The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Top Thirty Film Villains

You've seen my Top Twenty Animated Villains, Twenty Favorite Comic Book Villains, and Top Twenty "Gargoyles Universe" Villains. Well, and I'm surprised I didn't do this long ago here are my TOP THIRTY film villains. Why top thirty? It was going to be top twenty, and I tossed a lot of names onto a list, about thirty six and I ended up with ten I really did not want to lose. So, enjoy.

30. Angela Baker ("Sleepaway Camp")

I hate slasher movies. Really, I do. I only even know about this character because of the Robot Chicken Sketch, the Cinema Snob's review, and Creepy Kitch's podcast. Something about this felt... real. Okay, the movie and the killings are as outlandish as anything, that's not what I'm saying. But, I guess I don't want to spoil the twist. Considering the circumstances behind this character's background, how she was raised, and what twisted her into a killer... this sort of thing exists. Don't get me wrong, the movie is shit... but she just stuck with me after the Cinema Snob's review and even though the movie was not my thing, I checked it out anyway. You could easily take this character and transplant her into a more dramatic film and still make it work. She has that intangible element. The makers of the first "Sleepaway Camp" caught lightning in a bottle when they dreamed Angela up. For sheer power of the concept and creation, Angela makes this list.

29. Lord Voldemort ("Harry Potter")

Evil wizards are a dime a dozen so to penetrate the pop culture lexicon they need to make an impression. Lord Voldemort is nearly as much of a household name as the boy wizard himself. For a character who's name is hardly ever spoken on screen, people all over the world use his name as an insult to talk about that boss or neighbor or family member or politician they can't stand. The character who inspired that is great. Well written and well performed by Ralph Fiennes who plays him as over the top, but shockingly not hokey... which is an easy trap to fall into when you play a character like this. On top of all that, he is just really creepy, and not for the snake face, and dark magic, but because if you strip all of the fantastic elements away, you have an old man trying to murder a teenager.

28. Tom Powers ("The Public Enemy")

The central message of this movie is that crime doesn't pay. This is a movie that has been remade and duplicated a thousand times over. It was made in 1931, so it might be old hat, but it's legacy is very important. James Cagney plays our villain protagonist who belittles his law abiding brother, is spoiled by his elderly, doting mother (think Aunt May on steroids) and learns the hard way that crime doesn't pay, and ends with one of cinema's most legendary closing shots. Plus, who doesn't love the scene where Tom Powers shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend's face? According to Cagney, Mae Clarke's ex-husband had the grapefruit scene timed, and would buy a ticket just before that scene went onscreen, go enjoy the scene, leave, then come back during the next show just in time to see only that scene again.

27. Bill ("Kill Bill")

The titular character of "Kill Bill," was the deadliest assassin in the world. Brilliantly written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, with a quiet understated performance by the late David Carradine. While he speaks more often than he takes action, it's this character's mind that makes him dangerous. Very few people can bring so much subtle menace to making their four year old daughter a sandwich, but Bill did. Suave and charming, he really was a snake charmer.

26. Eve Harrington ("All About Eve")

Ah, Eve Harrington. Understudy, con-artist, and bitch. A true classic on this list. She approaches her hero, Broadway actress Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis) and after a sob story of a hard life, she becomes Margo's assistant. Eve then proceeds to slowly supplant the forty-year-old actress by becoming her understudy, manipulating Margo and her friends so that Margo would miss a show and inviting every critic in Manhattan to see the play during her big night. Everything Eve said was a lie, and while she won and got what she wanted, and while she gets her comeuppance after a fashion, Margo fades away in the aftermath, with grace. Of course, I'm only scratching the surface.

