The British Film Industry has seen many peaks and troughs since it began around the turn of the 20th century. Cinema began in the UK with William Friese Greene’s producing the first known projected moving image on celluloid film. In the following 119 years there have been many successes and failures that have influenced not only the film industry but British culture.
Film fans will have their only favourites that have thrilled, inspired and entertained them throughout various times in their lives and this list is exactly that. I have been watching British films for nearly thirty years now and have seen the likes of Gandhi (1983), The Full Monty (1997) and The Queen (2006) impact world cinema while various others have just tasted success in the UK.
There is no particular formula to a successful British film, although my choices for the ‘Five British Films That You Must See’ do tend to have a distinctively British feel. Whether it is the location, accent, dialect or cultural references – each of my top five British films is a quintessentially British production.
A Clockwork Orange ( 1971 )
Directed by Stanley Kubrick and set in a futuristic London, A Clockwork Orange is based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess. The film received critical acclaim on its release including gaining four nominations for Academy Awards. However, following a string of so-called copycat crimes, Kubrick withdrew the film after receiving several anonymous death threats.
It was only on the film’s re-release in 1999 that the British public were legally able to watch this celluloid masterpiece in almost 27 years. The film appears timeless as the futuristic setting hasn’t aged at all in almost three decades on the shelf. The characters speak in a blend of cockney and Russian that adds additional dimensions to the dystopian reality. Heavily influencing pop-culture from a Blur music video to Bart Simpson’s halloween costume, A Clockwork Orange remains one of the most influential and controversial films of all time.
Trainspotting ( 1996 )
Directed by Danny Boyle, Trainspotting follows the story of Mark Renton and a group of his ‘friends’, most of whom are heroin-addicts. Set in Edinburgh, the story shows explicitly the problems associated with intravenous drug use and far from glorifying it, ensure the audience condemn the characters’ actions.
The role of Renton helped to launch the career of Ewan McGregor as he escapes his parasitic friends and makes a new life for himself heroin-free. The unpleasantness that envelopes the film and its characters make each scene unmissable as Renton continuously attempts to break free and ‘choose life’. As the protagonist succeeds and the closing credits roll you will feel like you’ve just watched a very special film.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels ( 1998 )
1998 saw the arrival of the modern British gangster movie with Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Cool, dirty and classy, the film was a smash-hit when British gangster films were virtually non-existent. The film also introduced ex-footballer Vinnie Jones as an actor as well as Jason Statham. Combining an uber-cool soundtrack with cockney accents and sharp suits and you have the perfect London gangster film.
Based around the theft of drugs and cash, the plot weaves together multiple stories into a climatic shoot-out that results in almost everyone being killed. The film sparked a flurry of interest in Brit-flicks and many other films tried to replicate its success, however, Guy Ritchie came closest when he reused a lot of the cast for a similar film called Snatch. The modern British gangster film was back, 26 years after Michael Caine set the standard in Get Carter.
28 Days Later ( 2002 )
The only true horror film on the list, 28 Days Later broke the mould when it exploded onto the silver screen in 2002. Seemingly influenced by the George A. Romero ‘Dead’ films, the second Danny Boyle film on the list was predominantly shot on digital video. This however was not the major talking point when the film was released, for a new zombie was born. A highly contagious virus has spread throughout the UK and infected the majority of the British population, but in contrast to Romero, Boyle’s zombies are fast, aggressive hunters.
The plot follows Jim as he awakes from a coma to find the streets of London deserted. These dramatic, beautiful scenes where Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street are completely empty were achieved as police helped temporarily block off areas of London for short intervals. The result is truly breathtaking and adds a haunting solitude to Jim’s plight as he searches for fellow survivors. The film clearly influenced the 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead as the zombies behaviour bears an uncanny resemblance to that of those in 28 Days Later. Zombie films would never be the same again, and I must mention the other Brit-Zombie film ‘Shaun of the Dead’ that again changed the face of modern horror with its comedy twist on the classic zombie movie.
Dead Man’s Shoes ( 2004 )
Possibly my favourite performance by any single actor in any film, Paddy Considine exacts perfect revenge as Richard in Dead Man’s Shoes. Set in the Midlands, as with all of Shane Meadows’ films, Considine returns to his home town after a period serving in the British army. The audience quickly begins to realise that Richard is looking to avenge a group of bullies that have tormented his brother. Considine’s performance is mesmerising as he shifts from psychotic to fraternal in the blink of an eye.
As the story progresses, the film shows various flashbacks to when Richard’s brother Anthony was victimised by a group of local petty criminals. Anthony is played superbly by Toby Hebbell in his breakthrough film role. Richard dispatches of each member of the gang one by one until it is just him and the more passive bully left. He pleads to be killed so he can lay with his brother and after threatening the man’s children suffers a fatal stab-wound to the heart.
This is an amazing film with some of the best performances from some low-profile actors. Shane Meadows has written and directed other films that come extremely close to the Top 5 including A Room For Romeo Brass and more recently This Is England. Meadows is a rising star in British cinema and has the potential to be one of the world’s most prestigious directors.
So that is the Top Five British Films To See Before You Die. Agree or disagree, you must ensure that you watch these films and you won’t ever feel that Hollywood is the only place that good films are made. The British have been making fantastic films for many years and will continue to do so for many years to come.