The 100 best British films: critics – page two

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Explore the top ten British films of all our guest contributors

Linked title denotes top 100 placing

Philip Kemp, critic and historian

1. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)

Blindingly obvious choice, I know – but how could I leave it out? Reed’s doomy, Dutch-tilted, Vienna-set thriller still stands as the finest Brit noir.

2. ….though there’s strong competition from ‘Night and the City’ (Dassin, 1950) – not least for having the archetypal noir title.

3. Obvious again, but Ealing has to be in there; and how better than with the most stylish of British black comedies, ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (Hamer, 1949)?

4. Tempting to follow with ‘The Ladykillers’ (Mackendrick, 1955) – but instead, I’ll go for the sharpest of all British cinema’s political satires, ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (Mackendrick, 1951), perfectly illustrating Alexander Mackendrick’s penchant for ‘the snarl behind the grin’.

5. And of course, there has to be a Hitchcock: ‘The Lady Vanishes’ (Hitchcock, 1938) still looks as fresh as ever, with Hitch’s favourite mix of thrills and audience-teasing humour perfectly balanced.

6. Okay, let’s head a little more left-field. ‘Robin and Marion’ (Lester, 1976), for me, is Richard Lester’s finest film for its sense of comedy gently dissolving into elegiac melancholy.

7. A choice of two dystopias: for me, ‘Brazil’ (Gilliam, 1985) just wins out over ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Kubrick, 1971 ) – less technically brilliant, but more heart and glorious visual imagination.

8. Two classic statements of British emotional repression: ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (Powell and Pressbuger, 1943) pips ‘Brief Encounter’ (Lean, 1945) for its sheer visual flamboyance.

9. Two candidates again, this time for finest British horror movie: ‘The Wicker Man’ (Hardy, 1973) beats ‘Witchfinder General (Reeves, 1968) for Christopher Lee and the gleeful audacity of that ruthless ending.

No Loach, no Reisz, no Losey, no Anderson, no Terence Davies – these lists are murder, aren’t they?

10. But I’ll go for 'Don’t Look Now’ (Roeg, 1973) for its haunting, wintry Venice rhapsody on sex and death.

Or, an alternative list...

1. On Approval (Brook, 1944)

Disrespectfully adapted from Frederick Lonsdale’s sub-Wildean comedy, veteran actor Clive Brook’s only directorial effort parades its eccentricities like battle honours.

2. No greats shakes as cinema, perhaps – lots of static talky scenes – but 'They Came to a City' (Dearden, 1944) stands as the most unabashed piece of socialist propaganda on film made anywhere outside the Soviet bloc – and from Ealing, too.

3. A heartless black comedy of social climbing, 'Nothing But The Best' (Donner, 1964) has Alan Bates (the working-class aspirant) and Denholm Elliot (his seedy, fallen-on-hard-times tutor) make the most of Frederic Raphael’s witty script.

4. Proof that good British silent movies weren’t only made by Hitchcock, 'Hindle Wakes' (Elvey, 1927) is lively stuff, with bold night-for-night and location shooting, and a refreshingly feminist message.

5. Further proof of the above. 'A Cottage on Dartmoor' (Asquith, 1929), made in the dying days of the silent era, crafts its love-triangle melodrama into an intricate structure of flashbacks and subjective shots, linked by audacious jump-cuts.

6. The deranged weirdness of David Warner as an actor has rarely been fully captured on screen, but 'Morgan - A Suitable Case for Treatment' (Reisz, 1966) showcases him to glorious effect.

7. In the bargain-basement ‘quota quickies’ of the 30s, Bernard Vorhaus could do more with less than anybody (even Michael Powell), and 'The Last Journey' (Vorhaus, 1935) is a British 30s train drama to stand alongside Rome Express and The Lady Vanishes.

8. Tom Courtney excels as the cowardly, dishonest, shiftless 'Otley' (Clement, 1968), shoved totally against his will into a sub-Bondish espionage drama and desperately trying to get out. A woefully neglected comedy-thriller.

9. A sharp Pinter script and a class line-up of actors (Anne Bancroft, Peter Finch, James Mason) distinguish Jack Clayton’s film of Penelope Mortimer’s 'The Pumpkin Eater' (Clayton, 1964). Bancroft’s nervous breakdown in Harrod’s Food Hall is a tour de force.

