Time Out's 100 best British films

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We've polled actors, directors, producers and other industry big cheeses on the best British films ever. Let Dave Calhoun be your guide…

What are the greatest British movies ever made? ‘The Third Man’? ‘Kes’? ‘Trainspotting’? ‘Carry On at Your Convenience’? This week Time Out launches a major new project: ‘The 100 Best British Films’ – as voted by the film industry itself.

Over the past few months, we’ve been polling a select group of actors, directors, writers, producers, critics and other industry bigwigs to discover their favourite ten British films. We’ve spoken to Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry, Sally Hawkins and Ken Loach, Sam Mendes and Terence Davies, and many, many more, including the heads of major cultural organisations, such as the Barbican, the British Film Institute, Film London, the National Film and Television School, the London Film School and critics from the country’s major newspapers and magazines, such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Sight & Sound, Total Film and Empire.

From there, taking into account the choices of our 150 contributors, we’ve compiled a countdown of the 100 best British films with new commentary on every film by our critics. You can also read every contributor’s top ten, lots of them giving the reasoning behind their choices. Many found the process hard. ‘I hate lists because films are not groceries,’ quips Alfonso Cuarón, director of ‘Children of Men’. ‘I could write a different top ten every day,’ counters Sandra Hebron, director of the London Film Festival.

In that spirit, we acknowledge that list-making is no science. It’s a snapshot of taste at one moment in time. Hopefully, too, it’s a chance to look back and consider the ideas and the people that inform British cinema now. How can we know where we’re going, if we don’t know where we came from? In the same week that the Bafta winners are announced, and as British film funding remains in flux, now seems as good a time as ever to think about British cinema in a wider context. Add to that the aggressive flag-waving over ‘The King’s Speech’, and you could say that such soul-searching isn’t just a good idea, it’s essential.

So which films emerged as the leading runners and riders? Nicolas Roeg’s Venice thriller ‘Don’t Look Now’ was most popular, rising eight places from its position in a similar poll conducted by the BFI in 1999. My colleague David Jenkins visited 83-year-old Roeg at home in Notting Hill Gate last week, and you can read an interview with him too. Roeg has two films in the top ten: his debut, ‘Performance’ (1970), co-directed with Donald Cammell and starring Mick Jagger and James Fox, lands at number seven.

Interestingly, the only films post-1970 that make our top ten are Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ and Terence Davies’s ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’. Both filmmakers are having an enviable time of it in 2011: Boyle has released the well-liked ‘127 Hours’ and is hard at work on ‘Frankenstein’ at the National Theatre and the artistic direction of the London 2012 Games opening ceremony, while Davies recently filmed his first feature for a decade, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’. Could it be that current successes have kept their older work fresh in our minds? Certainly there are absences – Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway spring to mind – which might be explained by a lack of new work and the fact that they are poorly served by the worlds of DVD and theatrical revivals.

What else can we learn from our list? We can’t ignore that only four of the films are directed by women. A shocking statistic, yes, but maybe an encouraging one when you consider that all four – ‘Under the Skin’, ‘Fish Tank’, ‘Ratcatcher’, ‘Orlando’ – were made in the last 20 years and the BFI poll in 1999 contained not one single woman. Might things be improving?

One thing is beyond doubt: our film industry’s most popular filmmakers are Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They have six films in the top 100 – seven, if you include ‘Peeping Tom’, which Powell made alone. Their films kept coming up in top tens again and again. Two of them, ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘Matter of Life and Death’ are in the final top ten, with three more in the top 20. Several people agonised at the idea of choosing between their features. ‘I could have chosen so many of their films,’ says David Morrissey. ‘I think they revolutionised British cinema.’

This is just the beginning, we hope, of a dialogue between the industry and audiences. In the coming weeks, we’re going to be organising screenings of some of the films in our list, with special guests in attendance. See you there.

Users say

14 comments

best film 

Pedro DeLaFiesta
Pedro DeLaFiesta

I would watch any of these ahead of most of those: Ipcress file, The Italian Job,Sexy Beast ,The Constant Gardener ,The Day of the Jackal, Gangster no1, The Business. Not sure what defines the list as British though.

sks
sks

How come movie Gandhi by Richard Attenborough is missing from the list.

Richard Neville
Richard Neville

What definition of "British" is used to include films Produced Written and or Directed by Italians Canadians Americans etc? Also how is it that one TV programme made in England and one made in Sweden represent Peter Watkins "films" ,while "Privelege" which is actually a film made in England is absent?

Ben
Ben

So, if it was directed, written and produced by British people is it a British film? If so, why isn't anything by Roland Joffe on here?

dodrade
dodrade

For a 100 best British "films" list there are a lot of TV dramas on it.

user01
user01

is there an actual readable list that doesn't require umpteen clicks to get through?

Gerry Smith
Gerry Smith

Did you mean "English"? "British" is an Establishment/BBC fiction to appease the Celtic fringe. How many films on your list are Scottish, N Irish or Welsh? I have the same problem with the use of "British Invasion" in '60s pop music: all the bands to succeed in the US market were English.

Dave Calhoun, Film editor
Dave Calhoun, Film editor

Edward, I'm sure most, if not all, of our contributors, considered 'The Crying Game' eligible – they just didn't deem it good enough to make the cut. As I say below, we allowed contributors to run with their own definitions of 'British cinema' as a democratic way of recognising that such terms are elastic. I think that's fairer than imposing a viewpoint. As it is, all the films here, we would say, are 'culturally' British, even if, like 'The Third Man' or 'Don't Look Now', they are shot either wholly or partly abroad by British directors, or if they're shot in Britain by US filmmakers such as Losey and Kubrick. We would welcome any further debate as to whether any of the films are 'British' or not. That's what this kind of thing is for: to jog memories, inspire and kickstart debate. Best, Dave

Edward Copeland
Edward Copeland

Yes, a definition of what is deemed "British" and what isn't would be helpful especially since the American Film Institute runs into the same problem with its neverending lists of "American" films which happen to include several films that also are on your list such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Third Man. Also, perhaps that would explain the glaring omission of The Crying Game, which in essence was a British film since, as Neil Jordan told me when I interviewed him at the time of the film's release, there really isn't an Irish film industry and all the key backing came from England and the crucial majority of the film was set in London.

Dave Calhoun
Dave Calhoun

Screening details coming v soon - will certainly be prominently here and will Tweet too. Thanks Dave

Jeremy
Jeremy

I'd like to see details of the screenings please, which Dave tweeted about the other day. Thanks.

Dave Calhoun
Dave Calhoun

Dave Calhoun, Film Editor - We deliberately kept it vague, with the idea being that democracy would win out. If enough people decided a film was 'British', it would make the final list of 100. If anyone adopted a lone, wild definition, it wouldn't. I think it works better as a method than being prescriptive about it. Best, Dave

Richard Appleyard
Richard Appleyard

You don't appear to define "British film" anywhere, which is pretty critical.