One of the things that can make a movie great is having a fantastic villain. Here are a list of what I believe ten best of 2012 were. At the very least this should provide an opportunity for more mainstream, blockbuster movies to make a top ten list.
If you haven’t seen the movies on this list, you might be a little lost. Also, there are spoilers. In fact, some of the names on this list are spoilers.
The primary antagonist of Django Unchained is considered to be the sadistic rancher Calvin Candie (Leonardo diCaprio), but just as important to the plot--and far more interesting--is his right-hand man: Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson, almost unrecognizable under fantastic make-up work). Stephen is a slave, and he works for a man who treats slaves like animals and makes them battle to the death (by the way, there is little historical evidence suggesting “mandingo fighting” was a real thing). Stephen is very smart, intensely charming, and a good leader, but he remains intensely loyal to his master, revealing the protagonists’ plan to trick Candy into selling a slave at a low(ish) price.
This idea--that the biggest foe to liberation was that many slaves didn’t view themselves as people--has sparked incredible debate; it was even used in a lecture by one of my professors as a (very flawed) portrayal of modern day race relations. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do as much as he could have with this character, but it is definitely a fascinating idea. Furthermore, Stephen is the most interesting thing in every scene he was in, which is saying alot, since Tarantino has never created a boring character.
9. Selina Kyle
Like all the characters in Gotham City, Selina Kyle is defined by her past. She was put in a hopeless situation beyond her control (just like Bruce Wayne/Batman was when his parents were murdered) and she is trying to build a new life. Batman has always said that crime did not control Gotham and people were not doomed to the situation they were born into, but since he himself can’t let go of an event that happened thirty years ago, it seems impossible that his goal was realistic. Kyle is trying to steal and manipulate her way to happiness just like Batman is trying to by punching gangsters. It is obvious they are made for each other.
Kyle also highlights the film’s underlying political message of social mobility and integrity. Is it Kyle’s fault she was born into squalor in America’s worst city? No. But there is no magic way to erase her record, as she so desperately hopes: The only way she finds a new life is through hard work.
8. Old Joe
The protagonist of Looper, Joe (named after the actor who plays him, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a truly despicable person. He is a hitman: When people in the year 2074 are sentenced by gangs to be executed, they are tied up, blindfolded and sent back in time to the year 2044, where Joe executes him. This in and of itself would make Joe a pretty unlikable person, but in addition he betrays his best friend to a truly horrible fate for money.
It would seem logical, then, that in order to have the audience still care about Joe, the villain--his futuristic self--would be even more terrible. However, Director Rian Johnson boldly makes Old Joe (Bruce Willis) a seemingly better person than Young Joe. Old Joe retired from crime, married a nice lady, and settled down; he has gone back in time to save his wife. Yeah, he starts offing small children, but it is all because he wants to keep them from growing up to be the mass murdering terrorist responsible for hurting the woman he loves.
Old Joe is a fascinating character: He has all the charm, smarts, and fighting prowess of his younger self, but he also has a moral compass. He hates the younger version of himself, but must protect Young Joe in order to keep himself alive. He also is struggling to retain his memories that define his identity, which are changing each minute he interacts with his younger self.
For all his good, though, Old Joe is still unable to do the one thing that can break the time loop the film’s characters are stuck in: Self-sacrifice. Old Joe could always tell his younger self not to marry his future wife (thus keeping her safe), but he doesn’t because he can’t give her up. In the end it is his younger self who is able to (maybe) break the loop by giving his life for someone he loves.
7. Bane & Talia Al Ghul
The reason these two aren’t higher up on the list is that there is something inherently stupid about their master plan. Why does the League of Shadows care so much about Gotham City? If they are anti-west terrorists, like Al Quadea, why do they wait five months to blow it up? If they are anarchists, why do they want to blow it up at all? I get this is all symbolism for current events, but come on!
Still, these villains really do make The Dark Knight Rises come together. Bane may always live in the Joker’s shadow, but he is just as much of a compelling, intimidating foe. That calm, intellectual voice coming from a giant, brutal terrorist is instantly capturing, the Darth Vader breathing is still just as badass as it was in ‘77, and there is such a commanding presence Tom Hardy’s super-villain emits. When a corrupt businessmen who has been using Bane to take down Bruce Wayne tells the hulking giant to “remember who is in charge” Bane’s calm answer--”Do you feel like you’re in control”--is just as captivating as anything the villains said in the last movie.