10. Vincent Price at his most outrageously overripe as the Shakespearean ham turned killer in 'Theatre of Blood' (Hickox, 1973), with Diana Rigg as his sidekick. Critics beware!

Edward Lawrenson, critic, The Big Issue

1. Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975)

I might be stretching a point to claim Stanley Kubrick for these shores, and if I wanted to avoid controversy I should go for his most 'British' movie, 'A Clockwork Orange' (Kubrick, 1971). But post-'Lolita' he's as much a national treasure as Marmite, so I'm going for his greatest movie, 'Barry Lyndon' (Kubrick, 1975). A film of sumptuous elegance, pointed irony, and devastating tragic force.

2. Listen to Britain (Jennings, 1942)

As a Scot, I should be immune to rousing appeals to British identity, especially when they are so wrapped up in idyllic sequences of English life. But Humphrey Jennings's matchless tribute to Britain's wartime spirit, its symphonic blend of images of pastoral and London life, of the establishment and working classes, of popular and high culture, always turns me to jelly.

3. The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger, 1948)

A bit obvious this choice, but this swoony, head-spinning, joyously cosmopolitan and darkly romantic masterpiece is probably the only film on my British top-ten that would make it to my all-time list.

4. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)

Like 'The Red Shoes' (Powell & Pressburger, 1948), a bit obvious, but I really do love this film, and it shares with Powell and Pressburger a bracing ambition to move beyond parochial ideas of what constitutes a national cinema – and suggests that our movies are often most British when allowed to be truly international.

5. A Canterbury Tale (Powell & Pressburger, 1954)

Pressburger's clever updating of Chaucer to wartime Britain combines with Powell at his most eccentric and mystical for a film that makes 'The Wicker Man' (Hardy, 1973) look like a slice of social realism.

6. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (Jones, 1983)

'Life of Brian' (Jones, 1979) is arguably a more 'complete' work of cinema, but this gleeful blend of high-concept comedy, gross-out bad taste and musical parody is closer to the troupe's TV-sketch-show source (and it never does to forget British cinema's dependence on the small screen). Reportedly Orson Welles, on the Cannes jury when the film was an improbable entry, wanted it to win the Palme d'Or.

7. Robinson in Space (Keiller, 1997)

At once dazzlingly brainy and hauntingly dreamlike, this trippy and hypnotic portrait of Britain in the doldrums of the Major years is a unique hybrid of fiction, documentary and experimental film – and points up an ambitious direction for British film that Keiller's peers lacked the funding or the courage to follow.

8. Excalibur (Boorman, 1981)

It’s often very silly, but John Boorman's version of the King Arthur myth is made with muscular virtuosity and inhabits its world so completely you forgive its occasional lapse into prog-rock pomposity. Or at least I do: my one guilty pleasure on this list.

9. Our Friends in the North (James & Jones, 1996)

OK, not strictly a feature film, but this epic TV series spanning the lives of four ordinary Geordies over three decades was by far the most ambitious screen drama of the past 20 years, combining the political provocation of the best of Ken Loach with the character detail and emotional richness of the finest serial TV.

10. Watership Down (Rosen, 1978)

You think Pixar movies are sad... This beguiling, heartbreaking, sometimes terrifying animation about refugee rabbits, struggling to survive amid the tooth-and-claw dangers of a pleasant-looking English dale is a savage Darwinian parable, disguised as a kids' cartoon. I saw it as a tender eight year old, and am still recovering.

Guy Lodge, critic, InContention.com

1. The Bill Douglas Trilogy (Douglas, 1972, 1973, 1978)

For amounting to the rare memory piece that is as brutally economical as it is woozily wandering, and living up to years of hype when I finally encountered it all its frayed beauty at the 2010 Berlinale.

2. The Innocents (Clayton, 1961)

For nailing Henry James’s brittle literary tone while daring to sully it with subtle suggestions of Grand Guignol, and offering the perfect stage for Deborah Kerr’s curious propriety.

3. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Richardson, 1962)

For the glorious way that title rolls off the tongue, for starters, but also for being the most studious and considered of the ‘angry young man’ films, with a filmmaker’s sense of body and motion.

