stylish trifle, Trance is diverting enough, but as this list indicates, literally every other Boyle film is better. Feel free to skip it. –Clint Worthington
12. Yesterday (2019)
Runtime: 1 hr. 57 min.
Press Release: His name is Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), and he just hit the jackpot in a huge, surreal, and profitable game of karaoke. Imagine all the people waking up one day (in 2019) and no longer knowing a singles Beatles song or album. Who are the Fab Four? What’s a Sgt. Pepper? That’s the big “what if?” of Yesterday, where suddenly there were/are no Beatles, and it’s up to one struggling musician to bring those songs back. Through the power of magical realism, only he can remember them all. To the sticky notes and acoustic guitar!
Jack becomes a pop wunderkind overnight, because the rules of a post-Love Actually Richard Curtis screenplay embrace heartfelt absurdities as such. Jack considers the durability of the Beatles when squeezed out for a modern market. Jack has a songwriting face-off with Ed Sheeran, playing himself. Jack wants the world to know just how great the Beatles were, are, and will forever be. Even if the film never really says why.
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Lamorne Morris, and James Corden.
The Sounds: Hey. Have you heard of the Beatles?
Yesterday managed to snag 20 songs for use in the movie (with 17 used in the final, theatrical cut), and they’re mostly redone in acoustic form by Jack. We’re talking “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun.” You know, all the feel-goodies and none of the LSD stuff, as the latter doesn’t translate well to a man-and-guitar sound, one might reckon. It also sounds like it was a chore to get these songs. More in a minute.
Location, Location, Location: Geographically, Yesterday is like one of those Hollywood bus tours of celebrity homes. See the famous sites! Penny Lane is featured,(and the filmmakers would have likely been sacked if they hadn’t included it in some capacity. Liverpool is used as a side mission, for Jack to find inspiration in the town that bred history’s biggest pop band. And remember the famous Let It Be rooftop concert in London? 3 Saville Row, atop the Apple Records building? It’s not featured, but there’s a great bit of homage in Suffolk, where Jack plays to something like 6,000 extras atop a hotel.
Key Image: To the point of the aforementioned rooftop show, only the hardest-hearted viewers could dislike Boyle’s visual allusions to the famous “Get Back” performance. Boyle captures the look and feel of the moment with Briton enthusiasm.
It’s All Too Much: Listen up, Beatle-maniacs. Here’s a brief lesson in music licensing, and how it apparently works in the movies today. Some movies, like the original Shaft or Superfly, will select an artist to draft original music and scoring. Other films, like those of Quentin Tarantino, have soundtracks that are the products of a director making a wishlist and hoping for the best through a music supervisor.
Yesterday is an entirely different beast, starting at a company level. Respected British production company Working Title had to pitch the concept and use of the Beatles to their current holding teams at Apple Records and Sony. According to Boyle, the deal allowed for tinkering with song selections up to the last minute, and it factored in as a heavy percentage of the upfront budget.
Boyle sent letters to Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison outlining the project and his intended usage of Beatles numbers. Every living Beatle connection approved, probably because Billboard estimates that it likely cost $10 million to clear the music for this. So everybody won, kind of. (It also doesn’t sound like Paul or Yoko wrote back, either.)
Anyways, remember this at the end of the film when (SPOILER) Jack gives the Beatles’ songs away to the public, fearing a world without their music. It’s free in the movies, but pricey and complicated in reality. (END SPOILER)
Cold play: Chris Martin was originally set for the Sheeran cameo, but scheduling conflicts forced the producers’ hands. At the risk of coming off derogatory, Martin would’ve been preferable over Ed “has a tattoo of ketchup on his arm” Sheeran. Sorry, Ed.
Analysis: This is a Danny Boyle film in which the auteur seems to sit at the third level of authorship. It’s a Beatles fantasy film, and subsequent advertisement for their catalog. It’s a Richard Curtis pitch about a world without Liverpool’s finest. And then it’s a film directed by Danny Boyle, long after allowed discussions of ‘appropriate’ and ‘tasteful’ use and interpretation of Beatles songs were finished.
As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to find much of Boyle in this movie, and it’s a shame. The gifted visualist is buried under conceit. At its best, Yesterday is fine, if sickly sweet. At worst, again, a glorified ad benefiting the owners of the Beatles’ work. Hello, Beatles movie. Goodbye, any meaningful input from Danny Boyle. We can’t work this out, it’s a dud. –Blake Goble
11. Sunshine (2007)
Runtime: 1 hr. 48 min.
Press Release: Sun’s dying, dude. Seriously. And so an international crew of astronauts are sent to drop nuclear bombs into its core, in a desperate bid to try and re-ignite it. Yikes. It’s 2057 as well, so take that, scientists who predicted the sun wouldn’t burn out for another five billion years. Ha. Now, you’re sweating nervously.
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Troy Garity, Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Cliff Curtis, Mark Strong, and the Cap himself, Chris Evans.
The Sounds: Electro maestro Karl Hyde (of Underworld) was given a cut of the film by Boyle and assembled a score influenced by Ligeti’s music in 2001, a leaden and serious soundscape, which would be later completed by English composer John Murphy. It’s an intense, meditative score. But curiously, the soundtrack was delayed a formal release for over a year due to legal issues between Fox Searchlight and Underworld.
