The 100 best British films

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Time Out counts down the best British films, as chosen by the film industry

By Dave Calhoun, Tom Huddleston and David Jenkins, with Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Adam Lee Davies, Gareth Evans, Paul Fairclough and Wally Hammond. Explore the individual top tens of every contributor.

90

Blue (1993)

Dir Derek Jarman (voices of Tilda Swinton, John Quentin, Nigel Terry)

Distant voices...

‘My mind is bright as a button, but my body is falling apart.’ It’s rare that a ‘last film’ is conceived as such, but Derek Jarman knew he was dying from Aids-related illnesses when he made ‘Blue’ in 1993 – a film simultaneously broadcast on television and radio months before his death in 1994 at 52. It was his encroaching blindness, much referred to in the voiceover read by several actors, which gave Jarman the idea to apply words to an unchanging, blue screen for 76 minutes. The voiceover is a mix of diary and poetry, relating variously to Jarman’s illness, art and the colour blue. It’s a bold, moving work, but it’s Jarman’s ability to conjure up such a unique, experimental event as ‘Blue’ that we must remember and honour – the way that, with this avant-garde work, he drew attention to him, his work, sexuality and illness and made an unembarrassed, deathbed claim for art itself. DC

89

The Go-Between (1970)

Dir Joseph Losey (Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Dominic Guard)

The boys of summer

‘The past is another country. They do things differently there’: one of two Joseph Losey-Harold Pinter collaborations to feature in our poll (the other is ‘The Servant’) is this radiant and evocative adaptation of LP Hartley’s tale of thwarted love and class prejudice set against the halcyon British summer of 1900. It was dumped initially by MGM because of its supposed ‘difficulty’ but was subsequently the winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or and a box-office and critical success in the US. The reputations of both the film and late-career Losey went into decline in Britain (if not elsewhere) by the mid-1990s – in 1994 The Independent’s Anthony Quinn, typically, thought this film ‘overrated’ and part of Losey’s decline. But its complexity of feeling, the undoubted chemistry of its reunited stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates, the lushness of cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s Norfolk landscapes and the critical late-1960s sensibility provided by the acute eye and complex psychological insight of Losey – plus the revelatory use of time-frames, flashback and point-of-view in Pinter’s script – guarantee its lasting appeal. WH

88

This Is England (2006)

Dir Shane Meadows (Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley)

He’s got some Front

You could hear the British film industry breathe a collective sigh of relief when writer-director Shane Meadows got the breakthrough hit he so richly deserved after much critical but little commercial success with his previous films. Clearly ripped from his own experiences, this rite-of-passage tale sees a naive, isolated youngster (Thomas Turgoose – a revelation) scooped up by some friendly skinheads and introduced to the joys of young love, ska, short hair and oversized, steel toe-capped Doc Martens. But Meadows’s film shows that this initially benign enclave was very different to the growing ranks of supporters of the National Front, even if their appearance was similar. The film established Meadows in a league of his own when it comes to naturalistic, comic dialogue and wringing sensitive performances from young cast members. It also confirmed him as a director whose predominant interest is in contrasting the invigorating highs and vicious lows of English working-class life. DJ

87

Night and the City (1950)

Dir Jules Dassin (Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers)

London by night is a wonderful sight

London noir may have been more of a literary movement than a cinematic one, but its undoubted pinnacle – both on the page and screen – is ‘Night and the City’. The film may bear little relation to Gerald Kersh’s far nastier (and more grimly believable) source novel, but Jules Dassin’s stark, unforgiving direction, Max Greene’s oppressive monochrome cinematography and Richard Widmark’s twitchy central performance give the movie a paranoid power all of its own. The centrepiece scene remains the staggering, emotionally draining wrestling match between avuncular old-timer Gregorius and new-fangled masked avenger The Strangler, arguably the most punishing fight ever committed to celluloid, five unforgiving minutes of sweat, muscle and dogged determination. TH

86

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Dir David Lean (Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins)

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun

Not even the breeze coming off his twirling moral compass can keep Alec Guinness’s stiff upper lip from wilting in the maddening Burmese heat during David Lean’s truly epic – as opposed to simply lengthy – meditation on the possibilities of humane behaviour in wartime. Guinness is otherwise in fine form as a captured British colonel overseeing Allied troops charged with assisting the Japanese war effort by building said bridge across said river. William Holden’s engaging, wiseacre American GI, on the other hand, is quite unshakeable in his belief that the war would get on quite well without him thank you very much, and spends an enviable amount of the film goosing the nurses in a Ceylon military hospital. Ultimately, both men’s attitudes are compromised to the greater good as the bridge comes crashing down in a riveting scene of unbridled catharsis. ALD

85

I'm All Right, Jack (1959)

Dir John Boulting (Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas)

‘Ah, Russia… All them corn fields, and ballet in the evening!’

