Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Ranking Danny Boyle
I saw 127 Hours this past weekend.
I know you probably did not. I'm having a hard time figuring out on IMDB when it gets a wider release, but I have to assume this is one of those situations where I benefit by living in Los Angeles. Whereas it may be playing on a single screen, if that, in your city, I've got five choices in LA, two that are within ten miles of my house.
Considering that, I don't want to tell you too much about my new favorite movie of the year. Except this: GO.
Okay, I'm going to tell you a little more than that. But within the format of looking at the entire body of work of the film's director, Danny Boyle.
So welcome to the latest in my informal "ranking" series, in which I take a particular type of film of which I have seen all of the qualifying films, and rank them in order of preference, briefly discussing each. I did it with Pixar, the Coen brothers and Star Trek, so now it's time for Danny Boyle and his nine feature films to go under the microscope.
Without any further ado ...
1) 127 Hours (2010). Yes, it's that great. Boyle is a highly respected director, even auteur, who has had a hugely varied career in terms of the subject matter of his movies. Yet this is his greatest, and I'm not even sure it's that much of a debate. Playing Aron Rolston, James Franco gives the kind of performance that should quiet all talk of the Oscar going to anyone else. (Keep quiet over there, Colin Firth with your King's Speech.) But even getting himself into the many different head spaces and stages of panic and disorientation this film requires, Franco may only give the second-best performance in this film. The best performance may be Boyle's, as he's equal to the challenges this film poses, requiring as it does an outside-the-box storyteller and narrative stylist. There are so many creative choices made with spacing, camera setups, fantasy sequences, flashback, music, sound, editing and color that I wouldn't even know where to begin describing them. What's even more amazing is that everyone knows how this story ends -- it's not a spoiler to tell you that the guy had to amputate his own arm -- yet the journey to that outcome is no less suspenseful and downright tense. At one point in the film -- okay, it was during THE scene -- I looked down and noticed that I was gripping my box of Altoids as though I wanted to choke the life out of it. An absolutely visceral cinematic experience, a surefire best picture nominee, and (I hope) a frontrunner to win the award, even only two years after Boyle last won for Slumdog Millionaire.
2) Trainspotting (1996). If 127 Hours eventually earns (or has already earned) the reputation of being Boyle's hardest film to watch, then this is certainly his second hardest. Boyle took Irvine Welsh's novel and turned hardcore drug use and the reckless lives of Edinburgh punks into a dizzy, dreamy soup of sex, music and fury, and it introduced us to a stylist with a unique vision, in a way that was only hinted at in Shallow Grave. I regret that I've only seen this film once, 14 years ago, and have probably been tempted to let some of his other films surpass Trainspotting on the Boyle Greatness Scale, because I have yet to check back in with it. But that's overdue, so I'll try to get to it soon. Trainspotting also introduced us to no less than Ewan McGregor (not his first film, but his breakout), Robert Carlyle (ditto), and to a lesser extent Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Kelly MacDonald.
3) Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Poor Slumdog Millionaire. Only two years after we were all thrilled by it, we've subjected it to an almost Titanic-style backlash. Slumdog's former fans are now made up of scores of revisionist historians, who pretend they had issues with it all along -- they talk about its cheesy ending, its narrative shortcomings (why was the order of the questions the same chronological order as the events in his life that gave him the answers?) and its Bollywood dance sequence over the closing credits. (Which was pure fantasy, mind you, just a shout-out to the glorious history of Indian cinema.) But if you remember how you first felt when you saw Slumdog, especially if you saw it on the big screen, this ranking is appropriate. The film has life pulsing through it, another electric fusion of visuals and music that sends a tingling sensation down your spine. Just think of that scene where Boyle and his camera crew ran through the Mumbai slums following that foot chase, and you will remember how great Slumdog really is.
4) 28 Days Later (2002). Do you think we'd have nearly so many movies/TV shows/other properties involving zombies right now if it weren't for 28 Days Later? It wasn't George Romero who revitalized the zombie movie, it was Danny Boyle. 28 Days Later has its detractors -- I know one guy who hates it, even though the thing everybody knows about him is that he loves zombie movies -- but they're far outnumbered by its supporters. In another introduction to the world of a new talent, Cillian Murphy wakes up in a hospital bed and stumbles out into a completely abandoned London -- or so it would first appear. The eerie stillness of those early scenes provide an excellent contrast to the fury that comes later on, and what happens next is consistently crazy and surprising. I loved the grungy despair of the London created by Boyle, and remember being completely caught up in its spell when I first watched it. I've only seen it that one time (I'll end the suspense and reveal that I've seen all of Boyle's movies only once), but it deserves another, and soon.
