Better than BFI’s Top 100: 2019 Edition

Francois Truffaut said once that British cinema was a contradiction in terms, which is a fabulous take and exactly the kind of thing that keeps Anglo-French relations spicy since Joan of Arc was lit up. History has proved him wrong, but there’s a reason that when people think of national cinemas Britain tends to lag behind France or Japan or Italy or, ahem, America. George C. Perry’s The Great British Picture Show, among others, hypothesizes that the mere existence of Hollywood, which produced films in the same language, set back Britain’s film industry by decades. Not only did Hollywood flood the British market with American films which were generally of higher quality, but by and large Britain has lost more of its great filmmakers, performers, and technicians to America than the other way around. The question of what British film actually is is more interesting than the question of what makes a film American or Italian or Japanese, then. Can the Yanks really claim Lawrence of Arabia, as the American Film Institute does? Can the Brits have The English Patient, which was made with dollars but made by people from the Commonwealth? More seriously: do we include Irish movies or not? (No—probably—yes, but only with the right naming conventions.)

As British cinema continues to expand and improve, I think people are more and more interested in qualifying some list of the great movies of the British Isles. In 2016, Empire put out a Top 100 British films list, where #1 is Lawrence of Arabia. In 2011, Time Out published their Top 100, which favors Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. All the way back in 1999, the British Film Institute’s Top 100 chose The Third Man for the top spot. In honor of the twentieth anniversary of the BFI list, which is fairly good but badly outdated, I present my own take on the matter in the spirit of another anniversary project I did two years ago for the AFI Top 100. The trouble is that defining what an American movie is is far less difficult than defining what a British/Irish movie is. A British/Irish director, a primarily British/Irish cast and crew, production in Britain or Ireland, production by a quintessentially British/Irish company (i.e. Ealing, Elstree, Hammer Films) and the like help. So do too stories which are primarily about people of Britain and Ireland and their place in the world.

If push came to shove I have excluded co-productions between the United States and United Kingdom which I feel are much more Uncle Sam than John Bull. It’s made me reevaluate my previous American movie list. If I ever returned to it, movies like The Third ManBarry Lyndon, and Alien would not be eligible; movies like Dr. StrangeloveUnited 93, and 2001: A Space Odyssey would remain. That’s why you will, spoilers, see the former three on this list and not the latter three. Part of it is historical bias. I bent over backwards to make The Third Man American enough for inclusion two summers ago, and I still kind of believe what I said (i.e., a movie set in Vienna whose most important characters are a pair of Yanks has limits on its Britishness), but that’s a movie which is frequently referred back to as a landmark British film. Then there’s 2001, a movie which is arguably more British than American, but if that’s the case why isn’t categorized that way by conventional wisdom? Dr. Strangelove stays where it does because it is primarily about Americans on screen engaging with American foreign policy that only the Americans could have put in place and the way that Americans will cause the end of the world. (Perhaps more importantly, it’s not Dr Strangelove.) Barry Lyndon will leave the American list and join the British one because it is a British story about Brits which just happens to star Ryan O’Neal instead of Malcolm McDowell. All in all this is mostly an inconvenience to the work and not an impediment, but I think it deserves mentioning at the outset.

Below you can find a running list of the movies I’ve covered as well as links to each individual post, and Bob’s your uncle.


  • 1: Brief Encounter


  • 2: Lawrence of Arabia
  • 3: Walkabout
  • 4: Kes


  • 5: Topsy-Turvy
  • 6: Hunger
  • 7: Odd Man Out


  • 8: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • 9: Naked
  • 10: Don’t Look Now


  • 11: The Remains of the Day
  • 12: The Red Shoes
  • 13: The Third Man
  • 14: Peeping Tom
  • 15: Mr. Turner


  • 16: Tess
  • 17: The Lady Vanishes
  • 18: Women in Love
  • 19: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • 20: Sapphire


  • 21: A Fish Called Wanda
  • 22: Withnail and I
  • 23: Vera Drake
  • 24: Trainspotting
  • 25: Black Narcissus


  • 26: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • 27: Barry Lyndon
  • 28: Atonement
  • 29: A Clockwork Orange
  • 30: This Sporting Life


  • 31: Secrets and Lies
  • 32: The Innocents
  • 33: Another Year
  • 34: The Long Day Closes
  • 35: The Man in the White Suit


  • 36: Bad Timing
  • 37: The Servant
  • 38: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
  • 39: Edward II
  • 40: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence


  • 41: In the Loop
  • 42: if….
  • 43: Children of Men
  • 44: Pool of London
  • 45: Hamlet (1996)


  • 46: The Browning Version
  • 47: A Matter of Life and Death
  • 48: Great Expectations
  • 49: Eastern Promises
  • 50: Howards End


  • 51: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
  • 52: The Lobster
  • 53: The Wicker Man
  • 54: The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog
  • 55: Sabotage


  • 56: Caravaggio
  • 57: Local Hero
  • 58: Hot Fuzz
  • 59: Hobson’s Choice
  • 60: Alien


  • 61: Watership Down
  • 62: The Cruel Sea
  • 63: Life Is Sweet
  • 64: Brooklyn
  • 65: Straw Dogs


  • 66: The 39 Steps
  • 67: My Beautiful Laundrette
  • 68: Billy Budd
  • 69: Heat and Dust
  • 70: The Mission


  • 71: The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • 72: Shaun of the Dead
  • 73: A Passage to India
  • 74: Billy Liar
  • 75: Gregory’s Girl


  • 76: Rembrandt
  • 77: Kind Hearts and Coronets
  • 78: Pride and Prejudice
  • 79: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
  • 80: The Last Emperor


  • 81: A Taste of Honey
  • 82: We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • 83: The Fallen Idol
  • 84: The Ruling Class
  • 85: 49th Parallel


  • 86: Shallow Grave
  • 87: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  • 88: The League of Gentlemen
  • 89: The History Boys
  • 90: The Long Good Friday


  • 91: American Honey
  • 92: Four Weddings and a Funeral
  • 93: A Night to Remember
  • 94: In the Name of the Father
  • 95: Pygmalion


  • 96: Four Lions
  • 97: Carrington V.C.
  • 98: The Last of England
  • 99: Room at the Top
  • 100: Ex Machina

Un Certain Regard

  • Not a 101-125, but a list of 25 movies that tempted me or require explanation as to their absence from this list


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