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.

80

Under the Skin (1997)

Dir Carine Adler (Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham)

Sex, death, the usual...

Women directed only four of our top 100 films, although perhaps we should celebrate that all four of those are from the last 20 years, which might suggest the gender gap in cinema is gradually closing. (When the BFI organised a similar poll in 1999, not one director on their list was a woman.) That said, the careers of two of those four directors, Lynne Ramsay and Carine Adler, have stalled in recent years and only Andrea Arnold seems able to move easily from film to film. So far Adler’s 1997 film ‘Under the Skin’ is her one and only feature, but it still remains rare for offering a female writer-director’s view on a woman’s extreme sexuality as a young Liverpudlian woman Iris (Samantha Morton) embraces promiscuity and a heightened sexual awareness as part of the grieving process in the wake of her mother’s death from cancer. Adler might not have fulfilled her promise – but this film launched Morton as one of our most bold and smart young actresses. DC

79

The Offence (1972)

Dir Sidney Lumet (Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant)

Sean of the dead

American filmmaker Sidney Lumet brought a keen outsider’s eye to this deliriously depressing slab of British noir. Sean Connery is at his cruel, bullying best as an immoral police detective on the trail of a child molester – a mission that leads to a harrowing, tragic face-off with grateful suspect Ian Bannen and to a long, dark night of the soul in which all the horrors, mis-steps and dismembered bodies Connery has psychically stockpiled over 20 years on the force coalesce into a grisly butcher’s bill that he has no hope of meeting. The film displeased United Artists – who funded it as a thank you to Connery for wigging his way through the previous year’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, and who didn’t want 007 to be viewed as any more of a pitiless shitbag than strictly necessary – and went unreleased in many countries. But it’s outstanding quality remains undeniable. As does its capacity to unsettle. ALD

78

Billy Liar (1963)

Dir John Schlesinger (Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Wilfred Pickles)

The great escape

Few films exemplify the fearsome contradictions inherent in British filmmaking better than ‘Billy Liar’. Is it better to dream of a better world, or to keep both feet planted firmly in the real one? Is escapism a creative act, or an indulgence? Is social class really the thing that keeps us apart, or is it just a convenient distraction? And is London really the promised land, or just a place to ‘lose yourself’? While director John Schlesinger and writer Keith Waterhouse don’t really come up with much in the way of actual answers – perhaps there is no satisfactory solution to Billy’s dilemma – they do a superb job of asking the right questions. Tom Courtenay is unforgettable in the title role, and Julie Christie’s fleeting, flitting presence is as convincing a ‘star is born’ moment as British film has to offer. TH

77

Piccadilly (1929)

Dir EA Dupont (Anna May Wong, Gilda Gray, Jameson Thomas)

Where East End girls meet West End boys…

The oldest movie on our list – pipping at the post Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ by less than a month – is this glorious silent-era melodrama set mainly in London’s West End in the late 1920s but which takes detours to the slums of Limehouse and to the showbiz world’s less glamorous nooks and crannies. Made on the cusp of the sound era (and a ‘talkie’ prologue exists as an extra on the BFI’s recent DVD), the film has a vibrant, jazz-age energy to it that takes its cue from the dance scenes on the floor of Valentine Wilmot’s (Jameson Thomas) Piccadilly Club – where Charles Laughton has an amusing cameo as a disgruntled diner. Anna May Wong gives an empowering performance as the dancer Shosho and her first appearance, dancing on the sideboard in the club’s scullery, feels as luminous and provocative today as it surely must have in the late 1920s. For us, the film is also a thrilling imagining (almost entirely studio-shot, of course) of a long-gone city. DC

76

Penda’s Fen (1974)

Dir Alan Clarke (Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Ian Hogg)

Shadows of the past

This remarkable feature length television film – commissioned for the legendary 1970s ‘Play for Today’ single drama series – is often described as a step ‘off piste’ for its director Alan Clarke. That’s a misleading reading, however. The work’s qualities of resistance, questioning and personal and public transformation are entirely in keeping with the normally urban-centric filmmaker’s milieu. But the real credit lies with its writer David Rudkin. An astonishing playwright with a visionary reach and a genuine sense of ‘deep England’ and its radical potential, Rudkin here crafts a multi-layered reading of contemporary society and its personal, social, sexual, psychic and metaphysical fault lines. Fusing Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ with a heightened socialism of vibrantly localist empathy, and pagan belief systems with pre-Norman histories and a seriously committed – and prescient – ecological awareness, ‘Penda’s Fen’ is a unique and important statement, rumoured soon – finally – to be available on DVD. GE

75

A Room for Romeo Brass (1999)

