The great thing is that every Bond film can feasibly be someone’s favourite Bond film – it’s effectively its own sub-genre, encompassing pulpy spy thrillers, reconstructed emotional dramas, and broadly funny blockbuster adventures, sometimes all in the same movie.
Ranking them is always going to be a subjective exercise, but for this writer, rewatching all 25 movies shows that the series has occasionally done each of its specialties brilliantly and less brilliantly, and it’s easier to group films by what you get out of revisiting them.
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It’s the series’ good fortune that the two “unofficial” productions to date — the 1967 spoof Casino Royale and 1983’s Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again — are both stinkers, so we won’t count those.
But where do the others stand? We've ranked them in tiers, and ordered them in release date order.
Bottom tier James Bond films: You only watch twice
You Only Live Twice (1967)
Perhaps the Bond film in most urgent need of reassessment is You Only Live Twice, a boom-and-bust outing for Sean Connery, who ran for the hills when he was released from his contract during production.
John Barry’s score and Ken Adam’s production design are glorious, but they’re the only saving graces in a film that seems to have it all and no idea what to do with it — a bored star in a rubbish script, with the brainless spectacle turned up past 11.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Connery was handsomely rewarded for his comeback in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, a film that is in all ways a return to bad habits. The sleazy Las Vegas setting gives this a unique scrungy-ness, but despite the lead’s mega-bucks salary, the overriding tone is “cheap and nasty”, two things you never want a James Bond movie to be.
The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
Affected by bad blood behind the scenes, The Man With The Golden Gun has a similarly tawdry feeling to it in place.
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By rights, Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga should be one of the series’ greatest villains, but he’s squandered on more generic Bond villainy involving a solar-powered McGuffin and a massively anti-climactic final showdown with Roger Moore’s 007.
Later in Moore’s run, there’s Octopussy, a James Bond movie that recklessly burns through amazing ideas for James Bond movies and never really sticks. Both the attempted espionage mystery and the Moore era’s usual sense of humour falter in this not-very-satisfying trifle.
Die Another Day (2002)
By the time of Die Another Day, you really feel as though the producers should know better. In its science-fiction ravings, the theme of Bond being his own worst enemy (the villainous Gustav Graves is a persona styled after 007) becomes embarrassingly meta in this aggressively daft VFX extravaganza. It’s not formulaic, but it fails early and often in its execution.
Sadly, the same goes for Daniel Craig's fourth Bond film Spectre, a morbidly grandiose hangover from Skyfall. In a less exhausting film, you’d swear Daniel Craig was having more fun than usual, but the lighter touches don’t brighten a relentless deep dive into newly contrived continuity.
Middle tier James Bond films: Growers and breakers
We’ve divided the middle tier of Bond films into two categories, because there are some that we feel are either underrated or otherwise reward rewatches over time, and others we just like to revisit for fun.
In the former category, seeing Thunderball on the big screen during the 60th-anniversary re-release season really opens up that film’s big-screen scope and ambition. While it’s a step down from the Connery films that preceded it, this also gives us stronger female characters in Domino (Claudine Auger) and Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). It’s also loads better than the Connery-led 1980s remake Never Say Never Again.
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
On the opposite end of things, For Your Eyes Only is an interesting mid-Roger Moore outing that calms the series down after… a film we’ll get to shortly… and goes back to Fleming for inspiration. It doesn’t lose the trademark sense of humour, but this story of smugglers and the race for a stolen missile command system is good belt-and-braces Bond.
The World Is Not Enough (1999)
While these are somewhat known quantities, there are a couple of Bonds that are significantly better than their reputation.
The World Is Not Enough lacks common-sense pun control, but the story it’s telling is a wry subversion of the romance from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where neither the brave and vulnerable Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) or the Lara Croft-wardrobed Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards) are what they seem.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
And whisper it, but Quantum Of Solace is the series’ biggest grower. It’s undeniably over-edited and under-written, but just rewatching it to understand it better reveals endless new detail and nuance. If it’s a revenge story, it’s not Bond’s but Camille’s, (Olga Kurylenko) and the oddness of a massive blockbuster essaying the style of a Fleming short story where he helps someone out and battles bog-standard corruption is something we could stand to see more of.
No Time To Die (2021)
On another note, the very recent No Time To Die is still settling – some of us still have whiplash from such a firm full stop after 5 years (and then 16 more months) of mounting anticipation. Daniel Craig’s finale finds the way between his first two and the next two, tying off loose threads but indulging in more fun and games along the way.
Comfort-watch James Bond films: A sweet distraction for an hour or two
On the other hand, there’s the middle-tier where you know exactly what you’re in for but you fancy giving it another watch, and the journey of a Bond fan over time is learning to stop worrying and enjoy Moonraker again.
