Earlier today, Skyfall was officially released in the United States. The film should make a hell of a lot of money, and like a lot of people, I will be in line to see it. In fact, I’ve spent the past month preparing for it. After catching a press screening and wondering whether it might be the best of all-time, I sat down and plowed through all twenty-two preceding movies. Some of the films were less than adequate and others were simply wonderful.
I’ve spent the past few days presenting the ranked list I made upon completion, and now, I’m finally down to the best of the best. These are my five highest rated Bond movies of all-time. These are the ones I would watch at any moment, under any circumstances, and if you’re a true Bond fan, you’ll probably agree with me.
Without further ado, here are my favorites…
5) 1967’s You Only Live Twice
Nine of the first ten Bond movies were at least co-written by either Richard Maibaum or Tom Mankiewicz. You Only Live Twice is the lone exception, and humorously, it’s probably the best straight representation of the Connery era. Famed children’s author Roald Dahl was told to pen a script adhering to the exact formula of the earlier entries. He did that. In fact, he incorporated every single element we expect out of Bond, and some of those things, he even made better.
Supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is given a hollowed out volcano as a lair. Henchman are dropped into a pool filled with not sharks but piranha. High tech space gadgets produced by world powers are literally eaten by other high tech space gadgets. Car chases end with the help of giant magnets. Nations are played against one another, and, of course, hot and sexually active women are everywhere. It’s all a wonderful blend of intellectual intrigue and base level appeals, and Japan offers the perfect backdrop.
At their worst, the Bond movies don’t cater their subject matter to their location. You Only Live Twice definitely does. There’s ninjas, sumo wrestlers, massages, a plot that capitalizes on Japan’s place in the world during the mid 60s, commentaries on the culture and even a scene in which Bond tries to disguise himself as a Japanese man. It feels distinctly Asian, just as this movie feels distinctly Connery-era Bond.
4) 2006’s Casino Royale
Few, if any, Bond movies have received as much immediate positive press as Casino Royale. Critics and fans tripped over themselves trying to praise Daniel Craig’s gritty, jarring performance as many times and in as many ways as possible. And rightfully so. Craig’s 007 is vicious, aggressive and enchanting. He’s the perfect man for this role at this specific moment in time, but beyond him, there are actually a ton of other things about Casino Royale that really work.
The chemistry between Bond and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is among the best in the history of the franchise. Apart from Tracy, she’s the only woman who I’ve ever thought Bond could truly retire and be happy with. She pushes back, reads him as well as he reads anyone else and acts quickly and efficiently under pressure. Beyond her, Le Chiffre, while not a super villain of the Blofeld variety, works very well as a man with as much or more to lose than Bond and the scene where Bond flips his car is quite possibly the visually shocking stunt we’ve ever seen from the franchise.
Director Martin Campbell’s direction also deserves special note for how well he handles the momentum. Bond films typically contain about twenty minutes of unnecessary footage. Casino Royale, as the longest entry, should suffer the same problem, but it doesn’t. Its 144 minutes fly by, and just the right amount of poker footage is included to give viewers an idea of what’s going on without coming off like late night ESPN.
007 needed to be rebooted at some point. We needed to see him earn his 007 stripes, and I’m really glad it happened here.
3) 1963’s From Russia With Love
Many of James Bond’s more structural elements (the score, the gunbarrel shots, the lines) trace their way back to the series’ first entry, Dr. No, but the grandiose scale and larger than life nature of the characters are derived from round two, From Russia With Love. Here, the locations are bigger, grander and more diverse. 007 spends time on the Orient Express. He races through Hagia Sophia. He enjoys a meal inside a gypsy camp and even ventures beneath the city through an elaborate maze of canals. From Russia With Love is a proper adventure, and it’s populated by some of the craziest characters ever conceived.
From handsome, hired assassin Red Grant to brilliant chess legend Kronsteen to homely and menacing Rosa Klebb to the first appearance of the man we later know as Blofeld, there are four legitimate, easily identifiable villains in From Russia With Love. They each set the tone for the more outlandish and malevolent men and women to follow, and to be quite honest, all of them pale in comparison to the awesomeness of Kerim Bey. The station chief in Istanbul has just as many wild stories as he does children, and he never stops plotting. Some of the villains in later entries are better than Red Grant and company, but I’m not sure Bond has ever been given an ally as fun and competent as Kerim Bey.
From Russia With Love also features the poisoned toe spike everyone loves so much, as well as an easy to follow plot about a stolen cryptograph device and a Soviet seductress that effectively introduces the idea of playing both sides of the Cold War. From Russia With Love is nearly perfect, and it remains just as fun almost fifty years later.
2) 2012’s Skyfall
Skyfall is like a love letter to James Bond fans. It’s a reminder of why all of us fell in love with the dashing spy in the first place. More often than not, love letters can’t compete with the better entries in a series because they’re too obsessed with pleasing everyone by shoehorning in references, but Skyfall is so expertly crafted, it just works the elements into the basic plot or subtly winks at them. From classic cars to gambling scenes to exotic animal attacks, it touches all its bases, and thanks to arguably the best Bond villain ever, it’s riveting.
Most of us love the larger than life supervillains of the early Bond movies. We love Blofeld and Jaws and May Day because they’re so deliciously over the top. Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva is proof that villain can exist and can work in the world we live in today. Flamboyant, sociopathic and goddamn brilliant, he’s a perfect foil for Bond, and he owns every single scene he’s in. You can’t take your eyes off of him, and he’ll surely go down as one of the all-time greats.
Skyfall also does a very effective job of pushing the Bond legacy forward. It introduces some new characters, reintroduces some old characters and takes time to explore Bond’s history—without every appearing to try to hard. Director Sam Mendes clearly has a great appreciation for the material, and wherever the franchise goes from here, it can certainly be said he left it in far better condition than he found it in.
1) 1964’s Goldfinger
There are a lot of people who think a Bond movie or two are better than Goldfinger, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met a single person that would rank the 1964 classic outside their personal top five. It’s just too well-executed, and it does too many things incredibly well. In fact, it warrants inclusion in just about every single Bond-related debate, no matter what the category. You ask a question, and I can probably come up with a contender that warrants consideration.
Who is the greatest henchman of all-time? Oddjob. What is the greatest Bond theme of all-time? Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger”. Best plot? Breaking into Fort Knox. Most iconic scene? Bond strapped to the table with a laser. Best Name? Pussy Galore. Best death? Smothered with gold. Best villain? Goldfinger.
Goldfinger is also a wonderfully balanced movie. It cares about sex, golf, lasers, fighting, gold, airplane stunts, gambling and murder in just about equal measure. It speeds up when it needs to and gives its characters time to breath when the moments are right. Director Guy Hamilton makes the right decisions over and over again, and Connery is extremely comfortable here in his third time at bat as 007. It’s as close to perfect as a Bond movie has ever been, and even if they make another 23, I’m not sure anyone will ever do better than this.