Oh hai, readers. It’s that time again. Tuxedos are being rented, fashion designers are rubbing their hands together with glee and retailers of gold polish in Hollywood are experiencing their annual upturn in sales. In just a few short hours, two dozen individuals or groups of people will be in receipt of a bronze paperweight plated with gold, and will then forever be referred to as “Academy Award Winner” in any future publicity material. I’ve long since given up on sitting up for the Oscars while they’re on – this year I have further mitigation in the fact that I’m at paid work tomorrow, for the first time in nearly a year – but I can never manage the disappointment that comes with films that I’ve formed a personal attachment to coming away empty-handed.
This well-dressed parade of injustice used to cause me to dislike the Academy Awards and their ilk for quite a few years, but I’m rather more at peace with it now, not least because I see the benefits of a box office boost to a film’s time in cinemas. Since my reason for starting this blog was to encourage people to see more films in cinemas, anything that can achieve this end can’t be all bad in my book. But I can’t help but feel that, this year more than many in recent years, the best film is likely to miss out, despite being a favourite of many more lauded and respected critics than yours truly.
But we’ll get to that. First, a gentle reminder of how the biggest film prize of the year is whittled down. Any motion picture, of more than forty minutes in length, shown for seven consecutive days at least three times a day (including one evening showing) in Los Angeles County, and advertised to the public by normal processes, between January 1st and December 31st 2017 can be considered as the best film for 2017. This year that’s given us 341 motion pictures that have to fight it out for the title of Best, and those competing can be a little confusing to British cinema fans. Not just for the fact that films like Lady Bird have only just arrived in cinemas, but for the fact that Paddington 2 won’t be eligible until next year, and David Brent: Life On The Road is one of the eligible films, despite being in UK cinemas eighteen months ago.
Anyway, I’ve been through the list, and I can tell you that of that 341, I’ve managed to see over 140 of them, with a handful more due in British cinemas in the next couple of weeks. One year I’d love to be able to say I’d seen them all, and could pass a truly informed opinion on what the Best Picture is, but given that this year I’ve seen My Little Pony: The Movie (eligible), I’m prepared to take a pass on the other 200 and assume that the cream of the crop can be found in what I’ve managed to view already.
So, firstly here is the breakdown of the films that would have been on my longlist had I been putting together a Best Picture rundown:
Baby Driver; Call Me By Your Name; Coco; Dunkirk; Foxtrot; Lady Bird; Phantom Thread; The Killing Of A Sacred Deer; The Shape Of Water
Blade Runner 2049; Brawl In Cell Block 99; Chasing Coral; Dawson City: Frozen Time; A Fantastic Woman; Lady Macbeth; Loveless; Okja; Personal Shopper; Raw; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Thelma; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Cast me away on a desert island with that lot and I’d be a happy man for quite a while. But we’re in the business of finding the top 1, not the top 22, so you need to know what would have made my list.
So if I’d had to make a nomination list of nine to match the Academy’s, then my 10/10 choices would have filled it out quite nicely. The personal disappointment starts here, in that the Academy and I could only agree on five out of the nine: of those that didn’t make it in, I can only presume that Coco was too animated, Foxtrot too obscure (Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Language got only to the top nine of that category, not to the final five), The Killing Of A Sacred Deer too wilfully odd and Baby Driver too general entertainment (and also too lacking in a major supporting role for Christopher Plummer, if you get my drift).
But five out of nine is not bad, and for me represents the strongest year since the 2010 awards, the last time I would have given five of the nominees a 10/10 rating. Here though, for the avoidance of any doubt, is my official ranking for this year’s awards in reverse order of appreciation.
The Least Best Picture is Darkest Hour
It might be about to give Gary Oldman a first Best Actor award – which, as so often, is richly deserved but probably not for this role – but this generic biopic is all bluster and little subtlety, and this comes from someone who’s a founder member of the Joe Wright Appreciation Society, for his work on the likes of Hanna and Anna Karenina which I am willing to bet money I liked more than you did. This, though, feels the most awards-baiting entry of the nine nominees available.
Which Is Not As Good As The Post
It’s good, solid, reliable Spielberg delivering yet another good, solid, reliable Oscar contender, but one that falls slightly short in the drama stakes compared to its journalistic relatives such as All The President’s Men and Spotlight. Nice to see Thanx and Meep (as I would hope she would sign herself on Twitter) sharing a screen though.
Which Is Not As Good As Get Out
Controversial opinion of the year: I think Get Out is a great film, I think it’s the most important film of the year in many ways, I would instantly list Jordan Peele as someone whose next film I would watch with no prior knowledge of content or talent involved – but, despite a satisfying ending that deviates from expectation, I did find that the film lost its way in the last half hour or so, and there’s just occasionally a lack of subtlety that I think will come in Peele’s next films.
