I grew up with the Jeremy Brett version and still hold it to be the best filmed version of the character. He has a dry wit and an inner light in his eye when he’s on the case, a savage joy in detection that most of the others don’t get in their performances. Brett is also very good at showing disdain or contempt, seething like a temperamental yet talented child.
I’d put Clive Merrison’s take in the BBC’s radio adaptations somewhere in second place - he’s a bit more chill and dickish, but as the series covers the entire canon and some BBC original pastiches (which are quite good), he gets more room to grow and color in some nuance. You genuinely feel that his experiences post The Final Problem have transformed him, and the humanity of the character comes across strong in the more melancholic stories. And those BBC radio dramas love them some melancholy - the Further Adventures episodes are frequently downbeat. For real nerding out there’s a fair amount of meta-commentary in the series, including an episode with Holmes and Watson talking about William Gillette and the stage production based on their lives.
I didn’t like Sherlock very much, being a fairly stodgy traditionalist. The first episode was good, I thought, but as it went on the flashy camerawork and goofy CGI memory palace nonsense got real grating. Lots of buzzwords and amateurish attempts to psychoanalyze Holmes and Watson, and the Moriarty stuff was just embarrassing. It all felt a bit desperate and increasingly unhinged.
Elementary seems much better, both as an homage to the characters and as its own procedural drama. I should probably sit down and give it my full attention some time soon.
I didn’t hate the Ritchie movie (only saw the first) - the film score is pretty great and the setpieces and design are pretty fun. I accepted beforehand that they’d handle the actual characters with the subtlety and thoughtfulness of a frat boy in art class, so I was less disappointed than I was with Sherlock, a show many friends hyped up to me.
As for Watson, I’d probably pick Edward Hardwicke from the later part of the Brett series (surprise). He’s warmer and a bit more laid back than other portrayals, but I buy him as somebody Holmes would rely on. David Burke, the actor he replaced, is capable but a bit too stiff.
Among the older film versions…I dunno, Brett eclipses them all. Rathbone is very stagy and of his era, and I can’t stand the way they turned Nigel Bruce’s bumbling Watson into the butt of every joke. Apparently that was just how you portrayed him in stage and screen for decades. I seem to remember that the Jack the Ripper movie Murder By Decree was pretty good? It was directed by Bob Clark, the guy who somehow managed to also direct Porky’s, Christmas Story, and Black Christmas.
EDIT: Oh, shit, I totally forgot another favorite - George C. Scott in They Might Be Giants, a 70’s film based on a play about a psychiatrist whose patient believes he’s Sherlock. Its very much steeped in that era in terms of presentation and outlook, but I found it kind of moving.