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.

40

Ratcatcher (1999)

Dir Lynne Ramsay (William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews)

Ballad of a bin man

As debut features go, this one rubs shoulders with the likes of Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’, Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’ and Terence Davies’s ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ for the sublime fluency of its technique and conviction in the belief that a film doesn’t need a beginning, middle and end to be meaningful, dramatic and poetic. Following on from a trio of shorts, director Lynne Ramsay revisited her birthplace of Glasgow to deliver an account of innocence and experience, love and death during a dustmen’s strike in the early 1970s . The pranks of monosyllabic scamp James (William Eadie) form the core of the film, and we eventually learn that James wants nothing more than to abandon the squalor of the city and move to a new housing project next to a cornfield in which he can frolic. Ramsay asks, ‘Do you know where your kids are?’, but she doesn’t forget that it is possible to be socially responsible and artistically audacious at the same time. DJ

39

London (1994)

Dir Patrick Keiller (voice of Paul Scofield)

Let me take you by the hand and lead you...

If you didn't know Patrick Keiller's smartly rambling, tricksy walking tour of our city from 1994, you might think that his title was pompous or presumptive. But his film is anything but as he gives us a fictional, unseen narrator, Robinson (voiced by Paul Scofield), who takes us on a tour of London, known and less known, grand and grotty, around the time of the film’s making, taking in such references as the 1992 general election and the IRA bomb at Bishopgate in 1993. Cinematic psychogeography, you might call it, but that’s a bit, well, pompous for a film that is endlessly self-mocking, witty and perceptive. If only British cinema produced more such films that dance merrily on the border between fact and fiction – but, then, again, Keiller’s film – the first in a trilogy – is so unique in tone that imitators would easily be caught out. DC

38

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Dir Alberto Cavalcanti (Leslie Banks, Elizabeth Allan, Frank Lawton)

Is that an axe in your pocket…?

What if, right, the Hun were on the cusp of clinching victory in Europe, and all that stood between your average, flat-capped English patriot and the swift introduction of sauerkraut to the national menu was the collective muscle of a close-knit countryside community? Well, that’s ‘Went the Day Well?’ in a nutshell. It’s a droll, Ealing-made World War II propaganda film that also happens to be a ridiculously taut suspense thriller about how the denizens of the fictional Bramley End put aside their differences and foil a Nazi plot to capture Britain, sometimes even sacrificing life and limb by diving on live grenades and going on ad hoc axe rampages. And if that isn’t enough, it also contains the single greatest dialogue exchange in this entire list, as the well-to-do Mrs Fraser asks Cockney urchin George, ‘Do you know what morale is?’ to which he replies, ‘Yeah, it’s summink what the wops ain’t got.’ DJ

37

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Dir Robert Hamer (Googie Withers, Edward Chapman, John McCallum)

Stop! Hamer time...

You’ll find Robert Hamer’s ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, also from Ealing Studios, higher up our list, but two years earlier he made this lesser-known gem which manages to pull off the trick of being both a credible snapshot of post-war East End life and an effective noir thriller as it unfolds over one Sunday in 1947. The plot – a Bethnal Green mother and housewife (Googie Withers) hides an on-the-run con and ex-lover (John McCallum) in her busy home – allows us intimate access to a working-class home. We witness its routines, rituals and relationships, while at the same time we’re hooked in by the suspense of the crime element of the story and the threat of a dangerous romance in contrast to the drabness of lives defined by rationing and duties. There’s the odd over-fruity line or performance, but a stunning final night-time chase sequence in a railway depot more than compensates. DC

36

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Dir Tony Richardson (Tom Courtenay, James Bolam, Julia Foster)

Borstal blues

As with its French equivalents, much of the British New Wave looks horribly dated in a modern context: all that light jazz, casual romantic disaffection and overeager jump-cutting doesn’t really wash with contemporary audiences. But what’s beyond criticism is the commitment to emotional veracity which fuelled films like ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’. So while the timeworn clichés of the kitchen sink remain intact – grubby class warfare, county-hopping pseudo-Northern accents, the God’s-eye shot of ‘our town from that hill’ – the film is anchored in Tom Courtenay’s remarkable, remorseless performance as the eponymous runner Colin, torn between selfishness and sacrifice, class loyalty and commercial gain, impossible victory and inevitable surrender. TH

35

The Servant (1963)

Dir Joseph Losey (James Fox, Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig)

