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.

60

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Dir John Mackenzie (Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Derek Thompson)

Small man syndrome

That electro-synth score! Bob Hoskins wandering in close-up through Heathrow! The Docklands as the future! And the actor Derek Thompson, whose movie career was stalled by 25 years of playing Charlie in ‘Casualty’! Some of it might look like old episodes of ‘Dempsey & Makepeace’, but John Mackenzie’s gangster thriller still has great energy and momentum and isn’t a patch on recent pretenders to its throne. In retrospect, it’s the location shooting, especially around the docks – post-industry but pre-development – that resonates the most, as well as writer Barrie Keefe’s capturing of the Thatcherite zeitgeist in the person of gangster Harry Shand (Hoskins), who declares ‘I’m not a politician: I’m a businessman with a sense of history, and I’m also a Londoner’ from the back of a yacht cruising under Tower Bridge. Shand’s criminal network and its involvement with the Mafia and the IRA aren’t at all believable, but Keefe’s portrait of corruption and racism among white males in the underworld, police and local governent certainly is. DC

59

Blackmail (1929)

Dir Alfred Hitchcock (Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, John Longden)

The sound man cometh

Which film do you want? The silent version or the more familiar, partly reshot movie that was Britain’s first talkie feature? It doesn’t matter that much, really, since the stylish, occasionally Langian visuals already present in the first cut are still there in the second one, though it’s fascinating to hear Hitchcock’s engagingly experimental, at times even playful approach to sound echoing the elements of expressionism to be found in some of the imagery: the scene in which Anny Ondra’s heroine, having recently stabbed a lecher in self-defence, listens in to a conversation (somewhat improbably) full of references to knives is rightly famous. But, as Tony Rayns has argued, it’s also of interest for its intriguing narrative structure, shifting from a straightforward, rather detached police procedural to something altogether more intimate and messily involving, while the set pieces also display the level of expertise Hitchcock had attained during the silent era as a manipulator of audience emotions and a showman entertainer: the British Museum climax remains a classic sequence. GA

58

Gregory's Girl (1981)

Dir Bill Forsyth (John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Claire Grogan)

Why must I be a teenager in love?

Of all the British filmmakers who, flush with the success of their first few homegrown efforts, decided to go and seek their fortunes across the pond, the tale of Bill Forsyth is the most cautionary. Forsyth’s first ‘proper’ feature following the youth-theatre experiment ‘That Sinking Feeling’, ‘Gregory’s Girl’ is as flawless an example of personal cinema as this nation has to offer: witty, insightful, beautifully observed and heartbreakingly accurate, it says everything there is to say about suburban lust, adolescent romance, the pressure to fit in – truly, all of teenage life is here. The dialogue is poetic but wholly believable, the cast is note-perfect, the characterisation is broad but distinctive and the photography is simple, unfussy and real. None of which made a blind bit of difference when Forsyth tried to take Hollywood by storm and found himself on the sharp end of studio recuts with his career-ending four-year folly ‘Being Human’. Ignominious doesn’t begin to cover it. TH

57

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Dir Stanley Kubrick (Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester)

Too much monkey business

Okay, so the director, money and most of the cast are American, but it was shot here, dammit, so we’re claiming ‘2001’ as our own. True, the same could go for most of Hollywood’s bigger-budget ’70s and early ’80s efforts (‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders’, ‘Aliens’…), but none of those films feels remotely British whereas, in a strange way, ‘2001’ does. Perhaps it’s the fact that Kubrick had, by this point, become an honorary Englishman, or the influence of co-writer Arthur C Clarke (himself, ironically, an expat). Perhaps it’s the fact that the groundbreaking effects were, to a large extent, designed and built by British crews, or simply that the film feels so resolutely un-Hollywood in tone, structure and impact. Personally, I attribute the film’s Britishness to the roughly three-minute appearance of Leonard Rossiter: even though he’s supposedly playing a Russian scientist, with Rigsby’s arrival it feels like a little piece of northern suburbia has been transplanted to earth’s orbit. TH

56

Caravaggio (1986)

Dir Derek Jarman (Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton)

Anyone for tennis?