Which Is Not As Good As Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Now that the go-to way to hammer home your message appears to have become renting three billboards, decking them out with similar posters, and driving them to the location of a tragedy, it’s no wonder that Three Billboards is at the top of public consciousness right now. Given that Martin McDonagh is still using Peter Dinklage to make short people jokes, nearly a decade after In Bruges, I’m still now quite sure how this walked off so easily with the Golden Globe and the BAFTA. I don’t think we need to have our film characters held to the same moral standard as the people who act in them or who hold political office, but I can also understand why that moral ambivalence has made a few people uncomfortable.
Which Is Not As Good As The Shape Of Water
It might just be Pan’s Labyrinth 2: Electric Merman Boogaloo, but that doesn’t stop The Shape Of Water being an utter delight. Sally Hawkins should immediately be given a damehood, the freedom of anywhere she likes and free ice cream for a year for her magnificent performance, and the cast around her are equally impressive. It’s just the occasional feeling that more could have been done with Michael Shannon’s grotesque baddie that keeps this further from my top spot.
Which Is Not As Good As Dunkirk
If I’m a Joe Wright fan, then I’m practically at the level of stalker for Christopher Nolan. Putting aside the disappointment of Interstellar, he eschews movie stars and manages an intimate focus on three different aspects of war. He’s also convincingly selling us a war film about a retreat and a relative defeat, but finding the spirit without being jingoistic. I do wish I hadn’t enjoyed watching the dogfight sequence in 4DX quite so much, though. (Wheeeee!)
Which Is Not As Good As Lady Bird
I believe that Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig’s partner, offered to direct this when Gerwig was developing it, but Gerwig decided to make it herself. Based on this, she should offer to direct his next ten films, as she’s much, MUCH better at it. Its greatest trick is the quick cut montages which offer all of the detail and emotion of major events in short bursts, but I wouldn’t want to sell short the performances or the magnificent script, where not a single word feels superfluous.
Which Is Not As Good As Phantom Thread
I keep a spreadsheet which records every film I’ve seen in the past ten years, and that also enables me to track the record of any director over that period. Paul Thomas Anderson has now become the first director in that decade to deliver four bona fide masterpieces (There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice being the preceding three). This might just be the best of all of them, and it’s as immaculately constructed and utterly beguiling as any of its lead character’s creations. Vicky Krieps was properly robbed of a Best Actress nomination, though – hurry up and retire, will you Meryl?
This, of course, means that…
The Best Picture Of 2017 is Call Me By Your Name
I don’t think this is going to win Best Picture. If I get up for work in eight hours to discover it has, it will be a moment as beautiful as a Michael Stuhlbarg monologue at the end of a gorgeous Italian summer. I’ve seen this twice in a cinema and found myself even more mesmerised by the film’s beauty the second time, and I do believe that Luca Guadagnino’s work as director is one of the film’s most underappreciated assets, Best Director nomination notwithstanding. (The blocking and placement in the fountain scene alone gives me goosebumps.) I just hope talk of a sequel is unfounded, some perfect moments can’t and shouldn’t be replicated.
So that’s it, my list of the nine nominees in order for another year. To finish, please find my increasingly squashed scorecard of the decade so far, since the nominations expanded, to see how this year’s ratings compare to years past. And if you’re watching the awards, just remember that it’s only an awards show. Have fun.
It’s nearly over. The extended farrago over who’s better than who and the flood of yet more pointless platitudes from the supposedly great and good of Hollywood comes to an end for another year in the early hours of Monday morning UK time, with the 497th Academy Awards (probably). It’s not been a bad year for films, and the awards voters in Hollywood have got a lot more right than wrong this year. Gradually, the large field of contenders has been whittled down to just nine, through a process of expensive advertising and devious marketing, and the times when The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks or The Counselor were being considered seriously for awards greatness – in other words, before people actually saw them – have long since passed, and we’re now firmly at the business end. In just over two days, Hollywood will allow a select band of people to upgrade to “Academy Award Winner” when they’re mentioned in trailers for serious films, while a host of others will have to remain content with “Academy Award Nominee” or, somewhat inexplicably the best he can yet do, “BAFTA Award Nominee / SAG Award Nominee / Independent Spirit Award Winner Paul Dano”.
