Brandon Wilner ……… blog

01 Jun 2021
A Ranked Guide for Getting Really into the Films of Ken Loach

(with free streaming links for each)

People say the US doesn't have a Ken Loach. People may be correct. We have John Sayles. We have Melvin Van Peebles. Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Christine Choy. We do have great filmmakers who engage recent historical events to help us better understand the political structures that shape our lives. But this nation does not have a widely celebrated auteur who has for half a century created a vast body of work marked by depictions of revolutionary sacrifice, unflinching investigations into the dire effects of deregulated markets, and clear, partisan arguments for labor rights. Not many nations do.

Prior to the pandemic, I had seen just a few of Ken Loach's films: Kes, The Wind The Shakes the Barley, and Land and Freedom. I thought that these three pictures had provided me with a digest of his general style, but I found myself watching a few more (Jimmy's Hall, Hidden Agenda, and Riff-Raff) that at once scratched the itch that had brought me to them and pointed toward other Loach tendencies with which I was completely unfamiliar. I watched on, and began to keep track of the viewings as I went.

This blog entry is the result of the long and lonely winter spanning late 2020 and early 2021, the time before the vaccine had arrived, when every gathering with others, required an up-front COVID test, which were a chore to acquire. It was certainly the most isolated season I'd ever experienced, and these films that stress the importance of shared joy and collective action provided reminders of what might lie on the other side of it — not quite reasons to live, but reminders of what a meaningful life should include: conviction, forgiveness, perseverance, beauty. It's especially this last that I now confidently attribute to the works of Ken Loach. For if beauty is what exalts our desires and challenges us to grant our selves new, bolder ones, then his films are among the most beautiful I know.

The list that follows is roughly sorted in order of my fondness for each. To aid in viewing selection, I have included a Loach bleakness rating for each entry, with five stars being the dreariest, and with one star as something approaching hopeful. There are also streaming links for each, often of the 123Movies variety, so be prepared to fend off pop-ups when you watch them (and some of the links may be dead by the time you read this). A few of his films are at the time of publication absent from the list, as I did reach a point at which I required a break. It's possible and likely that I'll add these others when I get around to seeing them. For no I have omitted Loach's television plays, the early works made for broadcast which helped him define his style, because they are simply much more numerous than his proper films.






27. McLibel (2005)
(Documentary) Directed by Franny Armstrong
Stream (85 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


Loach didn't work on the majority of this documentary but he did contribute pro bono direction to the courtroom reenactments, which simply feature actors reciting portions of the court transcript in front of a black background. I watched it along with all these others, though, and figured I'd include it mostly because of the flashbacks it gave me to the political attentions of the mid-2000s. McLibel tells the story of two English activists whom McDonald's threatened with libel because they had been distributing an anti-McDonald's pamphlet criticizing the company's unhealthy food, poor treatment of workers, immoral ad campaigns aimed at children, etc. Rather than cave to the company's threats, the pair (neither of whom was a lawyer) decided to take the case to court, and were made to represent themselves because at the time the UK did not provide public defenders for libel cases.

The activists don't win the case outright, but by the end the press and public are in agreement that they've come out on top, especially considering the vast gulf between their resources and those of McDonald's (though they do receive counsel from a young Keir Starmer, then serving as a barrister). But their case and the film have a sort of dark cloud hovering overhead throughout: the fact that much popular activism of the time had fast-food corporations as its targets instead of true power centers that were and still are inflicting much more serious harm. Now that the organic food movement has fizzled into a matter more of bourgeois consumer choice than of land reform or farm workers' rights, and now that Starmer has overseen the transformation of Labour into a well-oiled losing machine whose goals look nothing like those of working people, McLibel hits with all the impact of a turd in a toilet bowl. Loach's scenes are adequate but in no way remarkable. I suppose it all seemed quite exciting at the time.




26. Fatherland (1986)
Screenplay by Trevor Griffiths
Stream (111 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


The 1980s were a tumultuous period for Loach. After his son died in a car accident in 1971, it took him years to return to work on television, and even longer to return to directing films. His confidence took a hit after his first feature-length attempt since the accident (excepting his children's film Black Jack), Looks and Smiles, didn't do well, and many of his documentaries, plays, and television series were either banned or had the plug pulled on their production, as their portrayals of the poverty, workers' struggle, and Zionist/Nazi collaboration were rather out of place under Thatcherism.

