We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Bond. From your hiatus since 2008, to celebrate fifty years of an incredibly memorable character who, although British, has remarkable American success, no matter what kind of a dope Americans were depicted as in Quantum.
Spies are like superheroes. They allow us to vicariously live through them a life of grandeur and significance. They provide strength, coolness, and the capacity to truly make a difference. But they’re also pure adrenaline and entertainment, and those are qualities easily exploited as well, even for TV, such as Burn Notice or Chuck.
In commemoration of Skyfall and all its triumphant reviews, yours truly will remark upon the very best of spy films cinema has had to offer, in my humble opinion.
10.) Mission: Impossible (1996) – Brian De Palma
We’ll begin with a vintage spy classic performed in modern times, with an unqualified score by Danny Elfman, who never did shake his Tim Burton roots to grow in any way. Starring Tom Cruise before his personal life was in the way, this finely crafted film borrows much from Hitchcockian spy thrills, as was a common goal for the director Brian De Palma—who can be proud that much of the time, he did pretty damn good.
A loose adaptation of the television show of the same name, the movie is still a cornerstone of spy cinema, and deserves many more top ten lists than so specific a genre. Well articulated suspense rather than action, all of the series’ future laws are set in this original and indeed memorable film.
9.) Taken (2008) – Pierre Morel
A fine-tuned thriller that examines the true visceral potential of what explosive and entertaining lengths an ex-spy parent could reach to rescue their family, as much as the moral ambiguities of parenthood and certain governmental flaws, this forms an all new formula for spy films.
Liam Neeson is at the top of his charisma, his relentlessness near unparalleled, and all at once very real. Imperfect, but a locomotive nonetheless, we can’t help but root for dad this time around.
8.) From Russia with Love (1963) – Terence Young
Sean Connery was undoubtedly born for this role. Many will swear with death threats other actors who’ve portrayed Bond better, but the machismo and coolness and archetypes of the character were unquestionably defined by the very first—so much so, that even the novels took influence.
Although the film itself is muddled all to hell for the first half of the film, and somewhat unsure of what it wanted to be, as a whole the second half redeems—with remarkable impact. There is also far less camp and excessive gadgetry than in future installments; when Bond is at his most realistic, he is at his most threatening, and for me, entertaining.
Some fans like the camp, the way some Kaiju fans grow to love toy tanks shooting at rubber monsters; but when applied to Bond, it becomes a matter of opinion. This early entry in the Bond series sustains its value as a piece of suspenseful and genuinely amusing entertainment.
7.) Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) – Brad Bird
With a new director, comes a new vision—a fruitful, enthusiastic exercise in fandom filmmaking at its finest. The series returns to its Hitchcockian roots with the wrongfully accused team, and although the nuclear threat seems tried, somehow it is executed originally here.
Designed for IMAX, this is one of the biggest pieces of action cinema of the past decade, a gem of a directorial debut by the previously animation-recluse Bird. A brisk pace, brilliant, and near poetic visual flair, this spy film invariably hits any given list of one’s top spy films. The more humorous inclusion of Simon Pegg was much appreciated, too.
6.) Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg
Spielberg is a household name for a reason, and although not without his own misses and flaws, this remains a compelling and well-formed analysis of a story based on actual events. Spies may not be so clearly designated as the soul of the film, but a thriller this most certainly is.
While Spielberg’s formula perhaps could have been avoided for this particular story, it still successfully borrows tones of spy-tension that allow this film applicable, and remains no less emotionally commanding today.
5.) Casino Royale (2006) – Martin Campbell
Fresh, mind-blowing action sequences are fueled by a gritty, more realistic Bond than ever seen before, Campbell shows a newfound appreciation and understanding of the character as much as the very confident Daniel Craig, who now shows up on this list twice, indeed.