For the third time in the four years that the blog has been running, I’ve managed to see all of the nominees in all of the big eight categories (picture, director, acting, writing) by the time the awards happen, compared to the two occasions I could claim that before I started blogging. However, this has led me occasionally to be sat in front of a film simply so I could claim a full house on my Oscar bingo card – mainly because I like to feel informed when I criticise the Academy for its poor decision making – but this year my only real regret was seeing The Butler about two days before it seemed to lose all of its awards momentum. At least I got to claim a full house at BAFTA as well, and I could answer the question as to whether Oprah Winfrey deserved a nod ahead of June Squibb. (Answer: no. I’m sure Oprah will be crying herself to sleep on a giant bed made of money and success at my decision.)
The process has, inevitably, thrown up a few films that should have got more love, but were inhibited either by their very nature or by the resistance of their distributors to spend flipping great wodges of cash taking out ten page ads in Variety asking voters to please, please, pretty please remember their film when casting their vote for Best Art Direction or Sound Editing. In a different year, with a slightly different sensibility, or if the Academy actually understood what people in general mean by “Best”, we might have seen Short Term 12 (too indie), Frozen (too animated), Prisoners (it looked too generic from the trailer – it wasn’t), The Great Beauty and The Hunt (too subtitled, even when one stars an actual person famous to Americans in Mads Mikkelsen), Iron Man 3 (too mainstream), The Act Of Killing (documentaries should know their place, apparently), Inside Llewyn Davis (too miserable without being melodromatic) or Before Midnight (too sequel-y). All of them are better than the first three on this list, Before Midnight better than most, but we should at least be grateful the list we do have doesn’t have any real stinkers in it.
So, for the third time in four years, here’s my ordering of the nominees for Best Picture, from least best to most best.
The Least Best Picture is Dallas Buyers Club
We should all be duly relieved when something of the quality of Dallas Buyers Club is the least of the nominees in a given year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy about Dallas Buyers Club: the performances of both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey are excellent and I wouldn’t begrudge either the awards they’re nominated for (although they’re not necessarily the best). Details of Ron Woodroff’s real life may have been somewhat sketchy, leading to this being a little more myth-making than accurate reporting, but it’s the kind of story that needs a little myth-making when all’s said and done.
There are three main problems with Dallas Buyers Club. First is the lack of other characters: Jennifer Garner – who, apropos of nothing, looks amazing for 41 and being married to Ben Affleck – only develops into a living, breathing character around the halfway mark, and no-one else gets a look in; the lack of character development for Ron’s fellow club worker Denise, for example, is almost breathtaking. Secondly, it’s a story in need of a better ending, saddled with a feeling of anticlimax. And thirdly, although it has no bearing on the quality of the finished product, there really should be an apostrophe in that title.
Which is not as good as American Hustle
American Hustle is the movie equivalent of a decent Chinese takeaway: satisfying and enjoyable while you’re consuming it, but for some reason leaves you unfulfilled not long after. Much of what there is to enjoy is down to the performances, from Bradley Cooper’s tightly wound FBI agent to Christian Bale’s sleazy conman. While Jennifer Lawrence might be a little miscast, it would take a genuine curmudgeon to take too much offence with her stroppy headbanging, but the real highlight is Amy Adams once again twisting any man in a five mile radius round her little finger.
But beyond the quality of the acting, the rest feels as threadbare as Christian Bale’s wig / comb-over combo. There feels little new about the story or its handful of twists, and David O. Russell’s direction lacks the narrative drive or visual flair of many of his contemporaries. It’s undoubtedly in awards contention thanks to the quality of the performances and the large voting bloc that the actors make up in the Academy, but whether or not that support will carry Hustle to the big prize remains to be seen. It won’t quite be a Crash-level shock if it does, but it will be almost as unjustified.
Which is not as good as Philomena
I have to confess that I was checking my watch around an hour into Philomena. It wasn’t for any lack of enjoyment, as Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s script was doing an efficient job of pitching up the cultural differences between Coogan’s journalist Martin Sixsmith and Judi Dench as the titular Catholic mother looking for the son taken from her decades earlier, but it had never quite caught fire. Treading a tricky line between serious issue drama and gentle Brit comedy, it wasn’t so much that it couldn’t decide which to settle on, more that it was content to be a reasonable example of both.
But the power of Philomena comes in the last third, when the true nature of events has unfolded and the gentle events of the first two acts actually work to blind side you to what’s coming. Dench is, unsurprisingly, outstanding but Coogan also proves his dramatic chops and shown that he can be more than just Alan Partridge. It was a good year for Coogan, with Partridge’s big screen foray also being well received, and stranger things have happened than Philomena picking up a screenplay award in the big shakedown.
