Following up (what I hope was) a thoughtful piece on the state of arts criticism today, I figured I’d offer something more… modest… by comparison. Here, mostly just because I like making lists and watching movies, is a countdown of my five favorite James Bond movies.
This is the outgrowth of a 6-month marathon I did of the whole series in Spring 2013. I’ve been a huge fan of the franchise since I was a kid. My dad and I watched the films on repeat, and it’s become a big part of my life. As an adult, I’ve continued to watch the series and think about it. Though I had seen most of the movies, I finally filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge by watching all of the films in order.
While watching, I periodically glanced at best Bond articles. The process was both interesting and frustrating. I think I learned a lot from reading about the films, but a few things didn’t sit right (I guess that’s what I get for reading and contributing to an odd/pointless genre like best of lists). There are some consistencies, but few seem to agree why certain films are ranked the way they are. And their justifications are usually weird, based on some random feature or objection to something trivial. If nothing else, I’ve tried to justify my rankings a bit better in the mini-essays below.
But honestly, I don’t even care to give some grand theory of why I’m doing this. I’m not even sure all of what I’m saying is that original, although some of my takes are pretty hot if I do say so myself. Really though, I just like James Bond. Obviously, the title is a joke. This list isn’t really meant to be definitive. it’s just not my fault that it happens to be.
5. The Spy Who Loved Me (Roger Moore/Lewis Gilbert, 1977)
The Spy Who Loved Me belongs on here because it’s the best worst Bond. Don’t get me wrong: Roger Moore’s portrayal of the character is truly classic. (Of course, Moore proves himself to be a bigger asshole by the day; I mean, casting Idris Elba as Bond is quite possibly one of the best ideas put forth in the history of the franchise). But his wry humor and aristocratic persona are still emblematic for the franchise. This is not so much because he nails Bond, but because he appears unswayed by the changing times. His Bond is like Sterling Archer… aloof yet virtuosic, all the while clad in that beloved black turtleneck.
That said: most of his movies just weren’t good. They stood curiously at odds with Moore’s perennial character. His run struggled with its era, often opting for bowdlerizing genre flicks or ham-handed trendiness. His films are drenched in camp. I’m glad A View to a Kill gave us a Grace Jones/Walken/Duran Duran Bond, but it didn’t convince me we needed one.
The Spy Who Loved Me stands out from that pack because it found a perfect place between the timely and the timeless. It dragged Bond into the seventies even as it doubled down on his characteristic lexicon. Moore’s run was full of bell-bottom suits and cartoonishly wide ties. But he always spoke fluently in the Bond language. The gadgets and gizmos, the supervillians, they were all there. The Spy did it better than the rest. From Stromberg’s arachnid sea lab, to ski chases, helicopter battles, and the legendary white, scuba diving Lotus Esprit S1, this makes the film the first truly modern Bond.
Of course, it still is campy as the rest. Moore spends the movie battling a shark-obsessed baddie and his metal-mouthed henchman Jaws to a funk soundtrack (also, did I mention his monstrous ties?). But this movie made the best case that James Bond is camp… and guaranteed his icon status in the process.
4. Goldeneye (Pierce Brosnan/Martin Campbell, 1995)
This movie is a tad controversial. Brosnan has a well-deserved bad rep. Most of his movies suck pretty hard. But I find Goldeneye truly invigorating, because it is the first film to offer a solid evaluation of Bond’s socio-historical dimensions.
From high-tech devices to genre parody to about fifteen straight films stumbling to defend the war on communism, the Bond series has always had deep anxieties about its relevance. But it also drops the ball almost every time. Moonraker and A View to a Kill are only the most cartoonish answers to the fear that Bond is out of touch with his moment.
Goldeneye got it right. It exceeds even the Craig films in articulating a theory about the historical role of Bond. The film uses the end of the Cold War – and so the end of a moment in which intelligence agencies could be taken for granted – to ask if Bond had any function beyond the ideological. Without the threat of communist takeover to justify cat-and-mouse espionage, infinite weapon development budgets, and paranoid end times scenarios, Goldeneye wagers that Bond might have always been doomed for the dustbins of history.
Brosnan is the perfect Bond to face that possibility. The consummate ‘90s man, he departs from the airs that sustained Connery (and that made Moore ridiculous). Brosnan is elegant without aristocracy, a Bond for a brave new world in which secret agents hobnob with bureaucrats rather than the waning princely class. Meanwhile, said bureaucrats, Judi Dench’s masterful M and Joe Don Baker’s CIA agent on permanent vacation, support him without really knowing why. And his enemies – ex-Soviet bureaucrats, mobsters, military men, and an MI6-agent-turned-supervillain who demands Bond admit that he has no real cause – all struggle with what it means to be a baddie after the Evil Empire.
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (George Lazenby/Peter R. Hunt, 1969)
This is the Bond film people love to rescue, despite it actually having a generally good reputation. It usually places in the top five on critical lists, often with some coy line from the writer about how underrated it is and how brave they are for putting it there. I’ve got no rescuing to do here. The film is a shoe-in for a top place, and it deserves it.
