I was never a fan of James Bond. As a kid, I grew up loving Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the long list of Disney classics, but I never had much exposure to James Bond. I was aware of the series, certainly, but had no familiarity with it. It wasn’t until 2006’s Casino Royale that I had my first real Bond adventure. After falling in love with Casino Royale, I went back and dipped my toes into some of the early Connery films, saw, and was disappointed by Quantum of Solace, but mostly I just re-watched Casino Royale a whole lot.
Things changed, though, in 2012. There are certain films – American Graffiti being perhaps the best example of these – that are built so entirely on fondness for the past, that it can make one nostalgic for a world they never experienced. Skyfall is one of these films. James Bond’s big 50th anniversary event film, while also a great movie in its own right, is both a triumphant victory lap and a gooey love letter to the 50 year history of 007’s cinematic adventures. It’s a movie that made me, someone with just a passing familiarity with James Bond, want to be a fan of this series. So I pulled the trigger on the big 50th anniversary Blu-ray set, and this past year I made a point to watch all 23 of the James Bond films. The results of this experiment, were mixed.
The Bond series runs the gamut from really great to unwatchably bad, but the truth is that a good chunk of them are just boring and forgettable. So what I’m not going to do is run through each Bond film individually (if I did, almost every entry between 1969 and 1995 would be “tremendously boring, don’t bother”), instead, I’m going to attempt to create some kind of recommended viewing list – going era-by-era, hitting the highlights of the series while steering clear of all the boring, forgettable nonsense. So let’s begin, shall we?
There’s a reason why Sean Connery is still widely agreed upon as being the best Bond of all time. He takes an inherently problematic character – problematic even in the time these movies were being released – and makes it impossible not to like him. He simply oozes charm and charisma, and is genuinely, effortlessly “cool.” What’s amazing looking back at Dr. No is just how fully realized his performance is from the start. You could watch the early Bond films out of order, and I think you’d be hard pressed to determine which was the first. This extends beyond Connery’s performance to the character of the film itself. There’s nothing about Dr. No that feels prototypical. Sure, the James Bond theme doesn’t play over the gunbarrell opening, and sure, there’s no pre-title action scene, but those are really the only things that are out of place. The Bond formula was essentially fully formed right from the start.
There are a few people you can attribute the success and longevity of James Bond to – Sean Connery, obviously, as well as Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman – but you have to give a sizable portion of the credit to director Terence Young. With Dr. No, he created not only a really fun spy flick, but he also built from scratch the mold from which the good Bond movies would be crafted for the next 50 years.
After saying all that, I really shouldn’t downplay the fact that this is also “just” a really fun spy movie. Dr. No doesn’t quite reach the heights of From Russia With Love or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but 50 years and 23 films later, it still remains one of the very best entries in the James Bond series. It’s fun and it’s gripping and Connery is an absolute joy to watch.
From Russia with Love is easily the best of the Connery-era Bond movies, which, by definition, makes it a strong argument for the best Bond film of all time. Terence Young is back directing for this one, and he takes everything he did right on Dr. No and improves upon it exponentially.
There are so many great things about this movie: the opening fake-out with Red Grant killing “James Bond,” the introduction of Q, the fight on the train, the chase with the helicopter, the boat chase, and the final showdown with Rosa Klebb. Plus, you have Connery at the absolute top of his game, and Tatiana Romanova, one of the only early “Bond girls” with genuine character and personality. It’s also fun to see the genesis of several elements that would later be repurposed for Lucas and Spielberg’s American James Bond, Indiana Jones. Later down the line, Bond would start to imitate his own imitator (there are no less than three different riffs on the famous truck chase from Raiders), but Dr. Jones owes a great debt to From Russia. Last Crusade in particular feels very much of a piece with this film.
If you can only watch one Bond movie, it should be From Russia with Love. It’s not my personal favorite (though it comes close), but it features the absolute best examples of all the iconic things that make Bond great.
This is the one where everything goes wrong. I mentioned before that Terence Young should be credited with creating the mold for all that is good in the Bond series, and if that’s true, then Guy Hamilton should be held accountable for all that’s bad in the Bond series.
That sounds harsh, especially since his first entry, Goldfinger, is still the gold standard (sorry) for many Bond fans. How can I call a movie as beloved as Goldfinger the root of all evil in the Bond series? Well, mostly because it’s true.
