From Shallow Grave To Trainspotting 2: Ranking The Films Of Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle burst onto the international filmmaking scene with a bang in the mid-90s thanks to the one-two knock-out punch of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Since then, he’s been one of the most consistent, intelligent, inventive, and entertaining directors in the world. His movies tend to vary widely in subject and genre, having made everything from a Christian kiddie fantasy to a zombie movie, a Bollywood blow-out, and a film about a man cutting off his own arm. You never quite know what the subject matter of the next film de Danny Boyle might be, but you can be certain it will be breathlessly paced, visually inventive, and backed by a bumpin’ soundtrack. That’s just how he does.

Even though Boyle has won an Oscar and directed an Olympic opening ceremony, the guy still feels consistently underrated. His career seems to move with the whims of his creativity, so you can never be sure whether the guy will crank out a prestige picture set to gobble up awards or a strange genre outing that’ll scare off anyone with good taste (his best movies tend to fall somewhere in the middle). It’s tough to anticipate his next move at times, but the films are always instantly identifiable as his own within seconds. The director has a distinct enough voice to transcend all subjects and genres.

This week Boyle returns with one of the most surprising sequels ever cranked out of the Hollywood machine. T2 Trainspotting brings back the gang of lovable heroin addicts that kicked off his career twenty years ago and the moving comedy about ageing, nostalgia, friendships, and regret is somehow both completely different than the original flick and the only possible continuation. It’s a fantastic sequel and thank god, because Trainspotting is a masterpiece that so easily could have been sullied by a misfire follow-up. Thankfully Boyle doesn’t do such things. To celebrate the release of the Trainspotting sequel, we here at CGM decided to provide a ranking of all the films in Boyle’s career. This is the definitive Danny Boyle ranking. Everything else is false. You can trust us.

12) Millions (2004)

Ok, so maybe it’s a little harsh on Millions to rank it so low. It’s not exactly a disaster; it’s just the weakest effort by this particularly brilliant filmmaker. The tale of boy who finds a bag full of money that fuels his hyperactive imagination is quite sweet and fulfilled some of the filmmaker’s latent Christian spirituality for an exploration of ethics and faith. The movie is certainly beautifully constructed, but also by far the most sentimental and manipulative tale that the director has ever told, all of which feels even more grating due to Boyle’s seductively intense cinematic style that shoves the audience’s face in whatever material he explores. For this gentle parable, that style was a bit much and it’s easily the most forgettable movie that Boyle has made. Weirdly, the director had initially intended Millions to be a musical and as absurd as the might sound, it likely would have made the project a bit more interesting since it would have been far more insane. Millions is a bit too nice as it stands, which is hardly a problem for any of the director’s other movies.

11) The Beach (2000)

 Based on a cult 90’s novel about wayward youth and starring a Leonardo DiCaprio who was basking in the afterglow of Titanic, this backpacking twist on Lord Of The Flies seemed guaranteed to be a pop culture phenomenon on paper. Then it came out—and it wasn’t. The Beach got a big kicking from critics and audiences upon release, which wasn’t quite deserved. Sure, the film is a bit wonky in tone and overly pretentious in purpose, but it’s still a wild rush of stylish imagery and politicized excitement that’s worth a look. The Beach was mostly killed by hype and miss-marketing to Leo’s 90’s lovelies. Had the movie starred Ewen McGregor as intended, it likely would have been a playful oddity rather than a failed attempt at a dramatic indie(ish) hit (worst of all, McGregor was so hurt by being dumped by his directing buddy that they didn’t even speak for over a decade, let alone work together). At least the film’s failings gave Boyle his first shot at a career comeback—which he pulled off with ease.

10) A Life Less Ordinary  (1997)

Whew! Now here’s a weird damn movie. Hot off the success of the cultural phenomenon that was Trainspotting, Danny Boyle got a free ride to Hollywood along with Ewan McGregor and the rest of his British filmmaking team. Together they decided to make an oddball twist on the romantic comedy fuelled by the ironic violence and self-conscious humour of Tarantino/The Coen Brothers as well as the pop surrealism of David Lynch. It was an almost aggressively 90’s movie defined more by quirk n’ style than heart. A Life Less Ordinary is most definitely a mess, the result of giddy filmmakers putting their craziest ideas on screen without much internal censorship. However, it’s such a gloriously unique mess that it’s kind of charming. The retro 90s charm certainly works in the movie’s favour now, and while it’s unlikely A Life Less Ordinary will ever be revived as a cult hit, the flick is definitely worth at least one WTF watch for the curious. It’s hard to imagine that you won’t at least smile at the giddy insanity Boyle and the team. flung on the screen with their first studio budget.

