Okay, I'm going with a Top 21 because this day at the office is molasses-slow (I really shouldn't complain). I'm going to take DarkeningHumour's lead and omit people who are the main characters of the film. But Patrick, Plainview, and Truman Capote would all be in very high consideration if there were a Flawed Protagonists list in the future. I'm also afraid I can't give anything to Harry or LotR. Sarumon and Sauron just miss this list and calling Gollum a villain somehow doesn't feel quite right to me. Without further ado:
21. Immortan Joe, "Mad Max: Fury Road"
He's a great element of what I'm already prepared to call the most brilliant action film ever made. The thing that keeps him further down (he's just one element - albeit the commanding element - of a rich ensemble of villains), is actually a good thing. Mad Max's "villain" is an entire depraved ruling structure. But Joe gives it a perfectly fitting face.
20. Idi Amin, "The Last King of Scotland"
A fantastically acted portrayal of evil as something capricious and kind of alluring. There are other balls of menacing charisma higher on the list, but this is a great one. He's key to the film's idea of how we can turn a blind eye to atrocity when it offers us a winning smile, a warm belly laugh and plenty of privileges.
19. Dan White, "Milk"
Such a convincing bundle of frailty, insecurity, pride, and confusion. Sometimes evil comes with a grand plan and other times it's just an entitled man who doesn't know how to process his prejudices or deal with his shame. Still one of Josh Brolin's finest hours!
18. Black Phillip, "The Witch"
A lot of it has to do with things unseen, but Black Phillip is just visible enough thanks to the best animal acting in quite some time (come at me, Uggie) and that tantalizing, sinister question at the film's end.
17. Helene McReady, "Gone Baby Gone"
In a film with drug dealers, pedophiles, and kidnappers, the real villain is Amy Ryan's avatar of selfishness and indifference. The law can put away as many criminals as it likes, but it will never be able to force a parent to care about their child.
16. Muse, "Captain Phillips"
He's practically the co-lead of the film and his motives are complex and at times even sympathetic. But I'm bending my own rules to put him on because film needs more villains with this much shade. The hunger in his belly pours straight out of his desperate, intensely focused eyes. It perfectly communicates a man who would not be doing this if he had any choice in the matter. There is no relish, only plain, unwavering purpose.
15. Bernie "The Blade" Rose
The most menacing manifestation ever of the life/work balance. Bernie has a job to do: ensuring that the powerful people above him are happy. Sometimes that means having to bleed a man to death, but it really isn't personal and there's no reason to raise his mellow, pleasant voice even when he's doing it. Bernie sounds pleasant because he really is a pleasant man. And you never hear the blade speak until it's too late.
14. Terrence Fletcher, "Whiplash"
Perfectionism made flesh. Fletcher works as both an external force and an internal one. Wherever he is, he's the voice that impels you to greatness and the voice that will never ever let you think you've truly succeeded. His nicest moments and his most vicious ones are all tactics with a single aim in mind: relentless self-improvement. You can feel satisfied when you're dead.
13. Other Mother, "Coraline"
An all-time great villain because of how she at first differs from Coraline's real mother (in her apparent perfection and maternal warmth) and because of how her eventual, terrifying form echoes the real, complicated emotions of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. "You may come out when you learn to be a loving daughter!" A frightful monster that points out an uncomfortable truth. Navigating a parent-child relationship can be pretty scary too.
12. Otto "Doc Ock" Octavius, "Spider-man 2"
The best-in-show performance in what is still the best comics film to really feel like a comic. (The Dark Knight made the best comics movie by escaping from that aesthetic). Spider-man 2 is such a joy because it hits all the notes of a normal comic book movie with so much more joy and human generosity. Case in point: that lovely, lovely scene where Dr. Octavius and his wife talk to Peter about love and poetry. Molina will become a terrifying villain, but it's even more important that he becomes such a sorrowful shell of the kind, smart man he was. No comic movie villain has an arc as moving as this one.
11. Charlie Prince, "3:10 To Yuma"
One of the great modern westerns benefits from a whole host of performances that sit comfortably within the genre while bursting with humanity and nuanced acting. This one may be my favorite of the cast for a number of reasons. The interesting queer subtext. Foster's livewire energy and the way he mixes flamboyance and menace. Foster's palpable love for Crowe's character. The impish smile he gives the local lawmen when he lets them know the Pinkertons have been robbed. The fact that Foster studied bobcats to get his walk just right. It's scenery-chewing that's wonderful because it makes sense. For a gay man like Charlie Prince living in the frontier in the 1800s, a kind of performed machismo must have been a way of surviving. The result is a villain who is both scary and fascinatingly sympathetic.
10. The Babadook, "The Babadook"
Beautifully terrifying in his design and brilliantly realized as a ghoulish amalgamation of every kind of anxiety a parent has about their child. There is something downright pretty about that silhouette with its top hat, coat and claws. It's a real sign of how great he is that I don't know which incarnation of him I like best: as a dark, enigmatic specter or turning Essie Davis into a ferociously unhinged demon of maternal resentment.
9. Edwin Epps, "12 Years A Slave"
What I love about this film is that it shows how the institution of slavery mutates everday circumstances into pure horror. I think Edwin Epps is a prideful womanizer with a deeply rooted desire to be seen as smarter, more cultured and better all around than he really is. In modern times, that would make him an insecure boob; maybe someone who would end up in his fair share of bar fights. In a world of slavery, where he has full control over human lives, he metastasizes into something unthinkably monstrous. He can fulfill his lust whenever he chooses. When his boorish insecurities tip over into anger and shameful frustration, he can reach for his whip and literally beat the life out of a person. He's worse than evil. He's a stupid, vain, entitled, hot-tempered narcissist living in a society that places no restriction on what he can do to an entire race of people.
