Danny Boyle is one of the most quietly adventurous filmmakers working today. He’ll do a science-fiction movie, then a period piece, then a Tarantino-type thriller, then a romantic comedy, then a conventional biopic, and he won’t so much as blink once. He is an auteur of the old-fashioned sort: His movies are dramatically different, but they are always singularly his. Heck, the guy even directs Olympics Opening Ceremonies.
With the opening of Steve Jobs, Boyle’s 11th movie—not counting his 1999 short Alien Love Triangle—we thought we’d put together a ranking of Boyle’s films, worst to best. It’s an eclectic, bizarre filmography ... that fits him perfectly.
This half rom-com, half Tarantino knockoff, half Wim Wenders festival of whimsy hasn’t aged well, and it wasn’t particularly good the first time around. Ewan McGregor is a charming, befuddled petty crook who kidnaps rich-girl Cameron Diaz and has all sorts of wacky hijinks, and also there is some sort of mob subplot, and also there are two guardian angels played by Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo, and so on. The movie is overstuffed and bewildering, and the two leads are never able to develop any sparks given all the lunacy exploding around them. (The movie does introduce McGregor as a winsome romantic lead, a skill he’d exploit over the next two decades.) It’s the sort of movie an indie director makes after a big hit (in this case, Trainspotting) that attempts to subvert Hollywood clichés while also leaning into them. A bizarre, totally misshapen misfire.
After shifting toward a more humanistic, awards-season mode with Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, Boyle seemed to consciously alter course, returning to the down-and-dirty pleasures of his early career. Trance has a buzzy kick in its early stages, telling the story of an art auctioneer (James McAvoy) working in cahoots with a thief (Vincent Cassel) to steal a priceless Goya, but when the auctioneer gets hit in the head and loses his memory, they recruit a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to help him remember where the painting has been stashed. Boyle’s slick and stylish camera moves, trippy dream sequences, nihilistic attitude, and who’s-zoomin’-who plot twists don’t add up to much, though, as if the whole film was merely an exercise for the director to prove to himself that he could still make Shallow Grave if he wanted to. Stick with the original.
The first of Leonardo DiCaprio’s post-Titanic projects —back when he still looked like a teen idol, but was desperately trying to prove he was anything but—The Beach on its surface should totally work. A talented young actor playing an aimless dreamer who travels to a mysterious island and ... well, goes through a series of tests and ordeals meant to show that the kid playing him is a Serious Actor. As Roger Ebert said at the time, “It borrows from Blue Lagoon on its way to a pothead version of Lord of the Flies,” and that’s pretty much exactly right. Again, like a lot of Boyle’s first post-Trainspotting movies, it feels like he’s trying to be weird and subversive for weirdness’ and subversiveness’ sake; an animated sequence is thrown into the film for no other reason than Boyle’s indulgence. It does have a special place in cinematic canon, though, for being the only movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio fights a shark.
A charming trifle from Boyle, a movie that so wants to be seen as a modern fable that you’re sort of surprised he didn’t name the lead character “Aesop.” In 1999—right as Y2K is coming and Europe is transitioning into the Euro, a minor decision that had no lasting ramifications whatsoever, nope—a boy who has just lost his mother witnesses a bag of money literally fall from the sky. Where did it come from? What does it mean? Who is going to come for it? Millions ends up being a sort of crime film, but a harmless, almost twee version of one: Boyle is shooting for a universal tale of childhood and innocence, but comes closer to cloying than anything else. It still has its moments, though, and a terrific performance from Alex Etel as the boy.
We’re not trying to be contrarian here, but it’s always been a little unnerving that this was Boyle’s most rewarded, beloved, and, uh, most Oscar-winning film. Dev Patel is relatable and likable in the lead role, which is good, because the rest of the movie, when you take a step back from it, is patently absurd, from the rigged game show (which the movie takes at a strange, intense face value) and the stretched, entirely jerry-rigged backstory that allows him to know the answers to all the questions. Watching this again, we were surprised by the torture scenes: The movie has an odd tone, like it doesn’t quite understand the ramifications of the story it’s telling. It tries to be a fairy tale, but it also tries to ground that fairy tale in the real world. Seven years removed, deaf now to the Oscar hype and the fevered response and Boyle’s kinetic trickery, the movie feels more fraudulent than you probably remember.
Ah, that brief moment when James Franco was trying—when he was able and willing to inhabit another person’s soul rather than make us all part of his ongoing bullshit masturbatory art project. (It is legitimately possible that Spring Breakers is the last great performance he’ll ever give. It’s like it broke him.) Boyle is able to admirably dramatize what is, essentially, a guy stuck to a rock for two hours, and he draws an empathetic, almost raw performance out of Franco, taking him to a place he wouldn’t find again. Some of the backstory feels forced and stilted, but as an exercise in endurance cinema, 127 Hours is compelling and terrifying.
