Best of British
To prove that it's not all sport and pageantry this summer, Studio Canal and the ICO are launching a Made in Britain season of films to celebrate the very best of British cinema. A classic film will be screening every week at venues around the country between the Jubilee and the Olympics. It's an eclectic selection. Before the season launches, we thought it would be fun to ask Kamera's contributors to give us a list of their top five British films. Their selections prove what a diverse range of wonderful British cinema there is out there.
The Third Man (1949)
Possibly the greatest British film of all time, Carol Reed's film noir stars Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard. Most memorable for Robert Krasker's atmospheric cinematography, Anton Karas's magical zither score and Welles' unforgettable cuckoo clock monologue.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick's seminal masterpiece is arguably the greatest science fiction film ever made and one of the most influential movies of all time. Famously hailed by John Lennon as 'nothing short of a religious experience,' 2001 has stood the test of time and looks as amazing today as it did when it was first released.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Vastly underrated and one of the least well known of Kubrick's portfolio of genius, this adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1844 novel is perhaps one of the most beautifully cold films ever made.
Danny Boyle's black comedy drama based on Irvine Welsh's novel of the same name set in 1980s Edinburgh is a dark, often graphic, depiction of friendship, addiction, despair and hope. Above all, hope.
Categorised as both a British and an American film, Ridley Scott's science fiction classic is so much more than 'Jaws in space'. Perhaps Scott's best film to date, can we blame him for deciding to return to the same ground more than 30 years later with Prometheus?
These top five greatest British films aren't the greatest films about the experience of being British, though that list has its place, but a personal selection of greatest films made by British filmmakers. The greatest films of all transcend national concerns and address universal themes.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean crafted a great series of films, including In Which We Serve, Great Expectations and Hobson's Choice, in Britain. When he went international with Hollywood money his subsequent epics still most often focused on Brits, though now overseas: The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Passage to India, and the greatest of these Lawrence of Arabia. This is a film about a man for whom England – from its landscape to its social conformity – was too small. About a man who at heart belonged elsewhere, who lost and then found himself in the vast deserts of Arabia.
With an astonishing central performance from Peter O'Toole, Lawrence of Arabia does what few films have ever managed – eat your heart out George Lucas – and combines the specifically political (British intervention in the middle-east a century ago) with a deeply personal character study, then sets it against an epic backdrop. TE Lawrence as depicted by Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt is an enigma even to himself, illuminated against the vast desert with some of the most immaculately composed and richly detailed images ever committed to film. All transformed into more than the sum of its epic parts by the best score Maurice Jarre ever put his name to. It is an unsurpassed, uncompromisingly pure masterwork of world cinema. And it is the story of one great, flawed Englishman as told by another.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Lawrence travelled to the endless inhospitable spaces of the desert on his voyage of discovery. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke decided that only space itself, and a journey beyond Jupiter, the infinite, was enough to, if not answer the ultimate question of mankind's destiny, then at least provisionally place it before a global audience. Planning on the 'proverbial 'good' science fiction movie' began as Lawrence opened in cinemas, and one wonders about the influence of Lean on the Dawn of Man sequence from this ultimate trip.
2001 harked back to the visual poetry of the pre-synchronised sound era of cinema while revolutionising special effects technology and making a film which wasn't just set in first year of the next millennium, but looked like it had been made there. Visually the film is still astonishing. It has barely dated. The astronauts use videophones and watch uploaded news feeds on tablet computers which obviously prefigure the iPad.
2001: A Space Odyssey remains both an amazing cinematic experience and a stunning metaphysical Rorschach test. In 1968 it wasn't just a great film, but the greatest English language film then made.
Quite literally the Matter of Britain is the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In retrospect it is surprising that the only films to approach the subject were 1973's little seen Gawain and the Green Knight and the following year's Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Finally John Boorman brought the entire Morte d'Arthur to the screen in his magnificent Excalibur. You want it, Boorman delivers. Birth, death, life, sex, destiny, the building of a nation, the conflict between faiths, spiritual quest, silly comedy, Excalibur has it all. Boorman ignores the kitchen sink and heritage facets of British cinema, instead drawing on Malory, Tennyson and Wagner (without Arthur and the Ring Cycle there wouldn't have been a Lord of the Rings). Here is the myth of the building of a nation, so much more inspiring than the grubby reality of politics, but one sufficiently realistic to realise that nations rise and fall and there are other, more vital, concerns that are timeless. Hence Excalibur becomes both a spiritual quest for salvation and a meditation on the tension between different belief systems and ways of viewing the world. In this way Excalibur is a very modern and contemporary film. It is also enormously entertaining, beautifully shot and designed and filled with magnificent set-pieces, from an opening battle to a forest wedding to the indescribably moving finale. People often talk of the magic of cinema. Here it is, captured in 140 minutes of 35mm film.