Lots of criticism has been leveled against Christopher Nolan for the final act twist, where it is revealed Bane is merely the boy toy of Talia Al Ghul, Bruce Wayne’s businesswoman lover (a great performance by Marion Cotillard). I think this makes everything make more sense. Bane views a world powerless and despicable. He confidently announces that Gotham City doesn’t have to feel afraid and bound to the laws of Batman, but he himself feels himself a slave to the will of someone else. He was never able to climb out of that prison, and he worships the one person he believes could. And Talia is just aspiring to the impossible goals of her father (Ra’s Al Ghul, Liam Neeson’s villain from the first Nolanverse movie). It is a perfect contrast to Batman’s belief that anyone could be a super-hero, no matter what their origins are. When Batman proves that Talia wasn’t the only one who could escape the underground prison, he is really proving the message Bane has been preaching but never really believed.
6. Raoul Silva
When the theatrical trailer for Skyfall came out, everything looked incredible cool: Except for the villain. Out of context, watching Javier Bardem in garish clothes and an absurd wig stroking the chest of Daniel Craig’s James Bond seemed ridiculous.
And it is. But it is also so terrifying. Bardem and the team behind Skyfall create a villain that has all the elements of the campy villains from the Connery and Moore Bond years, but still perfectly fits into the gritty Bond universe of the 21st century.
Silvia, who was once the best secret agent working for MI6, was given up to the Chinese by M, who was both his boss and maternal figure, in exchange for a bunch of other captured agents. After months of torture, he snapped and decided to blame M for his pain--and, using exceptional hacking skills, does just that. He is both a perfect parallel to James Bond, who will follow M’s command to the dot, and a perfect symbol of the terrorists that threaten the world in this day and age.
It is hard not to find Ma-ma--the primary adversary of the criminally-underrated, futuristic, sci-fi, action drama Dredd--rivetting. One a lowly prostitute named Madeline Madrigal who’s face was brutally slashed by her pimp, Ma-ma founded a vicious new street gang that took over a skyscraper with the population of a medium-sized city.
It would be so easy for Director Pete Travis and actress Lena Headey (in a nomination-worthy performance) to make her over-the-top or campy (after all, this lady did bite off someone’s testicles!). Instead, Ma-ma (who both uses and sells the drug slo-mo, which causes people to perceive time 100 times slower than normal) is deeply menacing by her quiet, unenthusiastic, and depressed attitude. We seriously believe this lady could command the small army of street thugs she has at her disposal.
Ma-ma is the perfect symbolism of the decay and lifelessness that crime has brought to the dystopian future shown in Dredd. And her both metaphoric and literal slow-motion fall is truly epic.
4. Hugh Lang
Flight’s protagonist, Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington, amazing as always), is the pilot of a commercial airline that suffers a horrible accident (through no fault of his own). Whitaker’s incredible skill and courage manages to save most of the lives on board, but things turn worse when it comes out he was drunk and on cocaine while flying.
The story of Flight centers around Whitaker’s denial of his personal issues (such as alcoholism). And Hugh Lang is actively encouraging him to hide it.
Hugh Lang is the excellent lawyer who is hired by the union to keep the crash from becoming a legal nightmare. Lang and Whitaker instantly dislike each other, but Lang decides to make it his mission to keep Whitaker out of jail because he is one of the few people to accurately recognize that if it had been any other pilot, everyone would be dead. However, Lang is actively encouraging Whitaker to perjure himself and deny his illness and wrong-doing. Any idea that Lang is a good thing for Whitaker is dispelled when, near the film’s climax, he actually buys Whip cocaine in the hopes that it will counteract the effects of the alcohol and keep the pilot from seeming drunk. When Whitaker decides to finally do the right thing and tell the truth, Lang is disgusted and appalled.
What better personification of the outside pressure for people to hide their problems and deny it (even to themselves) than this smarmy lawyer?
