Movie List

17 Best Movie Villains of All Time

July 25, 2019
15 min read

Movie villains. The people who allow our heroes to shine. But not all time! The best movie villains are those who shine brighter than the heroes. So, who are the best movie villains of all time? Let’s look in.

The world has been celebrating the good since the dawn of time. But had there not been bad to go up against the good, would the good have ever been surfaced? Likewise in cinemas, what good is a superhero without a bad-ass villain? Had there not been the Joker, Bruce Wayne would be squandering his money in supercars and would have been termed as a prodigal son. Had there not been Norman Bates, we would never have remembered ‘Psycho’. So, let’s bring on the bad guys and give them a moment on the stage. Here is the list of top movie villains of all time.

17. Tyler Durden, Fight Club

A film that defined a generation; a film that set the trends for the future; a film that inspired us to rebel against the forces that stop us from being who we truly are. It is very hard to explain how much this film means to us cinephiles. ‘Fight Club’ is undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the 90s. And one of the major reasons for that is the character of Tyler Durden.

Played wonderfully by a young, charismatic Brad Pitt, Durden is an alter ego of the film’s main character (named The Narrator). Tyler Durden is the quintessential cool guy: he is handsome, confident, rebellious and does not live by the rules of the society. Our protagonist, played by Edward Norton, first meets Durden on a plane. He is in awe of the man’s personality and soon, he is convinced to join an underground fight club (Oops, I broke the first rule!) led by Durden. Brad Pitt is perfect in the role. It may not be his greatest performance ever but it is iconic in so many ways.

16. Calvin Candie, Django Unchained

Now this might seem like a bold choice, but I genuinely believe Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie in ‘Django Unchained’ is one of the finest performances of this decade. One of Quentin Tarantino’s greatest strengths is his ability to write memorable characters. And Calvin Candie is definitely one of the most frightening characters he’s ever written. Candie might not be the smartest of villains but he is brutal beyond words. He is the owner of a large cotton plantation in Mississippi and is particularly severe on his male slaves. The scenes involving him and Christoph Waltz are incredibly tense and gripping.

15. Catherine Tramell, Basic Instinct

Catherine Tramell is portrayed as author of best-selling crime novels. It is suggested that the modus operandi of her murders includes using her novels as alibis, as people then assumed she would never be foolish enough to execute a crime she herself wrote about. Catherine Tramell appears as a brilliant, charismatic, narcissist, who manipulates everyone around her, largely for her own amusement and enjoys killing people.

The character is played brilliantly by Sharon Stone, who elevated the film to new heights with her raw charisma and intimidating charm. Several cinephiles, critics and analysts across the world continue to dissect the iconic interrogation scene that, in many ways, define the film. Though there are parts where I felt the film could have done better, the performances almost make up for the flaws, giving you an extremely thrilling, engaging experience. Cinema has witnessed several memorable female antagonists but Stone’s Catherine Tramell is one that remains etched in our memories purely because of the style, confidence and unpredictability that she fiercely displays on screen.

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14. John Kramer, Saw

When death knocks at one’s door and he waits for it to embrace, probably the only thought that comes to mind that how well one has lived this life. But how many have truly understood the purpose of this life? John Kramer at his death bed, thinks of this and concludes that until put into adverse situations, no one truly values this life. And to inculcate this knowledge to value one’s life, he starts a something that becomes a mechanism to test one’s worth to live. While John eventually meets his death, but the legend of Jigsaw lives on.

‘Saw’ might not be among the greatest psychological thrillers ever made, but the movie has several thrilling moments. One of the more memorable aspects of the film is, of course, its iconic villain. John Kramer is a truly frightening character. Part of why I managed to sit through the film is because of Kramer’s presence. You could actually feel his presence even when he’s not onscreen. Tobin Bell was perhaps born to play the role. It’s almost as if you can’t imagine him playing any other character. His fierce demeanor, intimidating voice still gives us chills down our spines. At the hands of any other actor, Kramer would have come off as a laughable caricature, but Bell somehow manages to give that human touch to the role, whilst also capturing the devilish side of the character.

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13. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

Egotistical and ambitious, Landa takes a great deal of pride in his reputation, lauding his nickname “the Jew hunter” and using it to compare himself to Reinhard Heydrich. When the tide of the war turns against the Nazis, he scoffs at it, alluding that his job is to find and capture people and the fact that they are Jews is of no consequence to him. Landa is cruel, highly intelligent, sadistic, opportunistic, relentless and ruthless but when needed, charming and polite. Landa is also an opportunistic sociopath, acting only out of pure self-interest.

