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
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