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The 100 best British films

We polled actors, directors, producers and other movie industry big cheeses to compile a list of the best British films of all time

Here you have it, the 100 best British films as chosen by a panel of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers, critics and other industry bigwigs. We've spoken to Wes Anderson, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Sam Mendes and Terence Davies, David Morrissey, Sally Hawkins, Thandie Newton and many, many more. And while you're here, why not tackle one of our other epic movie polls: comedyhorrorromantic.

Written by Dave Calhoun, Tom Huddleston, David Jenkins, Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Adam Lee Davies, Gareth Evans, Paul Fairclough and Wally Hammond.

The 100 best British films: 100-91

100

In This World (2002)

Director Michael Winterbottom

Cast Jamal Udin Torabi, Enayatullah

Kings of the road

The first of three films by the prolific Michael Winterbottom on this list, ‘In This World’ is the best example of the director’s urge to explore contemporary issues on screen and to employ cinema as a sideways view on current affairs. This, ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’, ‘Road to Guantanamo’ and A Mighty Heart were all films discussed on news pages as well as in arts reviews. ‘In This World’ is admirable as a feat: Winterbottom cast two Afghan refugees in Pakistan and with a small crew shooting on digital cameras took them on a journey west over land, through Iran, Turkey and Europe, eventually arriving in London. At a time of headlines about immigration and political trouble in Afghanistan, the effect was to offer an alternative spin on the news and to do it in a manner that made clear the often terrible realities of being a refugee. DC

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99

The Railway Children (1970)

Director Lionel Jeffries

Cast Dinah Sheridan, William Mervyn, Jenny Agutter

A real sleeper hit

As warm and cosy as a cup of Horlicks, Lionel Jeffries’s 1970 adaptation of E Nesbit’s Edwardian children’s novel centres on a well-to-do London family torn apart when its patriarch is arrested on suspicion of treason. With a sudden urge to start life over in the country, the remaining family members – mother Dinah Sheridan and her three children – up sticks and settle alongside a quaint Yorkshire railway line where the film slowly begins to work its very English charm. Jenny Agutter and little Sally Thomsett are the film’s cornerstones, but a special mention to Bernard Cribbins’s archetypal British stationmaster. Naturally, the film won’t play well with today’s digital generation – it’s far too fusty and polite in both tone and colour – but it still has the capacity to generate fond childhood memories. Nice to see it make the list, albeit in the penultimate spot. DA

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98

School For Scoundrels (1960)

Director Robert Hamer

Cast Ian Carmichael, Alastair Sim, Terry-Thomas

‘He who is not one up… is one down!’

‘We hate it when our friends become successful,’ Morrissey once said about Britain: Robert Hamer and his writers were closer to the mark in suggesting that most of us would happily put the boot into anyone who even approaches success. And amen to that! Bounders, cads and a good portion of hard cheese fill out this toothy confection of just-coherent, raffish ribaldry. It may be little more than a loose collection of sketches – Peter Jones and Dennis Price’s ‘Winsome Welshmen’ car salesman schtick, for instance, was lifted from the BBC radio comedy show ‘In All Directions’ – held together by a script based on Stephen Potter’s thoughts on gamesmanship, lifemanship and ‘the struggle for pure prestige’, but there’s something so irrepressibly beastly and underhand about the whole business that one can’t help but – imagine a velveteen Terry-Thomas accent – join the club, old chap! ALD

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97

28 Days Later… (2002)

Director Danny Boyle

Cast Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson

This town is coming like a ghost town

The first scene in Danny Boyle’s symbolic UK-set zombie fest is hairy in more ways than one: a group of animal activists descend on a biological vivisection centre and release a chimpanzee infected with rage, a contagious rabies-like virus. Cut to 28 days later and Cillian Murphy’s cycle courier awakens from a hospitalised coma to find a near deserted, dystopian London populated by violent rage victims. The zombie segments, while tense, violent and gruesome, are a sideshow to the story’s main thrust: our predisposition towards outright selfishness and savagery when even our most basic of needs are whipped from beneath our feet. There have been similar plague-based apocalyptic films both before and after – 1971’s ‘The Omega Man’ and its 2007 offshoot ‘I Am Legend’, for instance – but this one is especially poignant for British viewers, if only because the unfolding events are so much closer to home. This is the first of only two Boyle films to feature in this list. DA

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96

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Director Douglas Hickox

Cast Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry

Stage fright

Vincent Price adopts the more psyched-out style of British horror in the ’70s in this serial-killer romp that gives the great man a crack at the Shakespearean roles he felt cinema had denied him. As Edward Lionheart, Price plays a ham passed over for the award he most cherishes: Best Actor as voted by the Critics’ Circle. His years of dedication to the Bard are dismissed by his beret-wearing tormenters but prove inspirational when he plots their murders: each is to be despatched in the manner of a Shakespearean death, from ‘Julius Caesar’s’ gang- knifing to a grisly rewriting of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and the hard-to-swallow cuisine of ‘Titus Andronicus’. It’s a gory, funny trip, as Price dons a series of preposterous disguises to entrap his victims through their own foibles. His post-homicide delivery of Shakespeare will surprise anyone who bought his popular image as a one-dimensional hack, adding yet another layer to a film that satirises both its stars and audience without ever sacrificing its disconcerting edge. PF

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95
London to Brighton (2006)

London to Brighton (2006)

Director Paul Andrew Williams

Cast Lorraine Stanley, Johnny Harris, Georgia Groome

It’s grim down South

The post ‘Lock, Stock…’ landscape is littered with the corpses of a thousand pretenders to the mockney gangster pic throne. Remember ‘Rancid Aluminium’? ‘Love, Honour and Obey?’ ‘The 51st State’? ‘Rise of the Footsoldier’? Aside from Jonathan Glazer’s eminently stylish ‘Sexy Beast’, only Paul Andrew Williams’s pithy and relentlessly entertaining debut has managed to poke its head above the sea of mediocrity. A rape, revenge and road movie (in that order) about a distressed young girl (Georgia Groome) helped by a prostitute (Lorraine Stanley – stunning) to flee a gang of tinpot hoods, it’s a film where no shot, line and character is wasted. Williams claims to have written the film over one weekend, and both the clamp-like tightness of its structure and the bracingly realistic progression of its characters – if you get hurt, you stay hurt – make that entirely believable. DJ

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94

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Director Michael Winterbottom

Cast Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Ron Cook

Manchester, so much to answer for…

In a national cinema prone to self indulgent rock follies (‘Tommy’, ‘The Wall’, ‘Give My Regards to Broad St’), the best British music films are those which refuse to take their subjects as seriously as themselves. A perfect case in point is the disconnect between Anton Corbijn’s mournful, largely forgettable 2007 kitchen sink biopic ‘Control’, which placed Ian Curtis on a tortured-artist pedestal, and Michael Winterbottom’s lurid, lively Madchester romp ‘24 Hour Party People’, which presented the Joy Division frontman as a sadistic, sarcastic Tory loudmouth: hell to live with, perhaps, but painfully human. The film remains one of the purest pleasures in modern British cinema: scrappy, inconsistent, inventive, insightful, heartfelt and wickedly funny. TH

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93

Zulu (1964)

Director Cy Endfield

Cast Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Michael Caine

Fahsands of ’em... comin’ over the hill!

‘Zulu’ may take a few liberties with the exact levels of Welshness on show during the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, but – Richard Burton, Catherine Zeta-Jones and gold-standard Richard Burton impersonator Anthony Hopkins notwithstanding –Welsh film fans have never had all that much to cheer about. So we’re keeping this one! An account of the South Wales Border Regiment’s seemingly hopeless last-ditch stand against the massed ranks of the Zulu Nation, it’s a massively successful enterprise – especially from first-time producer (and star) Stanley Baker and a director previously known chiefly for low-budget noirs. That it still stirs the blood and moistens the eye proves that few films manage to be as expansive and yet so intimate as this. ALD

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92

Dead Man's Shoes (2004)

Director Shane Meadows

Cast Paddy Considine, Gary Stretch, Toby Kebbell

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord

Shane Meadows’s fourth film shows the importance of staying true to your instincts. The Midlands director’s third film, ‘Once Upon a Time in the Midlands’ had seen him working with a bigger budget and a more recognisable cast (Rhys Ifans, Ricky Tomlinson, Robert Carlyle, Kathy Burke) and the result, if amiable, was much less raw, personal and anarchic than his first two features and earlier shorts. ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ was an uncompromising and successful attempt by Meadows to rediscover his old voice. He cast old pal Paddy Considine, who had been gripping as a volatile loner in ‘A Room for Romeo Brass’, and went for the jugular with this tale of a man who seeks and dishes out violence in revenge for something terrible that happened in his family’s past. Considine is terrifying, and Meadows pulls no punches in painting a portrait of just how low men can go – for fun and for love. DC

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91

Land and Freedom (1995)

Director Ken Loach

Cast Ian Hart, Icíar Bollaín, Tom Gilroy

Homage to Catalonia

Ken Loach’s 1995 film about fatal splits on the Left during the Spanish Civil War – told from the viewpoint of David (Ian Hart), a Liverpudlian Communist who travels south to Spain to join the cause – achieved an epic look and feel while remaining committed to the cut and thrust of ground-level debate. It remains one of Loach’s most ambitious and important films both for its raw combat scenes and for the way it shines a light on a crucial moment in twentieth-century history. The focus of Jim Allen’s script on one group of militia allows for strong personalities with varying motivations and ideas to emerge, while the book-ending of the story with the discovery in the present of David’s letters by his granddaughter gives it a powerful immediacy. The film doubly confirmed Loach’s return from the wilderness in the 1980s and set a precedent for his later films exploring global stories in Nicaragua, Los Angeles and Ireland. DC

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The 100 best British films: 90-81

90

Blue (1993)

Director Derek Jarman

Cast Tilda Swinton, John Quentin, Nigel Terry (voices)

Distant voices...

