Dont Look Now
  • Don’t Look Now

Last week, the BBC asked 62 film critics from around the world to each submit what they considered the ten greatest American movies of all time. The subsequent list is filled with canonical favorites, including Citizen Kane (which took the top spot), Singin’ in the Rain, and The Godfather, as well as a few surprise appearances—Groundhog Day checked in at number 71, and Steve McQueen’s recent 12 Years a Slave showed up at number 99. The online response was predictable—mostly of the “This list sucks” variety—and after some brief commotion, everyone went back to talking about Star Wars and Marvel movies.

Personally, I’m ambivalent. Lists like these are inherently monolithic and don’t really reveal anything unique about the films in question. The most valuable “best films” list are novel items—take, for instance, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s alternate list of the 100 greatest American movies, a feature that still receives angry comments from readers. Instead of some sort of authoritative compendium, his list is an idiosyncratic road map, something you can embrace or deny however you see fit; I try to do the same here with my top five lists. So in the spirit of making lists, and in keeping with the British theme, here are my five favorite British films.

5. The Servant (dir. Joseph Losey, 1963) This airtight class drama represents peak Losey, one of the most interesting filmmakers who ever lived. A study in upper-class impotence and societal power struggles, the film pinpoints British noblesse oblige with caustic precision, and Losey’s chilly characterizations are that much more incisive thanks to a characteristically enigmatic Harold Pinter script. But the movie isn’t joyless—the director’s rich mise-en-scene somehow makes the depraved proceedings beautiful.

4. The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) Perhaps Hitchcock’s most imitated film, one that defies generic convention and features some of the director’s most inventive and impressive stylistic touches. (The opening image, featuring a miniature model of a German village, is a moment of metaphysical genius.) Hitchcock often insisted he didn’t direct mysteries, that his focus was on suspense and not surprise, but the mechanics of this story are beautiful, its ambiguities perfectly modulated. I’m still not convinced I have everything figured out.

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943) This is my favorite Powell and Pressburger movie, so of course it’s one of my favorite British movies ever, a politically daring masterpiece. It’s a model of narrative cinema, so intricate in its plotting and storytelling that you’re likely to have a different experience with each revisit. And while the Technicolor cinematography perhaps isn’t as vivid and characteristically outlandish as it is in their other movies, this is still an expressive and colorful film, albeit it in different and more sublime ways.

2. Distant Voices, Still Lives (dir. Terence Davies, 1988) Illustrating a crucial part of British history—from WWII through the 1950s—in decidedly emotional and remarkably personal terms, this is an incomparable film about human experiences: the kind we share, the kind we have alone, and the uniquely cinematic kind that are somehow both. With elegant camerawork and an impeccable feeling for setting, costume, customs, and gesture, Davies evokes the joy, sadness, and horror of the era with a sense of wonder, wisely denying easy nostalgia and conventional storytelling.

1. Don’t Look Now (dir. Nicolas Roeg, 1973) Though generally well-received when initially released, this seminal horror film’s reputation has grown considerably, influencing such major filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh, Lynne Ramsey, and Steven Spielberg. Roeg’s visual sleight of hand and brazen disavowal of simple chronology give the film its enduring appeal. Similar to Colonel Blimp, it’s a different experience each time you revisit it, deliberately constructed to obscure certain details while illuminating others—a revolutionary concept in a genre too often built around revealing a mystery rather than letting it linger. No wonder the film’s reputation only continues to grow—one viewing and it’s impossible to shake.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.