Fatherland was the only movie that Loach made in the 80s, and its subject matter and style reflect these difficulties. Far from the intimate portraits of working-class English life that then made up his body of work, this one is set in 1980s Germany and follows the singer-songwriter Klaus Drittemann (played by actual exiled East-German musician Gerulf Pannach), who is made to leave the GDR after the government will no longer tolerate with his music, which is critical of life under "actually existing socialism." The film is composed of two episodes. The first follows Drittemann as he goes from East to West Berlin, finds himself alienated by the new-wave music so popular on the capitalist side of the wall, and remains critical of both countries. In the second half, he secures his West German passport and with the help of a French journalist, goes in search of his father, who mysteriously disappeared in 1953 and has been in hiding ever since. All the while Drittemann is pursued by prophetic dreams, which are shown as Fellini-esque black and white digressions containing a strain of imitating-European figurative imagery that doesn't quite suit a filmmaker like Loach.

If any of this sounds exciting, let me assure you that it is not. Fatherland is a tedious, messy film that, though close to some interesting world-historic themes preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, probably should have been made by someone else. In fact a related late-partition epic was made by someone else. Wim Wenders was working on Wings of Desire around the same time and with much of the same crew, and that film had the advantage of its director not already being beloved for a very different method of storytelling. All throughout Fatherland I asked myself if I could possibly finish watching it. I suppose I'm glad I did, as the final confrontation between Drittemann and his father does reveal an explosive explanation for the severed family ties introduced early on in the film, but I'd recommend against having to invest in this question in the first place.




25. Carla's Song (1996)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (110 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★


It's easy to appreciate the apparent goal of this film: to tell of the horrors of the Nicaraguan Contra War and the vast support that Reagan and his CIA provided to the anti-revolutionary army. It's less easy to comprehend why Loach and Laverty's chosen heuristic for doing so is the story of an impulsive Scottish bus driver named George (Robert Carlyle), who upends his entire life after a brief encounter with a Nicaraguan woman named Carla (Oyanka Cabezas), who though thankful for his behavior during their first meeting wants nothing to do with him. In this story the two eventually form a relationship, and George travels with Carla to the Nicaraguan countryside in search of her comrades who were tortured by Contras some years prior. As soon as George and Carla's plane touches down, all but a few details of the preceding plot seem entirely irrelevant, and George becomes a cipher for the viewer's own ignorance of the subject at hand, serving as the grounds for historical explication, as well as the eyes through which foreigners might understand the gentleness of the revolutionaries and the righteousness of their project.

The overwrought frame narrative feels as if it were contrived only to justify this movie about recent Nicaraguan history being made by Ken Loach rather than a Latin American director. Unfortunately the lopsided nature of the events distracts from the more important elements, and even the moment where George has the CIA's involvement spelled out for him (apparently intended as a smoking gun) is subsumed by his character's more personal urgencies. Loach's work generally benefits from his immediately recognizable visual vocabulary related to working life in the UK, allowing the viewer to make a good-faith emotional investment in the issues depicted, but here the Scottish worker's presence in a foreign liberation movement simply distracts from its import.




24. Land and Freedom (1995)
Screenplay by Jim Allen
Stream (109 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★


Pretty much anyone who's written anything about Land and Freedom has pointed out its resemblance to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, the 1938 memoir about his time spent fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The similarities are clear: an Englishman fighting in Spain, tales of faulty weapons and rampant lice in the trenches, the POUM militia as the focal point, etc. But whereas Orwell dedicated two long chapters to asides describing the internecine conflicts among the various anti-fascist factions, Loach incorporates them into his narrative through scenes of drawn-out debate in order to show how a revolutionary group can incorporate and work past ideological and methodological differences while maintaining a common goal. That goal of course does not come to pass, as the Stalin-backed government military falsely accuses the POUM of being fascist allies and declares their activity illegal.

The story unfolds through a frame narrative of a woman uncovering the events through photos, letters, and newspaper clippings of her just-deceased grandfather. It would seem that Loach framed it as such to give continuity to the revolutionary legacy of the war, but in so doing he rather neuters that legacy, which lives on only in a couple of gestures performed at the fighter's funeral.