‘My mind is bright as a button, but my body is falling apart.’ It’s rare that a ‘last film’ is conceived as such, but Derek Jarman knew he was dying from Aids-related illnesses when he made ‘Blue’ in 1993 – a film simultaneously broadcast on television and radio months before his death in 1994 at 52. It was his encroaching blindness, much referred to in the voiceover read by several actors, which gave Jarman the idea to apply words to an unchanging, blue screen for 76 minutes. The voiceover is a mix of diary and poetry, relating variously to Jarman’s illness, art and the colour blue. It’s a bold, moving work, but it’s Jarman’s ability to conjure up such a unique, experimental event as ‘Blue’ that we must remember and honour – the way that, with this avant-garde work, he drew attention to him, his work, sexuality and illness and made an unembarrassed, deathbed claim for art itself. DC

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89

The Go-Between (1970)

Director Joseph Losey

Cast Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Dominic Guard

The boys of summer

‘The past is another country. They do things differently there’: one of two Joseph Losey-Harold Pinter collaborations to feature in our poll (the other is ‘The Servant’) is this radiant and evocative adaptation of LP Hartley’s tale of thwarted love and class prejudice set against the halcyon British summer of 1900. It was dumped initially by MGM because of its supposed ‘difficulty’ but was subsequently the winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or and a box-office and critical success in the US. The reputations of both the film and late-career Losey went into decline in Britain (if not elsewhere) by the mid-1990s – in 1994 The Independent’s Anthony Quinn, typically, thought this film ‘overrated’ and part of Losey’s decline. But its complexity of feeling, the undoubted chemistry of its reunited stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates, the lushness of cinematographer Gerry Fisher’s Norfolk landscapes and the critical late-1960s sensibility provided by the acute eye and complex psychological insight of Losey – plus the revelatory use of time-frames, flashback and point-of-view in Pinter’s script – guarantee its lasting appeal. WH

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88

This Is England (2006)

Director Shane Meadows

Cast Thomas Turgoose, Stephen Graham, Jo Hartley

He’s got some Front

You could hear the British film industry breathe a collective sigh of relief when writer-director Shane Meadows got the breakthrough hit he so richly deserved after much critical but little commercial success with his previous films. Clearly ripped from his own experiences, this rite-of-passage tale sees a naive, isolated youngster (Thomas Turgoose – a revelation) scooped up by some friendly skinheads and introduced to the joys of young love, ska, short hair and oversized, steel toe-capped Doc Martens. But Meadows’s film shows that this initially benign enclave was very different to the growing ranks of supporters of the National Front, even if their appearance was similar. The film established Meadows in a league of his own when it comes to naturalistic, comic dialogue and wringing sensitive performances from young cast members. It also confirmed him as a director whose predominant interest is in contrasting the invigorating highs and vicious lows of English working-class life. DJ

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87

Night and the City (1950)

Director Jules Dassin

Cast Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers

London by night is a wonderful sight

London noir may have been more of a literary movement than a cinematic one, but its undoubted pinnacle – both on the page and screen – is ‘Night and the City’. The film may bear little relation to Gerald Kersh’s far nastier (and more grimly believable) source novel, but Jules Dassin’s stark, unforgiving direction, Max Greene’s oppressive monochrome cinematography and Richard Widmark’s twitchy central performance give the movie a paranoid power all of its own. The centrepiece scene remains the staggering, emotionally draining wrestling match between avuncular old-timer Gregorius and new-fangled masked avenger The Strangler, arguably the most punishing fight ever committed to celluloid, five unforgiving minutes of sweat, muscle and dogged determination. TH

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86

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director David Lean

Cast Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun

Not even the breeze coming off his twirling moral compass can keep Alec Guinness’s stiff upper lip from wilting in the maddening Burmese heat during David Lean’s truly epic – as opposed to simply lengthy – meditation on the possibilities of humane behaviour in wartime. Guinness is otherwise in fine form as a captured British colonel overseeing Allied troops charged with assisting the Japanese war effort by building said bridge across said river. William Holden’s engaging, wiseacre American GI, on the other hand, is quite unshakeable in his belief that the war would get on quite well without him thank you very much, and spends an enviable amount of the film goosing the nurses in a Ceylon military hospital. Ultimately, both men’s attitudes are compromised to the greater good as the bridge comes crashing down in a riveting scene of unbridled catharsis. ALD

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85

I'm All Right, Jack (1959)

Director John Boulting

Cast Peter Sellers, Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas

‘Ah, Russia… All them corn fields, and ballet in the evening!’

After satirising army life in 1956’s ‘Private’s Progress’, the Boulting brothers thrust the same cast of characters onto civvy street for a swipe at… well, pretty much every aspect of post-war Britain: capitalism, socialism, unions, management, cronyism, indolence, the media, the nobs at the top and the workers at the sharp end all come in for a poke in the eye and a kick up the arse as Ian Carmichael’s upper-class twit unwittingly causes a strike at his scheming uncle’s missile factory. Cue a battle of wills between Peter Sellers’s hard-left shop steward and Terry-Thomas’s slippery personnel manager that swiftly erupts into a scandal. The politics may have lost some of their bite over the years, but the humour – for all its cosy warmth – retains a cold, jagged edge. ALD

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84

Fish Tank (2009)

Director Andrea Arnold

Cast Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender

Estuary English

The director of the most recent film on our list, former kids’ TV presenter Andrea Arnold, 49, came to attention in 2005 when she declared live on television that it was ‘the dog’s bollocks’ to be awarded an Oscar for her short film, ‘Wasp’. Since then, she has made two features, ‘Red Road’ and ‘Fish Tank’, both of which triumphed at Cannes. Like ‘Red Road’, ‘Fish Tank’ intimately explores the life of one female character on a housing estate, this time potty-mouthed teen Mia (Katie Jarvis), who falls into a relationship with her mum’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). The beauty of Arnold’s films lies in their poetry and brilliance at expressing interior feelings through quiet observation. Arnold was awarded an OBE at the end of 2010 and is now finishing a version of ‘Wuthering Heights’ populated by little-known actors. We suspect – and hope – that Arnold is not about to cross over to the mainstream any time soon. DC

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83

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Director Anthony Asquith

Cast Hans Adalbert von Schlettow, Uno Henning, Norah Baring

Cut!

Better known for his sterling Terence Rattigan adaptations ‘The Winslow Boy’ (1948) and ‘The Browning Version’ (1951), Anthony Asquith’s recently re-appraised silent melodrama is totally deserving of its place on this list and is perhaps the biggest reminder of how much the age of the DVD has allowed us better access to such hidden gems. Edited with the quick-chopping fury of a Darren Aronofsky movie, this pacy and occasionally very funny film looks at a love triangle forming at a busy barber’s shop: hairdresser Joe (Uno Henning) is madly in love with manicurist Sally (Norah Baring) but can’t quite seal the deal, a fact of which Dartmoor farmer and regular customer Harry takes full advantage. As Joe’s jealousy escalates, Asquith’s direction takes on more weird and wonderful forms, referencing silent comedy, German expressionism and Russian montage, sometimes all in the same scene. When violence erupts, it’s swift and brutal, but the film’s main pleasure is its pragmatic handling of the central romance. DJ

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82

Orlando (1993)

Director Sally Potter

Cast Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, John Wood

The secret history

Tilda Swinton is said to be planning a collaboration with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, director of ‘Uncle Boonmee…’, and if the Thai dreamweaver is in any doubt about casting her in one of his metaphysical opuses, he need only watch Sally Potter’s Jarmanesque time, space and gender-switching adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, ‘Orlando: A Biography’. What’s clear from the off is that Swinton and Potter possess an acute understanding of the droll subtleties of the text about an immortal nobleman who leaves his stamp on various points in modern history and then transforms from man to woman. The film is not merely about the strictures of gender through the ages, but also an essay on the nature of evolution (the Godardian final shot even switches from film to video) and it scores points through knowing casting (Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I!) and production design that’s just jaw-droppingly plush for what must’ve been a modest budget. DJ

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81

Dr No (1962)

Director Terence Young

Cast Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman

Dang da-da dang dang and so on and so forth…

It might look fresh today, but ‘Dr No’ must have seemed like ‘Avatar’ to post-war British audiences. A transgressive explosion of colour, exoticism, modernity and impetuous sex, James Bond’s first mission sees the imperious Sean Connery saunter through an overripe cocktail of Caribbean intrigue abetted by Jack ‘Hawaii Five-O’ Lord as his shifty CIA opposite number Felix Leiter and Ursula Andress as racy cockler, Honey Ryder, all of whom are variously hot under the collar for the bionic hide of Dr Julius No – major player in the Spectre spy organisation we shall become all-too familiar with in further instalments. The bad doctor is the first of many Bond supervillains to crave global domination, but when ‘Dr No’ made its million-dollar budget back 109 times over, it was immediately clear that 007 had come out on top – and would be back for more. ALD

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The 100 best British films: 80-71

80

Under the Skin (1997)

Director Carine Adler

Cast Samantha Morton, Claire Rushbrook, Rita Tushingham

Sex, death, the usual...

Women directed only four of our top 100 films, although perhaps we should celebrate that all four of those are from the last 20 years, which might suggest the gender gap in cinema is gradually closing. (When the BFI organised a similar poll in 1999, not one director on their list was a woman.) That said, the careers of two of those four directors, Lynne Ramsay and Carine Adler, have stalled in recent years and only Andrea Arnold seems able to move easily from film to film. So far Adler’s 1997 film ‘Under the Skin’ is her one and only feature, but it still remains rare for offering a female writer-director’s view on a woman’s extreme sexuality as a young Liverpudlian woman Iris (Samantha Morton) embraces promiscuity and a heightened sexual awareness as part of the grieving process in the wake of her mother’s death from cancer. Adler might not have fulfilled her promise – but this film launched Morton as one of our most bold and smart young actresses. DC

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79

The Offence (1972)

Director Sidney Lumet

Cast Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant

Sean of the dead

American filmmaker Sidney Lumet brought a keen outsider’s eye to this deliriously depressing slab of British noir. Sean Connery is at his cruel, bullying best as an immoral police detective on the trail of a child molester – a mission that leads to a harrowing, tragic face-off with grateful suspect Ian Bannen and to a long, dark night of the soul in which all the horrors, mis-steps and dismembered bodies Connery has psychically stockpiled over 20 years on the force coalesce into a grisly butcher’s bill that he has no hope of meeting. The film displeased United Artists – who funded it as a thank you to Connery for wigging his way through the previous year’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, and who didn’t want 007 to be viewed as any more of a pitiless shitbag than strictly necessary – and went unreleased in many countries. But it’s outstanding quality remains undeniable. As does its capacity to unsettle. ALD

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78

Billy Liar (1963)

Director John Schlesinger

Cast Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Wilfred Pickles

The great escape

Few films exemplify the fearsome contradictions inherent in British filmmaking better than ‘Billy Liar’. Is it better to dream of a better world, or to keep both feet planted firmly in the real one? Is escapism a creative act, or an indulgence? Is social class really the thing that keeps us apart, or is it just a convenient distraction? And is London really the promised land, or just a place to ‘lose yourself’? While director John Schlesinger and writer Keith Waterhouse don’t really come up with much in the way of actual answers – perhaps there is no satisfactory solution to Billy’s dilemma – they do a superb job of asking the right questions. Tom Courtenay is unforgettable in the title role, and Julie Christie’s fleeting, flitting presence is as convincing a ‘star is born’ moment as British film has to offer. TH

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77

Piccadilly (1929)

