What I noticed while compiling this list is that most of these characters are women, and almost all of them are villains. Our culture rarely misinterprets “vulnerability” as “weakness” when it comes to masculinity, and the antagonist of a story, the one who introduces the conflict, is oftentimes the most watchable. I wish this list could be “Top Fifty,” but ain’t nobody got time fo dat, so, without further ado, here are my top ten movie characters of all time.
- Regina George, Mark Waters’s Mean Girls (2004)
Rachel McAdams’s breakthrough role is so unapologetically bitchy and catty, she’s pure evil. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Mean Girls is to screenwriter Tina Fey what the Divine Comedy is to Dante. This high school comedy is as timeless and universal as it is because it takes on an epic structure with its tale of Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) selling her soul to Rachel McAdams’s Devil, and having to claw her way back out of Hell again.
- Rose DeWitt Bukater, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997)
Most analysts attribute the gargantuan critical and commercial success of Cameron’s star-crossed historical romance to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson, but it’s Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart’s Academy Award-nominated portrayals of Rose that really give this film heart (or Heart of the Ocean, if you will). Winslet, one of the most talented actresses of her generation in her breakout hit, plays Rose as a post-Victorian princess who blossoms from being saved by Jack, to saving him, to ultimately saving herself. Stuart, as Rose in the present day, is a woman who only got to spend a couple of days with the love of her life, but who loves him still, eight decades later.
- Alexander DeLarge, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The ultraviolent Alex is not a likable antihero, but, as soon as we find ourselves arrested by that gaze in the opening shot of him staring into the camera, we know we’re his, whether we like it or not. Malcolm McDowell is not only capable of pulling off “the Kubrick stare,” the auteur’s penchant for framing absolute madness in close-up, but he also makes you feel sorry for Alex, even after the teenager rapes and murders out of boredom in this surrealistic, dystopian vision of the future. Alex is just an unfortunate, inevitable product of human nature – sometimes, people are bad – but the powers that be force him to go against that very nature, rather than isolate him and his antisocial personality away from society, and turn him loose on people who haven’t forgotten what he’s done and who don’t care that he’s “cured;” is he really the only monster here?
- Amy Elliot-Dunne, David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014)
In a movie where someone like Ben Affleck is cast as the male lead, a lot of decision-making must have gone on behind the casting of the comparatively unknown Rosamund Pike as the titular “gone girl.” This perversion of the real-life Scott and Laci Peterson “missing wife, suspicious husband” media narrative has Pike play two parts: every domestic violence victim we’ve ever seen before, and a “femme fatale” like we’ve never seen before. For her efforts, Pike was rightly applauded with an Oscar nomination this year.
- Alexandra Forrest, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987)
Glenn Close’s classic, Oscar-nominated performance as an unstable woman scorned is so powerful that psychiatrists refer to her fictional character as an example of borderline personality disorder. Alex is obsessive and violent, prone to self-mutilation and animal cruelty, but, through it all, you’ve got to kind of sympathize with her on some level for wanting to get back at the married Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), who uses her like she’s his sex toy then treats her like she doesn’t even exist because he loves his wife, Beth (the Oscar-nominated Anne Archer), enough to keep her, but not enough to remain faithful to her. She’s not going to be ignored.
- Catherine Tramell, Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992)
Speaking of Michael Douglas and his homicidal love interests… Sharon Stone’s star-making turn as the quintessential “femme fatale” is shamelessly cinematic, even in the dismal 2006 sequel. Catherine Tramell is rich, beautiful, brilliant, and looks so cool smoking a cigarette that scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas (who was paid more for this movie than any other writer in history) regrets glamourizing the bad habit after his throat cancer diagnosis. Even from beyond the screen, Catherine Tramell is deadly seductive.
- Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster/Carlotta Valdes, Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)
Kim Novak has got to be one of the most gorgeous blondes who’s ever lived or died, but her performance in the greatest film ever made by the greatest director who ever worked is based upon so much more than just her looks; more like three characters’ worth of complexity. She’s so different as Judy than she is as Madeleine (who’s “possessed” by Carlotta much like Judy is “possessed” by Madeleine) that you’re as convinced they’re separate people as Detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (a never-better Jimmy Stewart) is. Novak’s acting was grossly misunderstood in its day, but her character within a character within another character isn’t quite meant to be understood, either.
- The Bride/Black Mamba/Beatrix Kiddo/Mommy, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003)
“The Woman with No Name,” Uma Thurman slays the scene and everybody else in it in Tarantino’s self-proclaimed “magnum opus.” A new species of parasitic wasp was named after the fictional assassin in 2013 because that’s how much ass she kicks. We know next to nothing about her past or why she chooses to become a contract killer, but we don’t have to in order to understand her ferocious quest for revenge – she’s the warrior inside us all.
- Pazuzu/Regan Teresa MacNeil, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973)
Linda Blair’s Oscar-nominated acting, Mercedes McCambridge’s transformative voice work, and Eileen Dietz’s heart-stopping makeup all come together to form evil incarnate in the body of a twelve-year-old girl. Blair suffered a permanent spinal injury during the scene when the demon takes possession of Regan, and McCambridge’s son went on to kill his entire family and then himself in 1987. Whether the bad luck is coincidental or the result of a curse, Pazuzu has the power to enter your home and invade your soul.
- The Joker, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008)
Twenty-eight-year-old Australian actor Heath Ledger became the terroristic Joker so completely that he lost sleep over it and fatally overdosed on sleeping pills before the film’s release. It posthumously earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The debate rages over who’s the better Joker, Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or Ledger in The Dark Knight, and, if Nicholson is truer to the original comic book supervillain, then Ledger’s interpretation is better than The Joker.