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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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"Trainspotting" (1996)
Boyle, Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald and McGregor swiftly got the band back together for another Edinburgh-set film that proved even more successful: "Trainspotting." Adapting Irvine Welsh's cult novel about heroin addicts, Boyle made a shocking, serious film, less attention-seeking than its source material, but crucially, also invested it with a rock n roll energy that, for a brief moment, made smack look like the most fun in the world (which, despite criticism at the time, is really the only honest way to go about things -- if drugs weren't initially a blast, people wouldn't do them). And among an exceptional cast, including early roles for Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd and Kelly Macdonald, as well as an exceptional turn from Robert Carlyle as the psychotic Begbie, McGregor is electric as the lead. Boyle wanted a figure reminiscent of Michael Caine in "Alfie" and Malcolm McDowell in "A Clockwork Orange," and that's exactly what McGregor provided: with charisma to burn, he's at once repellent and hugely sympathetic. The film still stands as a high watermark in the careers of both star and director; they worked together one more time, on the messy-but-not-without-its-charms Coen Brothers-lite "A Life Less Ordinary," before falling out when Boyle cast Leonardo di Caprio as the lead in "The Beach."

"Velvet Goldmine" (1998)
From heroin addict as rock star to, well, plain old rock star, McGregor took a key supporting role in Todd Haynes' glam-rock "Citizen Kane," "Velvet Goldmine." McGregor channels Iggy Pop (and a little Kurt Cobain for good measure) as American rock star Curt Wild, whose affair with Bowie-esque legend Brian Slade is the centerpiece of the film, and he's pretty terrific. Sure, his American accent is as shaky as ever, but he makes a compelling Iggy-surrogate, full of the star's wild energy, but with a surprising vulnerability that you suspect you'd have to dig deep to find in the Stooges frontman. Oh, and he could really sing, something that the actor would return to in blockbuster manner later on. The film's plenty flawed, uneasily mirroring a crackerjack style with the director's intellectual interests,, but as ever, Haynes never takes the standard approach: what other rock n roll films begin with Oscar Wilde arriving in a spaceship? The cast, even the inconsistent likes of Jonathan Rhys-Myers and Eddie Izzard, are all great, the soundtrack is a hall-of-famer, and when it really works -- particularly in the seemingly autobiographical aspects of young journalist Arthur (Christian Bale), whose fan-to-journalist journey is far more moving than the similar path walked in "Almost Famous." Plus, it has a scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi fucks Batman through a shower of glitter. So it's got that going for it.

"Moulin Rouge!" (2001)
No one expected "Moulin Rouge!" to become the kind of phenomenon that it did. An operatic musical, shot in a hyperactive MTV style, using mash-ups of popular, anachronistic songs, from the guy who directed "Romeo & Juliet?" Really? But the film proved to be both a critical and commercial hit, prefiguring the revival of the genre, and picked up 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and landed on many "best of the decade lists" when the time came. While we're not convinced as to how well the film has dated, it remains an impressive feat and, while Nicole Kidman got most of the critical plaudits, McGregor's performance as romantic lead Christian is really what makes the film work. It's a tricky one to pull off, a combination of romantic naivety, seductive charm and some incredibly broad humor, but the actor manages it with aplomb; there are few actors that would have managed to play the part sincerely, without winking at the camera (and plenty of actors in the film do the latter), but McGregor has to play it straight, and smashes it. And his singing voice turned out to be genuinely impressive, particularly in his rendition of Elton John's "Your Song," paving the way to a starring role on stage in "Guys & Dolls."

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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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