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.


The Ladykillers (1955)

Dir Alexander Mackendrick (Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Katie Johnson)

Help! The aged!

Small wonder this classic Ealing crime caper remains a mainstay of so many film polls. The casting and performances, for a start, are brilliantly sharp. As is Ealing writer William Rose’s finely wrought script: five caricatured criminals (Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker and Danny Green) masquerading as a group of classical musicians arrive at the King’s Cross home of a dear little old lady (Katie Johnson, who won a Bafta for her pitch-perfect performance) and enquire whether they might rent a few rooms – while they surreptitiously plot an audacious railway robbery. The set-up paves the way for a wonderful series of amusing dialogues between the old biddy and the ‘quintet’ whose pretence she never twigs until the final comically violent frames. Guinness and Lom are the standouts; both look as if they’d strayed in from a Hammer production. Unforgettable. DA

Peeping Tom Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom (1960)

Dir Michael Powell (Karl Böhm, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley)

The pervert’s guide to cinema

This magical mystery tour of Soho knocking shops and glossy TV studios was Michael Powell’s defiant ‘up yours’ to all that was good and sacred in the late 1960s. It alienated much of his fanbase and put a full stop on his career in British film. It’s the story of a Teutonic loner named Mark (the ultra-creepy Karl Böhm) who carries on the work of his father by seducing women, luring them in front of his camera and dispatching them with a giant metal spike. But nudge the lurid Technicolor brutality aside and what you have is a film which depicts the act of consuming the moving image as a way of psychologically participating in the acts of those on screen. That’s right kids, this sick puppy is saying that we can’t be disgusted as we’re all voyeurs at heart and deep down we’d like nothing more than the thrill of witnessing someone getting clobbered to death with a broom handle right in front of us. DJ


The Wicker Man (1973)

Dir Robin Hardy (Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland)

Sun, sex and satanic Scots

The pagan folk revival of the late 1960s and early ’70s was easy to express in music: all you needed was a cape, beard, acoustic guitar and a crumhorn player in winklepickers. In film, it was a different matter: what sane production company was likely to shell out thousands for tales of earth-worship and mystic rites, especially when the target audience was a) notoriously cash-strapped and b) largely confined to rambling country cottages miles from the nearest picture palace? To be fair, Robin Hardy did his best to make ‘The Wicker Man’ a commercial prospect, roping in Hammer legends Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt, TV icon Edward Woodward and tabloid eye candy Britt Ekland to help pull in the punters. That the resulting film was still compulsively weird, highly atmospheric and a total financial disaster is testament to Hardy’s misjudgment of the marketplace. That its rediscovery continues to gather pace almost four decades later is testament to his skill as a filmmaker. TH


The Bill Douglas Trilogy (1972, 1973, 1978)

Dir Bill Douglas (Stephen Archibald, Hughie Restorick, Jean Taylor-Smith)

Our town

It would be easy to dismiss ‘My Childhood’ (1972), ‘My Ain Folk’ (1973) and ‘My Way Home’ (1978) – the trilogy of short-ish films made by the late Scottish director Bill Douglas – as textbook examples of the glum social realism that so often besmirches the name of British cinema. These films capture a rare poetry in their depiction of wayward youth, the death of industry and the small, diligent ways in which the downtrodden are able to retain hope and ward off constant darkness. Set during the 1940s in Douglas’s own birthplace (the dead-end mining town of Newcraighall) the emotional focal point of these films is Jamie (Stephen Archibald), an inquisitive, defensive young scamp whose day-to-day existence is a fight for survival and friendship. Filmed with great care and precision in piercing monochrome and with barely any dialogue to drown out the intense expressiveness of the people and the landscapes captured on camera, Douglas has often been cited as Britain’s answer to France’s Robert Bresson. It’s an accolade that makes total sense. DJ


I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Dirs Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger (Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey)

The lady and the laird

‘Will you do something for me before I go away? I want you to kiss me!’ It might be Joan Webster’s (Wendy Hiller) first unplanned move in all of Powell and Pressburger’s film, a witty and characteristically eccentric romance filmed largely in the Western Isles of Scotland about a headstrong young woman who heads north from London to a remote island to marry a wealthy man she barely knows. It’s not just a physical journey for Joan, but a spiritual one, as P&P maroon their heroine on a neighbouring island where she must wait until the weather dies down before continuing her trip. By the time Joan is battling a storm and a whirlpool in a tiny boat, her ‘heart of stone’, as one islander calls it, is finally cracking and she’s woken up to a less material and more honest world represented by the Scottish folk – including Roger Livesey’s local sailor – she meets, a world the filmmakers are happy to celebrate in a fashion that’s unsentimental but still stirring. DC


