It’s hard to rank villains. I nixed all the unrealistic ones (like Heath Ledger’s Joker and Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal) to make things easier, and also because pure scary vibes aren’t enough. I go for realism, depth of character, and genuine creepitude. The best have all three in high volume.
Starting at the bottom:
26. Tom Ripley (Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley)
Ripley makes the list because he was so bad, I turned him off. Someday, I’ll probably have good cause to finish watching a pathetic, murdering, homosexual underachiever, but not yet.
25. Magua (Wes Studi, The Last of the Mohicans)
Not the most deeply explored character, but a scary Indian is a scary bad guy.
24. Nina (Sarah Clarke, 24, Season 1)
Nina’s the only villain who has made me feel like I must, must go out in the real world, find them, and shoot them in the face.
23. Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World)
Loki is here at long last (after proving himself three movies in a row) for several reasons. The first is that he’s the best comic book villain I’ve ever seen; certainly the best ever offered from Marvel Studios, for whom a defining trait is lame, impossibly power-gluttonous, rather vague and definitely not scary bad guys.
But (and this is the second reason) Loki doesn’t need the cheesy Marvel baddies behind him in order to stand out. He is a genuinely well-crafted, despicable yet relatable antagonist– “a comic book version of Edmund in King Lear, but nastier,” says Hiddleston. Based on the Norse god of mischief (and slayer of Balder the Beautiful), Loki is at once proud, witty, cunning, machiavellian, charismatic, self-absorbed, envious, insecure, unpredictable, and (as EW puts it) “a bottomless pit of need.” The first Thor features a genius inversion of the Isaac-Esau-Jacob story, with Loki playing a twisted Jacob: ignored, scorned, starving with father hunger, wracked with brother envy. He’s a bit blander in Avengers (he doesn’t demand much; just, you know, the entire planet), but he’s back in full glory in Thor: The Dark World, where he is more compelling whilst twiddling his thumbs behind glass than Thor is going smash-happy with all nine worlds to fly between.
And the third reason is, well, the Eton-educated Tom Hiddleston himself, who drew inspiration from the performances of three Hollywood giants: Peter O’Toole (enigmatic, reckless), Jack Nicholson (edgy, near-insane), and Clint Eastwood (simmering anger). Plus, with a “voice like volcanic sand slaked with honey” and just the way he says “mewling quim”–archaic but still shockingly vulgar, so leave that insult to Loki–Hiddleston is simply not to be missed.
22. Connor Rooney (Daniel Craig, Road to Perdition)
The best baddie in this baddie-ridden movie, no, isn’t the pasty-faced Jude Law with his yellowed fingernails and depressed blogger’s belly, but the craven, sneaky, murderous brat Daniel Craig, playing Paul Newman’s son. Envy and father hunger, showing up as often as they do on this list, may seem slightly overrated, but they are truly two of the biggest forces behind villains–both in and out of fiction. And Connor Rooney is sick with both.
21. Tej Puri (Rajat Kapoor, Monsoon Wedding)
The award for highest creepitude-to-screen-time ratio goes to this disgusting pedophile. I distrusted him at first glance, and was cussing him out two hours later.
20. Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, 3:10 to Yuma)
Complex, charming, evil by principal but with a twinkle in his eye, Ben Wade at first seems like just another darn, post-modern villain-hybrid who makes the crook look like he’s having all the fun, and now don’t you feel gypped. But he’s actually deeper than that. Kudos to his co-star (Christian Bale) and the movie’s true hero for rubbing off on the villain in a way that saves them both.
19. Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes, Coriolanus)
Just like the heroes in There Will Be Blood and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus is his own worst enemy. Massive ego, plus mood swings from spoiled-boy sullen to astounding truculence, turn Coriolanus into a city broken down without walls. Watch him as you would the fool in Proverbs–to avoid where he goes.
18. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, Justified, Seasons 1-4)
I didn’t include old Boyd for a long time because he’s almost too much of an anti-hero to be considered a straight-out villain, but after four seasons of what he himself calls “criminal activity,” I had to give in. Not nearly as evil as most people on this list, he nevertheless gets points for subtlety and realism (and a frustratingly winning personality). Elmore Leonard knows how to create complex characters. Most people try to give their bad guys additional interest by cursing them with split personalities, but Leonard actually gives them history, motives, desires (good and bad), and realistic inconsistencies. Boyd Crowder is eloquent, conflicted, murderous, principled, charismatic, strangely tenderhearted, easy to predict but almost impossible to read. And Walton Goggins plays him so magnificently that after the pilot (in which he was supposed to die), the producers had to resurrect him and keep him in the show–which is still vastly better off for it.
17. Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder, The Crucible)
You just want to strangle her. Selfish, manipulative, murderous; full of envy, lust, and slander.
16. Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth, Rob Roy)
Posh, oily, vile down to his bones, and small (nearly a foot shorter than good guy Liam Neeson), Cunningham is one of the most infuriating villains you’ll find.
15. Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List)
Fiennes guzzled Guinness, put on 28 pounds, and was chosen by Spielberg for his “evil sexuality.”
14. Javert (Geoffrey Rush, Les Miserables)
Javert is a Pharisee: all law, no grace, fiendishly obsessed over the the jots and tittles, forever casting the first stone.
13. Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus)
A proud, self-righteous, self-destructive malcontent who is sick to the bones with–no surprise–envy.
12. King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan, Braveheart)
The Hammer of the Scots. Who doesn’t hate the guy who killed William Wallace?
11. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, Pan’s Labyrinth)
A brute powered by ravenous father hunger. This doesn’t excuse him, but it does show just how scary a lonely little boy can grow up to be.
10. Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, Justified, Season 2)
She’s soft, she’s motherly, and she’s one mean woman. Of all the many complex, memorable characters that make Justified (usually) worth watching, this kindly, Kentucky-spun matron and ruthless drug kingpin is definitely up at the top–as likely to feed you homemade grits as to dump your body down an old mine shaft. That charming southern accent that made Margo so fetching in Secretariat? Watch it work holy-shmoly wonders here.
9. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
My respect for Casey Affleck was already high after seeing Gone Baby Gone, but here it went through the roof. Watch envy at work in the soul of a pathetic wannabe who goes from worshiping his idol to killing him in cold blood. It’s the most appalling transformation I’ve seen on film.
8. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood)
Modeled loosely after the 19th-century oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny and with characteristics based on Dracula, Daniel Plainview is possibly the most bitter, shriveled man yet. And Day-Lewis, characteristically, goes completely overboard. He spent a year prepping for the role, cultivated a distinctive voice by mimicking old oral histories, and is barely recognizable. He is Daniel Plainview. When he won his second Best Actor at the Oscars, my first reaction was–“But he wasn’t acting.”
7. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men)
He’s one of Hollywood’s most unnerving bad guys, but you don’t ever get to know what makes him tick.
6. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York)
Most bad guys are like sledgehammers: pretty basic, and bad to drop on your toe. Not Bill the Butcher. He has the facets of a crystal, the temperament of malaria, and the rage of an atom bomb. I can’t recommend the rest of the movie (Scorsese needs to be given a pair of scissors so he can leave a third of the story on the floor), but Day-Lewis is worth skipping around through the DVD to watch.
5. Maleficent (Eleanor Audley, Sleeping Beauty)
This was my first favorite movie (I must have been five or six), and I had two favorite parts: Prince Philip’s capture in the abandoned cottage, and the entire fight sequence at the end. A lot of that was due to the terrific badness of the witch. Like almost every murderer in Scripture (Cain, Esau, Joseph’s brothers, the Jews who crucified Christ), Maleficent is motivated entirely by envy which then spirals into resentment, rage, and revenge. That moment she screams: “Now shall you deal with me, O prince, and all the powers of hell!” still gives me thrills.
4. Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator)
Not many things are worse than having a sadistic, omnipotent, infantile maniac on the throne. Joaquin Phoenix (only 24 at the time) is beyond perfection.
3. Warden Norton (Bob Gunton, Shawshank Redemption)
Bob Gunton’s despicable, Scripture-spewing villain infuriates as much as he terrifies.
2. Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott, Sherlock)
Shifty, brilliant, devious, cold-hearted, hilarious, certifiably wacko, with an ordinary but extraordinarily rubbery face–Scott’s Moriarty is sheer genius.
1. Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland)
This guy takes the cake. Explode Commodus ten times, and that’s Idi Amin. He’s irrational, delusional, fabulously insecure, barbaric, one minute your buddy, next minute a sadistic beast.