9) Steve Jobs (2015)

Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay became something of a legendary property floating around Hollywood after the success of The Social Network. Sure, there had already been one horrible Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, but the guy was one of the most fascinating and influential minds of the 20th century and Sorkin’s rat-a-tat monologues and taste for complicatedly unlikable leads felt like a good combo. After David Fincher and others flirted with the project it eventually landed in the hands of Danny Boyle—and he shot the hell out of it. The problems with Steve Jobs all boil down to the excesses of this particularly Sorkinian script (too much talky talky, too on the nose, too ambitious, too much writing in general). If anything, Boyle made the script better. His restless visual energy turned a collection of long dialogue scenes into something unexpectedly cinematic, his gift with actors led to some extraordinary (and deservedly awards-courting) performances, and the cynical tale somehow felt moving and even uplifting thanks to Boyle’s distinct directorial gifts. It sure ain’t The Social Network, but Steve Jobs is actually better than you’ve heard. This one didn’t deserve to bomb, even if it was never going to be a generationally significant hit like Sorkin’s previous satirical tale of computer company woes.

8) Trance (2013)

Shot during the same summer than Danny Boyle directed the Olympic opening ceremony and released to near unanimous apathy from critics and audiences, Trance might be Danny Boyle’s oddest and most underrated movie. An art heist flick hinged on hypnosis and starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and the great Vincent Cassell, Trance felt like a deliberately trashy means for Boyle to fulfill all of the instincts that he had to repress for Olympic cuddliness. The twisty-turny thriller is loaded with unhinged surrealism, shocking violence, crazed performances, insane plot twists, and a sick sense of dark humour. Trance was a return to the playful nihilism that kicked off Boyle’s career and an insane bit of pulp for folks who enjoy such things. Unfortunately, it was released when Boyle’s image could not have been more squeaky clean and respectable, so most folks who saw it were confused and the genre nuts who would appreciate this movie’s madness never even considered giving it a shot. Don’t make that mistake. This fubar flick should have a cult audience. Hopefully one day they’ll find it.

7) Sunshine (2007)

Thankfully this undeserved box-office bomb has received the overdue cult adoration that it deserved. Following their unexpected global success with 28 Days Later, Boyle reteamed with writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina) for a dark n’ morbid sci-fi odyssey. This bizarre little movie is about a world in which the sun is slowly dying, leading to an international space crew flying out on a suicide mission to drop a nuke into the star in the hopes of jump-starting a nuclear reaction. The flick mixes n’ matches influences ranging from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and Solaris to Alien and Event Horizon. Boasting a brilliant cast (including a pre-Cap Chris Evans), surprising philosophical ambition, astounding effects, and endlessly evocative visuals, the movie plays like a genuine sci-fi masterpiece for the first two acts. Then it devolves into a slasher flick for the final act. That’s an undeniable letdown, yet the disappointing shift into pure thrills and spectacle still works quite well on its own terms. With a more satisfying finale, Sunshine could have become a timeless genre classic. Yet even without it, the flick remains easily one of the most rich and satisfying sci-fi outings of the 21st century. Thankfully, folks have finally caught onto that fact over the last decade after initially dismissing the film rather unfairly. Time has served Sunshine well.

6) Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Danny Boyle came into Slumdog Millionaire in need of a hit after a string of disappointments. The bizarre urban fairy tale set in India with an unknown cast certainly didn’t seem like an obvious choice to revive his career. In fact, it seemed destined to disappear faster than Millions. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. This joyously entertaining visual marvel proved to be a worldwide hit that seemed to get the director every award under the sun. Taking full advantage of his unique location, Boyle delivered one of his most visually explosive movies and easily his most moving. Sure, Slumdog Millionaire might be sappy, but at least it’s unapologetically sappy. The film is designed to entertain in every conceivable way and leave you stumbling out of the theatre with the biggest possible smile on your face—nothing wrong with that. Not when it’s this well done.

5) 28 Days Later (2003)

I know it’s hard to imagine, but there actually was a time when every other horror movie released didn’t feature zombies. But that’s where we were in the early 2000s when Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland decided to reunite after the underwhelming adaptation of his novel The Beach. Shot on relatively low-fi digital cameras (which was rare at the time) and dripping with post 9/11 malaise, 28 Days Later felt like a movie of the moment despite being littered with references to and quotes from George Romero’s iconic zombie trilogy. At the time, Boyle attempted to say this wasn’t a zombie movie, but given that it kicked off a zombie revival that’s yet to go away those claims are hard to take seriously now. The film is still easy to take seriously and has aged remarkably well, remaining one of the most frightening zombie flicks of the aughts’ obsession with the undead.

