1. Goldfinger (1964) – The obvious choice. The quintessential Bond film balanced perfectly between edgy grit and wink-wink spectacle. The gadget-laden Aston Martin (Bond: “An ejector seat? You’re joking.” Q: “I never joke about my work, 007.”) points to the campy direction the series will ultimately take, but Oddjob is still perhaps the most scary and formidable Bond villain ever. The Fort Knox vault climax is sublime, as is Bond’s almost-death by laser beam. A pitch-perfect classic.
2. Casino Royale (2006) – A clever, thrilling reboot of the series exploring how Bond came to be 007. Despite silly outcries by fans that Daniel Craig was too short or too blonde, he’s quite simply the best Bond since Sean Connery, period. His Bond will kick your ass. Yes, the film’s too long by probably 30 minutes, but it’s that lengthy epilogue that’s so crucial to Bond’s evolution: a sudden turn in Bond’s romantic relationship with hottie Vesper Lynd hardens his heart and sets him on a path to become the ruthless agent we all know he will be.
3. For Your Eyes Only (1981) – The high point of the Roger Moore films. After the delicious, so-bad-it’s-almost-good absurdity of Moonraker (see #9), the producers wisely thought it best to strip Bond to the basics and send him on a bare-knuckles mission. With its revenge motif, there’s an undercurrent of anger here that gives the movie unexpected gravitas. Bonus points, of course, for the Sheena Easton theme song.
4. From Russia With Love (1963) – Like Dr. No (#8), this second Bond film is much more a traditional sort of cloak-and-dagger Cold War espionage thriller with Russian defectors and assassination plots. A series highlight is the claustrophobic fistfight between Bond and bad guy Robert Shaw on the Orient Express. The producers do what they do best, casting as a “Bond girl” an actress no one hears from again – in this case, luminous Italian actress Daniela Bianchi.
5. Live and Let Die (1973) – A curious artifact of the 1970s, influenced clearly by that era’s pop culture interest in “black power,” whether it’s the mean streets of Harlem or the supernatural jungles of African voodoo. With its small scope – it’s almost entirely set in the U.S. and involves organized crime bosses rather than Dr. Evil-style megalomaniacs – it’s an unusual Bond film. It’s also a mixed bag. For every inspired touch, whether it’s the Paul McCartney theme or tragic psychic Solitaire, there are missteps, such as the cheesy inclusion of a Southern-fried Louisiana sheriff.
The Very Good
6. You Only Live Twice (1967) – Respect is due the film that features the villain’s lair in a phony volcano staffed with hundreds of loyal - and faceless - henchmen, all ready and willing to lay down their life for reasons unknown. All hail the birth of the spy movie cliché. This kind of ridiculous comic-book exaggeration – the bad guy, Bond nemesis Blofeld, is hijacking manned space capsules… while they’re in orbit (yes, you read that right) – is what people think of when you say James Bond.
7. Die Another Day (2002) – You can tell a lot about a person by whether or not they like this film, the last one to star Pierce Brosnan. It all seems to come down to Bond’s invisible car. Do they embrace that fanciful gadget or roll their eyes and crave more realism? Though the invisible car is a symbol of excess to many, this is Brosnan’s best Bond film thanks to a plausible (and fairly coherent) plot preying on very real tensions between North and South Korea. Having Halle Berry doesn’t hurt either.
8. Dr. No (1962) – The one that started it all. A fairly small and simple spy movie with some topical space-race sci-fi thrown in, looking at it one would never guess that a 40-year film franchise was being born. Bond here is a pretty dark guy – after questioning a bad guy and extracting useful information, Bond kills him in cold blood. Ouch. Even with the fun touches, like the slinky introduction of Honey Ryder (it’s tame now, but apparently in 1962 Ursula Andress’ little white bikini was a huge deal) or Dr. No’s metal hands, this film is really more of a historical artifact than anything else.
9. Moonraker (1979) – File this one under so-bad-it’s-genius. The producers are desperately trying to cash in on the Star Wars craze and the result is a train wreck. It’s hard to know where to begin, whether it’s turning the previous film’s feared villain (Jaws) into a sappy good guy, mounting a ridiculous outer space laser battle with armies of astronauts, or simply going for a cheap laugh at every possible opportunity. Villain Drax may be the most insanely ambitious villain ever – his plan is nothing short of global Armageddon so he can repopulate the earth with his master race. Textbook definition of guilty pleasure.
10. Thunderball (1965) – An important film in the Bond canon because of complicated story rights that allowed producer Kevin McClory to remake the film as Never Say Never Again in the 1980s with Sean Connery. Seen today, there’s a lot that is familiar in the movie, particularly the brilliantly simple stolen-nuke-for-ransom plotline, and the climactic underwater battle doesn’t age particularly well. But in 1965, this film was incredibly successful around the world – in fact, by some measures it was the most popular film ever released up to that time. If Goldfinger suggested Bond could be huge, Thunderball showed how huge.
11. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) – The Pierce Brosnan films typically suffer from plot impenetrability (which is why the next two entries on this list are both Brosnan titles – exciting and slick, but mostly forgettable). The storylines are complicated, the villain’s motives convoluted. This one’s no exception. All one can really say is that the villain’s a Rupert Murdoch billionaire who’s trying to sell more of his newspaper tabloids by causing global trouble. The film does benefit from some extra oomph in Michelle Yeoh’s casting as Chinese agent Wai Lin (the producers are again chasing pop culture trends, here bowing to the popularity of martial arts and Asian cinema).
