10 great British films of 2002

Twenty years on, 2002 looks like a vintage year for British cinema.

18 August 2022

By Josh Slater-Williams

Morvern Callar (2002)

Looking back on a nation’s output for any artform 20 years removed, there’s a risk of rose-tinted glasses misrepresenting the quality or wider health of the medium at the time. But while certain contemporary commercial successes should perhaps remain left in the past (Ali G Indahouse and The Guru, to name two), a not insignificant portion of the British films of 2002 have endured with audiences in the decades since.

The cover of Sight and Sound in October 2002

In terms of acting talent, 2002 saw the release of breakthrough films for actors who are still major names 20 years later, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley, Naomie Harris, Sean Harris, Benedict Wong, Nicholas Hoult and Martin Compston. Regarding early career directors, Lynne Ramsay proved Ratcatcher (1999) was no fluke with her second feature, Morvern Callar. Another key Scottish filmmaker of the last few decades, David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Starred Up, Hell or High Water), also had his debut feature as director – the thriller The Last Great Wilderness – premiere this year. And actor-director Peter Mullan won the Golden Lion prize at Venice for his second feature, The Magdalene Sisters, which explores three teenage girls’ experiences of Ireland’s infamous ‘Magdalene laundries’. 2002 also saw premieres of key films in the careers of Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, Stephen Frears and Michael Winterbottom.

While not all of the same quality as Boyle’s 28 Days Later…, 2002 was a particularly interesting year for British genre cinema. Neil Marshall’s ambitious debut feature Dog Soldiers transplanted the formula of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) to the werewolf movie; Jamie Bell followed up Billy Elliott (2000) with First World War supernatural tale Deathwatch; westerns influenced Shane Meadows’ Once upon a Time in the Midlands; and ouija board horror Long Time Dead made solid earnings worldwide. The American-set British thriller My Little Eye is very dated in some ways, yet its story of an online reality show experiment with a deadly twist makes it a crucial text for how internet-rooted horror would later develop.

With a new restoration of Dog Soldiers surfacing on physical media, here – in the order they premiered – are 10 of the best films made in Britain that fertile year.

24 Hour Party People

Director: Michael Winterbottom

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Whenever a new musician biopic is announced, you’ll get pundits on social media asking why anyone bothers making them after 2007 spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story skewered the formula so perfectly. You could invoke the same question with the example of 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s kind-of-biopic about Tony Wilson, Factory Records and the Manchester scene of 1976 to 92.

Combining factually accurate events, urban legends and rumours, and then making up lots of other stuff, it’s a fourth-wall-breaking film so postmodern as to literally discuss its own postmodernism on screen. Incredibly energetic and entertaining, it’s irreverent but palpably loving towards a specific place and its people. And few other films so successfully capture the euphoria of hearing a great new band for the first time.

Dog Soldiers

Director: Neil Marshall

Dog Soldiers (2002)

Neil Marshall’s ‘soldiers vs werewolves’ pitch was in various stages of talks as far back as 1995, before the Scottish Highlands-set action-horror finally hit cinema screens to solid box office numbers and strong reviews. In the US, the film curiously ended up debuting straight-to-television on what was then the Sci-Fi Channel.

Marshall would further cement his status as an exciting new British genre talent with The Descent in 2005, although Dog Soldiers is a much lighter affair. While genuinely tense (and the gory practical effects hold up), it’s the rapport between the increasingly exasperated squaddies – holed up in a cottage with rapidly depleting ammunition – that endures the most.

Bend It like Beckham

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Bend It like Beckham (2002)

A big hit both domestically and overseas (and something of a ‘queer classic’ for a certain generation now), Hounslow-set Bend It like Beckham follows football-crazy Jess (a magnetic Parminder Nagra), who’s from a Punjabi Sikh background, as she pursues her dream of playing professionally. It’s a breezy affair, though matters of racism, intergenerational trauma, class-based expectations and concealed homosexuality are woven throughout with appropriate weight.

Co-star Keira Knightley also made an impression in Gillies MacKinnon’s drug addiction drama Pure this same year, an honourable mention for this list. Funnily enough, her character in that wants to name her baby Beckham.

About a Boy

Directors: Chris and Paul Weitz

About a Boy (2002)

Back in 2002, About a Boy both played into and subverted aspects of Hugh Grant’s leading man persona. His turn as a singleton Londoner remains one of his most layered performances, in a romantic comedy peppered with acidity and spikiness that – in contrast with Grant’s collaborations with Richard Curtis – refrains from fetishising romantic coupledom. 

There’s genuine warmth alongside depressing subject matters; the performances, Nick Hornby’s writing and the Weitz brothers’ direction ensuring that even a third act set-piece involving a school talent show doesn’t veer into sickly schmaltz.