Location, Location, Location: Um… Filming took place at 3 Mills Studios in London.
Key Image: German cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler provides the film with ample memorable images using over-saturated color, Dutch angles, and an almost darkly comic use of dim space interiors. It’s all a bit much, but in the end Küchler at least nails Boyle’s grand design in a cathartic, over-bright shot, drowning Cillian Murphy in “sunshine.”
Sci-Frightened: Boyle acknowledged that Sunshine would be his first, last, and only science fiction film. The genre always scared the hell out of him, and he treated this production like a test of courage. From a Reuters interview: “I would recommend it to everybody. You should do one. But nobody does more than one — unless they’re doing a Stars Wars or something like that — no director goes back into space.”
Boyle’s a feisty director, but one could argue that maybe it’s born from impatience or the fear of being locked down. He’s given to uptempo music and gobs of coverage, and that kind of fast-and-free vibe lends itself to Boyle’s thoroughly modern stories about hard-fought optimism. But he copped to not knowing about the long-game technical and financial necessities of sci-fi and called the experience “exhausting.” Between the budget wrangling, the heavy script prep, and the months and months of post-production, it’s no wonder Sunshine feels so crammed.
Breaking Q-Balls: Alright, Nye-nerds. Remember when we called this premise preposterous? Grab a drink and get ready for some light cosmic dread. The sun could actually die out faster than that gradual five billion year prediction. It’s called a Q-Ball, and we’ll keep this as brief as possible. (Apologies to any quantum theorists reading; please extrapolate in the comments if you like.) A Q-Ball is a concept in theoretical physics, proposing that a large “blob” of particles could essentially eat the inside of something like the sun. In the shortest terms, it’s like a random act of cancer in space that could kill a star. Again, this is theoretical. Q-Balls might even make up dark matter. But … yikes.
Analysis: Boyle’s at his least when his reach exceeds his grasp. Bless him for thinking big, but in his case, “more” can be too much. And Sunshine just can’t get its act together. The larger-than-life idea of the sun dying and life as we know it being extinguished in a nuclear winter unless several brave souls achieve the impossible feels unusually small. And not in a claustrophobic way. No, Sunshine’s defined by its repetitive sets and screen-saver space visuals, in a sloppy event film that wants to be 2001, but accidentally feels closer to ‘90s MTV with splashes of Hellraiser.
It’s the kind of film that looks fascinating in still images. Gold, foot-thick space suits. Gape-mouthed multinational explorers bathed in yellow and orange light. Mark Strong in scabby makeup as a fundamentalist loner and space nut. But put it all together, and you’ve got a flickering mess. Alex Garland’s script makes unique hypotheses, playing with theoretical physics, God complexes, isolationism, depression, and finer mathematics. But it’s too much in too little time. Boyle’s blender aesthetics and small-fire ideation are chaotic in Sunshine, and it’s just one of those films that means well but leaves viewers wanting. Boyle flies too close to the sun, and the film’s a melting pot of chunky sci-fi. –Blake Goble
10. The Beach (2000)
Runtime: 1 hr. 59 min.
Press Release: A baby-faced gamer, twentysomething Richard (Leonard DiCaprio), travels to Thailand in search of adventure. But not just any adventure. A real kind of adventure. The non-touristy kind. The “hang out with a bunch of hippies on a gorgeous but deadly weed island” kind of adventure.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Legoyen, Guillaume Canet, Robert Carlyle, Tilda Swinton, and a spread of what could only be described as year 2000 Abercrombie-looking youths.
The Sounds: On the very Boyle-esque, electronic-heavy side, The Beach shared tunes from Underworld, Orbital, Leftfield, New Order, Moby, The Chemical Brothers, UNKLE with Richard Ashcroft, Junkie XL, and of all things, a John Cale and Brian Eno song covered by Sugar Ray, “Spinning Away”. Bonus: there’s some Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry, All Saints, and a trip-hop remix of a Blur tune used during a drug-trip scene. The soundtrack’s pretty strong on its own. It’s a little new-age in the film, but we can forgive that because Boyle, when all else fails, knows how to set a mood with music.
Location, Location, Location:The Beach’s literal beach was captured and filmed in Ko Phi Phi Le, an island in the Krabi Provence of Thailand. It’s gorgeous. Part of Thailand’s national parks. Something this serene and untouched, however, was no match for 20th Century Fox and the graceless, land-grabbing perils of a Hollywood production. Boyle has likened the production to that of a “conquering army” because The Beach, a $50 million star vehicle, came to a beautiful, untouched spot of the Earth and bulldozed the shit out of it. Boyle and crew were looking for an aesthetic – wide sands and secluded imagery. But it wasn’t natural and allegedly wreaked havoc. Environmentalists sued, restorations failed, and the production’s gone down as one of those infamous ones where it took years to assign the blame in court. Oh, and did we mention Thailand’s ban on the final film, due to its unsavory depictions of drug culture?
