100 FAVORITE
B
RITISH FILMS
of the 20th Century
by the British Film Institute

Part 1


UK-British Films
Intro | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4



100 Favorite British Films
of the 20th Century
(part 1, ranked)

1. The Third Man (1949), directed by Carol Reed
After half a century, The Third Man remains a bona fide British classic: rich on atmosphere, strong on suspense and blessed with quite wonderful performances. A true collaboration between director Carol Reed and screenwriter Graham Greene, it is the story of a simple American (Cotten) who arrives in post-war Vienna to meet his old friend Harry Lime (Welles, evil and extraordinary), only to learn that Lime has been killed in an accident. But, as he unravels the truth, he is also drawn into the decadent and corrupt world in which Lime existed. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Krasker (who won an Oscar for his work), the film is full of sequences that linger in the mind, while the acclaimed zither rendition of 'The Harry Lime Theme' by Anton Karas helps to create a rare, haunting movie atmosphere.

2. Brief Encounter (1946), directed by David Lean
A rightly celebrated tear-jerker which movingly recreates a little England on a northern railway platform (location: Carnforth, Lancashire). It shows that even the repressed British can display emotion (in a very understated manner, of course) when true love comes along. David Lean directed this expansion of Noel Coward's one-act play Still Life; Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are the respectable middle-class couple who fall deeply in love but ultimately agree not to meet again and to return to their real lives. They do so with such dignity and restraint that it makes their ultimate parting all the more moving. The atmospheric music is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2.

3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean
A truly epic film which won the Best Picture Oscar and BAFTA awards. Staggering in its scope, execution and impact, it remains a moving and memorable film-going experience. Director David Lean and screenwriters Robert Bolt and (originally uncredited) Michael Wilson combined to craft a story that seems to have two central characters - Lawrence himself (played with charismatic brilliance by 30 year-old Peter O'Toole) and the shifting desert so superbly photographed in glorious 70mm by Freddie Young. British eccentric T.E. Lawrence set about inspiring the Arabs to fight alongside the British against the Turks in the 1914-17 campaign. The film is full of scenes and performances to treasure, though perhaps the best remembered is the arrival at the isolated well of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and the long shot of his ride across the shimmering sand.

4. The 39 Steps (1935), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
One of the greatest Hitchcock films and by far the best of the three big-screen versions of John Buchan's romping adventure novel, written in 1915. The excellent Robert Donat is the innocent engineer caught up in a web of intrigue when a female spy is killed in his apartment. A wanted man, he escapes by train and eventually on foot into the Scottish Highlands, before returning to London to solve the mystery. Heightened sexual chemistry comes from the scenes of Donat handcuffed to the heroine (played with icy charm by Madeleine Carroll) and having to spend the night with her. Hitchcock directs with a sure sense of pace and wit, and is always ready to add that extra jolt to surprise audiences of the day. At the time he said: "I am out to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups". He succeeded.

5. Great Expectations (1946), directed by David Lean
A masterly adaptation of Dickens' much-loved story, which fluently blends excitement, suspense and emotion. The memorable opening sequence of young Pip meeting Magwitch in the graveyard brilliantly sets the film in motion, and director David Lean handles the transitions from fear to drama and on to comedy with extraordinary ease. The cast is superb - John Mills as the older Pip and Jean Simmons as the young Estella are both excellent, as are Martita Hunt as the crumbling Miss Havisham and Francis L. Sullivan (who played the same role in the 1934 Hollywood version) as the lawyer Jaggers. A deserved Oscar for the stunning camera-work of Guy Green and another for John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton for Art Direction and Set Decoration.

6. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), directed by Robert Hamer
A deliciously dark Ealing comedy that elegantly allows the audience to side with the killer as he sets about his task. Dennis Price plays the penniless young hero, ninth in line to inherit the D'Ascoyne dukedom, who systematically sets about murdering the eight in the way to his title. The brilliant casting twist was that Alec Guinness played all eight - a general, a snob, a photographer, a suffragette, an admiral, a clergyman, a banker and the duke - with enjoyable ease. Also cast is the wonderful Joan Greenwood as the charmingly evil Sybilla. Robert Hamer directed, based on the book Israel Rank by Roy Horniman.

7. Kes (1969), directed by Ken Loach
Ken Loach's engagingly unsentimental story of a working-class boy who manages to find a rare release from his drab life training and caring for a kestrel. Much-loved and well remembered, the film is regarded as a classic of its time, with Loach commenting poignantly on the lack of opportunities for the working classes. It is based on Barry Hines's novel A Kestrel for a Knave, and features cinematography by Chris Menges. Though the subject matter is serious, as usual with Loach there is plenty of room for humour and still to be cherished is Brian Glover's exuberant performance as the warped sports teacher. The film was shot on location in and around Barnsley.