4. Morvern Callar (Ramsay, 2002)

For being about as floridly poetic as a film about emotional paralysis and inarticulacy could conceivably allow, so angular and mood-shifting that repeat viewings can still fill the overlong wait for Ramsay’s follow-up.

5. Naked (Leigh, 1993)

For being the Mike Leigh film that most honestly cops to the heightened nature of the master’s alleged realism, as well as the hardest, dirtiest, funniest thing he (or many a director) has yet made.

6. Performance (Cammell and Roeg, 1970)

For its deathless cool and stylistic abandon, using cinema to bend and splice identity with a rock star’s casual delight in both its rule-breaking and the bewilderment left in its wake.

7. The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948)

For seeming like the first real film I had ever seen when I first encountered it on ropey VHS at the age of six, and very nearly pulling the same trick 20 years later, following last year’s luscious big-screen restoration.

8. Repulsion (Polanski, 1965)

For freaking the wits out of everyone, obviously, but also for its frosty empathy as one of the medium’s most enduring essays on loneliness and not-belonging; a vivid outsider’s Britain.

9. Sabotage (Hitchcock, 1936)

For making uncomplicated joy of complicated pulp; neither the most stylish nor the smartest of Hitch’s pre-Hollywood output, but the most urgent, with some of the headiest atmospheric stretches of his oeuvre.

10. The Wings of the Dove (Softley, 1997)

For crisply bringing sex to the polite realms of the British heritage picture, without resorting to contrived modernism. The rare costume drama where the frocks have as much to say for themselves as those wearing them.

Geoffrey Macnab, critic

Here’s my list (in chronological order.) Not very adventurous, I’m afraid. I am conscious of having chosen several titles from the late 1940s but I’d contend this was the richest period in British film history. I was keen to choose at least one Hitchcock and went for ‘Blackmail’ as his first talkie and as a film in which his key themes were all foregrounded.

Derek Malcolm, critic, The Evening Standard

Impossible to rate the films in order, but these ten at least reflect the huge variety of British filmmaking. There are at least ten others just as worthy.

Kim Newman, critic, Sight & Sound and Empire

Nev Pierce, editor-at-large, Empire

This was brutal! So, my favourites, er, today, alphabetically:

I cannot believe I haven’t included any Lean or Powell and Pressburger, but I’m sure they won’t be wanting for love elsewhere. I was also seriously tempted to include ‘Four Lions’, but really it needs repeat viewing to make that kind of judgement.

David Pirie, author, screenwriter, former Time Out Film editor

1. Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)

1. Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)

Two very different kinds of British romanticism.

3. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, 1935)

4. The Servant (Losey, 1963)

5. Quatermass 2 (Guest, 1957)

Still arguably one of the most subversive sci-fi films ever made. I would have liked to include ‘The Damned’ , but given ‘The Servant’, it seems unbalanced to have two Losey movies.

6. Performance (Cammell and Roeg, 1970

7. Dead of Night (Cavalcanti, Crichton, Dearden and Hamer, 1945)

Some aspects unequalled by later ghost stories even by ‘The Innocents’. Would include ‘The Others’ – but it does not count as British.

8. The Upturned Glass (Huntingdon, 1947)

James Mason, one of the greatest UK screen actors, co-produced this strange, unpredictable thriller, making it among his best.

9. Persusion (Michell, 1995)

The best directed and most sympathetic of all Jane Austen movies, its constant use of POV makes it unusally emotional not merely for Austen but for all British cinema.

=10. Witchfinder General (Reeves, 1968), Monsters (Edwards, 2010)

Two of the greatest UK genre movies from very young filmmakers, 42 years apart.

Tim Robey, critic, The Daily Telegraph

This was agony, in part because of the eternal conflict between ‘best’ and ‘favourite’. I could have dug around for more obscurities to make myself look clever, but decided in all conscience that none of these could be dislodged, as they've all been on and off my personal top 100 over the years. Hope it’s not an excessively conservative list as a result: basically I think all ten are, in their different ways, masterpieces, so pretty much decided to leave it at that.