Key Image: Darius Khondji, a prestigious cinematographer with credits like Delicatessen and Se7en and Midnight in Paris to his name, took his high-contrast gift for color and provided Boyle with dazzling landscapes. Shutter effects, billowy horizon lines, and the ultimate tourist’s gaze defines Khondji’s portfolio here.
But all that Ranger Rick goodness goes right out the window when Leo freaks out on drugs and the film turns into a Banjo Kazooie-like game. It’s. A neat idea. We guess. But it’s also an image we’re still mocking, frankly.
The McGregor in the Room: Note the struck-out mention of Ewan McGregor above. The Beach is incidentally the story of a great Hollywood falling out for the modern age. Boyle reportedly wanted McGregor to be leading man for his adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel, but Fox had the star of the world’s biggest film at the time, Leonardo DiCaprio, in mind. Fox even cast Leo before Boyle could intervene (which apparently added to the production’s budget). McGregor supposedly blamed the studio, but the Scottish actor was hurt enough to not speak to Boyle for years. The two made one of the greats of the ‘90s with Trainspotting, ready for more, and then nothing for 15 years. Pity. The roles that could have been. The work the two could have done.
But, if T2 Trainspotting’s any indicator, the two mended fences. Here, watch Boyle and McGregor on Graham Norton, and bring a tissue.
Good for the Garland: Novelist Alex Garland wrote the source novel as a sort of Gen X meditation on the impossibility of reaching paradise, truth, and purity in a world set to destroy and commodify everything (hello, irony). But this was Garland’s big break, as he continued to work with Boyle, writing the scripts for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Now Garland’s an Oscar-nominated writer and director thanks to his sensational Ex Machina, recognized for his knack for selling heady ideas with clever, creative writing. So, at least someone great survived all of this.
Analysis: Where to begin with this nonsense? The new-age hypocrisy? The tonal inconsistency? The fractured plotting piggybacked atop a shabbily developed leading character? The Beach just can’t get its head out of the sand. As a film, it doesn’t work on numerous levels, and Boyle flummoxes himself trying to blend crime thrills and spiritualist dogma in the framework of a youth film about a young guy just trying to find himself.
Read into the side texts and how the film squandered resources, overpaid its cherubic lead ($20 million to scream “FRENCH BOY!” in anger), and bombed at the box office, and the thing just lingers as a hellacious experience. This shore drama is Boyle’s D-Day. It’s a mild disaster. The Beach is arrogant, insecure, and shallow. When a beautiful, young French woman mocks Leo’s Richard for spewing bullshit after he waxes philosophical about the stars, you’ll agree with her. But the music’s aces. –Blake Goble
09. A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
Runtime: 1 hr. 43 min.
Press Release: Two angels with a shitty track record on the job get handed a hell of an ultimatum: They’ve got to ace their next assignment or end up stuck on Earth forever. Before you can say “Bedford Falls,” they’re trying to manipulate two unlikely lovers — a down-on-his-luck janitor and the spoiled daughter of a rich asshole — into eternal bliss by way of kidnapping, death threats, poems, karaoke, and other terrible things. But mostly kidnapping.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter, Delroy Lindo, Dan Hedaya, Ian Holm, Stanley Tucci, and a never-better Tony Shalhoub. Seriously, he’s great.
The Sounds: Forget the title song — this sucker belongs to Beck and Bobby Darin. The latter’s “Beyond the Sea” sits squarely at the center of one of the film’s strongest scenes, the aforementioned karaoke outing in which Diaz and McGregor bond (what is it with Cameron Diaz and karaoke scenes?). The former’s “Deadweight” is the real standout, however, sitting atop an impressive list of tracks that includes Sneaker Pimps, Ash, R.E.M., The Prodigy, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and The Cardigans.
Location, Location, Location: Sadly, there’s precious little to report here. After Robert (McGregor) absconds with Celine (Diaz), they hide out in the woods of California. It’s impossible to watch a Boyle film without appreciating the man’s eye, but the glossiness of this thing makes it hard to appreciate the naturally beautiful setting.
Key Image: There are a few truly gorgeous shots in one of the film’s early scenes, as Celine is attempting to William Tell an apple off her would-be fiance’s (Tucci) head with a shotgun, but the real stunner here is found in that damned karaoke scene, when the first flush of love transforms a dive bar into something, shall we say, La La Land-esque.
A Film More Ordinary: In a searing take on the film for The A.V. Club’s My Year of Flops series, Nathan Rabin captures exactly how disappointing Boyle’s follow-up to Trainspotting was: “The ne’er do wells that made Trainspotting were coming for our daughters and their disposable income and bringing hunky Ewan McGregor along for backup.”
Yeah, no. Had Boyle made a dazzling mess, that would be one thing, but this thing borders on incoherent, and while there’s still some of the visual daring that made Trainspotting (and many of Boyle’s later films) such gems, there’s precious little to write home about. It’s not just a mess; it’s a dull mess, one that even the charms of Diaz and McGregor can’t save. What gives, Danny?
