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.

50

Culloden (1964)

Dir Peter Watkins (George McBean, Alan Pope, the people of Inverness)

This is the news! God, I wish it wasn’t...

Produced as a softer option after the BBC thought his blunt atomic-age satire ‘The War Game’ too harrowing by half, Peter Watkins’s remarkable reproduction of the 1746 Battle of Culloden stands up as a true one-off of both TV and cinema. Initially coming across like a documentary of your average Sealed Knot weekender, the film delivers a minutely detailed chronicle of the battle via the ingenious method of modern TV news reporting: only the rank odour of the battlefield itself is missing. Grunts from both sides sound off directly to camera, political intrigues are speculated upon by the anchor, and we even get to witness the hordes of malnourished Jacobite rebels being torn apart by the power of the English musket. What’s even more interesting is that Watkins chooses to trace the legacy of the battle, patiently observing as the English army wade across the Highlands slaughtering women and children in the name of communal cleansing and retaining the authority of the British monarchy. It all looks scarily familiar. DJ

49

Gallivant (1996)

Dir Andrew Kötting (Andrew Kötting, Eden Kötting, Gladys Morris)

Just coasting

The incomparable Andrew Kötting – artist, filmmaker, performer – took his eight-year-old daughter Eden and 80-something grandma Gladys on a tour of the British coastline for this anarchic travelogue which turns out to be both a snapshot of the country and a self-portrait of this unlikely trio on an equally unlikely adventure. Kötting’s highly original methods of storytelling mean that ‘Gallivant’ looks nothing like most docs: he mixes formats, throws in archive footage and has much fun with the sound and picture edit. ‘He’s being silly, isn’t he? As daft as they make them,’ says Gladys of her grandson as he swims fully clothed somewhere off the coast of Scotland, having put behind them Sussex, Devon, Cornwall, Wales and the various, illuminating personalities they meet on the road. It’s rare that experimental filmmaking is this humane and enjoyable. The unique result is a work that is both formally radical and eminently accessible and entertaining. DC

48

Hunger (2008)

Dir Steve McQueen (Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham)

The cooler king

Steve McQueen’s first feature film is not even three years old and yet it ranks in the top half of this list, which is a mark of the impact the film made in 2008, when it won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best debut. The Turner Prize-winning video artist turned to the incarceration and death in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) for his first, full-length work and showed remarkable assurance behind the camera, avoiding all conventional tropes of the biopic genre to craft a raw, visual portrait of life inside a prison that doesn’t honour Sands above other prisoners and doesn’t avoid the essential realities of Sand’s dirty protest and starvation either. A talky, two-hander scene between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) is all the more hard-hitting because it emerges suddenly in the middle of a film which foregrounds images over chat – but the entire film is full of such surprises. DC

47

Blow-Up (1966)

Dir Michelangelo Antonioni (David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Bowles)

Make love to the camera, baby

‘Blow-Up’ sees swinging London transformed into a sprawling, alienating crime scene where brusque Notting Hill, ahem, ‘fashion’ photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) believes that while idly snapping away in a South London park, he’s captured a homicide in mid flow. Antonioni’s attitude towards the hippy-dippy cultural revolution taking place in the city during the 1960s is ambivalent at best. When he takes us on a detour through a Yardbirds gig, it’s left to us to decide whether we’re in heaven or in hell. Yet, his film has a more cynical edge than only being about the sensations of a city. As Thomas’s grasp on his investigation becomes more tenuous, Antonioni twists his film to be about the nature of making, collecting and editing images, also suggesting that – try as we might – life is a first-hand experience that no camera can ever really capture. And to sate the cabaret set, it’s all topped off with some mimed tennis. Splendido! DJ

46

The Fallen Idol (1948)

Dir Carol Reed (Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Bobby Henrey)

The butler did it

Given his reputation as a novelist, it’s easy to forget how major a force Graham Greene became in post-war British cinema, and how many key aspects of national life became cemented in the public consciousness as a result of his extraordinary run of work between ‘Confidential Agent’ in 1945 and ‘Our Man in Havana’ in 1959. ‘The Fallen Idol’ is primarily a film about class, which even then was nothing new. But it’s Greene’s approach to his topic which sets the film apart: by viewing the social hierarchy through a child’s eyes, the author allows us to view the matter afresh, an approach which would bear fruit again in films as diverse as ‘The Spanish Gardener’, ‘The Go-Between’ and ‘Atonement’. But ‘The Fallen Idol’ is the best of the bunch, and indeed one of the finest British films about children, about the ways they can be manipulated and betrayed, their loyalties misplaced and their emotions toyed with. TH

45

Repulsion (1965)

Dir Roman Polanski (Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux)