The late Derek Jarman took the same anachronistic liberties in depicting the life of his subject – Italian, seventeenth-century painter Caravaggio – as the painter himself did with his subjects. Little-known actor Nigel Terry is great as the violently impulsive title character, and the film comprises flashbacks over his life as he lies dying. Specific focus is given to his fraught relationships with two of his models: Sean Bean’s muscular Ranuccio Thomasoni and Tilda Swinton’s Lena. But this is no cut-and-dried biopic, as Jarman frames the drama within ornate tableaux and honours the complexity of the emotions by reining in the melodrama and telling the story through the stresses of his camera and glances of the actors. As you’d expect from a from a film about a painter, it’s a visual marvel made from very spare ingredients and with the help of a discerning and intelligent director. DJ

55

Radio On (1980)

Dir Chris Petit (David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliff)

Wir fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n auf der M4

Few British feature film debuts come as distinctive – or as quietly influential – as former Time Out Film editor Chris Petit’s Europhile mission statement. Not quite a road movie – England’s not large enough – Petit’s film takes the aesthetic and social imperatives of Wim Wenders’s luminous monochrome and his continental enquiries, transplanting them to the fields and motorways of southern England. A nominal plot – the strange death of a brother in Bristol – prompts a journey west from London into a place beyond narrative cinema. Utterly cinematic, powered by a startlingly resonant late ’70s soundtrack (with Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ the ironic turntable centre) and with an acute sense of transformative hybrid landscapes as equal players in the film’s unfolding sensibility, ‘Radio On’ sits, quite literally, on the precipice between a failing post-war reality and the coming abyss of Thatcherism. More relevant than ever, Petit’s essay on existential enquiry in an English setting remains critical viewing. GE

54

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

Dirs Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones (Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle et al)

They’ve got a luvverly bunch of coconuts

It’s a miracle this film got off the ground. According to interviews given on the most recent DVD release, the production of the Pythons’ first properly scripted feature was not only dogged by differences between its co-directors Terry Gilliam (who was more interested in camera positions and framing) and Terry Jones (who felt they should focus more on performances) but also by Graham Chapman’s alcoholism – he played most of his parts under the influence. But none of this matters one jot: an absurd and very loose conjoining of the Arthurian and Holy Grail legends, the film remains one of the Pythons’ most memorable piss-takes. Soused or not, Chapman is superb in his tailor-made role of a slightly effeminate King Arthur, and who could forget John Cleese’s neatly carved Black Knight (‘It’s just a flesh wound’) or his similarly hilarious abusive French guard (‘You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs. Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person’)? Priceless. DA

53

This Sporting Life (1963)

Dir Lindsay Anderson (Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts)

I want to be a macho man

In Lindsay Anderson’s first feature, Richard Harris grimaces and bellows as a miner hired by his local rugby team and condescended to by the club’s management while juggling a difficult home life as the tenant of a widow and single mother. The film didn’t emerge from Tony Richardson and John Osborne’s Woodfall Films, which produced ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, but it was very much part of the same movement of filmmakers coming to drama from documentaries and theatre, and looking to represent the lives of young working-class men and women more truthfully. There’s been a backlash against these films in recent years (partly levelled at the public school, Oxbridge provenance of the filmmakers), but the fact that most of them ride high on this list suggests they’re still credited with initiating a new age of storytelling in British cinema, both in terms of the range, social and geographical, of subjects and a style of filmmaking that honours realism above all else. DC

52

Robinson in Space (1997)

Dir Patrick Keiller (Paul Scofield (voice))

Eng-ger-land!

The late actor Paul Scofield returned to lend his acerbic narration to the middle chapter of Patrick Keiller’s singular ‘Robinson’ trilogy, which began in 1994 with ‘London’ and was completed recently with ‘Robinson in Ruins’. Static, wittily composed images (vaguely reminiscent of the photography of Martin Parr) of buildings and places of natural interest are harmonised with quotations, music and discourse. Here, the dangerously inquisitive Robinson has been tasked with solving the ‘problem of England’ and takes that as his cue to circumnavigate these hallowed isles and pontificate to his heart’s content. As with ‘London’, Keiller’s Daniel Defoe-inspired script seeks to investigate the social, political and economic present by looking back at the historical and literary origins of numerous venues, which mostly include factories, dockyards and, of course, pubs. It’s ruthlessly intelligent stuff, and the conclusions are strangely prophetic. DJ

51

Local Hero (1983)

Dir Bill Forsyth (Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Denis Lawson)

There won’t be blood

Cockle-warming comedy can be a tough sell in serious film circles – note that ‘The Ladykillers’ and ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ made this list while the likes of ‘Passport to Pimlico’, ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Billy Elliot’ are nowhere to be found. But there remains a small handful of crowd-pleasers guaranteed to tickle the toes of the most hardened cynic, and ‘Local Hero’ is a prime example. Taking his inspiration from Powell and Pressburger, notably ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (see no. 26), Forsyth built on the goodwill engendered by ‘Gregory’s Girl’ to craft another tale of life’s better possibilities, not overlooking the chance of disappointment but refusing to submit to easy cynicism. The result is richly emotional without ever spilling into outright schmaltz (well, hardly ever), as what could have been a slushy tale of hugging, learning and growing is tempered with healthy (and often hilarious) sarcasm and a deep understanding of humanity’s capacity for goodness. TH

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