25. Professor Ratigan ("The Great Mouse Detective")

Professor Ratigan is definitely one of Disney's most underrated villains in one of Disney's most underrated movies. But, honestly, fuck those people who underrate him, he's my second favorite in the entire Disney canon. He is, arguably, the greatest depiction of Professor James Moriarty ever put to film... and he's voiced by the legendary Vincent Price. How do you get better than that? His character design is awesome, the airs he puts on are awesome. A savage low-life thug who puts on a false front of upper class sophistication. There is a part of me that wonders if Ratigan is also an allegory for the self-loathing Jew. Over the centuries, the Jewish people were often equated with rats... Hans Landa talks about this in "Inglourious Basterds" in one scene. Ratigan hates it when people call him a rat, he even has one of his henchmen killed for it. I'm not going to accuse Disney of antisemiticism there, and it doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the character, but it's just something I took away from the movie.

24. Norman Bates ("Psycho")

No one can deny that Alfred Hitchcock was the master of suspense and the master of cinema, and through Norman Bates, he set the stage for every legendary movie psycho. Be it Hannibal Lecter or John Doe, without Bates, we wouldn't have gotten any of this. And how does Bates stack up all these decades later? He holds up as well as anybody does. He is the classic movie psychopath, and his twist is still shocking even all these decades later.

23. The Shark ("Jaws")

What is "Jaws" about? If you dig down to find the core truth of the film, it is about a man getting over his fear of the water. Well, what personifies aquaphobia better than a monstrous killer shark? Plus, for most of the movie you did not see the shark... it may as well have been the water killing these people. This was not the original plan, Spielberg wanted the shark visible more earlier on, but the mechanical shark apparently didn't agree with the ice cold sea water, and worked maybe 15% of the time. Well, let's count ourselves lucky for this, less is more.

22. Magda Goebbels ("Downfall")

"Der Untergang" was a film about Hitler's final days in his bunker, and is probably better known for inspiring an internet meme. While I was tempted to put Hitler himself on this list, I decided not to for two reasons. First off, it's Hitler. The moment you allow depictions of HITLER on best villains lists, he'll never leave. Now the performance may well be worthy of the listing independent of Hitler's reputation, but it's a slippery slope. Playing Hitler would be to best villains list as playing a retard is to Best Actor nominations. Second of all, because Magda Goebbels was even creepier than Hitler. A woman who was such a fanatical Nazi that she poisoned her own children rather than allow them to grow up in a world where Hitler was dead, and National Socialism was overthrown. That's really all there is to say about her, but it's so chilling, she's more than earned her spot on this list.

21. Loki ("Thor" & "The Avengers")

I know Loki is the hot new thing as far as movies go, never mind that the character has existed in Marvel Comics since 1962, and actual Nordic mythology since at least the 13th century, but when Tom Hiddleston stepped into the role he seemed to take a lot of nerd culture by storm. He is great, and the character is so well written. A friend of mine described him as Scar from "The Lion King" if Scar didn't suck. What I liked most is that he didn't just trick the other characters, he tricked the audience. He was even better in "The Avengers" which is currently the most popular film on the planet. Right now, it's all being said. On another note, I never thought I would see the day that Loki became a sex symbol. I've seen teenage girls in book stores looking for Thor graphic novels who have binders covered in pictures of Loki. Unlike Edward Cullen, at least it's a cool character performed by a pretty damn good actor.

20. Hans Landa ("Inglourious Basterds")

Nazis are easy to include on a list like this, but Christoph Waltz's performance as Hans Landa won him a much deserved Oscar. The French called him the Jew Hunter, and he was very good at his job. Whether he is subtly intimidating a farmer to betray the Jews he is hiding. And the most ironic part of this, he never considered himself a Nazi, or even hated Jews. From his point of view, he just understood how the world worked. When the time came to betray Nazi Germany, he did it in a heartbeat, and not out of any humanity, but because he always acted in his own self interest.

19. Magneto ("X-Men")

Whether he is being portrayed by Sir Ian McKellan or Michael Fassbender, Magneto is one of the best comic book movie villains there is, which is fitting as he is also one of the best comic book villains, period. Magneto really brought respectability to villains in comic book movies, since he was the first one to be portrayed as an actual person with a point you can relate to as opposed to an over the top caricature. With the success of "X-Men: First Class" I think it's safe to say we'll be seeing a lot more of Magneto on the silver screen for years to come.