Here hare here

Emeric Pressburger, Karel Reisz, Joseph Losey, Stanley Kubrick… This list isn’t short of writers and directors who brought an outsider’s sensibility to British cinema. The young Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski came to London to make his second film – and first in English – and cast 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve as Carole, a fragile young Belgian woman living in South Kensington with her sister and working in a local hairdressing salon. When her sibling goes away for a few days with a boyfriend, Carole’s nervousness and discomfort with men descends into full-blown paranoia, illustrated subtly by Polanski with sparing but sinister visual tricks such as cracking plaster and even hands emerging from walls. The film remains influential on both horror directors and those looking to represent mental breakdown on film (look at Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’). It also afforded British cinema a special role in launching the international career of Polanski. DC

44

Sabotage (1936)

Dir Alfred Hitchcock (Oscar Homolka, Sylvia Sidney, John Loder)

Ban the bomb

‘Sand! Sabotage! Deliberate! Wrecking!’ are the terse first words of Hitchcock’s atmospheric, exciting and sometimes funny, 1936 London-based suspenser, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’. This tale of a bomber and saboteur (Oscar Homolka) whose terrorist activities lead his young wife (Sylvia Sidney) and brother into tragedy is full of the master’s touches. It’s moodily rendered with expressionist-tinged chiaroscuro photography by Hitchcock’s regular cameraman of the 1930s, Bernard Knowles, and was subject to a stinging review by long-time doyen of British critical circles, CA Lejeune. ‘I committed a grave error in having the bomb go off. Never repeated it!’, Hitch told the BBC in 1964. But that choice, augmented by the extraordinary and moving study in lonely isolation offered by Homolka as Verloc, helps provide the film with a stature and depth that not only impressed Hitchcock champions and Cahiers du Cinéma critics Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in the 1950s, but ensures its place today as the third most favourite Hitchcock film in our poll. WH

43

Fires Were Started (1941)

Dir Humphrey Jennings

Fetch the engines

The documentary-maker Humphrey Jennings has been well remembered in recent years, first with a film in 2002 by Kevin Macdonald and then in 2004 with a biography by Kevin Jackson – which might explain the placing of this and his stirring ‘Listen to Britain’, both wartime films, so high on our list. A leading light of the GPO and Crown Film Units and a founder of Mass Observation, Jennings was responsible for so many of our received images of Britain during World War II. For ‘Fires Were Started’, he filmed firemen in London’s East End but devised characters for them and showed them during both the peace of day and the struggle of fighting a major fire in the docks at night. His film is a celebration of heroism, a lament for lives lost and a stoical expression of the necessary wartime maxim that life must go on. Yes, it’s propaganda – but what humane, artful propaganda it is. DC

42

Listen to Britain (1942)

Dir Humphrey Jennings

This is Britain, and everything’s all right. It’s okay. It’s fine.

That this near-wordless celebration of wartime Britain in all its music-hall, factory-floor, greenfield glory can still inspire a flush of patriotic pride seven decades on is testament to the extraordinary purity of vision and experimental nous of its director, Humphrey Jennings. Alchemically spinning cinema into music (and music into poetry), Jennings paints a national portrait which is admittedly rosy, but also pleasingly humorous (footage of vaudeville crowd-pleasers Flanagan and Allen is intercut with a sign reading ‘boiled potatoes’) and even quietly subversive: the cut from a riotous workers’ music hall to a stuffy lunchtime classical concert attended by the then Queen accentuates the essential similarity between the two experiences, while the pan from a playground filled with clog-dancing tykes to a street roaring with military vehicles underlines the precipitous state of our nation’s future. If the country had fallen, ‘Listen to Britain’ would have made a perfect epitaph. TH

41

Witchfinder General (1968)

Dir Michael Reeves (Vincent Price, Patrick Wymark, Ian Ogilvy)

So if she weighs the same as a duck...

The quaint English countryside acts as the backdrop for much enthusiastic sadism in this Civil War tale based very loosely on the life of Protestant zealot Matthew Hopkins and his reign of witch-burning terror in East Anglia’s badlands. While we can only imagine the pleasure of watching original choice Donald Pleasance as the sexually repressed misogynist Hopkins, Vincent Price makes a horribly effective substitute, lisping biblical lore to the screams of his victims on the rack and at the stake. The real star, though, is the textured, bleak cinematography of John Colquillon (who later shot ‘Straw Dogs’), which lends an eerie, tripped-out detachment to the pitiless violence and casts the landscape as a timeless witness to casual horror. Despite its camp reputation, ‘Witchfinder’ is grimmer and more effective than many of its costumed contemporaries and fully deserved both the revulsion it attracted at its initial release and the rehabilitation as a classic it has enjoyed since. PF

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