23. Looks and Smiles (1981)
Screenplay by Barry Hines
Stream (103 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


Looks and Smiles is a sort of coming-of-age tale interrupted by material circumstance. A poor Sheffield boy named Mick (Graham Green) is excited to enter the working world and adulthood, but he has his plans thwarted by a destitute job market and a general lack of resources. He meets a girl (Carolyn Nicholson) who's managed to find work in a shoe store, and he's desperate to prove, to her and to himself, his ability to provide for a woman. He drifts listlessly from one job prospect to another, and his friend Alan (Tony Pitts), who has joined the army and shipped off to Northern Ireland, tries to convince him that the military path is the best one for both of them. Loach has apparently disowned this film because it did not inspire the outrage appropriate to the situation, and it's true that if this was his only goal he may have failed somewhat. But Looks and Smiles has much to offer beyond simple provocation, including beautifully intimate black-and-white cinematography and understated but earnest acting from a young cast. It conveys all of the frustration, destitution, and perhaps naive hope of youth under Thatcherite austerity, and I'd guess serves as a faithful preservation of its moment.




22. Black Jack (1979)
Screenplay by Ken Loach
Stream (110 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★


Black Jack was Loach's return to feature filmmaking after having taken time away to grieve the loss of his five-year-old son, killed in a car crash in 1971. One wonders if he didn't see some of himself in Belle (Louise Cooper), the protagonist whose relationships forged through an arduous journey help her recover her sanity and confidence, or if he chose to adapt a children's novel because his son had liked the story. Whatever the reason, the film is an outlier in Loach's oeuvre. It's a period piece set in mid-eighteenth-century Yorkshire, about a boy named Tolly (Stephen Hirst) who follows the giant French pirate Black Jack (Jean Franval) after the latter evades his hanging by lodging a bent spoon in his throat. They join up with a traveling fair and while on the road with it, Tolly looks after Belle and helps her and the others in the party see that she's not mad, all while she's being pursued by the psychological specialists who lost track of her, who are themselves being exploited by the wily scam artist Hatch. The accents, costumes, and mise en scene are genuinely transporting, and although it leaves open some elements that are apparently better explained in the novel, the film is a charming parable that almost makes one wish Loach hadn't cleaved quite so closely to his trademark hard realism for the rest of his career.




21. Ae Fond Kiss… (2004)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (104 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★


Loach finds himself on unsure footing in this romantic drama examining interracial and interfaith relationships in post-9/11 Scotland. Long a critic of religious dogma, he here adopts a questionable strategy of one-to-one comparison between Catholic conservatism and Muslim tradition, both at odds with the wishes of a man and woman from each background. Casim (Atta Yaqub) is a second-generation Pakistani immigrant born and raised in Glasgow and set to be married to his cousin in a few months. While helping his sister deal with bullies at her Catholic high school, he meets Roisin (Eva Birthistle), an Irish immigrant who teaches music there. The two fall in love and are immediately saddled with the issue of how they might possibly conduct their lives together, as Casim knows his decision to be with a woman outside his faith will cause a major rift in his family.

Roisin, who makes scant effort to understand the broader social issues at play, is a perfect avatar of twenty-first-century Western individualism: secular, ahistorical, resistant to all tradition, and unable to articulate or even consider a tenable definition of love. She has arrived at this perspective through her experience with the Catholic Church, and she cannot comprehend why her conclusions should change just because the context does. Though the film ends on a somewhat warm note, the couple's love enduring at least until the credits roll, this one still feels like a tragedy — perhaps the fate of all romance under neoliberalism.




20. Ladybird, Ladybird (1994)
Screenplay by Rona Munro
Stream (101 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★★


This one's pretty difficult to watch, in large part due to Crissy Rock's heart-rending performance. She plays Maggie, a mother who has been the victim of sexual and domestic abuse since childhood, and who has never had the resources to help her name or process her trauma. She has four children, each by a different man, and her codependency issues cause her to continue pursuing relationships even when she knows that they're unhealthy. She does find a healthy partner in a Paraguayan immigrant named Jorge (Vladimir Vega), to whom she reveals other details of her life, including that social services put her children in foster care after she locked them in her flat while she went out for a drink and they were nearly killed in a fire. (The story bears an eerie resemblance to the nursery rhyme after which it's named, but it is based on actual events.) They try to start a new life together with new children, but Maggie's social workers continue to deem her unfit to raise them, removing the two baby girls from the couple's care and wreaking havoc on Maggie's sanity in the process. It's a disturbing look at how a state apparatus full of well-meaning individuals can be so wholly unequipped to address the illnesses whose symptoms they police.