Christoph Waltz is, without a doubt, the star of the film. Right from the opening scene, he captures our attention. As described earlier, Landa is cunning, brutal and deceptively polite. In fact, he almost makes you feel like he’s the nice guy in the film. Waltz makes sure that he doesn’t go over-the-top. He adopts a subtle method and manages to get into the skin of one of the most evil characters ever penned. Considering the film’s overall tone and style, the character could have come off as hilarious but Waltz balances the humor and evil in ways that are truly stunning. It is, in my opinion, one of the great portrayals of a negative character in cinema.

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12. John Doe, Se7en

An unknown man goes on a killing spree, over seven days. Each of his victims, were killed in a manner, which depicted the seven deadly biblical sins. And he thought he was purging the world from the evil, by being the messiah. He truly believed that his methods shall be puzzled, studied and followed forever. Setting the example, he didn’t even flinch when he evoked the wrath of Detective Mills by informing him about his final victim, for he had become the prey of envy. And what’s the American naming convention of the unknown ? It’s John Doe.

Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of John Doe is hauntingly enigmatic and bone chilling. The man barely has screen presence for over 30 minutes, but in many ways his presence consumes the entire film. Right from the moment he first appears, shouting ”DETECTIIIIVEEEE” at the police station, he dominates the film. It is astonishing how Spacey could capture the essence of the character in such a short time. Fincher may have gone on to make several thrillers but nothing could match the raw intensity of this stone cold classic. Unarguably, one of the greatest movies of the 90s.

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11. Roy, Primal Fear

“I ca-can’t take it no more, Roy. You g-got to help me.” I said, “Shut your mouth you little girl! Grow up. Be a man. Take care of yourself.” A stuttering impish young alter boy, accused of killing a priest comes clean as the court of law finds him suffering from a split personality disorder. Boy, was it the ruse of the century? By the time the lawyer gets to know there never was an Aaron, the game’s over.

Ed Norton’s debut as Roy/Aaron fetched him a nomination for best supporting actor at the Academy Awards that year. He was simply outstanding in the role. Norton delivers a subdued, quiet performance for a major part of the film, and so it feels unbelievable when he dramatically changes his avatar in that famous twist ending. While the ending may seem a bit too convoluted, you just cannot deny the brilliance of Norton’s performance; it almost manages to hide the flaws of the film. Norton has played several memorable characters over the past two decades, but as Aaron, he was scintillating, frightening and weirdly funny. It was the role of his career. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.

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10. Anton Chigurh, No Country For Old Men

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As the walking bringer of death, Javier Bardem’s outstanding — his dead eyes looking long enough at a victim to decide if they were going to live or die. Truly frightening. Those normally warm brown eyes are filled with something less than contempt for humanity as he plods forward. He is just unbelievably chilling. Villains don’t come in more menacing form than Anton Chigurh.

Another one of those born-to-play performances, Bardem fit the role like a glove. His gigantic posture, distinctive accent, and intimidating looks make it hard for us to believe that we are actually seeing a fictional character. Such is the authenticity with which he plays the role. I have seen this film 3 times and that coin toss scene still terrifies me more than any jump scare from a horror flick. What’s most striking about Bardem’s performance here is the way he walks. It is almost devilish. Chigurh is one of the most enigmatic villains in cinema. We know literally nothing about him: where he came from, or who he is. And perhaps that is the most horrifying element of his character.

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9. Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Nurse Ratched, also referred to as ‘Big Nurse’, is the main antagonist of 1975’s ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’, played by Louis Fletcher, who would go on to fetch herself the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the character. She is the spearhead of a mental institution, where she maintains strict rules and regulations by giving the patients anti-psychotic drugs and orders severe punishment for those who disobey her. She lobotomizes Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) after he performs a series of notorious acts and disrupts the hold which Ratched had before his arrival. Since then, Nurse Ratched had become a stereotype of an aggressive nurse and a popular metaphor in corruption of power and authority.

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8. Alex De Large, A Clockwork Orange

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Alex DeLarge, portrayed by Malcolm McDowell, is the protagonist and antihero of one of the most acclaimed dystopian crime films of all time – ‘A Clockwork Orange’, directed by Stanley Kubrick. He is shown as a sociopathic teenager who assaults and robs people for fun. He speaks Nadsat, a fictional slang language, and operates with his fellow gang members, whom he calls ‘droogs’. Alex loves classical music, being especially fond of Beethoven. Both McDowell and Kubrick popularized the term ‘ultra-violence’ through this film and some even consider McDowell not winning the Best Actor at the Academy Awards for this film a major snub.