The Just Okay
12. Goldeneye (1995) – This is Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as Bond and he surely felt a lot of pressure to revive a series that had laid dormant for six years. But his easy charm and suave edge is the perfect antidote to Timothy Dalton’s sourpuss take on the character. This is a lot of people’s favorite Brosnan film, but the plot (evil agent wants to destroy London out of revenge) is needlessly dense, as if the filmmakers think to make a good spy thriller one had to confuse the audience. Extra credit for Famke Janssen’s great villain with an ever greater name (Xenia Onatopp).
13. The World Is Not Enough (1999) – Now we’re at that mushy middle point in the list where very little separates the good from the so-so. Yes, Sophie Marceau’s character Elektra provides a nice double-cross and there are some groovy action scenes, but one must also endure the improbability of Denise Richards as a physicist named Christmas Jones. Points must also be deducted for offering up a villain – Renard – who feels no pain (think of the possibilities!) and then relegating him to second-fiddle status. He really should have been the main bad guy.
14. Octopussy (1983) – The last great Cold War-inspired Bond film set around the tensions of divided Germany. The stakes are high, the action urgent, and the plot (for the most part – the whole Faberge egg thing sure takes a long time to pan out) dense enough to be engaging rather than confusing. Strangely, the title character and her India-based circus is perhaps the film’s weakest element. But poor old Roger Moore’s really starting to show his age.
15. License to Kill (1989) – Poor Timothy Dalton. So misunderstood, so unloved. After the increasing silliness of the Roger Moore films, especially A View to a Kill (see #21), there was really only one direction to take the franchise: serious and dark. The Living Daylights (see #19) came first, but this Dalton film is the better one. It’s a surprisingly satisfying movie but one that never fully connected with audiences. Maybe it was the darkness of the story – Bond quits MI5 to kill a South American crime lord (another craven attempt to cash in, this time it’s pop culture interest in the Colombian cartels) to avenge the torture of a friend. Or maybe it’s that Dalton is so stone-faced. Either way, it’s one of the more underrated Bond films.
16. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) – A mediocre entry in the Roger Moore era that shamelessly copies the basic plot of #6 You Only Live Twice (bad guy steals superpowers’ goods hoping each will blame the other and launch World War III). It’s a derivative formula, energized here only by the unusual (and terribly underutilized) element of Barbara Bach’s character, a KGB agent forced to work with Bond, who recently killed her Soviet lover in the line of duty. Extra points for the “Nobody Does It Better” theme song and the white Lotus Esprit that turns into a frickin’ submarine.
17. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) – This one gets low marks simply because Sean Connery looks so out of place, what with his hairpiece and all. The producers lured him back after the failed Lazenby Experiment (see #21) and he really just seems to be going through the motions. It’s the same old thing. Again, supervillain Blofeld’s plotting a worldwide disaster (he’s building a giant laser) for his own financial gain. There’s a bit of fun to be had in a Las Vegas subplot, but it’s mostly a tired and mechanical exercise.
18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) – File this one under so-bad-it’s-terrible. This is one weird film. Just about every element is out of whack, from the shrill and ludicrous theme song (whatever happened to Lulu?) to the casting of blank-eyed bimbo Britt Ekland as the bumbling Bond girl to using, with a completely stone face, a third nipple of all things as the distinguishing characteristic of the film villain. There’s something in here about solar energy (a timely nod to 1970s energy politics) but it’s really a strange story of how a famous underworld hitman wants to kill 007 out of professional pride. Oh yeah, and "Fantasy Island’s" Herve Villechaize is in it. Must be seen to be believed.
19. The Living Daylights (1987) – The first film in the post-Roger Moore era is a fairly joyless affair. Timothy Dalton’s relentless frown doesn’t help. The plot (more defections, assassinations, and political backstabbing) is complicated the point of being absolutely baroque, so determined are the filmmakers in crafting a “real” spy thriller. Even reading a plot synopsis just now for this post, the Cheese Fry was hard pressed to figure out what the hell the point is. Trivia item: upon release, much was made of Bond’s out-of-character monogamy in the film, clearly influenced by the era’s AIDS fears.
20. A View to a Kill (1985) – Silly and pointless. There’s a lot that feels just wrong here, whether it’s Christopher Walken doing his usual weirdo schtick as a white-haired villain with a Lex Luthor-style plot to create earthquakes in California, Grace Jones strutting her weirdo look as Walken’s androgynous henchperson (who seems to belong in another, stranger movie), or the big climax taking place atop the Golden Gate Bridge with some very shoddy rear projection. And then there’s the sight of wrinkly 58-year-old Roger Moore macking with a sleek 31-year-old Tanya Roberts. Yes, the Moore era had to end here. The Duran Duran theme song is a guilty pleasure, however. Ed. note: here again a Bond film plot is echoing pop culture, this time it’s the booming PC craze that seems to have influenced the film’s Silicon Valley storyline – maybe it’s needlessly mean-spirited to suggest the Bond producers chase pop culture to maximize audience interest; perhaps instead one should look at the twists and turns of the series as an inevitable reflection of the time from which it came. If so, then the Bond films might offer an interesting way to chart evolving cultural concerns, interests, and fears of the West. Hmmm.
21. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – It’s a part of the Saltzman-Broccoli-Eon canon, but it really doesn’t feel like a Bond movie, does it? It’s not George Lazenby’s fault. If he’d been allowed to continue, the Cheese Fry might have fonder feelings for this film. But his one-shot performance unavoidably makes this film the bastard stepchild of the series. Which is too bad, because Bond’s relationship and marriage (and eventual tragic widowhood) with Diana Rigg’s Tracy DiVincenzo gives this film an emotional center only Casino Royale ever successfully developed.