‘Trainspotting’ named best British film of last 25 years

Posted by · 5:29 pm · August 31st, 2009

Ewan McGregor in TrainspottingThe Observer has just assembled one of the more interesting lists I’ve seen in some time — a collective of the 25 best British films of the last quarter-century, compiled from the votes of over 60 critics, film professionals and assorted outside voices, ranging from Ben Kingsley to Peter Morgan to our friend Anne Thompson.

Looking down the list, there are remarkably few inclusions that I really take issue with, whether I’d necessarily put them on my own such list or not — the majority of titles here are films I admire that have a legitimate sphere of influence in modern British film history, and they’ve lucked into an intelligent balance between arthouse and populist titles.

“Trainspotting” is an obvious pick for number one, but sometimes obvious is fair. I don’t think it’s the greatest of the 25 titles listed here, but it’s an inarguably fine film that embodies the restless spirit of mid-1990s Britain from its whip-smart dialogue to its mega-selling soundtrack: its lightning-in-a-bottle blend of thrilling cinema and social document assures immortality.

(Further discussion, and The Observer’s Top 10 list, after the cut.)

As the only director with two titles in the Top 10, Danny Boyle is served very well by the list: though, as much as I like the film, I’ll be surprised if “Slumdog Millionaire” — which weighs in at a too-high #9 — holds up as well over the years as “Trainspotting.” The only other directors with two entries are Mike Leigh (props for including “Naked,” by the way) and, rather less expectedly, Shane Meadows.

If the top spot seemed inevitable, the list provides plenty of pleasant surprises elsewhere. I’m excited to see that they’ve generally bypassed plush heritage cinema in favor of edgier work from the fringes: Gary Oldman’s brilliant, frequently neglected directorial debut “Nil by Mouth” is an adventurous choice for the Top 10, while my heart cheers the inclusion of Lynne Ramsay (potentially the greatest talent the country has) and her debut “Ratcatcher.” (I’d have made room for “Morvern Callar” too, but you can’t have everything.)

With only two entries in the top 10, I was concerned the 2000s would get short-changed — given how such lists frequently fear the new — but the lower reaches of the list are boldly contemporary, with the likes of “This is England,” “Control,” “Hunger” and “My Summer of Love” all making deserved appearances. It paints the current decade in a very positive light indeed — which makes it all the more bizarre that Jonathan Glazer’s arresting but critically flawed gangster flick “Sexy Beast” should rate as the decade’s best. Never mind … lots to love here besides.

The Observer’s top 10 is listed below. The full list of 25 is available here, with individual entries on the films here. A sample of individual participants’ top 10 lists can be found here. They make for interesting reading.

1. “Trainspotting” (Danny Boyle, 1996)
2. “Withnail & I” (Bruce Robinson, 1987)
3. “Secrets and Lies” (Mike Leigh, 1996)
4. “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (Terence Davies, 1988)
5. “My Beautiful Laundrette” (Stephen Frears, 1985)
6. “Nil By Mouth” (Gary Oldman, 1997)
7. “Sexy Beast” (Jonathan Glazer, 2000)
8. “Ratcatcher” (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)
9. “Slumdog Millionaire” (Danny Boyle, 2008)
10. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (Mike Newell, 1994)

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31 responses so far

  • 1 8-31-2009 at 5:49 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Boyle’s “28 Days Later” must fit in that ten. I adore every frame.

  • 2 8-31-2009 at 5:53 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Distant Voices, Still Lives should have been #1.

  • 3 8-31-2009 at 5:54 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Gittes: I don’t think I’d put it in my ten, personally — but I would rank it above “Slumdog” in the Boyle oeuvre.

  • 4 8-31-2009 at 5:58 pm

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Sorry to stray, but speaking of British films, what if Boyle decided to complete David Lean’s dream: Nostromo.

    Goose bumps.

  • 5 8-31-2009 at 6:07 pm

    Loyal said...

    Slumdog? LMAO.

    There should be a moratorium on including that film on any list for at least 10 years.

  • 6 8-31-2009 at 6:21 pm

    leocdcd said...

    Where is Atonement?? That movie is near perfect.

  • 7 8-31-2009 at 6:24 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...


  • 8 8-31-2009 at 6:47 pm

    Al said...

    28 Days Later >>>>>>Slumdog Millionaire. That being said, I am so proud of “Withnail and I”.

  • 9 8-31-2009 at 6:50 pm

    Jim T said...

    I feel kind of embarrassed that I have yet to see Trainspotting and I don’t even know many of the titles including no2.

    I know I’m probably alone in this but I think Notes on a Scandal should be in that list. Sense and Sensibility as well but I’m not too strong on this.

  • 10 8-31-2009 at 7:08 pm

    Brendan said...

    I loved Trainspotting but have trouble putting it up so high. I agree with those who suggest Slumdog is overrated — although it was a clever script and well-executed. Is Passage to India within the past 25 years? A Room With a View? The wonderful Billy Eliot. Seems like a lot are missing.

  • 11 8-31-2009 at 7:22 pm

    Speaking English said...

    “Slumdog Millionaire” > “Trainspotting”

    I like “Trainspotting” and all, but it kind of leaves me with a bad aftertaste. It’s just such an… ugly movie. VERY well made, but ugly.

    I’d go with “Howards End.” For sure.

  • 12 8-31-2009 at 8:01 pm

    Sound Designer Dan said...

