Yesterday marks the 13th time director Danny Boyle has brought a new feature-length film to theaters everywhere - but how does it compare to his other movies? With a career spanning nearly 30 years in film, television, and theater, Boyle has become a prominent and respected director, known for a unique vision which he infuses into all of his films.
Boyle's feature-length movie career is of note, particularly because Boyle has proven he is unafraid to bounce between genres and relishes the chance to put his own stamp on each of them. Be it comedy, drama, horror, or thriller, a biopic, a film told in flashbacks, or film that imagines an alternate universe, Boyle has become a skilled adapter and originator of some of the most provocative and intriguing films in recent memory.
Yesterday now has a permanent place in Boyle's oeuvre and it's worth taking a look at every one of his feature films and seeing how they hold up next to this newest films as well as one another. Are any of them better than others? Are there any films that highlight Boyle's weaknesses as a director more than others? What about his strengths? This calls for a ranking of Boyle's movies and we're doing it from worst to best.
13. A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
To put it simply, A Life Less Ordinary is a mess. There's no part of this film which works and it's best pushed to the bottom of any Boyle-centric viewing order one might have. On paper, it's a film that might have worked: Ewan McGregor is an overworked employer who kidnaps the boss's daughter and goes on the lam. They fall in love, get into some very tight spots, and try to make it to freedom together. Then, things spiral wildly out when two angels are sent from heaven to retrieve the wayward lovers, which is certainly... a choice.
It's too flamboyant and stuffed to the brim with eclectic characters, each of whom have wildly amplified character traits that make them almost unbearable to watch. Boyle's preferences for surrealist story touches don't land well here the way they do in future films, proving this was a film too big for Boyle to corral into something coherent for his sophomore feature film.
12. Yesterday (2019)
It's a shame that Yesterday doesn't quite pay off on its incredibly attractive elevator pitch ("What if we lived in a world without The Beatles?") because it's a premise with serious promise. Boyle comes together with writer/director Richard Curtis on this one and surprisingly, the sum does not equal the previous success of its parts. Boyle and Curtis have stood out in their individual efforts in the past. Here, the pair struggle, actively avoiding going into the nitty-gritty implications of struggling musician Jack (Himesh Patel) waking up after an accident and discovering he's the only one in the world who remembers the music and legacy of The Beatles.
What could have been a lighthearted romp with serious explorations into a world carrying on without the impact of a culture-shaping music group's influence ultimately played it safe and stayed superficial. Boyle's direction is him going on autopilot, delivering the fluff without daring to go deeper. There's no visual panache associated with his past films, nothing weighing on Yesterday's mind, nor does Boyle make any bold choices.
11. Sunshine (2007)
Boyle's return to apocalyptic storytelling with Sunshine and does the bare minimum in crafting an engaging story. Sunshine follows astronaut Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) and his crew aboard the Icarus II. The crew has been tasked with literally reigniting the sun, traveling from Earth to the dying star to drop a nuclear payload into its heart to reinvigorate it and get Earth out of a solar winter. What should be a thought-provoking sci-fi film turns into a survival story made all the more rote and torturous with the arrival of an unstable character who threatens to bungle the mission. Boyle is ill-equipped to navigate Sunshine-as-action-movie, working hard to keep track of the crew members and the action but losing his way very quickly.
10. Trance (2013)
James McAvoy partners with Boyle for Trance, a crime drama folded together with a Hitchcockian psychological thriller that is all style and seemingly little to no substance. McAvoy plays Simon, a thief who betrays his partner, Franck (Vincent Cassel), by stealing the painting they were going to sell off for a big payday together. Simon suffers a serious hit on the head which dulls his memories, forcing therapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to draw out the truth about where the painting is out of him. Trance goes hard on the aesthetics while continuing to ignore any sense of logical story structure, making Boyle's imprint on this film feel weirdly left of center for an otherwise even-keeled director.
9. T2 Trainspotting (2017)
There's no real reason T2 Trainspotting should exist. Adapted from Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting sequel Porno, T2 simply catches up with mischievous Edinburgh lowlifes Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Tommy, and Begbie in 2017. The men are still more or less aimless, having traded up on their drugs with the emergence of social media and new drugs. Boyle is on autopilot, barely rekindling the magic of Trainspotting and hitting on the familiar notes of hope and despair amidst the pathetic circumstances the Edinburgh crew find themselves faced with as men still singing the same old song 20 years later. It's a film meant for those with a deep investment in Trainspotting or those committed to Boyle for better or for worse.
8. The Beach (2000)
The Beach is the last arguably middling film Boyle has made (so far), as bad as it is good. Catching Leonardo DiCaprio in his immediate post-Titanic glow, The Beach follows DiCaprio's Richard, an American traveling through Southeast Asia who hears about an idyllic, remote island which serves as the Utopian home for a disparate group of bohemians. Richard convinces French couple Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet) to come with him. They make it to the island in one piece but discover things aren't as picture perfect as they thought; in fact, it's more like Lord of the Flies for Gen Xers.
Boyle gets lost in his own story, abandoning thought-provoking ideas about what it takes to create an ideal society in a modern world crippled by cynicism and fueled by capitalist greed. Rather than take the thoughtful approach, Boyle abandons it for a cheap, pulpy take on screenwriter Alex Garland's script.
