We’re into the Top Ten now, ladies and gentlemen.
I was genuinely surprised by how difficult it was to rank some of these movies. This is my one problem with making lists like this. A large part of me dies every time I find myself comparing the Sean Connery movies to the Roger Moore ones. Anyone who tells you that all James Bond films are the same hasn’t seen a whole lot of them, if any. I adore all the films mentioned in this article; the fact that there are five more incredible Bond films to talk about says a lot about why this franchise seems to be immortal. Even when Bond drops the ball, there’s always a good chance that the next one will blow everybody’s minds. Whatever you thought of Spectre, for all you know the next film will be a bona fide masterpiece. That’s part of the fun of being a James Bond fan: there’s no way of knowing where the series is going to go next, or whether the latest will turn out to be the last one.
If you don’t know the ground rules by now then I don’t know what to tell you. Let’s jump in.
10. Octopussy (1983, Dir. John Glen)
Octopussy has a lousy reputation for the following three reasons: the snake charmer joke, the Tarzan joke, and Roger Moore dressed in a clown suit. All three moments make me cringe, but with the exception of the clown makeup, I regard these complaints as nitpicks. As crummy as those jokes are, they add up to less than fifteen seconds of screen time in a film that’s over one hundred and thirty minutes long. It’s funny how even the slightest misstep in a movie can loom so large in your memory. For some reason, I remember thinking Octopussy was just as terrible as Moonraker or A View to a Kill. But going through all the Bond films again last autumn was full of surprises, and Octopussy was a delectable surprise.
There’s a reason Octopussy is one of the most extravagant films in the series. At this point, Kevin McClory was exercising his legal right to remake Thunderball as Never Say Never Again, with the return of Sean Connery as McClory’s unique selling point. Thus the pressure was on. The perennial Sean versus Roger debate was to be tested on the global box office stage. Octopussy and Never Say Never Again were marketed in the manner of the Pepsi Challenge: Bond fans were forced to make the ultimate choice, apparently, between two actors who have virtually nothing in common. Now, if you look up any poster of Never Say Never Again on Google, you’ll instantly pick up on McClory’s marketing strategy. Each poster proudly declares, “Sean Connery IS James Bond.” In other words, McClory adopted the “nothing beats the original” approach. In response, Broccoli threw everything but the kitchen sink into Octopussy, arguing correctly that a good Bond movie is the result of several elements stretching beyond the lead actor.
I suppose you could argue it’s every bit as bloated as Thunderball, if not more so. But I prefer Octopussy because it’s bonkers from the beginning. The cold open is gloriously absurd and establishes the tone of the film perfectly. What I love about Octopussy is how it threatens to go off the rails constantly but somehow manages to remain locked down onto the track. This film is one bravura setpiece after the next with a clear and dynamic storyline keeping everything anchored in basic cinematic plausibility. As much as I like Never Say Never Again, which I feel improves upon the more leaden aspects of Thunderball thanks to the solid efforts of Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner, Octopussy feels more like a James Bond movie, even if it has been turned up to eleven. Look at the travelogue scenes, for instance. The Bond series has always functioned as a bid-budget travelogue; everybody travels more frequently now, so it’s easy to take this longstanding Bond trope for granted. Some of the older films present a ravishing if occasionally patronizing view of the global landscape, and Octopussy contains some of this series’ most vibrant use of exotic international locations.
Other highlights include Steven Berkoff’s scenery-chewing villain General Orlov, and a welcome return of The Man with the Golden Gun’s Maud Adams as this film’s eponymous Bond girl. Look, there’s no nice way of saying this but Roger Moore is not a sexy man. Watching him try to seduce some of his leading ladies can make for a hilariously awkward experience. For starters, I’ve never seen any actor kiss a woman the way Moore does, pressing his face against unenthusiastic lips. But in both films, Maud Adams exudes a palpable and natural chemistry with Roger Moore. She seems to find him genuinely charming. For once, it’s believable that Moore’s Bond has a chance with one of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen. I’d go as far as to say she makes Roger Moore look sexy, which is no easy feat considering Jane Seymour, Barbara Bach, and Britt Ekland all tried and failed.
If you can get past the clown suit, Octopussy is one goddamn helluva show. I’m going to give Homer Simpson the last word: “You know what’s great about you English? Octopussy. Man I must’ve seen that movie…twice!”
