1990, Park Circus, 103 min, UK, Dir: Mike Leigh

This early example of Mike Leigh’s signature comedic-realist style follows a working-class family through a series of hilarious misfortunes during a few summer weeks in North London. Fostering improvisation among his actors to develop characters from the inside out, Leigh layers the film with idiosyncratic personalities, including the vaudevillian shop clerk Wendy (Alison Steadman), her naive chef-turned-businessman husband, Andy (Jim Broadbent), and their constantly bickering twins, Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks). The story kicks into gear when Andy purchases a run-down food truck - a spontaneous decision that sends the family into chaos. “There are scenes here that are funnier than those of any other movie this year, and other scenes that weep with the pain of sad family secrets, and when it's over we have seen some kind of masterpiece. This is one of the best films of the year.” - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.

2004, Warner Bros., 125 min, UK/France, Dir: Mike Leigh

In this heart-wrenching story of injustice set in 1950s London, Imelda Staunton plays the selfless Vera Drake, a woman whose compassion leads to her downfall. A housecleaner, Vera works hard to care for her working-class family, while searching for ways to serve her community - one of which is performing abortions for young women. But this is a crime in the eyes of her government, and the abortions must be kept a secret, driving a wedge between Vera and everyone she loves. An Oscar nominee for Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay (though it was filmed without a script), this thoughtful period piece remains surprisingly relevant. Featuring Eddie Marsan, Phil Davis, Lesley Manville and Sally Hawkins.

1996, Janus Films, 136 min, UK/France, Dir: Mike Leigh

After the death of her adoptive parents, black middle-class Londoner Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is shocked to discover that her birth mother is white working-class Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a hard-drinking disaster completely at odds with the professional success of her estranged daughter. Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste are marvels as their characters learn how to relate to one another amidst the tumult of Cynthia’s own extended family life. Navigating the chaos and catharsis of fraying and reconfigured family ties, this winner of the 1996 Palme d’Or at Cannes (Blethyn also won for Best Actress) is a testament to the constant surprises that life sends our way. With Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan.

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