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7. Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part II

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Portrayed by Al Pacino, Michael Corleone is the main character of the Godfather trilogy, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Son of Don Vito Corleone, Michael’s whole life cycle is shown throughout the franchise. We see him from his youth, when he enters the mafia world reluctantly after his father’s death, till his older days, when he tries to step down from being the head of the Corleone crime family, but is threatened by forces. Rated as one of the greatest performances in cinema history, Al Pacino was nominated for the Academy Awards twice for the first two films. Michael’s transformation from an adorable, naive, playful young man to a cold, ruthless mobster defines the film’s thematic aspects.

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6. The Joker, The Dark Knight

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Described as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero sympathy”, the Joker is the main antagonist of Nolan’s highly-acclaimed film ‘The Dark Knight’. The Joker is the archenemy of Batman and is said to be one of the most influential villains till date. Throughout the film, he appears with one goal – to kill Batman. He performs a series of robberies and murders and psychologically affects all the main characters of the film. Heath Ledger posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Joker, including several other international accolades. Ledger also garnered widespread critical acclaim, with critics claiming his acting was more “haunting”, “terrifying” and “sinister”, than Joker was thought of before. While the movie’s greatness seems torn between staunch comic book fans, who couldn’t digest the film’s dark tone, and movie lovers in general, the one thing that continues to receive unanimous praise from both critics and movie buffs is Ledger’s performance.

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5. Amon Goeth, Schindler’s List

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Amon Goeth was the commandant of a concentration camp in Poland during WWII. He was hanged by court, after he was tried at the Supreme Court and was found guilty of imprisonment, torture and extermination of an unidentified number of innocent men and women. Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ tells us about Goeth’s unending acts of abuse and how a businessman, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), saved hundreds of people from being executed. Ralph Fiennes amassed widespread critical acclaim for his portrayal of Amon Goeth and won a BAFTA Award for his role.

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4. HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey

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HAL 9000 is an artificial intelligence, which is the main antagonist of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It is expanded as Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic computer. Voiced by Douglas Rain, HAL is never physically depicted, instead shown as a red television camera eye on equipments. It is capable of speech and facial recognition, realizing and producing emotional behaviours, automatic reasoning and playing chess, as have been shown in the film. Despite being the only non-living character in our list, HAL is often considered as one of the greatest villains of all times.

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3. Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back

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Darth Vader (born as Anakin Skywalker) is a fictional character in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise. He appears in both the original trilogy and prequel trilogy throughout, in pivotal roles. Created originally by George Lucas and played by several actors, Darth Vader is often considered one of the best villains the cinematic world has ever produced. He was born as Jedi and was originally prophesied to bring equality. But he fell on the darker side and served as the right hand of his Sith master, Palpatine. Darth Vader’s quote “No, I am your father” is a preserved quote in history of cinema. Since his advent, Darth Vader has become the epitome for evil in popular culture.

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2. Norman Bates, Psycho

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Norman Bates is the fictional protagonist of the 1960 classic ‘Psycho’, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Portrayed by Anthony Perkins, the character was partly inspired by famous murdered, Ed Gein. Norman Bates is shown to be emotionally abused by his mother during his childhood, when she imprinted the fact that all other females are bad upon him, after his father’s death. Unable to see the attachment between his mother and her lover, he poisons both of them. Subsequently, he develops dissociative identity disorder, for escaping the guilt of matricide, to the extent of dressing in woman’s clothes and talking to himself in his mother’s tone and even preserving his mother’s corpse in the basement of his house. Deemed as both one of the greatest villains and one of the best portrayed characters, Norman Bates is the reason why ‘Psycho’ gained such a cult status, following the years of its release.

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1. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs

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Dr.Hannibal Lecter is the primary antagonist of the ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, played by Anthony Hopkins, who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for the film and would turn Lecter into a cultural icon. He is a forensic psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer. As understood, he is a highly educated person and does not stand rudeness. He is described by Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) as “small, sleek, and in his hands and arms she saw wiry strength like her own”. During the course of the film, he seems to have a keen sense of smell and a rich eidetic memory and constructs a graphical memory interface for any scene, which he remembers for very long times. Lecter makes us stare in awe when he escapes imprisonment after a blood-soaked scene. It’s rare when a movie villain scares us more with his words than his actions, thus topping our list!

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