Look, I know this is going to be an unpopular opinion, but Goldfinger, while not a bad movie in its own right, is ground zero for all the badness that would consume the series after 1969, all the way up until it was rebooted in 2006. Diamonds Are Forever, Die Another Day, the twelve year tragedy of the Roger Moore era; you can trace it all back to Goldfinger. Goldfinger is the first time that James Bond was a farce. The film is jokey, bordering on self-parody. There’s always been an element of over-the-top silliness to James Bond, but where Terence Young grounded it with real stakes and real characters, Guy Hamilton makes a live action version of a Saturday morning cartoon. There are no real stakes, there are no real emotions, there are just crotch lasers and doomsday devices and a lady pilot named Pussy Galore. There’s an overemphasis on gadgets and gags and a de-emphasis on anything real. Again, I don’t think Goldfinger is a bad movie (though I don’t love it nearly as much as most fans do), but I think it set the precedent for all the bad things that would eventually become the series’ undoing.
Still, because it is such a fan-favorite, and it’s sort of the key to decoding so much of the rest of the series, it earns a spot on the essential viewing list.
I like Thunderball, but I understand that it can be a hard movie to like. All of the Bond movies are at least 20 minutes too long, and Thunderball is maybe the first in the series to have really serious pacing problems. The content here is good, but things just end up going on a bit longer than they should. This is perfectly exemplified by the film’s climatic underwater fight scenes. These scenes are ambitious and fun, but it seems the filmmakers were so proud of this technical accomplishment that they ended up shoving way too much of it up on screen.
This movie has problems, certainly, but I like what it’s selling. It’s Terence Young’s last outing with Bond and for my money he does a good job with it.
I’m going to be honest here, on their own strengths, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice really aren’t good enough to be considered “essential viewing,” but when taken in context with the other Sean Connery films, we have a classic “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” situation. With that in mind, You Only Live Twice isn’t really a good movie – in fact it comes close to being a bad one, BUT it serves as a fairly satisfying send off to Connery’s Bond. There’s a certain feeling of closure to it that I don’t think any other Bond film has had. Despite the assurances from Broccoli and Saltzman that Bond was bigger than one actor, I’m sure they secretly had their concerns that the series wouldn’t live beyond Connery’s departure, and you can feel that in this film.
The film goes really big, especially in the beginning. Big, huge action setpieces, clearly designed to send this era of Bond out with a bang. And while they don’t add up to a great movie, there are some really great moments spread throughout the film. Of course, these moments are offset by an extended portion in the middle of the film where a bored Sean Connery walks around in yellowface for no good reason. For my money, though, the film is at its best when it gets to Blofeld’s secret volcano lair for the climax of the film. It’s classic Connery Bond action, and it’s great fun. If anything, this film is worth seeing just for this final, climactic thrust of the story, and getting to see Donald Pleasance as the most iconic version of Bond’s most iconic villain. And hey, you can’t go wrong getting to see the model Brad Bird designed Syndrome’s volcanic lair on in The Incredibles.
God, what kind of balls must it have taken to do this? Here we are, 45 years later, and the fact that there have been six different actors playing James Bond in the same series over the years is just something we all take for granted. We all have our favorites and our least favorites, but they’re all “Bond.” However, back at the end of the ‘60s, Sean Connery and James Bond were a singular, inseparable organism. Bond made Connery and Connery made Bond. Sure, Bond came from a fairly successful series of novels, but it was this unknown Scottish actor who made him an international icon.
By all accounts, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service shouldn’t have worked, and from the perspective of the time it didn’t work. Audiences and critics revolted, George Lazenby was canned, and Eon paid a fortune to bring back Connery and the director of their last, biggest hit for Diamonds Are Forever (which, by the way, is a positively dreadful movie that no one should ever watch). Looking back on it, though, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may be the best Bond movie of all time.
It’s a cliché to call something “ahead of its time,” but it feels like the only right way to describe On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It feels like someone made a Daniel Craig-era Bond film with 1969 technology and technique. It trades the more lighthearted fare of the Connery films for something darker and more mature – something more in line with the Fleming novels, from my understanding. I’ve heard some people say that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would be the best Bond film if only it starred Connery rather than Lazenby, but I disagree entirely. The tone of this one is so dramatically different from any of the Connery films, and Connery’s Bond would feel completely out of place here. I will admit that Lazenby is probably the most forgettable of the Bond actors, though certainly not the worst. He’s somewhat of a cipher, someone lacking the big personalities of Connery or Moore or Brosnan, and yet, that feels somewhat appropriate for this film. Bond’s not a larger than life character here, he’s a real person, or as close as Bond ever gets to being “real.” There’s so much of this movie you can compare to Casino Royale, which feels like a pseudo-remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and it’s no coincidence that these two movies are neck-and-neck when it comes to deciding on my favorite Bond film.
This is definitely the dark horse of the Bond series, but it’s also quite possibly the best it’s ever been. Despite the strangeness of it in the context of the series, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to skip this one.
Ugh. Roger Moore.