The film hits every important checkbox with glee: megalomaniac villain with a strange bodily disfigurement, martinis, easy use of women, Aston Martin, wide foreign locale vistas, the list goes on. Not to mention Chris Cornell for an opening credits scene, which is always excessively long right up to the gun barrel.
4.) The Bourne [Trilogy] (2002-2007) – Doug Liman, Paul Greengrass
All together, the Bourne Trilogy stands as one film, each story smoothly transitioning into the next, amplifying all that is best about spy cinema, and grounded by Matt Damon—who was just as effective and groundbreaking a spy as Connery himself upon first Bond viewing.
A revolutionary spy series based on books of only the same tone, which were written by one of the all time spy-novel greats: Robert Ludlum. Every single one of his books could be a movie if the studios wished it. This trilogy of course excludes The Bourne Legacy, which not only isn’t a Bourne film, but is of an entirely different genre. It’s science-fiction, not a spy movie.
This original trilogy stands on its own, untainted, and with its human-malfunctioning-weapon exercises the full capabilities of a government trained assassin. These films are literally the apex of everything that was grand about spy cinema up until and during the years of this trilogy, and remain outstanding as contributions to film not only as action films, but as influential cinema itself.
The editing, the character, the plots would all sincerely affect the future of all spy films, and no matter how over-the-top it gets, you are so grounded in reality and a maze of tension that it goes over your head that what you’re watching isn’t really happening, and couldn’t really happen. You believe.
3.) The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – John Frankenheimer
A significant triumph of cinema, no less, this black and white classic is forever timeless due to near perfect (if not so) execution of so thoroughly threatening and even terrifying audiences with the plausibility and magnitude of infiltration. Expert acting and amazing direction alone make this film an obvious, inevitable choice for this list. It requires little explanation. (See photo-top, with Frank Sinatra)
2.) Notorious (1946) – Alfred Hitchcock
Perhaps if you’ve read my writing before, you may believe me biased to Hitchcock—but even IMDb reveals this film’s rating above those films aforementioned. Alfred Hitchcock loved spies, and his early British work proves it, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, and especially The 39 Steps.
However, this romantic, brilliant, and suspenseful tale of love versus duty is literally monumental. Never mind that MI:2 decided to steal its plot. The famous Ingrid Bergman is in perfect form here, driven along by the cold and cool Cary Grant, who time and again chooses his country over his feelings, because it is what society, instinct, and his job tells him to do. The ultimate conflict, the ultimate villain, the ultimate Hitchcock.
This film will forever remain a masterpiece of sight and sound. The Master of Suspense releases yet another perfect film, with all the imagination and ingenuity that has made his very face a trademark. Unquestionable genius.
1.) North by Northwest (1959) – Alfred Hitchcock
Are you griping with frustration that Mr. Hitchcock has taken both top slots? It simply cannot be helped. You can imagine how truly I shall struggle writing out a top ten list for Alfred of all his dozens of films when Hitchcock releases!
This film, 2 hours and 16 minutes, is a treasure of all cinema history, and personally, my favorite film of all time. Ernest Lehman set out to write the perfect Hitchcock film, and he quite succeeded. Adventure and extensive travel, action, romance, suspense, comedic flair—this film has everything anyone could ever want, and the only thing that could possibly hold back this generation from its appreciation is they may find it dated.
But not the pace. Seven minutes is all it takes to plunge into the rabbit hole which the protagonist becomes tumbleweed in, flung from place to place, trying to survive and find a means of escape.
Near all of this film’s beats and characters and images are infused into cinema history across the following decades, and every Spy film since owes it at least one portion of its script. It’s unavoidable. It’s the perfect spy movie, it’s the perfect Hitchcock movie, and it’s the perfect movie.
Gripping, undeniably monumental, visually explosive and fantastical, this movie is escapism as we’ll never see it again.
And that concludes my Top Ten!
Well, thank you for reading, and I look forward to seeing Skyfall with you! Maybe it’ll find its place on this list! Have a great weekend, dear readers.