Skip to main content

Top 10 British Films of the Last Ten Years

By Ally Sinyard · February 3, 2011

When I first started researching for this article a few weeks ago, I thought I’d ask my fellow Brits for their opinions on what films deserved to be in my Top 10. I was given lots of suggestions, some which amused me greatly (particularly one friend’s enthusiastic “Titanic?!?!?!?!”); however, it was the argument that a Facebook post started that caught my attention the most. Everybody starting asking, well what exactly is a British film?

This may sound like a silly question, but it is a very relevant one. One of my colleagues argued that many films made in Britain today require funding from across the pond and therefore it is hard to say what a “British film” is. American studios, directors, actors etc. get attached to these films in order to increase their chances of success, or even of getting made. Without the help of Hollywood, it would be difficult for the UK to be as successful. Particularly, if we want to stand a chance of competing with summer blockbusters and…*heavy sigh*…3D. My friend was not entirely wrong when she suggested “Titanic.” After all, it is a film about a famous event that happened in Britain and stars Kate Winslet. However, there is absolutely no way that the UK film industry alone would have been able to pull off such a blockbuster. Think what you will about the film, it was a hell of a lot better than what we would have achieved on our own.

So, how was I to judge which films even qualified for my Top 10? I wanted to write about films that felt truly and authentically British. So I researched and researched and came up with interesting results. The films in my list have one or more of the following elements: they are produced by well-known British film companies such as Film4, Granada, and the British Film Council; their budgets are substantially smaller than those of Hollywood films (indicating the spending of only British pounds); the cast, writer, and director are all British. There were no big Hollywood names backing the films or American stars leading the way; it just so happened that the films I chose possessed these qualities. Perhaps this suggests a certain aesthetic that British films have that differs from Hollywood cinema so dramatically? But anyway, that’s not for here.

When I finished my research, I read my Top 10 choices to my fellow students. Most of them agreed wholeheartedly; a few were horrified. “How can you not include x or y or z?!” Well, I said to them, there’s a simple reason for this. If I didn’t include a film that you feel should be on the list, it’s because I preferred my 10. As a famous meerkat once said, “simples!” To write about a film that I didn’t feel should be on the list, but I knew other people would want me to include, would make my writing somewhat disingenuous. It’s not a question of better or worse films, but films that I personally feel are both brilliant and represent the British cinema of today. Enjoy!

10. This is England (2006)

Shane Meadow’s semi-autobiographical This is England is probably not very well known in the States. It’s the story of a young boy (fantastically played by the young Thomas Turgoose) who joins a group of skinheads in 1983. This was of course during the Thatcher years that were rife with unemployment and misery. It’s a touching story of youth and the desire to be accepted, but it’s far from cutesy. Similar to the character of Derek in American History X (1998), there is the uncomfortable viewing of watching an impressionable young boy in a group of White Supremacists. Yet, if anything, it possesses a near-perfect balance in its displays of both gentleness and violence, all filmed in a gritty, realist style. The ending is also one of my favourites in British cinema. If you want an honest, accurate depiction of Thatcher’s Britain without the ballet dancing, then this is it! The strong accents have been said to be pretty tricky for non-Brits, though.

9. Harry Brown (2009)

I could not possibly write about British films without including the legend of British cinema himself, Sir Michael Caine. Just like This is England, Daniel Barber’s film Harry Brown gives a very honest and brutal portrayal of Britain, except now it is 2009, and we’re focusing on a gang of youths that terrorise an estate. If you haven’t heard the term “chavs” before, it might help in your understanding of the film! Harry Brown, played by Caine, misses the moment of his wife’s death because he is too afraid to take a shortcut to the hospital. This shortcut is an underpass, where the local youths hang out, do drugs, etc. His close friend is then murdered by the gang and Brown decides to take on the role of vigilante. Think Gran Torino but set in a council estate in South London. His transformation from fragile, elderly man to avenger is very subtle and believable. The script also stays away from the typical, cheesy one-liners of a vigilante film, instead opting for a couple of witty quips such as “you failed to maintain your weapon, son” when a youth’s gun jams. Even when the film literally descends into a riot, it never feels as if we’ve descended into a farce. Harry Brown also features a good performance from British solo artist Plan B, a young man with a bright future ahead of him across all media. His song “End Credits” literally plays over the end credits, so nobody can accuse him of not being to the point. It’s a bit depressing but a good film all the same.

8. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

It’s been a long time coming, but the first ever feature-length film of these two claymation stars is well worth it! How can you not appreciate the time and effort put into this film, as each frame involves tweaking the Plasticine models ever-so-slightly? I know I personally would go mad after 10 minutes of tweaking. As well as being the rightful 78th Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature Film, it’s the highest-grossing film on my Top 10 list ($393,000,000). There’s just no getting away from Wallace and Gromit. They’re pretty much a British institution, and if they could be knighted for their contributions to film and television, they probably would be! Wallace and Gromit are characters that appeal to both young and old audiences and hold a special place in our nation’s heart, due to the cheeky yet sentimental way that creators Nick Park and Steve Box represent the rural Brits. Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly called this film a“cheeky pip-pip and hip-hip-hooray for the British virtues of decency, class consciousness, and well-tended garden vegetables!” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Not only is it a great animated family film in its own right, but it also dared to compete against the emergence of CGI animation…and came out a winner! I’m not normally a fan of family films but this one just couldn’t be ignored. Cracking!

7. The Queen (2006)

If you don’t want a depiction of grimy, working-class England, riots and carrots then you might want to try this one instead. Following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the Royal Family was criticised for its lack of response. They reportedly refused to fully acknowledge the death since Diana was no longer a member of The Royal Family. Tony Blair had also just come into power, full of hope and enthusiasm. Considering his years that followed, one almost forgets the Blair that once was. This film gives a very satisfying yet somewhat fictional account of these events. The performances are central to the film’s critical and commercial success, with Helen Mirren walking away with the Best Actress Oscar and Michael Sheen reprising his role as Tony Blair in The Special Relationship (2010), not to mention his earlier Blair performance in the television film The Deal (2003). In The Queen, Sheen actually makes Blair appear very favourably. His big smile and boundless energy didn’t seem false, but in fact, incredibly sincere. Mirren also gave her audience a very rare opportunity indeed, to see the Queen in a way that the public would never see her. Always regarded more as a figurehead, it was pleasing to see a personal side that was likely to be near to the truth. The moment between her and the stag is just beautiful. Overall, the film is relatively unbiased, and I think any viewer of any political standing would find it enjoyable. And quite human.

6. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

This film was simply unavoidable in 2008. It was so unavoidable and there was so much hype that I couldn’t help but be ever so slightly disappointed. Yet I find that is always the way when a film is raved about for so long (this happened with Fargo and my complete indifference to it devastated me.) I don’t really need to tell you about it as I’m sure you’re already aware of its success – Academy Award Winning Best Picture, not bad! Another triumph for acclaimed British director Mr. Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire” takes us out of Britain and into the slums of Mumbai, yet it is a British film nonetheless: Simon Beaufoy writes, Pathe Pictures presents, and Dev Patel stars. Dev is in fact a well-known actor in the UK and would have helped to pull in the younger audiences with his role in the UK television programme “Skins,” which I hear has found its way to the States, much to the horror of parents and teachers alike. Based on the novel “Q & A” by Vikas Swarup, “Slumdog Millionaire” tells the story of a young man from the slums who appears on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Beaufoy triumphs by telling this story in such a wonderfully-constructed, non-linear fashion. It won 8 out of the 10 awards for which it was nominated at the 81st Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay. The soundtrack, the editing, the cinematography, the story itself; it’s unavoidably wonderful…if you managed to ignore the insane amounts of hype!  A must-see!

5. The King’s Speech (2010)

It’s a bit too soon for me to thoughtfully place this is my list so I thought number 5 was the most suitable. It may be early days, but I have no doubt that this film will remain in people’s memories for years to come. One of the things that surprised me was just how funny it was! The last thing I expected from this film was comedy, and yet the funny moments do actually work! I am going to make an official plea to the Weinstein Company: please, please do not censor this film for its US release! When King George VI (Colin Firth) declares, “timing is not my strong suit”, he could not be further from the truth. Firth and Rush are absolute masters of their craft and work together wonderfully. Helena Bonham-Carter also surprises as the Queen Mother, far removed from her usual, eccentric roles. Many people have dismissed The King’s Speech as pro-monarchy propaganda, which is a shame because this is a fantastic film no matter what your opinions are of the monarchy. I’m not about to run down the street with a massive “God Save the Queen” banner, but I know a good film when I see one. Nominated for an astonishing 12 Academy Awards this year, the critics cannot be wrong! And I’m never wrong so… that’s sorted.