9. Dr. No (1962, Dir. Terence Young)
I’d be lying if I said Dr. No was a film I’m always eager to watch, but I’m always defensive whenever I hear impatient millennials trashing it. Dr. No is the pilot episode; it may not be the “best” Bond movie but that’s because it was the first James Bond movie. It’s a little bit cheaper, a little bit slower, and a little bit rougher than the polished and refined Bond movies that followed. But it’s not a not bad movie at all. Oftentimes, it’s an exhilarating and sexy watch. That said, you may need to be in the right mood for it.
The main issues with Dr. No come down to the perpetually evolving language and aesthetics of cinema. Modern audiences are conditioned to respond to epileptic editing, which is why a languid film like, say, The Master was never likely to conquer the box office. But for its time, Dr. No was as heart-pounding as GoldenEye and Casino Royale combined. Watching Dr. No today requires a certain amount of patience because, by contemporary standards, the film takes a long time to get going. But Dr. No is always telling a story; it was made during a time when “story” was literally the only thing Hollywood filmmakers cared about. So once you adjust to the shoe-leather pacing, Dr. No is a riveting spy adventure that would easily hold up as a standalone movie, which is not something you can say about every Bond movie.
But there’s a moment when Dr. No blossoms into the James Bond film as we know it. You can probably guess what it is. Ursula Andress, who looks like she was sent down to Earth as an erotic boon from the gods in Valhalla, steps out of the ocean armed with nothing but a white bikini, a seashell, and a hunting knife. She sings Bond theme composer Monty Norman’s playful “Under the Mango Tree.” Bond joins in. And with that, 007 has met the first and still the most ravishing Bond girl to date. As soon as Andress’ Honey Ryder makes her legendary entrance, all the defining James Bond elements begin falling into place. Eventually, Bond and Honey Ryder are led to SPECTRE’s Dr. Julius No (Joseph Wiseman), who plans to disrupt a space launch in what can only be described as the biggest case of sour grapes in cinematic history. Bond had to start somewhere, and as “first episodes” go, Dr. No is among the most confident cinematic debuts in history. If nothing else, Dr. No’s legacy is indestructible because it was the first movie to introduce the world to James Bond himself, providing a sensational showcase for the broiling onscreen magnetism that is Sean Connery.
Sean Connery defined James Bond the way Mel Gibson defined Max Rockatansky, and this goes far beyond being the first actor to play the part. Do you have any idea how happy I am to write about a Sean Connery Bond without pointing out that “he was getting bored by this point”? In the first three films, he’s anything but bored. He’s sexy, he’s suave, he’s stylish, he’s confident, he’s commanding, he’s muscular, and best of all, he’s real. No matter how ludicrous his later movies are, Connery always kept his 007 grounded in the emotional reality of the character.
Connery’s coolness is difficult to put into words. It hits you the second you see that iconic close-up of Bond sitting at the poker table with that dangling cigarette. You can’t explain a cultural milestone like that very first “Bond, James Bond,” nor can you manufacture it. It’s a magic moment in cinema that has more power than the shiniest special effect in the world. Connery is one of the last classic Hollywood movie stars. As Sick Boy declares in Trainspotting, Connery had the masculinity of Burt Lancaster but with the “sly wit” of Cary Grant, who was of course Ian Fleming’s first choice to play Bond. I realize it’s easy to laugh at Connery for the old eccentric old he became, but I can only think of a handful of movie stars who were ever cooler than Sean Connery as James Bond from 1962 through 1965. We’ve had good Bonds like Brosnan and Moore as well as great Bonds like Dalton and Craig.
But we’ve only had one Connery…
8. Live and Let Die (1973, Dir. Guy Hamilton)
If you’ve been enjoying these articles but you’ve somehow never seen a James Bond film, then Live and Let Die is the perfect place to start: neither the best nor the worst but a fabulous box-ticking Bond adventure all the same. In this movie, 007 has to stop a sinister dictator/heroin kingpin after three British agents are killed under suspicious circumstances. Erstwhile Bond takes in the sights, becomes intimately acquainted with any woman who will go to bed with him, and kills a bunch of nameless cronies all in the name of Western imperialism. Live and Let Die is the perfect 007 litmus test: if you like this movie, you’re probably a Bond fan.
