An Essential Guide to Danny Boyle Films
Evaluating, ranking and contextualizing the best and worst of the director's filmography
Published Jun 26, 2019Danny Boyle was once asked to describe his movies in three words; he chose "visual, violent and nostalgic."
It's a good encapsulation of the British filmmaker's filmography, but somehow comes up short. Boyle isn't easy to peg down: he's made sci-fi films, zombie movies, noirish thrillers, helped put Bollywood in the spotlight, and revolutionized British cinema with his first two films, injecting each with equal amounts of momentum, reckless energy and irreverence.
"No matter what a film may be about, I love making it look and feel like an action movie," he once said about his filmmaking. "I find stillness in film very difficult."
Rather than rest on his laurels, Boyle is trying his hand at musicals this month with the charming Beatles fantasy romantic comedy Yesterday — a welcome addition to an ever-changing career that continues to defy odds.
Before seeing Boyle's latest film in theatres, learn about (or reacquaint yourself with) some of his classic movies, underappreciated gems, and near-misses with Exclaim!'s Essential Guide to Danny Boyle films. (But first, a bit of housekeeping: any quote attributed to Boyle in this article comes from Amy Raphael's excellent book Danny Boyle: In His Own Words — a must-own for fans of his work, and a constant companion during the creation of this Essential Guide.)
5. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Following a few years spent in eternal darkness filming and editing the sci-fi epic Sunshine, Boyle was ready for a change of scenery. He found that in Mumbai, and a rollercoaster love story by The Full Monty screenwriter Simon Beaufoy.
"The vibe in India is intoxicating for a filmmaker," Boyle said. Indeed, he fell drunk in love with the vibrant country while filming Slumdog Millionaire, resulting in his most successful film to date.
The story of a boy's rise from the slums while looking for his long-lost love (and the riches that result from it), the film practically made its young stars, Freida Pinto and Dev Patel, household names upon its release, and went on to win eight Oscars (including Best Director and Best Picture) at the 2009 Academy Awards, despite almost going straight to DVD.
The modern-day fairytale has been marred by controversy since its release, with wide-ranging criticisms and questions about the funds paid to its young child actors (a paltry $700 to $2,300, later corrected with the Jai Ho Trust), its depictions of the slums themselves (and Indian culture in general), and a lack of recognition during the awards circuit to co-director Loveleen Tandan, who gained the title as a formal thank-you for her numerous roles during the filmmaking process (after learning about a campaign to get her name included in Boyle's Oscar nomination, she asked not to be considered and was "embarrassed" by others' insistence that she be recognized).
Criticisms aside (some refuted, some not — and rightfully so), the film found an international audience, grossing over $400 million worldwide, despite its tiny budget. And, as far as Boyle's career is concerned (and given the criteria for Exclaim!'s Essential Guides), Slumdog Millionaire was a major success for the filmmaker — one that found him writing the wrongs of The Beach (by working with a local crew and little money) and capturing a whole new audience — and is therefore a must-see for those looking to experience and understand his body of work.
4. Shallow Grave (1994)
To say that Boyle rejuvenated British cinema with his feature-length debut would be an understatement. Really, after viewers witnessed the film's first sweeping shots through Edinburgh's city streets and up into the flat that the film's main characters call home, nothing would be the same.
A dizzying debut described by Boyle as being about "greed, aggrandizement, pleasure, selfishness, individualism" and indulgence, Shallow Grave shocked and awed audiences with its visual flair and visceral, violent depiction of "post-Thatcherite decay."
Suitably, for a film about three flatmates who discover a dead body, a bag of money, and know just what to do with them, shooting was a similarly lean and mean fair. (The film was shot on a budget of $1M GBP with one camera and zero monitors, and the production nearly ran out of stock by the time they filmed the final scenes.) But, thanks to a savvy marketing plan by distributor Polygram, Shallow Grave became a major hit, with many in the media calling Boyle the "British Tarantino."
"I do have this provocative theory that your first film is always your best," Boyle once said.
With his next film, he'd truly outdo himself — but more on that later.
3. Sunshine (2007)
For his seventh feature-length film, Boyle took another left turn: directing a sci-fi epic, inspired in part by heroes Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky, that ended up being one of his best films.
"I wanted to use a relatively small crew to make as big a film as possible," he said.
With only a $20 million budget behind him, it nearly pushed him to his breaking point.
"Sunshine drove me mad," he said. "It was insane. I've never made anything like it."
Nor has he since.
A stirring feature about a team of scientists on a death mission to restart a dying sun, the once underrated film is now seen as one of Boyle's greatest efforts and deserves a spot in the sci-fi canon right alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris.
It took three years to make — one to set up, one to film, and one spent in post-production — with Boyle and his team working tirelessly, arriving before sunrise and leaving long after it set.
