The 100 best British films

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.


Bad Timing (1980)

Dir Nicolas Roeg (Art Garfunkel, Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel)

Garfunkel sings the clocks-go-back blues

It might have divided the critics with its disturbing notions of sexuality on its release, but ‘Bad Timing’ has grown in reputation to be counted amongst Nicolas Roeg’s best. His mastery of kaleidoscopic inter-cutting techniques – though subdued here – has never found better employment than the chronological quick-step and intersecting flashbacks he uses to reveal the psychosexual labyrinths of a fateful off/on love affair between Theresa Russell’s free-spirited boozehound and Art Garfunkel’s collected, monopolising, Malboro-smoking psychoanalyst. Set amid the icy old-world charm of Vienna, the fragmentary romantic drama builds into a hallucinatory thriller, as Harvey Keitel’s police detective – sans accent but with killer shoulder-length John the Baptist locks – begins to question Garfunkel over Russell’s abortive suicide attempt and forces us to reconsider all that’s gone before. ALD


Oliver! (1968)

Dir Carol Reed (Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed)

The only film here with its own reality TV spinoff...

For someone who couldn’t play a note of music, Lionel Bart sure knew how to pen a memorable ditty. ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ and the title song are all up there with the best in the musical genre. Carol Reed’s 1968 film is essentially a watered-down, family friendly reworking of Dickens’s oft-adapted novel. But with its dark, grimy Dickensian squalor (courtesy of one of Shepperton Studios’ most authentic sets – now sadly dismantled), Oliver Reed’s memorably chilling arch crim Bill Sikes, and at least one shocking murder, the film also displayed a level of foreboding darkness capable of scaring the bejesus out of younger viewers. The rest of the casting, too, is mostly spot on, none more so than Ron Moody’s iconically OTT performance as slimey child-gang leader, Fagin. A fabulously entertaining family musical, then, but one that, I suspect, is on this list for nostalgic value alone. DA


Dead of Night (1945)

Dirs Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer (Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver)

Tales of the unexpected

Modern audiences heading into Ealing’s portmanteau chiller keenly anticipating the film Martin Scorsese picked as the fifth scariest movie ever (and also inspired Fred Hoyle to formulate his ‘Steady State’ theory of cosmological expansion, science fans) may find themselves wondering, for a while, what all the fuss was about. The framing narrative, set in a delightful country house populated by jolly upper-crust eccentrics, is more cosy than creepy, the first three episodes – the psychic racing driver, the Victorian children’s party and the haunted mirror – while increasingly ominous, are hardly hair-raising, while the fourth is intentionally funny. So it’s upon Cavalcanti’s closing tale that the film’s reputation rests: the story of a disturbed ventriloquist – or a possessed dummy – has been done so often that one might expect the thrill to have gone. Not so – the final 15 minutes of ‘Dead of Night’ remains the pinnacle of pre-Hammer homemade horror, a truly disturbing flight into the arms of madness. TH


Whisky Galore! (1949)

Dir Alexander Mackendrick (Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, Jean Cadell)

I’d rather have a bottle in front o’ me…

In the post-war years, a number of films were made on both sides of the Atlantic intended to extol national virtues, restore civic pride and celebrate those values which make us who we are. But while the Yanks were busily indulging their national tendency towards flag-waving, pie-making, gingham-sewing and casual racism, we Brits were more likely to sing the praises of pastimes such as authority-baiting, petty larceny and the simple pleasure of drinking to the verge of blindness. ‘Whisky Galore’ is an unashamed celebration of alcoholism: the magic liquor greases the social machinery, gets communities communicating, even cures a bedridden geriatric of all that ails him. But it’s also a celebration of bloody-minded Britishness (or at least Scottishness) and the rebel spirit which, according to Ealing, showed Gerry what for. TH


Wonderland (1999)

Dir Michael Winterbottom (Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson, Molly Parker, John Simm)

This world, then the fireworks

Now 49, Michael Winterbottom has been making almost one film every year for the past 15 years, most of them broadly well liked, so it’s not surprising that three films by the versatile, Blackburn-born, Oxford-educated director have made it on to our list. This is his highest-placed film, which may have something to do with just how real and recognisable Winterbottom and writer Laurence Coriat’s vision of London is as he tells of one Bonfire Night weekend in the lives of three variously troubled sisters, played by Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Molly Parker. The relationships and events amount to a credible portrait of modern city and family life, but it’s the intimate, improvised shooting style (16mm, natural light, all on location) and Michael Nyman’s evocative, memorable score (this often feels like a film made to music) that define the film and give it the sense of immediacy and compassion that make it so enduring. DC