Where would we be without Shakespeare? Stuck watching Carry On films or celebrating how grim it was up north in the 1960's. Take the greatest play by the greatest playwright, film it complete in stunning 70mm and how can you not have a film worthy of inclusion here? Especially when the whole is realised with both tremendous dramatic and visual flair by cinema's proven master of Shakespeare adaptations, Kenneth Branagh. William Shakespeare's Hamlet (to give it the full title and differentiate it from the many other films of the play) is the best film of the 1990's. Of course no one agrees because it is four hours long and hardly anyone saw it in 70mm on a gigantic screen, which is the only way to appreciate the achievement of this incredible piece of cinema.
Branagh's central performance is wonderfully intense and most of the supporting roles are brilliantly filled. If the sometimes jarring casting of famous names in minor parts seems to be a stunt, it's a small price to pay – and one presumably necessary for the film to get financed. Hamlet builds to an action packed, utterly thrilling climax driven by dazzlingly kinetic fight choreography and Patrick Doyle's glorious score. The aftermath should move anyone to the core. Cinema rarely gets much bigger, more ambitious or powerful.
Who is the single most interesting filmmaker to arrive in the last decade? If your answer is anyone other than Christopher Nolan you're wrong. Forget whatever the Dark Knight is doing this week. Following Following (1998), Nolan's first fully professional feature Memento (2000) electrified those few fortunate to see it on release, and it was sufficient for one of Britain's finest writers, Christopher Priest, to choose Nolan to bring his novel The Prestige to the screen. The result was one of the best science fiction films ever made, one of the best British films ever made, and one of the best films of the new millennium. Inception went further into Nolan's explorations of grief and identity with a story which was surprisingly straightforward on the surface but contained many deeper levels for those so inclined to explore. Here is an ingenious puzzle box of a narrative, a windmill of the mind, an exciting thriller with action set-pieces to rival Bond, with a surreal twist rendering them unique and breath-taking. But this is all to forget, and forgetting is a major theme of Inception, that here is a film about love – love for children, spouse, parents – and what we will do for love, and what happens when love is denied or corrupted or lost. Love and death. It's what cinema, and life, are all about. Not just a great film by a British writer-director, but one of a handful of the greatest, most provocative, entertaining and involving ever made.
This captivating classic is the version most likely to have delighted Dickens himself. Director Brian Desmond Hurst worked wonders with Renown Pictures' low budget approach, creating a film as timeless as Dickens' novella. Alastair Sim coffin-nails the miserliness of Scrooge and his heart-skipping transformation, the atmospheric cinematography and Hurst's attention to detail make this endlessly watchable.
Went the Day Well? (1942)
Made in 1942 with the war far from over, this audacious curio assumes that it's already been won. A quintessential English village is infiltrated by German paratroopers thanks to local quislings. Quaint surrealism, tones of betrayal and sudden violence are a heady mix. Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, experienced in making British documentaries, spins a rousing tale that exudes Englishness. And what's more British than a William Walton score and Thora Hird picking off Nazis with a rifle?
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
An impressively stylised fantasy, this is shot through with a cheeky humour and lots of heart. David Niven is perfectly cast as the RAF pilot bailing out without a parachute and missed by the ministers of the afterlife who want him back. Powell and Pressburger's visual creativity and playful humanism haunt the imagination, as all good cinema should.
Elephant Man (1980)
British by virtue of its cast, setting and tone, if nothing else, David Lynch's evocative film about the disfigured John Merrick and the surgeon who helps reveal his humanity is a quiet masterpiece. Sounds are as important as visuals in conveying Merrick's world and the Victorian society that made it. A bittersweet poem to the lows and highs of the human heart.
