Well, we’ve arrived at the cream in the coffee: My personal favorite of the Bond films. Some of these picks might surprise you. This retrospective look kinda surprised me too.We love you. And we mean it.
10. The Living Daylights (1987)
I’ll go ahead and say it now: I think Timothy Dalton made a terrific Bond. Younger and more brooding than Roger Moore, Dalton brought some sharper edges back to the character. By stripping away a few layers of outright silliness, the Bond movies could focus more energy on dramatic content and big, ballsy action scenes. Both Dalton movies feature some of the best stunt work in the entire series. This installment is, admittedly, plot-heavy: Bond contends with a shifty KGB general (Jeroen Krabbé), a beautiful cellist and would-be sniper (Maryam d’Abo, a bit out of her acting weight class), and the Afghan mujahideen, and a bloodthirsty arms dealer (
Mitchell!…uh, Joe Don Baker). It goes on a little too long and tries to erase our memories of A View to a Kill a little too hard, but The Living Daylights is still an underrated outing. Also of note: This would be John Barry’s last turn as the series’ legendary composer, and his work here is lush, romantic, and phenomenal.
9. For Your Eyes Only (1981)
After the pew-pew-pew hijinks of Moonraker, the Bond series was in dire need of a course correction. For Your Eyes Only is a deliberate throwback to the leaner, darker dramatic meat of the early 007 movies. A key piece of naval technology gets stolen, and Bond must uncover a massive conspiracy to put the device in the hands of the Soviets. Julian Glover makes a suave supervillain, Topol (yup, that’s the dude from Fiddler on the Roof) gives us a Greek stand-in for Felix Leiter, and Carole Bouquet plays a female lead with some real depth and dimension, not to mention actual character motivation. The action scenes, including an incredible rock-climbing piece, are some of the best in the series. This is one of the best Roger Moore outings. Only quibbles are the pointless pre-credits sequence, which offers an empty tease of Blofeld, and Bill Conti’s super-annoying score.
8. License to Kill (1989)
I know it ain’t a popular opinion, but I enjoy the hell out of this movie, and Timothy Dalton as Bond. It’s funny to hear people rave on Daniel Craig for bringing a grittier, hungrier vibe to the role, and then bag on Timothy Dalton for doing the same thing. As I went through the Bond chronology, it became clear that James Bond is a largely static character. He goes through the machinery of each self-contained plot, kills because of orders, and saves the world because that’s his job. License to Kill stands apart because it gives Bond a real, red-blooded reason to destroy his enemies. When 007 discovers his old buddy Felix Leiter has been attacked by a ruthless drug kingpin (Robert Davi), our favorite superspy stomps on the warpath. Entire Bond movies have wasted time making the lead character feel like something out of a cartoon. This one gives him back a little humanity. It doesn’t hurt that the action scenes and stunt work are absolutely stunning. Seriously, that climactic tank chase should make even George Miller proud. Carey Lowell’s female lead is tough, smart, and fits perfectly in this story. Also, Robert Kamen is one of my favorite composers, and his only Bond score adds some welcome gusto to the franchise.
7. Casino Royale (2006)
Daniel Craig’s casting put diehard 007 fans into an emotional tailspin: He’s too short, too blonde, too young, and just…not Bond enough. Thankfully, Craig put a stick of dynamite to those concerns in Casino Royale. He brings a fierce, ferocious energy, with just enough panache to keep things from getting too dark. The filmmakers made a wise decision to give the franchise a Batman Begins-style recalibration and depict a leaner, greener Bond, still becoming the character we already know and love. In a series that’s as broken-in as old saddle leather, Casino Royale finally gives us a little something new. Eva Green continues the modern trend of playing a real woman who genuinely fears where her love for 007 will lead her. The action scenes, including that killer opening parkour chase, are intelligently staged and service the story, not the other way around. Also, have you noticed I’m a nerd for film scores? David Arnold isn’t quite John Barry, but he’s pretty damn close.
6. Dr. No (1962)
I generally hate the word “iconic.” It’s overused to the point that much of its impact gets diluted. I’ve posted over 100 reviews on this site, and if you can find more than five instances of me describing anything as iconic, I’ll eat two pairs of my favorite shoes. That includes right now: Sean Connery’s debut as 007 is nothing short of iconic. This movie made him a superstar, and the character a pop culture phenomenon. It would take another movie or two before the recipe would get perfected, but a lot of the best ingredients are already in the mix: Connery’s lethal swagger is potent right out of the gate. He gambles, schmoozes, and outwits everyone around him with such casual finesse that you would guess he was already a decade into the role. John Barry’s conducting of Monty Norman’s theme would give us one of the defining cinematic scores of all time. Joseph Wiseman’s title villain would set the standard for all world-ending psychopaths to come. Then there’s Ursula Andress, who would slink out the ocean in a bikini and set a high bar for all of the ladies in Bond’s life. The story is slower and more story-oriented, and it drags a little on repeat viewings. But, there’s still so much to love in the franchise’s low-budget beginning. If you want to experience Bond’s cinematic journey, this is where you gotta start.
