Total Recall

Total Recall: Ewan McGregor's Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the Jack the Giant Slayer star.

by | February 28, 2013 | Comments

Ewan McGregor

From independent dramas to a certain trilogy of big-budget sci-fi prequels, Ewan McGregor has led an admirably varied life on the big screen — as well as off, where he’s an accomplished stage actor as well as a bestselling author. This weekend, McGregor takes another step in a new direction with his appearance in Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer, a tongue-in-cheek, action-packed retelling of everyone’s favorite magic bean-fueled fairytale, and we decided to take the opportunity to pay tribute with a look back at some of his finest films. Yes, that’s right…it’s time for Total McRecall!


10. Big Fish

Casting younger versions of older actors to play their characters in the past is always a tricky proposition for any director, but Tim Burton pretty much knocked it out of the park in Big Fish; not only did he have Albert Finney anchoring his movie’s present-day storyline-slash-framing device, he scored a casting coup by landing McGregor as Finney’s more youthful incarnation, giving him a chance to deliver one of his more rakishly charming performances in a production that boasted all of Burton’s trademark visual whimsy in addition to a tender screenplay (adapted from the Daniel Wallace book) about the often-complicated relationships between fathers and sons. “Big Fish is so strange and so literary that audiences seeking conventional fare may get impatient with it,” admitted the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington. “But it always takes effort to catch the big ones. This one is worth it.”


9. Brassed Off

Movies about people in economically depressed small towns triumphing over adversity in some unusual, typically arts-driven way are nothing new (see: The Full Monty, Calendar Girls), and for good reason — with the right narrative hook, it’s a story worth telling repeatedly. Case in point: Writer/director Mark Herman’s Brassed Off, starring the incomparable Pete Postlethwaite as the director of an award-winning civic brass band in a British town where most people (including himself) have worked in the local mine — which is facing foreclosure thanks to a government study led by a woman (Tara Fitzgerald) who grew up nearby, and had a childhood romance with one of the members of the band (Ewan McGregor). Formula stuff, to be sure — but according to most critics, it was crafted adeptly enough to forgive its familiarity. As an appreciative Bridget Byrne put it for Boxoffice Magazine, “Like the music it celebrates, Brassed Off is in-your-face yet sentimental, rousing yet sad, defiant but full of heart.”


8. Haywire

A sleek, pleasantly pulpy woman-on-the-run action thriller with an uncommonly sharp cast, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire essentially doubled as two films — one that acted as a showcase for the bone-crunching skills of star (and real-life MMA fighter) Gina Carano, and another that served to highlight the ever-dependable work of her supporting players, a group that included McGregor, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and Antonio Banderas. “Carano is nothing special as an actress,” admitted Eric D. Snider for, “but darned if it matters when she’s supported by a killer screenplay, a sharp cast, and Steven Soderbergh’s unmistakably sly, mordant direction.”


7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

The Star Wars prequels have been the focus of a lot of critical scorn, and plenty of it is deserved, but they did have their moments — many of which arrived during 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. While far from perfect (and doomed to forever be known as the film that brought fans Darth Vader’s most laughable scene), Sith allowed fans to finally witness the events leading up to the galaxy-altering battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his wayward pupil, Anakin Skywaler (Hayden Christensen). “Same logo. Same starry-night spacescape. Same music. Same crawl. Same everything,” wrote Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Only different. And so much better.”


6. Little Voice

Two years after appearing in Mark Herman’s Brassed Off, McGregor reunited with the writer/director for Little Voice, an adaptation of the Jim Cartright play (titled The Rise and Fall of Little Voice in its stage incarnation) about a debilitatingly shy woman (Jane Horrocks) with a phenomenal singing voice and a mother (Brenda Blethyn) who happens to bring home a talent agent (Michael Caine) after a night of bar-hopping — therefore setting the stage for a life-altering chain of events. McGregor’s Little Voice role (a socially awkward pigeon trainer who forms a bond with Horrocks) isn’t one of his biggest, but it helped lay the groundwork for a film career that has grown to encompass a wide variety of genres — and it helped earn the approval of critics like Variety’s Derek Elley, who called the movie “A small picture with a big heart.”