A touch of class

Two films by the American exile Joseph Losey have made our list, and few would argue that this chilling domestic two-hander from 1963 is his most enduring. It’s Harold Pinter’s tense, subtle script, adapted from a Robin Maugham novel, which gives life to the story of an aristocratic bachelor, Tony (James Fox), who hires a servant, Hugo (Dirk Bogarde), whose machinations, including moving in his girlfriend (masquerading as his sister) as a maid, wear down Tony so that their hierarchical roles blur and mutate. In other hands, this would be a mildly interesting thriller, but Pinter’s sharp characterisations and unspoken suggestions, along with Losey’s full, slavering embrace of the potentials of Tony’s grand Chelsea home, make this a more open, suggestive work, offering ideas to do with class, power and sexuality. The actors are tremendous. For Bogarde, it built on his daring turn in ‘Victim’. For Fox, it was a rehearsal for his similarly shape-shifting role in ‘Performance’. DC

34

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Dir Stanley Kubrick (Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates)

Viddy well, little brother

Swap Beethoven for heroin, and Stanley Kubrick’s scandalous 1971 Moog-mare based on Anthony Burgess’s novel might work as a forerunner to ‘Trainspotting’. It presents the wayward travails of Little Alex (Malcolm McDowell) a tearaway who likes nothing more than a bit of the old ultra violence. But after a bungled break-in where he is abandoned by his band of cock-nosed droogs, he is packed off to a hospital to be ‘cured’. The style of filmmaking is at once clinically precise and imaginatively loose. This is down to the multitude of tricks that Kubrick hoists in (slo-mo, fast-forward, cartoon inserts, back projection) to encapsulate the total autonomy these characters have and why they see their behaviour as thrilling. The violence is plentiful and invites a mixture of revulsion and amusement, not least because it is usually overlaid by Walter Carlos’s mad reinterpretations of classical standards. Does it stand up psychologically? Probably not. But as an example of a work in which the filmmaking style matches the tone of the material, it’s peerless. DJ

33

Secrets

Dir Mike Leigh (Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste)

The girl is mine

‘Naked’ proved to many that Mike Leigh was a filmmaker who would continue to surprise well into and beyond his third decade of filmmaking – but ‘Secrets and Lies’ proved the same to everyone else when it won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress prizes at Cannes and was nominated for five Oscars. The story of an adopted, professional black British woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who tracks down her white, working-class birth mother (Brenda Blethyn) came with its own themes and ideas. But it also allowed Leigh to refine interests he had been exploring for years, such as the relationships between parents and kids, the love and antagonism of siblings and our awkward relationships to material wealth. Ultimately, it’s about the power – and destructiveness – of the unspoken, and a climactic barbecue scene, in which Timothy Spall breaks the silence and gives one of the best performances of his career, is both heartbreaking and liberating, for the characters and for us. DC

32

Get Carter (1971)

Dir Mike Hodges (Michael Caine, Britt Ekland, John Osborne)

A pint of bitter… in a thin glass

Its overfamiliar poster, score and lazy stylistic appropriation by glossy lads’ mags may make the very idea of ‘Get Carter’ something of a chore, but once the train starts rolling, there’s simply no getting off. A cold, impossibly grimy film, ‘Get Carter’ is a ‘Third Man’ for the three-day week generation that drags you through the sulphurous back rooms of hell. Michael Caine’s frosty Lahndahn gangster uncovers layer upon layer of villainy as he travels to Newcastle to investigate his brother’s death, but the details – and, for many, the plot – are secondary to the air of desperation, squalor and complicity. ‘The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over and… we have failed to paint it black,’ might well have been the mantra in Ladbroke Grove and Camden Town, but ‘Get Carter’ presents the more desolate reality of those for whom the swinging ’60s were something that happened to other people and a grim, forlorn post-war mindset remained the pervading norm. ALD

31

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Dir Alfred Hitchcock (Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave)

Strangeness on a train

Some argue that Hitchcock made his greatest works in the US, but the presence of four of his British films on our list suggests that not everybody holds that view – or at least that his earlier work is still held in very high regard. ‘The Lady Vanishes’ builds on the mysterious, on-the-run mood of the earlier, more well-known ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935), but its 1938 date, mittel-European setting on a train from an Alpine location and well-integrated political nods slyly tie it to debates over appeasement and engagement. That said, it’s first and foremost a suspenseful thriller as a little old lady, Miss Froy, disappears on a train and everyone bar a young man and woman (Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood) proceed to deny she exists. It’s very funny, and its ridiculous but masterly twists and turns are made doubly fun by a colourful cast of characters including a nun, a surgeon and a pair of cricket-loving bounders. DC

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