5) Millions (2005). And here's where there's a pretty decent-sized dropoff from Boyle's first four masterpieces. Arguably Boyle's most insignificant film, Millions earns my affections for its liveliness and the great performances of its child actors. (In fact, you could say that Boyle's success with the children here would preview his work with them in Slumdog.) However, I must say that one of my enduring impressions of it is that it's a little too colorful, that it's maybe in my face the same way Robert Rodriguez' children's movies are in your face and garish. I remember there also being some kind of music-box soundtrack that's a bit jarring in its volume and emphasis. Still, Millions is an excellent display of technique and more or less just a "fun" movie, which is not how you could describe any of the first four on this list. It also has some themes that echo his first film, Shallow Grave, particularly the idea of an evil lurking in the attic.
6) Shallow Grave (1994). And speaking of Shallow Grave, I bet you were wondering when it was going to show up. I differ with most Boyle fans on how good Shallow Grave is. In fact, I'm sure that had something to do with how it was hyped to me by some of my friends who are passionately devoted to it. I may be holding it to too high a standard, especially since it's a first film, but it just didn't do for me what it did for my friends. I know I'm supposed to be creeped out by the way the relationship between these flatmates develops, particularly Christopher Eccleston holing himself up in the attic and basically attacking the people below. But I didn't consider it good weird, I considered it weird weird. I bet I'd have a more favorable impression of it if I watched it again.
7) Sunshine (2007). Ah, Sunshine. What an excellent film you could have been. Some people are willing to forgive the disastrous third act of this film in deference to the many things Boyle does right in the first two. I was totally with this film, and in its first half-hour was thinking it could be up there with 2001 and Alien as one of the great films about crazy shit happening in outer space. Until the shit got too crazy in a way-too-formulaic way, and basically devolved into a variation on the tried and tired "serial killer in space" format. I should note that the circumstances under which I saw this movie were highly strange. I started watching the movie in Melbourne, Australia, at an advanced screening attended by the director himself. But projection issues, featuring reels out of order and played backwards, with an hour break in the middle trying (in vain) to fix the problems, meant that I didn't finish watching it until it was released six months later in the United States. So it took me six months to realize how terribly the film ends. But, I did enjoy hearing Boyle speak to us, even if we hadn't actually "seen" the film he was speaking about.
8) The Beach (2000). That makes two Boyle films in a row with promising beginnings and very bad endings. I haven't read Alex Garland's beloved book on which The Beach was based, but if it ends the same way as the movie ends, I don't imagine I'd like it. However, the first two acts (particularly the first act) are highly enjoyable, and for me constitute some kind of archetypal encapsulation of the free-spirited traveler seeking pleasure and adventure in Southeast Asia. I love the early scenes of Leonardo DiCaprio hunting down his island paradise among shady hostel tenants and similarly feckless backpackers, not to mention an exotic French beauty -- even thinking about it now I am awash in the escapism of it. However, I can't forget how quickly and fatally the movie goes south.
9) A Life Less Ordinary (1997). Even though I am choosing to rank A Life Less Ordinary last, I actually have decent affection for this film. Since many critics considered it a turkey, I came in with low expectations, and found myself intermittently charmed by the gonzo romance between Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. In fact, in some ways, I think it is a more consistently realized effort than either Sunshine or The Beach, but I am rewarding both of those films for very strong beginnings that really stick with me despite their eventual failures. I don't have a very distinct memory of A Life Less Ordinary, and it would probably not really be worth a second viewing. However, I do remember its visual pizzazz -- I remember feeling like Boyle really went for it, and I admired him shooting for the stars with such gusto.
And that's really something you can always say about Danny Boyle -- he always shoots for the stars, sometimes literally (Sunshine). And what an interesting career he's had. A bit like Ang Lee, he never makes the same movie twice. Going chronologically, he made a psychological thriller, a drug movie, a crime comedy, a travelogue thriller, a zombie movie, a coming-of-age movie, a space movie, a coming-of-age love story and a survival movie. Even as I was typing out those generic descriptions of Boyle's nine films, however, I realized how few of them fit neatly into the genre I assigned them to. That's the mark of a great artist -- someone who is always expanding the boundaries and definitions of the medium in which he works.
So how would you rank Boyle's films?
Keeping in mind, of course, that many of you will probably have to wait some number of weeks before 127 Hours will be at a theater near you.
Los Angeles has its smog, but it also has its benefits.