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.


Nick Prigge said...

"A Life Less Ordinary" is honestly my favorite Danny Boyle film. I don't know that it's his "best" but it'd be #1 on my list. I geuninely love it.

I actually can't stand its last scene yet I think in some ways it summarizes the whole movie. Life is this huge, passionate, un-understandable mess.

Derek Armstrong said...

Okay, maybe I SHOULD watch it again. Thanks for giving it some love and putting it back on my radar, Nicholas.

Don Handsome said...

1) 127 Hours – the perfect synthesis of all the lessons Boyle has learned from previous films (shooting in small spaces, mixing fantasy and reality, getting the best possible performance out of great actors, using all sorts of music to punctuate (but not convey) emotions, letting the camera sit and linger, eyepopping colors, etc etc). This film is absolutely mind blowing. I will see it again in the theater, for sure.

2)Trainspotting – that shot of the baby still haunts me. I used to see this as the ultimate drug movie. Now I see it more as movie about the meaning of friendship, which if you've seen the film is sort of an ironic statement.

3) Millions – I like this a lot more than you. I only saw it once, but when I did, I found it to be one of the most electric and vibrant I’d seen.

4) Shallow Grave – Excepting a Polanski at his best, I’m not sure I’ve seen a better on-screen capture of paranoia…he puts holes in the floor to watch his mates talk about him…

5) Slumdog Millionaire – I’m over it for the most part…but it is undeniably good.

6) A Life Less Ordinary – Its so bizarre and off-beat. I think there are missteps, but in general I think there is a lot to like in this.

7) The Beach –Its gorgeous to look at. And I found it fairly profound. Then again, I saw it in my 20s.

8) 28 Days Later – I am definitely not a hater…I just like nearly all of Boyle’s other films more, which say a lot more about his other work than it does this film. I do think that early scenes of empty London are some of the most harrowing and mind-blowing “abandoned city” scenes I’ve ever seen (yes, I think they are better than the New York scenes in Vanilla Sky)

9) Sunshine – nobody bats 1.000

Do we need to see his made-for-British-television films as well?

Interestingly, the IFC News Podcast recently dissected Boyle’s career and the themes that run throughout his work. I thought they did a great job identifying some things that I had not previously thought of. Its worth a listen:

Derek Armstrong said...


No, I'm not too interested in British made-for-TV movies, though I'm sure you're kidding. If it didn't come out in the theater, did it even really exist?

I know your Vanilla Sky comment was aimed at my affection for Vanilla Sky, but I actually agree with you. However, they do serve different purposes. In Vanilla Sky, that's clearly just a dream world and isn't meant to indicate apocalypse -- the empty city is a metaphor for isolation, etc. Here, it's pure, unmitigated end-of-the-worldness. I do think they are both incredibly impressive simply from a logistical perspective.

Maybe I will watch Millions again. Interestingly, I'm kind of more curious to watch A Life Less Ordinary again than Millions, even though I ranked Millions four slots higher.

Sebastian Gutierrez said...

I think 28 DAYS LATER... is his best, but I haven't seen them all. I loved that one. So friggin' good.

I actually really love SUNSHINE. Yeah, that finale isn't perfect, but it worked for me. And you're right. The first two acts are spectacular.

He's one of my favorites. A real talent!

Lord Vader said...

OK, I've got to take you to task for the comment 'it wasn't George Romero who revitalised zombie films, but Danny Boyle'. I've never heard anyone claim that Romero revitalised the zombie film. However, it can be claimed that Romero INVENTED the zombie film (at least the type under discussion here) way back in '68, and his original trio of 'Dead' films lay the groundwork that '28 Days Later' built on and heavily borrowed from. Rant over. Do not disrespect Romero.

I have seen only four of Boyle's theatrically released features ('Shallow Grave', 'Trainspotting' '28 Days Later' and 'Sunshine'), and loved them all. One of the most amazing things about Boyle is how he's never gone over the same ground twice, which means I find it impossible to rank his films against each other, apart from remarking that each of them is amongst the very best of its type.

I also caught part of 'Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise', on of his telemovies, and if anything what I saw showed that with a talent like Boyle, his work in television should not be dismissed either.

Derek Armstrong said...


I have huge admiration for 28 Days Later, and in fact considered putting it ahead of Slumdog, but I didn't want to be one of those who turned on Slumdog. I really, really liked Slumdog when I saw it, and I didn't want to let subsequent changes in my relationship with the movie taint my original joy in watching it. In fact, I think you could put the 2-4 movies on this list in any order, but 127 Hours is hands down the best.


Great to hear from you! Thanks for pointing out a semantic accident on my part -- you're right that Romero's movies from recent years are not being credited with anything except for being forgettable. (I only saw Diary of the Dead, but I understand the others are nothing to write home about.) And I certainly do respect Romero immensely -- Night of the Living Dead is definitely the best zombie movie ever. However, I had the (possible misfortune?) of seeing Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead before Romero's, and as a result, did not like Romero's very much. Hey, I gotta be honest.

You have a good point that Boyle's films are hard to rank against each other, but ranking is in my blood, so I need to apply it to every available format. :-)

Chris David Richards said...

I wasn't aware of a Slumdog backlash. I don't really care though. A wonderful film, and deserved of all it's shiny trinkets.

Of the Boyle films I've seen it would go: Slumdog, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting. I seem to be more fond of Sunshine than everyone else.

Derek Armstrong said...


My primary reason for hating on Sunshine is that the first half sets standards that the second half cannot possibly live up to. There's so much more creative thinking going on in that film's first hour than its second. The second reminds me of something like Event Horizon, which is harsh criticism indeed. But because the first half is so good, I totally get why some people have the affection for it that they have.

You should get on seeing 127 Hours as soon as it's available in your area. You won't be disappointed.

Novroz said...

I haven't watched 127 hours yet, I want to but it hasn't been shown yet.

I don't like trainspotting, I watched it twice, not because I like it but because I couldn't finish it the 1st time I watched it.

I like 28 days later and Sunshine, people who know me well might think that i'm a bit bias here, but I really do like the movie apart from the actor

Derek Armstrong said...


Yeah, I like Cillian Murphy too. I was really impressed by him in Batman Begins. His role in Inception didn't require quite as much, but I liked his performance there too. Thanks for checking in ...