The British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC) has been distributing, co-producing and co-financing films since 1990, and over the course of more than three decades has formed a bespoke catalogue of distinctly British cinema that is perhaps unmatched by any other business.
Playing its part in establishing the careers of megastars such as Kate Winslet, whilst also cementing the legacies of legends like Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, the BBC has made itself a go-to destination for both experienced and up-and-coming filmmakers alike, creating a home for British heritage films and popular star-driven movies alongside genre-busting pictures and art-house fare.
In this Movie List from The Film Magazine, each of the BBC’s myriad of film releases has been analysed, evaluated, compared and contrasted by three of our very best writers – Katie Doyle (KD), Sam Sewell-Peterson (SSP) and Joseph Wade (JW) – to establish in release order which BBC Film releases are must-watch, in this list of 100 Unmissable BBC Films.
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1. Truly Madly Deeply (1990)
Director: Anthony Minghella
Starring: Alan Rickman, Juliet Stevenson, Bill Paterson, Jenny Howe
Anthony Minghella’s magical realist tale of love, grief and afterlife starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman is frequently heartbreaking but also extremely warm and funny, particularly in the scenes where Rickman’s departed Jamie brings his ghost friends to hang out in Nina’s flat.
The film won Mighella a BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay and Rickman and Stevenson won Best Actor and Actress respectively at both the Evening Standard British Film Awards and the London Film Critics’ Circle. (SSP)
2. Jude (1996)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Kate Winslet, Christopher Eccleston, Rachel Griffiths, David Tennant, June Whitfield, James Nesbitt
Directed by Michael Winterbottom, the would-be director of classic football movie Goal! The Dream Begins and a slew of British comedies such as The Trip and Greed, 1996’s Jude has a stellar cast of young talent that would go on to dominate Hollywood.
Starring a 20-year-old Kate Winslet in a pre-Titanic lead performance that would hint at the powerhouse actress she would become, and one of British film’s most talented leading men Christopher Eccleston, this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” is an anti-establishment albeit bleak depiction of classist Britain and the restrictions facing those born on the bottom rungs of the class ladder. (JW)
3. Small Faces (1996)
Director: Gillies MacKinnon
Starring: Joseph McFadden, Kevin McKidd, Iain Robertson, Laura Fraser, Steven Duffy
A tale of three brothers that looks back on the typical life of underprivileged teenage boys growing up in 1960s Glasgow and all of its harrowing realities, Gillies MacKinnon’s Small Faces follows mischievous thirteen-year-old Lex Maclean (Iain Robertson), who is pulled into a gang war after accidentally shooting the leader of his older brother’s rival gang with an air gun. Thus follows the frank depiction of the vicious circle of gang violence as the most innocent lives are warped by the most despicable acts.
There is no mistaking the film’s condemnation of gang culture, but MacKinnon’s work also illustrates the seductive powers of violence via brutal yet captivating action scenes including a spine-tingling showdown at a local ice-skating rink. Small Faces was awarded Best New British Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1995. (KD)
4. I Went Down (1997)
Director: Paddy Breathnach
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Peter McDonald, Antoine Byrne, Peter Caffrey, David Wilmot, Tony Doyle
Conceived by Colin McPherson (whose writing credits now include the Disney production Artemis Fowl), I Went Down is a proud and charmingly refreshing entry into the almost consistently dour Irish filmography.
After upsetting a local gangster, ex-con Git Haynes (Peter McDonald) becomes obligated to go on a bounty hunt with a fellow, yet much older and more bombastic ex-con played by Brendan Gleeson. What starts out as simple debt collection becomes a convoluted affair as Git grows a conscience at the realisation of the nefarious fate that awaits their annoyingly chatty hostage, Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey).
