The foremost film industry in the world is, of course, Hollywood. That’s where all the big blockbusters come from, and where great foreign directors like Sergio Leone and Christopher Nolan abandon their homelands for, sooner or later. But there are great movies coming from outside America, too. India’s Bollywood has always done huge business, China has an emerging film market, and Japanese cinema is praised for its action films and anime. There’s an ever expanding film industry in the UK, too. From satires about Islamic State terrorism to dark comedies about heroin addicts, here are the 10 best British movies of all time!
10. Four Lions
Ever since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism has been a very risky area for entertainment and the media, let alone comedy! But then Chris Morris has never been one to back down from satirizing a topic just because it might seem ‘taboo.’ Just look at the controversial “Paedogeddon” episode of Brass Eye. Satirizing taboo topics is fine – in fact, it’s a British institution – as long as it’s funny. And don’t worry, Morris’ comedy about a Muslim who is radicalized and plans to bomb the London Marathon is hilarious. What’s brilliant about it is that it doesn’t portray the terrorists as terrifying, aloof experts who elude British intelligence. They’re portrayed as buffoons who banter with each other and often screw things up. After all, they’re people too. That’s the genius of it. And as a satire, it explores every side of the argument, politically and socially. The movie makes slapstick comedy moments like a man firing a rocket launcher the wrong way or a man tripping in a field while carrying explosives and blowing himself up work, because it comes from a very real place. It’s such a serious subject juxtaposed with such silly humor. That’s always been the Chris Morris way.
9. Get Carter
Sylvester Stallone ended up spending $63 million on a Hollywood remake of this movie that was a box office bomb, described by critics as “useless,” and got nominated for two Razzies. It wasn’t even given a UK release. But don’t let that put you off the original. The 1971 original, starring Michael Caine, arrived at that beautiful time in movie history when movies were really darkly themed and violent and cynical. It sees Caine playing a London gangster – a role he is very comfortable in – who returns to his hometown of Newcastle to investigate the mysterious death of his brother. The film’s writer and director, Mike Hodges, brought a realistic and hardened edge to its visual style by drawing on his background in documentary filmmaking. Without spoiling anything, the movie comes to a head – like all the best ‘70s thrillers – with a very violent climax. The movie was not initially very well received, but it has since been revaluated as a cult classic – it would go on to inspire some of the greatest directors of crime films that the late 20th century and early 21st century have ever seen, from American directors like Quentin Tarantino to homegrown British talent like Guy Ritchie.
8. Four Weddings and a Funeral
This was the movie that told the world that Richard Curtis and Hugh Grant were a romcom team to be reckoned with. It cost £2.8 million to make, which is chump change compared to the amount that it would go on to rake in at the box office, a whopping $245 million worldwide. Just as she had done opposite Bill Murray in Groundhog Day one year earlier, Andie MacDowell proves a terrific comic foil in the role of Carrie. Curtis based the movie on his own experiences as a wedding guest (he attended 65 weddings over a period of 11 years) and worked tirelessly on a grand total of 17 drafts of the script in order to get it perfect. The success of the movie lies in his approach – he didn’t just want to make a funny movie, he wanted to make a realistic movie. Curtis explained the writing process: “Mike [Newell, the director] was obsessed with keeping it real. Every character, no matter how small, has a story, not just three funny lines. It’s a romantic film about love and friendship that swims in a sea of jokes.” That is where the beauty of this movie lies: it’s a frank portrayal of love and friendship that happens to also be hilarious.
7. The Italian Job
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” That’s the Michael Caine quote that made this movie popular. Most heist movies these days try to be serious thrillers or dramatic movies. But not The Italian Job. This one, starring Caine alongside fellow British legends Noel Coward and Benny Hill, has a sense of humor. And not only that, it ends with a cliffhanger ending – literally, it ends with the characters’ minibus hanging off the edge of a cliff with their loot weighing down the side that’s halfway off the cliff’s edge. Hollywood would never let the ending of a movie be that ambiguous anymore. The reasoning would be that the audience would leave the theater feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled, and there is some truth to that logic, but somehow here that kind of ending just works. That’s mostly down to Sir Michael’s pitch perfect delivery of the following closing line: “Hang on a minute, lads. I’ve got a great idea.” Then the credits roll. We can only imagine what this guy’s plan is, but that makes it even funnier and wackier than if we had actually seen him try to carry it out. Like most of the things in this movie, it can be summed up in three words: somehow, it works.
6. Withnail and I
You could never get a movie this twisted and surreal and unusual and dark made in America. And if you did, by some miracle, get a Hollywood studio to fund such a movie, there’s no way it would be considered as timeless a classic more than thirty years after its release as this tale of a pair of unemployed actors who leave London behind for a trip to the Lake District is considered in Britain. It was based on a novel that Bruce Robinson had struggled to get published. He turned the novel into a screenplay and then directed the movie from it. It wasn’t easy to get funding – Robinson had to get George Harrison on board as an investor. As with Monty Python’s movies, Harrison stacked up the cash simply because he wanted to see the movie himself. Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann are perfectly matched as the titular duo, which is mostly what makes the movie work so well – not to mention Richard Griffiths’ hysterical performance as the eccentric Uncle Monty. It’s a really funny movie, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Its sense of humor is very, very dark – just like most British people.
5. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels
This movie was Britain’s answer to Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino had given the world a crime movie that was funny and witty and told all out of order and quintessentially American. So, Guy Ritchie decided that the only course of action was to give the world a crime movie that was funny and witty and told all out of order and quintessentially British. Within a few minutes of this movie, you can tell that someone truly special is working his magic behind the camera. Few gangster movies dare to make their tough guys this silly, because they fear it will make them less frightening – as evidenced here, it just makes them feel more real and human. It’s a shame that Ritchie has gone Hollywood and started directing $100 million blockbusters for Warner Bros. and Disney, because his films used to be so rich and smart and idiosyncratic. Now, they suck! He needs to get the band back together – Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, everybody – and get back to his roots. His voice has never been as inventive or as fresh or even as entertaining as it was in his debut feature film, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Well, maybe in Snatch, but that movie wasn’t as tightly structured or as groundbreaking, so it loses points for that.
The story of a bunch of heroin addicts who get into trouble with the police, commit statutory rape, kill a baby, and then struggle to kick the habit doesn’t exactly sound like a fun time at the movies. But when you’ve got Danny Boyle at the helm, giving the scenes a kinetic visual style and injecting the story with his twisted sense of humor, translating that of author Irvine Welsh (upon whose novel the movie is based) to the big screen perfectly. By his own admission, Boyle made a movie about heroin that feels more like ecstasy. The performances by the cast – particularly Ewan McGregor as the double crossing lead and Robert Carlyle as his psychopathic friend with violent tendencies – are fantastic. The movie is filled with iconic moments, like the baby crawling along the ceiling or McGregor rooting through the toilet. The soundtrack is filled with retro ‘70s hits by the likes of Iggy Pop that somehow make it feel like more of a ‘90s movie than if Boyle had used songs from the ‘90s. It’s a movie with an identity and feel entirely of its own, which is really the best thing a movie can have. Otherwise it’s the kind of factory line Hollywood bullshit that Rent Boy and his friends despise.
3. Shaun of the Dead
The great thing about this movie is that it’s not a spoof of the zombie genre. It takes itself seriously as a zombie movie. The fact that it’s funny is irrelevant. It’s a zombie horror movie that is genuinely scary and happens to contain jokes. Or if you look at it from the other direction, then it’s a romantic comedy that takes itself serious as a funny movie about a real couple with a real relationship that has real problems. In that sense, it’s a romcom that happens to contain zombies. In other words, every angle that the movie comes from is considered and carefully plotted, structured, acted etc. It was advertised jokingly as “a rom-zom-com,” but that’s exactly what it is and it’s awesome! It also gets added kudos for being the first movie that brought together the dream team of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright. Pegg and Wright’s screenplay is perfection – not a moment is wasted. Every line of dialogue and every scene needs to be there. Wright directs very deftly for a first time feature director, and the easy chemistry of Pegg and Frost makes them an endlessly watchable pair. There’s never been a more lively movie made about the undead.
2. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Give the Monty Python guys a subject, leave them alone for a few weeks, then come back, and they’ll have come up with a pitch perfect satire of it. It might be caustic and offensive and controversial, but you know what? They don’t care! All they care about is making people laugh and it’s not something they’ve had to worry about for over half a century. For their first film, they took aim at Arthurian legend, but that topic is nowhere near as ripe for satire as their next target was: organized religion. More specifically, Christianity. The story of a man who is born on the same day as Jesus Christ and then subsequently mistaken for the Messiah had Christians up in arms when it was first released. Not only was their faith being made a mockery of, but it was being challenged! They don’t like that. The plot is merely there to loosely string together a series of sketches that make fun of religion. It’s a structure that a lot of comedy movies try and it doesn’t always work, but here, it definitely does. Bits like “We’re the People’s Front of Judea!” and “Crucifixion or freedom?” are timeless classics, not to mention “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
1. The Full Monty
The Full Monty is simply the quintessential British movie. It is a hysterically funny comedy about a bunch of guys who get together to pull off a hare-brained scheme they’ve vaguely cooked up to make a bunch of money. But it also has strong dramatic elements – and that’s what makes it such a success. The thing that makes the movie so brilliant is its ability to bring in very real issues like unemployment and depression and homosexuality and impotence and marriage and the working class and still remain hilarious as a comedy. It elevates it above being a movie about some regular guys who decide to become strippers. That would probably be funny enough to make it a passable comedy, but its ability to bring in relevant social issues makes it a masterpiece. That’s how it became the highest grossing movie in the UK at the time. People actually were losing their jobs as factories were shutting down all over Britain. The setup that the characters in the movie decide to become strippers to make money after losing their jobs roots a comical premise in a very real situation. It walks that fine line perfectly for 91 glorious minutes and it’s just fantastic.