All or Nothing

Director: Mike Leigh

All or Nothing (2002)

The daily grind can tear love apart over time, as explored in Mike Leigh’s portrait of one poor working-class London family (Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Alison Garland, James Corden) breaking apart at the seams, alongside some of their neighbours at the end of their own respective tethers. 

Spall and Manville are typically incredible, though Ruth Sheen and Sally Hawkins are especially worthy of mention from the supporting players, the latter in her debut (non-extra) film role as the fiery unemployed teenage daughter of two alcoholics. She’d go on to lead Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky six years later.

Morvern Callar

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Morvern Callar (2002)

In Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature Ratcatcher (1999), the young protagonist’s inaction in the face of another local child drowning is the instigating incident. A similarly grim situation begins her excellent follow-up, as Samantha Morton’s title character wakes up at Christmas to find her boyfriend dead, his body face down in the kitchen of their Oban home. He’s left a suicide note, alongside a manuscript of his unpublished novel that’s to be sent to a recommended publisher, plus money for funeral costs. But Morvern doesn’t honour these wishes. She tells people her boyfriend has left her and moved abroad, later cutting up his body and burying the pieces in the mountains. Erasing his name and putting forth her own, she gets publisher interest in his manuscript and heads on a hedonistic holiday to Spain.

Adapting Scottish author Alan Warner’s prize-winning debut novel, Ramsay expands on Ratcatcher’s capturing of upsetting images with a kind of filthy beauty, though with a much different, scorching visual palette. And as Steven Spielberg also demonstrated the same year with Minority Report, Samantha Morton has one of the great cinematic faces.


Director: David Cronenberg

Spider (2002)

Light on his trademark body horror but still rife with the psychological kind, Spider saw David Cronenberg venture from Canada to London’s East End for this adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s slippery novel. This same year, Ralph Fiennes played killer Francis Dolarhyde in Thomas Harris adaptation Red Dragon, but his performance here is a more subtle portrait of a tortured soul. He’s Dennis Cleg, a man with schizophrenia who’s recently been released from a psychiatric institution and given room in a halfway house established for mentally disturbed individuals.

Roaming derelict local spots, he begins piecing together the meaning behind traumatic memories from his 1950s childhood. He apparently witnessed his father (Gabriel Byrne) kill his mother (Miranda Richardson), but is that all a delusion? Rather than incorporating standard flashbacks, Cronenberg places Fiennes into the childhood scenes as a physical presence, as though he’s a time traveller or ghost who can watch but not intervene.

Sweet Sixteen

Director: Ken Loach

Sweet Sixteen (2002)

The third Scotland-set collaboration between director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty (Carla’s Song and My Name Is Joe preceded, Ae Fond Kiss and The Angels’ Share would follow), Sweet Sixteen largely takes place in the town of Greenock. There, delinquent Liam (a hypnotic Martin Compston) is fighting for a better life for his incarcerated mother (Michelle Coulter). She’s due to be released in the coming months, having served a sentence for a crime in fact committed by her menacing boyfriend, a drug pusher. In attempting to raise money to purchase a new home for his mum, Liam gets caught under the thumb of a generous local kingpin.

As well as winning best screenplay at Cannes, the film would later win the top prize at the British Independent Film Awards, with Compston – who’d never acted before auditioning for the role – picking up most promising newcomer. To some extent, the film’s theatrical release was impeded by the BBFC’s controversial decision to give the film an 18-certificate, primarily due to strong language.

Dirty Pretty Things

Director: Stephen Frears

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things is a humanist portrait of immigration and refugees in Britain, mixed with an underworld thriller in which director Stephen Frears carefully straddles the line between exploring the exploited and making borderline exploitative entertainment. An excellent main cast helps make it all work, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Nigerian doctor Okwe, who in his overnight hotel job – he also drives a cab in the day – discovers a human heart clogging one of the toilets.

Writer Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, though the characterisation of antagonistic immigration officer characters borders on pantomime villainy. That said, outspoken xenophobia and racism, plus demonisation of refugees, has only become more upfront and unsubtle in the British public sphere in recent years.

28 Days Later…

Director: Danny Boyle

28 Days Later... (2002)

Despite debate as to whether it even counts as an entry in the genre (partly stoked by the director himself), Danny Boyle’s electric 28 Days Later… gave the zombie movie a much-needed kick up the backside. In tandem with the Resident Evil video games and film adaptations, it’s arguably responsible for the following decade’s big resurgence in undead media.

You’d likely still get Shaun of the Dead just a year-and-a-half later without it, but you probably wouldn’t get George Romero’s studio-backed return to zombie allegory (Land of the Dead), Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, Zombieland or TV mega-hit The Walking Dead without Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s DV-shot, post-apocalyptic nerve-shredder making more than 10 times its $8 million budget worldwide.

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