Early on, all the effort didn't seem worth it. Described by Boyle as being "uncompromisingly shot for the big screen," barely anyone saw it in theatres — Sunshine bombed at the box office (it placed no. 13 in the U.S. box office on the first weekend of its wide release, which Boyle blames in part on a lack of promotion and limited openings due to the nature of the film, which the studio saw as uncompromisingly bleak) — but gained a cult following through word of mouth, DVD and illegal streaming sites thanks to its stellar cast (young hopefuls Rose Byrne and Chris Evans, as well as underrated studs like Cillian Murphy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong and Michelle Yeoh), stunning design and intersection of science and faith.
"It's actually a very hopeful film," Boyle said about Sunshine. "Our destiny is in our hands now... Up until a hundred years ago, it wasn't."
Twelve years on, in a time of immense environmental destruction and decay, Sunshine still offers hope.
2. 28 Days Later (2002)
"Before 9/11, my vision for 28 Days Later was a film about social rage. It had something to say about how we've lost all patience with each other," Boyle said. "But then 9/11 happened and it changed the whole film."
Indeed, when filming began on September 1, 2001, in downtown London, the world was a different place. Emboldened by his recent stint making a pair of digital films for the BBC, Boyle took a devil-may-care attitude towards filming the opening scenes of his dystopian zombie thriller, capturing Cillian Murphy's long walk along a deserted London and its many landmarks by blocking traffic and showing little regard for rules and regulations. It's an uneasy, eerie and slow-moving opening by a filmmaker known for his breakneck speed, and unlike the rest of the film.
"It became about how we all felt vulnerable to something happening, whether it be an epidemic, a pandemic, an attack of some kind," Boyle said, adding that the success of the film — including two weeks at No. 1 in the UK, where it wasn't uncommon to hear about moviegoers returning for repeat viewings — was due in part to it being the first film of its kind out of the gate to tackle the general unease in the air.
The film, one of Boyle's greatest, helped usher in the new millennium, with 28 Days Later inspiring filmmakers with its almost-all-digital approach (save for the shock of life at the very end of the film) and reinvigorating the zombie subgenre with its premise and execution (they cast athletes who lunged instead of lurched towards the main characters), ushering in a whole new era of zombie movies (2004's Dawn of the Dead remake and Simon Pegg farce Shaun of the Dead), TV shows (The Walking Dead) and dystopian epics (2007's Children of Men).
1. Trainspotting (1996)
Really, could it be any other film?
A modern-day Ulysses set in a Scottish city that refuses to die, Trainspotting was a cultural juggernaut — a populist piece of cinematic greatness, described by Boyle as being about "what we can do with our bodies… and how far we can take it," that defined a generation thanks to its fashion (heroin chic, anyone?), music, and all-around timelessness (even its poster is classic) — and undoubtedly Boyle's best film.
Primarily inspired by A Clockwork Orange and Goodfellas, Trainspotting was both a breath of fresh air and a warning shot, changing the future of British cinema (up until then, the sovereign state was mainly known in serious circles for its great social realism) with its explosive, kinetic energy and boldness.
"Some people thought Trainspotting was like MTV; a selection of pop videos strung together," Boyle recalled about the film's critical reception at the time. "It's a fair accusation, but it was an intentional approach."
Times have changed. Back then, his frenetic camerawork and pop leanings (the film's soundtrack featured Lou Reed, Blur and Pulp, among others, and practically revived Iggy Pop's career in the mid-'90s with its video for "Lust for Life") seemed to be pandering to the masses. But Trainspotting (and Boyle's other films) turned action (i.e., movement in movies, not the genre) into high art, and continues to pull in audiences the world over.
"Comparing our films to three-minute pop songs is meant as a deep insult by classical filmmakers," Boyle said. "But I've always been delighted about it."
Described by Boyle as a precursor to Slumdog Millionaire "both in terms of tone and story," Millions (2004, pictured above) is undoubtedly one of his lesser-known and widely respected works, but one of the better curveballs the director has thrown our way.
Sold to the studio as a combination of Trainspotting (in terms of its vivacity) and 2001's Amélie (for the French film's colourful and cutesy tone), Millions, set in a lower-middle-class housing estate, found Boyle fully stepping out of his comfort zone, delivering an earnest tale (with screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce of 24 Hour Party People fame) about a Catholic schoolboy who discovers a bag of stolen money and is tasked with making a serious moral decision.
Millions has the hallmarks of all of Boyle's best films, but was initially neglected before finding an afterlife on DVD. It's not a very cool film to enjoy, per se (it won a Christian Storytelling award), but it's the most feel-good movie from Boyle's filmography.
Unlike many other filmmakers, Boyle and his actors are at their best when working under duress — be it financial, physical, or, in the case of 127 Hours (2010), spatial. Described by Boyle as "an action film where the hero can't move," his filmmaking follow-up after the success of Slumdog Millionaire found the director telling the amazing true story of Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), the American outdoorsman who fell while climbing in a Utah canyon, had his right arm crushed by a rock, and was forced to cut it off with no more than a pen knife to survive. 127 Hours is a gruelling affair, heightened by the film's lack of dialogue and claustrophobic setting.