4. 28 Days Later (2002)

If there is one man that deserves to be on this list twice because he makes consistently great British films, it’s Danny Boyle. So I’m going to talk about him some more. Well-known as the director of Trainspotting (1996) and, more recently, 127 Hours (2010), his films often revolve around dark and realistic situations that are also somehow uplifting and positive. An oxymoron in film form, if you will. The simultaneously-optimistic and pessimistic nature of his films reflect the disposition of the British people and their, as comedian Bill Bailey put it, “wistful melancholy.” Yes, we might all look miserable, and it might always be raining, but we’re smiling inside…really, we are! 28 Days Later is, without doubt, one of the best zombie films to have emerged in recent years. The dark, gritty shots of deserted London are remarkable (and one really must appreciate how difficult they were to film! Bringing London traffic to a standstill is one mean feat!) and Cillian Murphy’s performance has now made him a star in Hollywood. What’s more, these zombies run! How brilliant! And, subsequently, how absolutely terrifying! Also, Boyle finds time in the chaos to insert some non-cheesy comedy as well as a few delightful, tender moments. Following on from the success of 28 Weeks Later (2007), a third film, 28 Months Later, is rumoured to be in the pipeline. Zombielicious!

3. An Education (2009)

An Education is based on an autobiographical essay by British journalist Lynn Barber and her real-life affair as a schoolgirl with an older man. Adapted for the screen by acclaimed British novelist Nick Hornby, An Education is another example of what I discussed earlier: a wonderful film that centres on a great story, characters and dialogue. It has a very authentic and unpretentious quality to it, with the recreation of 1960s Middlesex one of its most wonderful features. This is also a film where the “twists” are in fact given to us more as “revelations.” Everything is revealed at a nice pace without becoming a melodrama. More importantly, this film’s effortlessness and simplicity is all the more driven home by the leading lady’s stunning performance. Given that this was her first major feature film, Carey Mulligan is undoubtedly one to watch. She’s a 24-year-old playing a 16-year-old who acts like a 24-year-old…and is more than convincing! An Education delivers a wonderfully complex character and an equally satisfying film.

2. In Bruges (2008)

In Bruges is one of my favourite films, and here’s why. No voice can deliver fantastically-written, horribly-dark and yet totally hilarious lines of dialogue better than that belonging to an Irishman. I could listen to comedians Ed Byrne and Dara O’Briain day! The film also made me really, really want to go to Bruges! The cast is minimal, the location is somewhat of a hidden treasure, and the dialogue is superb in both its sharp wit and silliness. I cannot express enough how much I wish there were more films like this. No 3D, no special effects, just brilliant storytelling. A must-read for any screenwriter who loves black comedies. Also, many critics have declared that Colin Farrell should be in more films like these; he seems more comfortable playing a loveable Irish rogue. It turns out that he is a brilliant comic actor and a very subtle one; I must point out the moment when he asks his dinner date “Do I look like I shoot people?” and she fires back with “No. Just Children.” It’s a fleeting moment, but the expression on his face is just priceless. The humour is never too over-the-top but is definitely edgy. Beware if you’re easily offended. Finally, to top it all off, everybody’s favourite cameo-whore Ralph Fiennes is in it too. Nicely done, Ralph. Nicely done!

1. Shaun of the Dead (2004)

I know what you’re thinking…”another zombie film? Really?”…well yes, actually! But this film is so much more than “just another zombie film”. It’s absolutely hilarious – the epitome of what British comedy is today. The film even squeezes in a romantic subplot. Therefore, what we get is a Zom-Rom-Com! Very rarely does such a clash of genres work so well. Directed by Edgar Wright, most likely to be known for his recent film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), Shaun of the Dead features appearances from virtually every single British comedian worth knowing today, such as Dylan Moran, Tamsin Greig, and Matt Lucas. The title roles belong to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who rightly found fame in the 1999-2001 Wright-directed television series Spaced (If you like Shaun of the Dead, watch this you must!) This film is so good, that even Tarantino and George A. Romero are fans, with Romero going on to offer the guys cameos is his later film Land of the Dead (2005). Featuring such wonderful lines as “Can I get…any of you cunts…a drink?” this is one of those films that will have people yelling quotes at each other for days after. As is typical for Wright’s films, there are also countless pop-culture references that aren’t too obvious but aren’t deliberately trying to be obscure (Sorry, Q.T.) They are, like the film itself, simply brilliant. Cornetto, anyone?