Which is not as good as Nebraska
Alexander Payne is becoming a reassuring brand of quality, but after the slight dip of The Descendants – hamstrung by too much repetition of scenes of explaining that someone had died – Payne has once again found his groove with a slice of family life in the American Midwest. Pulling in a wide variety of family members, it’s a slightly skewed road trip led by Bruce Dern’s befuddled father insisting that he’s come up trumps in the lottery. While Dern has drawn the lion’s share of the acting plaudits, June Squibb also has an Oscar nomination for her efforts and Will Forte has redeemed himself for a fair chunk of over-the-top comedy performances with his restrained showing.
But it’s not just the director that’s pulled his weight. Bob Nelson’s script feels so in tune with Payne’s sympathies I did a double take when seeing Payne didn’t write it as the end credits scrolled. Phedon Papamichael’s black and white cinematography also avoids cliché and justifies the decision for monochrome shooting, and Nebraska is beautifully paced and allows you to fall in love with its characters despite their flaws. It looks as if nominations are the best that Nebraska can hope for, but against the quality of the opposition, there’s no shame in that.
Which is not as good as Captain Phillips
It wouldn’t be the Oscars if there wasn’t a huge and unfair omission from the list, and probably the person most justifiably allowed to bear a grudge – even though he already has two shiny gold man-shaped bookends at home – would be Tom Hanks. Stoic and restrained for the majority, his performance in the denouement is gripping and fearlessly honest, and to not even take a nomination is a shame. Paul Greengrass also does his usual bang-up job with the direction, and if that award wasn’t filled with so many strong contenders he would have also been worth a nomination.
Captain Phillips is taut and compelling in all the ways that Greengrass’s earlier features, from United 93 to the Bourne films, were and that his previous film Green Zone wasn’t, so if nothing else it’s just a relief to see Greengrass back on top form. He’s also pulled some great performances from his Somali novices, and Barkhad Abdi is a standard bearer for that part of the cast. Captain Phillips avoids any feelings of exploitation and gives a balanced view of the story, as is so often the case with Paul Greengrass, but it’s not quite at the level of those earlier classics.
Which is not as good as Her
Observation 1: Joaquim Phoenix and Amy Adams should always make films together, if The Master and Her are the benchmark of the quality of their collaborations. They get a lot more screen time together, and while Scarlett Johansson’s OS is the object of Phoenix’s affections, it’s Adams that gives him a warm, balanced human interaction. Observation 2: Spike Jonze, we’ve missed you. Only one film since Adaptation in 2002, let’s hope that Jonze can find more stories that inspire him, especially as Her shows that the quality of his writing is easily the equal of his directing and feels in tune with his earlier work from other writers.
Observation 3: Even five years ago, it’s difficult to imagine a film like this working as well as it does, but Jonze’s timing is impeccable, our acceptance of technology now enabling us to accept such a concept so readily. Despite being saddled with the most unlikely name in the history of movies and facial hair that verges on comedic, Theodore Twimbly draws in your sympathies and you find yourself rooting for his and Samantha’s relationship to work. Observation 4: What keeps this from true greatness is the slightly fudged ending, which while being brave enough doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as the rest of the film.
Observation 5: Any film that can actually make me start to like Arcade Fire is doing something clearly right.
Which is not as good as The Wolf Of Wall Street
It’s three hours, Matthew McConaughey is relegated to an extended cameo and it’s been accused of not being sympathetic enough to the victims while its misogyny poorly serves the female characters. Does that stop it being one of Martin Scorcese’s top tier films? Not in my view. The length works in its favour, giving true scope to the true excess that defined Jordan Belfort’s era of ultimate debauchery. It would have been lovely to have more of McConaughey, but there’s enough in the other characters, from DiCaprio’s physical comedy to Johan Hill’s cheesy grin and a whole array of entertaining supporting turns.
The sympathy for the victims is trickier, as we only see one person being sucked into the scheme, but whereas the comparisons to Goodfellas are well founded, that was an indictment of a lifestyle on the fringes of society. The Wolf Of Wall Street is more of a condemnation of the culture that arose, and where the desperate needs of so many allowed them to be so easily exploited by Belfort and his cronies. As for the treatment of female characters, this is a realisation of Belfort’s view, and to attempt to give a politically correct balance to the characters would have undermined the callousness of Belfort’s world. It isn’t quite Goodfellas, but frankly, what is? When Scorcese’s legacy comes to be written, this should deserve a decent paragraph.
Which is not as good as Gravity
Watching the making of videos for Gravity serves to underline quite what a technical achievement Alfonso Cuaron’s film is. The sheer level of new techniques, melded with established practices pushed to their very limits, creates a cinematic experience unlike any which have gone before and despite the success of space-based epics such as Avatar and 3D improvements like Life Of Pi, Gravity is immersive and impressive in ways that truly haven’t been seen before, and as much as I’m about to rave about 12 Years A Slave in the next section, I can’t help but feel for his breadth of vision and the clarity of his purpose, Cuaron deserves the best director award this year.
