Oct 30, 2016

The Double O Section Turns Ten: A Look Back at the Best Spy Movies of the Last Decade

It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this for a decade. There are very few things that I’ve stuck with regularly for that long! But it was ten years ago today that I published my first post on this blog, a list of seven names that were both then relevant to spy entertainment, and also indicative of the sorts of topics I planned to blog about. It’s weird that I can’t even remember now that it was Halloween time when I published my first post. I don’t remember what costume I wore or where I went that year to celebrate, or with who. But I do remember that the first Daniel Craig James Bond movie, Casino Royale, loomed large at the time. It played a huge part in why I decided to start blogging about my love of all things spy. It was the most exciting time to be a Bond fan since that first GoldenEye trailer showed up in theaters a week earlier than expected over a decade prior. And it still is! But this blog hasn't just chronicled the Daniel Craig era of James Bond. It's covered an interesting period in spy entertainment. So I thought I'd celebrate the tenth anniversary with some more lists, like that first post. The obvious list to start with is movies. Usually decade lists are made, well, for a given decade. 2006-2016 is admittedly an odd span to cover with such a list. But it's actually been a pretty remarkable period for our favorite genre, encompassing a lot of great movies all very different from each other.

Before I get to that list, however, I want to thank two people who were instrumental in the inception and longevity of this blog: Nora, who first put the idea in my head of starting a blog, and Josh, who's created a number of terrific graphics for me over the years, including these anniversary banners. Stay tuned for more interesting lists spanning the last ten years over the coming week, as well as news, reviews, and a contest or two!

Click on the titles for links to my full reviews, where applicable.

My Favorite Spy Movies 2006-2016

1. Casino Royale (2006)

That movie we were all looking forward to when I wrote that first post not only revitalized the 007 franchise, but proved to be one of its very best entries of all time. While I hadn't come to that conclusion at the time I posted my initial pre-release thoughts, or even by the time I wrote my full review after seeing it again, over the years it's risen to second place on my own list, following only On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

2. OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2007)

Michel Hazanavicius crafted a near-perfect send-up of Sixties spy movies (despite his film actually taking place in the late Fifties) while simultaneously reviving a classic Eurospy character in his two OSS 117 films starring the incomparable Jean Dujardin. He beautifully, lovingly recreated not only the hallmarks and cliches of the genre and the era, but also the filmmaking techniques. I remain ever hopeful he'll still make a third!

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

John le Carré may be the undisputed master of the spy novel, but in 2011 his name hadn't been seen on screen for a decade. Director Tomas Alfredson kicked off the le Carré screen revival that led to this year's mega-successful miniseries The Night Manager with his stunning, gorgeous adaptation of the greatest spy novel ever written. I still marvel at the brilliance of Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan's remarkable script, a masterclass in adaptation that managed to perfectly preserve the spirit of the lengthy novel by brilliantly changing just about every scene. It's an incredibly economical script demanding the audience's full attention throughout. No bit of exposition is repeated. This is another movie desperately crying out for a sequel; I'm dying to see Alfredson tackle another Smiley novel.

4. The Lives of Others (2006)

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's masterful Cold War-era, East German-set film ably demonstrates the breadth of the spy genre. It's as far from James Bond as you can get, but a film that actually examines the act of spying itself, and what it can do to its practitioners when they start to identify with the people they're spying on.

5. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

It's hard to believe that Tom Cruise has now been playing Ethan Hunt for longer than any actor ever consecutively played James Bond. But the Mission: Impossible series was not healthy at the time Brad Bird was hired to direct its fourth installment. Cruise had been briefly banished from the Paramount lot, and the studio had even contemplated giving the series to its direct-to-DVD arm. Bird, unproven in live action, shot new life into the series by turning to the TV show for inspiration. In doing so, he not only made the first entry in that series that I unabashedly love, but also made one of my favorite spy movies of the decade. The setpiece in which Cruise dangles from the Burj Khalifa may be the most memorable, but nothing in the film excited this fan of the show as much as the line at the end when the voice of the IMF name-checks "The Syndicate!" Happily, Christopher McQuarrie continued with the tone set by Bird, making the Mission: Impossible series one I now look forward to nearly as much as James Bond.

6. Green Zone (2010)

There's no question that director Paul Greengrass changed action cinema when he imbued The Bourne Supremacy with his signature style of shaky camera movements and fast edits. He spawned a number of imitators, but hardly any of them have been able to successfully recreate his style, and the result has been a number of jolty action sequences so chopped up you can barely tell what's going on. But even Greengrass had not perfected that style with his first spy movie. The Bourne Supremacy was partially successful, but The Bourne Ultimatum was better. Green Zone, however, is the culmination of Greengrass's collaboration with Matt Damon. This movie demonstrates exactly what that style is meant to do: it puts the viewer right in the middle of the action, and it's utterly thrilling.

7. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Modern movie reboots of classic Sixties spy series seldom prove creatively successful. The Avengers, The Wild Wild West, Get Smart, and countless others have come up severely short despite, in some cases, promising creative teams. But Guy Ritchie managed to make a thoroughly entertaining spy movie by valuing the spirit of the series above the letter. Some fans were disappointed that he didn't serve up a beat-for-beat recreation of the show. He did something better. He set the film in its original Cold War period, but with the benefit of hindsight was able to fully explore the dynamic of an American agent and a Soviet agent working together in ways the TV series simply couldn't at the time. And he did it with great style and a spectacular soundtrack. Like the OSS 117 movies, this was a thrilling love letter to Sixties spy movies.

8. Bethlehem (2013)

Here's a movie that deserves a much wider audience. Yuval Adler made one of the best realistic spy movies of the decade in his story of a young intelligence asset torn between his Israeli handlers and his Palestinian brethren. It delves deeply into the true nature of spying and the high cost paid by those caught up in it. This is the second-best le Carré movie of the last ten years, a feat all the more remarkable given that le Carré had nothing to do with it!

9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If there's one genre that's characterized these last ten years more than any other at the box office, it's superhero movies. Hollywood studios finally discovered the riches to be mined by faithfully adapting classic comic book characters and story arcs instead of dumbing them down or camping them up. Some viewers complain of over-saturation, but if you ask me Marvel Studios has managed to avoid that by setting its films in distinctly different genres. And the second Captain America movie is undeniably a spy movie. It takes its cue from classic paranoid Seventies spy thrillers like 3 Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, and takes much of its storyline from the Iran-Contra-era comic book Nick Fury vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. (Though Fury himself is only a supporting player to Cap, this is very much a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie!) But what makes it a great spy movie isn't what it borrows from the past, but the direction it set for the future. This was the first major Snowden-era spy movie. It spoke to the paranoia Americans were beginning to feel about their espionage apparatus, as the dust settled on the post-9/11 era in which spies were once again portrayed as heroic. Sibling directors Anthony and Joe Russo took advantage of the fact that they were telling a story about a fictional spy agency, rather than MI6 or the CIA, and told a story that really cant' be told with real-life organizations. And their treatment of the evil organization Hydra and its infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. paved the ground for new versions of The Syndicate in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and SPECTRE in the most recent Bond movie.

10. Skyfall (2012)

Casino Royale was no one-off. Daniel Craig has managed to make two classic Bond films so far during his tenure. Skyfall may divide fans, but director Sam Mendes managed to take 007 to new box office heights by combining the darker character exploration that made Casino Royale great with the fun, more over the top action that characterized the best moments in Roger Moore's tenure. It was great to see Q and Moneypenny return to the series, and to see some humor injected back into Bond while simultaneously delivering a mature story. It's not a perfect film. It's got flaws. But it's still fantastic!

Check back tomorrow and all week for more 10th Anniversary celebrations, including those contests!


Anonymous said...

I will naturally bow to your superior knowledge, but what does you mean by "It's hard to believe that Tom Cruise has now been playing Ethan Hunt for longer than any actor ever consecutively played James Bond." Roger and Sean both had seven films each.

Tanner said...

I mean duration of time. Roger's consecutive run was 12 years and Sean's was surprisingly just 5. But if you take out "consecutively," then Sean's still got the record (playing Bond from '62 to '83)... for now! But Tom will have him beat come the next M:I.

Jeff Quest said...

Congratulations, 10 years is a long long time in internet years.
Good list. Although to quibble, because that's what the Internet is for, I'd put Rogue Nation ahead of Ghost Protocol. I've also never really felt the comparison of Winter Soldier to 70's conspiracy thrillers worked. I mean I get it, but WS leaned too much on action and too little on thriller for my taste. Fun action movie though.

Mark Zutkoff said...

Nice list. So glad you included "Man From U.N.C.L.E." - it's criminally underrated, as is its magnificent score (though the latter is definitely gaining fans). I do wish "Three Days of the Condor" and "Kingsman: The Secret Service" could have gotten on the list, but that's the problem with ten-best lists; they can't contain everything good. Here's to another ten years!

Mark Zutkoff said...

