Right, my thesis is being bound as I speak, so it seems like a perfect time to get back to some regular blogging.
Top tens are probably quite reductive, a bit cheap and hugely contrived, but they’re also fun. To get things rolling again I thought I’d start off with a series of top tens, they are, by no means, definitive or an attempt by me to say these films are the ‘best of the best’, the criteria is simple and selfish; I have to like them, a lot.
So as my ‘specialist area’ is British cinema, I’m starting with Words on What I’ve Seen’s Top Ten British Films:
10. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (dir. Stephen Frears, 1987)
My Beautiful Laundrette is widely regarded as one of the definitive films of the 1980s, it made a star of Daniel Day-Lewis, and was Film on Four’s first major success. Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi’s 1987 follow-up Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was largely derided on its release as a bloated, pretentious flop. But it’s time for some serious revision. As far as I can tell the film is unavailable everywhere (DVD distributors, get your act together), which is a massive shame, as, for me, it’s a real flawed masterpiece.
Kureishi’s emblematic, agit-prop style is given full rein in a film which balances the 1980s British cinema’s often opposing impulses of realism and modernist experimentation. Sexual freedom, post-colonialism, Thatcherite authoritarianism, nationhood, the city, race-relations and class all come under the microscope in a film which, admittedly, tries to say an awful lot in its 100 minutes. But this ambition is deserving of our attention and re-appraisal. There are times when the film distils its wide thematic reach into some wonderfully concise moments of poeticism, witness, for example, the moment when ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ plays against fraught images of travellers being forced off a waste land by brutish property developers; a scene which stirs up British cinema’s long-held concern with the disjunctions between national mythology and social reality.
9. Bleak Moments (dir. Mike Leigh, 1971)
I could have chosen any number of Leigh films, personally I’m a big fan of his TV work, so expect an inclusion or two in my upcoming ‘single drama’ top ten. As far as his films go, 2002’s All or Nothing is hugely underrated, as is the wonderful Life is Sweet (1990), which is far superior to the more celebrated High Hopes (1988). But it’s Bleak Moments, Leigh’s most subtle and minimal film, which fascinates me the most. A document of a socially awkward and repressed typist and her mentally disabled sister, Bleak Moments is a meditation on silence and stillness when so many of the director’s other works draw their richness from dense dialogue and bodily quirks. Seek it out.
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday (dir. John Schlesinger, 1971)
Released in the wake of the Oscar winning Midnight Cowboy, this intensely personal and scaled-back (in comparison with the rest of Schlesinger’s oeuvre) portrait of bohemian 70s London is a real joy. The film is built around Daniel (Peter Finch) a Jewish doctor, and Alex (Glenda Jackson), a recruitment executive, and their ‘sharing’ of the enigmatic bisexual artist, Bob (Murray Head). The film’s complexity is drawn not only from its canny dissection of the sexual mores of its characters, but the constant mumblings of a nation in decline (muffled radio news, a queue of junkies at an all-night pharmacy), which compound a sense of one social-class in complete separation from another. Finch’s performance is also a real joy, reaching its climax in a final monologue delivered to camera.
7. Somers Town (dir. Shane Meadows, 2008)
Like with Leigh, I could have picked most Meadows films in this top ten. But Somers Town, arguably his most low-key theatrical release, sees all of the director’s virtues distilled beautifully. Quite simply the finest director working in Britain today, Meadows combines a sympathetic but always poetic aesthetic, with an organic approach to dialogue and narrative, which should ensure that in years to come he will be recognised as a true force in British culture.
6. It Always Rains on Sunday (dir. Robert Hamer, 1947)
Before the New Wave, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, the embryo of social realist cinema was hatched by Ealing’s Robert Hamer, in this stunningly atmospheric slice of post-war Britain. This ambiguous portrait of morally bereft and sexually repressed working-class London, eschews the paternalistic lectures that would come to define British cinema’s post-war engagement with realism; the social problem film of the ‘50s.
Taking a crumbling domestic environment as its starting point, the film explores a series of characters across its Bethnal Green setting. Never slipping into one-dimensional caricature or stereotype, its greatest strength is a rejection of the idealised nation-as-family motif which underpinned much of Ealing’s output. Prolific character actor John Slater’s villainous, Lou Hyams is worth the price of the DVD alone.
5. Millions Like Us (dirs. Frank Launder and Sydney Gilliat, 1943)
The propagandist cinema of wartime, which combined pre-existing melodramatic devices with the hitherto underused documentary aesthetic of the documentary movement, offered up many classic British films. Launder’s and Gilliat’s tale of women working in a munitions factory, is my personal choice. One of my all-time favourite British actors, Eric Portman, is superb as Charlie Forbes, the no-nonsense factory foreman who falls for the upper-middle class, Jennifer (Anne Crawford).
Class and gender in wartime are given a public service sheen, but what distinguishes the film ahead of its contemporaries is the manner it borrows the formal components of the British documentary tradition and integrates them seamlessly.
4. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (dir. Karel Reisz, 1960)
The film that changed British cinema forever, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, should be in any top ten for its influence alone. Releasing the realist address from the shackles of the aforementioned ‘social problem’ film and opening up the staid British cinema to a wealth of European and world cinema influences, Reisz and his fellow New Wave practitioners, married stylistic verve with a commitment to hitherto suppressed areas of working-class life. Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton was a seismic force in destroying the myth of a silent and deferential under-class.
3. A Canterbury Tale (Powell and Pressburger, 1944)
While the rest of the British film industry was contributing to the war effort with stirring realist portraits of Britain as the sum of its parts, Powell and Pressburger saw the war as an opportunity to solidify their idiosyncratic and romantic exploration of British mythology. This updated Chaucerian narrative is a stunning poem on the sublime and spiritual heart of the nation. A ‘what we are fighting for’ document, which evokes an idealised Britain beyond its surface, A Canterbury Tale is a true classic.
2. Listen To Britain (dir. Humphrey Jennings, 1942)
My favourite of Jennings’ symphonies on social interconnection, Listen to Britain is a stunning collage of image and sound which attempts to portray a defiant nation across its many diverse but equally worthy parts. For me, the film now looks like an elegiac love letter for an idealistic social democratic vision. Wonderful and heartbreaking.
1. This Sporting Life (dir. Lindsay Anderson, 1963)
One of the most artistically ambitious films of the post-war period, Anderson’s This Sporting Life is also the most complete examination of working-class masculinity and repressed emotion that I have ever seen.
A pervasive atmosphere of fatalism creeps at the edges of every frame, due in large part to Roberto Gerard’s score and Anderson’s expansive treatment of external space in convergence with a narrow and cramped interior mise-en-scene construction. Rachel Roberts gives a truly superb performance as Margaret, the embittered widow and the object of Frank’s (Richard Harris) impossible love, but it is the physicality of Harris who dominates. Fascinatingly, Anderson’s unspoken longing for his star (a relationship characterised in the Paul Sutton edited Lindsay Anderson: The Diaries) seems to be alive in the underlying and never resolved tension between camera and protagonist.