As the years wear on and the new entries stack up, fans continue to partake in the regular ranking of the 007 oeuvre, taking sides in the forever argument of which is the best James Bond movie of all time. Some enthusiasts would never hear of anything other than a title featuring the the OG Bond, Sean Connery, while others cite the more sophisticated modern installments led by Daniel Craig, who just recently retired from the role in last year’s excellent No Time to Die.
Digital Trends celebrates the 60th anniversary of the James Bond movie franchise with our picks of the 10 best Bond movies of all time. As we wait for the announcement of which Eurocentric white man will next portray the “sexist, misogynist dinosaur and relic of the Cold War” (M’s words, not mine) well into the 21st century, we celebrate the best of the geezer’s exploits thus far.
Six years after the second of Timothy Dalton’s two Bond pictures, License to Kill, withered and died under the box office crush of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, and Lethal Weapon 2, 007 had fallen completely off the cultural radar. It would take a big splash, especially a half-decade after the end of the Cold War, to get people interested again. Goldeneye delivered. Ironically, despite the M (Judi Dench) line quoted above, the film still played like the series didn’t know the Cold War was over, with a plot involving satellite weapons and Russian villains, even though Goldeneye was not only the first Bond film to be shot in Russia but also to be shown in Russian theaters. With capitalism having so resoundingly taken Soviet Communism to the mat, you’d think there would be no more need for the superspy, which is perhaps why the film feels a bit all over the place trying to balance the old with the new.
Or perhaps it doesn’t, given that its only real purpose was to make a lot of money, which it did, launching Bond firmly back into the box office stratosphere. The movie delivered cutting-edge action and spectacular stunts, and Pierce Brosnan was the perfect Bond for the blithe ’90s — flinty enough to seem heroic when it mattered, but with that trademark smirking insouciance that let the audience know we’re still not supposed to take this stuff seriously. The franchise would look to Daniel Craig for that.
Because the first post-Connery Bond, George Lazenby, only appeared in this one entry, people assume that his short tenure as Bond was a bust. Then they watch the movie, scratch their heads, and say, “Wait a minute…this isn’t bad at all.” In fact, it’s one of the only films in the series with real dramatic heft, not least because of the ending which — for the uninitiated — I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here. Bond leaves MI6 and goes rogue in this one (honestly, this happens often enough that it’s a wonder the guy stays employed), which features a sensational night-time ski chase down the Swiss Alps. There are plenty of ski sequences throughout the franchise, but none that capture the physicality and the danger this viscerally.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service also benefits from surrounding James with more than one woman at a time and having Diana Rigg (so indelible in Game of Thrones as Olenna Tyrell) play his love interest. The film was a box office success, but Lazenby, who was a model and not an actor, had announced his intention to do just one film before production began. Had he not, there might never have been a Roger Moore era.
New Bond adventures are preceded by such an insane amount of hype, there’s often a shade of disappointment seeing the actual movie. How can any mere film live up to our outsized expectations for it? As such, it sometimes takes a second viewing to begin to appreciate the story, characters, and relationships (for the 007 movies that bother to have those, I mean).
No Time to Die is such a film. While spectacular upon first viewing — especially an Italian-set action sequence and a chase through a misty Norwegian forest — the story is more engrossing once you can properly pay attention. Like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, No Time to Die focuses on Bond in love (even playing Louis Armstrong’s “All the Time in the World,” also used in OHMSS, over the closing credits). As with those earlier pictures, Bond not only contemplates settling down with a family but also recognizes that fighting for queen and country is never as motivating as protecting your loved ones. For a while, SPECTRE appeared to be the last Daniel Craig outing, with the actor famously saying he would “slash his wrists” before he played 007 again. But clearly, he wanted to get that bad taste out of his mouth. Thankfully he did, as No Time to Die is a much more emotionally satisfying send-off to the Craig era.
The Spy Who Loved Me was a soft reboot for a franchise that was flailing. Though the producers kept Roger Moore in the role of 007, much else was reimagined after the dull The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). The Spy Who Loved me took three years to make it to theaters, as opposed to the typical two, and the extra year of marinating led to a more succulent affair overall. The film features dazzling production design and a more imaginative take on everything from the car (the Lotus Esprit turned submarine is a series highlight); to the henchman (Richard Kiel as the infamous “Jaws,” the hulk with the metal teeth); to the villain’s (Curt Jurgens) underwater lair, which is shaped like a frog or an octopus (a frogtopus?).
Stylish, witty, and extravagant with a lush Mediterranean flair (the movie was shot in Egypt, Italy, and Malta), The Spy Who Loved Me is the highlight of ’70s-era James Bond.
It’s a little strange that Thunderball isn’t better remembered, as not only is it among the most spectacular Bond films, it is still (adjusted for inflation) the second-most financially successful of all the movies after Skyfall.