18. Gordon Gekko ("Wall Street")

I'm not going to get into the politics of Oliver Stone. I don't agree with a lot of Stone's politics, and I definitely don't agree with most of his filmography. I admit, I'm a capitalist... but any system can be corrupted and Gordon Gekko represents the perversion of the American dream. Gordon Gekko cared about only one thing, lining his own pockets as he famously said, greed is good. And, in moderation, it is. But he was destroying lives and making a profit, a profit he was not hurting for. Combine that with a memorable performance by Michael Douglas (who often buys liquor from my brother, may I add) and you have a character so memorable and so powerful that I can believe he drove Charlie Sheen to drugs.

17. The Joker ("The Dark Knight")

Everything that can be said has been said. Arguably the scariest movie villain since Hannibal Lecter. He was cunning, intelligent, and chaos personified. And of course, Ledger's personal flourishes must be mentioned as well... he added a lot of character to the Joker with the smallest of gestures.

16. Saruman ("The Lord of the Rings")

I love this guy. He may be your standard evil wizard, but he is in many ways the original evil wizard. Or at least early enough to help define the archetype before it became a cliche. This is the guy who was great once but fell into darkness and evil under the influence of the Dark Lord Sauron. In many ways, you can look to him to get a sense of what happened to Sauron himself thousands of years prior. Saruman was powerful, he was cunning, but his greatest power was his voice... and as such, Christopher Lee was cast perfectly, and you can tell he loved every moment. Looking forward to seeing him again in "The Hobbit" this winter.

15. Antonio Salieri ("Amadeus")

This guy is just the personification of jealousy, and F. Murray Abraham played that to a tee. Now, I know that historically there is a rumor that says he confessed to the murder of Mozart on his death bed. Is it true? We'll never know. But it made for a delicious rumor and a delicious story. A story about mediocrity, jealousy, and the quest for an undeserved immortality. The thing that has come out of this is that Salieri's operas and music are being played in the 21st century. People would likely never have heard of Salieri had F. Murray Abraham not done such a brilliant job in portraying him. One might wonder, however, if it is better to be remembered as a villain for all time, or be forgotten to everyone but the historians.

14. Jack Torrance ("The Shining")

This one is another legendary performance from Jack Nicholson. You all know it, even if you haven't seen the movie, you know it. We spend an entire movie watching Jack slowly go insane. While the "Here's Johnny" scene has been parodied over and over again, my favorite scene has to be when his wife, Shelley Duvall discovers what he's been writing for the past several months, and that confrontation where he does nothing but yell at her makes my body hairs stand up to this day.

13. Hans Gruber ("Die Hard")

Hans has got to be the greatest action villain of all time. He's the perfect counterpart to our hero, John McClane. Whereas McClane is your typical foul mouthed, rugged blue-collar every man, Hans is a classically educated, sophisticated, suave, polite European dressed in a suit that must cost thousands. He's smart, manipulative, and always in control of everything... except that Irish-American running around in the building's vents. Often imitated but never duplicated.

12. Keyser Soze ("The Usual Suspects")

Just go watch the damn movie.

11. Khan Noonien Singh ("Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan")

Another classic villain, one that could have been really cheesy but wasn't. We're lucky that Gene Roddenberry stayed far away from this one, kids. "The Wrath of Khan" is one of those rare perfect movies, and the villain is a huge part of the reason why. When Khan says that he ruled a portion of the world once, thanks to Ricardo Montalban's performance, you believe him. And all the anger he feels towards Kirk, all the hate, it all just oozes off of him. Plus who doesn't love a villain who quotes "Paradise Lost" and "Moby Dick?" Personally, I think this is a character who should be left alone as I shudder to think about what the reboot is going to do with him. His story has already been told perfectly, don't go near Khan. You have a whole universe to play with, don't pick something that is going to draw uncomfortable comparisons.

