The thrilling, snappy, endlessly entertaining Steve Jobs (out this Friday in limited release; read our New York Film Festival review here) is a bit of a bounce-back for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin after The Newsroom, but his isn’t the only career rehab on display; the subtly flashy and exquisitely paced direction by Danny Boyle also marks a striking return to form after the career nadir of Trance. So how does Steve Jobs stack up in his admirably versatile, two-decade career? Let’s take a look.
???. Alien Love Triangle
We can’t rate this odd little entry since, with the exception of a couple of one-off audiences, nobody’s seen it. Boyle shot this half-hour film in 1999, with his regular collaborators John Hodge (screenwriter) and Andrew Macdonald (producer), as one-third of an intended sci-fi/horror trilogy for the Weinstein Brothers’ Dimension Films. But the other two shorts — Mimic and Impostor — were expanded into feature films, leaving ALT an abandoned orphan short, basically unseen until 2008, when it was screened as part of the closing festivities for the 23-seat La Charrette cinema in Wales (above). Star Kenneth Branagh was in attendance at that screening and the only other one to date, at a retrospective for the actor/director at the National Media Museum in West Yorkshire, England. The film, according to La Charrette event organizer Mark Kermode (one of the few people who’s seen it), involves “bizarre romantic inter-species entanglements between Kenneth Branagh, Courteney Cox, and a green-painted Heather Graham.” Boyle himself described it as “really very strange”; for now, apparently, we’ll just have to take his word for it.
Boyle’s 2013 James McAvoy/Rosario Dawson/Vincent Cassel triangle (huh, recurring theme) came at a weird moment when ’80s-style erotic thrillers were coming back into vogue (Soderbergh’s Side Effects came out around the same time). Boyle’s movie looks great and has a few good set pieces, but he ultimately can’t figure out how he feels about the material — which is half the battle when you’re telling a story as fundamentally ridiculous as this one.
10. The Beach
On paper, it sounded like a can’t-miss: Boyle and his Trainspotting team adapting Alex Garland’s novel, with Leonardo DiCaprio (still riding high off Titanic) in the leading role. And there are, to be sure, things in it that work: the spellbinding opening, Robert Carlyle’s daft (and, true to form, frequently unintelligible) performance, a terrific turn by Tilda Swinton, a surrealistic going-nutty-in-the-jungle sequence (goofy video game imagery notwithstanding). But it sputters along rudderless for too much of its running time, and the wildly unsatisfying ending — which Roger Ebert surmised was inserted to satisfy “studio executives who are convinced that no matter how grim a movie’s outcome, it must end on a final upbeat” — makes the entire enterprise feel like a promise made, but not kept.
9. A Life Less Ordinary
Boyle’s high-pressure, bigger-budget follow-up to Trainspotting is a cross between ’30s-style screwball comedy, contemporary rom-com, kidnapping thriller, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan-inspired religious fable, with a big musical number or two thrown in. It’s the kind of movie that, if it worked, would’ve been lauded for its ambition and high-wire daring; alas, it did not work, though the sky-high expectations of audiences and critics certainly didn’t help matters any. But it does have its moments, and it boasts what may be the most scruffily enjoyable of Ewan McGregor’s performances for the filmmaker.
8. Slumdog Millionaire
When you get down to it, the worst thing that ever happened to this Bollywood-tinged fairy tale was winning the Oscar for Best Picture — at least with regards to its standing with critics, since that victory (over, it must be noted, a pretty weak field of contenders) transformed it from a charming little crowd pleaser into an Important Cinematic Achievement. To which this viewers says, “hogwash.” Sure, it’s far from Boyle’s finest hour (and certainly a bend towards the mainstream after the previous year’s challenging Sunshine), but it’s a generous, warmhearted picture, more Millions than Trainspotting.
7. 127 Hours
Boyle followed up that big movie with an admirably small one — for most of its running time, in fact, a one-man show. The challenges in telling the story of hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco), who gets trapped under a boulder deep in a hidden canyon and must cut off his own arm to get out of there alive, are many: you have to build to an event whose outcome is known, and you have to get through that event without turning your movie into a gore show. And while that sequence is chilling — the blood is plentiful and the editing cuts to the bone (literally) — Boyle understood that the sympathy the film built for Ralston gave every stab and saw a personal dimension, resulting in an amputation that feels not like torture, but release.
Having recently conquered horror movies and family films (more on both presently), Boyle decided to try his hand at sci-fi, and proved unsurprisingly adept. He’s working in the space-is-scary mold of Alien or Event Horizon, but Alex Garland’s script is a beautifully modulated piece of thinking person’s science fiction, its scares provided less by the third-act bogeyman than the dread-filled, desperate situation at its center. And he again shows a real flair for effects — working them into the narrative, rather than stopping it to show them off.
5. Steve Jobs
When Boyle stepped in for a departing David Fincher to helm Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography (one of several turnabouts in the tumultuous production, which also changed studios and leading men), it sounded like a bit of a shotgun marriage. How would Boyle’s slick directorial style mesh with Sorkin’s hyper-verbose writing? Turns out, just fine; Boyle ingeniously translates the three-long-scene framework into visual terms (shooting the 1984 sequence in Super 16mm, the 1988 in 35mm, and the 1998 on HD video), keeps the camera moving and image cutting in a manner that augments the dialogue without distracting from it, and places casual but effective cut-ins during dialogue scenes, underscoring the conversations and increasing the tempo. The result is his best film in years.
4. 28 Days Later…
Boyle’s lo-fi 2002 horror flick didn’t just revitalize a sagging career — it reinvented a subgenre, transforming the popular image of zombies as slow-moving, dragging dullards into that of speedy, hungry killing machines. But it wasn’t just that little innovation that made 28 Days so memorable; it was the picture’s dirty-fingernail grubbiness and unrelenting intensity, showcasing a director who’d thrown off the shackles of studios and stars, and rediscovered his voice and energy in the process.
After the international success of 28 Days, Boyle could’ve easily done any number of commercial horror flicks (including that film’s sequel, which he handed off to Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) or other genre endeavors. Instead, he tried his hand at… a family movie. And there’s something kinda wonderful about adult-oriented directors making kids’ movies, whether it’s Scorsese (Hugo), Linklater (School of Rock), or Boyle, here working from a charming script by a similarly unlikely writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People); these two make a movie that’s not just about kids and family and adventure, but (shockingly enough) about faith. It’s an experiment so fraught with opportunities to derail that its success is some kind of miracle — in fact, in its own way, it’s as thrilling (and edgy) as Boyle’s best-known works.
It was the movie that made Boyle a marquee director, and for good reason: this was a film of immeasurable style, featuring a startling cast (Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Kelly Macdonald, Robert Carlyle, Peter Mullan), a peerless soundtrack, a script filled with soon-to-be-iconic quotes, and the toilet scene to top all toilet scenes. (That’s this viewer’s takeaway bit of nightmare fuel; some go with the baby on the ceiling. Different strokes, etc.) His genre-hopping and chameleonic nature don’t always make it easy to define what, exactly, a “Danny Boyle movie” is; perhaps it’s easiest to answer that question by pointing to Trainspotting and saying, “This!”
1. Shallow Grave
And yet, your film editor has always held an untouchable affinity for Boyle’s debut feature, a nasty, blackhearted bit of neo-noir in which a trio of snide flatmates rent out a room to a quiet fellow, discover his dead body and a case full of money, and decide to do the very wrong thing. The logline makes it sound like an empty retread of a hundred other movies, which only speaks to the flair Boyle brings to this one; like Blood Simple, it seizes the darkness at the center of its inspirations, and finds out exactly how far you can take it.