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Top ten London films

As chosen by NS film critic Ryan Gilbey.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Tourist spots litter this horror-comedy, from London Zoo (where the hero wakes on the morning after his lycanthropic transformation) to Piccadilly Circus (scene of the climactic carnage). The seedy side is even better: Tottenham Court Road station at midnight, or the Eros porno cinema with undead patrons.

“Free Cinema” short films (1956–59)

Most of the Free Cinema shorts were breezy portraits of working-class London: Lindsay Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas took a tour of Covent Garden market, Tony Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow dropped in on a Wood Green jazz evening and Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys mingled at a youth club in Oval.

London (1994)

This imaginative essay-cum-documentary scrutinises London through the eyes of the mysterious Robinson, whose observations on the city and its ghosts are relayed in the bone-dry tones of an unseen narrator (Paul Scofield). Equal parts sciencefiction, history lesson and psychogeography, Patrick Keiller’s unique film is funny, eerie and thought-provoking.

The Low Down (2000)

Frank (Aidan Gillen) mooches around Dalston in a daze, waiting for something to happen in his freewheeling hipster life. He weathers nightly disturbances from the crack-house next door, and fantasises idly about being burgled but it’s telling that nothing really bad happens until he leaves London.

Nil by Mouth (1997)

Gary Oldman returned to the Deptford of his youth for his directorial debut about a family scarred by violence and addiction. The images of a south-east London housing estate, all mist-shrouded concrete and cadaverous greens and greys, bear comparison with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterful Dekalog.

Oliver! (1968)

Carol Reed’s adaptation of Lionel Bart’s Dickens musical is a great London film – despite not actually featuring an inch of London. John Box’s Shepperton Studios sets, from the sweeping crescent that is the backdrop to “Who Will Buy?” to the labyrinthine alleys through which pickpockets scurry like rats in a maze, are persuasive and evocative.

Performance (1970)

A basement flat in Powis Square is the hideout for thug-on-the-run James Fox – and whom should he find there but a rock god (Mick Jagger) who’s into mind (and body) games? Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s psychedelic thriller is set in a Notting Hill not easily confused with the Richard Curtis version.

Repulsion (1965)

Ah, the foreign director in London! See Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970), Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001) – and this chiller from Roman Polanski, whose use of Kensington as the backdrop for Catherine Deneuve’s breakdown is inspired: there’s menace behind the affluent area’s good manners.

Sabotage (1936)

The Alfred Hitchcock Hotel stands near the director’s birthplace in Leytonstone. (Ask for a rear window. No shower.) On film, the East End lad had a canny eye for the pulse of London life, never more so than in Sabotage, where a boy’s halting bus journey proves . . . explosive.

Wonderland (1999)

Michael Winterbottom’s finest film is to London what Woody Allen’s Manhattan is to New York City: a rapturous love letter in bold strokes. Set over one Bonfire Night weekend with an interlinking ensemble cast and shot handheld on 16mm, its guerrilla graininess is offset by hallucinatory optical effects and Michael Nyman’s soaring score.


Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue