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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!