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The Essentials: The 5 Best Ewan McGregor Performances

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 2, 2011 6:42 AM
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Ewan McGregor
After spending much of the last decade in some of the worst theatrically-released movies around ("Cassandra's Dream?" "Stay?" "Incendiary?" "Deception?" "Amelia?" "Angels & Demons?"), Mike Mills' "Beginners" seems to be the start of a new phase of Ewan McGregor's career. Not only is the film terrific, one of the years' best (read our review here), but McGregor's great in it, the best he's been in years.

Because across these last few years, it's been easy to forget that McGregor seemed to be a real star find when he emerged, turning out a string of great performances at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. So, with "Beginners" hitting theaters tomorrow, it seemed to be a good time to be reminded of that, and we've picked five essential performances from the Scottish actor, the ones that hopefully will be matched in the years to come.

Indeed, "Beginners" seems to be only the first part of a renaissance for the actor: "Perfect Sense," his second collaboration with director David Mackenzie, picked up good reviews at Sundance, while 2011 will also bring a villainous turn in Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire," Juan Antonio Bayona's supernatural drama "The Impossible" with Naomi Watts, and Lasse Hallstrom's "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," while he'll return to the blockbuster world next year in Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Killer." But that's the future. After the jump, the five must-see Ewan McGregor performances.

"Shallow Grave" (1994)
Even before he graduated from Guildhall drama school, McGregor was getting attention, landing a major role in the Dennis Potter TV drama "Lipstick on your Collar," and a small role in Bill Forsythe's long-delayed "Being Human." But his real breakthrough came with Danny Boyle's "Shallow Grave," a terrific little thriller that served as a kick up the period-drama heavy ass of the British film industry. McGregor played Alex, one of a trio of Edinburgh flatmates (completed by Christopher Ecclestone and Kerry Fox) who find their new roomie dead, and a hefty chunk of cash in a suitcase, and are torn apart as a result. It's one of the oldest stories around (it's basically Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale"), but Boyle and writer John Hodge gave it a zippy energy that made it feel genuinely fresh, and all three leads are terrific. McGregor in particular was an instant star: his journalist is both the most dickish and, yet somehow the most sympathetic of the central trio. His enigmatic smile in the film's conclusion is one of the great ambiguous endings in neo-noir, and only prefigured a bigger and better collaboration between the pair...

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  • Anita | September 8, 2011 10:10 AMReply

    ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ is the best.
    ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ and ‘The Ghost Writer’ are good, too.
    And 'Big Fish, certainly.

  • Marge | June 5, 2011 12:10 PMReply

    Um no Brassed Off?

  • Izzie | June 5, 2011 2:36 AMReply

    Wow I don't remember Christian Bale in Velvet Goldmine. I'm going to have to go back and watch it. Huge fan of Ewan McGregor by the way. Trainspotting and Moulin Rouge are probably my two all time favorites of his movies.

  • Calum | June 3, 2011 11:53 AMReply

    While I agree that the end of 2010 - now have been the best of Ewan McGregor's career since the mid-90s, you guys at Indiewire seem to have missed the boat by about a year.

    What I mean is. Where were you guys when Ewan was getting good reviews for 'The Men Who Stare at Goats', or when he got very good reviews for 'I Love You Phillip Morris'. Where were you when he won Best Actor at the European Film Awards for 'The Ghost Writer'.

    So yes, I agree he's having a comeback by doing more independently spirited pictures, but 'Beginners' certainly isn't the start of a comeback. It's simply the next link in the chain of a comeback.

  • Lucas | June 3, 2011 10:47 AMReply

    Rogue Trader (1999) anyone?

  • TheoC | June 3, 2011 5:13 AMReply

    Aww down with love getting some emm love.

    Remember Peyton Reed was attached to Fantastic Four all those years ago, If he'd shot it period we could have had Fantastic Four First Class.

    I always thought if they'd mashed up the visuals of Down with Love and the script of Intolerable Cruelty They'd have a genunine classic.

    But good list anyway, No lipstick on your collar?(I wanted to be that guy).

  • Mike | June 3, 2011 1:56 AMReply

    Stay is one of the most underrated films of the past decade, and the opening diatribe in this article proves that. Also, Cassandra's Dream might not be one of Woody Allen's all time best, but it definitely doesn't rank amongst his worst, and Angels & Demons ridiculous though it may be was far better than Da Vinci Code.

  • Christopher Bell | June 3, 2011 1:13 AMReply

    Wyn, we, for better or worse, constantly point out that Depp has made shit for years and years.


  • Wyn | June 2, 2011 11:01 AMReply

    ”Cassandra’s Dream?” “Stay?” “Incendiary?” “Deception?” “Amelia?” “Angels & Demons?” >>> the worst theatrical releases in a decade?

    That's hyperbole at its worst. There are countless other films that are far worse, but for some reason Ewan is held to a different standard. The whole "McGregor's Comeback" by-line is getting incredibly tiresome. He's had some misfires, just like everyone else, but unlike so many other actors, he gets skewered for them. How many complete pieces of shit has Johnny Depp made in the last decade?

    Furthermore, few actors are as fearless and independent in their acting and choice of roles. Ewan will probably never get the accolades he deserves, but it would be nice if these stupid kinds of articles would lay off.

  • James | June 2, 2011 10:35 AMReply

    Glad to see "Down With Love" on here, it's one of the great unsung films of the last decade.

  • carrie | June 2, 2011 10:06 AMReply


  • Drew | June 2, 2011 9:52 AMReply

    Big Fish was really good

  • Ryan | June 2, 2011 9:44 AMReply

    I thought Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons were equally lame. But the whole priest flying a helicopter thing was hilarious.

  • cranly | June 2, 2011 8:56 AMReply

    Not a great actor, but this is a fair enough representative sampling of his best work. He also manages to rise above his typical bland amiability as James Joyce in 'Nora' and in the two films for David Mackenzie ('Young Adam' and 'Perfect Sense'). But as yet, the early promise he exhibited in those first two Danny Boyle pics can't really be said to have been fulfilled.

  • anonymous | June 2, 2011 8:50 AMReply

    So happy to see Down with Love on here.

  • walktheearth | June 2, 2011 8:06 AMReply

    No mention of Big Fish?

  • Drew | June 2, 2011 7:35 AMReply

    I liked Cassandra's Dream and Ghost Writer

  • Christopher Bell | June 2, 2011 7:25 AMReply


    There's no way around it, "Angels & Demons" was a piece of shit. And I remember finding enjoyment in "The DaVinci Code."


    Hell yeah @ "Shallow Grave"

  • MikeD | June 2, 2011 7:14 AMReply

    he was also in Ghost Writer which was excellent

  • Zack | June 2, 2011 7:05 AMReply

    I'm no fan of the "Star Wars" prequels, but I'd have to say McGregor's performances (particularly in the latter two) are among my favorite aspects of them.

  • Remy | June 2, 2011 7:02 AMReply

    No "Young Adam"? Really?

  • Kevin Klawitter | June 2, 2011 7:01 AMReply

    "Angels & Demons" among the worst theatrically released movies of the last decade? Seriously? I know it's considered appropos to knock around anything even remotely related to Dan Brown, but that's going way too far.

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