8 Best Movies to Watch by Mike Leigh

Staff & contributors

A woman yearns to find her biological mother, another woman struggles with infertility, a third wants to connect with her rebellious daughter. Director Mike Leigh has the prowess to seamlessly weave these stories together, and part of the joy is knowing, that like clockwork, these narratives are set on a spectacular collision course.

As melancholy as it is optimistic and as funny as it is tragic, Secrets & Lies is a perfect example of Leigh’s oeuvre and earned him a Cannes’ Palme d’Or. The film features a full cast of his regulars with the fantastic addition of Marianne Jean Baptiste as Hortense - the woman who sets the wheels of the film in motion.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alison Steadman, Angela Curran, Anthony O'Donnell, Brenda Blethyn, Brian Bovell, Claire Rushbrook, Clare Perkins, David Neilson, Denise Orita, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos, Frances Ruffelle, Gary McDonald, Grant Masters, Hannah Davis, Janice Acquah, Jean Ainslie, Joe Tucker, Jonny Coyne, Keylee Jade Flanders, Lee Ross, Lesley Manville, Linda Beckett, Liz Smith, Lucy Sheen, Margery Withers, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Mia Soteriou, Michele Austin, Nitin Ganatra, Paul Trussell, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Phyllis Logan, Richard Syms, Ron Cook, Ruth Sheen, Sheila Kelley, Stephen Churchett, Su Eliott, Su Elliott, Terence Harvey, Timothy Spall, Trevor Laird, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

Mike Leigh’s forthright and compassionate depiction of working-class life extends to his period pieces as well. Imelda Staunton is remarkable as Vera Drake, a housekeeper in 1950’s London who quietly performs abortions on the side.

Leigh’s vigilant portrayal of class highlights the stark divide between abortion access for the poor and what is offered to the rich. The storytelling is simple and straightforward, he doesn’t over-sentimentalize or grandstand, but merely depicts conditions as they were. Meanwhile, Staunton’s Vera oozes so much fullness, warmth, and empathy, that the heartbreak that follows is mercilessly palpable. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adrian Scarborough, Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Allan Corduner, Angela Curran, Anna Keaveney, Anthony O'Donnell, Billie Cook, Billy Seymour, Chris O'Dowd, Craig Conway, Daniel Mays, Eddie Marsan, Eileen Davies, Elizabeth Berrington, Emma Amos, Fenella Woolgar, Gerard Monaco, Heather Craney, Helen Coker, Imelda Staunton, Jake Wood, James Payton, Jane Wood, Jeffry Wickham, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Griffiths, John Warman, Leo Bill, Lesley Manville, Lesley Sharp, Liz White, Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Nicholas Jones, Nicky Henson, Paul Jesson, Paul Raffield, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Richard Graham, Robert Putt, Rosie Cavaliero, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Sam Troughton, Sandra Voe, Sid Mitchell, Simon Chandler, Sinéad Matthews, Tilly Vosburgh, Tom Ellis, Vincent Franklin, Vinette Robinson, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

Grounded by Lesley Manville and Timothy Spall’s powerhouse performances, this gut-wrenching family drama from Mike Leigh is an acting juggernaut. Penny and Phil are a working-class couple whose marriage is rapidly deteriorating and pushed to the brink when their son, played by a young James Corden, is hospitalized. 

While Manville and Spall are centered as the leads, Leigh draws a staggering amount of depth from Corden as well as a young Sally Hawkins who plays a neighbor. Despite being one of Leigh’s grimmest films, there is still a profound sweetness lingering at the edges as the story teeters between despondency and hope.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alan Williams, Alex Kelly, Alison Garland, Badi Uzzaman, Ben Crompton, Brian Bovell, Daniel Mays, Daniel Ryan, Di Botcher, Diveen Henry, Dorothy Atkinson, Edna Doré, Emma Lowndes, Gary McDonald, Heather Craney, Helen Coker, James Corden, Jean Ainslie, Joe Tucker, Kathryn Hunter, Leo Bill, Lesley Manville, Marion Bailey, Mark Benton, Martin Savage, Matt Bardock, Maxine Peake, Michele Austin, Paul Jesson, Robert Wilfort, Russell Mabey, Ruth Sheen, Sally Hawkins, Sam Kelly, Timothy Bateson, Timothy Spall