All hail Monk, saver of stories: Anecdotal evidence time. When researching and revisiting for this piece, this writer had a casual chat with a friend about A Life Less Ordinary. This writer’s friend summed up the unexpected delight in the film’s final act thusly: “It’s just an OK movie at best, and then Tony Shalhoub shows up, and it’s all worth it.”
Exaggeration? Perhaps just a little, but what is life without hyperbole? Regardless, one of the best lines in John Hodge’s screenplay arrives with Shalhoub, who delivers it with perfect, bewildered understatement: “Look at yourself. You’re nothing. You’re nobody. You’re wanted in connection with a violent crime. You’re cleaning the floor of a diner. She is an intelligent, passionate, beautiful, rich woman. The issue of whether or not she’s your type is not one that you’re likely to have to resolve in this world, or indeed the next, since she will be going to some heaven for glamorous pussy, and you will be cleaning the floor of a diner in hell.”
That it’s also the most sense anyone in the whole film makes is just a bonus. Thank you, Tony Shalhoub. And hey, thanks to this writer’s friend as well.
Analysis: The world of film is dotted with disappointments, and plenty of those dots are rom-coms. As anyone who cable-surfs on the weekends can tell you, these films have their moments, and it’s all too easy to suddenly realize you’ve watched more than half of You’ve Got Mail, despite the fact that You’ve Got Mail is just okay at best and sexless and boring at worst. Still: Tom Hanks! Meg Ryan! A solid supporting cast and a Nora Ephron screenplay! Make the mistake of killing time with this movie for a few minutes and odds are good it’ll still be on an hour later.
A Life Less Ordinary comes on, and odds are you’ll keep on flipping. That’s not to say it’s without its merits — the powers of Boyle, Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald are not to be denied — but it’s neither coherent enough to float along inoffensively, nor daring enough to justify such a sloppy narrative. Every few scenes something sparks, but before long it’s washed away by whatever new piece of nonsense arrives. Not even the charisma offered by its two leads serves as an anchor. It also has the rare distinction of containing a Holly Hunter performance so bewilderingly over the top that it makes it hard to remember why she ever won an Oscar, but that can be remedied by watching nearly any other Holly Hunter performance.
In a 1997 interview with the Independent, Boyle justified all that messiness thus: ‘”Looking at the film now, I think one of the good things about it is that it is slightly free-form. If people get caught up in it, they will enjoy the fact that some of it is pretty inexplicable – not in the way a David Lynch film would be, because it’s lighter than that – but it is quite free. And the justification for that,” he grins, “and this is the pompous bit, is that that’s a bit like what it’s like to be in love.”
It is pompous. It’s also bullshit, but it sure sounds good. If only that were the movie he made. —Allison Shoemaker
08. Steve Jobs (2015)
Runtime: 2 hr. 2 min.
Press Release: The life and times of famed Apple mogul Steve Jobs, as visualized through the frantic backdoor dealings leading up to three major events in the early years of the company’s history: the Macintosh’s public debut in 1984, the launch of Jobs’ short-lived NeXT in 1988, and the unveiling of the game-changing iMac in 1998.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Daniels, and Katherine Waterston
The Sounds: Daniel Pemberton’s staccato-heavy synth score sounds exactly like you’d imagine the score for a film about a tech mogul would sound: digital, scattered, and with a propulsive forward momentum that screams “new discovery.” It’s deliberately minute, set up like much of the rest of the film to underscore the argument-heavy dialogue. If anything, Pemberton’s work makes for an interesting counterpoint to the mile-a-minute cadences of Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting, populating the off beats between the rapid verbal exchanges.
Location, Location, Location: Where Boyle has often been known for his memorable locales, one of the more daring stylistic choices he makes in Jobs concerns the drab, unremarkable conference halls and backstage areas in which nearly every second of the film takes place. This is an “actor’s movie,” as they say, and Boyle keeps the backdrops as unmemorable as possible to highlight the film’s numerous outstanding performances.
Key Image: Going with final shots in a category like this almost feels like a cheat, but whatever you might make of Steve Jobs, it’s hard to deny the power of the film’s last moment. Boyle frames Jobs’ first great triumph from the perspective of the daughter that (as the film alleges) Jobs barely knew, gazing out with the rest of the crowd at a man who would revolutionize human interaction, him remaining as elusive and mysterious to her as anyone else.
The Fog of (Corporate) War: The accuracy of the film’s version of real events seems to depend heavily on who you ask and when. For his part, Steve Wozniak (Jobs’ renowned partner in Apple’s infant stages) says that the film’s exchanges between he and Jobs, particularly some of the more contentious ones, never took place. Former Apple CEO John Sculley found the film impressive, but mentioned that Jobs was a kinder figure than the one that Boyle and Sorkin depict. And Pixar president Edwin Catmull went as far as saying that Jobs would have been appalled at the film’s depiction of him, arguing that “Steve learned some major lessons, and he changed. He became an empathetic person, and we all saw this when [the Walter Isaacson book] was being written. Nobody’s going to psychoanalyze Steve while he was alive. That aspect of the change of Steve was missed. That’s the real story.”
