The 8 best British films of all time

Updated July 11, 2018

British cinema has a lot to offer. From grandiose epics like Lawrence of Arabia to Monty Python’s irreverent comedies, there is something for everybody. The vast spectrum and long history of British cinema mean that any finite list isn’t going to include everyone’s favourites, but the films included will always be spectacular. Film is beautiful because it’s an art, and as with any art, differences of opinion are welcomed. This list encompasses Britain’s penchant for comedy, acknowledges treasured classics and showcases some modern gems.

8: Shaun of the Dead

In Edgar Wright’s (2004) comedic zombie horror, Simon Pegg stars as an ordinary Brit who is thrust into a zombie apocalypse. The beauty of the film is that it doesn’t overstate the zombie uprising. Instead, it’s strangely realistic in that nobody actually realises for a while. Like people would do with any weirdo who makes noises on the street, they just ignore them. When it’s obvious the dead have risen, there is plenty of room for zombie-killing, ridiculous one-liners and nods to the genre’s classic films, but the comedic realism is what pushes Shaun of the Dead to another level.

7: Shallow Grave

Danny Boyle’s (1994) drama Shallow Grave is a tale of a close friendship torn apart by a bewildering event. Their flatmate dies, and when they venture into his room they find him dead, with a huge sum of money. From this starting point, the protagonists, played by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston and Kerry Fox then grapple with their personal morality as their relationships and their minds slowly begin to unravel. The film is stuffed with stunning performances, compelling twists and turns and awe-inspiring cinematography.

6: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The Monty Python team take on various roles in this unusual and quirky comedy. From the strange insertions in the opening credits to the ridiculous obstacles encountered by King Arthur on his journey for the holy grail, it’s packed with laughs. It has timeless Monty Python characters such as the Black Knight (‘tis but a scratch!) and the Knights Who Say “Nii,” and there isn’t a serious plot-point in sight. Released in 1975, it’s still as funny today as it always was.

5: Trainspotting

Making his second appearance on the list, Danny Boyle directs 1996’s Trainspotting, starring Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle. The film is a brutal and honest depiction of the realities of heroin addiction, and shows Renton (played by McGregor) trying to get clean. McGregor embodies the addict through his use and famously severe withdrawal, and Boyle’s beautiful direction provides a rich, freewheeling ride you won’t forget.

4: Withnail and I

It’s not very often you come across a film like Withnail and I. It’s a story about friendship, life, misery, and the things we do to comfort ourselves. Take what you have in your imagination now, and add an inordinate amount of alcohol, with some other substances for good measure. That is Withnail and I; effortlessly poetic, meaningful and comedic, with a hint of abject sadness thrown in. Written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the 1987 film stars Richard E. Grant, and plenty of booze.

3: Brief Encounter

David Lean’s (1945) masterpiece Brief Encounter tells the story of Laura, a housewife played by Celia Johnson, who meets a handsome doctor when she goes shopping. It starts innocently enough, but the situation progresses and they end up considering leaving their old lives for their love. It’s a tear-jerker, but a perfectly-executed, poignant tear-jerker.

2: A Clockwork Orange

Stanley Kubrick’s (1971) ultra-violent, humanist, sci-fi classic A Clockwork Orange is a powerful cinematic experience. It starts with hideous scenes of violence, rape and torture, shot in an eerie minimalistic fashion. Your revulsion at the actions of Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) is called into question, and you’re granted to a unique, shocking and unforgettable experience.

1: Lawrence of Arabia

This film gives David Lean his second director credit in this countdown, for his 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. At over three hours long, it does more than tell the rags to riches story of T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’ Toole). It gives you a deeper look into the protagonist than most films can, and it is executed with elegance. The film explores Lawrence’s conflicting loyalties, and shows him as a man shrouded in doubt. O’ Toole’s portrayal is perfect, the score tugs at your emotions and the entire experience links together majestically.

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About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.