If you look at the last decade of British films you'll see the same names crop up again and again. Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie, Neil Marshall ... These British directors have battled the wind, rain, mud and general gloom of their tiny isle to nip and tuck the face of British cinema and influence movie-makers and goers on a global scale.
How has British film experienced a new renaissance? And why? It's not just about the funding. It's about ideas, and adding a fresh spin on old ideas. It's about looking at tired old genres with new eyes, and it's an approach to the blockbuster where Britain has helped push the boundaries. Let's look at some of those genres, then move onto the top ten British films in the last decade ...
The new-wave gangster caper
Do the gangsters of today have molls and leap on car sideboards? Sadly not - hence the rise of the British Cheeky Urban Gangster caper, as evinced by Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and several other mockney gangster movies ... in fact, director Guy Ritchie created this new and commercially popular genre almost single- handedly. Attaguy.
The new-wave monster / horror movie
British directors Neil Marshall and Danny Boyle are clearly loud up on a diet of comic books and late-night horror films, too much sugar and not enough vegetables. For which all movie-goers must be thankful. British monster films in the last ten years have been low on budget but high on cinematography, character acting and you've-just-GOT-to-tell-a-friend twists. Dog Soldiers, Severance, Creep, 28 Days Later (and the poor sequel, 28 Weeks Later) ... These British films hit global cinemas with their innovative approach to tired old monster genres like werewolves and zombies. Speaking of which ...
Yes, the zom-rom-com. Worth a mention all of its own, the zombie romance comedy is genre-splicing at its finest, and is certainly a recent British innovation. Nowadays the zom-rom-com is a film staple, with US-made Zombieland its most recent commercial success.
Let's take a look at some of those mainstream movies that put Britain back on the cinema-goer's map.
28 Days Later - 2002
Until 28 Days Later, zombies did what their master George A. Romero told them to do. Everyone knew a zombie walked slowly and craved brainnnnss, because Dawn of the Dead said so.
Danny Boyle's film opened with an eerie and inspired scene promoting something new - a loner in hospital scrubs, walking the empty streets of a wrecked and deserted London. There's something powerful in the image of a deserted city. The film ended with zombies who could have been you, or me, or your loved one - normal people but diseased - and fast. So terrifyingly fast. By updating the zombie format, this British monster film focused on what people are really scared of nowdays - disease, chaos, poverty and the unknown. And zombies who could outrun you. Suddenly the world woke up and realized there was more than one way to handle the zombie genre. After the success of 28 Days Later the zombie films followed thick and fast.
Dog Soldiers - 2002
Why should zombies get all the attention? Are not wewolves fun too? Neil Marshall thread us a bone with this low-budget but fantastic-looking werewolf horror movie set in the gorgeous wilds of Scotland. Wait, you did not know it was about werewolves? Forgive the spoiler - but the film was made eight years ago. To be fair, the film finishes with a delicious werewolf-related plot twist for those that do not yet know. What really made this film was the fantastic, gritty humor and interplay between the grizzled soldiers sent to investigate the disturbance, and the film was also helped by the moodily-shot atmosphere. A must for horror and action lovers - but one to avoid if you're not a fan of gore, however tasteful and considered the gore might be.
Shaun of the Dead - 2004
And here we have it ... the zom-rom-com! A true love letter to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, with plenty of film nerd in-jokes. Shaun of the Dead made an international star of everyone's favorite ginger, Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Run Fat Boy Run). This film was witty, clever, charming, ridiculous ... everything a zombie film has no right to be. Its bravery and humor made it a box office hit on both sides of the pond. A choice movie for anyone who likes zombies, romance, or comedy - and still a pretty safe bet for anyone who hates all the above. The ultimate in cross-genre success.
Children of Men - 2006
Children of Men. Was it sci-fi? Was it a drama? A thriller? An action movie? It was all of these things and none. Sci-fi haters considered it a beautiful and memorable film. Action movie lovers were thrilled by the powerful dust and rumble of the battle scenes. Everyone was moved by Michael Caine as a revolutionary old hippy, and the powerful-handled concept of a pregnant woman in a near-future where fascists fight revolutionaries, refugee concentration camps abound and children are no more. Once again, the cinematography shone through to depict a beautiful, desolate rural England and a society torn apart by poverty and apocalyptic disease.
Casino Royale - 2006
It would be hard to list the top ten British movies of the last decade without namechecking Casino Royale - an entirely new cinematic makeover for England's favorite son, James Bond. Daniel Craig was an inspired choice - brutish, surly, violent and ... blonde. And even naked on occasion. A world away from the suave James Bonds of the past, and more in keeping with the expectations of action movie goers of today. And what was more - M was a woman! Good heavens! Whatever next? Audiences flocked to see this revamped creation. Sadly, it currently looks like the James Bond franchise is winding down ...
