The upcoming No Time To Die is the 25th (official) James Bond film but every Bond film is an opportunity to be your first Bond. No matter where you are on your walk with Bond, I know that deciding which of the 25 to watch at any given moment is a stressful decision. You might think you have to watch all of them but, like any sacred pursuit, you can pick out the parts you like best and ignore the rest.
As someone who’s been watching these movies since he was 3 years-old, (thanks, dad) I know there’s a Bond movie for everyone. Finding that perfect movie for you means eschewing useless rankings and knowing that it’s not about telling you what the best movie is; it’s telling you what movie is best for you.
So let’s do the only personality test that matters and I’ll even give you a deep cut for further study with every recommendation.
And you thought Christmas only came once a year. Let’s begin, shall we?
When you can’t enjoy that coffee until you understand where the beans are from, the coarseness of the grind, and how long the extraction was: Goldfinger
This is the movie you watch when you have to understand the why of it all. What’s with the unrelated cold opens and scene where Bond gets his plot-specific gadgets? Why does Bond drive an old Aston Martin and say the one-liners? What’s up with the villains, their preposterous plans, and intimidating henchmen? What makes Bond music so specifically Bondian? This is the movie that gave birth to it all. It remains the standard that all Bond movies aspire to. It’s also still a whole lot of fun despite Bond being a passive player through much of the story, establishing one of the most important tenets of the series: the plot and villainous machinations are all secondary to enjoying your ride with Mr. Bond.
Deep cut: You Only Live Twice
Don’t let the problematic aspects of this movie deter you from enjoying the genesis of iconic cat-loving Bond villain Blofeld, memorably played by Donald Pleasence for the only time. This one also features production designer Ken Adam at the peak of his powers with the volcano lair that inspired all villain lairs. If you ever wondered why the villain’s island in The Incredibles looked like it did, or what the hell Austin Powers was celebrating while poking fun, You Only Live Twice is the answer.
If you like art museum cafes and bored your friends in high school with treatises on French New Wave vs. Italian Neorealism while secretly watching Meg Ryan RomComs at night: Skyfall
This is the Bond movie that aspired to be something more. It has an emotional arc for Bond, real stakes, and is beautifully shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins making this the most gorgeous Bond movie of them all. You can have it playing silently in the background, like an art installation you struggle to make sense of but moves you to tears anyway, impressing your more sophisticated girlfriend. It also reinforces the tenet that villainous machinations and plot don’t matter as long as you enjoy the Bondian journey. What a gorgeous title sequence too.
Deep cut: The Spy Who Loved Me
The only romantic comedy in the series and the peak of the Roger Moore era. Star-crossed rival spies on a globetrotting adventure to stop a ludicrous plot is much zanier and charming than many 60’s screwball comedies or 90’s RomComs. If you can tolerate the dated Marvin Hamlisch score and accept you’re going to reach a point in the third act where you have no idea what’s going on, this is a fun wine and charcuterie plate date night.
You fist bump the person next to you whenever someone says “family” in a Fast and Furious movie and you want people to know Tokyo Drift is an under-appreciated masterpiece: Moonraker
There are bad Bond movies and then there are bad Bond movies that know they’re bad and it must be celebrated. Moonraker is BONKERS. Just look at that image above and absorb it for a second. Whenever a movie series indulges itself and is dripping in so much raw id that the producers know they have to pull back in the next one, they just did a Moonraker. It has a triumphant John Barry score and the movie is enjoyable enough as long as you’re in on the joke. Consider yourself in.
Deep cut: A View To A Kill
Christopher Walken being Christopher Walken. Grace Jones. A clumsy Beach Boys needle drop that maybe gave birth to an entire sport (snowboarding). A creepy Roger Moore putting the moves on women half his age. Zeppelins, race horses, microchips, and a fight to the death on the Golden Gate Bridge where the greatest peril is ensuring Moore doesn’t break his hip. My favorite theme song and John Barry score too. Yeah, I love it and so should you.
The pandemic has you spending your days buying your favorite toys from the 90’s, reading novels about emo vampires, and wondering whatever happened to Toad the Wet Sprocket or Spacehog: Goldeneye
No decade is as good as you remember it but things sure felt simpler in the 90’s, right? Bond had a female boss for the first time, talked about safe sex, and we all mistakenly believed the end of the Cold War would bring about a more peaceful and prosperous world. A world with villains who only cared about controlling mass media, or oil pipelines, or satellites or something. The Brosnan era does not hold up well but Goldeneye stands out as an earnest attempt at bringing Bond into the modern world of its time with a musical score by Eric Serra that rivals Hamlisch’s Spy Who Loved Me score for most decade-specific and cringe-inducing of the series.
Deep cut: The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Yeah, I know. It’s not a Bond movie but it does have Pierce Brosnan and it’s a reminder that the dude can be great in a good movie that is of its time but also transcends it. Also, that chase sequence in the museum set to Sinnerman is one of the more satisfying cinematic moments of the last 25 years.
You only say you like Hitchcock and John le Carré to seem cultured at dinner parties but aren’t afraid to tell people Predator is the greatest film ever made: From Russia With Love
There’s an entire sequence lifted from North By Northwest proving that the Bond series was always insecure about its own relevance–even while it was revolutionary–but this one still stands as the truest spy movie of the whole series. It features a traditional Cold War plot about stealing a code breaking device with all of the spy vs. spy cat and mouse games and double-crosses you’d ever want. The train sequence alone, as Bond matches wits and fists with Robert Shaw’s Red Grant, stands among the great confrontations in Bond history. Kerim Bey, bravely and warmly portrayed by Pedro Armendáriz while terminally ill with cancer, is also one of the more memorable allies of the series.
Deep cut: License to Kill
If Goldeneye reeks of 90’s naïveté, License to Kill is positively rotten with 80’s drug kingpin fears and rogue hero out for revenge tropes. It’s an outlier in the Bond canon as it almost doesn’t feel like a Bond movie at all if not for the presence of some familiar allies and for one of the few callbacks to Bond’s past in a series that almost never referenced past adventures. Timothy Dalton is scary and believable as he infiltrates and destroys a drug empire from the inside and Robert Davi delivers a delicious performance as Sanchez, the sadistic drug lord that earns Bond’s righteous vengeance. It’s also fun to see a baby-faced Benicio del Toro in his first major film role. If anything, the movie will make you want to visit the Florida Keys and that ain’t bad.
I hope this inspires you to seek out a James Bond movie this week or catch No Time to Die this weekend. Let me know if I still didn’t quite find the right Bond movie for you. I know I can help you hear the whispers of our flawed cinematic savior and influencer if given the chance.