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Top 10 British Films

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Posted 7th February 2017 at 07:08 PM by Nosferatu@Cult Labs

10 . if.... (1968)

Lindsay Anderson is one of the most underrated satirists in film history as his trilogy of films following Mick Travis (if...., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital) all have an undercurrent of jet black humour and pointing out the foibles and utter stupidity of some major British institutions. In the case of if...., Anderson targets the public school system and, with Malcolm McDowell making his film debut, before he shot to fame in A Clockwork Orange, had an actor who was keen to impress and was utterly astonishing.

Filmed with a wonderful air of surrealism, fantasy and savagery running through it, if.... which, intentionally or not, tapped into the feeling of rebelliousness and unhappiness running through society, with many latching onto the French General Strike as a spark for major social change. With his moustache, devil may care attitude and rebellion against the authority figures at his school, Mick Travis became somewhat of a poster boy for the counterculture and the film still resonates in the 21st century.

9. Repulsion (1965)

If one were to forget names and reputations and just think of the stereotypical 1960s film about a Belgian beautician, you'd see an end up in Carry On territory. However, this was Roman Polanski who was then a rising talent, making his first film in English after coming to critical attention with Knife in the Water. After making films in his native Poland and France, he came to Britain during the 'swinging sixties' to make a film in London, produced by Gene Gutowski and written with Gérard Brach, men with whom he would have an extremely productive working relationship, he made a movie with a relatively unknown French actress and the result was so good Hollywood came knocking.

Directed by someone with a keen eye for detail and with no hesitation to go into extremely dark, macabre and disturbing territory, Repulsion was Polanski's calling card to British and American production companies and it's no surprise Robert Evans wanted him to direct Rosemary's Baby based on this. The story, by Polanski and Gérard Brach (who would go on to write with Polanski in films including Cul-de-sac, The Tenant and Tess), is simple but disturbing and Catherine Deneuve has a perfect blend of innocence, naïveté and fragility which makes her portrayal of Carole all the more compelling and, when she resorts to violence, incredibly shocking.

8. The Wicker Man (1973)

Hacked up and hurriedly cut by the new management at British Lion, who didn't know quite what to make of this bizarre horror film directed by Robin Hardy and written by Anthony Shaffer, it wasn't seen as a film with any popular appeal by British Lion who rushed it out as the B-movie to Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now.

The film is spearheaded by a quite sublime performance by Edward Woodward, who is utterly convincing as Sgt Howie and his expression at the end accentuates the horror. As the island's owner, Lord Summerisle, Christopher Lee gives a commanding performance and there is great support by the whole ensemble cast, particularly Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento and Britt Ekland. The Wicker Man is a film which retains its power to shock and disturb and the soundtrack album is enough to send chills up your spine when you hear the islanders sing ' Sumer Is Icumen In'.

7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

I first fell in love with this when I was about 10 years old and treasured the VHS cassette my parents had recorded the film onto, when it was shown late at night on BBC2, and have since bought it several times on VHS and DVD. I watched it so many times I knew the script off by heart and, in my first year at secondary school, my English teacher stepped out from minutes and returned to find me standing on a chair pointing at about across the room and shouting "I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!" However, I based this decision on its script, direction and acting rather than how much I like it.

Many people's favourite Monty Python film, and perhaps the most consistently funny, would be Monty Python's Life of Brian, but the one with the best writing, acting and directing, by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, is Monty Python's second film (and their first 'proper' film following And Now for Something Completely Different), loosely based on the legend of King Arthur. Although Graham Chapman was a hopeless alcoholic at the time and had to read some of his lines from cue cards, his performance as King Arthur is brilliant in its absurd pomposity and sincerity, whether it's debating whether a swallow could carry a coconut, explaining (to some anarchists) that he is King because the Lady in the Lake gave him Excalibur or negotiating with Tim the Enchanter. The other Pythons appear in several roles each with myriad memorable lines and situations.

6. The Third Man (1949)

Based on the novel by Graham Greene, who also wrote the screenplay, and directed by Carol Reed, this greatest of all British films noir is a testament to what happens when you have great actors, a great composer, a great cinematographer, a great editor, a great director and an art department all on top form. That it was released as Vienna was in the condition depicted in the film made is extremely topical and audiences at the time would no doubt have noticed the error of authenticity the stock footage provides.

Most people will know the famous monologue by Orson Welles about the achievements of the Borgias compared to the Swiss, but there is much more to The Third Man than Orson Welles. Joseph Cotton, who starred alongside Wales at the beginning of the decade in Citizen Kane, is a tremendous lead and, with Trevor Howard and Alida Valli (as Holly Martin and Anna, respectively) putting in career-best performances, you have all the acting bases covered. Where this stands out is the superb cinematography by Robert Krasker, which is stark monochrome with chiaroscuro lighting and incredibly moody, with the highlight arguably being the final chase in the sewers. The zither music is an unlikely choice for a film noir, but works extremely well and this is the greatest film Carol Reed made in his illustrious career.