5. Goldeneye (1995)
In many ways, Goldeneye saved the Bond franchise. By 1995, it’d been six years since License to Kill underwhelmed at the box office. The world had changed so much, it just as well could’ve been 600 years. The Cold War had ended, the Wall had come down, and attitudes toward sexuality and gender equality advanced considerably. For the first time, 007 was really starting to show his age. The filmmakers made a wise move by confronting the issue head-on. Gone are the stodgy, starchy blowhards at MI-6. Instead, we get the brilliant casting of Dame Judi Dench as Bond’s new boss. She’s smarter and wiser than Bond, and completely over his smarmy schtick: “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur–a relic of the Cold War.” Uber-assassin Xenia Onatopp (they couldn’t let the frat boy character names die, apparently) is a lethal adversary, fully capable of taking out 007 with sheer physicality. Goldeneye also gets rid of the pudgy, pasty Blofeld-type baddie, in favor of a fit, hungry disgraced spy (Sean Bean). Finally, the movie’s biggest masterstroke might be Brosnan himself. I love Timothy Dalton, but I also know his grimmer take on Bond doesn’t put as many asses in theater seats. Ol’ Pierce injects a little of the Roger Moore twinkle and gives the franchise back a little humor. Some of the special effects don’t shine like a new penny anymore, and Eric Serra’s electronic score is just…weird. Still, this is a fun, lively outing that proved that 007 wasn’t going anywhere.
4. Skyfall (2012)
Skyfall represents Daniel Craig’s strongest Bond thus far. It ditches the jerky, frenetic action that made Quantum of Solace a bona-fide Bourne-bomb. In its place, the film attempts to pay meticulous attention to the tropes that made Bond a cinematic institution, while also adding new shades of depth and genuine emotion to the character. Surprisingly, Skyfall succeeds on both fronts. And it has some top-tier action scenes. And Judi Dench’s best performance as M. And a great title song by Adele. This time, 007 squares off against an exiled MI6 agent (Javier Bardem) who knows Her Majesty’s Secret Service better than it knows itself. This knowledge forces Bond to confront his troubled memories of childhood and why he does what he does for a living. Craig is a great Bond, and he deserves material that matches his considerable gravitas. Skyfall clears that bar with room to spare.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
The Spy Who Loved Me sets a high-water mark for the post-Connery years. Slick and relentlessly entertaining, this is one of the most complete Bond films: The script gives Moore sharper bon mots, a better, badder Bond girl (Barbara Bach), an urbane and slightly loony villain (Curd Jurgëns), and a mute, steel-toothed henchman (Richard Kiel). Plus, this was the first 007 film to take the stunt work to another level. The opening ski jump, the Lotus Epsirit chase, and the epic final battle are all brilliantly staged. Ken Adams’ mammoth sets remain as jaw-dropping as ever. The cherry on top of all this is Carly Simon belting out “Nobody Does It Better,” a series highlight for title songs. This was the first Bond entry in a long time to prove the franchise still had plenty of gas in the tank.
2. Goldfinger (1964)
When you think of classic James Bond, images of Goldfinger probably pop in your head: Svelte, suave Sean Connery, cruising in a souped-up Aston Martin DB5, an arsenal of gadgets at his disposal. Or maybe Shirley Eaton’s doomed Bond girl, her lifeless body sprayed with gold. You probably also think of the mute brute Oddjob, flinging his lethal hat with a gleeful frenzy. But there’s so much more: Honor Blackman plays Pussy Galore, the first-ever Bond Girl with a raunchy name. (Seriously, how’d they pull that off in 1964??) Gert Fröbe memorably appears as the gold-grubbing title villain. Shirley Bassey sings the famous title song straight to the rafters. Finally, there’s brawny Sean, who never seemed more comfortable playing it supercool than he does right here. Everything clicks with the precision of a well-made watch. Goldfinger is suspenseful, inappropriately funny, and gloriously over-the-top. In many ways, this is the Bond movie.
1. From Russia with Love (1962)
Imagine you’re at a restaurant and there’s two dishes you want. The server stares impatiently, so you just have to pick in the moment. That’s Goldfinger and From Russia with Love for me. They’re both god damn wonderful, and either would be a worthy #1. Still, you can’t have two main courses, and my gut says to go for the leaner cut of meat. Russia bridges the gulf between the stripped-down minimalism of Dr. No and the full-bodied production of Goldfinger. It has bolder cinematic flourishes than the first, but a darker and more deadly serious tone than the second. For this second adventure, Bond engages in a broader battle with SPECTRE’s empire of evil. This takes the form of a bleach-blonde goon (Robert Shaw) and a psycho Soviet general (Lotte Lenya) who sprouts a poisonous dagger from her shoe. Sure, the title song is weak, and Daniela Bianchi’s pseudo-defecting Russian doesn’t have much to do other than stay in grave danger. None of that matters a damn. So much of the rest is so relentlessly badass, you’ll forgive the film for any small blemish. Bond’s full-throttle brawl in a train’s passenger car is so exciting and well-staged, it could teach modern movies a thing or two about how to put together a proper fight scene. We also get our first glimpse of gadget man Q, who supplies Bond with his first cache of toys. This is classic 007, served up to absolute perfection.
Like what you’re reading so far? Sign up for email updates!