19. Raining Stones (1993)
Screenplay by Jim Allen
Stream (90 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★


Loach's contempt for the Catholic Church is a running theme throughout his work, but nowhere is it distilled so purely as in this allegory about a very religious, very poor man desperately trying to scrounge up the money to pay for his daughter's first-communion dress. Bob (Bruce Jones) and his lumbering pal Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) are out of work in a destitute early-90s Manchester, and so must scrape by committing petty thefts like capturing a sheep from a farm and selling it as mutton or stealing and flipping sod from the lawn of a private conservancy. They have a few laughs as they wend their way through varied mishaps, but despair is the ugly and ever-present force guiding their decisions. Bob's father-in-law, who works for a local political party, is the only person in his life asking him to question his relationship to the church and to devote himself instead to the party's working-class organizing efforts. "When you're a worker it rains stones seven days a week," he says, to which Bob, not quite getting it, responds, "And then it pisses down on me." In the end, life cuts Bob an unexpected break, and Loach leaves it to the viewer to determine whether it's due to divine intervention or pure luck.




18. Time to Go (1989)
(Documentary)
Stream (13 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


This short documentary is an opening volley announcing Loach's interest in Irish independence and the country's struggle against occupying British security forces, its title a clear message to these latter. In the midst of the Troubles, he speaks to a former Northern-Irish MP, a historian, and a labor representative limn the contours of Britain's establishment of a sectarian structure of control supported by Protestant loyalists in order to discriminate against Catholic nationalists. Others provide testimony about the brutal tactics used by paratroopers, which is intercut with disturbing footage of beatings in the streets. In one particularly harrowing account, a woman with no eyes describes the last thing she ever saw: a paratrooper was beating a young man in the head, and not knowing what else to do, she had her daughter go out to put the incident on the official record. As she was looking out the window, another paratrooper stepped in front of her window and fired a rubber bullet directly into her face. The film's argument is succinct and plainly spoken, and underlying it is the indispensable question of whose violence assumes the mantle of justice and whose is merely terrorism.




17. Looking for Eric (2009)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (116 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★


Part family drama, part crime movie, part buddy comedy, and part sports fantasy(?), Looking for Eric is the genre-flouting story of a suicidal postman who learns to reconnect with his friends, family, and passions. A guided meditation session and a habit of stealing his stepson's weed lead Eric Bishop (played by Steve Evets, once a bassist for The Fall) to summon a vision of his favorite footballer, Eric Cantona (played by himself), as his imaginary friend/life coach. Initially it seems that the viewer is in for a couple hours of motivational speeches and montages propped up by humor that plays on the difference between an adored athlete and an everyman, but the plot and Cantona's counsel take an unexpected turn when one of Bishop's live-in stepsons finds himself in trouble with both the law and a local crime boss.

The film's marketing painted Looking for Eric as an ode to the salvific power of sports fandom, but though Bishop is goaded into bettering himself by a beloved athlete, what Cantona helps him overcome is an overwhelming fear of the past — a fear that applies even (and especially) to some of his most cherished achievements. Cantona helps Bishop see that guilt shouldn't override beautiful memories that are close to it; "You know, sometimes beautiful memories are the most toughest of all. C'est la vie," he says. Through a great deal of fanciful window dressing, the film demonstrates an axiom at once deeply simple and deeply complex: if we lose sight of the sweetest, most life-affirming moments of our past, we lose sight of the future as well.




16. The Flickering Flame (1997)
(Documentary)
Stream (51 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


If you watch The Spirit of '45 and find yourself curious about the Liverpool dockworkers' struggle mentioned toward the end, this documentary will be of help (and it turns out Spirit even borrowed some footage from it). Through narration and interviews with workers involved (the companies declined to contribute), the film tells the story of the twenty-eight-month strike/lockout which at the time was apparently receiving little press or political attention. The shipping company Torside Limited dismissed five dockworkers who had raised an issue about their overtime pay. When the five sacked dockers formed a picket line that the other Torside workers refused to cross, the company sacked seventy-five more dockers, the entirety of its staff. Employees of the nearby Mersey Docks stood in solidarity with the Torside workers, and Mersey likewise sacked all those involved, a total of three hundred people. Loach follows the workers as they're a year into the lockout, gathering support from other longshoreman organizations and feuding with both their union and the top brass of the corporations. His characteristically humanist approach allows the dockers to tell most of the story themselves, revealing through their testimonies the long tradition of pride driving their struggle to bring dignity back to their work.




15. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (100 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


I, Daniel Blake is Loach's biggest box-office hit to date, and it would seem that there are two major reasons behind its success: 1) Dave Johns' endearing and exasperating portrayal of the title character; 2) The other actors' plain portrayals of quiet, everyday desperation; and 3) The nearly universal experience of confrontation with rigid state bureaucracy that seems (and often is) purpose-built to frustrate and alienate those who interact with it. The film is utterly tragicomic, illustrating the axiomatic truth so familiar to life under increasingly derelict and privatized governance: that this would all be sad if it weren't so funny, and funny if it weren't so sad.




14. The Angels' Share (2014)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (106 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★


The Angels' Share is the answer to the question, "What would it look like if Loach made a heist movie?" It follows four Scottish miscreants who meet while carrying out community service for their petty crimes, and who fall into the world of fine Scotch whisky and hatch a plan for a theft that will offer them all a second chance at life. I hadn't been looking forward to this one, as the descriptions I'd read gave me the impression that the plot was both saccharine and preposterous. But damn if I didn't fall for the charms of the entire band of gamins, and if I didn't enjoy the story's novel and very Scottish spin on a familiar archetype. Like Kes, The Angels' Share shows how apparently hopeless youth can find their footing if given the proper tools, and how often our world disallows equitable distribution of them. And unlike in that earlier film, the ending here is uncharacteristically heartwarming.




13. Riff-Raff (1991)
Screenplay by Bill Jesse
Stream (95 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★


Riff-Raff relates more of a situation than a story. What little plot there is advances through a series of vignettes centered around a crew of construction workers employed to convert a defunct hospital into luxury apartments, their rough working conditions and squatted-in flats serving as stand-ins for all of Thatcher's UK. Though the film focuses on the relationship between Stevie (Robert Carlyle), a Glaswegian recently released from prison and trying to get back on his feet, and Susan (Emer McCourt), an aspiring singer, along with The Navigators, it's the closest Loach gets to directing an ensemble cast, as the events of the construction site fill out much of the action and, while there, no single person quite assumes the role of protagonist. Despite management at odds with workers and workers sometimes at odds with one another, the on-site misdeeds are often very funny, their humor expository of how scrappiness and small entitlements are how one maintains a sense of dignity in a precarious working environment. While Loach continually draws connections between the experience of the laborers and that of the rats inhabiting the hospital, this one scores low on the bleakness scale due to its cathartic final scene.




12. Cathy Come Home (1966)
Screenplay by Jeremy Sanford
Stream (75 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★★


I know I said I wasn't going to include any of the television plays, but Cathy Come Home must make the list due to its significance both to Loach's career and to England's public acknowledgement of its homeless population. As the story goes, the broadcast was met with wide public outcry, a prominent homeless charity was founded in its wake, and a parliamentary debate on homelessness and social housing ensued. Loach is on the record downplaying the significance of these responses regarding substantive change on the matter, but that its legacy continues to come up in debates about the unhoused speaks to the power of his then-developing style of social realism.

Even fifty years after Cathy's first airing, it's easy to see why the British public found it so affecting. With its voiceover narration, hand-held-camera footage shot on location, treatment of Cathy and Reg's situation as a case study, and the many other devastating testimonies played throughout, the play's subject matter feels concrete and dire. Had a viewer not known any better, they might think they'd just flipped on a documentary rather than The Wednesday Play. Even watching it now, wise as I am to the ways of all manner of faux-documentary, I'm impressed with how these stylistic decisions create such a holistic look into a social ill that would have been all but invisible to Britain's middle classes. And with its focus on the personal close-up as the primary expressive vehicle (pioneered by cinematographer Tony Imi), it marks the beginning of examining a half-century of politics and economics through the experiences of those most vulnerable to their ravages.