Director EA Dupont

Cast Anna May Wong, Gilda Gray, Jameson Thomas

Where East End girls meet West End boys…

The oldest movie on our list – pipping at the post Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’ by less than a month – is this glorious silent-era melodrama set mainly in London’s West End in the late 1920s but which takes detours to the slums of Limehouse and to the showbiz world’s less glamorous nooks and crannies. Made on the cusp of the sound era (and a ‘talkie’ prologue exists as an extra on the BFI’s recent DVD), the film has a vibrant, jazz-age energy to it that takes its cue from the dance scenes on the floor of Valentine Wilmot’s (Jameson Thomas) Piccadilly Club – where Charles Laughton has an amusing cameo as a disgruntled diner. Anna May Wong gives an empowering performance as the dancer Shosho and her first appearance, dancing on the sideboard in the club’s scullery, feels as luminous and provocative today as it surely must have in the late 1920s. For us, the film is also a thrilling imagining (almost entirely studio-shot, of course) of a long-gone city. DC

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76

Penda's Fen (1974)

Director Alan Clarke

Cast Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Ian Hogg

Shadows of the past

This remarkable feature length television film – commissioned for the legendary 1970s ‘Play for Today’ single drama series – is often described as a step ‘off piste’ for its director Alan Clarke. That’s a misleading reading, however. The work’s qualities of resistance, questioning and personal and public transformation are entirely in keeping with the normally urban-centric filmmaker’s milieu. But the real credit lies with its writer David Rudkin. An astonishing playwright with a visionary reach and a genuine sense of ‘deep England’ and its radical potential, Rudkin here crafts a multi-layered reading of contemporary society and its personal, social, sexual, psychic and metaphysical fault lines. Fusing Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ with a heightened socialism of vibrantly localist empathy, and pagan belief systems with pre-Norman histories and a seriously committed – and prescient – ecological awareness, ‘Penda’s Fen’ is a unique and important statement, rumoured soon – finally – to be available on DVD. GE

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75

A Room for Romeo Brass (1999)

Director Shane Meadows

Cast Paddy Considine, Andrew Shim, Ben Marshall

Paddy power

The importance of imperfection cannot be overlooked in British film: while there’s plenty to be said for the studied slickness of Hitchcock or Lean, I’ll take the shaggy-edged, off-kilter unpredictability of ‘A Canterbury Tale’, ‘Kes’ or ‘Romeo Brass’ any day. This was Meadows’s second film, his trickiest, his loosest and perhaps his best. It marks the debut screen appearance of Paddy Considine, and though it’s easy (and probably appropriate) to refer to him as our De Niro, it took Bob five years to get to Johnny Boy, while Paddy knocked it flat first time in the ring. The edge-of-your-seat savagery of his performance, contrasted with the sweet-natured, bucolic nature of the central friendship, makes for a more honest and believable portrayal of the shift into adulthood than 100 prim and polished pretenders. TH

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74

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Director Mike Newell

Cast Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas

Well, I, er... gosh, you know... um... crikey

The film that set Hugh Grant on the road towards ‘Notting Hill’ and a varied career as Britain’s jester of romcom. Using one of Richard Curtis’s less cheesy screenplays, director Newell fashioned a richly rewarding and funny microcosm of various relationships centred mostly around Grant’s likeable bachelor, Charles. The film benefits from a raft of well-observed moments – the subtle comedy of Rowan Atkinson’s tongue-tied vicar, for instance – yet emotions are cleverly twisted once we attend the funeral and the film’s sole serious moment. It’s this scene alone – in which John Hannah reads WH Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’ – that cast the greatest influence over audiences. Emotionally honest and full of human warmth, ‘Four Weddings…’ stands out as one of the most enjoyable of British romcoms. And what’s more, it’s the only film in this list to open with the word ‘fuck!’ DA

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73

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Director Alexander Mackendrick

Cast Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker

The price of progress

Of all the top-rank Ealing comedies, ‘The Man in the White Suit’ is the one which least deserves the tag, partly because it’s not meant to be funny, and partly because it diverges so much from the Ealing template: it’s not set in London, it doesn’t feature wisecracking criminals, plodding bobbies or apple-cheeked tykes, and it eschews good-natured patriotism in favour of a rather cold, even misanthropic view of class-obsessed workers and short-sighted bosses. Alec Guinness’s blinkered scientist Sidney is every bit as irksome as Professor Marcus in ‘The Ladykillers’, but quieter, subtler and less flashy, and while gravel-throated Joan Greenwood and simpering beau Michael Gough feel like a stereotypical Ealing couple, there’s something pathetic about the way they’re so powerless to affect the course of events. The result is a genuinely unusual film: part political treatise, part social satire, even part science fiction, all building towards a magnificently unsettling climax of mob justice. TH

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72

The Long Day Closes (1992)

Director Terence Davies

Cast Marjorie Yates, Leigh McCormack, Anthony Watson

Ma, can I go to the pictures?

It’s clear Davies believes we are shaped by the movies we watch. If Fellini saw life as a circus, then Davies sees life as a cinema. Young Bud (Leigh McCormack) is his alter ego, and this is a rhapsodic scrapbook of memories from a working-class Liverpool childhood accompanied by dispatches from the wireless, popular songs and rousing classical standards. Davies rejects a linear narrative in favour of creating layers of emotion through a succession of detached scenes such as Bud’s attempts to get in to a cinema and his presence at a drunken family sing-song. But first and foremost this is a film which weighs up the consolations of cinema against the consolations of religion, and – if we are to read anything into the final shot of Bud and a friend watching a film of clouds drifting by starlight as Arthur Sullivan’s song ‘The Long Day Closes’ plays in the background – cinema wins by a mile. DJ

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71

Edvard Munch (1974)

Director Peter Watkins

Cast Geir Westby, Gro Fraas, Iselin von Hanno Bart

Scream and scream again

Left-leaning director Watkins is most famous for the challenging, innovative, vérité-style docs he made in the mid-1960s for the BBC (see ‘Culloden’, above). The negative reaction to – and 20-year banning of – his exposure of the threat of nuclear war in ‘The War Game’ (1965) led him into self-imposed, globe-trotting exile and obscurity. Even his masterpiece, ‘Edvard Munch’ – a beautiful, heartbreaking and extraordinarily empathetic three-and-a-half hour meditation on the life and work of the Norwegian painter describing ‘the illness, insanity and death’ that pre-occupied the artist’s life – was largely unavailable for 20-or-so years. It’s surprising therefore to see a place in this poll for a hitherto neglected classic of British cinema, as well as further testament to the power and necessity of DVD revivals. WH

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The 100 best British films: 70-61

70

Bad Timing (1980)

Director Nicolas Roeg

Cast Art Garfunkel, Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel

Garfunkel sings the clocks-go-back blues

It might have divided the critics with its disturbing notions of sexuality on its release, but ‘Bad Timing’ has grown in reputation to be counted amongst Nicolas Roeg’s best. His mastery of kaleidoscopic inter-cutting techniques – though subdued here – has never found better employment than the chronological quick-step and intersecting flashbacks he uses to reveal the psychosexual labyrinths of a fateful off/on love affair between Theresa Russell’s free-spirited boozehound and Art Garfunkel’s collected, monopolising, Malboro-smoking psychoanalyst. Set amid the icy old-world charm of Vienna, the fragmentary romantic drama builds into a hallucinatory thriller, as Harvey Keitel’s police detective – sans accent but with killer shoulder-length John the Baptist locks – begins to question Garfunkel over Russell’s abortive suicide attempt and forces us to reconsider all that’s gone before. ALD

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69

Oliver! (1968)

Director Carol Reed

Cast Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed

The only film here with its own reality TV spinoff...

For someone who couldn’t play a note of music, Lionel Bart sure knew how to pen a memorable ditty. ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ and the title song are all up there with the best in the musical genre. Carol Reed’s 1968 film is essentially a watered-down, family friendly reworking of Dickens’s oft-adapted novel. But with its dark, grimy Dickensian squalor (courtesy of one of Shepperton Studios’ most authentic sets – now sadly dismantled), Oliver Reed’s memorably chilling arch crim Bill Sikes, and at least one shocking murder, the film also displayed a level of foreboding darkness capable of scaring the bejesus out of younger viewers. The rest of the casting, too, is mostly spot on, none more so than Ron Moody’s iconically OTT performance as slimey child-gang leader, Fagin. A fabulously entertaining family musical, then, but one that, I suspect, is on this list for nostalgic value alone. DA

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68

Dead of Night (1945)

Directors Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer

Cast Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver

Tales of the unexpected

Modern audiences heading into Ealing’s portmanteau chiller keenly anticipating the film Martin Scorsese picked as the fifth scariest movie ever (and also inspired Fred Hoyle to formulate his ‘Steady State’ theory of cosmological expansion, science fans) may find themselves wondering, for a while, what all the fuss was about. The framing narrative, set in a delightful country house populated by jolly upper-crust eccentrics, is more cosy than creepy, the first three episodes – the psychic racing driver, the Victorian children’s party and the haunted mirror – while increasingly ominous, are hardly hair-raising, while the fourth is intentionally funny. So it’s upon Cavalcanti’s closing tale that the film’s reputation rests: the story of a disturbed ventriloquist – or a possessed dummy – has been done so often that one might expect the thrill to have gone. Not so – the final 15 minutes of ‘Dead of Night’ remains the pinnacle of pre-Hammer homemade horror, a truly disturbing flight into the arms of madness. TH

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67

Whisky Galore! (1949)

Director Alexander Mackendrick

Cast Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, Jean Cadell

I’d rather have a bottle in front o’ me…

In the post-war years, a number of films were made on both sides of the Atlantic intended to extol national virtues, restore civic pride and celebrate those values which make us who we are. But while the Yanks were busily indulging their national tendency towards flag-waving, pie-making, gingham-sewing and casual racism, we Brits were more likely to sing the praises of pastimes such as authority-baiting, petty larceny and the simple pleasure of drinking to the verge of blindness. ‘Whisky Galore’ is an unashamed celebration of alcoholism: the magic liquor greases the social machinery, gets communities communicating, even cures a bedridden geriatric of all that ails him. But it’s also a celebration of bloody-minded Britishness (or at least Scottishness) and the rebel spirit which, according to Ealing, showed Gerry what for. TH

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66

Wonderland (1999)

Director Michael Winterbottom

Cast Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson, Molly Parker, John Simm

This world, then the fireworks

Now 49, Michael Winterbottom has been making almost one film every year for the past 15 years, most of them broadly well liked, so it’s not surprising that three films by the versatile, Blackburn-born, Oxford-educated director have made it on to our list. This is his highest-placed film, which may have something to do with just how real and recognisable Winterbottom and writer Laurence Coriat’s vision of London is as he tells of one Bonfire Night weekend in the lives of three variously troubled sisters, played by Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Molly Parker. The relationships and events amount to a credible portrait of modern city and family life, but it’s the intimate, improvised shooting style (16mm, natural light, all on location) and Michael Nyman’s evocative, memorable score (this often feels like a film made to music) that define the film and give it the sense of immediacy and compassion that make it so enduring. DC

