Our yearly tradition that cites the “Greatest ___ of All-Time” begins once again with a look at the baddest guys and gals of the silver screen. Each writer will deliver their own set of ten, likely with all different interpretations of “the villain” and what they mean. If you miss one, click on the tag “10 Greatest Villains of All-Time.“
Making a top 10 greatest villains of all-time list is harder work than I expected. It’s too easy to favor characters of the last 15 years. Do I skewer to my tastes or judge on an objective impact to pop culture basis? What about real life people? Do the Nazi’s or zombies as a whole count? I decided to keep it honest, trying my best to include the essentials I love and my slightly less conventional choices. They’re all coincidentally people (one is kind of) and fictional characters. I also decided to not go for anti-heroes where they are the sole lead selecting antagonists only, though they may also be considered leads of their films.
10. Count Graf Orlok, Nosferatu
There are many movie monsters that could take this slot, from the Alien to the T-1000, but the one that gets under my skin more than any is Max Schreck’s knockoff Dracula. I wrote about Nosferatu for our Halloween series back in October. As a representation of death, a plague follows Count Orlok wherever he goes, but nothing compares to the nightmare fuel of his haunting silhouettes. Klaus Kinski did a great job reprising the role in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake and Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire nearly meets his match.
09. Vincent, Collateral
Subversive casting is always an interesting way to get the audience hooked on a villain. Sergio Leone did it when casting Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time In The West. Vincent is on our hero’s side for most of the story, even protecting him at some points, but when he turns, it’s bad news. What makes him unique is his existential musings, pondering the value of mortality and putting this night in the perspective of the grand scheme of the universe. It’s nothing personal, but he makes you feel small before you’re dead, if you get a chance to speak to him.
08. Johnny Friendly, On The Waterfront
I really wanted include Lee J. Cobb’s Juror #3 from 12 Angry Men but it’s hard to definitively call him a villain, he was just misguided. Fortunately, I remembered Cobb has another spectacular villain from the 1950s in the Best Picture winner On The Waterfront. A corrupt figurehead, he has the whole dock under his thumb, silencing anyone who threatens to speak out against him with a firm push off a ledge. Even though he never does his own dirty work, you never doubt his intimidating influence when he is onscreen. Thus his eventual downfall is so satisfying.
07. Annie Wilkes, Misery
Any authors worst nightmare, Stephen King’s number one fan was actually born from a drug addiction in the late 80s rather than any real rabid stalker. Kathy Bates perfectly brings Annie Wilkes to life, giving her a blend of disarming naivety and sinister manipulation, earning a very deserved Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Unforgettable for the sledgehammer scene, you can’t blame James Caan for always looking over his shoulder from then on, that’s pure terror when the villain never leaves you.
06. Sgt. Gunnery Hartman, Full Metal Jacket
There’s one reason why the general population prefer the first half of Full Metal Jacket to the second (I like both equally, it’s my favourite Kubrick), and that’s because of R. Lee Ermey. With barrels of hilarious, long-winded and mean-spirited insults, he provides a dark humour to the film and constant dehumanisation to the ensemble of soldiers pushing them from boys to men. He’s just a man doing his job, motivated by his love of the military, but he pushes Private Pyle too far and is relentless to the bitter end. He’s one note, but it’s one note played masterfully.
05. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs
It’s hard to do this list like this without Hannibal Lecter. Everything Anthony Hopkins does in his Oscar winning turn is designed to send shivers down your spine. His intelligence and sensitively is at first disarming, and on first viewing his muzzle and strait jacket feel like an over precaution. The terrifying events that follow during his gruesome escape where he wears a guard’s face and spreads another like a gothic angel on his cage take your breath away. Good thing he’s on Jodie Foster’s side for the most part, if at a brutal cost.
04. Colonel Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds
There’s a trend with the next couple of entries when it comes to a certain trophy on their mantle. They steamrolled the competition with good reason. Our introduction to eventual Oscar favourite Christoph Waltz is an unforgettable demonstration of his charm, theatrics and power, as his Hans Landa traps his prey like rats. However, he is not a man of loyalty as his self-preservation instinct kicks in whilst he betrays Hitler making himself an enemy of everyone. He should be less surprised about his forehead souvenir he takes home.
03. Terence Fletcher, Whiplash
The most recent film on the list, but also the film I consider the best of the decade thus far. Hopefully Terence Fletcher will find a spot on lists like this for the years to come. J. K. Simmons perfectly blends the light and dark he’s carved as a character actor over the years to sculpt a menacing yet witty bandleader. He represents the devil on the shoulder of every artistic perfectionist, and he couldn’t be worse for your self-esteem. While at first it seems like a graceful fall from his reputation, the stunning final act reveals just how petty he can be when it’s a matter of a bruised ego.
02. The Joker, The Dark Knight
The internet may have doubted Heath Ledger’s casting back in 2006 but it didn’t take long after the first trailer was released for us to swallow our words. They made an iconic character even more iconic. Nolan and Ledger reinvented the Joker from the campy Nicholson version to the wild, violent and chaotic poster child of every college dorm. You can’t take your eyes off his wounded clown as he inhabits the unhinged character to the point where he bursts off the screen. How can you defeat someone who has nothing to lose?
01. John Doe, Se7en
Absent for 80% of the film, no villain has had a bigger impression on me since Kevin Spacey’s anonymousJohn Doe. The moment he yells “detective” in the police station, the film takes a thrilling turn, revealing its mystery prematurely though remaining as alarmingly intriguing. But John Doe doesn’t top the list just because of his disturbing mutilations, horrific philosophy and chilling presence, he’s a rare villain that checkmates the heroes to a position where he wins every move. In the movie history book he goes, just like he wanted.