11. Bread and Roses (2000)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (106 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★


Loach takes his interest in labor history to the US for the first time in this film chronicling the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign, one of the nation's most successful labor-organizing efforts of the late-twentieth century. Maya (Pilar Padilla) makes her way across the US-Mexico border to join her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) as a member of the cleaning staff at an office building in downtown Los Angeles. The family is soon approached by the wily Justice for Janitors rep, Sam (Adrien Brody), and after a colleague's firing becomes the last straw for the employees who are fed up with poverty wages and their lack of benefits, they cautiously decide to hear Sam out and begin the organizing process. They encounter many life-or-death obstacles along the way, and it's through these struggles that Loach conveys just how much the workers in their situation have at stake when they decide to form a union.

With LA as its backdrop and a Hollywood talent agency as the group's final Goliath, Loach has the opportunity to emphasize his own's industry's reliance on exploited immigrant labor, and how no business is free from guilt when labor power is weak. At times the dialogue feels like sermonizing (aberrant for someone known for favoring naturalistic expression), but the mere fact that such direct speech so seldom appears on US movie screens excuses the transgression. In the revolutionary spirit of Loach's war films, Bread and Roses celebrates more than a decade of struggle, giving all credit to the women-led movement. But with Maya's deportation as the campaign's primary casualty, it shows too that there remains a long way to go in the struggle for justice for all who live under the boot of US imperialism.




10. Hidden Agenda (1991)
Screenplay by Jim Allen
Stream (108 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


Hidden Agenda is similar to Phillip Noyce's Patriot Games, if the latter didn't abandon the topic of Irish independence and turn into an Indian Jones movie after its first half hour. It also bears striking resemblance to Costas-Gavras' Missing, as each features a young couple whose lives are torn asunder by reactionary state violence, and each revolves around the woman's pursuit of the truth about her husband's murder. Here the woman is Ingrid (Frances McDormand), who finds a partner in Peter Kerrigan (Brian Cox), a senior CID officer sent from mainland UK to Belfast in order to investigate the human-rights lawyer's death at the hands of British security forces. Like the Stalker/Sampson Inquiry, on which the film is based, Kerrigan learns when probing the facts of the case that the original evidence presented to him by local police does not make any sense, but pressure from politicians and military intelligence cause him to curtail his investigation, a decision which also helps to conceal a broader governmental conspiracy. Here Loach's use of suspense and some action-based sequences shows a willingness to blend in with the political blockbusters of the day, but without the explosive action and choreographed stairway chases of its contemporaries, it's not hard to grasp why (if Wikipedia's figures are to be believed) the film was a box-office bomb: if you're not willing to sympathize with the IRA, Hidden Agenda has little to offer.




9. The Spirit of '45 (2013)
(Documentary) Screenplay by Ken Loach
Stream (94 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★


Descriptions I'd read of this documentary hadn't left me with terribly high hopes for it, but it's now clear that it's the descriptions that were inadequate, not the film. The Spirit of '45 is an oral history of the post-war British Labour Party's successes in nationalizing the country's largest industrial sectors and establishing the NHS, told from the perspectives of the workers who lived through and benefitted from the changes, as well as a few scholars of urban planning and political economy. It depicts both the economic strength and sensibility of operating utilities like trains and water for the good of society, but also the intense emotional significance that people attach to political acts that lend true dignity to their lives. In one of the more stirring moments, a woman reads a letter sent by the city to her grandfather to notify him that their home was almost finished and would soon be ready for his family to move in. It meant so much to him that he carried the letter around in his wallet until the day he died. The film spends a good amount of time on each of the major post-war nationalization efforts before skipping ahead to the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher, who spent all of the 1980s dismantling and privatizing these advances. It's clear that Loach wanted to focus primarily on the era of the film's title, but it might have benefitted from a bit more explication of the events in the intervening decades, as well as a look into how much of the documented progress reached nonwhite Brits and how remaining colonial efforts fueled the projects. But focusing on what the film contains rather than what it lacks, the connections it draws between older proponents of prominent social programs and the twenty-first-century British left, as well as its criticism of the top-down nature of the original post-war reforms, make the film not just excellent, but vital.