The story is painted with broad strokes but deals in metaphor and has slightly alienated some; there are no shortage of character moments, and Sandra Bullock has overcome the technical challenges imposed by the role to deliver a sympathetic study in loneliness. It will be remembered for what’s seen – and to a certain extent, what’s heard, as the music and sound design complement the visuals perfectly – but the quality of the other departments, in both writing and acting, doesn’t in any way let the side down. Gravity is one of a number of films touring cinemas as part of awards season, so if you haven’t seen it on the big screen yet, don’t let the chance pass you by, and make sure to see it in 3D.
The Best Picture Of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave
I’ve been a fan of Steve McQueen’s cinematic work since his first film, Hunger, and I rated Shame as my film of the year in 2012. You can understand that I then approached 12 Years A Slave with a little trepidation: as McQueen edges ever closer to the mainstream, would his vision be compromised? Could his third film possibly live up to the hype? Such questions seem almost trivial once you’ve seen the film, and McQueen has once again delivered a near perfect blend of his own direction, coupled with an acting masterclass and a script that judges just the right moments to deliver a searing portrayal of life in the slave trade.
I’ve been known to cry in the cinema before, from the heartbreak of the final meal in Of Gods And Men to the tragedy of a life told in montage in Up. It is fair to say that I am in touch with all of my emotions once I’m in the darkened environs of a cinema. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years A Slave completely destroyed me. Rather than sobbing, tears just streamed down my face at regular intervals, I had to sit in the car for best part of half an hour while I composed myself afterwards and required a beer at the hotel I was staying at for work afterwards to enable me to sleep.
McQueen’s shot composition is from the man of a mind that grew out of art galleries but is now equally comfortable in cinemas. Here he proves beyond any doubt that he’s equally invested in his characters, portrayed as they are so devastatingly by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. John Ridley’s script has a wonderful ear for the dialogue of the era, and 12 Years A Slave is supremely dramatic and heartbreaking without ever feeling overwrought. The only misstep might be the inclusion of producer Brad Pitt in a small role, but that’s easily forgivable given the offscreen influence he’s likely to have been able to bring to getting this made. If 12 Years A Slave wins big, then McQueen shouldn’t have any difficulty attracting whoever he wants for his next project.
12 Years A Slave is an aspect of slavery rather than a complete picture, as last year’s Django Unchained and Lincoln also explored different facets. But it exceeds either of those films in its insight into both human suffering and ultimately compassion, tinged with hope as much as it is burdened by suffering and anger. In my view, Steve McQueen has now made the two most compelling films I’ve seen this decade, and I can only hope that Hollywood shares this feeling and duly rewards it tonight.
Science is well on the way to answering most of life’s great questions. Thankfully, science hasn’t yet found a way to take care of some of life’s more trivial matters, such as applying rigorous techniques to putting a series of motion pictures featuring the same central character into increasing order of quality, based on nothing more than personal preference. Whether he’s simply a violent, prurient escapist male fantasy taken to extremes, or actually the embodiment of everything desirable about popular culture wrapped up in a smart suit ordering cocktails, I’m still not quite sure after all this time, but at least watching all 23 films has enabled me to gain the gratification of ranking them into some sort of order.
Here is the list of all 23 official EON Bond films, in increasing order of competence. In case you are wondering, I loathe Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again, so they wouldn’t make a top 23 with a wider scope anyway. (Ha.)
23. A View To A Kill
Diamonds might be forever, but every Bond should know when it’s time to pack it in and hand over the Walther to the next fellow. AVTAK is a poor film in almost ever respect; Christopher Walken is weird but never menacing, Grace Jones is menacing but never sexy, Tanya Roberts is so anonymous her own family might struggle to recognise her and most of the rest is either old men toddling around the French countryside or one old man clambering about laboriously in various parts of California. We should all be relieved that this embarrassment didn’t kill the franchise stone dead.
22. Die Another Day
If this had actually been made as a cartoon, some people would still have griped over the lack of realism. Die Another Day sets itself up as a gritty, realistic take in the style of the films that followed it, then abandons that for abysmal CGI, charmless direction and a grating Madonna cameo. Your ears will feel abused listening to the Madonna song, not even the slightest fit for the opening credits, the bad guys are wet and their plan nonsensical and Halle Berry is less sexy here than she is in just about anything outside of Monster’s Ball. I have less of an issue with the invisible car than most people, but it’s still daft as a box of frogs.
