Briten leben in kleinen Abstellbaracken, besitzen Treppen, die Amerikaner kaum nutzen könnten, fühlen schmerzende Kühle kaum, entstellende Unwetter dagegen als wohltuende Hochzeiten des Frohsinns, treiben ihre Akzente perfektionistisch im kantigen Stil an die Spitze, kriechen morgendlich in die abartigen Ecken ihres typisch englischen Frühstücksbuffets, den raubeinigen Würstchen, Speck, Baked-Beans, und fühlen sich selten so geborgen wie in einer langen, glitschigen Menschenschlange. Deutsche denken so, andere Völker vermutlich auch. Natürlich läutet bei ihnen einhellig die „Ich war noch nie in England“-Glocke, selten dürfte die Tradition im elitären Heißhunger, die Inselleute als Dummbatzen zu verkaufen, sich ins Gegenteil umkehren. Findet der Brite die abgekappte Monarchie doch langweilig rettet er sich ins schöne Kino, und wer da ausländische Regisseure bevorzugt ist dem Verstoß von seinen Landsleuten geweiht. Nirgendwo gibt es derartige Mammuten des herzhaften Säbels zu bestaunen. Und wer kann 21 Knüller des britischen Films besser zusammenfassen, als der „London Telegraph“? Verflixt niemand.
1. Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
Unquestionably the greatest filmmaker to emerge from these islands, Hitchcock did more than any director to shape modern cinema, which would be utterly different without him. His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.
Teasing career-best work from substantial actors (Cary Grant, James Stewart), Hitchcock made several truly great films – North by Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), Rebecca (1940), Rear Window (1954) – in dizzyingly diverse styles. If he did not invent suspense in cinema, he certainly perfected it, blazing trails of influence that are still dutifully followed.
2. Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977)
Chaplin is one of the few British directors who would make it on to a list of the world’s all-time greatest. He is also, bizarrely, one whom the British don’t seem to like very much. Is it because of the vein of sentimentality that runs through many of his films?
Yet they also contain some of the most delightful scenes in the history of cinema. Marvel at the wit of the boot-eating sequence in The Gold Rush, gasp at the artistry of the roller-skating in Modern Times, laugh yourself insensible at the boxing-match in City Lights. Well worth enduring a little heartstring-tugging for.
3. Michael Powell (1905-1990)
Powell dreamed of heaven in black and white in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), built the high Himalayas on a mundane studio backlot in Black Narcissus (1947), portrayed ballet as a beautiful, demonic obsession in The Red Shoes (1948) and imagined the filmmaker as a tormented psychotic in Peeping Tom (1960).
As his career peaked in the 1940s and ’50s, he shared his directing, producing and writing credit with Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee who passionately embraced his adoptive country. A match made in heaven, it spawned an unparalleled suite of utterly British, gloriously visionary, exquisitely disturbing fantasies.
4. David Lean (1908-1991)
An unfashionable name to bandy about today, Lean represents what we might call officer-class film-making: his films had scale, grandeur, a cold, snobbish edge, but also a poignancy redolent of an empire’s last gasp. His earlier works Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) delivered efficiently in dramatic terms. But after Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lean became enslaved by size: each epic took years to plan and execute. Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was simply not worth it, but the ravishing visuals of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), his most ambitious film, and the lesser Dr Zhivago (1965) are burned into the collective memory.
5. Nicolas Roeg (1928-)
British cinema’s most tireless formal fidget, Roeg burst onto the scene with the psychedelic blitzkrieg that is Performance (1970). In the 37 years since, his reputation has waxed and waned, but his fractured and elliptical style makes him one of the most influential of all modern directors. An unsettling eroticism snakes its way through most of his movies, from the stunning Australian outback fable Walkabout (1971) to the shattering horror classic Don’t Look Now (1973). You never quite know where you are in a Roeg film: he jumbles up beginnings and endings, cause and effect, leaving you disoriented, hypnotised, bamboozled. A new feature called Puffball is out this year.
6. Carol Reed (1906-1976)
There was a mayfly quality to Carol Reed’s brilliance. The uncle of Oliver Reed and sometime lover of Daphne du Maurier made more than 30 pictures, but his enduring popularity rests entirely on the magnificent trio of films he made from 1947-9. Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol both feature towering central performances (from James Mason and Ralph Richardson) and see shadowy nightmares flourish in Belfast streets and plush domestic settings alike.
The Third Man, though, betters both: Graham Greene’s depiction of post-war, black-market-ridden Vienna inspired Reed to new heights, and saw him generate a noirish urban atmosphere whose intensity remains unmatched on celluloid.
7. John Boorman (1933-)
An easy name to overlook, the visionary Boorman flits uneasily between genres, and seems to view new film ventures as experiments – some of which fail, both commercially and artistically. Still, his gems vindicate his method. His best work has been on American soil, with the noirish masterpiece Point Blank (1967), a relentless, visually startling mob thriller, and the jolting Deliverance (1972), in which backwoodsmen terrorise four businessmen on a weekend canoe trip. In Britain, Boorman triumphed with the affectionate Hope and Glory (1987), based on his not unhappy childhood adventures in the London blitz.