5. The Impossible

Set out to make a movie about one of the more horrific tragedies in recent memory, and you’ve got your work cut out for you — like any good dramatist, you have to make real-life events cinema-worthy without dishonoring the people who actually experienced them, but with the added pressure of large-scale death and destruction hanging over your film. By most accounts, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible did a noble enough job of representing the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc on Boxing Day of 2004, and while some critics resented the way it focused on one white family of tourists (led by McGregor and Naomi Watts) at the expense of the people who actually lived in the region, and others dismissed the whole thing as manipulative Oscar bait, most writers found it (ahem) impossible not to be moved. Calling it “An intense and compelling family melodrama,” Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir argued that it “sets a new standard for disaster cinema.”


4. Emma

For awhile in the 1990s, it seemed like you couldn’t go a week without running into another indie period film at your local arthouse theater; fortunately, quite a few of them were better than average, with Douglas McGrath’s frothy Jane Austen adaptation Emma one of the more breezily enjoyable of an often dour-faced bunch. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the titular would-be matchmaker and McGregor as one of her suitors, it extended Miramax’s winning streak with a healthy $22 million gross, an Academy Award for Best Original Score, and a slew of positive reviews from critics like Peter Keough of the Boston Phoenix, who wrote, “Emma proves that cinema is up to the greatest that literature has to offer.”


3. The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer was director/co-writer Roman Polanski’s first full-length release since 2005’s Oliver Twist, and the time off apparently did him some good: This small-scale political thriller, adapted from Robert Harris’ novel, used a solid veteran cast to tell the story of a ghostwriter (McGregor) who finds himself drawn into trouble when he takes a job helping a British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) finish his memoirs — and unwittingly turns up clues to a crime that could threaten his own life. “The swirl of visual poetry, political intrigue and personal zeal that Polanski creates gets under your skin and brings an icy hand up your back,” marveled Tom Long of the Detroit News. “This is moviemaking.”


2. Beginners

Family dramedies are a dime a dozen, but there’s only one Beginners: Mike Mills’ tender, sweet look at the sometimes hilarious, often moving ways in which a widower’s (Christopher Plummer) decision to come out of the closet affects his relationship with his son (McGregor) — as well as his son’s pursuit of love in his own life. “Plummer gives a textured portrayal as Hal,” admitted Stella Papamichael for Radio Times, “but it’s the character of Oliver, sensitively played by McGregor, that rings truest, even when he takes advice from a subtitled dog.”


1. Trainspotting

Before he was one of Hollywood’s hottest and most eclectic leading men, Ewan McGregor was just another young actor climbing into a toilet. Thankfully, all that toilet-climbing was for a good cause: Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s brilliantly stylish adaptation of the Irvine Welsh novel about a group of heroin addicts struggling to get by in 1980s Scotland. Despite the dark subject matter, the movie managed quite a few moments of marvelously dark humor, and although it wasn’t one of the bigger box office draws of the year, it quickly went on to acquire a cult following. The critics were always on board, however; screenwriter John Hodge was nominated for an Academy Award, and the film earned raves from scribes like Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote, “Exuberant and pitiless, profane yet eloquent, flush with the ability to create laughter out of unspeakable situations, Trainspotting is a drop-dead look at a dead-end lifestyle that has all the strength of its considerable contradictions.”

In case you were wondering, here are McGregor’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Trainspotting — 92%
2. Moulin Rouge! — 88%
3. Big Fish — 86%
4. Black Hawk Down — 85%
5. The Impossible — 85%
6. Shallow Grave — 81%
7. Velvet Goldmine — 78%
8. Beginners — 77%
9. The Pillow Book — 77%
10. Emma — 73%

Take a look through McGregor’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Jack the Giant Slayer.

Finally, here’s the trailer for 1997’s I Love You, I Love You Not, one of Law’s first features: