There’s something sort of intangible about movie making that can only be expressed after the fact. It’s a mixture of all the elements but it surely comes down, a lot of the time, to a director’s vision. That word is “energy.” You can’t find energy in the editing room; you can find pace in editing, but energy comes from somewhere else. I think one of the directors working today whose films constantly beam with this intangible energy is Danny Boyle, the English filmmaker and theatre director whose work truly stands in a class all its own. Actors, writers, and crew members all rave about working with him, and it’s kind of clear why. Dude just makes some damn good movies.
Below are my personal top 7 favorites, and as always, your mileage may vary.
7) 127 Hours (2010)
This is a movie that isn’t the easiest to watch, but it’s very rewarding when you do. A brisk 93 minutes, the story of canyoneer Aron Ralston’s harrowing 5+ day ordeal being stuck in a rock crevice, his hand pinned under a boulder, has no time for fat. It’s about this one man (played by James Franco) dealing with his circumstance, and reflecting on his life and some of the decisions he’s made regarding the people he cares about. It’s not a fun movie to watch, especially when he gets to the infamous hand-removing scene, but the handheld cinematography and brisk editing are truly something. And hey, it made for one of the only times I don’t actively dislike James Franco onscreen, so that’s some good directing right there.
6) Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
This is the one that won Boyle the Oscar for Best Director, as well as winning Best Picture, and that was a long time coming. While on the surface, a Bollywood-style movie about an Indian boy going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to prove his love for a girl doesn’t necessarily seem like a typical Danny Boyle movie, it actually fits exactly in line. His movies are almost all about people struggling, either in a positive or negative direction, to drastically change their circumstances, and there’s usually a bit of whimsy in even the darkest of plots. This is the definition of an uplifting movie but it’s uplifting beside all the grit and grotesqueness surrounding our hero.
5) Trance (2013)
I know this movie has some detractors, but I think I love it just because of how balls-out nuts it is. Boyle made it as a direct reaction to having directed the massive opening ceremonies to the 2012 London Olympics. He was losing his mind having to contend with something on that scale and so just needed something small and easily controlled to do in the interim of planning. The result is a return to his grimier roots, despite it looking very flashy. It’s about art heist, hypnosis, perception, memory, unreliable narrators, and nothing happening the way you think it should. Rosario Dawson also gives one hell of a performance in the center of this weird triangle between James McAvoy’s memory-lapsed art dealer and Vincent Cassel’s romantic-hearted, but still very violent, career criminal. Give it a watch, with an open mind.
4) 28 Days Later… (2002)
Like most people when they first saw this movie, I was absolutely blown away when I saw it the first time. And the next four times probably. At a time when horror was glossy and all-too Hollywood, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland made a scary movie for the new millennium. Shot on digital cameras and with a frantic cinematography and editing style, they made you feel exactly what it would be like if society broke down so completely on that level. And infected people are terrifying, more than zombies I’d say, because they’re insanely fast and dangerous even alone. This is the movie that first did the “guy wakes up in a hospital completely alone and confused” thing, and I still think it’s the best version of it. Also has maybe one of the most frantic and brutal final battles in cinema history.
3) Sunshine (2007)
This is a movie that doesn’t get nearly enough plaudits, but it should. Re-teaming with writer Alex Garland, Boyle created a big, huge sci-fi epic of the think-piecey kind. When the sun starts to go dim, and Earth is in danger of entering a new ice age, a crew is sent to reignite our celestial source of energy. But something happens and the crew is never heard from again. So a second team (featuring people like Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, and Michelle Yeoh) have to go up and both find out what may have happened and ignite the sun themselves. It is not as easy as it might be, especially so close to a giant fireball. Surely that would change a person, right? This is a terrifying movie on a number of levels, not least of which is that it plays into my fear of floating through space. The ending may get a little horror/action movie, but it’s a fantastically tense and somber sci-fi movie until then. And Professor Brian Cox does a commentary on the Blu-ray talking about the accuracy/inaccuracy of the movie. I mean, how can you beat that?
2) Shallow Grave (1994)
While he certainly became a more seasoned filmmaker in the years that followed, his first film is still one that upsets and intrigues. For those who haven’t seen it, three flatmates living in Edinburgh (Kerry Fox, Ewan McGregor, and Christopher Eccleston) are pretty awful, catty people and their search for a fourth flatmate is really just an excuse for Fox and McGregor to mock people mercilessly. They eventually find a seemingly “cool” guy to move in, but after a week, they stop seeing him. They didn’t see him leave, though. Welp, turns out, he’s dead, but he has a case full of money in his room. What are these people to do? Cut the body up and bury it, of course. Tensions build as people start looking for the money, and even their own friendship isn’t safe when greed and madness start creeping in. This is honestly a gloriously twisted thriller and I get uncomfortable about parts of it even thinking about it.
1) Trainspotting (1996)
Ah, and how could any of Boyle’s films ever replace this feature in my heart? Based on the Irvine Welsh novel, this is the movie that made Boyle and star Ewan McGregor talents to watch. It’s also one of the most harrowing looks at heroin addiction this side of Requiem for a Dream. Everybody knocks it out of the park, and, as I said before, the energy is unmatched. There’s a lot of gross but it’s not unwatchably or unearnedly gross. You’ve seen this movie; what else do I need to say about it? It’s a masterpiece.
So there you have it? What are your favorite Danny Boyle movies? Do you think Steve Jobs will make it high up the pantheon? Let me know in the comments!