More than 20 years after his feature debut, Boyle keeps learning new tricks, tackling his first straight-up biopic with this portrait of the Apple guru. But like 127 Hours, this is a true story that powers the filmmaker’s interest in the operatic, using Jobs as a springboard for a three-ring circus of ego, macho posturing, and inner voids that no amount of success can fill. Working from Aaron Sorkin’s strutting screenplay based on Walter Isaacson’s biography, it’s split into three pivotal moments from Jobs’ life—all based around product launches—which allows Boyle to make his first backstage drama, leading an ensemble that includes Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet to do his version of The West Wing or Sports Night. Anybody looking for a definitive snapshot of the man himself is going to be disappointed—the movie invests too much energy in its simplistic argument that Jobs was Brilliant but also Problematic—but the sheer showmanship of the piece is pure, giddy fun.
A commercial and critical disappointment, this is the Danny Boyle movie most deserving of reappraisal, especially since its plot slightly mirrors such recent hits as Interstellar, The Martian, and even Snowpiercer. Set about 50 years in the future, Sunshine stars an ensemble that includes Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy and Michelle Yeoh, who play astronauts on a one-way trip to reignite the sun before it goes dead. Part sci-fi action-thriller, part 2001-esque meditation on existence, the movie is incredibly daring by basically guaranteeing an unhappy ending from the start—our crew knew they’re not coming back to Earth alive, which makes their sacrifice even more heroic—and by radically switching tones in its third act, practically becoming a no-holds-barred horror film. But even if every risk doesn’t pay off, Sunshine is often stunningly, beautifully audacious, creating some of the most awe-inspiring outer-space sequences of this century, and that’s a crowded field. Of all of Boyle’s films, this one most needs the big screen so that you can be swept away by its mad vision.
It doesn’t feel as revolutionary or original as it did back in 1996, but Trainspotting still provides an out-of-body kick, a crawling, filthy, feverishly alive ode to nihilism and rampant, compulsive drug use. Boyle doesn’t glorify his addicts—lord knows, we were afraid to sit on a toilet for weeks after we saw it—but he doesn’t forget to make them riotously entertaining too; in an alternate universe where they’re not addicted to smack, these dopes could have become an effective crime-fighting team, or maybe just the best trivia night team at the local pub. To make addicts this repulsive and self-destructive and also so appealing and likable is a sort of magic trick, and Boyle’s energy carries us along through some less interesting subplots and an ending that drags on a bit. To watch this again is to be transported back to that specific time in 1996 when everything in the world felt pointless and stupid, and the only logical, sane, honorable response was self-annihilation. And good lord, that baby.
Not just the launching pad for Boyle’s career but also several of his collaborators—chiefly, star Ewan McGregor and screenwriter John Hodge—Shallow Grave is relatively tame by the director’s hyper-stylized standards. With Hitchcockian calm, this psychological thriller follows along as three smart-ass friends (McGregor, Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston) discover that their new roommate has died—and that he’s left behind a suitcase filled with money. Just like in every other movie about characters who stumble upon an illicit fortune, everything quickly goes wrong, but there’s a particular nastiness to the way Boyle tells this story—a certain ingrained distrust of people—that makes his trio’s collapse into suspicion and madness particularly satisfying. Even at this early stage, it was clear what a big star McGregor was going to be: Sure, he’s all devilish charm, but his dashing good looks are supplemented by a real soulfulness that’s served him well throughout his career. Back in 1994, this got compared to Blood Simple a lot, and like the Coen Brothers, Boyle has ventured into different genres and styles since then. And also like the Coens, despite Boyle’s subsequent achievements, his debut remains one of his best.
The secret to this film’s chokehold of terror couldn’t be simpler: What if zombies didn’t walk really slow? The most important movie about the undead since Night of the Living Dead, this pits Cillian Murphy’s everyman against a rampaging horde of zombies infected with a highly contagious virus, and the whole story is shot on low-grade digital video so that the film itself looks as bleak as the post-apocalyptic world dreamed up by Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland. Because the guy is now thought of as a heralded, Oscar-winning auteur—the sort of prestige filmmaker who gets asked to design the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics—it’s easy to forget what a bombshell 28 Days Later was at the time, coming after two duds (A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach) that seemed to portend he was a flash in the pan. Instead, he delivered what might be the definitive 9/11 movie, showing us a devastated landscape in which death seems to be around every corner. (And when our heroes do find sanctuary, they soon learn that their fellow survivors pose their own threat.) Also, did we mention the zombies can run really fast? They can, and every time they do, it’s absolutely horrifying. Unrelenting and nerve-shredding, this film practically transcends sober analysis. Like its fleet of monsters, it never lets up.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.