Great Expectations (1946)

Dir David Lean (John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Martita Hunt)

The lady’s not for turning

The chocolate-box social politics and borderline anti-semitism of David Lean’s other Dickens adaptation ‘Oliver Twist’ hasn’t worn so well in the new millennium, but there are no such drawbacks with ‘Great Expectations’. This is a film so deeply ingrained in the national psyche and so widely referenced in popular culture that seeing it for the first time feels like a nostalgic experience, albeit a slightly discomfiting one: for all the film’s rosy-cheeked, aspirational cheer, the dark undercurrents of the novel are never ignored. The way Lean weaves elements of Universal horror and film noir into his depiction of nineteenth-century London is breathtaking, and his treatment of Miss Havisham as a giant time-ravaged spider-queen wrapped in a crumbling web of dust and rotting lace finds unexpected echoes in everything from ‘Psycho’ to ‘Aliens’. TH

Brazil Brazil

Brazil (1985)

Dir Terry Gilliam (Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond)

Have you got a 27B/6?

Thank God for Universal Studios. Not only did they finance Terry Gilliam’s one and only undisputed masterpiece, but thanks to the machinations of short-sighted studio supremo Sid Sheinberg, who ordered a re-cut, they managed to ensure that ‘Brazil’ became a critical cause célèbre and cult classic, with Gilliam the poster child for the battle between art and commerce. The film would have endured either way, but its abject failure might have brought Gilliam’s career to a juddering halt sooner than it otherwise did. Grim, confusing and scattergun it may be, but ‘Brazil’ is a film rich in deep and diverse pleasures, many of them uniquely British: Jonathan Pryce’s nervy, utterly isolated performance, cameos from the likes of Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Michael Palin, Simon Jones and Gordon Kaye, the oppressively beautiful, wholly London-ish architecture, and a pervasive, post-war, proletarian sense of utter helplessness and bureaucratic desperation from which the only escape is sweet oblivion. TH


Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Dir David Lean (Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness)

Devils and dust

At the time of its release in 1962, David Lean’s desert epic dwarfed the oppostition both in length (228 minutes) and breadth. But what is it about this particular film that springs mostly to mind when composing, from memory alone, one’s favourite list of British productions? There’s the exoticism of its unique Saharan locations; Maurice Jarre’s stirringly melodious string-laden score; and, above all, the undeniable quality of Freddie Young’s cinematography. Indeed, that single shot of Omar Sharif’s extraordinarily slow emergence through the distant haze of the desert sun remains one of cinema’s singularly most striking and iconic moments. And you’ve got to hand it to Peter O’Toole; he plays the role of TE Lawrence – a British Army liaison officer during the Arab v Turkish revolt of 1916 – with gusto. DA


Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Dir Karel Reisz (Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts, Shirley Anne Field)

This is a man’s world

Forging the template for films about swarthy, unreconstructed men whose only solace can be found in the bottom of a pint glass, Karel Reisz’s raucous and relevant 1960 character study showed the lengths that the young, disenfranchised working-class stiff would go to shirk the responsibilities of adulthood. Based on the first novel by ‘Angry Young Man’ author Alan Sillitoe, (who also wrote ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’), the film gave Albert Finney his big break as the hard-drinking, hard-smoking and hard-loving Arthur Seaton, a nihilistic machine worker in Nottingham who habitually funnels his modest wage packet on pleasures of the flesh. Finney’s all-pistons-firing lead performance is note perfect, and props still go to him for making us empathise with Arthur’s naivity rather than being alienated by his bravado and the fact that he’s, well, a bit of a shit. Makes a lovely double with ‘Billy Liar’, only Billy never got duffed up by squaddies. Alas… DJ


Nil by Mouth (1997)

Dir Gary Oldman (Kathy Burke, Ray Winstone)

Kathy don’t come home

What a pity Gary Oldman has never been able to fulfil his dream of following up this, his directorial debut! However fine many of his performances had been, both the writing and the direction of this deservedly acclaimed movie displayed considerably more than great promise. ‘Nil by Mouth’ remains, even now, one of the most painfully honest and eloquent studies of a kind of London working-class life. Often erroneously described as ‘autobiographical’, the film’s astute portrait of macho violence, alcoholic excess, drug addiction and petty criminality nevertheless benefitted from Oldman’s proximity to such behaviour in his early years, and that, coupled with a style partly inspired by Cassavetes, makes for a movie as riveting in its raw, nocturnal ‘realism’ as it is unsentimental in its humanity and dark humour. It won Kathy Burke a Cannes prize, revived Ray Winstone’s fortunes and kickstarted the acting career of the director’s sister (under the pseudonym of Laila Morse). GA