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65

Dracula (1958)

Director Terence Fisher

Cast Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough

No ‘Twilight’ for old men

Hammer stalwart Fisher delivered this rum and rather gory (for the time) take on Bram Stoker’s horror classic of the battle of wills between a devilish, blood-sucking Transylvanian count and his bookish slayer. It helps that Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula are both on top scenery (and in the case of Lee, neck) chewing form, while you also watch in amazement at how they managed to make such a lavish film on the near-pittance of £81,000. Of course, you can titter at the gothic excess of the production design, how po-faced the whole enterprise is (with its lithe hotties darting around in lace negligees) and the cheapo effects, but the subtext of the story about the tragedy of addiction and the transmission of disease remains deadly serious. DJ

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64

Topsy-Turvy (1999)

Director Mike Leigh

Cast Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Timothy Spall

He remains an Englishman

Notwithstanding ‘Naked’ and the second half of ‘Another Year’, Mike Leigh’s in some ways most atypical film – it’s a period drama, with song and dance, and rather longer than usual – is also his finest. About Gilbert and Sullivan responding to withering criticism of ‘Princess Ida’ by making a comeback with ‘The Mikado’, it’s the kind of film that perhaps shouldn’t work but does – magnificently, thanks to a clutch of great performances and unshowy but precise direction, which ensures the movie succeeds on three levels: as an illuminating, partly self-reflexive meditation on the creative process; as an unusually vivid insight into just how different the world was as recently as the 1880s (all that wariness of the newfangled telephone!); and as witty, touching, utterly engrossing entertainment. GA

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63

Nuts In May (1979)

Director Mike Leigh

Cast Roger Sloman, Alison Steadman

Loitering within tent

Judging by its surprise inclusion in this poll, this second episode in Mike Leigh’s ‘Play for Today’ TV series has remained one of the director’s most fondly remembered early features. Originally broadcast in 1976, it centres on a Dorset camping trip embarked upon by bearded, anally retentive and suffocatingly authoritarian husband Keith (Roger Sloman) and his hippy-drippy, plain-Jane wife Candice-Marie (Leigh’s ex-wife Alison Steadman). Leigh’s crafty powers of societal observation are very much to the fore as we witness a gradual breakdown in relations between middle-class Keith and a noisy young fellow camper who refuses to turn his radio off. That Candice-Marie appears to be showing sympathy towards the other party only serves to inflame the situation… It’s a film of so many memorable moments – from Keith’s cringeworthy grovelling when a policeman questions the roadworthiness of his beloved Morris Minor to Candice-Marie’s hilariously lispy vegetarian folk song. DA

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62

Deep End (1970)

Director Jerzy Skolimowski

Cast Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Diana Dors

The drowning pool

One of the all-time great London movies, the splendidly sleazy ‘Deep End’ definitively proves that it takes an outsider’s eye to really capture the true textures of a city. Written and directed by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (who cut his teeth co-writing Polanski’s masterful debut ‘Knife in the Water’), the film captures the sexual shenanigans of the staff and clientele of a squalid South London swimming bath. Naive teen Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is the new kid, and – amid much inappropriate bum-pinching and his near-rape by regular bather Diana Dors (who else?!) – he falls madly in love with his coquettish manager Susan (a stone-cold tour de force from Jane Asher – who else?). But from its ‘Carry On’-ish opening, the film morphs into something much more sinister, even segueing into ‘Peeping Tom’ territory, as Mike’s love turns to violent fixation. Plus, its ultra-seedy depiction of Soho nightlife is the sort of thing you might find nowadays in a Gaspar Noé movie. DJ

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61

Walkabout (1971)

Director Nicolas Roeg

Cast Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Lucien John

Aboriginal sin

In which Nicolas Roeg generously invents our one-time colony’s national cinema for it. As reported in the terrific 2008 Ozsploitation doc ‘Not Quite Hollywood’, Australian cinema in the late ’60s was non-existent. You can argue the importance of tax breaks, TV training and the burgeoning counterculture, but it’s hard not to see Roeg’s haunting Outback tragedy as a breakthrough moment. Other directors, notably Peter Weir, would refine what would come to be known as the landscape movie, but few would capture the desolate wilderness on every Aussie’s doorstep more convincingly. Remembered chiefly for Jenny Agutter’s borderline inappropriate only-just-of-age nude swim, ‘Walkabout’ possesses innumerable charms, not least David Gulpilil’s heartbreaking performance, an astonishing opening scene and of course Roeg’s ravishing photography. TH

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The 100 best British films: 60-51

60

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Director John Mackenzie

Cast Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Derek Thompson

Small man syndrome

That electro-synth score! Bob Hoskins wandering in close-up through Heathrow! The Docklands as the future! And the actor Derek Thompson, whose movie career was stalled by 25 years of playing Charlie in ‘Casualty’! Some of it might look like old episodes of ‘Dempsey & Makepeace’, but John Mackenzie’s gangster thriller still has great energy and momentum and isn’t a patch on recent pretenders to its throne. In retrospect, it’s the location shooting, especially around the docks – post-industry but pre-development – that resonates the most, as well as writer Barrie Keefe’s capturing of the Thatcherite zeitgeist in the person of gangster Harry Shand (Hoskins), who declares ‘I’m not a politician: I’m a businessman with a sense of history, and I’m also a Londoner’ from the back of a yacht cruising under Tower Bridge. Shand’s criminal network and its involvement with the Mafia and the IRA aren’t at all believable, but Keefe’s portrait of corruption and racism among white males in the underworld, police and local governent certainly is. DC

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59

Blackmail (1929)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Cast Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, John Longden

The sound man cometh

Which film do you want? The silent version or the more familiar, partly reshot movie that was Britain’s first talkie feature? It doesn’t matter that much, really, since the stylish, occasionally Langian visuals already present in the first cut are still there in the second one, though it’s fascinating to hear Hitchcock’s engagingly experimental, at times even playful approach to sound echoing the elements of expressionism to be found in some of the imagery: the scene in which Anny Ondra’s heroine, having recently stabbed a lecher in self-defence, listens in to a conversation (somewhat improbably) full of references to knives is rightly famous. But, as Tony Rayns has argued, it’s also of interest for its intriguing narrative structure, shifting from a straightforward, rather detached police procedural to something altogether more intimate and messily involving, while the set pieces also display the level of expertise Hitchcock had attained during the silent era as a manipulator of audience emotions and a showman entertainer: the British Museum climax remains a classic sequence. GA

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58

Gregory's Girl (1981)

Director Bill Forsyth

Cast John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Claire Grogan

Why must I be a teenager in love?

Of all the British filmmakers who, flush with the success of their first few homegrown efforts, decided to go and seek their fortunes across the pond, the tale of Bill Forsyth is the most cautionary. Forsyth’s first ‘proper’ feature following the youth-theatre experiment ‘That Sinking Feeling’, ‘Gregory’s Girl’ is as flawless an example of personal cinema as this nation has to offer: witty, insightful, beautifully observed and heartbreakingly accurate, it says everything there is to say about suburban lust, adolescent romance, the pressure to fit in – truly, all of teenage life is here. The dialogue is poetic but wholly believable, the cast is note-perfect, the characterisation is broad but distinctive and the photography is simple, unfussy and real. None of which made a blind bit of difference when Forsyth tried to take Hollywood by storm and found himself on the sharp end of studio recuts with his career-ending four-year folly ‘Being Human’. Ignominious doesn’t begin to cover it. TH

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57

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Director Stanley Kubrick

Cast Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester

Too much monkey business

Okay, so the director, money and most of the cast are American, but it was shot here, dammit, so we’re claiming ‘2001’ as our own. True, the same could go for most of Hollywood’s bigger-budget ’70s and early ’80s efforts (‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders’, ‘Aliens’…), but none of those films feels remotely British whereas, in a strange way, ‘2001’ does. Perhaps it’s the fact that Kubrick had, by this point, become an honorary Englishman, or the influence of co-writer Arthur C Clarke (himself, ironically, an expat). Perhaps it’s the fact that the groundbreaking effects were, to a large extent, designed and built by British crews, or simply that the film feels so resolutely un-Hollywood in tone, structure and impact. Personally, I attribute the film’s Britishness to the roughly three-minute appearance of Leonard Rossiter: even though he’s supposedly playing a Russian scientist, with Rigsby’s arrival it feels like a little piece of northern suburbia has been transplanted to earth’s orbit. TH

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56

Caravaggio (1968)

Director Derek Jarman

Cast Nigel Terry, Sean Bean, Tilda Swinton

Anyone for tennis?

The late Derek Jarman took the same anachronistic liberties in depicting the life of his subject – Italian, seventeenth-century painter Caravaggio – as the painter himself did with his subjects. Little-known actor Nigel Terry is great as the violently impulsive title character, and the film comprises flashbacks over his life as he lies dying. Specific focus is given to his fraught relationships with two of his models: Sean Bean’s muscular Ranuccio Thomasoni and Tilda Swinton’s Lena. But this is no cut-and-dried biopic, as Jarman frames the drama within ornate tableaux and honours the complexity of the emotions by reining in the melodrama and telling the story through the stresses of his camera and glances of the actors. As you’d expect from a from a film about a painter, it’s a visual marvel made from very spare ingredients and with the help of a discerning and intelligent director. DJ

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55

Radio On (1980)

Director Chris Petit

Cast David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliff

Wir fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n auf der M4

Few British feature film debuts come as distinctive – or as quietly influential – as former Time Out Film editor Chris Petit’s Europhile mission statement. Not quite a road movie – England’s not large enough – Petit’s film takes the aesthetic and social imperatives of Wim Wenders’s luminous monochrome and his continental enquiries, transplanting them to the fields and motorways of southern England. A nominal plot – the strange death of a brother in Bristol – prompts a journey west from London into a place beyond narrative cinema. Utterly cinematic, powered by a startlingly resonant late ’70s soundtrack (with Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ the ironic turntable centre) and with an acute sense of transformative hybrid landscapes as equal players in the film’s unfolding sensibility, ‘Radio On’ sits, quite literally, on the precipice between a failing post-war reality and the coming abyss of Thatcherism. More relevant than ever, Petit’s essay on existential enquiry in an English setting remains critical viewing. GE

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54

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

Directors Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones

Cast Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle et al

They’ve got a luvverly bunch of coconuts

It’s a miracle this film got off the ground. According to interviews given on the most recent DVD release, the production of the Pythons’ first properly scripted feature was not only dogged by differences between its co-directors Terry Gilliam (who was more interested in camera positions and framing) and Terry Jones (who felt they should focus more on performances) but also by Graham Chapman’s alcoholism – he played most of his parts under the influence. But none of this matters one jot: an absurd and very loose conjoining of the Arthurian and Holy Grail legends, the film remains one of the Pythons’ most memorable piss-takes. Soused or not, Chapman is superb in his tailor-made role of a slightly effeminate King Arthur, and who could forget John Cleese’s neatly carved Black Knight (‘It’s just a flesh wound’) or his similarly hilarious abusive French guard (‘You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs. Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person’)? Priceless. DA

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53

This Sporting Life (1963)

Director Lindsay Anderson

Cast Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts

I want to be a macho man

In Lindsay Anderson’s first feature, Richard Harris grimaces and bellows as a miner hired by his local rugby team and condescended to by the club’s management while juggling a difficult home life as the tenant of a widow and single mother. The film didn’t emerge from Tony Richardson and John Osborne’s Woodfall Films, which produced ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’, but it was very much part of the same movement of filmmakers coming to drama from documentaries and theatre, and looking to represent the lives of young working-class men and women more truthfully. There’s been a backlash against these films in recent years (partly levelled at the public school, Oxbridge provenance of the filmmakers), but the fact that most of them ride high on this list suggests they’re still credited with initiating a new age of storytelling in British cinema, both in terms of the range, social and geographical, of subjects and a style of filmmaking that honours realism above all else. DC

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52

Robinson In Space (1997)

Director Patrick Keiller

Cast Paul Scofield (voice)

Eng-ger-land!