It also set the template for Bond productions sparing no expense in trying to become the most extravagant 007 entry yet (these include The Spy Who Loved Me, Goldeneye, and SPECTRE, with its astonishing long take/moving camera opening sequence). Of course, the plot about stolen nukes is just an excuse for jetpacks, underwater battles between armies of frogmen, and some of the most beautiful Technicolor cinematography you’ll ever see (the 4k restoration is really breathtaking on the right TV). The sequence of the Vulcan bomber landing underwater is still as technically impressive as anything shot today.
The franchise needed to come back to Earth (literally) after the lunacy of Moonraker (basically Thunderball in space, but much hokier). As such, For Your Eyes Only is the most subdued of the Roger Moore entries, as well as the most engrossing at the level of story and character. Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock, who embarks on a mission to avenge her murdered parents, is one of the most compelling women in the franchise (not saying much, I know). She’s so hellbent on revenge that even Bond is taken aback.
The other supporting characters are equally well-drawn, and the action is more grounded, including a thrilling sequence in which the heroes scale a cliff to reach a mountaintop monastery. As a footnote, For Your Eyes Only features an astonishing scene in which Bond turns down an invitation for sex from a much younger woman.
Often considered among the best of the Bonds by actors who have played the character, From Russia with Love is a likewise subdued and elegant affair, at least by Bond standards. Much of the action takes place on the Orient Express (yes, that one) and features Bond trying to outwit and outmuscle the SPECTRE assassin Red Grant (a bleached blonde Robert Shaw), while shaking and stirring up a romance with Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi, also very blonde), who may or may not be a Soviet spy.
From Russia with Love is one of the few 007 films that depend more on plot than action for its storytelling effects, allowing the train scenes especially to unfold with rare leisure. Like all the early Bond films, the movie is shot in glorious Technicolor, which makes the Turkish locations look especially stunning.
The producers of Skyfall, in which Bond protects his ancestral home from foreign outsiders, took one look at how the desultory Quantum of Solace (2008) tarnished the brilliant start to the Craig era, Casino Royale, and immediately doubled down on the next film’s pedigree. This meant not only adding some of the world’s greatest actors (Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Javier Bardem) and recruiting celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins to make Skyfall into one of the most beautiful movies ever shot, but even having M (Judi Dench) quote Tennyson as Bond rushes through London to save (rather than die) another day. I mean, why not just write the whole script in iambic pentameter?
Ok, it was the 50th anniversary of the franchise, Craig was in his prime, and they wanted to do something special. Also, The Dark Knight with its groundbreaking cinematography and roster of acclaimed thespians (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, etc), had upped the stakes. But still, the idea that what was once considered disposable entertainment — a series that gave the world Moonraker and two gymnast assassins in Diamonds are Forever named Bambi and Thumper — would pivot all the way to prestige status (and, really, why wasn’t Skyfall nominated for Best Picture in a weak year?) seems preposterous in retrospect. But who’s complaining? Audiences got a classic out of the deal.
Goldfinger was the franchise coalescing into its recognizable form. All the tropes that leap to mind when thinking of Bond take shape in this one: the megalomaniacal villain with the dastardly world-dominating scheme (Goldfinger, played by Gert Frobe, and his plan to destroy the U.S. gold supply); the weirdly distinctive henchman (Oddjob, played by Harold Sakata); and the heavier reliance on gadgets, chases, and one-liners.
More so than the straitlaced Dr. No and the refined From Russia with Love, Goldfinger also leans into the campy weirdness (the laser threatening Bond’s nether regions) and even tastelessness (the unhinged sexism of a name like Pussy Galore) that occasionally characterizes Bond films. It’s also bursting with imagination, wit, and fun, and it gave birth to the immortal exchange. “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”
Not only the best Bond film ever made, but likely the best Bond film that ever will be made. It took the producers 44 years, but they finally got it right. They can thank Batman Begins and the first two Bourne movies (The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy) for paving the way. The sophisticated multi-layered storytelling, emotional resonance, deepened character psychology, independent women, and contemporary themes — along with the ever-improving action and stunts of modern films — raised the stakes for Bond after the Roger Moore-level silliness of Pierce Brosnan’s final entry Die Another Day (Brosnan, to his credit, always tried to push for more psychological realism in the character).
Daniel Craig was the key. He was the first post-Connery Bond to channel Connery’s borderline sociopathic coldness when it came to killing. But unlike Connery’s Bond, who brought more or less the same attitude to his relationship with women, Craig showed that Bond could also be vulnerable. It’s damning with faint praise to say that Eva Green as Vesper Lynd is the best Bond girl ever. Green is a force of nature, a striking, beguiling presence. Her inky eyes smolder as though by black magic. When Bond says “I have no armor left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I’m yours,” we believe that he is utterly smitten. Throw in some of the series’ best action, stunts, and location photography, and Casino Royale is the obvious choice for #1.
You can stream every James Bond film on Prime Video.
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