I understand people of a certain generation have a level of nostalgic fondness for Roger Moore. He’s the Bond they grew up with, and therefore he’s “their” Bond. Unfortunately, “their” Bond is terrible and embarrassing. Roger Moore begins his tenure feeling like someone’s goofy dad cosplaying as Connery’s Bond, and ends his tenure feeling like someone’s goofy grandpa cosplaying as Connery’s Bond. While Connery was able to make a problematic character work through sheer force of charm, Moore’s Bond is way too uncool to get away with the same thing. This becomes especially problematic in the later films where he looks to be approximately 96 years old making out with women who are half his age.
The other thing you’ll notice about this era of Bond film is that 80% of the action involves some kind of vehicle chase. Boat chases, car chases, helicopter chases, you name it there’s probably at least three of them in any one of these movies. The reason for this becomes painfully clear on the rare occasion Moore does engage in fisticuffs – Moore can’t pull off a convincing physical action scene to save his life. Seriously, you get the impression that William Shatner and his judo chops would be more than a match for Roger Moore. They learned very early on that the only action scenes Moore would be of any use for are the ones that allow him to remain seated.
I really struggled with finding a movie from the Roger Moore era to include on this list, because, despite thinking all of them are various shades of garbage, I felt that I needed to have at least one movie from every Bond actor for the sake of completion. I initially considered giving it to either Live and Let Die or The Man with the Golden Gun, because unlike the rest of the boring, forgettable entries in the Moore series, these movies do have a life and a personality (unfortunately, those “personalities” are staggeringly racist and unapproachably crazy respectively). I ended up settling on Moonraker, not because it’s the best, not because it’s the most interesting, but because it’s the most representative. Nearly every single bad aspect of the Roger Moore era gets screen time in this film. Moonraker is the Rosetta stone of Roger Moore badness.
As I mentioned before, Moonraker has all the negative tropes established by Goldfinger turned up to eleven. You have the ridiculous henchman in Jaws; you have the huge, implausible doomsday device in the space station; there are double entendres and silly gadgets and the whole thing is bathed in a self-mocking absurdity. Really, the only thing this film is missing to complete the picture of Roger Moore badness is the infuriating Sheriff J.W. Pepper.
Trust me, you’d be much better off not bothering with any of the Roger Moore movies, but if you’re curious, it’s best to just get it all in one dose and be done with it.
The Timothy Dalton era is another odd duck for the James Bond series. Not quite as odd as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but still unique. Dalton gets one more shot at doing Bond than Lazenby did, but neither of his films are as good or memorable as Lazenby’s sole attempt. There seems to be a tension in these films – Dalton is portraying a Bond who is very different from Roger Moore’s, yet the movies he’s in feel very much stuck in the Roger Moore style.
Both The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill are infinitely better than the seven movies that preceded them, yet nether of them are great films. Personally, I think Licence to Kill is the better of the two, and perhaps the best in the subcategory of Bond revenge films. There’s some good action in this one (Dalton, unlike Moore, is actually capable of performing physical action) and the revenge story is fairly solid with strong character moments that sell Bond’s drive for vengeance in a convincing way. Perhaps most importantly it breaks further away from the Roger Moore mold, but still can’t quite leave it behind.
If Timothy Dalton had had one more go at Bond I feel there’s a chance he’d have had a film that understood the Bond he was playing, but alas, it never happened. As it stands, Licence to Kill is a worthwhile, but not altogether essential film in the Bond canon.
It’s sort of amazing how quickly the Pierce Brosnan era spiraled down the drain. GoldenEye serves as a kind of soft-reboot for the series, recasting all of the series’ regulars except for good ol’ Desmond Llewyn (who, it’s worth mentioning, is one of the only consistently bright spots in the dismal Roger Moore years) and it’s by far the most exciting and “alive” the series felt in the 26 years following On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Watching GoldenEye, there’s the feeling that the series is back in a good place again, but, of course, seven years later the whole thing would be so irreparably damaged that they’d need to do a real reboot.
But let’s talk about GoldenEye. Stylistically the film is a huge leap forward. Watching it now, yes, it positively screams “‘90s action movie,” but considering James Bond was stylistically stuck in the early ‘70s all the way up until 1995, it’s a big step. Despite the stylistic change, in a lot of ways, this one harkens back to the Terrence Young movies. It’s this heightened reality that is a little bit silly at times, but it all feels grounded in real stakes and real emotions. Brosnan’s Bond rolling through St. Petersberg is a thousand times more exciting than the endless number of samey car/boat/helicopter/whatever chases in the Roger Moore era.
As for Brosnan himself, I’m kind of neutral on him. It feels like he’s trying to do the same thing Daniel Craig is doing by blending the charm and coolness of Connery with the “damaged goods” darkness of Timothy Dalton, but he’s not nearly as good at it. He’s the middle of the road Bond for me. Neither as good as Connery or Craig nor as bad as Moore. He’s serviceable without really standing out as being particularly good or particularly bad.