    While I loved Slumdog, I wouldn’t put it so high on the list. I’m disappointed Tim Roth’s “The War Zone” isn’t on there. It’s one of the only movies to leave me emotionally exhausted.

  • 13 8-31-2009 at 8:43 pm

    Matthew said...

    Definitely consider “28 Days Later” a better film than “Slumdog Millionaire”. Extremely happy to see “Ratcatcher”. Wonderful movie, far better than “Morvern Callar”.

    Also happy to see Shane Meadows on the list.

  • 14 8-31-2009 at 9:02 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    I don’t understand what qualifies as a British film. If the Merchant/Ivory movies are British, then isn’t “Match Point” British as well?

  • 15 8-31-2009 at 9:37 pm

    decs said...

    VERY happy to see that My Beautiful Laundrette has not been forgotten after all these years

  • 16 8-31-2009 at 10:50 pm

    red_wine said...

    British cinema would indeed be in an extremely poor condition if you have to count Slumdog Millionaire as one of its best films in the past 25 years. Whats next, Harry Potter?

    Some other films not mentioned above which could be called British films starting from 1984 are.

    Brazil(surely it should be no. 1)
    Remains Of The Day
    a fish called wanda
    the pillow book
    tristam shandy: a cock and bull story
    vera drake
    happy-go-lucky(this should surely be on that list)
    the queen
    Bloody Sunday
    the magdalene sisters
    gosford park(1 of my favorites this decade)
    wallace and gromit
    And for populist appeal I’d place Last King Of Scotland too if Slumdog merits an inclusion.

    High Fidelity, Chicken Run, dirty pretty things, children of men(again 1 of my favorites), united 93 might also be called British films and some might claim a place on that list.

  • 17 8-31-2009 at 10:53 pm

    red_wine said...

    Also Guy how about 1 of your favorites this year and Cannes Jury Prize winner, Fish Tank!

  • 18 8-31-2009 at 11:15 pm

    geha714 said...

    I agree with most of the list but I would replace Slumdog with Shallow Grave.

    My personal pick is Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels. You can say anything about Ritchie’s career but that movie is still great.

    Bloody Sunday could be my other choice but it was originally made for TV, so that disqualify it.

    PS: If you haven’t see Nil By Mouth yet, just go and see it. A powerful experience.

  • 19 9-01-2009 at 12:18 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Where’s Layer Cake?

  • 20 9-01-2009 at 1:16 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I agree that “Howards End” should be there — it’s the most glaring omission, in my view. The Merchant-Ivory school of heritage cinema may not be very fashionable these days, but it was hugely popular and influential in its time and merits at least one representative. (The closest they have is “The English Patient,” which isn’t quite of the same ilk.)

    And as refreshing as it is to see so much newer work make the cut (especially considering how much healthier this decade has been for Britfilm on a creative level), I don’t think “24 Hour Party People” and “Man on Wire” are quite in this league.

    Red Wine: You bring up some strong possibilities (Mike Leigh arguably deserves another entry or two, including consideration for the unjustly sidelined “All or Nothing.”) But personally, my heart sings that bland prestige pandering like “The Queen” didn’t make the cut.

  • 21 9-01-2009 at 1:16 am

    geha714 said...

    Layer Cake… I forgot that one. Thanks, Jonathan.

  • 22 9-01-2009 at 1:23 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Another thing I found surprising (and not unpleasantly so) about the list is the general absence of the working-class comedy subgenre that travelled so well the previous decade. “The Full Monty,” for example — not that I think it particularly deserves to be here, but it’s more significant than a couple of titles on the list.

    But then some might (and, I see, already have) make similar claims for “Billy Elliot,” while I wouldn’t.

  • 23 9-01-2009 at 3:56 am

    RichardA said...

    Howards End, Remains of the Day, Wings of the Dove, Billy Elliot.

    Dude, Howards End.

  • 24 9-01-2009 at 6:32 am

    John H. Foote said...

    “The English Patient” be damned (not to mention hugely over praised) — the best film of ’96 was “Trainspotting” one of the most extraordinary expeirneces I ever had in a film — I sat numb when it was over, and could not wait to see it again — Robert Carlyle is one of the most terrifying characters in modern film — just brilliant.

  • 25 9-01-2009 at 6:40 am

    El Rocho said...

    I’m very surprised that ‘Brazil’ is not on the list. I would have thought is would have been a top 5 easily. And ‘Slumdog’ should have not even been on the list. Boyle has done so much better. I’d have put ‘Shallow Grave’ on there. I’d’ve also put ‘In Bruges’ on. Or does that not count? Good list, though. Very thought-provoking. Some I haven’t seen, now I want to. And a huge prop to them for putting ‘Nil by Mouth’ on there. Brilliant film.

  • 26 9-01-2009 at 9:39 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Isn’t Brazil too old to be on this list?

  • 27 9-01-2009 at 9:39 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Oh and what’s with the Slumdog backlash? Already people? Geez.

  • 28 9-01-2009 at 10:09 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Jonathan: “Brazil” was made in 1985, so it’s not too old for the list.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s aged that well, though.

  • 29 9-01-2009 at 10:12 am

    maurier said...

    Good list because it includes Red Road, My summer of love or Ratcatcher. And it’s nice to see they remember Under the skin with strong performance by Samantha Morton.

  • 30 9-01-2009 at 2:23 pm

    Patryk said...

    What about “The Crying Game?”