Purely as an indulgent extra, I've added a separate list of what my top ten would look like if we were only considering movies since 1978. Do with this what you wish. It’s mainly there to salve my conscience...

Jonathan Romney, critic, The Independent on Sunday

In chronological order:

The Old Dark House (Whale, 1932)

A Universal production, but arguably Hollywood’s loopiest ever distillation of an idea of British gothic. Comical, creepy, unsettlingly atmospheric, and featuring a magnificently ripe turn by Ernest Thesiger, warming up for ‘Bride of Frankenstein’.

Dead of Night (Cavalcanti, Crichton, Dearden and Hamer, 1945)

The portmanteau horror film as Mobius strip. An exceptionally unnerving film.

Carry On… (Thomas, ’50/’60s)

Hard not to choose a series which irrevocably shaped my sense of humour (for better or, probably, worse) but hard to choose any individual films. If pushed, I’d choose ‘Carry on Cleo’ (Thomas, 1964) – for the deathless ‘Infamy! Infamy!’ – and ‘Carry on Teacher’ (Thomas, 1959), for Kenneth Connor’s inexplicably sublime, ‘I’ve fallen… I’ve fallen… I’ve fallen through the hole in the chair.’

Fahrenheit 451 (Truffaut, 1966)

The Ruling Class (Medak, 1972)

A film I haven’t seen for a couple of decades since it freaked me out on late-night TV. No idea if it still stands up, but have included this as a half-remembered Platonic ideal of corrosive, genially sick satire.

The Falls (Greenaway, 1980)

If ever there was a film that needed rediscovery, it’s Greenaway’s one-off proto-mock-doc encyclopaedia-style apocalyptic history – a film that brilliantly invents its own form, and its own body of myth.

Street of Crocodiles (Brothers Quay, 1987)

Weird scenes inside the machine – a fabulous distillation of the sui generis world of these extraordinary animators, evoking the irreducibly alien magic of Polish writer Bruno Schulz.

The Long Day Closes (Davies, 1992)

For me, this has an edge over 'Distant Voices, Still Lives' (Davies, 1988) in the way it moves into the realm of abstract visual poetry.

Ratcatcher (Ramsay, 1999)

Topsy Turvy (Leigh, 1999)

Mark Salisbury, journalist and producer

1. A Matter of Life and Death (Powell and Pressburger, 1946)

I first saw this on TV as a small child and didn't even know what it was called. For years, I thought that perhaps I had imagined this film that was in both colour and black and white. But when I saw it again as a teenager I realised a) I hadn't dreamt it, although it's as close to as dream as I think cinema can be, and b) it was the most romantic film ever made.

2. Don’t Look Now (Roeg, 1973)

Nic Roeg operating at the peak of his powers: a chilling examination of love, obsession and murder. Venice has never looked so unsettling and so uninviting.

3. Walkabout (Roeg, 1971)

4. I Know Where I’m Going! (Powell and Pressburger, 1945)

5. Trainspotting (Boyle, 1996)

6. Bugsy Malone (Parker, 1976)

7. The Third Man (Reed, 1949)

8. Quatermass and the Pit (Baker, 1958)

9. In This World (Winterbottom, 2002)

10. The Warrior (Kapadia, 2001)

Back to top

Iain Sinclair, critic and writer

My choices don’t constitute any notion of the ‘greatest’ British films from an imaginary pantheon, but a cabinet of curiosities, personal favourites, designed to reflect an interest in peculiarities of terrain, weather and morbid pathologies. British voices, even when tapped by European directors. The sample list could expand indefinitely.

David Thompson, journalist and filmmaker

It’s been hard to choose ten – 20 would have been easier – and I’ve had to throw out some personal favourites and obvious ‘great’ contenders. Curiously, four of my choices are directed by non-Brits, and I could have easily given you ten just using that category. And though two films are not set in Britain, it seems to me they have a very British sensibility underlying them.

In chronogical order:

Rob White, editor, Film Quarterly

Users say

2 comments
Philip Kemp
Philip Kemp

Not necessarily, Andrew. Might just be that we so-called critics have seen The Devils but weren't over-impressed with it....

andrew kay
andrew kay

Well done to Alan Jones for putting in "The Devils" in his top-ten. Shows that most so-called critics have never seen it. Shameful.