After reading my take on the latest James Bond feature, Skyfall (which I said was "one of the best"), I was asked "Well, if this wasn't THE best... which movie IS your favorite?"
The easy answer is to toss out Goldfinger or From Russia with Love... maybe Dr. No... but the truth is that I didn't know. And since your favorite James Bond films probably says a lot more about you than what toothpaste you use, I wanted to think on it.
And so I did. My ranking of all twenty-four films follows.
- Goldfinger. It's quintessential Bond in every possible way. You've got the famous original (Sean Connery) battling one of the best villains in the franchise (Auric Goldfinger!) with the most famous henchmen (Oddjob!) and the perfect Bond girls (Pussy Galore! Jill Masterson!) and a Bond-worthy plot (attack Fort Knox!) and a Shirley Bassey power theme song (HE LOVES ONLY GOLD! HE LOVES GOLD!). This is everything James Bond is in a single film, which is why it tops a lot of "Best of Bond" lists... including this one.
- Casino Royale. After years of fumbling, the entire franchise is rebooted with Daniel Craig finally bringing back James Bond as a force to be reckoned with. I am the first to admit that the film does drag a bit... with too much emphasis being put on a card game that is more like a rulebook for Texas Hold'em Poker than a vital story element... but just about everything else is exactly what you want in a 007 film. The contemporary plot was driven by money manipulation, but didn't end up as boring as it would seem. On the contrary, the action was gritty and real in a way that the franchise needed to stay relevant in today's more brutal, less elegant world. I know it's probably heresy to say so, but Craig became my favorite James Bond after just this one outing. The theme song You Know My Name by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell was a rockin' kick to the head, and exactly what was needed for the first film in a new James Bond series.
- From Russia with Love. It's been said that this film is the closest to the original James Bond novels. Having never read them, I don't know if that's true, but I do see the film as a much grittier take on the character than we're used to. The plot is Cold War relevant, with 007 having to assist with the defection of a Soviet asset. Unfortunately for Bond, he also has to deal with SPECTRE, who is hell-bent on revenge because he killed Dr. No. The result is a movie that predates the gimmick-laden films that would follow, and relies on smarts and action to tell one of the best 007 stories (indeed, many people name this as their favorite). It also has some of the most memorable moments, including Rosa Klebb with her deadly shoes and that classic slugfest on top the Orient Express. A part of me wants to give the theme song a break because it's from a different era, but Matt Monro's efforts here seem painfully boring to me here in 2013.
- For Your Eyes Only. Yes. Yes I know. Most people consider this to be another Roger Moore flop that strayed from the original Bond formula too far (even though it was designed to be just the opposite). But I think that's the reason I like it so much. It's an entirely different take on classic James Bond that's done really, really well. And it was the first Bond I saw in a movie theater, so it kind of rings nostalgic to me in that respect. The location shooting in such locations as Greece, Spain, and Italy featured some really cool visuals and epic stunts that define the series, and that formed a base for a good story to be told. Basically, 007 is trying to recover a computer with deadly security consequences for the entire world. Along the way Bond hooks up with a revenge-minded Melina Havelock, whose deadly mission both helps and hurts his own. Couple all that with a flawless performance by Topol, not to mention one of my favorite theme songs (Sheena Easton!), and this movie deserves a lot more respect in the Bond universe than it gets.
- Skyfall. A much smaller, more personal kind of Bond film... but not in a bad way. I've already talked about it here.
- Dr. No. As the first "real" James Bond film to come out of Ian Fleming's novels, all the visual stylings of the character were invented here. Including the iconic intro sequence looking at Bond through the barrel of a gun. The plot revolves around Dr. No and his ties to SPECTRE (which would propel the entire film franchise for decades to come) and his plot to sabotage an American Project Mercury human spaceflight launch. Along the way we are treated to many of the things that would become staples of the character, including the original "Bond Girl," Honey Ryder, as played by Ursula Andress. Honey emerging from the ocean in a white bikini is probably one of the most famous Bond moments in history, and that scene alone would put the movie in my top ten. Fortunately, there was a lot more going for it, pushing Dr. No up to #6. The theme song here was THE James Bond theme song, which is timeless and flawless in a way that most movie tracks can only dream about. A pity it ran short and they filled the remainder of the opening with a bunch of crap, including Three Blind Mice.
- The Spy Who Loved Me. Okay, I admit that part of my nostalgia for this Bond installment is due to the masterful opening credits with Carly Simon belting out Nobody Does it Better, but that was only the beginning. The insane story involved villain Karl Stromberg wanting to destroy the planet so he could start an entirely new civilization under the ocean. As Bond investigates, he runs across a Russian agent working to stop Stromberg's mad plan. But... uh oh... she's also the wife of a Russian spy that Bond killed in the movie opening. Drama! Probably the thing most people remember from this film (other than the theme song) was an appearance by classic Bond villain Jaws, a ruthless killer with a mouth full of metal. Overall, this was a really good Bond film that cemented my love for the character... even though I saw it after both Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only.