Son of Rambow - 2007
Imagine a long, semi-perfect English summer in the 1980s. It's only semi-perfect, because even on a long hot summer, being a young schoolboy is hormone hell. Two miss-matched boys are brought together to create their version of a Rambo sequel. They've just got a shabby old camera and a deserted wasteground, so their remake is by no means the big budget production of the original movie. But when the whole school joins in, and when the children start doing their own stunts, from kissing to explosions, this turns into a coming-of-age movie as iconic and classic and adult-friendly as Stand By Me, with a strictly bittersweet British slant.
Slumdog Millionaire - 2008
Danny Boyle is the darling of British cinema, constantly changing genres and finding new slants on old ideas which continue to satisfy an audience that demands so much more nowdays from its popcorn blockbuster movies. By 2008, Danny Boyle had a few worldwide film successes under his belt. There was Trainspotting, the black comedy where Ewan McGregor (Star Wars) made his name. There was 28 Days Later (zombie thriller, see above). There was also Sunshine, one of the few Danny Boyle films not to be considered as a top 10 best British film - an excellent but flawed atmospheric sci-fi thriller about some astronauts flying their ship into a dimming sun to save the Earth.
In a total break from genre, Danny Boyle's next film, the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, took the world by storm. It's a rags to riches story of an 18 year old orphan on the slum streets of Mumbai, India, whose life is so peculiar that it miraculously provides him with the answers to the questions on the TV quiz "Who wants to be a Millionaire?" and earns him a fortune - and the attentions of the police. On paper, you might think this is a 'homework' movie - a movie you know you should see but feel is too earnest to be truly enjoyable. Cast your doubts aside. Feel-good without being sugar sweet, Slumdog Millionaire changed the lives of its actors (the young female lead was taken out of a Mumbai slum and given a wage, fame and an education to co-star). It will also probably change your perception of fate, poverty, slums, India and TV quiz shows.
Move over, Danny Boyle - is not it time another British director got a crack at the whip? Moon is the debut movie by Duncan Jones - and it's won a BAFTA, another 17 film awards and countless nominations. Moon is the story of lone blue-collar astronaut Sam Bell who is struggling to stay sane as he reaches the end of his three year shift, desperate to return home to Earth, his wife and his daughter. As the movie tagline says, "250,000 miles from home, the hardest thing to face ... is yourself". Moon is full of plot surprises, sterile moon beauty, impossibly fine acting from the leads (including Kevin Spacey as the computer), with a soundtrack to die for. Moon's not just a sci-fi film - it's a film about what it means to be human. And yes, it has some good gags in it. Nothing will prepare you for Moon ... Exception, possibly, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A must-see.
Sherlock Holmes - 2009
Sherlock Holmes is the latest offering from director Guy Ritchie, the ex Mrs. Madonna. Ritchie established himself as world-class with earlier successes like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (a love letter to the gangster caper, updated to a British East End setting for a modern audience).
A comedy action movie, Sherlock Holmes proves that when he's on form and not indulging himself, Guy Ritchie can produce the perfect action movie. The film benefits from inspired casting: Downey Jnr (Sherlock Holmes) and Jude Law (Doctor Watson) revisit and revamp the dynamics between the much-loved duo and are clearly having fun; in interviews the players say they did indeed have a bromance, so well they did gel together as co-leads. Guy Ritchie's director quirks are put to fine use in the film, with jump-cuts and camera trickery adding to the meat of the plot rather than spoiling it. Lastly, the big budget is done justice with some great cinematography - if you want to see a thriving, foggy Victorian London and have no time machine, watching Sherlock Holmes is the best way to do it. One of the most enjoyable examples of a popcorn movie this decade.
Harry Brown - 2009
Director Daniel Barber is a relative newcomer on the British film scene. He's looked at the great American movies and dramas covering the grimi side of life (like the Wire) and thought - how can this be updated, to offer the same action, the same drama, the same thrill, the same grandness of scale - but from a uniquely British perspective?
Cue Harry Brown. What does the British public currently fear most? Chavs, probably - a derogatory name given to a poor and violent youth subculture. Harry Brown is a chav revenge fantasy - the story of an old war veteran on a British slum estate who sees the social destruction brought about to his community by chavs and decides to take matters into his own hands. British National Treasure Michael Caine takes the starring role and is a joy to watch as an old age pensioner who refuses to back down.
Most of these films received worldwide critical acclaim and packed cinema seats across the globe. You may have missed some of them the first time round - now's the chance to take a chance the next time you hire out a Blu-Ray or DVD.
Do not be put off by the British accents, because you will not be disappointed - you'll find yourself immersed by the lights, camera action of ten of the best British films this decade.