The list is afoot.
We’re going beyond elementary, dear Watson, and bringing you the full, graduated list of the absolutely ace, top-notch portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and the world of Baker Street on the screen. The deep dive into the genre pulls up way, way more movies than expected, although considering the allure and lore of Sherlock and Watson, that bit shouldn’t have been a shock after all.
From one of the very first films that brought Baker Street to life, the simply titled Sherlock Holmes in 1922, to a full 100 years later, with Enola Holmes 2 hitting the Netflix streaming airwaves in 2022, our hat is brimming with titles. The first-ever Holmes movie was made in 1916. It was thought to be lost forever until one copy of it was uncovered in a French archive in 2014. We’re actually at 106 years of films now. While that one doesn’t make our list, the 1922 edition is a better starting point for real Holmes movies.
Checking out audience scores for movies decades old is usually a tricky game to play, which shows in Rotten Tomatoes’ stark Tomatometer scores for those same movies usually. Let’s do some sleuthing a bit deeper and consider the character portrayal and what the movies and shows were able to pull off with what they had in the time they brought Baker Street to life.
10. Mr. Holmes (2015)
A more refined and sophisticated Sherlock Holmes, well, even more so than usual, with Sir Ian McKellen playing a retired Sherlock. Does this movie just follow the mundane day-to-day of a retired detective getting on with life and solving crossword puzzles? Of course not. The movie’s storyline features Sherlock trying to get out of the shadow of his myth played up in writing by Watson with flashbacks to his sleuthing days as well. We would have rather had McKellen being lured out of retirement and stating that he’s too old for this shit.
9. Elementary (2012-2019)
The first of our modern spins on Sherlock Holmes, this one featuring Lucy Liu as Joan Watson instead of the traditional John Watson, it might sneak up on you that this series lasted seven well-received seasons. At the time, the show made great efforts to set this show apart from the BBC one that premiered two years earlier. It was in part due to CBS at first trying to recreate/repurpose the British series à la The Office, which helped boost this show to be something utterly different and quite intriguing all the same.
8. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Considered one of the more underrated Sherlock films out there, director Billy Wilder even disliked the version that was released, disagreeing with some of the editing decisions by the studio.
The movie itself feels both of the times and of modern times a bit, too, as the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. It even leans a bit into the absurdity of Holmes and his problem-solving abilities along with his relationship with Watson. There’s some true ingenuity and genuine laughs in the first half of the film before it starts to travel down the road more often traveled in how it depicts Holmes and the mysteries surrounding him. There’s not enough exploration of this “private life,” but it’s still solid nonetheless.
7. Enola Holmes (2020)/Enola Holmes 2 (2022)
Though each of these films stand on their own, it didn’t feel right to separate them here just for the sake of differentiating the storylines. The portrayals are the same across both movies. Even with Millie Bobby Brown’s Enola and Henry Cavill’s Sherlock evolving from the first to the second film, the sequel is meant to feel like a continuation of the original. The refreshing update of the Baker Street series taken by Brown and director Harry Bradbeer looks at the Holmes family and an utterly polluted and corrupt London through the eyes of a different Holmes is most certainly welcomed.
6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
We’re actually going to bind together a few movies in one here (as above). The second in a series of Holmes films features, Basil Rathbone portrayed Sherlock in five separate films across seven years. It was a 007-like bounty of features, with a few titles seemingly doubling as Ian Fleming titles for James Bond books and the movies that followed. Rathbone and the subject matter definitely serves as inspirations for others on this list as well.
The first two come in 1939, with The Hound of the Baskervilles preceding The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Nigel Bruce played Watson in each of the five films as well. These are followed by The Woman in Green in 1945, then two more in 1946, Terror by Night and Dressed to Kill.
5. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The same title as mentioned above that was done nearly a decade and a half later. Not quite a remake, but an updated portrayal of the novel of the same name, much like we get still today with different writers and directors (and studios) taking on an IP that already exists more than once. The novel, written in 1902, was the third featuring Sherlock and his detective work at its heart.
Peter Cushing is an absolutely beast at being Sherlock in this rendition that still holds up to this day. It’s further notable for being the first film in color portraying Sherlock Holmes.
4. Sherlock Holmes (2009)/ Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
No doubt the banter and back-and-forth between Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law could have made just about any buddy cop movie a vibrant, engaging jaunt. The original outweighs the sequel, maybe so much so that it stilted any progress of a third movie. Had the second affair matched or surpassed the first one, a third film probably would have already been in the can and on our screens. Sure, the MCU and Iron Man probably had a bit to do with things as well.
Much as we mentioned with the Enola Holmes series, the fact that these two came out so close to each other, with the beginning of the sequel picking up where the original left off (with a bit of a stunner in the start as well), leaves us to pair them together here. If you’ve seen one, most likely you saw the other.
3. Sherlock Holmes (1922)
The first film that truly brought Sherlock and Watson, and even Professor Moriarty, to life, and established the fact that this world was worth exploring, time and time again. It wasn’t always a given that Sherlock Holmes was so intriguing, so suave, with a sixth sense to solve those mysteries beyond other men.
Take a moment to consider the review by Robert E. Sherwood in Life in 1922 when the film debuted:
“Intelligence, which is the quality most needed and most lacking in the movies to-day [SIC], is evident in almost every scene of Sherlock Holmes. It is a soul-satisfying performance—the sort of picture that makes one forget the existence of films called A Virgin’s Sacrifice.”
The movie receives high praise, and for any fan of the character, it’s worth tracking down John Barrymore’s portrayal of the great detective. We’ll let Sherwood give you the last word on the subject. “Sherlock Holmes is a picture that should be written down in large letters on everyone’s ‘must’ list.”
2. Sherlock (2010-2017)
The TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character and well-known British actor Martin Freeman opposite him as Watson. The updated modern take on the tales of Sherlock and Watson stand as the best television adaptation of the world of Baker Street, and might even outdo the movies as well.
The scenery and effects that show the inner workings of Sherlock’s mind as he solves cases and works through the intricacies of mysteries is unmatched in other Sherlock assets. It may even stand on its own outside of that realm as well. It’s easy to get lost in the mind of Cumberbatch who portrays a man with a very tortured soul in a character who still maintains an utter arrogance, perhaps inspired by Downey, Jr.’s take on the character. With that said, this stands all on its own, in spite of coming out just a year after the Guy Ritchie movie that did quite well on the silver screen. The dark side of Holmes’ character that Cumberbatch unearths and continues to draw out as if breaths from a gasping, drowning character is some of the best acting he’s brought to life.
1. Murder by Decree (1979)
The title is lacking, but the film is not. Combining some of England’s best mythology, this darker take on Sherlock finds the detective investigating Jack the Ripper’s “gruesome reign of terror.” The lead is played aptly by Christopher Plummer, who is considered by a wide swath of critics, especially those in Britain, as the best portrayal of the character ever done with a captivating storyline to match.