Learn English with the 8 Best British Films EVER

The United Kingdom has a long and rich history of film production dating back to the late 19th century, when the Lumière brothers first began exhibiting their mesmerizing film experiments in London. Since then, British cinema has produced some of the most acclaimed and popular films of all time while consolidating an artistic identity that favours grit, atmosphere, and thought-provoking dialogue over Hollywood-style spectacle.

From early classics such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) to modern masterpieces like Dunkirk (2019), British films have always been at the forefront of cinematic innovation and excellence while also reflecting the complex social and political fabric of British society.

In honour of this rich cinematic tradition, we’ve compiled a list of 8 titles that we believe to be the best British films ever.

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1. The 39 Steps (1935)

Alfred Hitchcock’s first truly great film is also one of his most suspenseful and entertaining. The story of an ordinary man (Robert Donat) who becomes caught up in a web of espionage and murder, The 39 Steps is a masterclass on how to construct an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is thought-provoking and incredibly stylish.

From the famous opening sequence set in the London Palladium to the iconic chase across the Scottish moors, The 39 Steps is packed with iconic moments and memorable set-pieces that have cemented its reputation as one of the best British films ever.

Besides, if you love the diversity of British English accents, you’ll also enjoy the film’s distinctive regional accents, which were considered so important to the film that Hitchcock insisted on using real-life dialect coaches to help the actors perfect their Scots, cockney, and RP (Received Pronunciation or “standard” English) accents.

2. The Third Man (1949)

Set in the aftermath of World War II, Carol Reed’s The Third Man is a noirish tale of intrigue and moral ambiguity.

The film follows American novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) as he arrives in Vienna to meet his childhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to discover that Lime has recently died in a suspicious car accident.

Martins is initially content to leave the matter at that, but he soon finds himself drawn into Lime’s murky world of black marketeering and discovers that not everything is as it seems.

The Third Man is not only intriguing and moving in its exploration of grief and male friendship, but it is also visually stunning, with Reed making brilliant use of Vienna’s bombed-out streets and shadows to create an atmosphere of paranoia and unease.

The film is also notable for its use of location shooting, with the renowned director famously filming one of the key scenes in the sewers beneath the city.

If you’re an English language lover, The Third Man is a great choice as it will help you improve your listening skills while also providing a fascinating insight into the complex moral landscape of post-war Europe.

3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

One of the most ambitious and visually stunning films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia is a sweeping epic about the real-life British military officer T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in one of his most iconic roles).

The film chronicles Lawrence’s exploits during the Arabian Revolt of 1916-1918, when he led a ragtag group of Arab tribesmen in a successful campaign against the Ottoman Empire.

The film, which won seven Academy Awards, is notable for its epic scope and ambition, with director David Lean using real locations in the Jordanian desert to create a sense of authenticity and scale. But, though it’s often described as a historical drama film of epic proportions, Lawrence of Arabia is also a character study of a complex and contradictory man, with magnetic performances by O’Toole as the titular Lawrence and Omar Sharif as his Arab ally, Ali.

For English students and enthusiasts, Lawrence of Arabia also provides a wonderful opportunity to expose yourself to over 3 hours of authentic British English, spoken by a large cast of characters from various social backgrounds.

4. Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is a chilling psychological thriller about a married couple, John and Laura Baxter (played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), who travel to Venice after the death of their young daughter.

While in Venice, the couple meets a pair of elderly sisters who claim to have psychic powers and tell them that their daughter is trying to communicate with them from the other side. But, as John becomes increasingly obsessed with finding out what his daughter is trying to say, he starts to lose touch with reality, with tragic consequences.

Ominous and labyrinthine, Don’t Look Now is a masterclass in suspenseful filmmaking, with Roeg expertly playing with time and memory to disorientate and unnerve the viewer, and a brilliant use of Venice’s narrow canals and dark alleyways to create a sense of claustrophobia and unease.

What’s more, Julie Christie’s and Donald Sutherland’s crystal-clear RP accents provide a great opportunity for English language learners to improve their pronunciation while also enjoying a truly atmospheric film.

5. Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives is a semi-autobiographical film about a working-class family in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool.

Told through the eyes of the youngest son, Tony (Pete Postlethwaite), the film chronicles the everyday lives of the family members as they deal with the struggles of working-class life, such as poverty, poor housing, and domestic violence.

A quintessentially British film, this is a tender and moving portrait of a family of underdogs struggling to get by in tough circumstances.

What’s more, English language learners who like to hear different versions and variants of British English will be delighted to see that the film authentically portrays the working-class Liverpudlian dialect in all its Scouse glory.

6. Trainspotting (1996)

A black comedy about a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Trainspotting is a raw and unflinching portrait of working-class life in Scotland. The film follows the exploits of Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) and his friends as they go about their day-to-day lives of scoring drugs, taking them, and trying to avoid getting caught by the police.

But Trainspotting is more than just a film about drug addiction, it’s also a biting social commentary on the state of working-class Britain in the early 1990s. This makes it a must-see for people interested not only in the Scottish variant of English but also in British social and political history, particularly the impact of Thatcherism on working-class communities.

With its great cast of characters, sharp writing, and dark sense of humour, Trainspotting is an essential film for both fans of British cinema and British culture enthusiasts.

7. Hunger (2008)

Steve McQueen’s Hunger is a powerful and harrowing film about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, in which republicans in Northern Ireland protested against the British government’s decision to treat them as criminals rather than political prisoners. The film centres on the figure of Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender), the leader of the hunger strike, and chronicles the final weeks of his life as he gradually starves himself to death.

A searing indictment of British government policy in Northern Ireland, Hunger is a difficult but essential watch for anyone interested in understanding the Troubles. And, with a committed cast and McQueen’s masterful direction, the film is sure to leave a lasting impression on anyone who sees it.

From a linguistic perspective, the film is also interesting in that it features a mix of Irish and British English, which provides an insight into the different ways in which the two varieties are used by speakers from different backgrounds who, despite their linguistic and social differences, are united by their shared experience of British rule in Northern Ireland.

8. The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Last month, we were lucky enough to see this film in advance in a special screening at Mar del Plata Film Festival (Argentina), and we couldn’t have been more blown away.

In 1920s Ireland, in a small coastal village backed by rugged cliffs, something disconcerting and devastating happens to Pádraic: suddenly and without explanation, Colm, his lifelong friend, refuses to speak to him, claiming that he just doesn’t like Pádraic anymore and that he wants to stop wasting time listening to his boring stories so he can dedicate the rest of his life to making music.

Unable to believe this simplistic explanation and obsessed with understanding what truly happened, Pádraic insists. But Colm is not willing to give in and, when he threatens to cut off a finger every time Pádraic bothers him again, the conflict begins to get very dark and irradiate the entire town. And, as a spectral old woman walks the shores announcing that there will be a death by the end of the moon’s cycle, we know that things are about to take an even darker turn.

In The Banshees of Inisherin, Martin McDonagh joins forces with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson to create a story that is as comical as it is moving and the portrait of a microworld so vivid that, if we pay a little attention, can also become a metaphor for our modern societies. , where the raves were just as intense as in Venice, we can already say that this new classic is one of the best British films ever.

These, of course, are just a few of the masterpieces that British cinema has to offer – but, in the end, any list of 8 titles that attempts to encapsulate the best British films ever is necessarily going to be subjective. I mean… Just think about all the films we’ve left out. The Innocents!  Barry Lyndon!  Clockwork Orange!  2001: A Space Odyssey! The list goes on. So, we invite you to watch all of these films and decide which one is the very best.

You might just find yourself surprised by how much there is to enjoy!

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Would you like to go beyond British cinema and start actively working on your British English speaking skills? At Language Trainers, we offer English classes that can be tailor-made to your specific needs and objectives. What’s more, our native English teachers can come to your home or office, or you can take online Zoom/Skype classes with them from the comfort of your own home. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation trial lesson. We look forward to hearing from you soon!!