- Die Another Day. When Pierce Brosnan took over the role of James Bond, I was ecstatic because I had long thought he was perfect for it. Much to my shock and horror, I ended up thinking he was ill-fit for the role. He over-intensified absolutely everything, and could never capture the casual cool that is a trademark of the character. Every line was delivered not with the winning confidence of the world's foremost super-spy, but as a desperate life-and-death gambit. Like he was wound too tight or something. Ironically, it was Brosnan's final film, Die Another Day, where he finally seemed to calm down and inhabit the character. Or maybe I was just transfixed with Halle Berry being the best "James Bond" in years... talk about casual, cool, and confident! The plot was a good one and revolved around a power-mad North Korean general wanting to eradicate South Korean defenses so he could invade. The theme song was an auto-tune mess by Madonna, but it had a throbbing electronica feel and I still liked it (much more than Madonna's terrible cameo in the film).
- Moonraker. This film has one thing going for it that ranks it a bit higher than it probably should be... the world-domination plot is about as Bond as it gets. Yes, injecting the Space Shuttle into the story was an obvious attempt to get a jump on the actual missions that were coming up two years later and to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon, but I didn't think it was done badly at all. Bond girl Dr. Holly Goodhead was a beautiful, refreshingly competent update from the usual eye-candy, and villain Hugo Drax was classic Bond all the way. As if that weren't enough, the movie was beautifully shot in locations like Venice and Rio de Janeiro, featured some killer visual effects, and had an amazing theme song by Shirley Bassey! Hell, it's James Bond in space! What's not to love?
- A View to a Kill. I'm probably going to catch some shit for this film being being in my top-ten, but come on! The villains are CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AND GRACE JONES and the theme song is an awesome track by DURAN DURAN! Yeah, the Nazi-super-child computer-chip world-domination plot was a bit out there. And, yeah, Roger Moore was too old to really do the story justice (opposite Tanya Roberts!) in his final 007 flick. But, ZOMG!, CHRISTOPHER WALKEN, GRACE JONES, AND DURAN DURAN!
- Thunderball. SPECTRE is up to their naughty hijinks yet again... this time stealing some nuclear bombs to terrorize the earth. Probably most famous for having 007 in a jetpack during the film opening, Thunderball seems to be a love-it or hate-it affair with Bond fans. While I do love it overall (it's Connery, after all), I find big portions of it to be extremely boring. Still, it does have a lot of trademark action and those killer underwater battles going for it. The theme song, crooned with almost gag-inducing drama by Tom Jones is one of my least favorite (ANY WOMAN HE WANTS, HE'LL GET! HE WILL BREAK ANY HEART WITHOUT REGRET!).
- Quantum of Solace. It's unbelievable how Daniel Craig's Bond could have such a huge clunker in-between two amazing Bond entries (Casino Royale and Skyfall), but here it is. Overall, it's not a bad film... just a huge mess that made it difficult to enjoy what good bits were there. The theme song was another mess entirely, taking two artists I like (Alicia Keys and Jack White) and somehow delivering something totally sub-par.
- Tomorrow Never Dies. I can appreciate the concept of a media mogul wanting to terrorize the world in order to make headlines for the news outlets he controls... we see that in the real world every day... but it didn't hold enough weight to anchor a James Bond film in any serious way. Even when that mogul is played exceedingly well by Jonathan Pryce. About the only thing that kept this film from floating away completely was the sublime presence of Michelle Yeoh as Chinese super-spy Wai Lin. The theme song was sung beautifully by Sheryl Crow (with a vocal range I didn't even know she had), but was ultimately boring and predictable ("Martinis, girls, and guns! It's murder on our love affair!").
- Goldeneye. As I mentioned in Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan fell far short of my lofty expectations as James Bond, and his first turn at 007 is replete with reasons why. CIA agent Jack Wade (confusingly played by The Living Daylights villain Joe Don Baker) said it best when he called James a "stiff-ass Britt"... because Brosnan's every word felt stiff, forced, and overly dramatic. A complete departure from the smooth, classy Remington Steele take I was expecting. The plot was good enough (rogue Russian colonel Arkady Ourumov gets control of the all-powerful GoldenEye satellite)... the casting was good (Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp, and Dame Judi Dench's first film as M!)... and the score by one of my favorite musicians (Eric Sera) was top-notch... but it just didn't come together as well as it should have. On the plus side, we did get Tina Turner belting out the theme song this time around, and she killed it.
- On Her Majesty's Secret Service. This is that infamous Bond movie with one-off 007 George Lazenby who stepped in when Sean Connery wanted too much money. He then went on to dis James Bond and declare he'll never do another one, which was a big "fuck you" to fans that makes me not like this film as much as I could have. Indeed, it's Telly Savales' Blofeld and Diana Rigg's all-too-short Mrs. James Bond that make me like it this much. Anyways... this is a decent story with a bitter ending that gave us All the Time in the World, so it's not all bad.