4) T2 Trainspotting (2017)

More than anything else, it’s a relief that they didn’t screw this one up. Making a sequel to a movie rooted so specifically to a time and place as Trainspotting is always a risk, especially when the original film is so iconic. Yet, the fact that Danny Boyle and co. were so aware of the risks involved with this project worked in their favour. The movie may match the giddy cinematic style and bleakly hilarious tone of its predecessor, but beyond that it’s a different beast (in a great way). T2 Trainspotting is a beautiful film about aging, Scotland, the pains of nostalgia, and the peculiarities of male friendship. By using an iconic film about wayward youth (you don’t get much more wayward than heroin addiction, people!) as the leaping off point, it allowed Boyle to tap into his audience’s collective memory of Trainspotting to explore new themes. The returning cast are all brilliant, John Hodge’s screenplay lives up to his Oscar-nominated original, and Boyle’s ever-roving cameras find just the right mix of melancholy and dark comedy. Even better, the filmmaker weaves in footage and visual quotations of his 20-year-old classic in ways both cleverly self-reflexive and deeply moving. It’s likely the most stylistically and thematically ambitious cinematic sequel since Godfather 2, turning the project into an artistic opportunity to explore the legacy of Trainspotting rather than merely cashing in on nostalgia. Sure, it’s not as good as the original, but few movies are. The fact that Boyle found a magical mix of staying true to his original vision and deliberately diverting from it is something of a cinematic miracle in and of itself.

3) 127 Hours (2010)

Some might use the success of an Oscar-winning global success like Slumdog Millionaire to cash in on a massive money making venture. Not Danny Boyle. Instead, he used that cache to finance a movie that would never have existed otherwise. 127 Hours tells the harrowing true story of Aron Ralson, a man who got his arm trapped in a Utah cavern and was forced to chop it off to escape. That’s subject matter so grisly that most viewers stayed away. Yet those who did brave a screening saw one of Boyle’s finest films. The filmmaker vividly thrusts the audience into this unique predicament and James Franco gives arguably his finest performance as often the only person on screen during this tale of survival horror. Yet somehow, despite not shying away from any of the inherently nasty and morbid imagery, the film is a gloriously hopeful and inspirational tale about humanity’s remarkable ability to survive. It’s an absolutely beautiful movie, when it isn’t a painfully ugly experience and easily one of the highlights of Danny Boyle’s career.

2) Shallow Grave (1994)

Though often forgotten these days, Shallow Grave is one of the finest directorial debuts of the 90s. This dirty little diddy is about a group of narcissistic flatmates who find a dead body and a briefcase full of money and then have to decide whether to call the police or cover up the crime to keep the cash. Boyle is certainly in show off mode here, proving that he has the directorial chops for a long career. The film is a visual feast and also an impressive tonal feat. It walks a fine line between being a bitter dark comedy twist on The Treasure Of The Sierra Mandre and a viciously visceral thriller designed to make palms sweat. Shallow Grave is a surge of cynical entertainment that hasn’t lost an inch of its power or entertainment value in the years since release. If anything, watching Shallow Grave today is frustrating because there are so few thrillers made anymore that are this clever, effective, and expertly accomplished (by first-time filmmakers or otherwise). If you’ve never seen the flick, you’re in for a treat. If you have, you’re overdue for a rewatch. Trust me.

1) Trainspotting (1996)

Finally we come to the only movie that could have possibly topped this list. Trainspotting is not only Danny Boyle’s masterpiece, but easily one of the best films of the 90s. Somehow he and writer John Hodge took a sprawlingly episodic (if absolutely brilliant) novel and transformed it to a 90-minute gut punch of relentless entertainment. It’s one of the few drug movies that dares to acknowledge the pleasure of drugs without ever belittling the perils of addiction. Backed by a Brit-pop soundtrack that’s one of the all-time greats, Trainspotting is pure pop entertainment that captures the restless spirit of youth while also offering a glimpse into some of the darkest and most desperate corners of human nature. The cast is incredible, the dialogue is endlessly quotable, the filmmaking craft is impeccable, the music is marvelous, the pacing is unrelenting, and the themes are complex. Simply put, Trainspotting is a masterpiece. Thank god the sequel didn’t suck.