Oh boy. As much as I love making lists (and I really love making lists, particularly the ones we do here), this one has been giving me kind of a hard time. I went back and forth with a huge long list of contenders, toying with different limitations to force on myself, and just a general bewilderment about how to best go about this. Luckily, seeing what the rest of the staff has done so far has been a help, and ultimately I just set up a few simple rules to enforce in order to finally come up with ten villains for this piece.
What rules did I come up with? Well, just that the villains here had to be human, not supernatural in any way, and be essayed by an actor or actress doing a terrific job. That last part may seem to go without saying, but by focusing on the performance as much as the character, it managed to clarify things a bit for me. Of course, that left me with tons of runners up, which I won’t mention here, but considering how all encompassing my original long list was, if you had a favorite you didn’t see here, chances are he or she was cut over the last few weeks. Anyway, that chatter from me isn’t what you’re here for, so on with the main event!
Here now are my picks for the Ten Greatest Movie Villains of All Time:
Yes, I’m starting right off the bat with some controversy. The most recent winner for Best Supporting Actor cracks my list in J.K. Simmons for Whiplash. Perhaps it’s how fresh the character and performance are in my mind, but this is just such a captivating screen presence that when you consider his actions, it’s hard to keep him off the list. The moments of humanity in Terrence Fletcher, be they calculated ploys or actual looks inside him only make his darker actions all the more cruel by comparison. Some of you may disagree with this inclusion, but I think it has a lot to do with what you think of Fletcher’s message. When I think back on some of my old baseball coaches, I see a bit of Fletcher in them, so that only further engrains this performance into my brain.
A character that I think often gets the short straw do to the comedic nature of Back to the Future, Thomas F. Wilson is hilarious as Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future trilogy, though I’m mainly citing the first one here. His ineptitude and comedic moments are classic, making this one of the few villains from a comedy to really stand out from the pack for me. The stakes are lower and the character is more broadly drawn than the others I’m going to be citing, but this a personal favorite that I couldn’t ignore.
Religious fundamentalism can be one of the purest forms of evil in my eyes. I may not be a believer, but those who are and distort the Word in order to hypnotize others into doing their bidding absolutely make my skin crawl. As such, I was repulsed in the best way possible by Michael Parks‘ charismatic yet achingly monstrous Abin Cooper in Kevin Smith‘s Red State. His agenda is pure hatred, but he delivers it in between cooing over his grandchildren, making for someone all the more real, especially when you think of the Westboro Baptist Church. As John Goodman‘s character says at the end of the film: “People just do the strangest things when they believe they’re entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe.” This is an under-seen performance that will stay with you.
The first of many classic/iconic performances on this list, I actually find myself having less to say about Alan Rickman‘s phenomenal work as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. It’s not from a lack of admiration for the part, but merely due to how much has already been said about it over the past decades. I’ll just add that what makes this an all timer is how coldly business-like he is, even civil at times. He has no qualms about murder, but looks at his act of terrorism as simply a transaction to finish up as quickly as possible.
Here’s a villain that totally slips below the radar for just about everyone. Gary Oldman may not be a serial killer playing Congressman Shelly Runyon in The Contender, but he’s engaged in partisan politics with a dark personal agenda thrown in for good measure. He doesn’t oppose Diane Lane‘s nomination for Vice President because he wants the best for his country, he’s doing it to get back at Jeff Daniels‘ President that beat him for the job of leader of the free world. As you learn about some of the hypocrisies of the character, Oldman’s character just gets easier and easier to hate. It’s a credit to him that I could watch Runyon chair a confirmation hearing all day long.
One of the most disturbing horror films of all time, I remember being deeply affected by Michael Rooker‘s turn as the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Rooker plays Henry as just an average Joe, so when I first say this at a younger age, I would be weary of any even vaguely seedy individual I was alone with, be it on an elevator or on an empty street. The images of the devastation that Rooker’s killer could leave in his wake on merely a whim absolutely haunted me. It’s a classic villain, one made all the scarier by the minutia in which he participates in otherwise.
So much has been written about this performance that I almost just want to say “you know why” as my reason for placing Anthony Hopkins here and move on. I’ll just quickly state that the class of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs sets him apart. He’s a cut above because he’s culturally a cut above as well. When he says that he ate a census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti, you know there was as much consideration given to the wine as the horrific slaughter.
Likewise, Heath Ledger has been so praised for his work as The Joker in The Dark Knight that anything short of hyperbole (and including plenty of that as well) has been done already. The one thing I’ll put out there is how Ledger makes his villain an agent of chaos and pure anarchy distilled into human form. He’s really the reflection of a superhero in the mirror, morphed into committing acts of evil instead of heroism. The realistic take on what otherwise is an obviously cartoony character just sets his take apart from the rest.
How do I know that Ralph Fiennes‘ stunning work in Schindler’s List holds up as an all time villain? Last year, I had a one on one interview with him for The Grand Budapest Hotel, and when we sat down in his hotel room, it was a bit unsettling to be that close to the man. He was a kind gentleman, of course, but you never forget his Amon Goeth calmly picking people off with his rifle in a concentration camp. Huge tomes have been written about the performance, but I’d be remiss not to include it highly on my list. It’s as disturbing as any other that I’ve seen to date.
I end with some controversy as well. Why is Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds my number one pick? It’s just do to how phenomenal I found the performance to be. Waltz’s Hans Landa is charming, funny, and disarmingly nice, but you never forget that his job is to hunt and murder innocent men, women, and children. The fact that he’s so hilarious is not just a credit to Quentin Tarantino‘s creation, but also Waltz’s command of the part. Speaking multiple languages and grabbing you with both hands and refusing to let you go, Waltz turned in one of the very best supporting performances of all time. As such, he was an easy choice for my pick of the best villain of all time.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!