10. The Alien ("Alien")

The Alien (or the xenomorph, if you prefer) is my favorite movie monster of all time. Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger really hit upon many of our most primal fears when they dreamed this thing up. The Alien is, for all intents and purposes the personification of rape. Just look at the thing. It's phallic and feminine at the same time, and it's very smart. Just watching this thing stalk and murder the crew members of the Nostromo, it was clearly alien. It's made even scarier if you watch the Director's Cut, and you find out what it was really doing to its victims. Ash was right when he called it the perfect life form.

9. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker ("Bonnie & Clyde")

Ah, the original dynamic duo. Sometimes we, as Americans, revere our criminals. I'm not saying we should, but we do. Bonnie and Clyde are a testament to this. Bank robbers, murderers and yest they're practically folk heroes now. Arthur Penn's 1967 film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway might sympathy events, but it perpetuates their legend. They might be thieves and murderers, but they were also the subject of one of cinema's greatest love stories of all time.

8. Norman Stansfield ("Leon: The Professional")

This character has got to be my all time favorite character portrayed by Gary Oldman. I don't even know where I should start. Stansfield is a corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who employs a holder (Michael Badalucco) to store cocaine in his residence. When Stansfield learns that the holder has been stealing some of the drugs for himself, he and his henchmen gun down the man's entire family, with the exception of 12-year old Mathilda, and he does so in the most over the top, hammiest scene ever. While this might make one groan in most other movies, here it's downright terrifying. He gets even more terrifying when Mathilda, meaning to kill him, is found by her in the men's room of the DEA building and in one of the most terrifying scenes, with a gun pointed at her, he asks if she likes life, and after an entire movie of being creepy monotone, she tears up and says yes. He replies that this is good because he takes no pleasure taking a life from someone who doesn't care about it. Yeah.

7. Hannibal Lecter ("The Silence of the Lambs")

This guy is so iconic that he's become a cliche. Everyone tries to copy Hannibal Lecter. Even Mark Millar's run on "Marvel Knights Spider-Man" paid homage to him when Norman Osborn was in his prison cell and Spidey came around for information trying to locate his missing Aunt May. But he became iconic for a reason, he was like nothing cinema had ever seen before. He was a highly intelligent, witty, charming cannibal who just had a way of staring into your soul like a laser beam. Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar for this role, and it was well earned. Is the character realistic? Not at all, despite being the most iconic villain in the movie, Buffalo Bill feels a lot more real. Does that detract from Lecter? Hardly. A cinematic villain for the cinematic medium.

6. Maleficent ("Sleeping Beauty")

Out of all the films in Disney's canon, Maleficent is the best. Sometimes less is more, and I don't want or need Maleficent to be anything but the Mistress of All Evil. I am not looking forward to this new movie starring Angelina Jolie. I think it is a mistake. But, Jolie aside, Maleficent knows what she is and is the epitome of spiteful evil. Now, I'm not saying it's bad to reveal the details of a villain's backstory. Sometimes it works for the character and sometimes it doesn't. Recently I got into an argument about this with somebody and they cited the "Gargoyles" multi-parter "City of Stone" for going into Demona's past and revealing her story, and used that as the reason why doing the same for Maleficent is a swell idea. I argued that Demona is the on-going main villain of a serialized television series and that her past and what made her what she is are questions introduced early on, and we got those questions answered after less than a year. There was no such thing for Maleficent, and nobody asked these questions the movie itself did not present in the entire fifty-three years since the movie made it's debut in 1959!

5. Jimmy Conway ("Goodfellas")

First off, a bit of trivia. Jimmy Conway was based on real life gangster, Jimmy "The Gent" Burke, and my grandfather says he knew him. Based on a true story, "Goodfellas" is one of the greatest films ever made, and Robert De Niro may as well have been playing himself, he slipped into this guy's skin so well. De Niro reportedly visited the real Burke to get pointers on how to play him, and it shows. Everything about this guy feels authentic, and the acting is so powerful you can tell what he's thinking without him saying a thing... my favorite instance being when he makes the decision to kill off most of his gang while smoking a cigarette at the bar.

