Feature: The Top 9 Films of Director Danny Boyle

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CHICAGO – In various interviews over the years, British filmmaker Danny Boyle has expressed his belief that “your first film is your best film.” It may not be the most technically accomplished or dramatically satisfying work, but it marks a crucial period of freshness and experimentation, as the rookie director becomes acquainted with the creative challenges of feature film production.

What makes Boyle such a consistently exciting and vital filmmaker is the fact that he approaches every new film as if it were his first. There are no two films he’s made that share the same genre, the same structure, and the same energy.

He works within genres in order to subvert them, while finding inventive and surprising ways of fusing his artistic sensibilities onto an entirely new cinematic landscape. Occasionally his gambles don’t pay off (“A Life Less Ordinary,” “The Beach”), but most of the time they do in a big way (“Trainspotting,” the Best Picture-winning “Slumdog Millionaire”). What unites all of his work into one coherent whole is a tireless visual exuberance and unquenchable thirst for life that reverberates through every frame. Since Boyle has so far made nine theatrically released features, I’ve decided to rank them in the form of a top films list, in honor of his latest effort, “127 Hours.”

9. “A Life Less Ordinary” (1997)

A Life Less Ordinary

There certainly is nothing ordinary about this bizarro romance between a poor aspiring novelist (Ewan McGregor) and a spoiled rich girl (Cameron Diaz), who are brought together by two scheming angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo). After being fired by Diaz’s wretched father, McGregor kidnaps his daughter, who ends up coaching him in the art of kidnapping. Boyle’s third feature may be one of his rare misfires, but it’s still packed with spectacular images, courtesy of Brain Tufano’s widescreen cinematography. They range from playful (a dentist’s office filled with snapshots of mouths) to jaw-dropping (a low angle of Hunter pinned to the front of a car as it sails over a cliff). Several of these images can be seen in Michel Gondry’s brilliant music video for Beck’s “Deadweight,” one of many stellar singles on the film’s soundtrack. “Ordinary” indeed works best as a series of images since its story is a complete mess. Scripted by John Hodge (who collaborated with Boyle on his first four pictures), the film shifts uneasily between forced whimsy and shrill pathos, as the angels resort to terrorizing the reluctant couple into each other’s arms. Thanks to a “Wonderful Life”-style contrivance, the angels must complete their assignment, or they will be banished from Heaven, which is apparently no different from Earth, save for the conceit that everyone wears white suits. McGregor’s charming performance functions as a precursor to his work in “Moulin Rouge,” as he takes part in a spontaneous music number with the tone-deaf Diaz. Their screwball banter during a ransom phone call is the film’s comic highlight.

8. “The Beach” (2000)

The Beach

Scathing reviews and a damaged ecosystem gave Boyle’s fourth film the worst press of his career. It’s certainly closer to a mainstream studio product than anything the director has made before or since. Part of the reason may have been because the film was transformed from a British production with McGregor (who left the project) into a star vehicle for teen idol sensation Leonardo DiCaprio. Though the film certainly represents one of DiCaprio’s post-“Titanic” stumbles, his work here is stronger and more complex than it was in James Cameron’s blockbuster. Like many Boyle protagonists, Richard (DiCaprio) is a loner and adventurer who feels most comfortable on his own. There’s a hilarious sequence in which he’s depicted as the star of his own video game. But Richard is also a hugely unsympathetic jerk. After stumbling upon the map to a secret island paradise, Richard invites a young couple to join him, while secretly desiring to steal the girl (Virginie Ledoyen) for himself. There are several moments early on when Boyle quotes his favorite film “Apocalypse Now,” to suggest that Richard may be heading toward his own heart of darkness. Once he arrives on the island, Richard realizes that there’s a high price to be paid for maintaining paradise. Though the film was shot on location in Ko Phi Phi Lee, some shots of the landscape are so flat that they practically resemble generic screen savers. Yet the film itself is never dull, and is rather fascinating in light of its thematic relevance to Boyle’s overall career. The filmmaker has always sought to capture the highs of extreme experiences, and paradise could easily be seen as a metaphor for drugs and money—two recurring elements in Boyle’s work that offer an addictive yet unsustainable escape from reality.

7. “Sunshine” (2007)

Sunshine

And now for a quantum leap in quality. Boyle’s marvelously moody sci-fi thriller marked his second collaboration with Alex Garland, who also penned “28 Days Later,” the film that represented a major comeback for the director. In contrast, “Sunshine” has quickly become one of Boyle’s most under-appreciated efforts. The plot concerns a band of astronauts on a mission to reignite the ailing sun before it burns out. Cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler (“Morvern Caller”) and a team of first rate effects artists together created the most stunningly photogenic series of fireballs since “Backdraft.” No wonder some of the characters become light junkies, hypnotized by the immensity and power of the towering yellow orb. Yet it’s the characters themselves who are most problematic, emerging as two-dimensional types rather than individuals. Astronauts Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans are always at each others throats, while female crew mates Michelle Yeoh and Rose Byrne roll their eyes. That’s about it as far as character development is concerned, and the script’s banal talkiness occasionally causes the film to resemble a middling pilot for the Syfy Channel. Yet the uniformly strong ensemble elevates the material, while Boyle finds effective ways of conveying the characters’ claustrophobia, occasionally viewing the action from inside their spacesuits. He also masterfully uses flash frames in order to increase suspense. Yet like “28 Days Later,” the film falls apart in its disappointingly conventional final act.

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