The Life & Times of an Auteur.

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

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Top Twenty Five Movie Villains

Another video, another re-working of an old list. Yes, like all human beings, I can be fickle. But I also gave myself new criteria for this one, and like my list of animated villains, I ignored the ones who made their first appearances in a comic book.

25. The Phantasm

"Mask of the Phantasm" is still my choice for best Batman movie of all time. A big part of the reason for that is its villain, the Phantasm. A shadowy figure from Bruce Wayne's past who is now targeting Gotham City's most infamous crime lords. While I'm not all that concerned about spoiling a movie that came out in 1993, for the benefit of those of you who have not seen it I'll keep a lid on it.

24. Grand Moff Tarkin

The only "Star Wars" villain you will see on this list. Darth Vader was ruined by a poor showing in "Return of the Jedi" long before the prequels were a gleam in anybody's eye, and the Emperor was too stupid to win. Grand Moff Tarkin classes the joint up with a cold efficiency and subtle brutality as only Peter Cushing could deliver. Even in a galaxy far, far away... Tarkin's menace feels real.

23. Galvatron

Galvatron is on here partly for nostalgia. He endeared himself to me by brutally and quickly killing Starscream proving himself to be superior to his "past life." He then went on to fight for his freedom after being enslaved by a chaos god, before being utterly broken. Throw in a great design, a cool transformation and a terrific vocal performance by Leonard Nimoy when he's not being directed by Michael Bay and you have a memorable Decepticon warlord. The season of the cartoon show set after the movie made him even more memorable.

22. Tom Powers

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.

21. 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.

20. Professor Ratigan

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.

19. The Witch King of Angmar

The Terminator was scary because it was a killing machine that would not stop until it accomplished its mission. Now imagine you have nine of them... riding on either horses or winged Fell Beasts. Now imagine their leader is being fueled in power by an evil demigod. The Witch King of Angmar is the second most evil being in Middle Earth. A cruel sorcerer and unstoppable warrior. He is capable of leading a small squad of troops on a tiny mission, or being general of vast armies. Fear is his greatest weapon... it emanates from him and all in service of his dark master.

18. Jimmy Conway

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.

17. Norman Bates

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.

16. The Shark

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.

15. Hans Landa

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.

14. Saruman the White

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.

13. Antonio Salieri

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.

12. Jack Torrance

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.

11. Hans Gruber

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.

10. The 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. Norman Stansfield

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.

8. Hannibal Lecter

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.

7. Maleficent

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!

6. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow

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.

5. Tamora

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.

4. William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting

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.

3. Sauron

When I hear the word "evil" nobody personifies it as perfectly as the Dark Lord Sauron. A maiar spirit who gave himself over to evil itself, you can view him as a demigod... as a fallen angel... but Sauron is pure evil. Cruelty, malice, a will to subjugate all life. He has thousands of followers at his command, who worship him as their god-king. Those he cannot seduce to evil (as he did with Saruman), he'll drive insane (as he did with Denethor). His very gaze can cause despair as he sees all within his tower. The One Ring is merely an extension of Sauron... and all who possess it will be destroyed from within as it seeks to find its way back to the hand of its master. Sauron was originally motivated by a love of order as he sees free will as chaotic and seeks to enslave all life on Earth before looking at his creator and showing him what he has done to all of creation. The two most iconic symbols of his power are the Great Eye, seeing all there is to see; and Barad-dur, an impossibly high tower held up by Sauron's will alone... in the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie. He may not be the embodiment of all evil, but Sauron is truly evil's greatest servant.

2. Amon Göeth

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?"

1. Michael Corleone

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. Well, now you entered my domain. Some choices would be similar though there'd be a three way battle Freddy Krueger, Frank Booth and Raoul Silva.

    Short explanation for Freddy, the idea of him killing someone in their sleep is a frighenting concept of itself and he simply enjoys every moment of it, and always enjoying intimidating his victims. And considering in the first film, he did it for revenge makes him a major threat.

  2. 25: I remember my mind being blown when Phantasm's identity was revealed. "He" really wasn't all that different from Batman, but was consumed by a desire for vengeance rather than justice, to the point of shunning away all others...except for Bruce. Sad and scary.

    24: See, this guy is one of the reasons I'll always prefer "A New Hope" to "The Empire Strikes Back". He gave me the heebie jeebies even as a kid.

    20: I guess there's a reason the show "Sherlock" seemed to portray it's version of Moriarty as somewhat similar to Rattigan. Though anything's better than the one from "Game Of Shadows."

    3: I'd say Sauron was Satan to Middle Earth, but that's Morgoth. Sauron is Lucifer: which is the same, but different!

    1. I love that analogy about Morgoth and Sauron.

  3. Update as make that five way between Evanora and Theodora from Oz the Great and Powerful. Goddamn did Kunis and Weiz had fun playing the baddies. And they were terrific choices to begin with too.

  4. My son likes Galvatron the most and that is among top movie villains characters for him. I don’t know if this is good for him or not given his age but he seems to be fond of movies like me.