4. Tamora ("Titus")

I love this character. I first encountered her in the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival's production of "Titus Andronicus" back in 1999 where she was played by Nance Williamson. The play captivated me, so naturally Julie Taymor's production had a lot to live up to in my eyes... and again I was captivated by this Shakespearan Queen of Evil as portrayed by Jessica Lange. Tamora is a vengeful mother and the former queen of the goths, who was defeated by Roman general Titus Andronicus and dragged back to Rome in chains alongside her three sons. On the way, Titus sacrificed one of her sons to Jupiter... and his own family would soon pay for it. Once in Rome, Tamora proceeds to marry Emperor Saturninus; encourages her two surviving sons to assault, rape and mutilate Titus' daughter, Lavinia, during a hunt where her tongue is cut out and her hands are severed and replaced with tree branches; has two of Titus' sons framed for murder and has them arrested and promises to release them if Titus will cut off his own hand and send it to the emperor only to return his two sons' severed heads. And that's just for starters! Tamora did everything she could to give me a Midsummer Night's Nightmare and god bless her for it.

3. William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting ("Gangs of New York")

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of my all time favorite actors. I've been told I have a man-crush on him. I'm willing to admit to that, and he brought us a great antagonist in Bill the Butcher, a gangster and political leader... talk about a dangerous combination. A racist and a xenophobe who wraps himself in the flag representing an evil undercurrent of this country which has never gone away. The dark side of patriotism personified. But, at the same time, he did have a sense of honor, if twisted. The man he respected the most was his enemy, Priest Vallon. Yes, once a year he celebrated his victory over him, but he mourned at the same time... paid tribute to him... hung his portrait on his mantle. That's what was so tragic about it, were it not for their prejudices, they wouldn't have been enemies and ultimately, everything they did was insignificant. I think in a way, he knew his way of doing things was coming to an end and he even accepted it, but he was still determined to go down fighting.

2. Amon Göeth ("Schindler's List")

There's a lot of Nazis on this list, aren't there? This might just be Ralph Fiennes' greatest performance of all time. He was so scary that when one of the surviving Jews saved by Oskar Schindler visited the set, she nearly fainted in fear when she saw him. Aside from that, let me leave you with this quote: "I would like so much to reach out to you and touch you in your loneliness. What would it be like, I wonder? What would be wrong with that? I realize that you are not a person in the strictest sense of the word, but, um, maybe you're right about that too. Maybe what's wrong, it's not us, it's this... I mean, when they compare you to vermin, to rodents and to lice. I just, uh, you make a good point. You make a very good point. Is this the face of a rat? Are these the eyes of a rat? "Hath not a Jew eyes?" I feel for you Helen." [leaning forward to kiss her] "No, I don't think so. You Jewish bitch, you nearly talked me into it, didn't you?"

And finally, drum roll please! He made his debut in a popular blockbuster that was an instant classic! He soon returned in a sequel that many would say is superior to the original! And he later re-appeared in a third movie that is either loved or hated, I give you my favorite, and the greatest villain in all of film....

1. Michael Corleone ("The Godfather")

What? Who did you think I was talking about?

Wow. Where do I start? We all go through a phase where we're embarrassed or ashamed or just flat out hate our families. While Michael never hated his family, it was clear early on that he wanted to pursue a life apart from the family business. But fate and circumstances interfered and Michael not only was forced into the family business, but he soon became the head of the family... and it soon destroyed any semblance of the life he could have otherwise had. From war hero to brutal criminal to losing his family all culminating in the murder of his brother. Michael Corleone became exactly what he tried hard not to become.

"It's not personal, it's just business." While that was true most of the time, a lot of the time he was just kidding himself. It was the greatest performance of Al Pacino's career, and the greatest film Francis Ford Coppola has ever directed. To this day, everything stands the test of time and it will continue to do so for generations beyond.


