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10 dastardly movie villains

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

Little Bill Daggett: a villain unlike any other.

I’m a villain girl.

Yes, I know the history of cinema is filled with do-gooder types who rob from the rich, give to the poor, cuff up the bad guys and try, in their kind-hearted ways, to rid the world of wrongdoing. I even know that these men and women usually end up celebrating with pints while the other guys rot in prison cells or asylums or push up daisies. These characters, the good guys with honorable intentions and clean consciences, they have their shining moments.

But the villains? Well, the villains are way more interesting.

Twisty and edgy and scary, they do it for me. Always have. To be fair, though, who doesn’t love a great villain? There’s something about the vicarious thrill of watching the bad eggs do all the things we don’t have the guts to do. And the really crazy ones — the Norman Bates types, the killers and the maniacs — they fascinate us too. The dark side of human nature, the cobweb-covered hidden parts of the psyche, draw us in. 

So how’s about I initiate a little celebration of villainy (the good guys get enough press, if you ask me) with this list of 10 awesomely mean-spirited, wily and just plain evil villains:

1. Little Bill Daggett, “Unforgiven” — “You have never hated anyone in your entire life as much as you hate Gene Hackman in this movie” insists my friend Jason the Comedian, and damn if he isn’t right. There’s no villain more hateful than the amoral, swaggering, ruthless Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” He is the human embodiment of villainy, evil incarnate, and he eyes everyone he meets the way a lioness sizes up a limping gazelle. Emotions don’t concern him; people mean nothing; murder merits not a second thought. Bill’s stunning lack of humanity solidifies his spot as the meanest bad guy of all-time.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

Col. Landa speaks softly, but he carries a big pipe.

2. Colonel Hans Landa, “Inglourious Basterds” — In the process of writing, directing and producing one of the best films of 2009, that brainy sicko genius Quentin Tarantino created Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking Jew hunter possessed of probing intellect, unbelievable cunning and lacerating wit. This wily chap, who treats everything as a social experiment, takes such pure delight in seeking out and devouring weakness it’s impossible not to laugh along with him. Just don’t lie to him. Ever.

3. Max Cady, “Cape Fear” — What makes Max Cady (Robert Mitchum in ’62, DeNiro in ’91) such an iconic villain is his pure, unyielding relentlessness. Single-minded to the point of murder, he refuses to stop his mission to rain down a vengeance storm upon the lawyer who put him in prison. His determination — which leads to a most unsettling, nightmare-inducing car trip — makes him practically invincible. And everyone knows that there’s nothing scarier than evil you just can’t kill.

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Disrespect Chigurh's bob at your own peril...

4. Anton Chigurh, “No Country for Old Men” — Before the Coen brothers’ eerily calm, otherworldly assassin Anton Chigurh strolled into our lives, we never had any reason to fear cattle guns, Buster Brown coiffures or coin tosses. Now we can’t pick stray pennies off the ground without shuddering. Writer Cormac McCarthy created this iconic figurehead of evil, but Javier Bardem brings him to wicked, freaky life in Oscar-worthy ways. Chigurh’s the kind of baddie you won’t soon forget.

5. The Joker (Heath Ledger), “The Dark Knight” — If it’s true there’s nothing scarier than a bad guy who refuses to die, it’s also true that nothing inspires a mean case of the wiggins like a villain who has no logical reason for anything he does. In his role as The Joker, the late Ledger went to dank, unsavory depths to create a character so raving mad he lights mountainous heaps of cash on fire and drives pencils in the craniums of hardened goodfellas. The Joker’s beyond reason, and that makes him one seriously terrifying mischief-maker.

6. Annie Wilkes, “Misery” — For some reason, the really frightening movie villains always seem to be male, or non-human, or both. Not so with Kathy Bates’ startling turn as disturbed psycho fan Annie, a character so creepy she probably lurks in the mind of every writer who hits the NY Times best-seller list. Bates makes us feel (figuratively and literally) the hammer blows of Annie’s rage. Then, in a flash, she turns sweet, accomodating and gentle … and that’s when the real chills come calling.