8. Don't Look Now (1973), directed by Nic Roeg
Stunningly assembled by Nic Roeg, this remains one of the most disturbing of films, with the hint of terror lurking in almost every scene. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are the parents whose drowned daughter may be sending them messages, leading them into the gothic labyrinthine of a deserted Venice. The Daphne du Maurier story may be the root of Don't Look Now, but the heart is the extraordinary ability of Roeg to create splintered visions, subliminal imagery and a pervasive sense of horror. It is still a film not for the faint-hearted.

9. The Red Shoes (1948), directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
An extraordinarily imaginative film which has quietly established itself as a classic and has the ability to affect some viewers deeply. At its heart is a 14-minute ballet - also called The Red Shoes - based on a Hans Christian Andersen story of a wicked shoe-maker who makes slippers for a young woman who finds they won't let her stop dancing until she dies, exhausted. This story is, of course, the basis for the film's larger backstage plot concerning the relationship between a megalomaniac impresario (Walbrook) and his young ballerina (Shearer). Beautifully presented by the team of Powell and Pressburger, with choreography by Robert Helpmann.

10. Trainspotting (1996), directed by Danny Boyle
Dark, ironic and made with such style and power, Trainspotting arrived in cinema's centenary year as a much-needed push for British film. Brilliantly marketed and with a pulsating soundtrack, it put Scottish and British talent in the spotlight, and showed that the awful truth of drug-taking could be handled in a clever, witty but still disturbing way. The story concerns a loose band of young Scottish junkies who do their worst before heading down to London with a bag of money. The film is famous also for helping to launch the careers of Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller and others. Writer John Hodge won an Oscar for his adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel.

11. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), directed by David Lean
Under the single-minded leadership of their Colonel (Alec Guinness at his best as the officer driven slowly mad), British prisoners in a Japanese P.O.W. camp build the eponymous bridge that might eventually be used to assist Japanese troop movement. William Holden is the American officer who plans to destroy it. A film that plays just as well showing the psychological battle of wills as the more epic scenes of military conflict, it won seven Oscars, including one for screenplay (by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, based on Pierre Boulle's novel). These writers, though, were blacklisted, so Boulle, who spoke no English, received the script credit.

12. If... (1968), directed by Lindsay Anderson
Lindsay Anderson's much acclaimed film marked the beginning of an extended partnership with actor Malcolm McDowell and writer David Sherwin (they made two more films together, further tracing McDowell's character) and confused the establishment with its complex and often cruel expose of an English private school. Eventually a group of three students (led by McDowell) rebel and set about shooting teachers and fellow students from the roof of a school building.

13. The Ladykillers (1955), directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Priceless black comedy made at Ealing Studios. A bunch of hardened criminals hide out in a house near to London's St. Pancras station owned by a cheerful little old lady. Led by Alec Guinness (whose fiendish false teeth smack of master-criminal status), the gang's evil plans are constantly foiled by the old lady (played superbly by Katie Johnson) who is just too sweet to be true. Their bickering leads to violence and eventually wonderfully extravagant deaths. Peter Sellers is excellent as the chubby Teddy Boy, here in an early teaming with the equally nasty Herbert Lom (later Chief Inspector Dreyfuss to Sellers' Inspector Clouseau).

14. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), directed by Karel Reisz
Much acclaimed by critics at the time, this early 'angry young man' drama was set in Nottingham and its hero is a factory worker, wonderfully played by Albert Finney. Adapted by Alan Sillitoe from his novel, the film looks uncompromisingly at the life and frustrations of a working class man and the impact he has on the women in his life, played by Shirley Anne Field and Rachel Roberts. It may be grim stuff at times, but under Karel Reisz's direction it is refreshingly honest and at times moving. Music is provided by the jazz musician Johnny Dankworth.

15. Brighton Rock (1947), directed by John Boulting
Fresh-faced young Richard Attenborough took a stark acting change of pace, here playing with chilling presence Pinkie Brown, the vicious teenage leader of a gang of slashers. Based on Graham Greene's 1938 novel (adapted by Greene and Terence Rattigan), this is an impressively made thriller from the Boulting brothers (Roy and John also co-produced the film), with fine performances too by Hermione Baddeley as the singer and Harcourt Williams as the lawyer.

16. Get Carter (1971), directed by Mike Hodges
Recently re-released by the BFI and long the subject of cult status, Mike Hodges' Get Carter is a tough and thoroughly compulsive crime thriller that delivers the gangland goods with great aplomb. Michael Caine is Jack Carter, the London-based villain returning to his native Newcastle to bury his brother, who sets about antagonizing the local gangsters until he finds out who was the killer. Caine is suave, sadistic and sexy, but then everyone here is pretty nasty. Playwright John Osborne appears as one of the camp Newcastle bosses, while the late Bryan Mosley (Coronation Street's Alf Roberts) also has a key role.

17. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), directed by Charles Crichton
Superb Ealing comedy, with Alec Guinness in great form as the innocuous civil servant who manages the impossible and steals three million in gold bullion from the Bank of England. That Guinness is perfect as the modest Everyman is what makes this film such a classic, but there are marvellous supporting performances too from Stanley Holloway, Sid James and Alfie Bass as his accomplices. Watch for a young Audrey Hepburn as Chiquita in the opening sequences. T.E.B. Clarke's wonderful script won the Oscar for Best Story and Screenplay.

18. Henry V (1944), directed by Laurence Olivier
Filmed during World War II and clearly aimed at boosting the confidence of the British, this is a remarkable film version of Shakespeare's play. It was Olivier's debut as a director and he brought passion, spectacle, humour and real poetry to the film, but is also outstanding as the passionate Plantagenet Henry who, at 27, defeated the armies of France at Agincourt. Among the impressive cast are Robert Newton as Ancient Pistol, George Robey as Falstaff and Harcourt Williams as Charles VI. Olivier received a Special Academy Award in 1946 for bringing this film to the screen.

19. Chariots of Fire (1981), directed by Hugh Hudson
An absorbing, moving and much-acclaimed drama which in the early '80s looked like spearheading a British breakthrough in Hollywood. That didn't really happen, but Lord (David) Puttnam's production remains a remarkable achievement, tackling many issues under the umbrella of a true story. Two men - a devout Scottish missionary Eric Liddell (Charleson) and a Jewish Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (Cross) - strain and train to run in the 1924 Olympics. The film debut of director Hugh Hudson, it won four Oscars (for Best Picture, Colin Welland's script, Milena Canonero's costumes and the score by Vangelis).

20. A Matter of Life and Death (1946), directed by Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
A quite perfect romantic fantasy from the team of Powell and Pressburger, which also gave David Niven one of the best roles of his career. He plays Peter, a World War II pilot who falls for an American radio operator (Hunter) as his plane is about to crash. But heaven makes a mistake and he survives, only to meet the girl in person and fall deeply in love. Now he must plead for his life at a celestial court. Handled with great compassion and intelligence by all involved.

21. The Long Good Friday (1980), directed by John Mackenzie
A violent crime thriller, featuring a stunning performance by the then little-known Bob Hoskins as the brutal Harold Shand. Vigorously directed by John Mackenzie from a screenplay by Barry Keeffe, the film follows Shand's attempts to woo a band of American entrepreneurs to London at the same time as gangland rivalry seems to be destroying his empire. Helen Mirren shines as Victoria, his sophisticated girlfriend, and look out for film debutant Pierce Brosnan as '1st Irishman'. This remains one of the very best British gangland movies.

22. The Servant (1963), directed by Joseph Losey
Powerful drama from Joseph Losey, from a screenplay by Harold Pinter. Edward Fox is the rich but useless young man whose life is gradually taken over by his sinister manservant (Bogarde, in superb form) and his sexy sister (Miles). Often quite nasty, but glossily compulsive and fascinating to watch the transition of the two principal characters.

23. Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994), directed by Mike Newell
One of the great British comedies of the '90s (and one of the biggest hits, too, with worldwide box-office takings of $258 million), this remains a thoroughly enjoyable experience, full of fine performances, some wonderful settings and hilarious lines that linger in the memory. As perennial best man Charles (Grant) meets the woman of his dreams over a series of weddings, many of the best lines come from his mixed bag of friends (Scott-Thomas, Callow, Hannah, Coleman and Fleet), while Rowan Atkinson pops up to play the bumbling clergyman as only he can. Smoothly directed by Newell, though full credit should surely go to Richard Curtis for his superb script.

24. Whisky Galore! (1949), directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Wonderful whimsy, charmingly directed by Mackendrick. On the fictional Scottish island of Todday, the wartime whisky ration has run out and the islanders are devastated. But when an American ship carrying 50,000 cases of Scotch is wrecked off-shore, they take it upon themselves to salvage and hide the booze. Thoroughly enjoyable film, with terrific performances from the likes of Joan Greenwood, Basil Radford and Gordon Jackson. Compton Mackenzie, author of the novel on which the film is based, also has a small role as Captain Buncher. It was shot on location on the Hebridean island of Barra.

25. The Full Monty (1997), directed by Peter Cattaneo
Hilarious contemporary comedy that managed that rare thing of being able to make you laugh while it also looked seriously at social issues. A group of out-of-work Sheffield steelworkers decide to become male strippers to try to make some much-needed money. The amusing dynamics of the group of men is perfect and the scenes of them rehearsing, or queuing in the DHSS office, remain fresh and funny. With a splendid script by Simon Beaufoy, the film established Robert Carlyle as a leading man and was a massive hit in the US as well as the UK, receiving four Oscar nominations and critical acclaim along the way.



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