  1. Where's Darth Vader?

    1. On plenty of other lists like this, just not mine.

  2. I have a lot of respect for you for including Ratigan.

  3. Great list Michael is indeed the worse!

  4. Loved the description under Keyser Soze.

    And I had to read your lead-in to #1 three times before I worked out who else you might have been talking about.

  5. @30: Angela aside, I hate slashers too. Except if they're by Wes Craven (Fred Kruger, Ghostface.)

    @25: Hell yes! That is how Moriarty oughta be!

    @24: How is it that Norman Bates and everything he said and did has become so well known in pop culture, and yet still scares me everytime?

    @21: Technically, he was described as "Scar if he didn't lose his menace in the second half." Which is so true. And oddly enough, his fangirl following grew 'cause of his more manic, evil portrayal in "The Avengers." Girls must really love bad boys, I guess?

    @18: Like you with Angela, I never heard of Gordon Gecko until a Robot Chicken sketch with Kermit the Frog. Weird, huh?

    @16: Oh yeah. Sorry Gollum, Grima Wormtongue, Witch King, and even Sauron, but Saruman's my favorite LotR villain too.

    @15: Salieri's not a villain! He's the benevolent patron saint of mediocrities! Mozart is the true villain! Both him...and GOD!!!

    @14: There might be scarier villains than Jack out there, but his performance still made "The Shining" perhaps the scariest movie I've ever seen.

    @12: "I belive in God...and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze." That is all.

    @10: Yeah, even when there were lots more aliens and the Alien Queen introduced in the sequels, that original Alien was still scarier than all of them put together.

    @8: I've yet to see this one aside from his imfamous "EVERYONE!!!" but I intend to one day.

    @3: Earlier this year, I saw this one. Absolutely loved this guy. One of the most morally complex psychopaths I've ever seen.

    @2: What's truly terrifying is that he was even worse scum in real life. And that there were others on his side that were even worse!

    @1: Yah, sorry Darth, you had a great run in your original trilogy, but we get to see Michael turn to the dark side in two movies instead of three dumb prequels!

    Great list, though I'm kind of sad to see Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West isn't here seeing as she's kind of Voldemort's predecessor in being the "over-the-top yet surprisingly credible and not hokey" pure evil magic person. Even more troubling...where's Daniel Plainview? Was two Daniel Day Lewis' just too much for this list to contain?

    1. I love Daniel Plainview, yeah. So um, yes... two DDLs as just too much for this list to contain. Yeah, that's the ticket.

      I need to watch "There Will Be Blood" again.

    2. I don't think Loki fangirls represent something fundamental to the female psyche, especially those fangirls who refuse to think of him as a villain.

  6. Off-topic from the blog post here, but have you heard that there are going to be two Hobgoblins running around in future Spidey issues, Greg? Think Kingsley's back, or it's just a red herring?

    1. I have not heard this. Link?


      Spidey solicts are on there.

    3. Thanks. Dammit, I hope so.

      Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

  7. "A friend of mine described him as Scar from "The Lion King" if Scar didn't suck"

    Funny thing you mention that. I found this vid on YT. (Man, I have too much time on YT)

    1. I was actually the one who said that, but I sure didn't invent it. "Loki is like Scar" had achieved meme status long before.

      In my case, it *is*, mentioned above, that once ascended, Loki didn't stop being threatening, while Scar turned into an idiot.

      Loki's grievances with his family also have more substance, and the Frost Giants are better characterized than the hyenas.

  8. It's a good list. I'm ashamed to admit I haven't seen some of these films.

    I did love the "Just go watch the damn movie." for Keyser Soze.

    And no Demona? There's technically a Gargoyles movie (or at least a thing that calls itself Gargoyles The Movie). ;)

  9. ^ "Gargoyles The Movie" is just the first 5 episodes compiled as one movie. It doesn't count.

  10. For my money its tough to beat Hannibal Lecter. He is damn scary.


  12. Since you brought up that Godfather 3 is a love it or hate if film, what are your thoughts on it?