7. Millions (2004)
Millions is fine. Neither immediately bad nor immediately acclaim-worthy, the biggest credit this film has it that Boyle is able to blend in surreal elements with an otherwise straightforward story about two brothers who fight over what to do when a bag containing millions of British pounds literally lands in their laps. Boyle's exploration of the moral quandary presented to the brothers is interesting, and it allows the film to have plenty of heart. But there's the distinct feeling that Boyle, who is coming off the success of 28 Days Later at this point, doesn't want to ruin any good standing he might have and chooses to make a more low-key version of an otherwise touching, fantasy-filled script.
6. 127 Hours (2010)
127 Hours is new territory for Boyle by this point in his career since he'd never done a film focused on an actual person. The retelling of the true story of outdoors man and thrill-seeker Aron Ralston's fight for survival will make jaws drop of the floor. After becoming trapped in a crevasse in the hills of the Moab Desert in Utah, his forearm pinned between a boulder and the rock wall, Aron must find a way out. Boyle is great at deploying Dutch angles and sprawling landscapes to convey just how extreme what passes for fun in Aron's life really is. Boyle does even better when having to tell this true story within the confines of a slim crevasse, echoing the shred of hope Aron had of escaping his plight.
5. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
It's not only the smart casting of wide-eyed Dev Patel (back then, he was still only known for his role on UK's Skins) that makes Slumdog Millionaire a compelling watch, but it's Boyle's telling of the story about a young boy who goes from living in poverty to trying to win back the woman of his dream which works, too. Boyle is best when working from the heart. As such, Slumdog Millionaire deals heartfelt drama out in large quantities to viewers. Telling the story of Jamal, an Indian teen who is a contestant on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and realizes that all of the answers he needs to win have been revealed to him throughout his life.
Boyle is able to artfully bring touches of Bollywood to mainstream touches while also making a film that is so heavily reliant on extended flashback sequences actually watchable. The tedium drifts away and in its place sits a colorful world told in all its unflinchingly brutal, beautiful glory.
4. Shallow Grave (1994)
Boyle arrived on the British indie film scene with 1994's Shallow Grave after churning out a few shorts. Shallow Grave is the best primer Boyle's artistic inclinations and, as it happens, it's his first feature-length film, too. Suspenseful, claustrophobic, darkly humorous, and dabbling in the social issues of its day, Shallow Grave is a sharp whodunit that establishes Boyle as a serious (and seriously good and agile) director.
Starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, and Kerry Fox, Shallow Grave follows three friends who discover the fourth roommate who has recently moved in is dead and he left behind a briefcase stuffed with money, drugs in his drawers, and some shady connections who could come looking for him. The friends are put into a serious quandary and ultimately choose to take the goods, dispose of the body, and try to enjoy the spoils. But of course, once law enforcement gets involved and the interpersonal jealousies come to the forefront, things don't end well for the roommates.
3. Steve Jobs (2015)
Steve Jobs is a film with a lot more on its mind than presenting a traditional biopic about Apple co-creator and tech icon Steve Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender). Steve Jobs eschews a traditional biopic structure, using three major Apple launch events to not only show the evolution of Apple as a company but the emotional and intellectual evolution of its leader, Jobs.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's script does some heavy lifting here, but without Boyle's humanizing touch to characters who talk at the speed of light, Steve Jobs would have flailed onscreen. Instead, the marriage of Sorkin's words and Boyle's direction of Jobs' world over a 14-year period make for a marriage between the head and the heart. This is a film that brings to life a figure made mysterious to the world (by his own design) and Boyle is able to artfully mirror Jobs' personal highs and lows with the rise, fall, and rise again of Apple in the late 20th century.
2. 28 Days Later (2002)
Boyle's second team-up with screenwriter Alex Garland, the zombie horror film 28 Days Later, is also their best. The film follows Jim (Cillian Murphy), a man who wakes up in the hospital only to discover it's deserted. When he ventures outside into central London, Jim discovers the entire city is abandoned - until the zombies make their presence known.
With Boyle's direction and Garland's tightly-wound script, 28 Days is harrowing to watch. The first minutes, where Jim slowly discovers he might be the last living man in London, make for an incredibly taut, engrossing setting of the stage. By the time the zombies make their appearance, the film refuses to slow down. 28 Days managed to push the zombie horror genre forward with its depiction of manic, flesh-craving corpses which ran to catch their prey. It's that notable tweak to the rules of zombies that makes the film all the more watchable. Boyle has a knack for tension-building here and appreciates the balance between jump scares, horrific reveals, and building connections between characters.
1. Trainspotting (1996)
Trainspotting is essential Boyle with all of his directorial essence boiled down into one movie. Adapted from Irvine Welsh's novel of the same name, Trainspotting follows Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his friends, Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) as they try to survive in the dark underbelly of Edinburgh. The men deal with addictions of various kinds, be it sex, drugs, alcohol, or dangerous behaviors.
If we know anything from Boyle's body of work, it's that he frequently thrives when telling stories set back at home in the UK, focusing on a small group of characters pondering extraordinary circumstances amidst the doldrums of their everyday lives. With this foundation, Boyle thrives with the film that arguably introduced him to the world, Trainspotting. Whether it's the stylistic camera cuts and steep Dutch angles Boyle became synonymous with which capture the sickly energy of the action onscreen or his penchant for bringing charming lowlifes to the forefront and justifying their presence, Trainspotting is a well-adapted film that manages to artfully tackle Gen X disdain in a way that feels meaningful and productive.