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.

20

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

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

Bishop of Southwark Eunt Domus

One of the strangest but most welcome side effects of great comedy is the way it crystallises ideas, bringing concepts previously vague and inexpressible into the public consciousness. How long into a chat about the splintering of political pressure groups before someone mentions the People’s Front of Judea? When talking about the impossibility of a successful military occupation, how long before someone mentions what the Romans did for us? When discussing religion in general, and cults in particular, how long before someone pipes up, ‘Yes, we’re all individuals’? The controversy may have faded, but three decades on, ‘Life of Brian’ still dominates our perceptions of organised religion (and organised resistance) and their many obfuscations, untruths and double standards in a way that is not just remarkable, but extremely heartwarming. TH

19

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Dir Stanley Kubrick (Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee)

Kubrick by candlelight

Is it a surprise that Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975) should beat off ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968) in our poll for the best loved British Kubrick? The 1976 Academy showered Kubrick’s painstaking, candlelit version of Thackeray’s 1844 novel of a scoundrel Irish soldier’s picaresque adventures with Oscars for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Music. Despite those garlands, however, it was a relative failure at the time – notably in the US, albeit a hit with the discerning Parisians – and by the mid-1980s, its reputation had further declined: our own film editor, Chris Peachment, was not alone when he described it as ‘a triumph of technique over any human content’ and ‘an array of waxwork figures against lavish backdrops’.

But what technique; what waxworks; and what backdrops there are in this $11million, three-hour epic, shot over an impossible eight months. ‘“Barry Lyndon” is a story which does not depend upon surprise,’ Kubrick told Michel Ciment in one of his rare interviews, nailing the film’s re-found appeal. ‘What is important is not what is going to happen, but how it will happen. I think Thackeray trades off the advantage of surprise to gain a greater sense of inevitability and a better integration of what might otherwise seem melodramatic or contrived.’ Likewise, as time goes by, Kubrick’s own contrivances – the technical obsessions, the outwardly puppet-like performances, Ryan O’Neal’s seemingly endless wanderings, adventures and increasingly futile ambitions – have themselves fallen away to reveal something quite extraordinary: the shape of a life, a human’s rise and fall, rendered as an epic, mesmeric, suffusing slow dance of immersive cinema – and therefore, not only Kubrick’s most beautiful but also his most empathetic and understanding work. WH

18

The Innocents (1961)

Dir Jack Clayton (Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave)

If there’s something strange…

This superior ghost story is an adaptation of Henry James’s novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ that still manages to feel more subtle and inventive than the vast majority of spooky pretenders that came in its wake. The story sees Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) become governess to two children who live in a sprawling country pile and are the wards of an absent uncle (Michael Redgrave) who lives in London. As Miss Giddens spots ghosts and becomes convinced of the kids’ malevolence, it’s the ambiguity of both the story and film that impress. Is Miss Giddens mad? Are there ghosts? Are both things true, even? If you list a lot of the film’s more creepy tics – sweet but demonic children; ghostly visions; a music-box score; stuffed animals; a scary attic – they now sound like clichés, but the film still works fantastically well as a supernatural-cum-psychological chiller and most obviously feels like a template for Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and even ‘The Tenant’. DC

17

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Dirs Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Eric Portman, Sheila Sim, John Sweet, Dennis Price)

The glue that binds us

For many, this light-fingered take on Chaucer’s infamous tome will always be Powell and Pressburger’s great work. It’s possibly the film of theirs which touches most poignantly on what it means to live and what it means to be living in England. Amusing, tragic, inquisitive and profoundly poetic, on the surface it’s a World War Two-set shaggy dog story of three unlikely compatriots – a British sergeant, an American GI and a Land Girl – who are thrown together in the sleepy, fictitious town of Chillingbourne which sits on the rail link to Canterbury. No sooner have they disembarked from the train than one of their number is stung by a night-time prowler who’s getting his jollies by putting glue in women’s hair (and no, this isn’t a foresight into ‘Peeping Tom’). Their hokey investigation to locate the scoundrel acts as the narrative through-line with which Powell and Pressburger hang a gorgeous, panoramic vision of an England steeped in history, tradition and eccentric, downhome custom. It also takes a comic look at the cultural divisions between America and Britain and the need to bridge that divide for the common good. A heady, almost surreal climax in Canterbury, where the three pals part ways and find comfort in friends, music and memory, is tremendously moving, not least because we also discover the reason why they were all there in the first place. DJ

16

Black Narcissus (1947)

Dirs Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger (Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar)

Nun but the brave

All those prissy critics outraged by Powell’s shift into voyeuristic overkill with ‘Peeping Tom’ should have done their homework: from the perverted ‘glue man’ and his ‘sticky stuff’ in ‘A Canterbury Tale’ through the abusive, alcoholic anti-romance of ‘The Small Back Room’, his films are rife with suppressed deviance and sexual panic, none more so than this unsettling adaptation of Rumer Godden’s nuns-in-peril novel ‘Black Narcissus’. All The Archers’ best work resisted categorisation, and this might be the pinnacle of their tendency for audience-baiting idiosyncracy: set in Darjeeling but shot in West Sussex, the film seems as far out of time as it does out of place, eschewing genre (is it romance? Period drama? Horror? Social satire?) in favour of pure atmosphere and an unparalleled sense of mounting hysteria. Deborah Kerr’s career-best performance is just the icing on the Himalaya. TH

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