Building the Better Machine: There’s a rigorousness to every aspect of the film that reflects its subject’s obsessive and fastidious approach to technological development, and that extended to its production as well. Boyle shot each of the film’s three sequences over one month, with two weeks allowed for rehearsal and two weeks for filming. That regimentation is reflected in the ruthlessly efficient filmmaking, which adds a much-needed breathlessness to what’s otherwise a chamber drama about tech moguls having loud shouting matches.
Analysis: Steve Jobs is far less a traditional biopic than a structurally unorthodox character study about a celebrity figure, and this is to the film’s distinct benefit. Boyle uses his characteristic energy in more muted ways throughout, allowing the interpersonal drama to drive the film’s rhythms. It’s an anxious piece, both in the dramatic and filmic senses, as Boyle’s camera tracks through endless hallways, lingering on his actors while they chew through Sorkin’s typically verbose passages. It’s as much a Sorkin film as one by Boyle, although the director proves himself as adept as David Fincher at creating a context in which the oft-debated screenwriter’s grandiose prose can work. If the film gets excessively Sorkin-esque at times, that’s how the man works.
As a chronicle of Jobs the mogul, Boyle’s film is (for the most part) uncommonly candid about the significant roles that other people, and Jobs’ elite marketing acumen, played in Apple’s ascent to cultural ubiquity. There’s a lack of hero worship for much of the film’s runtime that feels refreshing, Fassbender pitching Jobs as less of the big-dreaming creator that Apple sold to the masses and more as a ruthless corporate type who could and would pull rank on even his closest confidants as needed. It’s then a letdown when the film’s final minutes make a tone-deaf attempt to reel back the film’s most incisive criticisms, instead ending on a resounding shrug and the cop-out of “Well, he did make the iPod, so it wasn’t all bad!”
Ironically, the moments in Steve Jobs that try to canonize him the most are also the film’s weakest. When it doesn’t, though, Boyle does appealingly straightforward work in imagining what one of the most powerful people in the world actually looked like when the doors were closed and the cameras turned off. – Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
07. T2 Trainspotting (2017)
Runtime: 1 hr. 57 min.
Press Release: Twenty years after the events of Trainspotting, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh to reconnect with the friends he left behind: Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Before long, he’s dragged back into the moral bankruptcy of his youth and yet another get-rich-quick scheme. Nostalgia, regret, and life-threatening peril ensue.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, and Anjela Nedyalkova
The Sounds: Some old, some new. In addition to an incredibly clever cue drop on “Lust for Life” early in the film, there’s also a Prodigy remix of that Iggy Pop classic, as well as a poignant ambient reduction of Underworld’s “Born Slippy”. There’s also a wealth of classics (Blondie, The Clash, Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” in a blaring nightclub) alongside new gems (Young Fathers, Wolf Alice). In its stylish pop, this is definitely a Danny Boyle movie.
Also, McGregor sings a ridiculous song about anti-Catholic colonialism. It’s hilarious.
Location, Location, Location: Many of the locales will be familiar to fans of the original film, from the back streets of Edinburgh to the wide-open countryside in which the film’s motley crew does a little more complaining about the futility of their lives. The pub owned by Sick Boy (or sorry, Simon now) is a central hub for the film, as is Simon’s perfectly bachelor-esque flat. The locations are just a shade more glamorous this time around, at least except for poor Spud’s apartment, which resembles the flophouses of its characters’ youth.
Key Image: First of all, we’ll drop a SPOILERS tag here since the film’s only coming to US theaters now after being released in the UK earlier in the year.
Boyle returns to a number of his old motifs throughout the film, but one of the most resonant comes in the one scene where Simon and Renton get back into the very worst of their old habits, shooting up together as a series of hallucinatory projections swallow the room. Boyle frames them slumped on the floor and bathed in lurid blues, almost as though the two of them were treading water and are now drowning anew.
Porno, but Not Quite: When T2 Trainspotting was first announced as being in the works, many viewers assumed it would be a film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno, which revisited the Trainspotting protagonists later in life. However, as Boyle has frequently mentioned while doing press for the film, it’s less a straight adaptation of Porno and more a sequel to Boyle’s original film itself, with elements of Porno used as relevant throughout. For instance, the story of Simon finding out about Renton’s new life in Amsterdam comes from the book, with the context slightly modified.
Spud’s Words: One of the film’s more clever updates of character comes when Spud is encouraged to start chronicling his misadventures as a literary project, which leads to the foursome reckoning with their behaviors in an entirely new way. As it turns out, all of Spud’s prose comes straight from Welsh’s original novel and the original descriptions of their story.
Analysis: It’s hard to pull off a sequel to a film as widely beloved as Trainspotting, but T2 avoids the typical pitfalls of easy nostalgia by framing the continued misadventures of Renton and co. as a meditation on the hazards of easy nostalgia. Both in the literal (they were all junkies once, some still are) and filmic senses, T2 lingers on how age can make even the worst times seem better and what a crock of shit that so often is. It’s not that Renton left anything worth missing (aside from maybe Spud, who Bremner plays as endearingly as ever); it’s that he left the only thing resembling a life that he had in deciding to “choose life” and now finds himself in his 40s, childless and soon-to-be divorced, wondering what the hell he left for in the first place.