Not so much bad as just eyeball-clenchingly dull, Sean Connery’s obvious ennui already after four films in four years and the unfortunate fact that Kevin McClory has to be involved after Ian Fleming handled their script badly doesn’t do anyone any favours. Sequences underwater which could have been exciting instead become interminable, and although it’s not one of the longer Bonds it certainly feels like it. The fact that Connery then signed up to the unofficial remake should make him and everyone else ashamed, and we can only be thankful that Kevin McClory’s passing spared any of the other Bonds a similar fate.
There are large stretches of Octopussy that are worse than anything in Thunderball, but it gets more credit with me for at least putting in some effort. The opening and closing airborne set-pieces are largely satisfying, Louis Jourdan is a suitably smarmy villain and the East German scenes do generate at least a modicum of tension. Roger Moore is by now in full-on arched eyebrow mode and Maud Adams is less effective here than she was in The Man With The Golden gun, but Octopussy isn’t a ride entirely without entertainment or intrigue.
19. Diamonds Are Forever
Anyone who thinks that the transformation of Bond into a more light-hearted, less ruthless entertainment vehicle rather than a cold-blooded killer who had any woman he wants started with Roger Moore obviously hasn’t watched Diamonds Are Forever in a while. It’s a Roger Moore type of film, and not a great one at that, in every sense other than its star, with yet another, increasingly uninteresting, version of Blofeld and Jill St. John’s brash, stroppy Bond girl being at time the cinematic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. The only real characters of interest, even if they are a sign of the times, are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, but most of the rest is poorly handled and eminently forgettable.
Yes, it’s the one with the now infamous double-taking pigeon, but if you don’t mind it being an all-out romp that only exists because of Star Wars, then there’s reasonable amounts of fun to be had here. Bringing back Jaws is handled badly, turning him into a figure of fun and failing to gain sympathy, but the rest of the film never stands still long enough for its major flaws to become apparent. With a reasonable equal in Lois Chiles’ Bond girl and a decent villain from Michael Lonsdale, Moonraker is still the kind of Bond film to be reasonable Bank Holiday afternoon entertainment, but it’s about as far from Fleming’s vision as the series ever got.
17. Tomorrow Never Dies
Pierce Brosnan’s sophomore effort suffers slightly from never being quite sure what it wants to be. Michelle Yeoh gets to be dominant and agressive more often than sexy, which is a good match for Bond but isn’t compensated by Teri Hatcher’s flat portrayal of a woman Bond supposedly has a history with. (Of all the women he’s met, he’s coming back to this one?) The pre-credits sequence is a cracker, but the momentum of Goldeneye slowly dissipates after that, and Jonathan Pryce is at the bottom end of the Bond villain scale. There was a great movie to be made exploring tensions between the British and Chinese; this, sadly, isn’t it.
16. The Man With The Golden Gun
TMWTGG has one thing absolutely in its favour, a class act in the title role in the form of Ian Fleming’s step-cousin, Sir Christopher Lee. Whenever Lee’s on screen, the film instantly becomes more compelling, and it’s a shame he’s a peripheral figure for long stretches. There are other highlights, including (if you put your fingers in your ears) the spectacular bridge gap jump, but the more comedic approach that had started with Diamonds Are Forever really starts to take hold here, bringing back Sheriff J.W. Pepper for even
more less comedic effect than in Live And Let Die and also playing the ending for laughs as well. A mixed bag, but by no means the worst Moore film of the series.
15. The World Is Not Enough
It all started so promisingly, with the boat chase along the Thames, Bond’s injury and subsequent cold shoulder from M and the early scenes with Elektra. Then about half way through we catch sight of Robert Carlyle attempting to be threatening from underneath a challenging look, but that’s nothing to the attempts (if you can call them that) to pass off Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. Add more flailing from a poor decision to bring back Robbie Coltrane’s thickly accented Russian, and the second half of TWINE gets weighed down by its baggage. It was the first seeds of what Bond has become in the last decade, but those seeds were choked back by a few difficult weeds.
14. Quantum Of Solace
If I’m being completely honest, about 75% of what I love about Quantum Of Solace is Daniel Craig. I was one of the doubters before he first took the role but he’s nailed it so convincingly that even a film of at best middling quality, hamstrung by not enough rewrites from one striking writer and further on-set dabbling, can be elevated significantly by his performance. The first direct sequel of the series, it does make Casino Royale feel like a film of seven acts, as if someone had recognised it had Lord Of The Rings-levels of endings and lopped the last few off into a new film, but between Craig and Judi Dench’s increasing presence in the series as M, QoS does a lot to compensate for some of its more obvious flaws.