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

This is a very nice movie about a lovely older couple named Tom and Gerri. It follows their lives for an entire year, as they work at their jobs, invite friends over for dinner, and work in their garden. They live modest but fulfilling lives, and they seem mostly happy and very much in love, a rarity in the movies. This probably sounds horribly boring to most people, but since Mike Leigh is the director, the film is instead a touching and realistic portrayal of love and how people spend their time together. We should all be so lucky as to live a life as charmed as the central couple in this film.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Badi Uzzaman, Ben Roberts, David Bradley, Edna Doré, Eileen Davies, Gary Powell, Imelda Staunton, Jim Broadbent, Karina Fernandez, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Mary Jo Randle, Meneka Das, Michele Austin, Oliver Maltman, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Ralph Ineson, Ruth Sheen, Stuart McQuarrie

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: PG-13

Mike Leigh’s films have always touched on class politics, but seldom as directly as in this lowkey portrait of Thatcher-era London. Cyril and Shirley are a sweet working-class couple at a crossroads in their relationship. Their lifestyle is contrasted with Cyril’s sister and her husband who exist in a more comfortable middle-class setting, and then paralleled again with an upper-class couple living next door from Cyril’s mother. 

Even at this early stage of his career Leigh gracefully entwines these stories to create a moving and coherent narrative. ‘High Hopes’ as a title might be largely sarcastic, but the film is full-hearted and occasionally even optimistic as it strides its snarky way through the grim facades of 80s London.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: David Bamber, Edna Doré, Heather Tobias, Jason Watkins, Lesley Manville, Linda Beckett, Phil Davis, Philip Jackson, Ruth Sheen

Director: Mike Leigh

Happy-Go-Lucky is a Mike Leigh feel-good movie tells the story of Poppy, a North London teacher, whose story we follow through a number of different situations: driving lessons, solving work issues, having fun with friends, all while trying not to lose her optimism. The acting is superb, Sally Hawkins is a gem as Poppy, and one cannot describe it, one simply has to see it and enjoy it, because it leaves you smiling :)

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Caroline Martin, Eddie Marsan, Elliot Cowan, Joseph Kloska, Karina Fernandez, Kate OFlynn, Nonso Anozie, Oliver Maltman, Philip Arditti, Rebekah Staton, Sally Hawkins, Samuel Roukin, Sarah Niles, Sinéad Matthews, Stanley Townsend, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Trevor Cooper, Viss Elliot Safavi

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

Equal parts touching and comical, this portrait of a working-class family in a suburb just north of London features twin daughters who couldn’t be more different—the brainy and good-natured Natalie, and her sneering, layabout sister Nicola. Written and directed by Mike Leigh (Another Year, Happy-Go-Lucky) expect the slow, dreamy representation of British society from one of the country's best and most renowned directors.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Alison Steadman, Claire Skinner, David Neilson, David Thewlis, Harriet Thorpe, Jane Horrocks, Jim Broadbent, Moya Brady, Paul Trussell, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall

Director: Mike Leigh

Rating: R

If you're a fan of musical theater of any kind, Topsy-Turvy pays tribute to that notoriously tricky art form with a stunning attention to detail and a dedication to telling its story without any unnecessary drama whatsoever. It's hard not to get swept up in the humor, entertainment, and simple joy found in the writing process and in rehearsals of entire scenes. Come for the Oscar-winning costumes and makeup, stay for the wonderfully old-timey musical numbers, the brilliantly grounded performance from Jim Broadbent, and the sense of satisfaction of just watching everything finally come together to thunderous applause.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, History, Music

Actor: Akemi Otani, Alison Steadman, Allan Corduner, Andy Serkis, Angela Curran, Anna Francolini, Ashley Artus, Ashley Jensen, Bríd Brennan, Cathy Sara, Charles Simon, Debbie Chazen, Dexter Fletcher, Dorothy Atkinson, Eiji Kusuhara, Eleanor David, Eve Pearce, Francis Lee, Gemma Page, Geoffrey Hutchings, Heather Craney, Jim Broadbent, John Warnaby, Jonathan Aris, Julia Rayner, Julian Bleach, Kacey Ainsworth, Katrin Cartlidge, Kenneth Hadley, Kevin McKidd, Lavinia Bertram, Lesley Manville, Louise Gold, Mark Benton, Martin Savage, Mary Roscoe, Matt Bardock, Matthew Mills, Mia Soteriou, Michael Simkins, Monica Dolan, Naoko Mori, Nicholas Boulton, Nicholas Woodeson, Nick Bartlett, Paul Barnhill, Richard Coyle, Roger Heathcott, Ron Cook, Rosie Cavaliero, Sam Kelly, Shirley Henderson, Sophie Duval, Steve Speirs, Sukie Smith, Teresa Gallagher, Timothy Spall, Togo Igawa, Vincent Franklin, Wendy Nottingham

Director: Mike Leigh