5. Brazil (1985)

Aside from the casting of Robert De Niro, who plays the renegade plumber and wanted terrorist Archibald Tuttle, the film has a distinctive British feel with Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, the frustrated bureaucrat who tries to convince people the 'machine' has got it wrong, something his boss, Mr Kurtzman, is keen not to happen. Ian Holm is superb as Kurtzman, Katherine Helmand puts in an extremely memorable performance as Sam's mother, a woman addicted to plastic surgery and who is generally seen with her surgeon, Dr. Jaffe (brilliantly played by a suitably sleazy Jim Broadbent) and, with Gilliam's former colleague Michael Palin as the mysterious Jack Lint, there is a-Python connection. The cast also boasts Bob Hoskins and Peter Vaughan, but Kim Greist (an actress I hadn't seen before) almost steals the show as Jill Layton, Sam's dream woman – literally – who spends all her time trying to secure Archibald Buttle's release and shake off Sam Lowry, who is desperate to meet her in 'real life'.

This is a better film than anything Terry Gilliam had made before or since (including his Monty Python films and movies like The Fisher King) yet, just as with almost every film Gilliam makes, it ran into difficulties as Universal Studios didn't like his original 144 minute cut, wanting a film with a more upbeat ending (similar to the difficulties Ridley Scott faced with Blade Runner, where the distributor thinks audience members are idiots, demanding a narration by Deckard) and so released a 94 minute version, known as 'Love Conquers All', which did very badly at the US box office and is generally hated by fans. With the different versions available on DVD (and Blu-ray some time in 2011), people were able to see the film Gilliam wanted to release and it has now become a cult classic and is extremely highly regarded by film critics.

4. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The finest of all the great comedies made in the world-renowned Ealing Studios and the best of any genre, this superlative black comedy is probably best known for Alec Guinness’ star turn, playing all eight members of the D'Ascoyne family. For my money, the best performance comes from Dennis Price, whose portrayal of Louis Manzini, a man who, because his mother was designed by the D'Ascoynes for marrying an Italian opera singer and then, following her death, is refused a burial plot in the family vault, vows to kill all members of the D'Ascoyne family and become the Duke of Chalfont.

Loosely based on Roy Horniman's novel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal, this follows Louis Manzini, this shows Manzini studying the family tree and working out who he needs to kill in order to become the Duke of Chalfont. With births bringing bad news and deaths bringing good, the number eventually works out at eight – all of whom are played by Alec Guinness. The deaths are inventive, the screenplay (by Robert Hamer and John Dighton) is laced with acerbic black humour and Dennis Price steals the show with his superb portrayal of the scheming murderer and pitch perfect narration.

Robert Hamer's direction makes this one of the best crafted and most ingeniously created films ever made on these shores, the performances are outstanding and the costumes, production design, art decoration, make-up and every other piece of work by the art department makes the Edwardian setting as believable as possible and Ernest Irving's score really emphasises the sense of mischief and macabre humour in both the action and Dennis Price's narration. As much as I appreciate the great films made by the fine directors and other filmmakers in the Golden age of the Ealing Studios, with comedies like The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, the wonderfully subversive and anarchic Kind Hearts and Coronets is the best they've ever made and one of the greatest comedies of all time.

3. The Red Shoes (1946)

No list of the greatest British films would be complete without something by Powell and Pressburger and I had such a difficult time ranking these films in order I could probably give most of them different rankings in a week or so. This is one of the true masterpieces of cinema, a hugely influential film which has impacted their careers of directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Darren Aaronofsky and Dario Argento. Together, Michael Powell and Emmerich Pressburger made numerous great films, the best of which are Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes.

This was very nearly not one of Powell and Pressburger's films as Emmerich Pressburger sold his script to producer Alexander Korda, who wanted his wife, Merle Oberon, to play the lead with a double doing the dancing scenes. However, Michael Powell wanted to make the film and he and Pressburger bought the script back from Korda. Anton Walbrook is superb as Boris Lermontov, the driven ballet impresario who wants to stage the ballet and the scenes between the two new members of his company, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) and Julian Krasner (Marius Göring) is utterly compelling and plausible. Shearer, a Sadler's Wells ballerina is understandably mesmerising in the ballet sequences, but it's her acting which impresses the most and no doubt came as a welcome surprise to the two filmmakers.

It is a spectacular piece of filmmaking and the crowning glory in the long and distinguished partnership of Powell and Pressburger.