13. Licence To Kill
Don’t get me wrong, I love both of Timothy Dalton’s portrayals as Bond, but Licence To Kill is trying far too hard to be a generic American action film rather than a Bond movie – even down to Michael Kamen’s score and some of the desert settings that make it feel oddly like a British Lethal Weapon spin-off – and two weak Bond girls and some uncomfortable lurches in tone do Dalton no favours. It’s a shame this was to be his last entry, but having six years of breathing space actually did Bond a few favours, making this an odd post-script to the first great era of Bond.
12. Dr. No
You can tell I’m a humble blogger and not a practised, literate film critic, when the best description I can come up with of Dr No is “it’s all right”. I’m resolutely whelmed by Sean Connery’s first attempt at the role; it’s got some great moments, from the iconic casino introduction to the cold-blooded bedroom killing, but it never quite takes off, suffering now by comparison to the later films and suffering from hindsight rather than benefitting from it. It does have one of the better villains, and puts a decent number of the regular ingredients in place, but this was a good start, rather than classic Bond.
11. Live And Let Die
The first Roger Moore Bond, and the first to be heavily influenced by other factors in popular culture at the time (other than the general love of spies and secret agents in the Sixties, of course). Moore manages to avoid aping Connery, and Yaphet Kotto manages to overcome the identity shenanigans of the plot to put in a solid baddie. Solid just about sums up Live And Let Die, it’s never truly spectacular in terms of either action or characterisation but never disappoints, as long as your J.W. Pepper tolerance levels are reasonably high. Points also for what remains the best Bond theme to date; even Guns N’ Roses managed a decent cover version of it.
10. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Regarded by many as the best Bond, and it would undoubtedly have placed higher on my list if it had featured Sean Connery. Actually, it would have placed higher if it featured anyone who could act. Lazenby, having blagged his way into the role in the first place, does his best but frequently looks out of his depth and also helps contribute to a few saggy sections around the middle. The ending has had an impact on pretty much ever Bond made since, and Diana Rigg is undoubtedly one of, if not the, best Bond girls of all time. Sadly, Telly Savalas doesn’t quite work as Blofeld either, and we’re left with a great film with two holes of varying sizes at its centre, but you can see how it’s inspired the likes of Christopher Nolan on to great things.
9. For Your Eyes Only
The last of the three decent Moore Bonds, it would have been a fitting cap to his years in the role. As it is, FYEO is still an effective Bond movie with more weight to it than you’d expect. That’s undoubtedly down to the strong story and themes of revenge that motivate the characters, and even Lynn-Holly Johnson’s role as the annoying youngster with a crush on James doesn’t manage to unbalance the overall effect. The marked reaction to the spacefaring of Moonraker makes for a more grounded Bond, but there’s still cracking set pieces (especially the assault on the cliff top) and there’s a tension here that’s lacking in most of Moore’s other Bond films.
8. You Only Live Twice
Probably the most spoofed of all the Bond series, with likely the most iconic set of elements outside of Goldfinger. It’s not often that a production designer can become a household name, even if only among movie geeks, but Ken Adam’s work on You Only Live Twice helps to mark it out as one of the most memorable Bonds in a visual sense. The Japanese theme gives a different tone to proceedings and helps to mark time until the final, all out blow-out, the grandness of which even this epic series of films has sometimes found hard to top since. Roald Dahl’s script does recycle a couple of Bond staples and Connery’s not at his best, but these are minor distractions.
For someone who seemed such a natural fit for the role and was connected with it for so long, it’s strange that there’s only one genuinely great Pierce Brosnan Bond film, and one in which he hadn’t totally nailed the demands of the role. Occasionally a little too cheesy, he still manages the required gravitas in more serious scenes and handles the mix of tones well. Where Goldeneye scores bonus points is for the Bond girls, the best in the roles in many years, with Isabella Scorupco’s feisty Russian finding Bond’s heart, and if you don’t enjoy Famke Janssen’s utterly over-the-top performance, you maybe need more joy in your life. (Especially her delivery of the line, “He’s going to derail the train!”) Tina Turner’s pounding title song helps ease the pain of Eric Serra’s excellent but completely inappropriate Bond score, and the fight between Sean Bean’s agent gone bad and Brosnan must rank in the top five fist fights of Bond.
6. The Living Daylights
Stepping in when Pierce suddenly found himself otherwise occupied, Timothy Dalton helps to resurrect the series from the worst excesses of the latter day Moore and gives a polished performance with dark undercurrents as Bond starts to steer back closer to Fleming’s original intent. The Living Daylights makes the most of the changing political landscape of the time, taking a plot based around various factions of Russian military power and bolting it to some superb action sequences, with one of the great car chases of the series and a truly insane stunt hanging out of the back of a cargo plane. Maryam D’Abo’s Bond girl is a bit wet at the best of times, but pretty much every other actor is on top form and director John Glen doesn’t waste the opportunity of finally having some decent material and a good Bond to work with. It’s a crying shame Dalton only got to make two, but at least we have this one to savour.
