Christmas was always associated with Bond films, back when I was a kid and actually watched regular TV. I understand why. They are generally fun and entertaining, and combine action with adventure and mystery. Also, Bond girls. Despite Bond being something of a relic of a character from a 1950s male fantasy, I still really enjoy watching the films and tend to watch a few every winter holiday period. I realised this year that I’d actually seen most of them, a few quite a lot of times. Hence, I thought I’d come up with a personal tier list of all of the 24 official Bond films.
Before I continue, I should point out a number of disclaimers to avoid the obvious complaints. First, this tier list is obviously and completely based on my own opinion and preferences for what makes an enjoyable Bond film. I have seen all of the films at least once, and watched all but one again (or for the first time) over Christmas. I tend to prefer Bond as a spy rather than an action hero and so this means that a lot of my favourites are clustered around a similar time period, because each film tends to reflect popular culture around the time it was made. Second, the Daniel Craig modern films are written in a somewhat ‘rebooted’ continuity which is designed to be different to the original. It’s hard to compare these to the original Bond, because arguably the James Bond that he plays is a completely different person in a different world. However, I have still included them in the list based on my definitions of the tiers. Finally, there will be some minor spoilers for some of the films.
Speaking of this, the tiers are based on how excited I would be to see them if they were playing on the TV when I walked into the room. The top tier films are films that I almost have to ration myself to avoid overwatching. Below this, the ‘good’ tier are generally Bond films that I would seek out to watch because they are above average examples of the series. Really, it’s the films in these two tiers you should watch if you have never seen one before. The ‘average’ tier consists of films that are worth watching, but are flawed or otherwise unremarkable. The ‘poor’ tier represent below average films in the series that are generally overly corny or dull to me, but may still be worth watching depending on your preferences, and whether you have anything better to do with your time. Below this are films that I believe there is no reason to watch at all, and I have saved a special tier for the one Bond film that is a special kind of hell (I wrote a dedicated blog post for it when it came out because I was so stunned at how awful it was). There’s no particular ordering within a tier. In my descriptions below, I have stuck to a chronological list.
Licence to thrill tier
- Dr No (1962)
- The first Bond film and one of the best in terms of pacing and suspense. The film is shorter than many of the later installments, and I think the better for it. There aren’t really any wasted scenes, and it’s quite gripping from start to finish.
- From Russia, With Love (1963)
- My personal favourite. Sean Connery’s Bond is much more of an actual spy/agent here than in later films. It’s a slow burner with a lot of tension, and the first appearance of Blofeld as the invisible cat-stroking mastermind.
- Thunderball (1965)
- Probably my second favourite. At this point, Bond films had started to get much more adventurous. I think Thunderball captures a lot of the excitement and action elements that had been introduced to the series but without moving away from the spy-like investigation side of things. The main criticism that most people have is that the underwater scenes are too long. I agree, though I do think they were done well and contribute to the atmosphere nicely. They probably had to justify spending all that money shooting them by keeping more in than necessary.
- The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
- Roger Moore’s best Bond film by far. Supposedly Stanley Kubrick himself advised on the set lighting, and it shows. Unlike most of Roger Moore’s films, this is a lot darker and more ominous in feel and cinematography. Stromberg makes for a worthy antagonist, but Jaws as his henchman pretty much steals every scene he’s in. The only disappointing thing was how they portrayed Barbara Bach’s Russian agent character, but the film is classic in every other way.
- Goldfinger (1964)
- This tends to appear at the top of most Bond ranking lists for the reason that it was the first film to introduce the ‘action adventure’ element in full force. The Aston Martin DB5 makes its first appearance, there are plenty of Bond girls, multiple locations, an ever-present adversary, the first proper Bond theme and title sequence, the first henchman with a gimmick in Oddjob. It is absolutely a classic film, but I can’t help feeling that the story and Goldfinger’s ultimate evil scheme is slightly too ridiculous for me to suspend disbelief and take the film that seriously. It’s a bit more of a kid’s story than the previous films were, so it falls short of the best.
- You Only Live Twice (1967)
- I would argue that this is the Goldfinger that you should actually watch. Again, it’s more like a kid’s adventure film (the screenplay was written by Roald Dahl!), but it’s much more fun to watch in my view than Goldfinger is because it is unapologetic in what it is.