Dracula (1958)

Dir Terence Fisher (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough)

No ‘Twilight’ for old men

Hammer stalwart Fisher delivered this rum and rather gory (for the time) take on Bram Stoker’s horror classic of the battle of wills between a devilish, blood-sucking Transylvanian count and his bookish slayer. It helps that Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula are both on top scenery (and in the case of Lee, neck) chewing form, while you also watch in amazement at how they managed to make such a lavish film on the near-pittance of £81,000. Of course, you can titter at the gothic excess of the production design, how po-faced the whole enterprise is (with its lithe hotties darting around in lace negligees) and the cheapo effects, but the subtext of the story about the tragedy of addiction and the transmission of disease remains deadly serious. DJ


Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Dir Mike Leigh (Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall)

He remains an Englishman

Notwithstanding ‘Naked’ and the second half of ‘Another Year’, Mike Leigh’s in some ways most atypical film – it’s a period drama, with song and dance, and rather longer than usual – is also his finest. About Gilbert and Sullivan responding to withering criticism of ‘Princess Ida’ by making a comeback with ‘The Mikado’, it’s the kind of film that perhaps shouldn’t work but does – magnificently, thanks to a clutch of great performances and unshowy but precise direction, which ensures the movie succeeds on three levels: as an illuminating, partly self-reflexive meditation on the creative process; as an unusually vivid insight into just how different the world was as recently as the 1880s (all that wariness of the newfangled telephone!); and as witty, touching, utterly engrossing entertainment. GA


Nuts In May (1976)

Dir Mike Leigh (Roger Sloman, Alison Steadman)

Loitering within tent

Judging by its surprise inclusion in this poll, this second episode in Mike Leigh’s ‘Play for Today’ TV series has remained one of the director’s most fondly remembered early features. Originally broadcast in 1976, it centres on a Dorset camping trip embarked upon by bearded, anally retentive and suffocatingly authoritarian husband Keith (Roger Sloman) and his hippy-drippy, plain-Jane wife Candice-Marie (Leigh’s ex-wife Alison Steadman). Leigh’s crafty powers of societal observation are very much to the fore as we witness a gradual breakdown in relations between middle-class Keith and a noisy young fellow camper who refuses to turn his radio off. That Candice-Marie appears to be showing sympathy towards the other party only serves to inflame the situation… It’s a film of so many memorable moments – from Keith’s cringeworthy grovelling when a policeman questions the roadworthiness of his beloved Morris Minor to Candice-Marie’s hilariously lispy vegetarian folk song. DA


Deep End (1970)

Dir Jerzy Skolimowski (Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Diana Dors)

The drowning pool

One of the all-time great London movies, the splendidly sleazy ‘Deep End’ definitively proves that it takes an outsider’s eye to really capture the true textures of a city. Written and directed by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (who cut his teeth co-writing Polanski’s masterful debut ‘Knife in the Water’), the film captures the sexual shenanigans of the staff and clientele of a squalid South London swimming bath. Naive teen Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is the new kid, and – amid much inappropriate bum-pinching and his near-rape by regular bather Diana Dors (who else?!) – he falls madly in love with his coquettish manager Susan (a stone-cold tour de force from Jane Asher – who else?). But from its ‘Carry On’-ish opening, the film morphs into something much more sinister, even segueing into ‘Peeping Tom’ territory, as Mike’s love turns to violent fixation. Plus, its ultra-seedy depiction of Soho nightlife is the sort of thing you might find nowadays in a Gaspar Noé movie. DJ


Walkabout (1971)

Dir Nicolas Roeg (Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Lucien John)

Aboriginal sin

In which Nicolas Roeg generously invents our one-time colony’s national cinema for it. As reported in the terrific 2008 Ozsploitation doc ‘Not Quite Hollywood’, Australian cinema in the late ’60s was non-existent. You can argue the importance of tax breaks, TV training and the burgeoning counterculture, but it’s hard not to see Roeg’s haunting Outback tragedy as a breakthrough moment. Other directors, notably Peter Weir, would refine what would come to be known as the landscape movie, but few would capture the desolate wilderness on every Aussie’s doorstep more convincingly. Remembered chiefly for Jenny Agutter’s borderline inappropriate only-just-of-age nude swim, ‘Walkabout’ possesses innumerable charms, not least David Gulpilil’s heartbreaking performance, an astonishing opening scene and of course Roeg’s ravishing photography. TH