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Why Britain's got talent once again on the big screen

The renaissance in home-grown films is down to daring directors, says Ben Walsh

"The British are coming!" Colin Welland wailed incautiously after bagging a screenwriting Oscar for Chariots of Fire in 1981. And it always seems like the British are coming, but they never really seem to arrive. British film since 1981 has had obvious highlights – Withnail and I, Room with a View, The Full Monty, Trainspotting – but there has been no real, discernible renaissance. But now there's something going on. Not on a grand, box-office smashing scale, but on a much smaller and more invigorating level. Movies like Weekend, Kill List, Down Terrace, Skeletons, Turnout, Black Pond and quite a few more...

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the startling success of Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and with a lot of help from lottery cash, the UK Film Council, Film4 and some handy tax breaks, there was a huge amount of film-making in the UK, which the majority of cinemagoers didn't see. Most of these movies involved geezer gangsters (the appalling Rancid Aluminium and High Heels and Low Lifes) and some of them tried to ape the gritty, small-town brilliance of Kes or Brassed Off. There were also dreary psychological thrillers (Killing Me Softly, Superstition), desperate attempts to replicate the success of The Full Monty (Lucky Break, Blow Dry) and Ealing-style crime capers (The Parole Officer, Milk).

Most of them were simply not very good, rammed full of stereotypes, weak plotting and ill-thought-out scripts. Jamie Thraves's The Low Down, Shane Meadows' A Room for Romeo Brass and Lynne Ramsay's superb Ratcatcher being notable exceptions. However, with much less fanfare, fewer star names and a lower budget, a steady stream of British films has recently been making their mark.

It's tricky pinpointing the start of this mini-renaissance, but Andrea Arnold's Red Road (2006), starring Kate Dickie as a grieving security guard, felt like the start. Two years later, there was Eran Creevy's refreshingly understated thriller Shifty. Both films looked like they cost the price of a takeaway, but they had not only energy, warmth and wit, but genuine tension and credible characters. You cared about these people, and the film-makers made ingenious use of their tiny budgets. Arnold followed up with her stark, raw Fish Tank, which featured Katie Jarvis as a troubled Essex teenager, and the recently released Wuthering Heights is equally inventive and compelling.

But, arguably, more exciting still is the work of Ben Wheatley, which started with his riveting black comedy Down Terrace (2009), made for tuppence, set in a grotty Brighton home and involving a family of squabbling gangsters. It's brutal, funny and tense in equal measure. And his deeply unnerving horror/thriller Kill List is even better. With Wheatley it's about the script – sharp, funny and unusual – and the oddball characterisation, which reeks of Beckett, Mike Leigh and Pinter.

Other British directors of note include Andrew Haigh, whose poignant relationship drama Weekend, about a brief encounter between two men, has won awards and extensive praise. Then there's James Watkins, who helmed the unsettling "hoodie horror" Eden Lake, Joe Cornish (the brains behind Attack the Block), sci-fi specialist Duncan Jones (Moon and Source Code), Lee Sales (director of the authentic drug dealer drama Turnout), Gareth Edwards (Monsters) and Nick Whitfield (Skeletons). Shane Meadows continues to produce brilliantly observed and scripted work (his This Is England '86 being one of the powerful dramas on British TV since Boys from the Blackstuff). It seems the British are coming in their droves...

Kill List is out on DVD on 26 December