Oh, and "Hopscotch" should have been on the list, too! :)

Mark Zutkoff said...

OK, I'm officially an idiot; I forgot the list was only for the last decade. At least "Kingsman" qualifies!

Tanner said...

Not an idiot, Mark! But, yeah, it's just a list of movies that came out while I've been writing this blog. An all-time Top 10 would be really hard! I wonder how many of these would make my all-time Top 10 spy movies? The top three would have a shot, but it's tough to compete with the classics of the Sixties and Seventies....

I'm sorry to say I wasn't a KINGSMAN fan. I really WANTED to be; I was very excited for the movie. But here's why it didn't work for me--and didn't make this list:


I sure did love the score though, and I remain hopeful about KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE!

Tanner said...

By all means, quibble away, Jeff! That's exactly what such lists are for on the Internet, as you say. No two people's are likely to be the same, so hopefully they provoke some debate!

I did love MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION. I think the case could be made that it's got a better script than GHOST PROTOCOL. But I'm a fan of the TV show first and foremost, and I thought GP was closest to that. It was the most team-oriented of any of the movies, and used many ploys right out of the series. (Though RN did as well--especially in that great finale.)

While I loved the little allusions to 70s spy thrillers in WINTER SOLDIER (opening on Cap running like Hoffman in MARATHON MAN, glimpsing the Watergate building outside the elevator, Redford's presence, that mournful horn on the soundtrack), for me the main PLOT was the big one. Sure, it's more action-oriented than those were, but the idea of an insidious secret society infiltrating all our institutions is so fantastically paranoid it could be right out of THE PARALLAX VIEW!

teeritz said...

Congrats on ten years of this great blog! Great Top Ten list. I too thought "The Man From UNCLE" deserved a wider audience because its setting and Cold War era offered us something different in The Year of Thespianage that 2015 ended up becoming. I'd love to see a sequel. Same with an adaptation of the second Smiley book. That would be great. And "Kingsman-The Secret Service" didn't thrill me either, although I'd happily watch another one about Colin Firth's character.
Keep up the good work!
And thanks for a great blog!

Bob said...

Matt, future articles might include picking the best films from other decades; sixties.seventies, etc. That might open up some interesting conversations.

Paul Baack said...

Intriguing list! I'm glad to see some love for OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. The first time I saw it, I actually thought it was made in the early 60s! Some of the phraseology seemed anachronistic, so I looked it up and was shocked to see that it was made so recently. Every detail was perfect, down to the fight scene that, naturally, included somebody getting judo-flipped onto a glass coffee table. The whole movie is a beginning-to-end delight.

Congratulations on your 10 year anniversary!

Anonymous said...

What happened to Flame and Citron? The Danish masterpiece by Ole Christian Madsen. Starring the tragically uber handsome Mads Mikkelson. Could it be hatred of the Danish that found this film left off the list? Or maybe something even deeper and more corrupt? I think we need a mole to cess this out. Can I get an Amen?

Tanner said...

Thanks, everyone!

Haha! Hm, Anonymous, I wonder who you could possibly be? Yes, yes, I still intend to watch FLAME AND CITRON one day! (Though I doubt I'll ever be amending this list, even if it shoots to the top. Maybe for the 20th anniversary...) That's why I specifically titled my list "My Favorite..." rather than "The Best." I don't claim to have seen every spy movie made in that time; that sounds like a near-impossible task! But noted. I should watch FLAME AND CITRON! (It better be as good as you say it is!)

I agree, Paul; the level of period detail on display in the modern OSS 117 movies is incredible! I particularly love how Dujardin likes to enter a room and put his foot up on some piece of furniture. It's true! For some reason that was a thing back then, and now every time I'm watching an old movie and see an actor do that I think of Dujardin and start laughing.

Good idea, Robert! I should do more lists. For this particular celebration (in which there are still several lists yet to come), I'll be sticking to this weird decade-long time period, but it would be cool to try decade lists down the road!

Teeritz, the feeling is mutual; I'm a fan of your blog as well. And I would LOVE to see a KINGSMAN prequel/spin-off all about Colin Firth in his terrific wardrobe. That's the movie I wanted to be watching. Then again, I do understand Vaughn's preference to look forward rather than back.

Purple Peak Records said...

Congratulations! 10 years is a remarkable achievement for blogging consistently as you have. This is the only blog I read on a regular cadence (usually every Friday). It's my go-to source for all things spy. Keep up the great work!

I love this quote too: "This is the second-best le Carré movie of the last ten years, a feat all the more remarkable given that le Carré had nothing to do with it!" LOL!