High Rise Director Ben Wheatley's 21 British Films You Need To See

From The Shining to Withnail & I, the pick of the country's best filmmaking

"Oh God," says Ben Wheatley, "I've left out John Boorman. That's not good." The director of Kill List, High-Rise and the forthcoming Free Fire has, to his consternation, neglected to discuss the director of Zardoz, Excalibur and Point Blank during a long, wide-ranging conversation about the British films he values the most.

If you watch as many films as Wheatley does, and are as busy making them (six features, with Free Fire, and an anthology segment, since 2009's Down Terrace), then you may forgive the oversight. He's tougher on himself. "I've been working this through in my head in the last couple of years, but it is definitely Boorman, Ken Russell and Nic Roeg who seem to be the pillars of my favourite types of British cinema. They don't get talked about as much as the world of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and the kind of socio-realist, sensible film-making which gets pushed, mainly by the French. That's what our national cinema seems to be defined as, and it's not true. There's a massively wild British cinema, as wild or wilder than any other national cinema, and it's not all tales of council estates and tower blocks reflected in puddles."

Wheatley shines new light on cast-iron British classics — Get Carter, The Third Man — as well as choosing lesser-known wilder movies for his list. Born in 1972, he grew up in a time that was, he says, "the tail end of the period that if you missed something at the cinema or you were too young, it felt like you weren't ever going to see it. I didn't see The Empire Strikes Back because my parents wouldn't take me to see it, so I had to read the fucking novelisation and I didn't see it until the Christmas of '90, when it came out TV. Outrageous!"

When Wheatley talks about his own movies, or making them, he always says "we" not "I", referring to the core cinematic collaborators with whom he's made all his features: the producer Andy Starke, director of photography Laurie Rose and writer and editor Amy Jump, aka Mrs Wheatley. This list of films, however, is a moveable feast. "My favourite films change all the time," Wheatley says. " I thought everyone's do."

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The Long Good Friday

John Mackenzie (1980)


Thatcherite London gangster incurs wrath of IRA, irks Mafia, blows top.


"Massive scope; it's so big. Loads of detail and brilliant lines. The central performance of Bob Hoskins is incredible. It's also weirdly prescient, talking about the development of the docks, the rebuilding and reclaiming of London. This is a favourite from when I was a kid. One of those movies you start watching and your parents ask you what time it's going to end and you say it's going to end at 9pm and it doesn't end until 11.30pm. I actually watched this at my grandparents', upstairs, on my uncle's black-and-white portable telly. There were a lot of movies like that: I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in black-and-white as well, for the first time, on a tiny screen, and it was still brilliant. People moan about watching stuff windowed in YouTube, but that can be quite a big image when you think about what we used to watch telly on."

Performance

Nicholas Roeg, Donald Cammell (1970)


Wanted thug taken in by Jagger-like rock star, played by Mick Jagger.


"The London crime scene is very well done. It feels more authentic than a lot of other films of its type. It captures that Kray Twins moment: sex, drugs, crime and celebrity all being churned into one big melting pot. So far ahead of its time, even now, and a movie, like with, Blade Runner, that every time I watch it I see something new. Incredible images, with cinematography that I still don't know quite how they did it. I actually came to this through Happy Mondays, and their album Bummed (1988), which has samples from the film [on the track "Mad Cyril"]. I always wondered what they were, so I looked into it. The idea of fractured time that we've done in all our films comes from this, from Roeg, but also Alan Moore's Watchmen comics."

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Blade Runner

Ridley Scott (1982)


Harrison Ford's future cop wrestles renegade androids and the human condition.


"I'm calling this British because it's the culmination of 10 years of ad-making in the UK [Scott made his name directing commercials]. I've bought every book about it and studied it, I buy every reissue and have seen it many, many, many times. It's just a brilliant film, the story's interesting and it still looks gorgeous. The special effects stand up: how that's possible, I don't now, because other films of the period look terrible now. Blade Runner is a definitive image of what the future is going to look like, it's kind of ruined all sci-fi in a way, because everything is a bit Blade Runner-y now — either that or it looks like it's been designed at Apple."

The Ladykillers

Alexander Mackendrick (1955)


Jet-black comedy: robbers dupe an old dear into their heist then plot to do her in.


"This is probably the film I've watched more than any other. At one point as a kid we only had three Betamax tapes on which I'd taped , and . All the performances are incredible from an amazing ensemble cast, including Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. It's really funny, but it's really sinister at the same time. For some reason, the funny and sinister have the same power, and that's rare, one usually undercuts the other. It's so scary. You think Guinness is out of his mind, a monster, the most dangerous one of all of them. So bumbling and silly, but also not: he's going to be a murderer."