8. Terence Davies (1945-)
A true British auteur, Davies is the poet of the everyday. With a painter’s sensibility, he finds beauty and meaning in rain on the streets, a face glimpsed through a window, an old song sung in a pub. The uniqueness of his vision shines through every film he makes, even the American-based The Neon Bible (1995) and his Edith Wharton adaptation The House of Mirth (2000) – but in semi-autobiographical works such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) he captures with uncanny precision the sensations, textures and glances that are the stuff of life itself.
His films (being showcased at the BFI from Monday until April 30) are bleak but never joyless, slow but never dull, full of sudden epiphanies and strange revelations. That this cinematic master struggles to find funding is nothing short of scandalous.
9. Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1993)
„There is a moment towards the end of certain kinds of comedy when they ought to get a little nasty,“ said Mackendrick, who epitomised all the best and most vicious instincts of the Ealing comedy with his ghoulish masterpiece The Ladykillers (1955).Whisky Galore! (1949) and the ingenious industrial satire The Man in the White Suit (1951) were shrewd delights, but his most acerbic picture was yet to come. Sweet Smell of Success (1957) was a commercial disaster in its day, scuttling the Scotsman’s Hollywood career, but it is now hailed as one of the great American movies.
10. Stephen Frears (1941-)
Every time a Stephen Frears film comes out, there seems to be a mild collective gasp of surprise at how good it is. This is at once an understandable consequence of the variety in his oeuvre and also plain bonkers: the simple fact is that Frears doesn’t know how to make a bad movie. A grudging interviewee, he’s effortlessly articulate from the director’s chair, with a keen eye for character, drama and comedy that have enabled him to wring sublime entertainment from milieux as disparate as aristocratic 18th-century France (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988), US-style Nick Hornby nerdery (High Fidelity, 2000), contemporary London’s underclass (Dirty Pretty Things, 2002), and the trials of our very own monarch (The Queen, 2006).
11. Ridley Scott (1937-)
Born and raised in South Shields, and indelibly impressed by the billowing Redcar steelworks that he passed every day on the way to art college, Scott has made some of the most exciting, influential and visually astonishing films of the modern age. Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991) are all cornerstones of popular culture, and the epic Gladiator (2000) may yet join them.
12. Michael Winterbottom (1961-)
In contrast to many directors on this list, Winterbottom is dauntlessly prolific. Also, dauntingly versatile. He moves with consummate ease from literary adaptation (Jude, 1996) to pop-culture follies (24 Hour Party People, 2002) and excoriating social drama (In This World, 2002), and then back to the Eng Lit canon with his cunningly postmodern take on Tristram Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story, 2005).
13. John Schlesinger (1926-2003)
Schlesinger shot up through the ranks of British directors with the iconic Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965), before turning a gaze both lewd and compassionate on America in his astonishing Midnight Cowboy (1969). His splendid thrillers, too, were about class, money and morals.
14. Danny Boyle (1956-)
The hyperkinetic opening credits of Shallow Grave (1994) were enough to announce the arrival of a thrilling new talent. Boyle’s follow-up, Trainspotting (1996), came to define an era, and although he had an expensive blip with The Beach (2000), he rallied superbly with the white-knuckle horror of 28 Days Later and now the magisterial Sunshine. MM
15. Lindsay Anderson (1923-1994)
Anderson was the angry young (and old) man of English cinema. Distinguished for his film criticism, theatre work and shorts, his select five features include an icon of 1960s rebellion (If, 1968) and Britannia Hospital (1982), a withering satire which dared to mock the nation at the height of the Falklands War.
16. Bill Douglas (1934-1991)
Scotland’s lost poet, Douglas directed just three bleak, fiercely lyrical shorts based on his working-class childhood, and a single feature: Comrades (1987), an ambitious, unjustly neglected epic about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and how cinema represents and distorts history. His slow output and death in 1991, aged 54, curtailed a trailblazing career.
17. Ken Loach (1936-)
Loach may have been making headlines for more than 40 years – ever since the terrible poverty of Cathy Come Home shocked BBC viewers in 1966 – but is no mere controversialist. His best films are more than polemics: they’re love stories, too, conveying a generous appreciation for the fragile pleasures of life while eloquently railing against its injustices.
18. Thorold Dickinson (1903-1984)
Dickinson, unlucky but touched with genius, is even today relatively neglected, though admirers of this superb stylist, with two or three masterpieces to his name, include Martin Scorsese and the film critic David Thomson. The dark Gaslight (1940) and The Queen of Spades (1949), and the delightful comedy thriller The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1940) all reveal his exceptional cinematic fluency.
19. Mike Leigh (1943-)
The beauty of Leigh’s films is their lack of beauty. He takes the actors whose distinctive faces don’t fit elsewhere and casts them as characters of awkward, dysfunctional, full-bodied humanness. Although we may not covet their shabby English homes or their shambolic lives, it’s very, very hard not to love them.
20. Shane Meadows (1972-)
Working with small budgets and mostly male ensembles, the Nottingham-based Meadows has been steadily making his mark since Small Time (1996). Funny, gritty and deceptively casual, his films know the troubled Northern soul like the back of their hand, not least the acclaimed 1980s skinhead saga This Is England (out Apr 27).
21. Ken Russell (1927-)
Now regarded as a charming eccentric, Russell made his name in the 1960s with languorous, handsome BBC documentaries about composers: Elgar, Debussy and Delius. He then outraged conservative fans with male nudity in the fine Women in Love (1969), and grotesquerie and madness in The Music Lovers and The Devils (both 1971). Once seen, his work is not easily forgotten.