8. Mr. Bebe, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days"
Is Mr. Bebe, the domineering schlub of a black market abortion doctor, a cruel, canny manipulator of the corrupt, hopelessly oppressive 1980s Romanian society he occupies? Or is he a byproduct of it? And which answer is more terrifying and dispiriting? Watching him slowly exploit his bargaining position to get what he wants (sex with two women in a desperate situation) is one of the most upsetting scenes in cinema history. He has these women where we wants them and each banal repetition ("I came in my car.") is like the squeeze of a boa constrictor.
7. Lil Ze, "City of God"
I love a villain with frailty, not just because it humanizes the more but also because it can make them even more scary. Lil Ze (then Lil Dice) commits his first series of murders as a 12-year old kid because some older hoodlums treat him like a kid. He grows up to be the most powerful drug dealer in the Rio slums but we can always see the thin-skinned viciousness of a rejected kid. Lil Ze is terrifying because of an unquenchable thirst to be taken seriously and he is also pitiable for this same reason. The gnawing sorrow at the core of this little tyrant hits home when his best friend gives him some good advice. "You need a girlfriend, Lil Ze." Somehow, for all Ze's conquest, there is scarcely a moment that he stops to really enjoy any of his spoils. He can only continue a cycle of cruelty and revenge that started somewhere in childhood and never stopped spinning.
6. Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, "Gangs of New York"
What's even left to say about Daniel Day Lewis' ferocious creation? It's key to the movie that we must somehow come to feel something for this vicious, chest-beating xenophobe other than terror and hatred. We must not only understand but share Amsterdam's turmoil about killing this man. So we must come to love him in some ways. And yet as much as we love him, we must also continue to hate him. And we must be perpetually afraid of what he might do next. Basically, Day Lewis created the walking embodiment of Stockholm Syndrome and it's astonishing.
5. Mary Lee Johnston, "Precious"
Critics of this perfrormance say it's all too much, as if Mary was just Monique snorting and throwing kitchenware. But what really makes this a brilliant villain is the many wounded shades Monique reveals. A film blogger I follow compared her final breakdown to the T-1000 melting in lava and cycling through all its past forms and I think that's the real key to how brutally frightening and sad Mary is. It's not just the rage or the cruelty. It's the delusion and the loneliness and the self-pity. And it's how damn quicjly she can shove it all down inside of her and put on a civil face when she needs to. So, in the end, when it all comes spilling out of her like a clown car of defense mechanisms it's mortifying but also a huge relief. The monster is finally out in the open.
4. Captain Vidal, "Pan's Labyrinth"
There have perhaps been scarier fascists (Fiennes in Schindler's List and someone we'll get to in a moment), but has fascism itself ever had a more fitting form than Captain Vidal? Imperious, proud, petty, cruel, arbitrary. A real-life minotaur in officer's clothing. True story: I have never heard a theatre cheer more cathartically than when Mercedes gives Vidal his facial scars.
3. Colonel Hans Landa, "Inglourious Basterds"
I don't do contrarianism. If the next three entries look familiar, it's because they belong here. That starts with Christoph Waltz's incandescently cruel Hans Landa. Like Bernie the Blade, Landa is a villain who speaks pleasantly because ge can. As much as fascism brings to mind images of stern men barking orders, Landa reminds us that the real terror of a totalitarian power is that it doesn't have to shout to make you do anything. Landa is a man who is good at the job of finding and killing people and he brims with joy at a society that allows him to do that job and rewards him well for it. Waltz has charm, politeness, sharp attention to detail, and even humor; and he wields each one like a different-sized dagger to stab you with.
2. The Joker, "The Dark Knight"
The brilliance starts before The Joker even speaks. That beautiful bank robbery and the dance between criminality and law (that brief moment when the safe's electric shock repels the robbers!) are the opening strains of the symphony that is The Joker. Some Dark Knight holdouts I know say it "is the Joker". The thing is I don't think they're completely wrong. The Dark Knight is a brilliant portrayal of the void (of chaos, greed, violence, and any other thing we might call "crime") that swirls around the rickety shacks of civilization we've built to withstand it. And, yeah, The Joker is that void. He is half of that duet and The Dark Knight is brilliant for how it lets him almost entirely dominate and drown out his singing partner for more than two hours. And I can't name any recent film (or villain) that makes the outright destruction of the social contract sound so bleakly beautiful. It's a perfect marriage of actor and writer. A portrayal of chaotic evil and death every bit as arbitrary and unwavering as my number one villain, and with a much better sense of humor to boot. It was really hard not to put this on top.
1. Anton Chigurh, "No Country For Old Men"
If I prefer (just barely) Waltz and Ledgers as performances, there's still no question that Chigurh is Villainy as an element unto itself and that has to deserve top placement. This is still the most chilling depiction I have ever seen of the cold, uncomprehending, and arbitrary face of violent death. This is the percect villain given perfect dialogue and perfectly played. Terrifying even when he is bemused. Incapable of any sentiment whatsoever. And, above all, unrelenting. He cannot be dissuaded by money, fear, force, or kindness. If all roads lead to a meeting with him, of what use is the road?