Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Danny Boyle is one of the few living filmmakers who gets to do the unthinkable — direct movies in different genres! A lot of directors, even the most famous, find themselves stuck like glue to a genre for the rest of their lives. Such is definitely the case with most horror directors, like Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Of course every successful director usually gets a shot in his or her career to do something different, but Danny Boyle is the rare individual who dares himself to do better, more ambitious films each time around that have little in common with the movie he made before it. Not since Rob Reiner’s golden era from 1984 to 1992, when Reiner made a mockumentary, teen comedy, coming-of-age film, fantasy, romantic comedy, horror film, and political drama, has there been such a varied, successful career as Boyle.
Here are the five best films of Danny Boyle’s career…
5. The Beach (2000)
Probably Boyle’s most critically-maligned film was perhaps the one box office misstep in Leonardo DiCaprio’s enormously successful career following Titanic. But there’s a lot to admire in this wildly bizarre dramatic thriller, including exotic locals, fantastic cinematography, a dynamic supporting performance by Tilda Swinton, and Leonardo running around with his shirt off.
4. Trainspotting (1996)
If any two Boyle movies feel similar, it’s Trainspotting and his debut Shallow Grave. The movies almost work as companion pieces to each other, with Boyle’s style evident in every scene. McGregor returned in this sordid tale that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay and made a huge impact on popular culture in the mid-1990s. Toilets would never be looked at the same way again.
3. 28 Days Later (2003)
Boyle might have faulted a bit with his third feature A Life Less Ordinary and the dismally received The Beach, but he returned in top form in the summer of 2003 with this terrifying, realistic horror film set in an empty London that just happens to be roaming with zombies. Shot in ugly drab colors on a Canon XL1 camera, the film actually benefits from its low-budget aesthetic. Cillian Murphy headlines this now-classic undead tale.
2. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
This little underdog movie took the world, and the Academy Awards, by storm two years ago, and there’s a good reason why — it’s just so damn entertaining. Slumdog Millionaire is the perfect modern fairy tale, a movie that seamlessly blends dark themes of chance, courage, and hope. The shooting style is unusually effective, and the performances are spot on. And it all leads to a big, glorious musical number.
1. 127 Hours (2010)
You don’t watch Danny Boyle movies. You experience them. Films like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, an and Slumdog Millionaire give its viewers out-of-body experiences, taking them to new, faraway places in ways those places have never been seen before. Boyle could’ve told any story he wanted after his Oscar win for the splendid Slumdog Millionaire, and he chose a story and subject matter on first glance might not have seemed the most obvious choice. But every inch of 127 Hours is steamed and broiled in Danny Boyle, riveting from beginning to end, featuring a career-best performance by James Franco that is startlingly realistic.
The film is based on a true story, telling of a daredevil mountain climbing enthusiast named Aron Ralston who became trapped by a large boulder in a Utah ravine for five days in 2003. At first he’s practically laughing at himself for making his mistake, not realizing that the error could possibly cost him his life. As the days tick on, he slowly starts to realize the magnitude of the scary scenario, particularly since he’s in the middle of nowhere with nobody around, and he didn’t tell a single soul where he was going. When he starts running out of water, resorting to drinking his own urine (!), he makes a life-affirming choice to survive that marks one of the most astonishing, terrifying scenes in modern film history.
Films like 127 Hours are tough to make, and even tougher to get right. Movies that revolve around one person for the majority of its running time going through a struggle — think Cast Away and Phone Booth — can be riveting at times but can easily get dull really fast. There’s surprisingly not a single moment in 127 Hours that runs on too long or bogs down the story. Franco’s commanding performance makes this 96-minute film run by in a millisecond, but Boyle is a mad genius for some of the visual and story qualities he brings to this movie.
Technically the movie is innovative and superior to most any film made this year. Boyle’s films always have a unique visual structure — think the underlit gloominess of 28 Day Later — and the wildly dynamic approach he brings to 127 Hours thrusts the viewer into each and every moment, including the cheery mountain climbing events at the beginning, and the horrors of the underground at the end. There are a ton of awesome helicopter shots, as well as how-did-they-do-that smaller feats accomplished in the quieter moments in the second half of the film. The editing is top-of-the-line, all the sound design is exquisitely done, and the score by Slumdog composer AR Rahman have a raw, unnerving quality that always keep the viewer on the edge of his seat.
But really, no matter how great the filmmaker is, how well all the components come together, there’s no movie without a hugely talented lead actor at its core. Franco was not only perfectly suited to a role like this, with his chiseled face and lean physique, but he’s also just so committed to making every moment feel as real as possible. 127 Hours is a claustrophobic movie if there ever was one, and it’s one gorgeous piece of unforgettable cinema.
Watching Like a Writer
127 Hours makes me think about trying to write a story or, gasp, a novel, where for a big chunk of time one character is stuck in a place he can’t escape from. So much of writing fiction depends on dialogue and the relationships between the characters, so what happens when you strip all that away? It’s certainly possible to do, but I wouldn’t want to take it on until I had a brilliant idea worth pursuing. What Boyle did with this film is truly remarkable because while a novel can be effectively internal so often, a film is primarily visual, and so having a camera focused on a single character in one location for an hour or longer was am ambitious task indeed. But it would still be a difficult task for any fiction writer to take on a claustrophobic story like this one.
Pitch me a story about one character in one location. What would be the genre? What would the protagonist want?