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December 28, 2009

Top Film Villains of the Decade

Turns out there were quite a few noteworthy villains over the past ten years. Whittling them down to a manageable number was a pain until I realized the best thing to do would be to heavily weight my selections to make the villains white men. To get on the list and not be a white man, you had to be pretty damn villainous. Okay, not really. After I had the list I noticed: no chicks. no brothas. Meh. Sometimes a white dude is the only man for the job.

Another feature of this list is that it also has most of what I would have selected for my Top Films of the 2000s, if I’d bothered to compile such a banal list. It’s certainly not determinative (in fact, one on this list is also on my “Most Disliked Films of All Times” list), but it seems one of my major draws to a movie is a good villain. So, here we go:

11. Commodus—Gladiator (2000)
Joaquin Phoenix started off the decade setting a high bar for the villains to come. When he wasn’t suffocating his father, groping his sister, and perving on his nephew, he was bragging about crucifying children and raping women. His excuse? He wished his father had hugged him more.

10. Gollum—Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Gollum was a pitiable creature in the first and second films, so it was a relief in the third when he turns out not to be as helpless as he looks. We get a fancy flashback to his first kill (on his birthday!) and then he cleverly talks Sméagol into killing the hobbitses. After framing Sam as a big fatso and betraying Frodo to Shelob, he goes complete batshit when Frodo claims the ring as his own. (BTW, the standard Microsoft Windows spellcheck dictionary has Sméagol in it. J.R.R. Tolkien FTW!)

9. Harry Waters—In Bruges (2008)
Ralph Fiennes plays a crime boss with an unbreakable rule: you do NOT kill children. So when one of his hitmen (played by Colin Farrell, who won an Oscar for it) does just that on his very first assignment, he orders another (played by Brendan Gleason, who was also nominated for and should have won that Oscar) to kill him. Of course, Gleason’s character is Farrell’s friend and mentor, which makes Harry one heckuva dirty bastard. Not going to give the ending of this one away because you really should drop what you’re doing and go rent it right now. Suffice it to say, Harry will have to face his unbreakable rule before all is said and done.

8. Robert Angier—The Prestige (2006)
Hugh Jackman plays the murderous stage magician in a movie all about misdirection. The first but not the last villain on my list set against Christian Bale and with Michael Caine as an irreplaceable supporting actor, Angier carries a grudge for decades that leads him ultimately to kill himself. But not before killing himself. And killing himself. And killing Christian Bale’s character. But after all that Christian Bale’s character kills him. So…happy ending. Sorta. (Yes, that’s really what happens.)

7. Brick Top Polford—Snatch (2000)
Brick Top knows how to deal with people he doesn’t like and I’ve started using his policy in the office for when subordinates piss me off: “Feed ‘em to the pigs, Errol.” When he’s not giving Hannibal Lectures, he’s fixing illegal fights and burning down caravans. Brick Top will always have a place in my heart for his wit: “In the quiet words of the Virgin Mary…come again.”

6. Anton Chigurh—No Country For Old Men (2007)
A second movie about a hitman on our list, and, yes, the movie was really about Javier Bardem’s Anton, not Josh Brolin’s character, Llewelyn Moss. Anton knows what he wants and he’ll get it however he can, but the word “sociopath” hardly does him justice. Watching this character was like watching one of those horrifying Australian spiders catch and eat a bird: awesome and I’m gonna need a pants change.

5. Captain Vidal—Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Now we’re moving beyond villains who are merely evil to those who have gone so far, they’re on the other side of the Moral Event Horizon. In a movie filled with creepy special effects from the depths of Guillermo del Toro’s genius, the creepiest element is fascist Captain Vidal. A torturer and murderer, this deranged psycho shoots a child before the end.

4. Ward Abbot—The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
I know. You don’t think he made a great villain at least not in the top 5. He’s here on the list, ahead of folks like Captain Vidal and Anton, because he is a betrayer. Quietly ordering the deaths of Bourne and his squeeze while running Landy and the rest of the CIA in circles gets him on the list. His surprise betrayal of a trusting subordinate and hands-on stabbing puts him ahead of those mere murderers listed above. Betrayal has always been an especially keen transgression. Ask Dante.

3. Colin Sullivan—The Departed (2006)
Which brings us to Colin Sullivan. Matt Damon plays Sullivan, a deep-cover mole in the Boston PD for the Irish mob. So, again, betrayer. Can’t really say more without giving things away, but…a lot of people die.

2. V—V for Vendetta (2005)
V’s on the list because he’s a killer and kidnapper and terrorist and anarchist. He’s not a role model or an anti-hero. He’s the embodiment of “ends justifies the means” thinking. And he’s a bad guy. The second-largest of the decade, actually, because despite his patent evil he manages not only to convince the film’s other characters that he’s doing the right thing, but most of the audience as well. Seriously, I want to kick those idiots wearing V paraphernalia right in the nuts.

And so we come to my favorite villain and favorite film of the decade:

1. The Joker—The Dark Knight (2008)

Both psycho and psychological, the most recent incarnation of the Joker was a man with a mission. Unlike the comedic Jack Nicholson version (“I’d like my face on the one dollar bill!”), this Joker wants to push Batman’s buttons. Just as in the most interesting of the Batman comics, this Joker recognizes his reason for being both literally and within the DC-verse is to be Batman’s enemy (“You complete me!”).

Which isn’t to say he hasn’t got a sense of humor about it. I particularly appreciated the visual pun of a burning firetruck and the real-life prisoners’ dilemma. Along the way, he kills, tortures, betrays, quips, burns a man alive, and creates the most meticulously planned crimes. And I’m pretty sure he was completely insane the whole time.

Honorable Mention: Harvey Two-face
“It’s about what’s FAIR!”, as he says. And if he weren’t overshadowed by a bigger Big Bad, the impossibly amoral Harvey Two-face would certainly have made it on this list. Unfortunately, he only got about thirty minutes of screen time and racked up only six kills. We didn’t get to see the ultimate outcome of his horrifying philosophy of justice before Batman finally broke his “Just One Rule” and dropped Harvey off a building. Honestly, I don’t know how they’re ever going to top this film.

Honorable Mention: Captain Hector Barbossa—Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
He was a betrayer, liar, scoundrel, murderer, and a creepy old lecher with a keen mind and talent for demagoguery (“…disproportionate to our crimes!”). But then they brought him back for the third movie and ruined him.

So, who did I miss?

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:17 PM

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