Henry V (1989)
Branagh's bold and beautiful debut as a director confounded his critics. Perhaps Britain's most underrated filmmaker, Branagh demonstrates an assured visual style and a bravura creativity that belies his limited budget. The crop of British acting talent, a rousing score from Patrick Doyle and Branagh's unsurpassed ability to speak fluent Shakespeare make this a memorable achievement. Cry God for Kenny and St George!
My top five British Films are picked for different reasons. They don't include early or late Hitchcock, nor a Lean, no Losey/Pinter or Mike Leigh. These are films that I think are really important and which represent the best of British Cinema.
The Third Man (1949)
So it is a US/UK co-production with Orson Welles' shadow of Harry Lime perhaps slightly obscuring the fact that this is one of the most British films ever – so much so that there were different openings and cuts for the US and UK markets. Welles and Joseph Cotton hold up the American presence on screen clashing with Trevor Howard's Maj Calloway (there's the nod to David Lean), while director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene laid the groundwork by getting drunk in many a Viennese drinking establishment in the search for black market Vienna authenticity. There is nothing more British than the line in the opening sequence ' Vienna doesn't really look any worse than a lot of other European cities, bombed about a bit...' With Graham Greene's fantastic tone and a doomed romance and friendship at the heart of a story about an innocent man in a situation way above his head, this is the greatest British Noir by a mile.
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
There has to be an Ealing Comedy in the list and as much as I think The Ladykillers (1955) is brilliant and Alexander MacKendrick a particular genius, it is Roger Hamer's adaptation of the novel Israel Rank that gets the vote. Whereas The Ladykillers is set against the grimy backdrop of St Pancras and King Cross stations, Kind Hearts and Coronets is unique in being a very dark black comedy often set in the greatest summer scenes played out during the death throes of the British Empire, with boating scenes and village greens all prim and proper, bathed in an clear exposing light.
Nothing is more British than football and the brilliant Manchester United v. Tottenham Hotspur game played out at in a school PE session is one of the great sporting moments in any film. Ken Loach's film of Barry Hines' book comes across as a very British 400 Coups (1959). Loach gets the nod ahead of Mike Leigh's many British masterpieces because Kes just never seems to age and can be returned to again and again.
I Know Where I'm Going (1945)
It could have been any one of the Powell/Pressbuger greats - from The Red Shoes (1948), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) or Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) - but there is something magical about I Know Where I'm Going; a bit of a cult film which makes many a viewer dream of voyaging to the Scottish Isles. As the Laird of Killorin, Roger Livesey's performance and fantastic voice are at their most charming. All the elements of Powell's love for the Scottish Isles, earlier explored in The Edge of the World (1937), can be found here. This is possibly the greatest romantic comedy of all time and watching it is as deeply enjoyable as sitting in front of a roaring fire, with a wee dram, while there is a storm raging outside.
I haven't watched this for a while and I don't know if I ever need to see it again but this really put British Cinema back on the 'cool map' when it was released. A melange of a new wave of British acting, writing and a celebration of music, Trainspotting could perhaps be blamed for the explosive neo-gangster Britficks that followed, but also seen to lay the groundwork the forthcoming young British talent Shane Meadows' fantastic peculiarly British work. Comparisons with Pulp Fiction (1994) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) cannot be avoided, but Trainspotting is its own film with many a memorable scene that has lodged itself in the memory of a generation of film-goers.
My very personal list of five top British films:
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
This David Niven-starred celestial adventure is pure heaven, both from a visual point of view and from the fantastic narrative.
The Killing of Sister George (1968)
Perhaps not a formal game-changer, but definitely ahead of its time with an out lesbian for a protagonist, bravely played by Beryl Reid.
My Beautiful Launderette (1985)
Frears' quirky and period-defining film provides a picture of London in the 1980s, introducing racial and sexual relations in a fresh way that spawned a new age in British cinema.
Lynne Ramsay is an elusive, utterly uncompromising filmmaker. Her directorial debut set in Glasgow during a dustmen strike exemplifies her masterful use of atmosphere as well as her understanding of the characters' inner lives.
Brief Encounter (1945)
The ultimate 'British restraint' movie. Written by Noel Coward, it tells the story of a suburban housewife who is tempted to cheat on her husband with a doctor she meets at a railway station café. This is a one-of-a kind movie experience, made even more special by Rachmaninoff's soundtrack. The ultimate romantic film.