Immensely popular back in its home country, the film swept over the Irish Film and Television Awards, winning Best Screenplay and Best Craft Contribution, as well as receiving nominations for Best Feature Film and Best Actor in a Male Role for Brendan Gleeson, who was well on his way to international stardom. (KD)
5. Billy Elliot (2000)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Stuart Wells, Jean Heywood
A young boy is caught in the crossfire of the violent 1984 clashes of the Miners’ Strike in County Durham in this unashamed kitchen sink drama which earned itself Best British Film at the 2001 BAFTA Film Awards. Directed by Stephen Daldry (The Reader, 2008), the film casts a scathing look at the Thatcher Years, readily depicting the brutal impacts of the Conservative government’s battle with the workers unions, which include the destruction of communities and livelihoods, and worst of all the crushing of the creativity and self-expression of a generation of children.
Jamie Bell’s powerful debut performance earned him a BAFTA for Actor in a Leading Role, while his co-star Julie Walters earned a BAFTA for Actress in a Supporting Role as Billy’s dance teacher. (KD)
6. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Starring: Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich, Cary Elwes, Udo Kier, Eddie Izzard, Catherine McCormack
The making of FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, stories about the inception of which is already fascinating to cinephiles, is used as the jumping off point for this thoroughly entertaining silent film-riffing horror movie that presupposes Max Schrek (played here by an Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe) really was a vampire who had Murnau (John Malkovich) under his spell.
Shadow of the Vampire might have missed out on major awards success but was recognised at the Saturn Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards. (SSP)
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7. Wonder Boys (2000)
Director: Curtis Hanson
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Richard Knox, Michael Cavadias, Alan Tudyk, Rip Torn, Jane Adams
The cast of this turn of the century adaptation of Michael Chambon’s mid-90s novel of the same name have a combined 5 Oscar wins and a further 5 Oscar nominations to their name, with at-the-time rising star Tobey Maguire (the would-be Spider-Man) leading the cast alongside legend Michael Douglas.
Wonder Boys itself would be nominated for Best Screenplay at both the BAFTAs and Oscars, while Michael Douglas would receive a nomination at the BAFTAs for Actor in a Leading Role and Bob Dylan would win an Oscar for Original Song for “Things Have Changed”.
Dubbed by Roger Ebert as “the most accurate movie about campus life that I can remember”, this darkly tinted tale proved a funny and touching story that the stellar cast only enhanced at every opportunity. (JW)
8. Iris (2001)
Director: Richard Eyre
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton
A true actor’s movie, 2001 BBC Films release Iris is an exceptional example of some career-high work from talented, generational talent. Judi Dench (as the titular Iris) is at arguably her very best in this Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning lead role, while Jim Broadbent (as her husband John) transforms for his only Oscar-winning performance.
Telling of the less-than-frequent experiences of old age, and in this case the often devastating battles people have with Alzheimer’s, this tale of love, grief and life long respect and passion is among the BBC’s most timeless and unmissable films; a deserving six-time BAFTA nominee and three-time Oscar nominee. (JW)
9. I Capture the Castle (2003)
Director: Tim Fywell
Starring: Ramola Garai, Henry Cavill, Rose Byrne, Bill Nighy, Henry Thomas, Tara Fitzgerald, Sinéad Moira Cusack
One of the BBC’s many examples of film releases filled to the brim with ensembles of rising stars, this 1930s-set romance about a young girl (Ramola Garai) navigating her eccentric castle-dwelling family, as well as love and flirtation with a young Henry Cavill, is the kind of empowering movie a teenage girl would attach themselves to in opposition to the Hollywood machine’s less-than-stellar stereotypes, a well-written if a little dreamy feature. (JW)
10. The Mother (2003)
Director: Roger Michell
Starring: Anne Reid, Daniel Craig, Anna Wilson-Jones, Peter Vaughan, Steven Mackintosh, Cathryn Bradshaw
From My Beautiful Laundrette writer Hanif Kureishi and Notting Hill director Roger Michell, The Mother is an alluring and provocative drama about a widow’s sexual affair with a man half her age; one that explores issues of womanhood, motherhood, empowerment, and learning the difference between living and being alive.
Starring television veteran Anne Reid in one of her most powerful performances, and would-be James Bond Daniel Craig, this drama unfolds in at times shocking fashion, yet its wholehearted Britishness never ceases. (JW)