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The Essentials: The 5 Best Ewan McGregor Performances

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 2, 2011 at 6:42AM

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.
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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...

This article is related to: Films, Actors, Feature, The Essentials, Beginners, Ewan McGregor


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