Considering the wealth of quality movies from Britain, choosing five was obviously going to be difficult. Carol Reed's The Third Man is one of my all-time favourite movies but it's not on the list because it's already canonical. I love the work of Powell and Pressburger and many of their movies—Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes—could be here. Again, they're already essential. The rich tradition of horror movies from
England, namely from Hammer, are great but that's a whole other list. Also, foreign directors like Antonioni, Kubrick, and Gilliam, are excluded even though they made some of their best movies in Britain. Basically, to ease the pain for myself, I didn't include anything before 1968... Year One, culturally.
Lindsay Anderson's landmark critique and satire of class, public schools, and whatever else, still feels savage and vital today. There's real anger in it, but it never comes off as deadening because of its humour and flashes of rebellious surrealism.
Yes, it's grim. But it's also filled with moments of humour and warmth that never softens the hard edges. It's remarkable that director Ken Loach, co-writer Barry Hines, and cinematographer Chris Menges accomplish such a depth of emotion without devolving into sentimentality. It also contains the best football sequence I've ever seen in a movie.
Bad Timing (1980)
I love many of Nicolas Roeg's movies, particularly Performance (1968), co-directed with Donald Cammell, and Don't Look Now (1973). The latter is a masterpiece. Bad Timing, however, is artistically brave on a whole different level. Roeg, Theresa Russell (never better), and Art Garfunkel go deep and there's courage in what they accomplish. It's the finest movie about sexual obsession and memory I can think of.
The Hit (1984)
The brutal Get Carter (1971) routinely gets crowned as the best British crime movie but this is my pick. It works as a straight crime picture, but it's also an insightful examination on dying. It's very funny too. Terence Stamp has never been better and the rest of the cast, John Hurt, Tim Roth, and Bill Hunter are brilliant as well.
It feels like an apocalypse has occurred in east London, though no one has consciously noticed except for our deeply troubled yet sometimes whipsmart protagonist. It's dangerous to be in Johnny's presence for too long though. Naked feels perilous at times, something you don't expect from a director like Mike Leigh. His gaze is unflinchingly harsh at times, though it's not without compassion. David Thewlis is stunning and the late Katrin Cartlidge is a heartbreaking revelation as the frustrating mess Sophie.
Dead of Night (1945)
The production values of this anthology of five stories, linked by tales from attendees at a posh country house visited by an architect, is absolutely top-class and showed - long before Hammer's heyday - just how comfortable British cinema was with the horror genre at a time when there were few genre films on release. The compelling otherworldliness of the film belies the reality that the horrors of World War Two were just ending, but perhaps that was the very intention.
Paradoxically an unsentimental rites-of-passage film for children of all ages but also an early example of Ken Loach demonstrating total sympathy with his oppressed subjects. The unknown David Bradley plays Billy Casper, a seemingly doomed 15-year-old with an uncaring mother, absent father and brutish brother who refutes an inevitable future down the Yorkshire coal mines, taking solace in the training of a kestrel. Plausible escapism in the face of brutal reality has arguably never been better conveyed in British cinema before or since and helped launch the career of one of our most internationally celebrated directors of the last 40 years.
In Mick Jagger's sole acting highpoint (loosely playing himself) as a reclusive rock star, alongside an against-type violent James Fox, Donald Cammell and co-director Nicolas Roeg obtained accidental carte blanche from Warner Brothers studio executives who thought they were getting the Rolling Stones equivalent of an early Beatles film. Instead, Cammell and Roeg delivered a unique and dark temporal experiment, focusing on the London underworld with their graphic depictions of violence, sex and drug use that crushes the 60s escapist dream in the same way that Altamont would do; Jagger eerily being central to both.
Withnail and I (1986)
A black comedy looking back in anger at the late 1960s, Withnail and I does for UK cinema what Spinal Tap does for the rockumentray as a cult film where every scene and every line is like a sketch in its own right. The tale of two out of work Camden actors who have 'gone on holiday by mistake' to Withnail's gay uncle's cottage in Cumbria is a classic, chiefly because of its brilliant cast and script, and has subsequently grown into one of the most loved of British films.
A proud British avant-garde tradition that started with the documentary movement in the 1930s (John Grierson, Humphrey Jennings, et al), through the intermittent co-operative and other splinter movements of the 60s to 80s, intertextually culminates in this contemporary essay film-cum-mockumentary by Patrick Keiller. The fictionalised account of the two invisible protagonists' journey through their own London (told by one of them in non-diegetic voice-over) is set against the backdrop of an omnipresent history of the capital that - in 1992 - is pre-Blair pessimistic after a surprise fourth Conservative general election victory. This makes London an extremely engaging film alternative.