If I’m being totally honest, this is another one that is probably nonessential, but I had a lot of fun with Tomorrow Never Dies. Jonathan Pryce is delightful in his goofy role as a media mogul intent on starting World War III in order to drive up ratings, and Bond gets to team up with Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese spy, and there’s some fun action setpieces involving the two of them.
Weirdly, despite the fact that GoldenEye is a much better film, I find myself remembering more details from this, whether its the silly remote-control BMW or the big final showdown on Carver’s stealth boat. It’s all goofy and a little bit dumb, but it doesn’t feel irritating in the same way so much of the Guy Hamilton influenced stuff does. The movie is starting to enter the territory of absurdity that would become unbearable in The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day, but it’s inoffensive here.
Tomorrow Never Dies is dumb, but it’s also a lot of fun, and sometimes that’s all that matters.
Remember when fans organized petitions and boycotts because they were sure there was no way that the blonde-haired, rough-featured Daniel Craig could be James Bond? Not just that he wouldn’t make a good Bond, but that his hair color disqualified him from even portraying the role. How hilariously wrong were they?
Daniel Craig is not only a great Bond, he’s the best Bond. Look, I love Connery as much as the next guy, but Craig does something with the character that elevates it beyond what any other actor who’s portrayed him has done. While Connery created this mythic figure of charm and masculinity, Craig takes those elements and filters them through this deeply broken human being. Because he’s Bond and because he’s an action hero, people don’t tend to look for this, but Craig has given us three capital-G Great performances as Bond. He’s charming and cool and sexy as hell, and yet underneath that all there’s the emotional damage of a man who murders people for a living. You can see it in his eyes, and in the rare moment he lets his guard down, but it’s always played with just the right amount of subtlety as to not be overbearing.
Not only that, but he comes out of the gate with what is perhaps the best movie in the whole series. I waffle between On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale – two movies that are very similar, and stand side-by-side at the top of the heap in the James Bond series – but I think Casino Royale might be my absolute favorite, even if it’s the personal connection of being my first Bond movie that pushes it over the edge. Either way Casino Royale is a great movie, and one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s cool, it’s romantic, it’s funny, and it’s all grounded in a strong, well-told story with compelling characters. It’s the rare movie that really does have a little bit of everything. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s maybe the closest thing we have to Raiders of the Lost Ark in the 21st century. Sure, the ending drags just a little bit (remember, all Bond movies are at least 20 minutes too long), but I can’t complain too much because it pays off so well at the end.
I’ve already said that From Russia with Love is the one you should watch if you can only watch one Bond movie, but if you can only watch two, make Casino Royale your second.
Quantum of Solace was a pretty big misstep for Craig’s Bond. Knee-capped by the writers’ strike and seemingly assembled from an unfinished screenplay and pages from abandoned Brosnan-era scripts, Quantum could have indicated a similarly rapid downward spiral to the one that followed GoldenEye. Fortunately, though, Eon not only righted the ship with Skyfall, they managed to put Daniel Craig in a second film that ranks among the best in the series.
While I think that Casino Royale is a better film than Skyfall, Skyfall is arguably a better Bond film. There’s this tremendous balancing act the film does by bringing back and reinventing the staples of the franchise that had gone up in flames by the time Die Another Day came around. After John Cleese gave Bond an invisible Aston Martin, there really wasn’t any reason to bring back Q, and yet Skyfall did just that, and they did so in a really clever, really satisfying way. Restoring all of these elements that Casino Royale jettisoned could have gone so horribly wrong, especially in the wake of Quantum. Instead, it’s all so satisfying and so much fun.
This is a film that is just dripping with fondness for the James Bond series, and that fondness is infectious. After having spent a year with these films, Skyfall made me want to go back to Dr. No and start all over again.
There are plenty of nits we can pick in this movie – Silva’s plan, for example, is absurd and relies far too much on coincidence – but you’d have to be a real grump to let these things spoil your enjoyment of the movie. The film is a joyous celebration of James Bond, and I don’t know how you could feel anything but giddiness at its closing moments.
I’m not sure if you could call me a James Bond fan at this point. Of the 23 films in the series I think less than half of them are good, but I’m a really big fan of the ones that I like. It was a long, and occasionally painful process watching all of these movies, but I don’t regret it at all. In spite of watching some really bad movies, my fondness for this series when it’s at its best has only increased, and I can appreciate better the impact Bond has had on cinema at large.
If you’re curious about the series, I hope this viewing guide serves as a good jumping-off point. There’s a reason why this series has endured for so long, and it’s worth finding out why that is.
Just steer clear of the Roger Moore movies.