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10 British Films That Defined Cinema

#1 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Set in the twilight of World War One, Lawrence of Arabia is a fantastic historical epic that depicts the experiences of British military officer TE Lawrence during his reconnaissance mission in the Ottoman Empire. Under his leadership, the oppressed Arab tribes were united and led against the Turks, who sided with Germany in the war. The film is remembered today as one of the greatest historical epics of all time, and also as the movie that launched the legendary Peter O’Toole’s career.

#2 Vertigo (1958)

Directed and produced by one of the most legendary and influential figures in all of cinema, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo was an easy choice for the list. It tells the story of police detective Scottie, who suffers from an extreme fear of heights and is hired to prevent the suicide of a former acquaintance’s wife. One of the most defining films of Hitchcock’s entire career, Vertigo was initially divisive among critics, only to be re-evaluated some decades later to receive generally widespread positive reception. It remains significant for its innovative use of camera angles in order to portray the protagonist’s sense of distortion brought about by vertigo.

#3 The Third Man (1949)

Directed by Sir Carol Reed, The Third Man is an exciting tale of a young American civilian who finds himself caught in a web of deceit in the political world of post-WW2 Vienna. While it released to underwhelming reviews in local Austria, it was praised worldwide for its innovative filming technique and for the theme of its plot, which is a biting criticism of America’s ignorance to western culture.

#4 Hamlet (1948)

Famously the first British film to receive a nomination and then an award for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Hamlet will forever retain its legendary status as one of the best British films of all time. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy masterpiece, it follows the story of a young Prince who is tormented by visions of his father, instructing him to carry out a revenge plot of murder in order to avenge his death. To this day, Hamlet remains the only Shakespeare adaptation in cinema to have received an academy award.

#5 Zulu (1964)

The second British war epic to make the list, Zulu is an incredible retelling of the even more incredible Battle of Rorke’s Drift. It tells the story of a vastly outnumbered and outmanned British garrison of roughly one-hundred men defending against a force of a roughly four-thousand-strong force of Zulu warriors. Upon its release, it was a huge hit, earning a widespread positive critical reception and making large profits at the box office. The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy’s famous Battle of Helm’s Deep was heavily influenced by the film in both concept and cinematography.

#6 Kes (1969)

Written and directed by indie film maker Ken Loach, Kes tells the heartbreaking story of a tormented British adolescence growing up in the poverty-stricken north. The story’s protagonist, Billy Casper, is abused both at home by his brother and at school by his classmates. However, his outlook on life changes when he adopts a tiny kestrel bird, which he names “Kes”. The film is a portrayal of the harsh realities faced by the British working class in the post-WW2 era. It also criticises the vastly unpopular and elitist Tripartite System, which categorised British children into three different tiers of education based on a poor examination of their personal ability. While the film failed to make a lasting impression on mainstream overseas audiences or huge profits at the box office, it is nonetheless critically acclaimed with universally high reviews, boasting even a rare 4/4 rating by Roger Ebert, who marked it as “one of the best, the warmest, the most moving films of recent years.”

#7 Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Life of Brian is a classic comedy film set in a very ahistorical Roman Empire, telling the story of Brian Cohen, a man born on the same night and the same street as Jesus Christ. Banned in several european countries for its extremely blasphemous depiction of the nativity, the film was certainly controversial for its time. Not only parodying the events of the nativity, the film also poked fun at British contemporary politics and several historical events through a deceptively simple narrative. Today, the film remains a serious contender for the title of most significant comedy film of all time.

#8 28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later follows the story of a mysterious viral outbreak ravages the United Kingdom, turning the majority of its living population into mindless flesh-eating monsters, and an unlikely group of survivors making their way through the chaos. Starring Cillian Murphy of Peaky Blinders fame and former Dr. Who Christopher Eccleston, 28 Days Later is credited with revitalising the zombie movie genre (despite the fact that its director, Danny Boyle, does not even consider it to be a true zombie film!) and released in 2002 to widespread critical acclaim. 

#9 Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi follows the story of, you guessed it, the influential nonviolent freedom fighter Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi. The film starts from Gandhi’s tragic assassination at the hands of a Hindu nationalist, before the narrative timetravels to his young adult days as a lawyer in South Africa and spans his return to India and his anti-colonial campaign. The film was hugely successful, receiving a whopping eleven academy award nominations and it released to broadly positive receptions both at home and overseas.

#10 Trainspotting (1996)

This gritty British black comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle deals with the dark themes of crippling drug addiction and its devastating consequences. The story features Ewan McGregor in the role of the protagonist, heroin addict Mark Renton, who makes an attempt to fix his life only to be mercilessly pulled back into the world of drug addiction by his old friend circle. The academy-award nominated indie film had a huge impact on popular culture upon its release, and it remains to this day as one of the most highly acclaimed, highly rated British indie films of all time. 

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