- The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)
- The 70s films were generally much more goofy in tone, and this is no exception. Again, though, much like You Only Live Twice, there are a lot of elements and characters in this film that make it hilarious and fun to watch. Christopher Lee is also very memorable as Scaramanga.
- For Your Eyes Only (1981)
- The 80s on the other hand started to get more serious and violent in tone. This one seems to bring back a lot of the more old-school mystery elements and feels more of a return to the spy-like tone of the original films. However, there are some dumb elements that let the film down. The Bibi character was completely unecessary to include and cringeworthy in most scenes, and the opening sequence treated Blofeld like a cartoon character rather than a criminal mastermind which undermined him completely.
- Goldeneye (1995)
- I initially put this in the top tier, but after seeing it again recently, I would bump in down a notch. It is a very good film, but Pierce Brosnan is a little bit wooden in this compared to his later films, and there are maybe a touch too many action sequences at the expense of mystery. The N64 game really makes this a nostalgic film for people of my generation.
- Casino Royale (2006)
- This is another film that could potentially belong in the top tier. As a piece of cinematography, it is brilliant, if a little heavy on the orange and teal colour grading and matching in virtually ever scene. It is the highest rated Bond film on IMDb at the time of writing, and for good reason. However, Craig’s Bond is a little too much like a thug and action hero than a suave and sophisticated spy. The intro sequence has him parkouring across rooftops for an uncomfortably long period of time, and he never convinces me as an actual agent. Still, the film is true to the original Casino Royale story for the most part (the first Bond novel). Mads Mikkelsen is fantastic as Le Chiffre. I only wish he could have been depicted as more of a threat, and the film suffers a bit from not letting the characters develop very much for us to understand why we should consider them as important. One can only wonder how this would have been had Sean Connery starred in it as his first Bond film.
- Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
- The worst (official) Connery Bond film, but I still think it’s average. There is honestly a lot to like about it and after watching it again recently, it’s actually very good for the first half. There is a legitimate mystery component in a similar fashion to the early 60s films, but the film takes a downhill turn once we find out who and what is actually going on. Blofeld is again made into a laughing stock, and it really ruins the credibility and competence of a hero when his main opponent is made to look like an idiot.
- Live And Let Die (1973)
- This is by far the weirdest Bond film ever made. It was Roger Moore’s first. It leveraged themes from the blaxploitation films of that era. Jane Seymour plays one of the most ridiculous Bond girls ever. Bond films are usually grounded in a sense of reality, but this film bizarrely has supernatural elements weaved into it. It introduces the unbelievably terrible JW Pepper US hillbilly sheriff character who even made it into The Man With The Golden Gun. Yet, it has some very memorable scenes (like the alligator jump) and three extremely memorable villains. It’s a shame Baron Samedi is barely featured even though he’s up there with Jaws as the most impactful henchman character in any Bond film.
- The Living Daylights (1987)
- Probably the most unremarkable Bond film overall. After the later Roger Moore films got more and more ridiculous and he eventually retired, Timothy Dalton takes over in this film to a story that is more akin to the Sean Connery originals. There’s nothing particularly bad about it but also nothing that is memorable about it either. Dalton is a good actor but unfortunately too bland to be James Bond.
- Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
- Pierce Brosnan got better as Bond with virtually every film he made, but the writing seemed to get worse. This one is still entertaining to watch. The story is less impactful than Goldeneye, mainly because I don’t think any of the antagonists are at all convincing. However, the action scenes are entertaining, and the overall pacing is quite good. Michelle Yeoh gets bonus points for being a really strong companion for Bond. Unlike Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me, Yeoh’s agent character is actually convincing as someone who can hold her own.
- Moonraker (1979)
- Peak ridiculousness for Bond. It’s still worth maybe a watch for the sheer comedy element to the film, as well as Jaws’ return as they transform him from a villain into an unlikely hero. But Bond going into space is really the height of all that is proposterous about the series.
- Octopussy (1983)
- Another silly Roger Moore outing, which ends in him being dressed in a clown outfit trying to convince American agents that there is a bomb in the circus. Like Moonraker, there are some entertaining sequences which might make it worth watching on a rainy afternoon if you really can’t think of anything better, but otherwise should be avoided.