Possibly even more so than action movies, horror movies live or die by their villains. In horror films, the villains are the real stars, and the protagonists are the supporting characters. For the movie to work, the villain must be unique (Nightmare on Elm Street’s idea of being killed in your dreams was a stroke of genius), genuinely scary (it might have been by the books and campy, but all the same it is impossible to sleep after watching Poltergeist), and symbolize something that the audience can actually care about, be it the fear of death (Final Destination), the risks of adulthood (Friday the 13th), the dangers of technology (The Ring), or the sinister of the unknown (Paranormal Activity).
The Woman in Black (both the film and character) have all three. The movie opens with three small children methodically committing suicide. It really is a shock (it definitely fits into the “unique” category), which is exactly what a horror picture needs to be. And the tension just builds from there, every second is frightening. And, best--and most importantly of all--the movie is able to tell a story.
Jennet Humphrye was an 1800s mother who’s child was taken away from her by her sister after the state (probably accurately) ruled she was an unsuitable parent due to being a complete lunatic. Unfortunately, her sister’s carriage got stuck in a swamp and the sister abandoned the child in order to save her own life. Humphrye’s killed herself in grief, but not before vowing to exact her revenge on the town that had allowed her son to die. She does so by returning as the ghost known as the Woman in Black, possessing the bodies (though not the minds) of the town’s children, causing them to kill themselves.
What is best about the Woman in Black’s character is that she is able to give the movie a real story and theme. When the film’s protagonist--Daniel Radcliffe’s Arthur Kipps--dies (unsuccessfully) trying to save his son, he is able to take his child to the afterlife where he can be reunited with his deceased wife. The Woman in Black can only look on in sorrow, unable to stop him, but also unable to go as well, for she is tied to the mortal world by her attachment to vengeance.
Much of what makes the Men in Black series so great is the charm and wit of its heroes--Agent J and Agent K always have a fantastic one liner to punctuate each action scene. However, the series has always struggled with mildly dull villains. They are other-worldly, uptight, and never as interesting as their adversaries.
Now that we are on the third of these movies, it was time to introduce a villain who matches our heroes in both wit and physical combat. Meet Boris. The sole surviving member of the Bogladeshian race, Boris is the super-humanly strong biker out to conquer Earth, but he takes the time to master Earthlings unique brand of humor. Every line this guy says is instantly quotable (when a hippie tells Boris to “make love, not war” he replies “I prefer to do both”). Boris is also a far more intimidating villain: When this guy is able to take out a prison full of highly trained soldiers single-handedly, you know the Men in Black might not be able to defeat this foe so easily.
Of course, a great villain also has to contribute to a great overall story, and Boris does so in every way possible. His somewhat tragic inability to be able to redo his past (this is a time travel movie, by the way) despite all his efforts perfectly parallel Agent J’s sense of wonder and acceptance of the fantastic world around him. Watch the scene where an older Boris confronts his younger self and the two growl at each other like animals and try to not be blown away.
Goon is probably the least-watched of the movies on this list, which is a pity, because it is fantastic. This is a comedy is about Doug Glatt, a Massachusetts man who moves to Canada and becomes a hockey enforcer, a man who’s job is to start fights in the ice arena.
Ross Rhea is a rival team’s veteran enforcer (played perfectly by Liev Schreiber) who frequently causes career-ruining injuries. Ross has left the majors and is about to retire, but plans to go out with a bang. Doug plays on another team from Ross, but spends nights analyzing Ross’s best performances in order to emulate them (and, yes, all of his “best performances” were fights). Ross is a barbarian who has ended countless careers--his first scene, in a crowded press conference, is a laughably phony apology for an illegal move that broke a player’s back--but he isn’t all that bad a person. The movie is building up to the inevitable battle between Ross and Doug, but from the get-go Ross sees the puppy-dog sweet Doug and is instantly concerned that his opponent doesn’t get that an enforcer’s career is brutal and short. In the movie’s best moment, Ross tells Doug that it is likely that when they finally play each other Ross will hurt Doug so badly that he will sustain permanent injuries, and is touched when he realizes that Doug does understand this, but is so passionate about the team that gave him glory that he is willing to literally risk his life in order to take them to the championships.
The friendship and animosity between Doug and Ross is fascinating, and it is what makes this movie so great.