A list of the best movie villains is probably as subjective as you can get. Only one thing we know with absolute certainty: Anton Chigurh tops the list. After that, it’s up for debate. Any discussion about the best of anything often deteriorates into a tiff about ground rules. We don’t have any ground rules. We just call 'em as we see 'em. Yes, our list is skewed towards recent movies. We like it that way. Here's the top ten.
1. Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men (2007)
2. Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale, American Psycho (2000)
3. Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson, The Shining (1980)
4. Joker, Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)
5. Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins, Psycho (1960)
6. Col. Hans Landa, Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds (2009)
7. Max Cady, Robert De Niro, Cape Fear (1991)
8. Daniel Plainfield, Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (2007)
9. Annie Wilkes, Kathy Bates, Misery (1990)
10. Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
So much of a great bad guy is about the actor. Many roles on our list have been played by others actors as well – some to high acclaim. Robert Mitchum as Max Cady and Jack Nicholson as Joker particularly stand out. The New York Times wrote in their 1962 review: “Mr. Mitchum plays the villain with the cheekiest, wickedest arrogance and the most relentless aura of sadism that he has ever managed to generate.” And in their 1988 review Variety wrote: “Nicholson embellishes fascinatingly baroque designs with his twisted features, lavish verbal pirouettes and inspired excursions into the outer limits of psychosis. It's a masterpiece of sinister comic acting.”
An yet we prefer De Niro and especially Ledger. Is it conceivable any other actor could have reprised Joker quite like Ledger? True, Ledger was helped tremendously by some of the most visually stunning makeup concepts in movie history. And yes, the mystique surrounding the character was undoubtedly magnified by Ledger's shocking death. But it's his acting that makes the role: grandiose at heart and subtle when he needs to be.
As far as actors nailing a role, no one is more impressive than Bale in American Psycho. His Bateman is a classic villain and gets overlooked in these top tens way too often. It's a well-known fact that Bale improvised in many scenes, not seldom surprising director Mary Harron, giving her fits of laughter. The most famous example is probably Bale starting to dance as Bateman prepares to kill Paul Allen. Without Bale, it's unlikely American Psycho achieves the cult status it currently enjoys.
You have to wonder, though, what Johnny Depp, Brat Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio would have done with the role. They were all cast as Bateman at different stages of the project and all three have a knack for playing off-beat characters. Unfortunately, it wasn't considered a smart career move to play Bateman, after writer Bret Easton Ellis received several death threats when his book got published and feminist activists lobbied not to make the film. It took almost ten years for the movie to get made and by that time, Depp, Pitt and DiCaprio were at the height of their careers and they had too much to lose.
Just in case anyone disagrees about the importance of the actor, thinking it's all about the screenplay, consider Hayden Christensen in Revenge of the Sith. Here is a role that was possibly the best setup of all-time: the production resources were unlimited, the character had been building for decades and generations of moviegoers were holding their breath for the climax. It’s Christensen’s job to show the seed of evil slowly taking root within Anakin. And how does he do this? By tilting his head down, looking up through lowered brows – the whole movie! It boggles the mind that a vastly experienced production crew with a multi-multimillion-dollar budget could make such a huge casting mistake with arguably the most important role of the entire Star Wars franchise.
Because actors can make or break a villain, we have devoted an entire section to the question: who should play Chigurh in the remake of No Country for Old Men? You can visit that section here.