Following his role as artistic director for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Boyle released Trance (2013), a purposefully convoluted, noirish thriller that found the director returning to the grimy textures and the seedy, morally ambiguous underbelly of his first two films. Described by critic Wesley Morris as "manic without ever descending into madness," Trance is intoxicating but didn't offer enough sober realizations to make audiences happy, leading to mixed reviews. Still, it's a visual feast for fans of his cinematic language.
After Trance, Boyle flexed his theatrical muscle with Steve Jobs (2015), partnering up with award-winning writer (and man of many, perhaps too many, words) Aaron Sorkin to tell the tale of the tech visionary in three parts, with each scene taking place some 40 minutes before one of his world-renowned product launches. It's a film that transcends time and space, hopscotching through conversations and showing little respect for linear chronology as it tries to tell the story of the man, not the legend, in as little time as possible. It was shot on a variety of formats to anchor the passage of time while giving it a dreamlike bent.
As A.O. Scott pointed out in his New York Times review, part of what makes Steve Jobs so distinct, especially when stacked up next to other films about the Apple co-founder, is the contrast between subject and creator. "Jobs was a minimalist and a control freak," he wrote. "Mr. Boyle and Mr. Sorkin, in contrast, are fervent maximalists, prone, respectively, too busy, breakneck visual effects and roiling torrents of verbiage. The collision of their styles is fascinating and sometimes disorienting to watch."
Finally, there's T2 Trainspotting (2017), Boyle's most recent film before the release of Beatles musical fantasy-comedy Yesterday. A sequel to the film (and the 2002 Irvine Welsh book, Porno) had been bandied about for years, but around the time of the novel's release, Boyle thought such a trip down memory lane would be "rubbish." Still, as mentioned in Raphael's extensive interviews with the author, the idea of the film had legs, as long as if it was more about "what happens when the invincibility of youth is no longer there" and less a nostalgic cash grab.
T2 Trainspotting ended up being a bit of both, a "meta-comment on the cyclical nature of human life," as Sarah Murphy wrote in her review for Exclaim!, while checking all of the boxes — dutch angles, killer tunes, et al. — fans were hoping it would.
"Twenty years later, the city of Edinburgh is gentrifying, the original actors are no longer a gaggle of unknowns and both film technology and Boyle's career have evolved considerably," Murphy wrote. "Yet, beneath the undeniable Hollywood sheen cast over sequel T2 Trainspotting, the heart remains."
Films to Avoid
Following the sweeping success of his sophomore effort Trainspotting, Boyle was ready for a change of scenery, both literally and figuratively. Having filmed two movies in Scotland, the director branched out, with screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald (both integral to the success of his first two films), to try his hand at something bigger.
After backing out of Alien Resurrection, in part due to his inexperience working with CGI, the buzzy filmmaker landed on A Life Less Ordinary (1997) — a Coen Brothers/Frank Capra-esque romp about a janitor (Ewan McGregor) who ends up accidentally kidnapping his boss's daughter (Cameron Diaz) after being fired from his job, and the angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo) tasked with tracking them down/making sure they fall in love with one another.
Boyle said he wanted A Life Less Ordinary to be about "the irrational side of love" and the direct opposite of his first two films, which he described as "poppy, urban [and] undermining." But Boyle says the film was "bedevilled" by its inspirations, and lost much of its good qualities (and Boyle's trademark visual flourishes) once the more graphically violent script was toned down and filming moved from France and Scotland (where the shooting was originally planned) to Utah.
"I like the film and I'm very affectionate about it," Boyle once said about A Life Less Ordinary. "If only because it's the film that nobody likes and everyone has forgotten."
Truly, it's the British filmmaker's least memorable film — except in Belgium, where it was number one for three weeks.
Despite A Life Less Ordinary being a critical and commercial flop, 20th Century Fox still trusted the director with his highest budget yet to film The Beach (2000, pictured above) — a Leonardo DiCaprio vessel based on the Alex Garland book of the same name, about a young American tourist seeking an island paradise filled with like-minded travellers looking for more who ends up discovering something far more sinister.
"It was essentially about exploring a community of modern, urban hippies who wanted to abandon their Western lifestyle," Boyle said about the movie. "However, while making the film I realized that I didn't really like any of the characters. I found it was impossible, in the end, to have any sympathy with what they'd done, the world they created."
By all accounts, the film was a laborious process, filled with danger (DiCaprio and French co-star Virginie Ledoyen nearly got electrocuted after a light fixture fell into a pool during an underwater scene) and disappointment.
"The film should have gone one of two ways," Boyle said. "It should either have remained more of an adventure yarn and turned into a mainstream, Sunday-afternoon adventure about escaping the island; or it should have become more of an analysis of the interaction with native Thai culture, or lack thereof. It's not quite either."
Although a considerable commercial success with a worldwide lifetime gross of $144,056,873 (a fact that critics of the film often forget), The Beach changed Boyle as a filmmaker, with the director going back-to-basics and filming two digital films for the BBC on a tight budget before embarking on his next full-length feature, 28 Days Later.
"Over the course of A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach I learned about myself," he said. "I learned what I'm better at. It doesn't matter what you like going to see at the cinema; it's about what you're best equipped to do as a director."
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