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Threads

Mick Jackson (1984)


Controversial BBC film predicts what happens after Britain is nuked.


"A TV movie, but I'm going to count it. Threads pulls no punches. It should be double-billed with Max Max to show the reality of the post-apocalyptic world. It's not mohicans and motorbikes; it's all just misery, scrabbling around for potatoes when you've gone blind after the nuclear armageddon. I remember seeing that when it came out, it was so profound. I don't think anything was the same for me after."

Sitting Target

Douglas Hickox (1972)


Wronged lag seeks revenge in pulp fiction of the lowest order/highest impact.


"Sitting Target is a grotty and weirdly influential crime film. It starts with Oliver Reed in prison with Ian McShane as his sidekick. He's visited by his wife, who tells him she's pregnant by another man and he tries to smash his way though the glass to get to her. Then he decides to escape and kill her. Oliver Reed is basically The Terminator; he ends up wearing the same clothes Arnie wears, and he moves in a robotic way through the film, dispatching people. Oliver Reed buys a gun, a Mauser; later, this gun ends up in Star Wars, literally, as Han Solo's gun. Watch the trailer and go, 'Fuck, that is Han Solo's blaster.' Oliver Reed and Ian McShane are always worth watching, but it's such a perversely brutal plot. Can you imagine the elevator pitch? 'And get this — she's pregnant!' I'd can that one right there."

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The Third Man

Carol Reed (1949)


Exemplary film written by Graham Greene, set in Vienna, starring Orson Welles.


"A stone-cold classic with a perfect script, structurally, and shot so imaginatively. The image that sticks with me is of Welles' fingers going through the grate at the end of the great sewer chase – that's cinema. He's so close to escaping but can't get his freedom. He's a monster that you love. This film says everything about the reality of morals: life is not black hats and white hats, it's lots of very grey hats. Even a man who has poisoned children can come across as an alright bloke in the right circumstances in this movie! Also, the matter-of-factness of him not giving a fuck about anybody is so chilling: the money-for-lives speech on the Ferris wheel. It feels like that's how politicians think, how you can sacrifice loads of people and not care."

Withnail & I

Bruce Robinson (1987)


Out-of work actors on a sozzled, sodden Lake District mini-break.


"I couldn't believe how funny it was first time I saw it. That kind of drinking culture is something I understood and had seen: bar wit and being able to swear in an incredibly hilarious and muscular way really appealed to me. It's so sharp, certainly for a movie where nothing happens really: the biggest thing they manage to do is go on holiday 'by mistake'. That's basically all that happens: they drive down a road, stay in a room and talk to each other and then come back! Just shows what you can do with virtually nothing: so thin, yet so brilliant. A joy. There are no jokes, just funny people being funny, characters with a sense of humour. And Richard E Grant: for a man who's a complete teetotal, it's one of the greatest drunk performances of all time. That wet-eyed, almost dissolved look he has throughout the whole film is just genius."

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Star Wars

George Lucas (1977)

Reluctant hero loses family, finds robots, saves galaxy, possibly fancies sister.

"Yes, this is more of a stretch, but for me it's British because of the technicians, the studio [Elstree Studios]; it's David Prowse, it's Don Henderson, Peter Cushing, all the stormtroopers. When you think about it, all the stormtroopers are probably all Cockneys, which is something that isn't talked about enough. They all came to London to make it, so that's why it gets on my list."

Archipelago and Exhibition 

Joanna Hogg (2010; 2013)


Double bill of middle-class mores with early Tom Hiddleston lead roles.


"I watched these as part of the due diligence for working with Tom on High-Rise, having avoided them for possibly small-minded and spiteful reasons: because they were critically lauded and I was probably jealous — I can be a bit snide like that — and because I didn't think I would like them. When I watched them, I thought they were brilliant. I liked the play of manners and the resolutely British feel of them, and the achingly fucking horrible atmosphere. It's oppressive, but it's also people trying to be good, trying their best but failing. They weren't the middle classes making films about the working classes, which seems to be a lot of British arthouse cinema. For Joanna Hogg to talk about her own life and world in that detail is refreshing. I like the thing of people self-starting, making films outside the system pretty much. She was a director on and stuff like that, so what she's doing is an independent cinema that's truly independent. No matter what funding you get further down the line, starting off your own back and making something is really good."