The late actor Paul Scofield returned to lend his acerbic narration to the middle chapter of Patrick Keiller’s singular ‘Robinson’ trilogy, which began in 1994 with ‘London’ and was completed recently with ‘Robinson in Ruins’. Static, wittily composed images (vaguely reminiscent of the photography of Martin Parr) of buildings and places of natural interest are harmonised with quotations, music and discourse. Here, the dangerously inquisitive Robinson has been tasked with solving the ‘problem of England’ and takes that as his cue to circumnavigate these hallowed isles and pontificate to his heart’s content. As with ‘London’, Keiller’s Daniel Defoe-inspired script seeks to investigate the social, political and economic present by looking back at the historical and literary origins of numerous venues, which mostly include factories, dockyards and, of course, pubs. It’s ruthlessly intelligent stuff, and the conclusions are strangely prophetic. DJ

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51

Local Hero (1983)

Director Bill Forsyth

Cast Burt Lancaster, Peter Riegert, Denis Lawson

There won’t be blood

Cockle-warming comedy can be a tough sell in serious film circles – note that ‘The Ladykillers’ and ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ made this list while the likes of ‘Passport to Pimlico’, ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Billy Elliot’ are nowhere to be found. But there remains a small handful of crowd-pleasers guaranteed to tickle the toes of the most hardened cynic, and ‘Local Hero’ is a prime example. Taking his inspiration from Powell and Pressburger, notably ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’ (see no. 26), Forsyth built on the goodwill engendered by ‘Gregory’s Girl’ to craft another tale of life’s better possibilities, not overlooking the chance of disappointment but refusing to submit to easy cynicism. The result is richly emotional without ever spilling into outright schmaltz (well, hardly ever), as what could have been a slushy tale of hugging, learning and growing is tempered with healthy (and often hilarious) sarcasm and a deep understanding of humanity’s capacity for goodness. TH

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The 100 best British films: 50-41

50

Culloden (1964)

Director Peter Watkins

Cast George McBean, Alan Pope, the people of Inverness

This is the news! God, I wish it wasn’t...

Produced as a softer option after the BBC thought his blunt atomic-age satire ‘The War Game’ too harrowing by half, Peter Watkins’s remarkable reproduction of the 1746 Battle of Culloden stands up as a true one-off of both TV and cinema. Initially coming across like a documentary of your average Sealed Knot weekender, the film delivers a minutely detailed chronicle of the battle via the ingenious method of modern TV news reporting: only the rank odour of the battlefield itself is missing. Grunts from both sides sound off directly to camera, political intrigues are speculated upon by the anchor, and we even get to witness the hordes of malnourished Jacobite rebels being torn apart by the power of the English musket. What’s even more interesting is that Watkins chooses to trace the legacy of the battle, patiently observing as the English army wade across the Highlands slaughtering women and children in the name of communal cleansing and retaining the authority of the British monarchy. It all looks scarily familiar. DJ

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49

Gallivant (1996)

Director Andrew Kötting

Cast Andrew Kötting, Eden Kötting, Gladys Morris

Just coasting

The incomparable Andrew Kötting – artist, filmmaker, performer – took his eight-year-old daughter Eden and 80-something grandma Gladys on a tour of the British coastline for this anarchic travelogue which turns out to be both a snapshot of the country and a self-portrait of this unlikely trio on an equally unlikely adventure. Kötting’s highly original methods of storytelling mean that ‘Gallivant’ looks nothing like most docs: he mixes formats, throws in archive footage and has much fun with the sound and picture edit. ‘He’s being silly, isn’t he? As daft as they make them,’ says Gladys of her grandson as he swims fully clothed somewhere off the coast of Scotland, having put behind them Sussex, Devon, Cornwall, Wales and the various, illuminating personalities they meet on the road. It’s rare that experimental filmmaking is this humane and enjoyable. The unique result is a work that is both formally radical and eminently accessible and entertaining. DC

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48

Hunger (2008)

Director Steve McQueen

Cast Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham

The cooler king

Steve McQueen’s first feature film is not even three years old and yet it ranks in the top half of this list, which is a mark of the impact the film made in 2008, when it won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for best debut. The Turner Prize-winning video artist turned to the incarceration and death in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) for his first, full-length work and showed remarkable assurance behind the camera, avoiding all conventional tropes of the biopic genre to craft a raw, visual portrait of life inside a prison that doesn’t honour Sands above other prisoners and doesn’t avoid the essential realities of Sand’s dirty protest and starvation either. A talky, two-hander scene between Sands and a priest (Liam Cunningham) is all the more hard-hitting because it emerges suddenly in the middle of a film which foregrounds images over chat – but the entire film is full of such surprises. DC

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47

Blow-Up (1966)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni

Cast David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Bowles

Make love to the camera, baby

‘Blow-Up’ sees swinging London transformed into a sprawling, alienating crime scene where brusque Notting Hill, ahem, ‘fashion’ photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) believes that while idly snapping away in a South London park, he’s captured a homicide in mid flow. Antonioni’s attitude towards the hippy-dippy cultural revolution taking place in the city during the 1960s is ambivalent at best. When he takes us on a detour through a Yardbirds gig, it’s left to us to decide whether we’re in heaven or in hell. Yet, his film has a more cynical edge than only being about the sensations of a city. As Thomas’s grasp on his investigation becomes more tenuous, Antonioni twists his film to be about the nature of making, collecting and editing images, also suggesting that – try as we might – life is a first-hand experience that no camera can ever really capture. And to sate the cabaret set, it’s all topped off with some mimed tennis. Splendido! DJ

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46

The Fallen Idol (1948)

Director Carol Reed

Cast Ralph Richardson, Michèle Morgan, Bobby Henrey

The butler did it

Given his reputation as a novelist, it’s easy to forget how major a force Graham Greene became in post-war British cinema, and how many key aspects of national life became cemented in the public consciousness as a result of his extraordinary run of work between ‘Confidential Agent’ in 1945 and ‘Our Man in Havana’ in 1959. ‘The Fallen Idol’ is primarily a film about class, which even then was nothing new. But it’s Greene’s approach to his topic which sets the film apart: by viewing the social hierarchy through a child’s eyes, the author allows us to view the matter afresh, an approach which would bear fruit again in films as diverse as ‘The Spanish Gardener’, ‘The Go-Between’ and ‘Atonement’. But ‘The Fallen Idol’ is the best of the bunch, and indeed one of the finest British films about children, about the ways they can be manipulated and betrayed, their loyalties misplaced and their emotions toyed with. TH

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45

Repulsion (1965)

Director Roman Polanski

Cast Catherine Deneuve, Yvonne Furneaux

Here hare here

Emeric Pressburger, Karel Reisz, Joseph Losey, Stanley Kubrick… This list isn’t short of writers and directors who brought an outsider’s sensibility to British cinema. The young Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski came to London to make his second film – and first in English – and cast 21-year-old Catherine Deneuve as Carole, a fragile young Belgian woman living in South Kensington with her sister and working in a local hairdressing salon. When her sibling goes away for a few days with a boyfriend, Carole’s nervousness and discomfort with men descends into full-blown paranoia, illustrated subtly by Polanski with sparing but sinister visual tricks such as cracking plaster and even hands emerging from walls. The film remains influential on both horror directors and those looking to represent mental breakdown on film (look at Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’). It also afforded British cinema a special role in launching the international career of Polanski. DC

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44

Sabotage (1936)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Cast Oscar Homolka, Sylvia Sidney, John Loder

Ban the bomb

‘Sand! Sabotage! Deliberate! Wrecking!’ are the terse first words of Hitchcock’s atmospheric, exciting and sometimes funny, 1936 London-based suspenser, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’. This tale of a bomber and saboteur (Oscar Homolka) whose terrorist activities lead his young wife (Sylvia Sidney) and brother into tragedy is full of the master’s touches. It’s moodily rendered with expressionist-tinged chiaroscuro photography by Hitchcock’s regular cameraman of the 1930s, Bernard Knowles, and was subject to a stinging review by long-time doyen of British critical circles, CA Lejeune. ‘I committed a grave error in having the bomb go off. Never repeated it!’, Hitch told the BBC in 1964. But that choice, augmented by the extraordinary and moving study in lonely isolation offered by Homolka as Verloc, helps provide the film with a stature and depth that not only impressed Hitchcock champions and Cahiers du Cinéma critics Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol in the 1950s, but ensures its place today as the third most favourite Hitchcock film in our poll. WH

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43

Fires Were Started (1941)

Director Humphrey Jennings

Fetch the engines

The documentary-maker Humphrey Jennings has been well remembered in recent years, first with a film in 2002 by Kevin Macdonald and then in 2004 with a biography by Kevin Jackson – which might explain the placing of this and his stirring ‘Listen to Britain’, both wartime films, so high on our list. A leading light of the GPO and Crown Film Units and a founder of Mass Observation, Jennings was responsible for so many of our received images of Britain during World War II. For ‘Fires Were Started’, he filmed firemen in London’s East End but devised characters for them and showed them during both the peace of day and the struggle of fighting a major fire in the docks at night. His film is a celebration of heroism, a lament for lives lost and a stoical expression of the necessary wartime maxim that life must go on. Yes, it’s propaganda – but what humane, artful propaganda it is. DC

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42

Listen to Britain (1942)

Director Humphrey Jennings

This is Britain, and everything’s all right. It’s okay. It’s fine.