Now, the question perpetually hanging over Live and Let Die’s head is thus: Is the movie racist? Right answer: “No, or at least it’s a lot less racist than the book or Sean Connery in yellowface.” One of the reasons Bond has continued to survive is by taking after the most popular Hollywood trends of the period. When Live and Let Die came out, blaxploitation was a burgeoning movement in American film. As a result, Broccoli and Saltzman made a movie in which Roger Moore goes to Harlem and fraternizes with voodoo pimps and African-American cab drivers who make these sorts of comments. Granted, it’s not Do The Right Thing but it’s not exactly hateful either. And anyway, I ask again: Is it really worth getting worked up about a film featuring this guy?
Live and Let Die never takes itself seriously and you shouldn’t take it seriously either. It’s one of the most fast-paced and lighthearted adventures in the series. Plus, despite how campy Live and Let Die is, the premise is a lot darker than people give it credit for. Dr. Kananga (a truly menacing Yaphet Kotto) is a brutal dictator who is leading a double life as a ruthless American drug lord called Mr. Big. In order to control the country’s heroin supply, Kananga is going to pump two tons of free heroin into the market in order to drive the rival drug barons out of the game. This is the kind of genuinely appalling scheme that greedy, powerful, freaked-out maniacs actually concoct. It’s the dramatic weight of this premise that makes Live and Let Die one of the more credible Roger Moore movies.
Occasionally, Roger Moore is forced to indulge in Conneryesque violence that doesn’t suit him at all, but the odd transitional difficulty is inevitable. Some of the more memorable stunts turn up in this film, including a fight with a snake and a confrontation with Tee Hee’s crocodiles. Who is Tee Hee, you ask? Only one of the finest henchmen in the series. Tee Hee is gigantic and has a metallic pincer to replace the arm that one of his ravenous crocodiles ate. He’s an imposing henchman who outmatches Moore in spades. But this 007 relies primarily on his wits, making his final confrontation with Tee Hee a firm favorite of this Bond fan. And of course, there’s everybody’s favorite redneck Confederate Sheriff J.W. Pepper, played with a hearty helping of prime cut ham by character actor Clifton James. I was thinking recently about whether or not you could resurrect J.W. Pepper for the Daniel Craig era and I don’t see why not. Walton Goggins can play him. Or failing that, Paul Giamatti.
Of course, it would be remiss to talk about Live and Let Die today without mentioning the efforts of the late great Beatles producer George Martin. Bond maestro John Barry was unavailable for this film, so after Broccoli and Saltzman commissioned Paul and Linda McCartney to write that kick-ass theme tune we’ve all heard a billion times, the producers reached out to Martin to provide the rest of the film’s soundtrack. Martin’s score is zesty and exotic, providing the perfect playful timbre for one of Bond’s most bizarre outings. Rest in Peace, Sir George Martin. Wherever you are, I raise up my dry vodka martini, shaken not stirred, to you: the fifth Beatle.
7. Skyfall (2012, Dir. Sam Mendes)
Would you like to know why the James Bond series is so strong? Skyfall couldn’t even crack the Top Five.
See, being a fan of the Daniel Craig era hasn’t always been easy. Remember when his casting was first announced? Remember that laughable smear campaign launched by a demented Brosnan fanatic who seemed to believe that Bond’s hair color was the only prerequisite that mattered? Then, after Craig proved the naysayers wrong with the captivating Casino Royale, EON dropped the ball yet again with the dull-as-dishwater Quantum of Solace. When MGM declared bankruptcy thereafter, Bond’s future was left in limbo, threatening to send Daniel Craig the way of Timothy Dalton. But then, on the fiftieth anniversary of James Bond’s first appearance in on our cinemas, everyone went to see Skyfall. Audiences worldwide rejoiced as Daniel Craig solidified his legacy as the greatest 007 since Sean Connery.
Skyfall is a glorious celebration of the classic 1960s pictures as well as a valiant affirmation that the cinema will always welcome a stylish, ambitious, and James Bond adventure. Craig fulfills the promise of his sprightly Casino Royale performance, infusing 007 with a devil-may-care recklessness that exists independent of any Bond incarnation before. Dalton was the Bond of the books whereas the Craig Bond is entirely his own making. This, alone, places Craig head and shoulders above any 007 besides Connery. Javier Bardem gives a sensational and ripe performance as the Jokeresque villain Silva, and Dame Judi Dench shines in a film designed to pay tribute to the greatest M of all. Complaining that Skyfall is more about M than Bond is like complaining that Mad Max: Fury Road is more about Furiosa than Max. Considering how doggedly this franchise has clung to its well-worn formula, I’m always down for a Bond film that dares to be different.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that Skyfall starts to lose its way after Silva is captured. A great deal of the second half hinges on a handful of birdbrained calls, made in particular by Q and Moneypenney. But even that feels like nitpicking. Most drama requires the viewer to suspend his disbelief, and as long as the drama is compelling enough, the suspension of disbelief shouldn’t be an issue. This is truly what sets Skyfall apart from Quantum of Solace: one film is engaging and sexy while the other film is a dry dirge. Is Skyfall ridiculous at times? Of course it is: it’s a fucking James Bond movie. Like another Daniel Craig film I’ve yet to mention, Skyfall is one of the only Bond films in which I genuinely care about what happens to the characters. And that means more to me than the most glaring of plot holes you could pick at.
