The 100 best British films: industry players

Explore the top ten British films of all our guest contributors

Linked title denotes top 100 placing

Sam Bain, writer (‘In the Loop’)

My top ten (in no particular order, as they say on 'The X Factor’):

Robin Baker, head curator, BFI National Archive

Any one of the 800 surviving films made by Mitchell and Kenyon would have done the trick as each offers a very rare, unaffected snapshot of Britain at the dawn of the twentieth century. But ‘Parkgate Iron and Steel Co, Rotherham’ (1901) is my favourite. Here, a young, headstrong steelworker lobs an unmistakable V sign at the camera. Edwardian cinema – but not quite what we might expect.

The film that I have watched most often on this list is Lye’s GPO-produced ‘N or NW’. In just eight sweet minutes, he provides a blueprint for the imaginative possibilities of British cinema.

I found it impossible to get away from a predictable 1940s cluster, and just as hard to pick a single title by Powell and Pressburger. ‘Black Narcissus’ and ‘I Know Where I'm Going!’ both vie for 'favourite', while ‘A Canterbury Tale’ and ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ have feet firmly in the 'greatest' camp. ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ is my happy compromise.

Robert Beeson, New Wave Films

Neil Brand, silent film accompanist

1. The ‘?’ Motorist (Paul, 1906)

New technology runs down policemen and takes us to the moon.

2. Blackmail (Hitchcock, 1929)

Hitchcock simultaneously closes silent cinema and opens sound cinema with a career-definingly perverse thriller.

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

Nuff said.

4. Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)


5. The Belles of St Trinians (Lauder, 1954)

In its way more subversive than ‘I'm Alright, Jack’, plus Alistair Sim in drag.

6. Richard the Third (McKellen/Loncraine, 1995)

Truly great Shakespeare reimagined as real cinema, not filmed theatre.

7. The Railway Children (1970)

Great comic actor makes great Edwardian children’s book adaptation shock.

8. The Ipcress File (1965)

Austerity Britain fights the Cold War (badly) by letting class dictate its priorities. Better than all the Bond films put together.

9. The Wrong Trousers (1993)

A handbook of ’70s/’80s TV and cinema tropes refined into half an hour of pure joy.

10. Oliver! (Reed, 1968)

Britain's greatest musical nursed on to the screen by one of its greatest directors.

David Cox, programmer, Channel 4

In alphabetical order:

Louisa Dent, managing director, Artificial Eye

In no particular order as that is just too difficult!

Margaret Deriaz, head of film Distribution, BFI

Here is my list in chronological order.

It's definitely a list of favourites (ie those that stand up to repeated pleasurable viewing) rather than of 'greatest' or 'best'.

It's really difficult to confine oneself to ten if one wants not only to make a honest list of favourites but to draw attention to some great things that are lesser known.

Although I've listed mostly fiction features, what I often value in British film is the magical ‘time capsule’ quality of so many documentary shorts (a huge British strength) or even of actuality films. There’s also the problem of films made for television… So I've included a second list of runners-up (under the first list), largely for my own satisfaction.

Evrim Ersoy and Alex Kidd aka The Duke Mitchell Film Club

1. Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti, 1942)

A potential nightmare scenario explored deftly and excitingly in one of the most unsung classics from Ealing Studios.

2. Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)

Upon its re-release it was criticised for being too mannered. However that’s where the beauty of this unforgettable film lies: the stiffness of the British was never any more romantic.

3. Theatre of Blood (Hickox, 1973)

Was a British cast used any better before or since? We don't think so. The cream of British stage joins Vincent Price beautifully OTT'ing their way through some amazing death sequences.

4. Asylum (Baker, 1972)

Hammer might have been king but Amicus always tried something different – and never more so than in the only portmanteau pic ever to reach the giddy heights scaled by ‘Dead of Night’.

5. Edgar Wallace Mysteries (Merton Park Studios, 1960-65)

These British Bs are so solid, it’s hard to choose a single one. Entertaining, witty and with some classic performances, somebody needs to reissue them as soon as possible.

6. Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960)

Even after all these years still picked upon, this absolutely masterpiece from Michael Powell is as brilliantly observed and shocking as the day it was made.

7. The Small Back Room (Powell and Pressburger, 1949)

Often overlooked in favour of his bigger pictures, Pressburger's adaptation of Nigel Balchin's novel still stands the test of time after all these years.

8. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (Forbes, 1964)

Astounding performances and a tight, uneasy plot elevate this thriller way beyond the norm: a stunning finale brings the whole thing to a close with a bang.

9. It Always Rains on Sunday (Hamer, 1947)

Brit ‘grit-noir’ with amazing array of characters – if any films needs a rediscovery, this is it.

10. On the Night of the Fire (Hurst, 1939)

Another forgotten gem, this vision of working-class Britain is both crushing and shocking in its grimness and frankness. Noir even before noir was coined as a term.

Sam Dunn, head of video publishing, BFI

Ed Fletcher, managing director, Soda Pictures

Have tried to take into account the personal in my choices and limit the amount of Powell and Pressburger... There is a lot of unlikely romance in these films with ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ probably being the most unromantic romantic film ever!

William Fowler, curator of Artists' Moving Image, BFI National Archive

In chronological order:

Ben Gibson, director, London Film School

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

The critics were rude about its Hollywood scale ambitions in ’46, but each year it gets bigger and better – here it stands in for ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947), ‘…Blimp’ (1943), ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (1945), ‘The Small Back Room’ (1949), ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948) and looks like a supremely British movie after all.

2. Distant Voices, Still Lives (Davies, 1988)

Terence Davies’s sublime Proustian capture of the texture and sense of his own times has that rare beauty that comes with the commitment to truth at whatever cost, and brings audiences a way into the other exquisite autobiographies of UK film history: his own ‘Trilogy’ and Bill Douglas’s equally great ‘Trilogy’ before it.

3. The Servant (Losey, 1963)

An American director and a great British screenwriter allowing themselves to look at the upper crust – perhaps it goes with ‘The Knack…’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (Lester, 1964), ‘Dr Strangelove’ and ‘Barry Lyndon’ (Kubrick, 1975), all films by Americans which are spectacularly and illuminatingly British.

4. Naked (Leigh, 1993)

Darker and existentially sharper than most other Leigh – the place where all his Chekovian and Dickensian joy-in-observation takes on the engrossing tonal complexity of great art cinema – and the best film about the often forgotten bleakness of Thatcherism and after – along with his own ‘Meantime’.

5. Kes (Loach, 1969)

It felt like a supremely expressive and confident proposal for a national cinema at the time –as much as ‘Room at the Top’ (Clayton, 1959) or ‘This Sporting Life’ (Anderson, 1963) had done. Where are our intimate and compassionate rural movies now? Goes with the important lost beginnings of new Britfilm strands: ‘If…’ (Anderson, 1968), ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (Frears, 1985)...

6. London (Keiller, 1994)

Part English eccentric diarist in the mode of Pepys and part French flaneur a la Rimbaud with the style of the best Chris Marker, Keiller expresses perfectly the self-immolating, melancholy, perverse pride of the English intellectual. With ‘Diary for Timothy’ and ‘The Moon and the Sledgehammer’, it’s clear that the British do make great essay films.

7. Performance (Cammell and Roeg, 1970)

Excelling the joys of those bright mainstream ’60s London movies, this hugely original punk-sleaze riff on a now unrecognisably shabby Notting Hill, with all its stucco falling off, is startlingly modern, full of sharp attitude and life. Goes with ‘Blow-up’ , arguably an Italian movie, ‘Repulsion’, arguably a Polish movie -– all essential London movies.

8. The Ladykillers (Mackendrick, 1955)

Mackendrick’s film is a mature summary and reminder of the Ealing style without being parodic of it – not so much its ‘North by Northwest’, more its ‘Vertigo’. As a deliberately-paced ensemble, it really has no equal in cinema.

9. Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971)

Not Schlesinger’s most successful film at the time, but growing in stature for me. The closest an English director got to talking about the lives of the local bourgeoisie from the inside, as in Losey or a good French melodrama, without attempting sarcasm or feeling pointless guilt over the subject itself. Leads to ‘The Ploughman’s Lunch’ and ‘Venus’.

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

Equal tenth with… ‘The Ipcress File’ (Furie, 1965), ‘Venus’, ‘The Third Man’ (Reed, 1949), ‘Billy Liar’ (Schlesinger, 1963), ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (Hamer, 1949), ‘Underground’ (Asquith), ‘Gumshoe’, ‘Jubilee’.

Jane Giles, head of film and video distribution, BFI

Top ten personal favourite British films (in date order):