In honour of the upcoming release of ‘Suffragette’, let’s leave Hollywood alone and pop back to good old Blighty, and count down the 15 best British films of all time. Also, there were a hell of a lot of choices to get through, so big thanks again go to my friend Henry Eastham for helping me narrow this massive list down to 15!
15. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
The brilliantly insane crime-comedy: ‘A Fish Called Wanda‘ is an absolute gem of British cinema, showcasing the best of the comedic minds in the nation in fantastic fashion.
With an A-list cast that includes John Cleese, Michael Palin, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis, the film centres around a crazy heist, and the various deceptions between the criminal protagonists that cause mayhem, and of course hilarity, in their plans.
It’s often quite a dark comedy, particularly shown by Kevin Kline’s sometimes terrifyingly hot-headed character, but it’s got an absolutely ingenious script full of brilliant laughs that it’s one of the wittiest and most entertaining films ever made.
14. Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)
Probably the most famous comedy team of all time and their most famous work together: ‘Monty Python And The Holy Grail‘ is an ingeniously hilarious film like very few others.
An insane parody of the tale of King Arthur’s quest to find the Holy Grail, the film features brilliantly quotable jokes throughout, from ‘We are the Knights who say Ni!’ to ‘Your father was a hamster, and your mother smelt of elderberries!’, as well as such crazy sequences as a killer bunny rabbit guarding the Holy Grail, and the upbeat theme song of the Knights of The Round Table.
It’s a film with little narrative consistency, but for an absolute laughter riot, this is the movie to watch, and it’s still as funny nowadays as it was back in the 70s.
13. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
An uplifting romantic drama like no other, the Best Picture-winning British-Bollywood ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘ is a stunning film in every single way.
It’s not only a crowd-pleasing sensation, but also an unbelievably passionate romance story and a genius piece of art that provides a completely engrossing watch for its entire duration. It also takes on the some of the party atmosphere of Bollywood movies to up the entertainment factor, but that doesn’t cheapen the sometimes devastating drama of the tale of a poor Indian boy and his epic love with a girl he just can’t seem to be with.
So, Slumdog Millionaire is both pleasant and hugely entertaining, as well as massively dramatic, passionate and intelligent right the way through: something that very few films have ever managed to accomplish.
12. The Long Good Friday (1980)
Whilst American mob movies such as Goodfellas and The Godfather get most of the plaudits, the British gangster genre is also full of amazing films, and 1980’s ‘The Long Good Friday‘ is one of the greatest.
Starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, the film follows the exploits of a London gangland boss attempting to jazz up the dilapidated Docklands with the help of the American mafia to increase tourism to London and make himself a personal fortune, and is a massively intriguing watch, as you see a very in-depth look at the impact of working in the underworld on the men involved.
It’s also often a darkly comic watch, such is the extremity of the violence of it all, but still, it remains one of the most fascinating and greatest gangster films of all time.
11. This Is England (2006)
British drama can often be relentlessly dark and powerful, more so than anything Hollywood can produce, and no film exemplifies that like This Is England.
An independent drama that looks at the frightening skinhead culture during the early 1980s, as one 12 year old boy is dragged into a racist, nationalistic group, and as he becomes further involved in their dark world, his life begins to unravel to the point of no return in this incredibly engrossing and disturbing social drama.
In fact, This Is England proved so successful that it spawned an equally high-praised spin-off show: ‘This Is England ’86, ’88 and ’90’, showing that it really is an amazing film.
10. Trainspotting (1996)
Another very dark and disturbing British social drama is 1996’s ‘Trainspotting‘, directed by Danny Boyle, which follows the lives of a group of heroin addicts in a deprived area of Edinburgh.
On the one hand, the film is incredibly depressing as it looks at the impact of drug addiction on young people in the modern world, however, in comparison to other drug-related films such as Requiem For A Dream, Trainspotting is actually almost a black comedy.
It’s got a hugely energetic atmosphere, and the fast-talking and foul-mouthed central character played by Ewan McGregor exaggerate the effects of these people’s drug use to such an extent that it’s somewhat comical to watch. But still, Trainspotting is a fascinating film that’s a must-watch for all.
9. Rebecca (1940)
A lot of the best of British during the Golden Age of Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s has been forgotten nowadays, but Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca‘ definitely has not.
The haunting romantic thriller is based on a 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, following a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who marries a widower (Laurence Olivier) and moves into his huge mansion, only to be haunted by the looming legacy of his first wife.
The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940, and propelled Alfred Hitchcock to the forefront of Hollywood directors, arguably setting up his entire career from then on.
‘Rebecca’ is not only a thrilling story to follow, but an absolute triumph in terms of amazing directing, brilliant acting and writing, and still holds up today as a truly exhilarating movie.
8. Ice Cold In Alex (1958)
The 1950s may not have been the most prosperous decade for Britain itself, but one thing that did emerge was the legendary genre of Great British war films, and 1958’s ‘Ice Cold In Alex’ is definitely one of the most unique and memorable.