Skyfall is an exhilarating fusion of Old and New Bond, and as with Casino Royale, I predict its virtues are going to become more apparent with age. The final act was dismissed by many as a hackneyed homage to Home Alone, but there was something delicious about seeing such a far-out celebration of analog firefighting. I love it when Bond is willing to get weird. Like that bit in Casino Royale when 007 murders an arms dealer and drops his body off at the Bodies Exhibition. Or that bit in The Spy Who Loved Me when Agent XXX is trying to drive away from Jaws, who is literally tearing pieces off their getaway van van, while Bond does nothing besides make a series of disagreeable “women drivers” jokes. The guy sure is a psychopath, isn’t he?
And before you ask, is there anything about Roger Deakins’ breathtaking digital photography or Adele’s instant classic of a Bond theme that hasn’t already been said a thousand times?
6. Goldfinger (1964, Dir. Terence Young)
Goldfinger tends to be the universal favorite. It’s the one “classic Bond” that most people tend to have seen. It was the first film in the series to introduce many of the tropes that went onto define James Bond as a pop culture phenomenon: the physically-imposing henchman with a deadly quirk, the femme fatale with a brazen pun for a name, the absurd but somehow convincing gadgets, and of course, the “Bond theme”: a brassy ballad sung with relish and zeal by the voice of Bond herself, Dame Shirley Bassey. Connery is on fine form as you’d expect, but let’s not forget that Connery benefitted tremendously from a phenomenal team of expert filmmaking craftsmen who made the Bond formula possible. To that end, Goldfinger showcases some of the finest efforts from director Terence Young, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, editor Peter Hunt, cinematographer Ted Moore, production designer Ken Adam, a dedicated supporting cast including Bernard Lee as M and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenney, and film composer John Barry among many others.
So allow me to make something crystal clear: Goldfinger is a fantastic Bond movie. I just don’t agree that it’s the absolute pinnacle of Bond. There’s a sluggish passage two-thirds in where little happens beyond a roll in the hay. For all Connery used to talk about the “reality” of his Bond, Goldfinger often lapses into Roger Moore tomfoolery. I’ve never gotten on board with the execution of the military’s plan to infiltrate Goldfinger’s base (although it never fails to make me laugh). I’ve also never understood how Goldfinger could possibly pass himself off as a U.S. Army Colonel in the film’s final moments when he’s quite obviously a fat Nazi.
Also, while I appreciate that the sexual politics of the 1960s weren’t as sophisticated as they are now, I’ve always felt a little uneasy about the way Bond seduces Pussy Galore (this is that other “egregious exception”). She absolutely does consent, but you’ll miss it if you blink. Moreover I’m sure you’re smart enough to work out what “Pussy Galore” means, and the film seems to suggests that Bond’s prowess as a lover extends toward turning lesbians straight. Even for its time, I’d say Goldfinger is pushing it. But whatever, it’s not like we can go back in time and force the filmmakers to retrospectively make Goldfinger more P.C. As with Live and Let Die, you take this movie seriously at your own peril. It may not be without its missteps, but Goldfinger is a blast all the same. It may not be my all-time favorite Bond but it’s up there for sure.
One other thing I need to point out: You know what I love about Bond more than anything? The meetings. The villains always have the funniest goddamn meetings, and the Goldfinger villain meeting is incredible. Goldfinger gathers together the representatives from various American mafia families and explains his fiendish plot to steal all of the gold from Fort Knox (Come to think of it, this would make for a helluva double bill with Battlefield Earth.) It’s difficult to describe how hysterical this meeting is. For some reason, every one of these mafiosi feel the need to say out loud everything that’s happened onscreen in the manner of a Dan Brown book. It’s great. Octopussy has my second favorite villain meeting, incidentally. This article should be retitled Bond Movies With The Best Meetings.
Hope to see y’all for #5-1!