Yet, T2 doesn’t go for the easy solution of celebrating its central reunion. Begbie is as much a bastard as ever, and Simon’s half-cocked plan to open a brothel in the bar he inherited soon runs them into trouble with everyone from local crime lords to each other. These are people unable to know genuine peace or contentment, and Boyle re-envisions them as charming fuck-ups who’re starting to lose their luster in old age, whether by impotence or the realization that they can’t live this way forever, and that “forever” is nearer than it was ever supposed to be. All the while, Boyle returns to the rapid-fire editing and stylized, free-form photography of his own youth in capturing their midlife crises, and the film is a more appropriate a sequel to its wonderful source material for it. Boyle understands well that there’s no going back in a true sense, but also that people will naturally spend their lives trying anyway, so why not just lean into it? —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
06. Shallow Grave (1994)
Runtime: 1 hr. 32 min.
Press Release: Boyle’s debut feature, Shallow Grave, follows three best mates/roommates (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox) who stumble upon the dead body of their mysterious new flatmate (Keith Allen), along with a suitcase filled with money. Deciding to cover up the death and keep the money for themselves, the three encounter complications, from nasty gangsters looking for their newly dead tenant to their own interpersonal fractures.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox
The Sounds: Simon Boswell’s score for Boyle’s debut film is appropriately minimalist, much of it consisting of simple orchestral strains during the trio’s more dramatic turns of fortune. Still, the bits and bobs of ’90s-era electronica interspersed throughout tease the deeper levels of menace our three protagonists will reach by the end.
Location, Location, Location: Juliet, David, and Alex’s mundane, ordinary-looking flat is an ironic setting for much of the film’s deceit and violence, highlighting the depravities the three eventually inflict on themselves and others.
Key Image: In a bit of foreshadowing of Trainspotting’s hallucinated infant on the ceiling, Shallow Grave also features a darkly comic shot of a motorized baby doll, its soundbox cackling wildly as it crawls along the floor with a dart in its head, while gangsters rough up the flatmates for their missing money. Even without the metatextual connection to Boyle’s later film, it’s a beautifully experimental image.
Early Experimentation: Even in Boyle’s debut feature, glimmers of his slick, presentational style can already be found. Boyle makes heavy use of discomfiting close-ups, cheeky narration to the audience, and stylized camera movements to make the film feel immediate and kinetic. The spiraling close-ups of Eccleston’s face that bookend the film remain some of his most visually potent work.
All About Ewan: In addition to being Boyle’s first film, Shallow Grave is also the feature film debut of longtime Boyle collaborator Ewan McGregor, and early signs of his future stardom are easily found here. His Alex is beautifully acerbic and acid-tongued (“I’m not frightened! I’m a little terrified, maybe!”), allowing him to easily steal scenes from the more measured Eccleston and Fox.
Analysis: Right from the get-go, Boyle made an impression with the stylish, darkly comic 1994 thriller Shallow Grave. Taking a story right out of The Canterbury Tales (the plot bears a striking resemblance to “The Pardoner’s Tale”), Shallow Grave is a cracking crime thriller whose command of tragic irony and fluid, mid-’90s aesthetics falls somewhere between Edgar Allen Poe and Quentin Tarantino. Fox, McGregor, and Eccleston have a wonderful dynamic as the fortune they find — and the lengths to which they must go to keep it — tests their friendship in unexpected ways.
Compared to Boyle’s more formally ambitious efforts — Slumdog, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later — one can be forgiven for feeling that Shallow Grave is his most stripped-down, bare-bones film to date. Still, considering its microbudget (made for around $2.5 million), it’s clear that Boyle was cutting his teeth on Shallow Grave, testing out new techniques and modifying his style to suit the comparatively modest demands of this particular film. Every Boyle masterwork after this has Shallow Grave to thank. – Clint Worthington
05. 127 Hours (2010)
Runtime: 1 hr. 33 min.
Press Release: 127 Hours recounts the real-life story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a young, adventurous rock climber who, after an accident, finds himself trapped in the middle of nowhere with a rock pinning his right arm to the canyon wall he has fallen into. With nothing but a DV camera, sports bottle, and a too-dull knife, Aron must deal with his own internal demons while finding a way to extricate himself from the rock.
Cast: James Franco, Kate Mara, Lizzy Caplan, and a rock
The Sounds: A.R. Rahman, Boyle’s collaborator on Slumdog Millionaire, returns with a plaintive, guitar-focused score that infuses Aron’s journey with an intriguing sense of pathos.
Location, Location, Location: This one’s easy: the deep, unyielding crevasse in which Aron is trapped for much of the film’s runtime is a hauntingly beautiful location. Boyle makes the place seem claustrophobic and yet impossibly cavernous, its deep walls torturing Aron (and the audience) with the impossibility of escape.
Key Image: Boyle’s many close-ups of Aron’s face through the screen of his small DV camera, which acts as companion, confessional and audience for the 127 hours he spends stuck in the cavern.