- A View To A Kill (1985)
- This one actually starts out fantastically. Christopher Walken makes for a great villain, and there is a slow information-gathering build up to the film. But like a lot of Bond films, it starts to go downhill and gets preposterous as it goes on. Grace Jones is memorable but also fairly one-dimensional. Bonus dumb points go to the scene where Bond is on a fire truck.
- Licence To Kill (1989)
- The 80s saw a lot of violent action films enter pop culture. Schwarzenegger and Stallone became big stars, Scarface was a hit. Drugs and machine guns and body counts were in the psyche. This is the James Bond amalgamation of all that was popular at that time. It’s not a terrible film but it seems so unlike a Bond film that it is quite confusing when you’ve seen the others. Felix Leiter, Bond’s CIA counterpart, has his legs bitten off by a shark courtesy of a Central American drug kingpin and Bond wants revenge. The villain is actually very convincing and menacing but the tone is very dark and violent, again more like the tech-noir action films of the time. Dalton’s Bond is too emotion driven and vengeful here, quite out of character.
- Skyfall (2012)
- I know, most people think of this as a good film. It is, I don’t argue that. However, it doesn’t provide me with the elements of Bond films that I find entertaining. This the first of the two Sam Mendes / Daniel Craig films and they have an almost comic-book origins story feel to them. To me, this is what Bond looks like when you are trying to make him into Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. I think those three films are fantastic, but trying to reinvent Bond as some sort of a comic-book superhero kind of misses the point of his character for me. I suppose this may be the result of trying to sell Bond to a generation that takes the deluge of Marvel and DC film adaptations as synonymous with Hollywood as a whole.
- Spectre (2015)
- Same story as Skyfall. Blofeld is introduced in the modern ‘timeline’ (which I have realised is in a completely different universe to the original Bond) and is played by Christopher Waltz who is successful in playing a very comic-book inspired nutjob villain like the Joker, but not the mysterious crime lord that Blofeld was supposed to be in the original series. The film almost seems somewhat surrealist in atmosphere. The only flash of the charming Bond of old comes in the car chase sequence, which stands out as one of the very few enjoyable moments of the film for me.
Licence revoked tier (no reason to ever watch)
- On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
- Probably another controversial choice. The overall plotline is sound, but it was executed very poorly. Blofeld and his alpine female brainwashing retreat seem ridiculous, but the most ridiculous thing about this film is George Lazenby’s performance as Bond, where he demonstrates the personality of a damp piece of wood. I feel bad for Diana Rigg who was one of the best leading ladies in a Bond film. The plot is significant to the original Bond canon, but I would suggest you just read it to know what happens and then move on. It’s really not worth watching in my opinion.
- The World Is Not Enough (1999)
- This film is a rollercoaster of good elements that develop into disappointing outcomes. Virtually everyone in this film is forgettable, the scenario is forgettable, and nothing fun really happens. The villain is painted as a dangerous man who cannot feel pain due to a bullet lodged in his brain, but you never actually get to see him demonstrate or do anything significant with this ‘power’. Avoid.
- Die Another Day (2002)
- Frequently cited as the worst Bond film, I watched it again this Christmas after not really having since it was released (I actually saw this in the cinema). Towards the early parts, I did wonder whether this film had been misunderstood as it doesn’t start out that badly, especially compared to the peak Roger Moore corny era. Don’t worry, it gets worse, and outrageously so. The film decends into action nonsense, the story is completely stupid, and some of the special effects are cringeworthy. Fortunately for Toby Stephens, he got to showcase his talents in Black Sails much later so that he never has to mention that he was in this film (I even forgot until I rewatched it). Don’t waste your time.
Why was this ever made?
- Quantum of Solace (2008)
- The last ever film I saw at the cinema. There is a special place in hell for Quantum of Solace. Not only does it not resemble a Bond film by any stretch of the imagination, it is a pretty confusing and poorly put together film in general. It is a series of abrupt flash cuts between action scenes, interspersed with Bond and a girl walking together across a desert in black tie. Something about someone trying to hijack the world’s water supply? I don’t know and don’t much care. You can read how annoyed I was back then if you like.