After satirising army life in 1956’s ‘Private’s Progress’, the Boulting brothers thrust the same cast of characters onto civvy street for a swipe at… well, pretty much every aspect of post-war Britain: capitalism, socialism, unions, management, cronyism, indolence, the media, the nobs at the top and the workers at the sharp end all come in for a poke in the eye and a kick up the arse as Ian Carmichael’s upper-class twit unwittingly causes a strike at his scheming uncle’s missile factory. Cue a battle of wills between Peter Sellers’s hard-left shop steward and Terry-Thomas’s slippery personnel manager that swiftly erupts into a scandal. The politics may have lost some of their bite over the years, but the humour – for all its cosy warmth – retains a cold, jagged edge. ALD

84

Fish Tank (2009)

Dir Andrea Arnold (Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender)

Estuary English

The director of the most recent film on our list, former kids’ TV presenter Andrea Arnold, 49, came to attention in 2005 when she declared live on television that it was ‘the dog’s bollocks’ to be awarded an Oscar for her short film, ‘Wasp’. Since then, she has made two features, ‘Red Road’ and ‘Fish Tank’, both of which triumphed at Cannes. Like ‘Red Road’, ‘Fish Tank’ intimately explores the life of one female character on a housing estate, this time potty-mouthed teen Mia (Katie Jarvis), who falls into a relationship with her mum’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). The beauty of Arnold’s films lies in their poetry and brilliance at expressing interior feelings through quiet observation. Arnold was awarded an OBE at the end of 2010 and is now finishing a version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ populated by little-known actors. We suspect – and hope – that Arnold is not about to cross over to the mainstream any time soon. DC

83

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Dir Anthony Asquith (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow, Uno Henning, Norah Baring)

Cut!

Better known for his sterling Terence Rattigan adaptations ‘The Winslow Boy’ (1948) and ‘The Browning Version’ (1951), Anthony Asquith’s recently re-appraised silent melodrama is totally deserving of its place on this list and is perhaps the biggest reminder of how much the age of the DVD has allowed us better access to such hidden gems. Edited with the quick-chopping fury of a Darren Aronofsky movie, this pacy and occasionally very funny film looks at a love triangle forming at a busy barber’s shop: hairdresser Joe (Uno Henning) is madly in love with manicurist Sally (Norah Baring) but can’t quite seal the deal, a fact of which Dartmoor farmer and regular customer Harry takes full advantage. As Joe’s jealousy escalates, Asquith’s direction takes on more weird and wonderful forms, referencing silent comedy, German expressionism and Russian montage, sometimes all in the same scene. When violence erupts, it’s swift and brutal, but the film’s main pleasure is its pragmatic handling of the central romance. DJ

82
Tilda cross-dresses in Sally Potter's sublime, gender-bending 'Orlando' (1992) Tilda cross-dresses in Sally Potter's sublime, gender-bending 'Orlando' (1992)

Orlando (1993)

Dir Sally Potter (Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, John Wood)

The secret history

Tilda Swinton is said to be planning a collaboration with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of ‘Uncle Boonmee…’, and if the Thai dreamweaver is in any doubt about casting her in one of his metaphysical opuses, he need only watch Sally Potter’s Jarmanesque time, space and gender-switching adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, ‘Orlando: A Biography’. What’s clear from the off is that Swinton and Potter possess an acute understanding of the droll subtleties of the text about an immortal nobleman who leaves his stamp on various points in modern history and then transforms from man to woman. The film is not merely about the strictures of gender through the ages, but also an essay on the nature of evolution (the Godardian final shot even switches from film to video) and it scores points through knowing casting (Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I!) and production design that’s just jaw-droppingly plush for what must’ve been a modest budget. DJ

81

Dr No (1962)

Dir Terence Young (Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman)

Dang da-da dang dang and so on and so forth…

It might look fresh today, but ‘Dr No’ must have seemed like ‘Avatar’ to post-war British audiences. A transgressive explosion of colour, exoticism, modernity and impetuous sex, James Bond’s first mission sees the imperious Sean Connery saunter through an overripe cocktail of Caribbean intrigue abetted by Jack ‘Hawaii Five-O’ Lord as his shifty CIA opposite number Felix Leiter and Ursula Andress as racy cockler, Honey Ryder, all of whom are variously hot under the collar for the bionic hide of Dr Julius No – major player in the Spectre spy organisation we shall become all-too familiar with in further instalments. The bad doctor is the first of many Bond supervillains to crave global domination, but when ‘Dr No’ made its million-dollar budget back 109 times over, it was immediately clear that 007 had come out on top – and would be back for more. ALD

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1 comments
Sergey Larin
Sergey Larin

Thank you for the effort. I`ll watch a dozen of them. I am mostly quite bored with those before the 70s. Overacting or overstyled those were.