The latest Bond, in a fiftieth anniversary tale that paradoxically draws on the rich history of Bond and attempts to work once again with key elements, but in other ways is keen to put its past behind it and to find its new place in the world order. It’s a strange balancing act to even want to attempt, to be so in love with the past but in need of staying relevant for the future, but somehow Skyfall manages it, for the most part. Javier Bardem is 12A rating threatening, Dame Judi drops the first ever F-bomb of the series (and who’d have thought it would be her) and Bond gets to work closely with both Q and Tanner for the first time, in a surprisingly UK heavy set film. It’s a Bond film that looks gorgeous, is stunningly shot and calmly directed with both a sly wit and a general charm missing from Quantum Of Solace, but that never quite has the action beats to put it among the finest of the series and a plot that follows a recent blockbuster trend of relying too heavily on coincidence. If the remaining Daniel Craig Bonds can couple what’s great here with some of the finer action moments, then there’s still the potential for a best in series in Daniel Craig.
For anyone that’s seen even a good selection of Bond films, the standard to beat is always felt to be Sean Connery’s third outing in the tux, and the first where some of the more outlandish elements of the series first came into play. From Shirley Bassey’s theme song to the Aston Martin DB5, and with the single most famous quote of any Bond film, Goldfinger feels like it should be the best Bond, so it feels somewhat heretical to pick at its flaws. But flaws do exist, not least in the saggy middle that so many Bonds seem to suffer and which also afflicts this one, and from occasionally feeling just a little too far over the top. Connery’s at his laconic best here, often a man of few words and smouldering glances but his reliance on almost supernatural powers of seduction rather than any serious amount of sleuthing leave Goldfinger as the silver standard of Bond movies, rather than the somewhat more appropriately-coloured one.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
Two days ago, I saw a man outside a cinema pointing at a poster, attempting to encourage his very young son to take an interest in James Bond. I’m not sure Skyfall is the best entry point into the series, but mine was The Spy Who Loved Me and it still works as an excellent introduction, blending together most of the traditional Bond elements and beating just about any other Bond hands down for pure, old fashioned Saturday matinee-style entertainment. When Carly Simon sings “Nobody Does It Better”, it’s hard to disagree, as TSWLM succeeds in marrying You Only Live Twice-style excess to Goldfinger levels of Bond iconography and to make Roger Moore seem stylish and enviable. There’s not a single weak link, although it’s a shame that Jaws’ impact here is retrospectively lessened by his return in Moonraker. (Although when Carly Simon’s next line is, “but sometimes I wish someone could,” do you think she’s still pining for Connery? You’d think this would have cured her of that.)
2. Casino Royale
An all new Bond for a new era, and for the most part a Bond that wasn’t afraid to take chances. Martin Campbell might have returned to the director’s chair again after Goldeneye, but the reinvigoration he performed there is nothing compared to the kick up the backside the series gets here. Craig’s Bond can be brutal, almost thuggish at times, but also has the effortless charm of the best of his contemporaries, and in his pairing with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd one of the greatest pairings of the series. Bond is damaged goods, and despite being a reboot of sorts (but still with Dame Judi in the top chair) Casino Royale wastes no time in damaging him a bit more. The swap to poker for the central card game works in the context of the film and the modern setting, as do so many of the other choices, the only real failing being a lumpen story structure that feels like it’s carrying an unwanted epilogue. Mads Mikkelsen’s ocularly challenged baddie threatens but never dominates, but the blend of all the elements – especially a number of truly breathtaking action sequences – is pretty much spot on.
1. From Russia With Love
If Goldfinger has turned out to be the stereotype that much of the series followed, and Dr. No remains the prototype, then sandwiched between them and often unfairly overlooked is the archetype for the Bond series. It’s as close as the Bond formula has ever come to being perfected, from the SPECTRE training base and the first glimpses of Blofeld to the stunning train face-off between Bond and Red Grant. Everything is as you’d want it in a Bond film without being taken to excess, and a number of series firsts (including Desmond Llewellyn’s first outing as the quartermaster and Matt Munro’s first song with the title of the film in it) helping to make the Bond formula that still exists today. The recent Bonds have steered closer and closer to this template without ever successfully emulating it, and if only Skyfall had been this successful at both plotting and also a triple whammy of an action finale that just doesn’t let up. The cool, calculating charm that attracts women and makes men just a little bit jealous is all rooted in Russia, and it’s the Bond film I love the most.