That this near-wordless celebration of wartime Britain in all its music-hall, factory-floor, greenfield glory can still inspire a flush of patriotic pride seven decades on is testament to the extraordinary purity of vision and experimental nous of its director, Humphrey Jennings. Alchemically spinning cinema into music (and music into poetry), Jennings paints a national portrait which is admittedly rosy, but also pleasingly humorous (footage of vaudeville crowd-pleasers Flanagan and Allen is intercut with a sign reading ‘boiled potatoes’) and even quietly subversive: the cut from a riotous workers’ music hall to a stuffy lunchtime classical concert attended by the then Queen accentuates the essential similarity between the two experiences, while the pan from a playground filled with clog-dancing tykes to a street roaring with military vehicles underlines the precipitous state of our nation’s future. If the country had fallen, ‘Listen to Britain’ would have made a perfect epitaph. TH

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41

Witchfinder General (1968)

Director Michael Reeves

Cast Vincent Price, Patrick Wymark, Ian Ogilvy

So if she weighs the same as a duck...

The quaint English countryside acts as the backdrop for much enthusiastic sadism in this Civil War tale based very loosely on the life of Protestant zealot Matthew Hopkins and his reign of witch-burning terror in East Anglia’s badlands. While we can only imagine the pleasure of watching original choice Donald Pleasance as the sexually repressed misogynist Hopkins, Vincent Price makes a horribly effective substitute, lisping biblical lore to the screams of his victims on the rack and at the stake. The real star, though, is the textured, bleak cinematography of John Colquillon (who later shot ‘Straw Dogs’), which lends an eerie, tripped-out detachment to the pitiless violence and casts the landscape as a timeless witness to casual horror. Despite its camp reputation, ‘Witchfinder’ is grimmer and more effective than many of its costumed contemporaries and fully deserved both the revulsion it attracted at its initial release and the rehabilitation as a classic it has enjoyed since. PF

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The 100 best British films: 40-31

40

Ratcatcher (1999)

Director Lynne Ramsay

Cast William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews

Ballad of a bin man

As debut features go, this one rubs shoulders with the likes of Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’, Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’ and Terence Davies’s ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ for the sublime fluency of its technique and conviction in the belief that a film doesn’t need a beginning, middle and end to be meaningful, dramatic and poetic. Following on from a trio of shorts, director Lynne Ramsay revisited her birthplace of Glasgow to deliver an account of innocence and experience, love and death during a dustmen’s strike in the early 1970s . The pranks of monosyllabic scamp James (William Eadie) form the core of the film, and we eventually learn that James wants nothing more than to abandon the squalor of the city and move to a new housing project next to a cornfield in which he can frolic. Ramsay asks, ‘Do you know where your kids are?’, but she doesn’t forget that it is possible to be socially responsible and artistically audacious at the same time. DJ

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39

London (1994)

Director Patrick Keiller

Cast Paul Scofield (voice)

Let me take you by the hand and lead you...

If you didn't know Patrick Keiller's smartly rambling, tricksy walking tour of our city from 1994, you might think that his title was pompous or presumptive. But his film is anything but as he gives us a fictional, unseen narrator, Robinson (voiced by Paul Scofield), who takes us on a tour of London, known and less known, grand and grotty, around the time of the film’s making, taking in such references as the 1992 general election and the IRA bomb at Bishopgate in 1993. Cinematic psychogeography, you might call it, but that’s a bit, well, pompous for a film that is endlessly self-mocking, witty and perceptive. If only British cinema produced more such films that dance merrily on the border between fact and fiction – but, then, again, Keiller’s film – the first in a trilogy – is so unique in tone that imitators would easily be caught out. DC

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38

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Director Alberto Cavalcanti

Cast Leslie Banks, Elizabeth Allan, Frank Lawton

Is that an axe in your pocket…?

What if, right, the Hun were on the cusp of clinching victory in Europe, and all that stood between your average, flat-capped English patriot and the swift introduction of sauerkraut to the national menu was the collective muscle of a close-knit countryside community? Well, that’s ‘Went the Day Well?’ in a nutshell. It’s a droll, Ealing-made World War II propaganda film that also happens to be a ridiculously taut suspense thriller about how the denizens of the fictional Bramley End put aside their differences and foil a Nazi plot to capture Britain, sometimes even sacrificing life and limb by diving on live grenades and going on ad hoc axe rampages. And if that isn’t enough, it also contains the single greatest dialogue exchange in this entire list, as the well-to-do Mrs Fraser asks Cockney urchin George, ‘Do you know what morale is?’ to which he replies, ‘Yeah, it’s summink what the wops ain’t got.’ DJ

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37

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Director Robert Hamer

Cast Googie Withers, Edward Chapman, John McCallum

Stop! Hamer time...

You’ll find Robert Hamer’s ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, also from Ealing Studios, higher up our list, but two years earlier he made this lesser-known gem which manages to pull off the trick of being both a credible snapshot of post-war East End life and an effective noir thriller as it unfolds over one Sunday in 1947. The plot – a Bethnal Green mother and housewife (Googie Withers) hides an on-the-run con and ex-lover (John McCallum) in her busy home – allows us intimate access to a working-class home. We witness its routines, rituals and relationships, while at the same time we’re hooked in by the suspense of the crime element of the story and the threat of a dangerous romance in contrast to the drabness of lives defined by rationing and duties. There’s the odd over-fruity line or performance, but a stunning final night-time chase sequence in a railway depot more than compensates. DC

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36

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962)

Director Tony Richardson

Cast Tom Courtenay, James Bolam, Julia Foster

Borstal blues

As with its French equivalents, much of the British New Wave looks horribly dated in a modern context: all that light jazz, casual romantic disaffection and overeager jump-cutting doesn’t really wash with contemporary audiences. But what’s beyond criticism is the commitment to emotional veracity which fuelled films like ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’. So while the timeworn clichés of the kitchen sink remain intact – grubby class warfare, county-hopping pseudo-Northern accents, the God’s-eye shot of ‘our town from that hill’ – the film is anchored in Tom Courtenay’s remarkable, remorseless performance as the eponymous runner Colin, torn between selfishness and sacrifice, class loyalty and commercial gain, impossible victory and inevitable surrender. TH

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35

The Servant (1963)

Director Joseph Losey

Cast James Fox, Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig

A touch of class

Two films by the American exile Joseph Losey have made our list, and few would argue that this chilling domestic two-hander from 1963 is his most enduring. It’s Harold Pinter’s tense, subtle script, adapted from a Robin Maugham novel, which gives life to the story of an aristocratic bachelor, Tony (James Fox), who hires a servant, Hugo (Dirk Bogarde), whose machinations, including moving in his girlfriend (masquerading as his sister) as a maid, wear down Tony so that their hierarchical roles blur and mutate. In other hands, this would be a mildly interesting thriller, but Pinter’s sharp characterisations and unspoken suggestions, along with Losey’s full, slavering embrace of the potentials of Tony’s grand Chelsea home, make this a more open, suggestive work, offering ideas to do with class, power and sexuality. The actors are tremendous. For Bogarde, it built on his daring turn in ‘Victim’. For Fox, it was a rehearsal for his similarly shape-shifting role in ‘Performance’. DC

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34

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director Stanley Kubrick

Cast Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates

Viddy well, little brother

Swap Beethoven for heroin, and Stanley Kubrick’s scandalous 1971 Moog-mare based on Anthony Burgess’s novel might work as a forerunner to ‘Trainspotting’. It presents the wayward travails of Little Alex (Malcolm McDowell) a tearaway who likes nothing more than a bit of the old ultra violence. But after a bungled break-in where he is abandoned by his band of cock-nosed droogs, he is packed off to a hospital to be ‘cured’. The style of filmmaking is at once clinically precise and imaginatively loose. This is down to the multitude of tricks that Kubrick hoists in (slo-mo, fast-forward, cartoon inserts, back projection) to encapsulate the total autonomy these characters have and why they see their behaviour as thrilling. The violence is plentiful and invites a mixture of revulsion and amusement, not least because it is usually overlaid by Walter Carlos’s mad reinterpretations of classical standards. Does it stand up psychologically? Probably not. But as an example of a work in which the filmmaking style matches the tone of the material, it’s peerless. DJ

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33

Secrets & Lies (1996)

Director Mike Leigh

Cast Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

The girl is mine

‘Naked’ proved to many that Mike Leigh was a filmmaker who would continue to surprise well into and beyond his third decade of filmmaking – but ‘Secrets and Lies’ proved the same to everyone else when it won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress prizes at Cannes and was nominated for five Oscars. The story of an adopted, professional black British woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who tracks down her white, working-class birth mother (Brenda Blethyn) came with its own themes and ideas. But it also allowed Leigh to refine interests he had been exploring for years, such as the relationships between parents and kids, the love and antagonism of siblings and our awkward relationships to material wealth. Ultimately, it’s about the power – and destructiveness – of the unspoken, and a climactic barbecue scene, in which Timothy Spall breaks the silence and gives one of the best performances of his career, is both heartbreaking and liberating, for the characters and for us. DC

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32

Get Carter (1971)

Director Mike Hodges

Cast Michael Caine, Britt Ekland, John Osborne

A pint of bitter… in a thin glass

Its overfamiliar poster, score and lazy stylistic appropriation by glossy lads’ mags may make the very idea of ‘Get Carter’ something of a chore, but once the train starts rolling, there’s simply no getting off. A cold, impossibly grimy film, ‘Get Carter’ is a ‘Third Man’ for the three-day week generation that drags you through the sulphurous back rooms of hell. Michael Caine’s frosty Lahndahn gangster uncovers layer upon layer of villainy as he travels to Newcastle to investigate his brother’s death, but the details – and, for many, the plot – are secondary to the air of desperation, squalor and complicity. ‘The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over and… we have failed to paint it black,’ might well have been the mantra in Ladbroke Grove and Camden Town, but ‘Get Carter’ presents the more desolate reality of those for whom the swinging ’60s were something that happened to other people and a grim, forlorn post-war mindset remained the pervading norm. ALD

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31

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Cast Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave

Strangeness on a train

Some argue that Hitchcock made his greatest works in the US, but the presence of four of his British films on our list suggests that not everybody holds that view – or at least that his earlier work is still held in very high regard. ‘The Lady Vanishes’ builds on the mysterious, on-the-run mood of the earlier, more well-known ‘The 39 Steps’ (1935), but its 1938 date, mittel-European setting on a train from an Alpine location and well-integrated political nods slyly tie it to debates over appeasement and engagement. That said, it’s first and foremost a suspenseful thriller as a little old lady, Miss Froy, disappears on a train and everyone bar a young man and woman (Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood) proceed to deny she exists. It’s very funny, and its ridiculous but masterly twists and turns are made doubly fun by a colourful cast of characters including a nun, a surgeon and a pair of cricket-loving bounders. DC

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The 100 best British films: 30-21

