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From Star Wars to Trainspotting: Ewan McGregor's 10 best films


“I feel that the acting’s getting easier – with experience, everything is more instinctual” – Ewan McGregor

A career littered with critical and commercial success, the filmography of Ewan McGregor is certainly impressive, working with some of cinema’s most acclaimed directors including Ridley Scott, Roman Polanski, and Todd Haynes. Appearing as Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi in Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, his role as a smart-talking apprentice-turned-master would inspire the minds of fans and fellow film studios worldwide, highlighting his own natural charm and likeability. 

Whilst Star Wars may have tossed him into the mainstream stratosphere, it was the work of British filmmaker Danny Boyle that would initially establish him as the sharp Scottish actor we know today. A breakout role as Alex Law in Boyle’s Shallow Grave would precede his second film, the Oscar-nominated Trainspotting, and would, in-turn, earmark a young Ewan McGregor as an energetic, vibrant actor as part of one of contemporary British cinema’s greatest ensemble casts. 

Due to soon reprise his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in his own long-awaiting prequel series, Mcgregor has grown from life as a supporting actor throughout the ’90s, to a powerhouse lead.

Now, let’s take a look back through his very best films…

Ewan McGregor’s 10 best films:

10. The Impossible (J. A. Bayona – 2012)

McGregor’s ‘everyman’ persona as the father of a tourist family caught amid the destruction and aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami helps to elevate J. A. Bayona’s material into something far more palpable, and far more heartbreaking. 

As the family is split apart, McGregor is left alone to search for his wife and two sons, navigating the devastation left behind from the natural disaster. Perfectly reflecting the panic and anxiety of such a situation, McGregor’s character is effortlessly sympathetic, ever more so following the terrifying tsunami scene itself, captured terrifically by cinematographer Oscar Faura.

9. Big Fish (Tim Burton – 2003)

Pop-gothic director Tim Burton tuned down his dark aesthetic by just a few notches for his adaptation of the 1998 novel Big Fish by Daniel Wallace and inadvertently made one of his best films in the process.

McGregor plays a young Ed Bloom, a father whose history seems to be peppered with fantastical mystery, much to the frustration of his son. Looking back on a life of fairytale, McGregor does well to pull the story to the ground and prevent it from floating into total nonsense, an impressive feat considering that much of the film involves his interaction with giants and witches among other creatures. It is an artfully told story and emotional conclusion make it one of Burton’s most memorable films, with much credit given to McGregor’s lead performance.

8. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott – 2001)

Taking its name from the non-fiction book of the same name by Mark Bowden, Ridley Scott’s 2001 war film Black Hawk Down was a frantic depiction of a troubled U.S military raid spilling with palpable tension.

In an altogether more restrained, authoritative role, McGregor plays Specialist John Grimes, a desk clerk turned soldier, who together with 159 other elite troops end up in a desperate battle for survival against a heavily-armed Somalian militia. Utilising immersive cinematography and polished production design, Black Hawk Down would earn Oscars for both film editing and sound, no doubt thanks to Ridley Scott’s directorial ability and Ewan McGregor’s action performance amongst a fantastic ensemble cast.

7. Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas – 2005)

George Lucas’ prequel trilogy didn’t feel the same love and appreciation as its iconic predecessors of the 1970s and ’80s, though recently these films have reclaimed some respect, with Ewan McGregor’s energetic central performance right at the heart of this new-found appreciation.

Revenge of the Sith, the third of the prequel films, accounts Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil, tearing away from the guidance of his guru Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by McGregor who is forced to stop his apprentice at all costs. The final film of the trilogy is the most celebrated for good reason, this is pure melodramatic entertainment with bombastic action and appropriately pulpy dialogue, led by Ewan McGregor who is visibly loving every minute of it. As he said in an interview following the release of the film “nothing’s cooler than being a Jedi Knight”. 

6. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski – 2010)

Lesser-known for his 21st-century filmmaking feats, controversial director Roman Polanski’s 2010 film The Ghost Writer is one of his modern greats, following a ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. 

During the completion of these memoirs, the nameless ghostwriter played by Ewan McGregor begins to uncover secrets so big they could reveal an international scandal. It’s one of the actors latest and greatest performances, driving the film’s plot forward with great energy, curiosity and sincerity. His excellent performance as the leading man is unfortunately dampened by the film’s lack of popularity, though remains one to actively seek out.

5. Beginners (Mike Mills – 2010)

Mike Mills’ underrated heartwarming autobiographical film Beginners, is one led by the fantastic lead performances from the late Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, a father-son duo whose history takes on a new light when the father comes out as gay. 

The announcement follows the death of the father’s wife, as well as the reveal that he has terminal cancer, throwing the life of Ewan McGregor’s character into disarray as he comes to terms with both revelations. His soft, subtle performance elicits sympathy from the audience as he enters into a new relationship of his own, itself marked with difficulty. It’s a difficult role for McGregor to undertake but one which he grasps with apparent ease.

4. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann – 2010)

Lending his pipes to Baz Luhrmann for his kitsch 2001 musical Moulin Rouge!, Ewan McGregor brings vim and vigour to his leading role, elevating the film to a higher contemporary status. 

From Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ to Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, Luhrmann’s electrifyingly eccentric film is lit up by McGregor, a poet who falls for a cabaret performer. Winning Academy Awards for the films Art Direction and Costume Design, whilst McGregor was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, Moulin Rouge! Is well remembered as one of contemporary cinema’s greatest musicals, as well as the first time Ewan McGregor was able to show off his theatrical singing abilities.

3. Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes – 1998)

Todd Hayne’s lesser-known Velvet Goldmine, sandwiched in between the releases 1995’s Safe and 2002’s Far from Heaven, is an underappreciated gem in the jewelled crown of Hayne’s filmography, bulging with ’80s glamour. 

Set in the 1980s, Hayne’s film tracks a journalists’ investigation into the career of fictional, sexually fluid, androgynous superstar Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a character heavily influenced by rebellious American performer Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). McGregor’s character is himself inspired by the biographical lives of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, channelling the same flamboyant and vibrant energy as the two musical icons with a terrifically wild performance.

2. Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle – 1994)

The debut feature film from iconic British director Danny Boyle, as well as only Ewan McGregor’s second mainstream appearance, Shallow Grave would catapult both talents to bigger and brighter opportunities toward the late 1990s. 

A simple story houses this dark-comedy, following three friends, Juliet, David and Alex (Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor) who find their new flatmate dead in their flat, loaded with thousands in cash. The accountant, doctor and journalist (the latter played by McGregor) must then decide what to do with the body and cash, causing some disastrously glorious entertainment. McGregor is fantastic here among the trio ensemble, as each of them descends into violent paranoia, fueled by greed.

1. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle – 1996)

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family.”

Based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name, Danny Boyle’s 1990s classic Trainspotting is his pièce de résistance, and one of British cinema’s most iconic contemporary films.

Tracking the chaotic lives of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, McGregor plays Renton, living unemployed with his parents in the suburbs who decides to clean up and wean himself off the drug; a task easier said than done considering the irresponsible influence of his friends. Leading the charge as the central protagonist, McGregor is magnificent in his nuanced portrayal of a drug addict on the verge of recovery, so good in fact that his role here would catapult him to international success as well as shining acclaim later in his career.