Not set on the Western Front like so many other great war films, Ice Cold In Alex takes place in the theatre of North Africa during the Second World War, and, in keeping with that originality, it doesn’t feature the same sort of characters and story you’d normally get from the genre.
The main character, a British army captain, isn’t the noblest and most courageous man you’ll ever see, but that is one of the reasons that this is such a captivating film – it’s amazingly easy to empathise with, and breathless right up to that classically satisfying last scene.
7. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
For all of the iconic classics on this list, you’d think that Britain has lost its movie-making mojo in the modern world, but 21st Century productions like Shaun Of The Dead would prove otherwise.
The first instalment in Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s legendary comedy series: ‘The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy’ (also including Hot Fuzz and The World’s End), Shaun Of The Dead is already a classic of British comedy.
A so-called ‘rom-zom-com’, parodying the zombie genre, the film features side-splitting gags throughout, brilliant performances, and a genuinely emotional plot to boot that makes for not only a great comedy, but a simply amazing film all round.
6. The Italian Job (1969)
Now, if you’re not British or a movie buff, you’ll likely be thinking of the 2003 American action film starring Mark Wahlberg.
Well, no. Watching the 1969 heist comedy ‘The Italian Job‘, starring Michael Caine, is a rite of passage for all Brits, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a film full of exciting action, hilarious comedy, slick acting, a wonderful soundtrack, beautiful cars and landscapes, and some of the most iconic quotes in British movie history.
Seeing the red, white and blue Minis is itself an absolute wonder, but the film is on the whole hugely enjoyable, and a cornerstone of modern British culture, showcasing some of the best talent the UK has ever had to offer.
5. Life Of Brian (1979)
Ah, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. It caused outrage all over the world with its parodying of the Bible story, but its reputation has remained in tact forever as one of the best comedies of all time.
Despite Python’s claims that the film was only about a guy called Brian, it clearly parodies the story of Jesus Christ, but is a brilliant display of comedic genius, featuring hilarious performances from the whole crew, as well as legendary historical satire, from the battle between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front to the Roman general Biggus Dickus.
Yes, it’s just as insane and ridiculous as The Holy Grail, but Life Of Brian has an ingenious religious and historical satire that sets it apart from anything that Monty Python have ever done.
4. Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
British gangster films have always been fantastic, but after going through a big evolution in the late 20th Century, thanks to people like Guy Ritchie, they’ve turned into foul-mouthed, fast-paced and darkly comedic thrillers, of which ‘Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels’ is surely the best.
It’s a short and snappy gangland affair, following four guys who end up owing the mob a lot of money, but is notable for featuring four entirely different stories that interweave in various places to create a totally unique and unpredictable thriller.
Also, the completely exaggerated swearing and violence adds to the comedic tone of it all, and whilst that doesn’t cheapen the thrills of it all, it makes for a massively entertaining watch.
3. The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
There are great war films, and then there’s The Bridge On The River Kwai. Although a joint American-British production, the film was directed by British director David Lean, and stars legendary British actor Alec Guinness.
It’s one of the most iconic films of all time, but is a classic that still holds up today as a hugely exciting and action-packed adventure movie that absolutely anyone can enjoy, whether or not you’re interested in the Second World War.
The fictional story follows the exploits of a British batallion in a Japanese POW camp in Thailand attempting to build a sturdy bridge over a jungle river, and, despite being three hours long, is a simply brilliant film to watch throughout, providing some of the greatest thrills and spills ever seen on the silver screen.
2. Goldfinger (1964)
Well, you can’t have a best of British list without the country’s most iconic series: James Bond, and 1964’s ‘Goldfinger‘ is by far the best of them all.
Sean Connery stars for the third time as MI6 agent 007, and has to work to prevent the mad supervillain Goldfinger from taking over the world by contaminating the USA’s main gold storage facility.
It may sound like a fairly run-of-the-mill Bond story, but Goldfinger is the film that created the cliché, and does it in fine fashion, with Connery providing arguably his most exciting performance as 007, as well as some of the most stylish imagery in the entire Bond series, all epitomised by Shirley Bassey’s iconic theme song.
Trust me, there are many great British films out there, but there are few so legendary and so exciting like Goldfinger.
1. Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s ‘Lawrence Of Arabia‘ is the definition of the word epic. It’s the definition of the word adventure. But most of all, it’s the definition of a truly great British film.
Centring around the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British army major during the First World War, who fought alongside the local peoples of the Arabian Peninsula to protect the region from occupation by the mighty Turkish forces.
It’s a film full of historical intrigue, but there’s still so much more. It’s an epic adventure across the desert right the way through, and thanks to a stunning and dominating breakthrough performance by Peter O’Toole, it’s a fully captivating one for every single one of its four hours.
Also, it’s one of the most beautiful films in cinematic history, with the iconic wide shots of the desert landscape being lauded as some of the most significant of all time, and the stunning score featuring ‘Born Free’ as the theme providing a truly epic film experience, and surely the best that Britain has ever had to offer.