30

The Ladykillers (1955)

Director Alexander Mackendrick

Cast 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

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29

Peeping Tom (1960)

Director Michael Powell

Cast 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

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28

The Wicker Man (1973)

Director Robin Hardy

Cast 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

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27

Bill Douglas Trilogy: My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978)

Director Bill Douglas

Cast 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

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26

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

Directors Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast 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

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25

Great Expectations (1946)

Director David Lean

Cast 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

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24

Brazil (1985)

Director Terry Gilliam

Cast 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

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23

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director David Lean

Cast 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

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22

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960)

Director Karel Reisz

Cast 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

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21

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Director Gary Oldman

Cast 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

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The 100 best British films: 20-11

20

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Director Terry Jones

Cast 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

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19

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Director Stanley Kubrick

Cast 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

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18

The Innocents

Director Jack Clayton

Cast 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

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17

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Cast 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

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16

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directors Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Cast 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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15

Withnail & I (1987)

Director Bruce Robinson

Cast Richard E Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths

Enter the arena of the unwell

Arguably, three years ago writer-director Bruce Robinson’s riotous black comedy – describing the misadventures of two recent ex-students/‘resting’ young actors in an unwelcoming north London – would have pipped ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ as the highest, rather than the second-highest-rated British comedy in our poll. At that point, the ‘Withnail & I’ fan club was at its bibulous height, with its ardent admirers, word-perfect in Robinson’s semi-autobiographical script, meeting in Camden pubs to swap quotes and play the DVD-extra drinking games (though, more properly, they should have frequented tea shops, demanding ‘the finest wines available to humanity!’). At auction, Withnail’s ragged Harris check coat went to Chris Evans for £8,000 and the leather worn by Marwood – for he is ‘I’ – was bought by Danny Baker. In 2000, Total Film readers voted it the third best comedy of all time.

That said, ‘Withnail & I’ was no instant success: it managed a paltry three-week run on its opening and, including its 2007 UK Film Council remastered re-release, has only grossed £1.5million in British cinemas. Robinson has said the film’s mid-1980s production for Handmade Films almost made him as penurious as his hero: having to provide £30,000 of his own cash to film Richard E Grant and Paul McGann on their fateful trip in their clapped-out Jaguar MK2 to the Lake District. But if, initially, ‘Withnail & I’ was a cult success, built up on video and DVD viewing, our poll shows it now has a solid place in British viewers’ hearts; its inspirationally funny script, spot-on performances and evocative soundtrack, helping to combine a gloriously mocking elegy for Britain’s supposedly Swingin’ Sixties with a moving, bittersweet distillation of personal memory and of friendship recalled. WH

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14

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Cast Roger Livesey, Deborah Kerr

The history boys

Two things are well known about Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 epic about the life of an old-fashioned ex-army officer serving in the Home Guard during World War II: Churchill disliked the whole idea of it, and may have thought it was about him, and the Blimp character, over-fed and irascible, was inspired by David Low’s cartoon character of the same name in the Evening Standard. The reality is that ‘Colonel Blimp’ is a much more wise, surprising and measured film than either of these things suggest. It’s a film about the unknowability of others, the complexity of lives, the power of time on our character and the influence of history on our behaviour. It has the depth and sweep of a novel, while remaining wonderfully cinematic (think of the duel in Berlin, the snappy montage of animal heads on Blimp’s wall, the desolate battle scenes…).

At the time of its release at the height of war, it was also very bold in trying to counter some myths about history and give colour to black-and-white prejudices (not least about Germany and Germans). The trick and power of Powell and Pressburger’s film is that, by first giving us the Blimp we expect – loud, angry, stuck in his ways – and then flashing back and recounting events in his life from 1902 to 1943, including a lifelong friendship with a German officer, a lost love and time spent serving in three wars, they give us an entirely different character: a complex, rounded and sympathetic man. Blimp may not be us,and we may not even like him – but by the end we know and understand him, and that’s the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger’s work. DC

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13

The 39 Steps (1935)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Cast Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Godfrey Tearle

Hitch’s highland fling

For this writer, Hitchcock’s adaptation of John Buchan’s novel is not only his very finest British film – for suspense, pace, wit, vivid characterisation, atmosphere and virtuoso set-pieces it even outdoes the brilliant ‘The Lady Vanishes’ – but the warmest, most affecting movie of his career.

It’s not just that Robert Donat’s Hannay is one of his most sympathetic protagonists (compare him to that other innocent-on-the-run, Cary Grant’s complacent Roger O – ‘for nothing’ – Thornhill in ‘North by Northwest’), nor that Donat and Madeleine Carroll, for all their initial sparring, finally make such a lovely couple. No, the entire film is packed with touching moments, from the affectionate depiction of banter between members of the music hall audience at the film’s beginning to the unexpectedly touching moment of Mr Memory’s death at the Palladium, when his brief dialogue with Hannay deftly suggests the men’s mutual respect. In between, there’s the strangely courageous death of the otherwise absurdly exotic female ‘agent’, the cosy, understanding matrimonial love of the Scottish innkeeper for her more innocent husband, and even the steadfast loyalty shown by the villainous Scottish spymaster’s spouse.

Most heartbreaking of all, however, are the brief but unforgettable scenes at the crofter’s cottage, where Hannay’s talk of London and perfectly sincere compliments afford the young wife (Peggy Ashcroft) a tantalising glimpse of a far happier life than the one she faces with her mean, brutish husband (John Laurie). These few minutes include some of the subtlest acting to be found in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, not to mention an emotional depth and delicacy he never again quite managed to attain. GA

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12

Brief Encounter (1945)

Director David Lean

Cast Trevor Howard, Celia Johnson

The passionate friends

Few films divide opinion like ‘Brief Encounter’. Many view the film as cold, heartless, too stiff-lipped to be truly moving (check the current Time Out review by Dave Calhoun for evidence). But without wishing to cause offence to my esteemed colleagues, they’re dead wrong. Because for those willing to chip through the ice-shelf, there’s a raging emotional torrent waiting to sweep them away. And it’s not as though Lean is celebrating these characters’ inability to communicate, to break through their social strictures and live real lives. ‘Brief Encounter’ is a tragedy, not just for two mismatched lovers but for an entire class of people, trapped in empty suburban existences ruled by propriety and that desperate, heartbreaking, terribly British desire to remain anonymous, to avoid offence, to blend in. And therein lies the film’s extraordinary power, because despite the miles and the decades which lie between, that’s still us up there on the screen. TH

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11

Naked (1993)

Director Mike Leigh

Cast David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Karin Cartlidge

Big mouth strikes again

From its initial release, it was clear that ‘Naked’, which is Mike Leigh’s highest-ranked film on our chart, was destined to appear on lists like this for years to come. And yet, of all the films in the higher echelons of this list, it might be the most flawed and difficult. There are at least three performances in ‘Naked’ – Katrin Cartlidge as the bruised Sophie, Claire Skinner as shrieking Sandra and Greg Cruttwell as vicious yuppie psycho Jeremy – whose tone threatens to derail the film. And yet, despite these wobbles, ‘Naked’ is a masterpiece and perhaps Leigh’s best film to date, or at least the one which most appeals to his sceptics. Certainly, at the time it marked a departure for Leigh into more mythical, less domestic territory, and in retrospect marked a new maturity in his filmmaking. Set in a seedy, strip-lit London populated almost exclusively by predators and prey, this is the one film in which Leigh drops the idea that life is sweet: his characters are mostly either cruel or pathetic, and drifting above them all – or crawling beneath – is David Thewlis’s Johnny, the derisive observer of everyone else’s flaws who can’t bear to deal with his own. A moustachioed Mancunian angel of death with a mouth like a Salford sewer and a mind teeming with useless information, Thewlis guarantees the film’s central place in our cultural pantheon for another century at least. TH

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The 100 best British films: top ten

10

Trainspotting (1996)

Director Danny Boyle

Cast Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller

Choose life, etc

At the planning stage of this survey, not a single member of the Time Out Film team would’ve expected Danny Boyle’s eye-wateringly hip, epoch-defining second feature to make much of a dent, let alone break in to the top ten. Yet here we are, and it seems that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (which didn’t place) was not enough to make us overlook the ambition, charisma and sheer, blood, sweat and shit-soaked brio of this 1996 Irvine Welsh adaptation which gave Ewan McGregor a role that – if we’re being honest – he has never bettered. 

The film – which now bizarrely makes the mid-1990s Britpop fad appear to have been the cultural highlight of modern times – told of happy-go-lucky junkie Mark Renton (McGregor) and the band of mischievous associates he would occasionally call friends, including Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). It’s still a lively watch, especially in the way its meandering, episodic first half emphasises the highs of pub fights, drugs scores, casual sex and a sub-aqua, Eno-scored mission down the world’s most disgusting lavatory bowl, only for the second half to condemn the drug culture that so many claimed it was glamourising. 

Director Danny Boyle had already shown with his previous film, ‘Shallow Grave’ (1994), that he could reel off a juicy, character-driven yarn which had depth and ambiguity, but what makes ‘Trainspotting’ stand above the crowd is the industrious way in which he uses editing and camera movement to convey time, activity, violence, love, ecstasy and pain. Plus, is this the greatest opening five minutes ever? DJ

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9

If... (1968)

Director Lindsay Anderson

Cast Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick

Be a man, my son

A portrait of life in an English, male boarding school may sound niche and conservative, but Lindsay Anderson’s second feature after ‘This Sporting Life’ was one of the most radical British films of the 1960s – and the first of three films from that decade to enter our top ten. 

The mischievous face of Malcolm McDowell as rebellious sixth-former Mick Travis is, in retrospect, an obvious predecessor of his character in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, not least when he iconically appears wearing a fedora and with a scarf wrapped around his face to conceal a moustache. From there, we discover that Travis and his two friends are thorns in the side of their rigid boarding house, where their peers exercise brutal authority purely because of their ties or badges – or, as Travis puts it, ‘That bit of fluff on your tit’. 

Many scenes stick in the mind, most of them tinged with a strange comedy. There’s the master who rides a bike into class; the headmaster who opens a drawer to reveal a teacher; Travis’s wrestle with a waitress at a local café… But these more surreal scenes aside, the film’s success is down to its detail: Sherwin and Anderson well knew the world they were satirising, which is why the rituals, slang and behaviour all ring so disturbingly true. That said, the film’s knock-out scene is a rousing, shocking, guns-blazing climax that’s only credible as glorious wish-fulfilment. 

