Ranking the James Bond films

Spring 2020 will be remembered, in part, as the months when a lot of us turned our focus inward, to the physical media on our home shelves that we owned because it was consistently entertaining and joyful. It would be relatively easy to go fully digital, especially with movies, but I treat my DVDs and blu-rays like my books: each one is a special remembrance of who I was when I found it, what it meant for me to seek it out, and just picking it up and/or obsessively reorganizing everything to really plumb one’s psychological and aesthetic depths and see what new connections are there to be made.

One series that’s been getting such contemplation is that of James Bond. The latest film, No Time to Die, had its release pushed to (currently) November 2020, and looks to be a fitting send-off to Daniel Craig. I admit that 2015’s Spectre was disappointing to me, and I could count on one hand the Bond films I’ve revisited since. I mean, they’re always with me, but the enthusiasm was dampened. But thinking about the impending end of the Craig era had me interested in revisiting all the films, and thinking about what each installment invokes for me. Which lead, naturally, to making a list.

I realize that in making any kind of definitive list of my personal ‘best James Bond films’ I’m of course evoking Rob in High Fidelity when he attempts to organize his entire album collection autobiographically: it’s completely nonsense and probably not at all useful in any appreciable way. And yet, it just feels right.

24. Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

The only Bond film that truly holds nothing for me, and subsequently is the only Bond film I don’t seek out (as in putting its disc in the player or clicking on it when it’s streaming). If I’m flipping though channels at the holidays and it’s on, I’ll keep watching only if I’m close to the scene of Bond riding the outdoor elevator at the casino. Otherwise, I’ll wander off.

23. Spectre (2015)

In all the ways that count to a normal non-fanatic, Spectre is a perfectly decent shoot-‘em-up Bond movie. For me, it is a bizarre attempt at forcing Daniel Craig’s formula-busting Bond into a formulaic Bond narrative, and it fails utterly. I understand (though don’t agree) with people who think most of Roger Moore’s movies are bad Bond films, though I would counter that Moore’s Bond is still excellent within them. Spectre is a bad Bond film with a bad Bond at the center (Craig remains effortlessly charming, however).

22. License to Kill (1989)

An underrated theme song but an undercooked movie. I really can’t grasp why Bond had to go full rogue, when it would have been even more interesting for him to abuse the boundaries of his purview as a British secret agent in pursuing justice for Felix. There’s no real stakes to him going rogue, and he gets reinstated at the end as an afterthought. I believe I read John Gardner’s License Renewed the same summer LOK came out, and it was the superior Bond experience for me.

21. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

This is the only Bond film actively fighting against me enjoying it. It really is a big mess, with some stuff I forget is coming and that I roll my eyes at when it does arrive. But Christopher Lee is great, and most of the cheesy elements are enjoyable.

20. Thunderball (1965)

This movie has long stretches where it feels curiously inert. I know the underwater scenes can be tedious to some but they don’t bother me that much. On the whole, it just never comes together in an entertaining way.

19. Dr. No (1962)

There are so many amazing Bond elements here, including Honey Ryder and Connery’s incredible lived-in performance as Bond from his first second of screen time. I wouldn’t say my top 18 are interchangeable, but from here on there is easy enjoyment with all these films. I just love the others more.

18. You Only Live Twice (1967)

The only Bond movie where Austin Powers rears his ugly head, and makes me wince at how accurately it skewered some Bond tropes. There’s so much going on, and some of it is really wacky. But it still barrels through on Connery’s charm alone.

17. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

There is a timelessness to Brosnan’s other Bond films that TND only displays in fleeting moments; otherwise, it’s a late 1990’s movie through and through. It’s honestly my biggest disappointment in the whole series for the wasted potential on display. It is cursed by feeling unfinished: with a little more polish and editing, this could have been a classic.

16. Die Another Day (2002)

I have an incredible soft spot for this, and not only because I met one of the most important people in my life when my friend invited her to come along with us to see it on opening night. I have always simply bought into the world of this movie, so while I don’t necessarily love ice palaces, a slow-moving orbital sun laser, and body armor integrated with said orbital laser’s control panels, I’m happy to get caught up in the escalating silliness.

15. Skyfall (2012)

I’m not quite halfway through my list, but I look at Skyfall as a dividing line between the good-to-great and the ones where James Bond and others often have to be dumb in order for the plot to proceed. Skyfall has some incredible highs but critically lacks some of the elements in the stronger films that combine into some alchemical concoction of fun, charm, and action. Great theatrical experience, though.

14. Moonraker (1979)

I remember I had this book on the Bond films that scored Bond films on specific Bond-centric elements, and Moonraker was the one film that seemingly broke the author, since he grudgingly had to admit it scored very high on the individual parts but was overall not a great movie. Roger Moore’s Bond exerts a gravitational influence on his films, so if you don’t like Moore you’re not going to see any real positives to his Bond movies. I love Moore, and subsequently his movies fit him like a glove and put a big smile on my face.

13. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

We’re in a Moore stretch here that’s going to bleed into my top ten. Moore’s Bond is largely impervious to harm and knows it, so the tension in his films comes largely from how debonair he can be while achieving all his goals. This makes the moments when he stumbles, accompanied by Moore’s classic looks of theatrical disappointment, just as uplifting as his triumphs.

12. Live and Let Die (1973)

The greatest Bond theme song invigorates and elevates this film, though it’s also pleasantly gritty (in an artificial way). There are undeniable problematic elements here, and if I was showing to anyone for the first time I’d have a conversation about its context and intent before we hit ‘play.’ But it’s terrific fun all around.

11. A View to a Kill (1985)

The second-greatest Bond theme song washes that Beach Boys cover out of your mind just enough for you to enjoy a fairly spry Bond adventure with a not-spry Moore as Bond. In 2018 I was in New York City and was able to catch a screening of it at the Metrograph: it’s just a fun movie, and Moore has so much charm that even as a child I had no problem being he was the toughest old British man I had ever seen save the day.

10. Octopussy (1983)

For me, this captures everything great about Moore’s Bond. He’s observant enough to see the only path forward toward whatever victory he needs, and he is nonchalant about melding luck and violence into an unbeatable combination. Connery’s Bond seemingly reveled in the chaos he sowed; Moore’s Bond is resigned to it but visibly perks up while enjoying the finer perks of his job.

9. For Your Eyes Only (1981)

My favorite Moore Bond: it’s one of the only films in the series that comes close to existing as a taut spy thriller (that happens to star James Bond). The pathos of Bond’s gravesite visit in the pre-credits sequence is enough for me to tolerate the surprise return of Blofeld (in a ****ing bald cap?!?!) but then from the theme song on, this is just good spy hijinks.

8. Casino Royale (2006)

Possibly the most overall satisfying Bond film, in terms of telling a great spy narrative that happens to also be a strong film in the Bond series. Every element is nearly perfect, and for seemingly existing as two Bond adventures fused into one, this also rewards you for coming upon it at practically any point, as you’ll know you’re just minutes away from the next great set piece.

7. The Living Daylights (1987)

The most underrated Bond theme song anchors a really great Bond adventure. Somehow this manages to straddle all the razors’ edges: Dalton’s Bond is in line with Connery and Moore’s portrayals while manifesting some of the darker shades of his literary incarnation; the plot hews close to reality while still holding some fantastical twists; Bond is tough enough to play on screens sandwiched between Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies while clearly enjoying his multiple trips to the opera.

6. Goldeneye (1995)

Pierce Brosnan shines as the purest distillation of everything the (cinematic) James Bond can and should be, and benefits from the friction of playing an unrepentant relic moving through changing times. Brosnan’s Bond almost immediately wins over M (and us) with a rollicking display of his unique strengths and an improvisational spirit, and singlehandedly rescues the series from its post-Dalton doldrums.

5. Quantum of Solace (2008)

I walked out of my initial viewing of this certain that it belonged very low on my personal list. Over the past decade it has shockingly blossomed into a film that redeems its roughness by showcasing Craig’s Bond as a supremely confident force of destruction balanced by wit and impressive powers of deduction. No other Bond is afforded similar freedom to just make things happen by any means necessary, and it is an absolute joy to watch.

4. The World is Not Enough (1999)

Brosnan’s Bond relished being largely invulnerable, but he allowed some dents to show here and it makes all the difference. I’ve made peace long ago with the universe of James Bond being one that could hold a Doctor Christmas Jones, and that allows me to enjoy this adventure for what it is: a comically dark one where good people can turn bad but Bond remains true and that’s always enough to save the day.

3. Goldfinger (1964)

The classic Bond film. Each cinematic element is pitch perfect, and James Bond becomes, now and forever, larger than life with every move he makes.

2. From Russia With Love (1963)

A classic spy film that would be great on its own, but becomes immortal by being a Bond film. One of the most perfect narratives of cinematic espionage, anchored by believably intelligent characters sizing each other up to not only defeat but also definitively outsmart every opponent.

1. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

For all the cool and clever Bond moments in the other films, OHMSS remains the sole film that clarifies who James Bond is and why he does what he does. A perfect James Bond film that displays the character’s absolute limits, crystallized forever by the one tragic moment when James Bond himself is ultimately not enough.

2 comments

  1. Agreed about physical media – for me, the problem with online movies is that it reduces them, in my mind, to essentially the status of a YouTube video. They fade into the ether; they become just one out of zillions of options. They become fodder for binge-watching (gods, but I hate that term!), and not much else.

    If you OWN something, on the other hand, be it a movie, a book, whatever, that thing is YOURS. It is inherently personal, and that makes its contents personal, as well. Furthermore, it is impregnable against online tomfoolery. Sites go up and down all the time; that includes streaming sites. For all we know, someday Netflix and Hulu and so forth will be gone – they appeared more or less out of nowhere, and they can return to it – but, so long as you’ve got a way to play them, your own personal films are basically eternal.

  2. I was ready to be angry at Casino Royale being #8, but I can understand most of the one’s being where there at.

    Except for The World Is Not Enough. Really I just can’t get behind any of the Brosnan movies except Goldeneye.

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