There's so much more to British cinema than heritage drama, kitchen sink suffering and cor, blimey guv'nor gangsters.
Brits don't celebrate eccentricity nearly as much as they should. The wonderful Ken Russell was an enfant terrible even in his eighties. And the little seen and even less admired Lisztomania is a historically, if metaphorically, accurate glorious biopic musical riot of sound, colour and delightful, delicious, delectable bad taste. Where else can you see Ringo Starr playing the pope? Or Roger Daltry impersonating Charlie Chaplin to a mutated version of Liebestraum?
A Matter Of Life and Death (1946)
It's so difficult to choose just one of Powell and Pressburger's marvellous films amidst an oeuvre of wonderful, sumptuous cinema, but A Matter of Life and Death is their most romantic film. Mixing fantasy, drama, politics and the most beautiful love story, this is an absolute delight from start to finish.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
It feels as though Peter Greenaway's films are never as appreciated as much as they should be. Difficult to choose a favourite (A Zed and Two Noughts (1986), Drowning by Numbers (1988) and The Pillow Book (1996) were all contenders), The Cook The Thief is perhaps his best known. Passionate and brutal, this is the ultimate British crime drama. Visually stunning, with opulent set design and costumes as well as a pounding Michael Nyman score, this is British cinema at its most extravagant.
Goodbye Mr Chips (1939)
A delightful film about an uncommonly decent man. Told in flashback, we learn about the career of schoolmaster Mr Chips. A wonderful performance from Robert Donat who had to age over 60 years over the course of the story. Maudlin? Yes. Sentimental? Yes. Charming? Definitely. You don't get to see many films about really nice people. Guaranteed to require at least three boxes of tissues per viewing.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Viddy well, O my droogs. Anglophile Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's political drama about a sociopath delinquent whose interests include classical music, rape and ultra-violence. The story questions morality and the nature of free will. Banned for decades, with brilliant set design and a wonderful electronic take on well-known classics (especially old Ludwig Van's Ode to Joy) it is quite literally an assault on the senses and the intellect. It also lacks the novel's conciliatory final chapter.
With so many to choose from I have decided on a combination of personal and artistic bests – great British films that have been a special experience for me.
The 39 Steps (1935)
Everything a film should be – a cracking mystery with a man on the run, suspense, violence and romance all wrapped up in its very Britishness, this is Hitchcock's masterpiece. I've forgotten what else I was going to say, so I'll have to ask Mr Memory...
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Any films by The Archers would make my list (Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes) but my personal favourite is A Matter of Life and Death, the best film ever made in Britain. It is imaginative, beautifully shot, fantastical, perfectly acted and brilliantly realised. Over half a century since it was released, the combination of visual wonderment and intellectual facets makes this a perfect film for all age groups and cultures.
The Wrong Trousers (1993)
Let's not forget that the Brits have made some of the finest animations in the world. With enough film references to keep any cineaste happy, it looks to Hitchcock (The Lodger (1927)), The Archers (One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942)) as well as that wonderful nod to Buster Keaton's The General (1926) Aardman created an animated film that is suitable viewing for everyone. I couldn't 'chicken out' by not choosing this.
The Ladykillers (1955)
Forget the reprehensible remake from the normally reliable Coen brothers at their absolute worst and remember Alexander Mackendrick's original which is crime comedy at its very best. Alec Guinness is so evil as the criminal mastermind and Katie Johnson so wonderfully oblivious to the fact that a heist is being planned from within in her house. Any Ealing film could be listed here - The Man in the White Suit (1951), Passport to Pimlico (1949), Lavender Hill Mob (1951) Kind Hearts and Coronets(1949)... the list goes on - but I'm going for a childhood favourite.
Laurence Olivier's portrayal of the tortured prince is masterful but he also directs and films the story in a way that adds really spooky special effects, turning a theatrical experience into a form of avant garde film-making. Yes, he may have hacked about with Shakespeare's original, but he made the story his own. Compelling viewing.
Look out for reviews of all the films in the Made In Britain season at Kamera. The theatrical releases will be complemented by a special exhibition of stills and artwork from classic British cinema at the London Film Museum.
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