The film’s attack on tradition and authority undoubtedly encapsulated and tapped into the counter-cultural mood of the time – but its themes of community, leadership, oppression and rebellion, as well as its edge of comic surrealism and weird fantasy, continue to endure more than forty years later. DC

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8

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Director Robert Hamer

Cast Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood

Taking an axe to the family tree

The Ealing comedies undoubtedly remain a bastion of British whimsicality, but the results of this poll suggest they have fallen out of favour. Does the fanciful madcap of ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ now just feel empty? Has ‘Passport to Pimlico’ lost its political piquancy? And is there too much running around in that otherwise barbed consumerist satire, ‘The Man in the White Suit’? Still, you could judge that our contributors were merely hedging their bets by voting for Ealing’s finest: ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’. 

There’s something satisfying about the fact that one of the most charming, literary and romantic films on this list involves a penniless fop going on a murderous rampage against his aristocratic in-laws. Dennis Price is Louis Mazzini D'Ascoyne, bon mot-dropping avenging angel and class warrior by default, out to take down the remaining D'Ascoyne clan (all played by Alec Guinness) as punishment for excommunicating his dear, dead mother. 

The beauty of this film is how easy it is to divorce yourself from its horrors and side with this gentleman psychopath on his quest. Guinness’s broad (though hilarious) caricatures make the pill even easier to swallow, as they show us that Louis’s crimes are little more than a savage attack on the hypocrisy, entitlement and haughtiness of English blue bloods. DJ

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7

Performance (1970)

Directors Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell

Cast James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg

You gentlemen all work for me

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the first screening of ‘Performance’ for Warner Bros executives. Expecting a jolly, Beatles-esque musical romp starring those loveable rogues The Rolling Stones, they were subjected to 105 minutes of graphic gangland violence, explicit three-way sex, celebratory drug taking and Mick Jagger in a dress. Dismissed on release as incoherent and indulgent (LA Times critic Richard Schickel described it as ‘the most worthless film I have seen’), ‘Performance’ has grown in stature and influence, culminating in its top ten appearance here, a leap of 41 places since the BFI’s similar list in 1999. 

So why is a film which should, by rights, be too dated to watch still gaining traction well into its fourth decade? The sex ’n’ drugs ’n’ rock ’n’ roll aspects don’t hurt, but there’s more to it. Perhaps it’s simply that ‘Performance’ is the most perfect example of imperfection, a ragged, uncontrolled miasma of disparate influences and conflicting ideas, genres and even directors battling for dominance. 

But where most superficially similar works of consciousness-expanding ’60s experimentalism are now embarrassing, ‘Performance’ manages to remain confrontational, exhilarating and relevant. True, there’s the odd awkward moment, and the depiction of women leaves something to be desired. But as the story fragments along with James Fox’s consciousness, as Jagger pouts and struts like the world’s sexiest junkie ostrich, as the visuals become more berserk and hallucinatory, you can almost hear Roeg and Cammell rubbing their hands together and chuckling at the sheer, mindblowing intensity and uniqueness of this monster they’ve somehow managed to create. TH

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6

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Cast David Niven, Kim Hunter, Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey

It’s a wonderful afterlife

This is one of Powell and Pressburger’s most imaginative and thoroughly enjoyable films, but it's also one of Britain’s most substantial fantasy films, in that for all its visual invention, wit, romantic flair and sense of fun, it is most definitely about something. 

Actually, of course, it’s about a number of things: the improbable love affair between a British pilot forced to bale out of his plane and the American girl who takes his mayday call; the long-tricky ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, strained during the later years of World War Two when the Americans were ‘over here’; and it’s perhaps even to some degree about the likewise uneasy relations between the practitioners of Britain’s documentary-realist tradition and those of the rather more flamboyantly ‘arty’ strand of filmmaking as perpetrated by Powell & Pressburger. (It may not be accidental that our quotidian earthly existence is shown in colour while the fanciful realm of the hereafter is consigned to the monochrome favoured by Grierson et al.) 

Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s about exactly what it claims to be: the inevitably symbiotic relationship between life and death, which are in the end all part and parcel of the same thing. The heaven in the film not only reflects the need of many to believe in an afterlife where justice might finally prevail; it is also made quite explicit that it’s a dreamworld, the construct of the poet-pilot’s brain, in traumatic shock after he unexpectedly survives the plunge from his flaming cockpit. Quite dazzling. GA

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5

The Red Shoes (1948)

Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Cast Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

‘Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on…’

The rise of The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, might be the big story in this new list of the 100 Greatest British Films. Their presence was, of course, felt in a similar 1999 BFI list: ‘The Red Shoes’ placed in the top ten, with three other films (‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Colonel Blimp’ and ‘Black Narcissus’) and Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’ lurking further down the list. This latest poll has added only two new titles (‘A Canterbury Tale’ and ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’), but it’s the change in rank which is astonishing: not one of these films has fallen outside the top 30, with two in the top ten and another three in the mid-teens. Considering that their votes were split seven ways, The Archers have received far more votes than any other director on the list. 

The increased availability of their work on DVD will have played a major role here, particularly in the rediscovery of the two new titles. But there’s been a shift in critical fortunes, too, beginning before the BFI round-up but gathering pace since: while the gritty heavy-handedness of the Angry Young Men has begun to seem increasingly irrelevant, the emotional richness, subtle wit and visual inventiveness of The Archers’ films seems ever more enchanting and poignant. 

And the pinnacle of their achievements remains ‘The Red Shoes’: investing an old story with freshness and vigour and revelling in unabashed emotional excess, this is the absolute peak of Powell’s visionary tendencies as a director, a flawless blend of cinema and dance, animation and music, narrative rigour and experimental freedom, without doubt the most breathtakingly beautiful film ever to come out of these isles. TH

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4

Kes (1969)

Director Ken Loach

Cast David Bradley, Lynne Perrie, Freddie Fletcher

The hawk ascending

As the tide of the 1960s began to recede, taking with it all that class-obsessed ee-by-’eck pub-jazz new wave chest-beating that had threatened to drag British cinema into some kind of socialist-modernist-industrial nightmare, the real realists were revealed, sitting quietly and waiting for someone to notice. And chief among them was (and still is) Ken Loach, this country’s most relentless cinematic artisan, 47 years at the cultural coalface and still no sign of flagging. 

‘Kes’ was Loach’s second feature film, and just a few years later he was struggling to make work for cinema at all: proof, perhaps, that honesty isn’t always the best policy. Because ‘Kes’ is, if nothing else, a powerfully honest piece of work, in its performances and relationships, its treatment of trapped lives, its sad-eyed acceptance of human failings. It’s trite but true to say that Billy Casper stands for the crushed child in all of us, with his beloved kestrel as the soaring soul that school, work, family and society conspire to kill quietly in the woodshed. 

But this isn’t the true horror of the film. Because Loach is not just suggesting that Billy’s fate is inevitable, but that it’s necessary: in order to survive in this world of barking gym teachers, harried parents and brutalised big brothers (each of them once as open and inspired as Billy), he’ll have to take his lumps and like it. And so ‘Kes’ remains devastating, the peak of British realism and one of the most heartbreaking works in all of cinema. TH

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3

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Director Terence Davies

Cast Pete Postlethwaite, Freda Dowie

This is the life...

Too often it’s assumed that there’s an arthouse cabal in British cinema obsessed solely with telling stories of the working classes from a distant perspective and with a drab realism – or, to borrow the moaners’ own word, ‘miserabilism’. Certainly, there are guilty culprits, but if any filmmaker blows such assumptions out of the water, it’s Terence Davies, whose ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ is arguably among the very greatest British films of the last 25 years – a judgement our poll seems to confirm. The doubly good news is that, after a hiatus of a decade, 65-year-old Davies is back behind the camera making feature films and is currently editing an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, his first film since 2000’s ‘House of Mirth’. 

This fiercely literate and independent Liverpudlian spent the first 16 years of his career, with three shorts, and then two feature films, ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ and ‘The Long Day Closes’ (1992), finding different, personal and poetic ways of making sense of his recollections of his childhood in a post-war, working-class Liverpool home. ‘Distant Voices…’ is essentially a portrait of his parents and siblings around the time he was born – but with Davies himself removed from the frame. As such, its fractured, truthful evocation of life in 1940s and ’50s Liverpool is as much about memory as truth. We experience the stuff of life – the brutality of a patriarch (Pete Postlethwaite), a daughter’s wedding, sing-songs at the pub – but the flow of the film is more emotional than chronological, and Davies prefers resonant images and moments to straightforward storytelling. Its songs lift us, while its sadnesses bring us down. Mostly, though, it’s Davies’s love for cinema that is apparent in every single frame of this beautiful film. DC

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2

The Third Man (1949)

Director Carol Reed

Cast Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alide Valli

Join the dots

It swooped in at number one on the BFI’s 1999 British cinema poll, but here, Carol Reed’s The Third Man’ will have to settle for second spot. But, hey: it’s still a masterpiece. The genius at the core of this superlative, bible-black Euro noir is the way it teases you in to thinking that you’re watching a disposable pulp yarn about an honest schlub who touches down in a crumbling, post-war Vienna and won’t rest until he uncovers a conspiracy concerning the death of an old pal. 

Our hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), is a writer of dimestore westerns. His pal is Harry Lime (Orson Welles), a bootlegger whose latest grift has landed him in an early grave, or so it seems. The further down the rabbit hole Holly ventures, the more it becomes clear that Reed’s glibness is mere cover for a bleak lament to a world tainted by corruption and evil. Replace Vienna with Los Angeles, and it’s basically ‘Chinatown’. 

Inventive and exhilarating though the story is, its beauty lies in its flawlessly judged and occasionally eccentric construction: Robert Krasker’s high-contrast cinematography; Anton Karas’s eerily chipper zither score; and the depiction of a world so divided by politics, religion, gender and language, that you begin to understand why compassion would loose its appeal to these characters. ‘Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?’ asks Harry Lime. It’s a chilling conundrum that rings with truth and despair, and one of which politicians, businessmen and, well, everyone, should continually be wary. DJ

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1

Don't Look Now (1973)

Director Nicolas Roeg

Cast Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland

Nothing is what it seems

The number one film on our list is Nicolas Roeg’s hallucinatory 1973 Daphne du Maurier adaptation – the story of a couple, played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, who decamp to a spooky Venice after the death by drowning of their daughter. We can speculate on the roots of its popularity: that it satisfies the genre and arthouse crowds; that it uses framing, sound, editing and camera movement to unreel a transfixing tale and flesh out excruciatingly authentic characters; that it dares to coax out the ghosts lurking in every watery passageway in Venice, Europe’s most ornate and singular city; that it contains arguably the greatest sex scene on film. Or, we can just accept it as a movie whose every glorious frame is bursting with meaning, emotion and mystery, and which stands as the crowning achievement of one of Britain’s true iconoclasts and masters of cinema. DJ

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Find out how we compiled our top 100 British films

Who contributed?

We polled over 150 actors, directors, writers, producers, critics and other industry bigwigs. 

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By: TimeOutFilm

Comments

2 comments
Royce Gardner
Royce Gardner

The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the best British Classic's of all times