2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Of all the great films made by Stanley Kubrick, this is my favourite and most ingeniously scripted, directed and well acted of any of Kubrick's superb cinematic achievements including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining or A Clockwork Orange. During the height of the Cold War when American nuclear armed B-52 bombers circled the globe ready to attack anywhere at any time, Stanley Kubrick, Peter George and Terry Southern adapted Red Alert, a novel by Peter George, into a screenplay which Kubrick directed and made at Shepperton Studios. The London setting was not entirely intentional, but born out of necessity because the lead actor, Peter Sellers, was in the middle of a divorce and couldn't leave England. In any case, Shepperton Studios was a world-class film studio and the sets Kubrick required or easily assembled on three soundstages, one housing a B-52 Stratofortress!

At the time, it was unheard of to satirise an ongoing war, much less one which could end with the US and the Soviet Union in all out nuclear war, virtually guaranteeing the end of life on planet Earth. Dr. Strangelove follows the crew of a B-52 bomber which has been instructed by the insane and rabid anti-Communist base leader, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, to initiate wing attack Plan R and attack their targets inside Russia and the ongoing efforts of an RAF officer, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake to try and figure out what the recall code is to prevent all out nuclear war. Meanwhile, in the War Room, General Buck Turgidson tries to persuade President Merkin Muffley to take advantage of the seemingly irreversible situation and fully commit to a nuclear attack. President Muffley, having learned from the Soviet ambassador that a 'Doomsday Machine' exists, consults his chief scientific adviser, Dr. Strangelove (a former Nazi scientist) whether such a device could exist and what that would mean for the future of the human race.

I have no idea what audiences in 1964 would make of such a plausible portrayal of the state of affairs in Washington DC, the Pentagon and the skies around the world and how easily a mistake could lead to a nuclear holocaust. According to many experts and those involved at the time, there were several instances where the events depicted really happened, or did and had to be rectified so, without knowing it, Kubrick wasn't so much making a movie as a documentary! His direction is, as always, superb and the razor sharp screenplay is outrageously funny with superb delivery by the entire cast including Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens and Peter Sellers, who plays Captain Mandrake, President Muffley and Dr. Strangelove – all with consummate skill. Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest comedies ever made in any country and the greatest comedy made in Britain. Its inclusion on the list may be a little controversial as it is included on the AFI's 100 years – 100 Films and 100 Years – 100 Laughs lists but, as it was produced by the British company Hawk Films and won the BAFTA for Best British Film, I consider it to be British.

1. Don't Look Now (1973)

Although I have now seen (I think) every film Nicolas Roeg has made, there was a time when I hadn't seen any of them and only knew his name because it was mentioned in a review of The Wicker Man, the B-movie to Don't Look Now. As a huge fan of Robin Hardy's film, I was extremely keen to see the film which was the main feature and so quickly ordered the DVD. I was amazed by the sheer quality of the film on first viewing and the many viewings since then have only cemented my initial opinion that this psychological horror was a film made with consummate skill and great intelligence. It was only after a couple of viewings that I bought a copy of the short story on which this was based by Daphne du Maurier and, having read that a couple of times and then re-watched the film, I realised what a superb job Nic Roeg and screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant.

From a technical standpoint, this is an outstanding work of art with exceptional cinematography by Anthony Richman who probably worked extremely closely with Nic Roeg, a man who began his career as a cinematographer and was always a master of mise en scène. Venice had never looked so sinister, creepy and dangerous and no film since has played on the seedier side of the unique and romantic holiday destination to such devastating effect. The cast is spearheaded by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie whose portrayal of a recently bereaved couple is incredible in its realism and authenticity, the notorious sex scene is equally authentic. Roeg's unique style of editing effortlessly fuses past, present and future into one, making time fluid so, as this is a film which deals with premonition, the trauma of past events and warnings from beyond the grave, you are generally kept guessing about what you see and whether it is the present, a flashback or a sign of things to come.

This is a technical masterpiece, a film with great performances by the entire cast (British, American and Italian), a superb score by Pino Donaggio and an ending which rocks you to the core, demanding a repeat viewing. In every aspect of filmmaking, Don't Look Now is a true masterpiece and the greatest British film ever made.
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  1. Old Comment
    Demdike@Cult Labs's Avatar


    An excellent companion article to your top 10 list, Nos.

    Thanks for posting this.
    Comment with Quote permalink
    Posted 7th February 2017 at 07:17 PM by Demdike@Cult Labs Demdike@Cult Labs is online now
  2. Old Comment
    iluvdvds@Cult Labs's Avatar
    Loving this blog, Nos! It's great to see Kind Hearts & Coronets make your top 10 British films too - it's one of my personal faves as well. A masterpiece of dark comedy.

    Never really been a fan of Don't Look Now however (I know, shock horror!). Maybe I should re-watch it and give it a second chance.
    Comment with Quote permalink
    Posted 8th February 2017 at 05:37 PM by iluvdvds@Cult Labs iluvdvds@Cult Labs is offline
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