8. 11'09"01 September 11 (2002)
Screenplay by Ken Loach
Stream (11 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


11'09"01 September 11 is an ill-advised collection of eleven short films, each by a different filmmaker; each eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame long; and each offering a perspective on the events of 9/11 supposedly representative of the director's home country. The project was conceived of by French producer Alain Brigand, who wanted the film to examine what he thought was "an American tragedy but also a universal catastrophe," and it premiered one year after the attacks (though it wasn't released in the US until 2003). Most (like those of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Sean Penn, though the latter's can be read as an attempt at a courageous take) are not good. I choose to consider Loach's contribution independently of the others because I quite like it and wanted to place it somewhat high on this list.

It's a short so I'll keep it short: a chilean man in London (Vladimir Vega, also of Ladybird, Ladybird) writes an open letter to the loved ones of those who died on 9/11, asking them to consider the Chilean coup that their own country orchestrated on another September 11th, in 1973. He is compassionate but firm in his claim that the US too is run by (to borrow W.'s term) enemies of freedom, and he describes the torture techniques, disappearances, and broad claims of "terrorism" used by the junta to snuff out dissent. It's a canny prediction of the very strategies that the US was then gearing up to inflict on the world.




7. My Name Is Joe (1998)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (105 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


Joe (Peter Mullan) is a recovering alcoholic who has in the past been involved with a Glasgow gang, to whom his young friend Liam (David McKay), a father and recovering heroin addict, is deeply in debt. Joe meets and strikes up a relationship with Liam's social worker, Sarah (Louise Goodall), and all three struggle to overcome their circumstances and move on with their lives. The film explores the at-odds expectations on either side of the client/social worker relationship, and depicts the economic and social origins of widespread addiction, causes whose burdens accentuate the physical strains of recovery and often lead to relapse. Mullan's dynamic performance portrays ups and downs familiar to anyone prone to depressive episodes, and the sequences showing antics with the local soccer team he coaches (composed of members of actual unemployment centers) add charm to what might sound like a rather dismal affair. Goodall is brilliant, her face a vision of true empathy as her character proceeds with her difficult work. Another of Loach's Scotland-set films with glorious dialogue that feels utterly natural.




6. The Navigators (2001)
Screenplay by Rob Dawber
Stream (92 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


Like Riff-Raff, The Navigators sees Loach directing an ensemble cast as a group of mistreated laborers who jape and gibe at one another and try to hang on to what scant work is available to them. The critique is more pointed here, though, as the story draws on the events surrounding the French-owned transport company Connex's loss of its Sheffield railroad franchises after the government privatized two major lines in 1996. The men are informed one day that their depot has a new owner, and that they'll henceforth need to ensure they keep "the customer" at the center of their every consideration as they'll now be competing with other companies for future rail contracts. Slowly but surely, upper management streamlines operations by gutting union advancements, outsourcing custodial duties, forcing staff resignations, hiring part-time labor through temp agencies, and skimping on safety measures. The events unfold as black comedy, the project's vulgarity becoming increasingly apparent as the same workers continue to get hired back, each time with less dignity and fewer alternatives. As absurdity gives way to tragedy, Loach makes a fateful prediction for the coming century of privatized governance.




5. Jimmy's Hall (2014)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (106 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★


This one feels like a sequel to The Wind That Shakes the Barley, as it's set about a decade after the Irish Civil War and provides an update on rural life in independent Ireland. The film tells a simplified version of the true story of Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), the only native Irishman to ever be deported from Ireland, focusing less on the feuds that punctuated his political life, and instead favoring his love of spirited debate and self-expression. Having spent the previous decade living it up in the United States, in 1932 Jimmy is ready return to a quiet life of helping his mother maintain the family farm in Leitrim. But shortly after his arrival, he's confronted by a group of young admirers who've grown up hearing stories about the nearby public hall that he'd built and overseen prior to his departure. Desperate for social, intellectual, and creative stimulation, they beg him to open the place up again, which he and the rest of the community shortly do, much to the chagrin of their parish priest.

The film follows the parallel events of the hall's first era a decade earlier alongside those of its newer incarnation, in which law enforcement and the church suppress its classes, meetings, and dances, which they (correctly, in truth) believe are sowing seeds of communism. Perhaps fatalistic (though realistic) in its portrayal of the inevitable results of confrontation with power, the film shows too the inherent value in culture and collectivity, which even on the smallest of scales can lend greater meaning to the lives of their participants.