Obviously aimed at kids who loved Star Wars around the time, 007’s space oddity is pure visual-effects spectacle and zero sense. There’s another great villain performance though, in sardonic tech-billionaire, Hugo Drax. Michael Lonsdale’s delivery of the line “James Bond, you appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season” is absolutely delicious.
A View To A Kill (1985)
Speaking of memorable villains, Christopher Walken runs away with the show in A View To A Kill. Timing’s not everything, but it’s possible this one has picked up some of the same nostalgic value as other blockbusters of the mid-80s, anachronistic as Roger Moore’s Bond looks in the middle of one of those. Grace Jones’ May Day and Duran Duran’s banging theme song give it a lift too.
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
In terms of start-to-finish textbook Bond though, we don’t really see this sort of comfort-watch Bond again until Tomorrow Never Dies, which brings Pierce Brosnan’s Bond into the umpteenth version of the well-worn plot where the villain tries to start a war between world powers. Michelle Yeoh’s action cred and Jonathan Pryce’s incredibly sarcastic performance liven this one up.
And not to get all controversial before we get into the top 10, but 10 years on, Skyfall is settling into the “comfort watch” tier as well. Unavoidably an over-reaction to Quantum Of Solace, this gorgeously mounted 50th-anniversary jamboree entertainingly retro-fits some old icons onto Daniel Craig’s Bond, making it the first call for older fans looking for something newer.
The top ten James Bond films: Nobody does it better
To our minds, each actor’s first Bond outings deserves a place in the top tier – each of these films mark peaks in the series’ ongoing reinvention of itself and they tend to be the most enjoyable films to rewatch.
Dr. No (1962)
For starters, Dr No gives us a fascinating picture of the franchise before it’s formed properly. It has wrinkles and hard edges we’d seldom see again, woven in with Sean Connery’s commanding performance as Bond and so many of the choices that would eventually form the franchise’s own discrete sub-genre.
From Russia With Love (1963)
That extends to From Russia With Love, a film that pips Quantum Of Solace to the “first direct sequel” thing by about 45 years Swapping out SMERSH in this adaptation of Fleming’s fifth novel, the film has SPECTRE formulate a honeypot revenge plot against Bond as a reaction to the events of the previous film. The gadget-packed attaché case foreshadows gadgets to come but this is the Connery era at its most grounded and stylish.
However, the following year, Goldfinger sets the gold standard for the series going forward with its despicable villain and extra-quotable script. Though it starts stronger than it ends, this is a glittering complement of girls, gadgets, and groove that its immediate sequels try to replicate. They can’t hold a candle to this most memorable early outing.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The first film to break out of the Goldfinger mould is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, an unusually faithful adaptation of Fleming’s novel. Poorly received at first, this has rightly been reassessed as a banger. It loses points for one of the weakest Bond performances from an untrained George Lazenby, but its brilliant direction, its cracking performances by Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas, and its poignant love story speak for themselves.
Live And Let Die (1973)
Still more creative in avoiding the Connery era tropes, Live And Let Die is a surreal way to start Roger Moore’s run – a voodoo horror Blaxploitation flick that’s like nothing we’ve seen in the series before or after.
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Given his reputation as a cuddly Bond, people forget Moore’s 007 has a mean streak and he arrives fully formed as an unflappable man in an extraordinary world.
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
That era reaches its peak with The Spy Who Loved Me, a comeback of sorts after the behind-the-scenes split of series producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. As well as taking 007 into uncharted workplace romantic-comedy territory with Barbara Bach’s Russian agent, this has a little something of everything that people watch Bond movies for.
The Living Daylights (1987)
Nevertheless, by the time Moore hangs up the Walther PPK, The Living Daylights is a much-needed breath of fresh air. The plot is a mite complicated, but this really benefits from foregrounding Timothy Dalton’s Fleming-esque Bond, that ruthless character more starkly accentuated after the more high-flying exploits of the films before it.
Licence To Kill (1989)
Dalton’s second outing, Licence To Kill, is another one that’s had a well-deserved reappraisal over time. Dispensing with the formula and giving 007 a vendetta that takes him beyond the usual rules of James Bond films, this is one of the flat-out best action movies of the series, and is all the more surprising, thrilling, and satisfying for it.
And then there’s Martin Campbell’s contributions to the series. GoldenEye has the unenviable task of bringing Bond into a post-Cold War setting and opts for a reassuring and nostalgic approach – the world has changed but 007 hasn’t. Often celebrated as Pierce Brosnan’s best outing, this is a persuasive makeover of the franchise with an all-timer of an ensemble cast.
Casino Royale (2006)
But could Campbell do it even better on his second reboot 11 years later? To quote its pre-title sequence – “Yes. Considerably.”
Daniel Craig’s debut is a breathtaking five-course serving of a new Bond, spanning from the action-packed first hour to the poker table in Montenegro, and that instantly iconic final scene. GoldenEye is a film that kept the series going through the 1990s, but Casino Royale is the sort of film that convinces you it will be around another 60 years.
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