A Real One-Man Show: Commanding the entirety of a film’s runtime by yourself is no small feat, but Franco’s command performance in 127 Hours is something to behold even for his most ardent critics. He’s pitch-perfect as Aron, the self-proclaimed “American superhero” who’s immediately humbled by his experience and forced to reckon with his own demons in order to escape. There’s something heartbreakingly innocent about Franco’s performance, depicting a man who is unwilling to stop and look himself in the mirror until literally held in one place by circumstance. He was nominated for an Oscar and deservedly so (though the same can’t be said for his duties as co-host that same year).
Getting Amp(utat)ed Up: The story of Aron Ralston is nothing without his eventual self-amputation to free himself from the rock, leading to some of the most visceral, nail-biting sound design of Boyle’s filmography. Nothing in recent cinema gets you in the fillings more than that high-pitched screech illustrating the white-hot pain of Aaron’s nerves being severed by an unsharpened Swiss Army knife.
Analysis: Man-against-nature stories are nothing new; from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to Cast Away and even The Martian, stories of mankind’s ability to persevere in the face of tremendous, uncontrollable forces and odds are as old as time. Ralston’s story, however, gave Boyle (and co-writer Simon Beaufoy) room to create a taut, effective thriller in the most restrictive of circumstances.
Boyle himself described 127 Hours as “an action movie with a guy who can’t move”; as such, the film smartly takes the focus off the logistics of his plight and turns it into a uniquely self-reflexive character study. Boyle is concerned less with how Aron gets out as how he got there in the first place. As the refreshingly self-aware Aron cheekily admits in a faux interview he gives to the camera, “I’m something of a … well, a big fucking hard hero. And I can do everything on my own, you see?” It’s this awesomely minimalist exploration of masculine attitudes about achievement and independence, anchored by Boyle’s excellent direction and Franco’s incredible performance, that elevates 127 Hours into something special. –Clint Worthington
04. Millions (2004)
Runtime: 1 hr. 38 min.
Press Release: After the death of his mother, a little boy takes solace in the saints who appear to him in visions, particularly in the cardboard fortress he’s built alongside a train. When a bag full of fat cash comes flying in through the cardboard roof, he sees it as a gift from God with which he can save lives, while his brother sees it as a chance to be real damn rich. With Britain set to switch from the Pound to the Euro, whatever they do with the money, they’ve got to do it fast.
Cast: Alex Etel, Lewis McGibbon, James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan, Christopher Fulford, Jane Hogarth, and loads of saints. Like, so many saints.
The Sounds: While there are some appropriately sunny pop tunes and one perfect entry from The Clash on board, Millions mostly floats by on John Murphy’s score, by turns mischievous and enchanting. Sure, it’s about one magical twinkle short of being entirely too precious, but given that this is the only feature in Boyle’s filmography to be rated anything but R, let’s forgive a little whimsy — particularly because this is a film that earns every damn twinkle it gets.
Location, Location, Location: Like fellow British-movie-about-a-kid-with-a-gift Billy Elliot, Millions has an incredibly rich sense of place. This isn’t a story that would work if it was suddenly set in Texas, and it’s not merely because the US is unlikely to switch to the Euro. Damian’s family is new in their Northern English town, and the audience experiences this new place right along with Damian and brother Anthony. Every scene feels honest and lived-in, a world where everything is familiar to everyone but the new kids in town. And yes, as a bonus, it’s just lovely.
Key Image: Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and Boyle work pretty well together, it seems — see the next two films on this list, one of which won them both Oscars — and Millions is no exception. Each and every appearance by a saint is in its way a stunner, and the same can be said of an early sequence when Damian and Anthony watch as their new neighborhood gets constructed around them. Still, let’s give it to the glorious sequence when Damian and a ramshackle donkey follow a star through the streets. Still gets me, every time.
Kids: They’re People Too!: One of the great strengths of Millions lies in the fact that Boyle and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce seemingly rejected all of the pat-on-the-head spoon-feeding typical of so many family-friendly films. One explanation for this is that maybe the men who brought you such kid-friendly outings as 28 Days Later and 24 Hour Party People don’t really have it in them to make such a film. The real secret, however, is probably that they’re good at their jobs and found kids who were also good at their jobs in Alex Etel and Lewis McGibbon. Take, for example, Damian’s open acceptance of his visions, or his honest surprise that the money isn’t a hallucination. It’s all very simple to him. Better still, look at Anthony’s reasoning for keeping the cash after they learn its origin (“It isn’t the money’s fault it got stolen”) or his plan to take advantage of the switch in currency. These kids are smart, brave, and honest. One sees the real problems of the world everywhere; one has learned to view life as practically as possible. Both are treated like people and not cherubs, and that’s a sadly rare thing in movies of this genre.
Best Adapted Novel: Boyce’s first novel was, you guessed it, Millions — but the screenplay came first. While the novel, which went on to win the Carnegie Medal, landed on shelves months before the film’s release, Boyce didn’t begin to write it until after Boyle suggested he tackle an adaptation of the script. It’s a lucky thing, too, as a scene written for the adaptation found its way into the film after Boyle read the novel based on the movie he was almost done making. Then the universe collapsed on itself.