Dir Shane Meadows (Paddy Considine, Andrew Shim, Ben Marshall)

Paddy power

The importance of imperfection cannot be overlooked in British film: while there’s plenty to be said for the studied slickness of Hitchcock or Lean, I’ll take the shaggy-edged, off-kilter unpredictability of ‘A Canterbury Tale’, ‘Kes’ or ‘Romeo Brass’ any day. This was Meadows’s second film, his trickiest, his loosest and perhaps his best. It marks the debut screen appearance of Paddy Considine, and though it’s easy (and probably appropriate) to refer to him as our De Niro, it took Bob five years to get to Johnny Boy, while Paddy knocked it flat first time in the ring. The edge-of-your-seat savagery of his performance, contrasted with the sweet-natured, bucolic nature of the central friendship, makes for a more honest and believable portrayal of the shift into adulthood than 100 prim and polished pretenders. TH

74

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Dir Mike Newell (Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas)

Well, I, er... gosh, you know... um... crikey

The film that set Hugh Grant on the road towards ‘Notting Hill’ and a varied career as Britain’s jester of romcom. Using one of Richard Curtis’s less cheesy screenplays, director Newell fashioned a richly rewarding and funny microcosm of various relationships centred mostly around Grant’s likeable bachelor, Charles. The film benefits from a raft of well-observed moments – the subtle comedy of Rowan Atkinson’s tongue-tied vicar, for instance – yet emotions are cleverly twisted once we attend the funeral and the film’s sole serious moment. It’s this scene alone – in which John Hannah reads WH Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’ – that cast the greatest influence over audiences. Emotionally honest and full of human warmth, ‘Four Weddings…’ stands out as one of the most enjoyable of British romcoms. And what’s more, it’s the only film in this list to open with the word ‘fuck!’ DA

73

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Dir Alexander Mackendrick (Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker)

The price of progress

Of all the top-rank Ealing comedies, ‘The Man in the White Suit’ is the one which least deserves the tag, partly because it’s not meant to be funny, and partly because it diverges so much from the Ealing template: it’s not set in London, it doesn’t feature wisecracking criminals, plodding bobbies or apple-cheeked tykes, and it eschews good-natured patriotism in favour of a rather cold, even misanthropic view of class-obsessed workers and short-sighted bosses. Alec Guinness’s blinkered scientist Sidney is every bit as irksome as Professor Marcus in ‘The Ladykillers’, but quieter, subtler and less flashy, and while gravel-throated Joan Greenwood and simpering beau Michael Gough feel like a stereotypical Ealing couple, there’s something pathetic about the way they’re so powerless to affect the course of events. The result is a genuinely unusual film: part political treatise, part social satire, even part science fiction, all building towards a magnificently unsettling climax of mob justice. TH

72

The Long Day Closes (1992)

Dir Terence Davies (Marjorie Yates, Leigh McCormack, Anthony Watson)

Ma, can I go to the pictures?

It’s clear Davies believes we are shaped by the movies we watch. If Fellini saw life as a circus, then Davies sees life as a cinema. Young Bud (Leigh McCormack) is his alter ego, and this is a rhapsodic scrapbook of memories from a working-class Liverpool childhood accompanied by dispatches from the wireless, popular songs and rousing classical standards. Davies rejects a linear narrative in favour of creating layers of emotion through a succession of detached scenes such as Bud’s attempts to get in to a cinema and his presence at a drunken family sing-song. But first and foremost this is a film which weighs up the consolations of cinema against the consolations of religion, and – if we are to read anything into the final shot of Bud and a friend watching a film of clouds drifting by starlight as Arthur Sullivan’s song ‘The Long Day Closes’ plays in the background – cinema wins by a mile. DJ

71

Edvard Munch (1974)

Dir Peter Watkins (Geir Westby, Gro Fraas, Iselin von Hanno Bart)

Scream and scream again

Left-leaning director Watkins is most famous for the challenging, innovative, vérité-style docs he made in the mid-1960s for the BBC (see ‘Culloden’, above). The negative reaction to – and 20-year banning of – his exposure of the threat of nuclear war in ‘The War Game’ (1965) led him into self-imposed, globe-trotting exile and obscurity. Even his masterpiece, ‘Edvard Munch’ – a beautiful, heartbreaking and extraordinarily empathetic three-and-a-half hour meditation on the life and work of the Norwegian painter describing ‘the illness, insanity and death’ that pre-occupied the artist’s life – was largely unavailable for 20-or-so years. It’s surprising therefore to see a place in this poll for a hitherto neglected classic of British cinema, as well as further testament to the power and necessity of DVD revivals. WH

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