- The Man with the Golden Gun. Christopher Lee was the perfect choice for the titular villain in this Bond outing, but there were simply too many absurd clichés to push this film to where it needed to be. Hervé Villechaize as "Nick-Nack" was bad enough, but kung-fu schoolgirls and other attempts to inject comedy where it doesn't belong sabotaged what could have been a really good 007 movie. Still, it did have some exotic location shooting in Thailand which was cool. The theme song was pretty bad, aiming for fanciful frenzy and energy, but ultimately falling flat.
- The World is Not Enough. Utterly forgettable Pierce Brosnan flick thanks to a boring plot about blowing up a pipeline (or whatever), not to mention the casting of Denise Richards as nuclear physicist(!) Dr. Christmas Jones. About the only thing I enjoyed from this film was the fantastic theme song by Garbage... Shirley Manson's haunting vocals oozing over a creeping melody set the stage for a much better movie than what we ended up getting.
- You Only Live Twice. The theme song was a pleasing but drowsy rendition by Nancy Sinatra that works okay, but could have (should have?) been much more. Which is pretty much what I feel about this gadget-infused take on Bond. The story is confusing and crazy, involving SPECTRE, rockets, and a plot to start World War III. About the only memorable thing I took away from this movie (which I haven't seen in years) was the exotic Japanese locations and outlandish scenarios. Everything else is a forgettable blur.
- License to Kill. Timothy Dalton's second and final 007 flick has two things going for it. First of all, the theme song by Gladys Knight was pretty darn good. The other thing was that the story had a very different Bond being all manipulative and devious, which I loved. The problem being that Dalton shitted all over it. He was an awful, awful James Bond. In my fan-boy fantasies, I picture Daniel Craig stepping in and totally owning the script, elevating the film much higher in my list. But that's not what we got. Instead we get a third-rate drug kingpin takedown flick with actors that felt like they'd have a hard time getting cast on a television show. After this we got Pierce Brosnan as 007, which was a huge step up... but not quite the slam-dunk I was hoping for...
- Never Say Never Again. This cash grab by an aging Sean Connery can be safely ignored since it's not an official Eon film production, but that's not its greatest sin. No, that would be that it's a remake of a Bond flick that Connery had already done... Thunderball. All that being said, this is not the worst James Bond film because it did feature brilliant casting and a really good director who knew how to push all the right buttons. Among the best was Fatima Bush (Barbara Carrera), whose deranged bad-girl villainy was worth the price of admission. The theme song this time around was pretty but forgettable, and felt more like a lounge act than anything else.
- Diamonds are Forever. Sean Connery was lured back to Bond by a massive payday after skipping out on the previous installment, but his heart just wasn't in it. The plot is about diamond smuggling, but it really doesn't matter... this by-the-numbers Bond installment was pretty forgettable, including the theme song by the otherwise amazing Shirley Bassey.
- Live and Let Die. Maybe it's because I thought the whole blaxploitation genre was a bad fit for a James Bond flick, but I just could not get into this film. That's surprising considering we have a truly great theme song by Paul McCartney and Wings, Jane Seymour, and a pretty good two-two-two-villains-in-one idea (played brilliantly by Yaphet Kotto). But we also have some truly corny moments and characters (including the horrific Sheriff J.W. Pepper), along with a laughable voodoo-themed drug plot that felt like it would work better in a cheesy porn flick. So, no, I was not impressed with Roger Moore's first outing as Bond, and thought this feeble attempt to cash-in on the blaxploitation gravy-train to be pretty much crap.
- The Living Daylights. Hmmm... what do I remember about this one? Well, a-ha sang the incredible theme song brilliantly. And I think this was Timothy Dalton's first bland, dull, lifeless, Bond entry. Ooh! And there was a girl with a cello and drugs on camels... or something. Blergh. You know you're in trouble when the only thing you liked best from the film was the theme song. But it's not the first time (see: Live and Let Die).
- Octopussy. Ye gads. Just as I absolutely fucking hated Star Wars II: Revenge of the Sith when Chewbacca broke character (and universe) by doing the "Tarzan yell" as he swung through the trees, I fucking hated Octopussy for the same reason. It's meant to be funny but it's tragically stupid, and sucks you out of the film you're watching. As if that weren't enough for me to take a shit on this Bond installment, 007 dresses up AS A FUCKING CLOWN! Absolutely everything in this film... from the nonsensical plot to the cliché-laden characters and story... is dreadful. Whomever pitched the idea of James Bond joining the circus should be shot. The icing on the cake was the theme song by Rita Coolidge, All Time High, which was a sleepy, boring ballad that started the film off with a snore.
And that's a wrap. My hope is that Daniel Craig (who is contracted for two more films) will continue doing amazing things with James Bond before the inevitable passing of the torch. Time will tell, but looking at the latter half of this list has me dreading that day.
Sometimes, one is all it takes...