4. Sweet Sixteen (2002)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (101 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


Sweet Sixteen finds Loach and longtime collaborator Paul Laverty transposing elements of the Kes narrative onto a small city in early-2000s Scotland, substituting a poor boy's love for a kestrel for that of his troubled mother. Liam (Martin Compston) is a teenager whose mother is in prison covering for a crime committed by her drug-dealing boyfriend, Stan (Gary McCormack), who is not Liam's father. He and his friend Pinball (William Ruane) do not attend school and make do by committing petty crimes and selling untaxed cigarettes in pubs. By chance they discover where Stan keeps his heroin stash, and Liam makes Pinball help him steal it out of spite. The pair decide to sell it, Liam's goal being to use the money to buy his mother a house she can live in when she gets out of prison in a few weeks, just before his sixteenth birthday. They soon find themselves in over their heads in the crime world, and their circumstances turn from harsh to desperate. Liam finally runs out of options, and Loach makes clear reference to another famous figure of roguish alienaton, The 400 Blows' Antoine Doinel: a boy by the sea, inspired by the sight of the horizon and trapped by the limits of the coast. There's much to love in this tale exploring the differences (and similarities) between long-term hope and immediate desire, but Compston's raw and confident performance is reason enough to watch it.




3. Kes (1969)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty, Barry Hines
Stream (112 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


This one, about a working-class boy who through caring for a kestrel learns to exercise his otherwise neglected sense of curiosity, was the first Ken Loach film I ever saw, and during a recent rewatch I was struck by how few actual scenes of falconry it contains. Those scenes, in which a boy connects with the verdant landscape abutting his coal-mining town, are wonderful, but it's the lengthy sequences of his run-ins with unfeeling public institutions that provide the majority of the film's coloring and ground its critique. In a school system that's mostly punitive and a home life marked by bickering and meager labor, the scraggly Billy Casper (David Bradley) is allowed very few joys in a childhood that is all but guaranteed to lead to a just as dreary career in "the pit." The film's detailed depiction of that life, from its scant amusements to its unpolished Yorkshire dialect, makes for two hours of cold realism, but it adds all the more poetry to the rare glimpses we get of a boy discovering passion.




2. Route Irish (1991)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (109 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★★


I'm no expert on the topic but I think this must be my favorite film about the Iraq War. I particularly like that it deals with contracted mercenaries and security firms as prime loci of evil, due both to the lawlessness with which they conducted their operations and to the vast sums of money they secured in the process. Mark Womack plays Fergus, a former SAS trooper who has returned to his hometown of Liverpool after working with a private security firm in Iraq, a job he had taken because of its high pay, for which reason he also convinced his old friend Frankie (John Bishop) to do the same. Under investigation by local police and stuck in Liverpool without a passport, Fergus investigates the death of Frankie, who was reportedly ambushed while traveling along Route Irish, the stretch of highway between Baghdad and the Green Zone, referred to by the head of the security firm as "the most dangerous road in the world." With the help of his dead friend's past foresight, a key piece of evidence, Frankie's wife, and a translator, Fergus deduces that Frankie's growing discomfort with the acts he and his colleagues committed had been seen as a threat to the firm's future contracts, and that he was killed as part of a cover up.

Route Irish has the drab palette and sober brutality of a Michael Haneke film, and like Haneke's Caché examines effects of state-sponsored violence, both on its targets and on those who either commit it or benefit from the world it creates. Fergus winds up treating his own countrymen with the same ruthlessness that he did the "enemies" in Iraq, and eventually realizes that he has no humanity left in him. His entire existence, right down to his sparse sex life, is shot through with violence, both vengeful and used as punishment to assuage his own guilt — for the death of his friend and eventually (we hope) for the hundreds of thousands of others killed in Iraq. The film is totally bereft of levity (rare in Loach's work) and has some genuinely distressing scenes, but it succeeds in its willingness to face the very recent past with courage — the West's only option if it hopes to avoid a fate like Fergus'.




1. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)
Screenplay by Paul Laverty
Stream (126 minutes)
Loach bleakness rating: ★★★★


In a memorable scene from The Wind That Shakes the Barley, members of a small IRA column march into the hillside in order to executing their lifelong friend, a young man coerced by his employer into sharing information that would be used by the Black and Tans to arrest and torture members of the column. The sequence is cold, necessary, and righteous, like most of the revolutionary organization's acts depicted in the film and Loach's attitude toward the Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War, and examines these three qualities of the events as they sunder a family.