In part, this is because the film stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the Bonds on their own terms. It is a classic film in many ways. High speed chases, drama, and beautiful tours through exotic locations… this is one of the most enjoyable films in the franchise. Few moments in the whole series can compete with that endless ski chase/carnival/derby race/ski chase part deux/avalanche/mountaintop shootout/bobsled chase.
But the film is truly great for a different reason. Lazenby does have a deserved reputation as one of the weaker Bonds. Perhaps it’s because we only got to see him in one film, but his portrayal is a tad one-dimensional. Some have been tempted to praise his as a tragic Bond, highlighting the film’s sad finale. But I wish it were sad for biographical reasons. It would take until the excellent 2006 Casino Royale for us to finally get a tragedy born of Bond’s life choices.
Really, On Her Majesty is a credo for the freewheelin’ James Bond. The ending is a lieto fine in reverse, an attempt to restore order to a universe potentially destabilized by Bond finally finding peace. It is in this sense, not the more common one, that the film is a tragedy. It reveals that Bond is doomed to wander the earth, alone. For this reason, the moment of pathos isn’t that final one where he mutters, “it’s alright, it’s alright.” It is in the look he gives Moneypenny on his wedding day.
2. Skyfall (Daniel Craig/Sam Mendes, 2012)
Skyfall is by far the most brilliant Bond movie in the series. It may never be surpassed in depth. The film enacts in form what Goldeneye does in content. It is powerful, not for its muddled claims about technology (that’s the least convincing element, a franchise cliché masquerading as a new insight into the digital age). Rather, the film stands out for its anxious meditation on the formal logic that underwrites the franchise.
Indeed, in many ways, the film is curiously textbook. It surpasses even the clumsily retro Spectre as a modern throwback. Skyfall marches Bond through a script that is all-too familiar, leading the hero from the first discovery a plot into the clutches of the villain and then to the final confrontation, complete with a casino stop along the way.
And yet, the movie shimmers with a dreamlike quality. It is staggering in its elegance. Every scene is a portrait. The film almost looks as much like Inception as it does Casino Royale.
(I just had to keep that one in color). Bond himself is hazy. Craig’s Bond has been lauded for being pathos-ridden, something that definitely comes out in the first two films of his run. But Skyfall makes it clear this has nothing to do with his biography. Rather, he carries the sad, emptiness of the Bond series itself. The film suggests that our hero is an empty placeholder, a perpetual wrench in a machine of his own design. When asked by Kincaid who he is fighting, Craig gives no answer because he has none to give. Skyfall Manor tells us nothing about Bond, not about his origins nor the source of his sorrow. It is a feint. Cloth shrouds hide the fact that there is nothing underneath.
Silva is the villain insofar as he understands this. He is classic, of course: sinister and brilliant (and queer, finally overtly lusting after Bond as so many of them seemed implicitly to do). But here, his power is enlisted solely for the purpose of haunting Bond. In the end, as he orders his chopper to fire on Bond’s beloved Aston Martin, it becomes clear he does so simply to acknowledge his function.
1. Goldfinger (Sean Connery/Guy Hamilton, 1964)
There is one consistency in best of lists: Goldfinger always wins. This is no different. Goldfinger always wins. And it deserves to. It is the Bond movie. Moore formalized the language, Brosnan brought it out of the Cold War, and Craig even tried to tear the edifice down…
…but it was Sean Connery’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5 that Silva had to destroy. Goldfinger didn’t do everything first, but it set the standard for all to come. It is all here in embryonic form: the banter with Moneypenny and visits to Q branch, the final showdowns and close calls, the orchestral score without rival and Shirley Bassey’s immortal theme song. All Bond movies must live up to the film’s promise or perish trying.
Some of its glories rest on Connery. This is one of the greatest Bond performances, laying out all of the character’s contradictions with crystal clarity. Ever at odds with an order he existed solely to defend, Connery’s Bond was one part ideologue, one part hero, and one part thrill-seeker. One foot in the old world aristocracy and one in the swinging sixties, he sipped Don Perignon ’53 just as comfortably as he sat by the pool.
In the midst of a high-speed flirtation/drag race through the Alps, Bond mutters “Discipline, 007. Discipline!” in order to focus himself on duty. Connery’s strength was in knowing full well that Bond could never quite own the thought.
In the end, it never mattered what he believed. Bond’s sole purpose lies in tarrying with the enemy. Auric Goldfinger was a perfect rogue to match Connery’s perfect Bond. Devious, cold, and power-hungry, he embodied the franchise’s greatest fears. Not just in league with the communists, he stood for worse: insidious and omnipresent evil. Though his ostensible motive was profit, his ultimate aim was opposition to the hero, sheer villainy. His iconic retort when Bond asks if he was expecting torture to yield information – “No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” – is really a manifesto.