For the uninitiated, the James Bond franchise can feel daunting. Even those who are fans of the Bond movies may not have seen a large majority of them simply because there are 25 (and counting) that span nearly six decades. Moreover, the lack of serialization for the Bond franchise really makes it so that you can jump in at any point and not feel like you’re missing something. By and large, these are self-contained spy romps — of varying degrees of quality.
So given that the Bond franchise as a whole is intimidating, you may be wondering which are the best James Bond movies you need to see. To be perfectly frank, you certainly don’t have to see all of them. While there are some genuinely great Bond films, there are also a number of them that are just plain bad, and a couple that are nearly unwatchable. This is a franchise that evolved and shifted with the times since 1962, and with that ebb and flow there’s a natural dip in quality from time to time.
On the other hand, the Bond franchise also includes some of the best spy movies ever made. So below we’ve rounded up the essential James Bond movies you should see. If you want to be familiar with the franchise as a whole without sitting through some aggressively mediocre spy movies, check these out.
The first James Bond movie, “Dr. No,” was released in 1962, and while there are glaring cultural problems, the film as a whole is solid. Sean Connery plays suave super spy James Bond who is sent to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a fellow British agent, only to discover an evil plot by Dr. No – complete with an underground lair. This is a relatively contained Bond film as it’s set largely in Jamaica, which makes for a leisurely and amiable pace to the entire proceeding in contrast to some of the later, more scattershot Bond movies. It’s a nice place to begin.
“From Russia with Love”
When fans argue about the best Sean Connery Bond movie, it almost always comes down to “From Russia with Love” or “Goldfinger.” The former is the second-ever Bond film and is where this franchise really took hold, as it starts to lay down the hallmarks that would permeate the rest of the series. The story finds Bond battling Soviets in Turkey while trying to assist in the defection of a Soviet consulate clerk, building to a face-off with the evil organization SPECTRE that’s seeking revenge for Bond’s killing of Dr. No in the previous film. This movie had double the budget of “Dr. No” and it shows.
For my money, “Goldfinger” is one of the best and most purely entertaining Bond movies ever made. The 1964 film follows Connery’s Bond as he investigates gold smuggling by a villain named Auric Goldfinger, a slightly over-the-top baddie who plots to contaminate Fort Knox. This film really goes big on all the major staples of the franchise – the action, the “Bond girls,” the villain and the climactic finale. Indeed, “Goldfinger” has one of the most thrilling third acts of the entire series, and on the whole this film appears to be the one where Connery is outwardly having the most fun playing a spy.
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”
“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is unlike any other Bond movie ever made, and that’s precisely what makes it special. This is the one and only Bond film to star George Lazenby as the lead character, and it’s a strikingly emotional and personal story for James Bond. Set mostly in the Swiss Alps, the film follows Bond as he seeks to spoil a villain’s plot that involves a group of brainwashed women. Diana Rigg co-stars in the film as a love interest for Bond, but in contrast to the usual “sex object” nature of women in the franchise, Rigg’s character is refreshingly dimensional and Lazenby’s Bond gets to actual fall in love. This is a wonderfully romantic entry in the franchise that builds to one of the best and most shocking endings in the series.
“The Spy Who Loved Me”
The Roger Moore era of the Bond franchise is, frankly, a fairly mediocre one, but his best Bond movie is surely 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Moore’s take on the character was quite different than Connery’s – more of a knowing wink than a cool confidence – but this film makes the most of Moore’s charisma with a plot that’s silly yet compelling and a truly iconic henchman. The story revolves around a reclusive villain with an underwater lair who plans to destroy the entire known world and build a new civilization under the sea. Along for the ride is his intimidating henchman Jaws, who proves to be a formidable foe for Bond.
“License to Kill”
It’s a shame that Timothy Dalton only got two at-bats as Bond, and while both are certainly worth watching, 1989’s “License to Kill” is the one where Dalton’s Bond is fully realized. The film draws heavy inspiration from the action movies that populated Hollywood in the 1980s, and Dalton’s 007 is driven by revenge as he hunts down a drug lord who attacked friend and CIA agent Felix Leiter and murdered his wife. The personal nature of the story kicks this film into another gear, and Dalton’s Bond is tremendously intimidating. Bonus points for a scary supporting turn by a young Benicio del Toro.
For a certain generation, “Goldeneye” was an introduction to James Bond. Indeed, Martin Campbell’s 1995 film had the unenviable task of not only rebooting the franchise with Pierce Brosnan, but also addressing where Bond fits into a post-Cold War era. The resulting film is thrilling and challenging, with Judi Dench’s M literally calling Bond a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur.” And as self-reflexive as the film is, it still delivers on the thrills, chills, and spills that the franchise promises while Brosnan brings the charisma needed to keep the series vital throughout the ’90s.
Arguably the best James Bond movie ever made, 2006’s “Casino Royale” rebooted the franchise for the modern era while also nodding to an origin story of sorts for the eponymous spy. Daniel Craig’s take on Bond is severe yet vulnerable, offering up the most human take on the character yet. “Casino Royale” directly addressees the toll that killing wide swaths of people takes on a human being, and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is a tremendous companion/foil for this new Bond who pushes him out of an emotionally stunted funk. On top of all that, the film features some of the most exciting set pieces in the entire franchise – made all the more impressive given that they merely involve a card game. Mads Mikkelsen is delicious as the blood-crying villain Le Chiffre, and the film boasts one of the most daring endings in the whole franchise. The events of this film drive the entirety of Craig’s arc in the franchise.
The highest-grossing James Bond film of all time, 2012’s “Skyfall” is terrific. In a change of pace for the franchise, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes was courted to put his stamp on the series, and he did so with gusto. “Skyfall” delves deeper into Bond’s origin than ever before while also introducing a deeply personal storyline as the villainous Raoul Silva enacts a revenge plot against M, forcing Bond to play protector. Javier Bardem is phenomenal as Silva, and the film delights in allowing Craig and Bardem to get playful in their scenes together before building to an emotional conclusion. This is also the most gorgeous Bond movie ever made, as Mendes enlisted legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins to lens the film.