Analysis: Boyle doesn’t seem like a no-brainer choice for a kids’ flick, does he? Yet here we are with Millions, a deliriously warm and earnest film that never stoops to tawdry sentimentality or blatant tear-jerking. As stated above, it doesn’t live or die by Boyle’s knack for visual flash, but on his ability to tell an honest, surprising story by grounding it in the lives of its characters and in unshowy but impressive-as-hell performances. That’s not to say that Millions would work every bit as well as, say, a play — although stage that thing with Boyle attached and then take all this writer’s money — but that it’s deeply intimate and unshakably grounded. Any indulgence in whimsy or moment of wonder is well and truly earned by the good, honest work that brings such moments about, and even if the saints didn’t have little halos and an otherworldly glow, it would still be a winner.
But the halos are there, as are countless other moments of visual trickery and cleverness, and thank god they are. In Millions, Boyle takes the aesthetic that’s made so many of his grittier films unforgettable and lends it to a genre for which, somehow, it seems to be an even better match. Instead of Boyle’s world, we feel we’re living in Damian’s, seeing visions that only he can see and at which we’re permitted to peek. Look at a still, and you can pick it out as a Boyle film straight away, but watch it, fall into this remarkable little world, and suddenly Danny Boyle is an afterthought. This is how Damian sees things, and that is all that matters. –Allison Shoemaker
03. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Runtime: 2 hr.
Press Release: A Mumbai teenager is one question away from becoming a millionaire on a game show (you know the one), but the host and security staff find it impossible that an uneducated ruffian could know so much. Forced to justify his success, Jamal explains where he learned the correct answer to each question, and if he just so happens to tell his life story along the way, so much the better.
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Chheda, Madhur Mittal, and Anil Kapoor
Soundtrack: A.R. Rahman wasn’t short on acclaim outside the US when Slumdog earned him two Oscars, but they probably look very nice on his bookshelf. His evocative, often thrilling score pairs pulse-raising percussion with electronica, jazz, and hip-hop. A cool-as-hell collaboration with M.I.A. doesn’t hurt, either.
Location, Location, Location: India. There’s a reason the film’s chaos and color are so striking — Boyle and company set up shop all over Mumbai, including shoots in neighborhoods that perhaps weren’t entirely safe.
Key Image: For all the glorious scenes and shots in Slumdog, the one that dazzles most is simple: Jamal catching a glimpse of a yellow scarf between the cars of a passing train. The fact that an awesome dance sequence follows just a minute or two later is a nice bonus, but that scarf all by itself does the trick.
Hire Dev Patel: In December 2016, Patel told ABC that after Slumdog, the roles weren’t, erm, rolling in. “I just stepped off this red carpet, surrounded by all these amazing actors and Oscar winners, and there was nothing,” he said, presumably while brushing his gorgeous hair out of his perfect face, because Dev Patel is a goddamn movie star and the fact that his big breakout film didn’t have him swimming in scripts is a farce.
Things have turned around — he got an Oscar nomination this year, and he was one of the good things about the admittedly terrible The Newsroom, and he’s still a fox who is also very talented. Still, according to IMDb, he’s got one project in post-production and that’s it. Perhaps it’s time for Hollywood to go ahead and hire this dude, a lot, for lots of things. Then he can get an Oscar nomination for something that isn’t Lion.
There’s No Way to Make a Cute Title When You’re About to Address Potential Cultural Insensitivity in a Crowd-Pleasing Movie: Want to feel kind of weird about a great film? Spend some time with this Wikipedia page. For a white girl to attempt to sum up something this complicated would be foolish at best, so instead this writer suggests that you read up, think about the complaints lodged by many (but not all) Indian film critics, and think about whether or not it’s weird that Jamal suddenly starts speaking British English.
One thing that seems pretty straightforward, however: Slumdog Millionaire is a great film, but it’s a British film, and rather than just celebrating a tribute to Indian filmmaking, perhaps we should also spend some time celebrating Indian filmmaking itself.
Analysis: With Millions, Boyle honed his knack for feel-goodery, but with Millionaire, he took that impulse and made an impeccably structured chase movie that’s also a love story that’s also a coming-of-age story that’s also a look at a culture unfamiliar to many Western viewers that’s also a damn game show. With the help of Loveleen Tandan, his co-director in India, and armed with Simon Beaufoy’s impeccably structured screenplay, Boyle dropped audiences into Jamal’s story and then let him run. It’s exhilarating, often frightening and surprisingly funny, but behind the frantic feel and the cool-as-hell structure, it’s just a story of a kid who loves a girl, and that simple fact anchors all the carefully controlled chaos that follows. The train may be racing, but it never leaves Boyle’s tracks.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Boyle’s sole Oscar arrived courtesy of a flashy crowd-pleaser — it’s not as though we live in a world where 28 Days Later is likely to rack up statuettes, brilliant as it is — but to view it as a safe, little movie would be to underestimate its power. As with Millions, Boyle and company make sure that compelling characters and grounded performances come first. In doing so, they buy so much goodwill that a big dance number in the credits is not only earned, it’s practically demanded. Slumdog Millionaire may make you feel good, but that’s not because it’s lazy. It’s because it works so damn hard, and all that work pays off. —Allison Shoemaker