7. Keyser Soze, “The Usual Suspects” — Something tells me Bryan Singer had no idea the mysterious bad guy who wielded immeasurable power in 1995’s film noir hit would become such a pop-culture icon. After all, how can we fear a villain who has no face? It has everything to do with the “things you don’t see are scarier than the things you do” principle. The fact we don’t see him only heightens the anxiety. There’s not much more horrifying than a bad guy who’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. 

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When Hopkins is done with you, you'll never drink Chianti again.

8. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, “The Silence of the Lambs” — No list of iconic evildoers would be complete without the name “Hannibal Lecter” on it, but that’s not why he merits inclusion. Lecter’s scare power, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, comes from his uncanny ability to read people’s darkest secrets and use them to get exactly what he wants (there’s a bit of Lecter in Col. Landa, it seems). That he’s also a cannibalistic serial killer is almost beside the point — he rips into human frailty like a plate of fava beans. How tasty and terrifying.

9. Casanova Frankenstein, “Mystery Men” — Sometimes villains don’t have to be scary to make a big impression on us. Nobody knows that better than Geoffrey Rush, who makes being bad look so effortlessly cool as Casanova Frankenstein, the glib, supersmart supervillain (he invented a cholorform-deploying portable enticement snare!) out for the blood of the dim Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). He’s witty, charming and deliciously mean-spirited. Who needs murder and mayhem, again?

10. Joan Crawford, “Mommie Dearest” — Moms, according to our collective human consciousness, are supposed to be kind, warm and comforting. So when a movie mom goes off the grid — in the all-noble way Faye Dunaway does in “Mommie Dearest” — it’s the stuff of paralyzing night terrors. Also, there’s a very good reason wire hangers have fallen out of fashion. Watch this movie if you’re screaming to know why.

Honorable mentions: Loren Visser (“Blood Simple”); Norman Bates (“Psycho”); Lester Long (“Clay Pigeons”); Commodus (“Gladiator”)

Mo nominees, mo problems

So I have here this link, and it reveals to me something very shocking: The Academy is doubling the number of Best Picture nominees at the Oscars from five to 10.

Is it me, or did this come about A YEAR TOO LATE for “The Dark Knight”? Hey Heath, what do you think? Let’s find a medium and organize a seance to find out.

Of course this is a good thing. The fact that the Academy even recognized the need for change is a gigantic leap forward. And I would be appropriately thrilled (I am a little), but I’m too busy taking umbrage (the proper Southern thing to do) and sniffing out the conspiracy I know is lurking in here somewhere.

Why 2008 rocked: (Most of) the best films of the year

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

Why so serious? It has something to do with Heath Ledger's hot-box-of-crazy-brilliant turn as The Joker in "The Dark Knight."

To paraphrase the not-so-late, great Paul McCartney, news of my death was great exaggerated.

Yes, readers, it seems that I am not dead after all. Nor did I fall into a black hole, or fall off the edge of the Earth in an ill-fated journey to discover that the world really is flat (take that, Francis Drake).

What have I been doing for the past two weeks? For one, I’ve been suffering — I mean enjoying — the holiday season. For another, I’ve been pondering (which is much harder than, say, thinking) about the hardest thing I have to do all year: make a “best films of 2008” list. After 2007, I was spent. I mean, how could 2008 possibly offer up anything better than “Juno,” or “Zodiac,” or “Lars and the Real Girl,” or “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” or “No Country for Old Men.” I was convinced 2007 was so groundbreaking that nothing could top it.

(I believe this is the part where a stranger pops out of thin air and thumps me on the forehead, thus initiating the newest “coulda had a V-8” commercial.)

Oh, how wrong I was. This year, Hollywood has produced so many mind-blowing films I cannot list them all, cannot wrap my feeble little movie-sucking brain around them. And so, in an attempt to save my sanity, I have compiled a list of just 10 movies that made me laugh, think, gasp, or just generally harbor a secret belief that it’s not too late for me to gain acceptance to a prestigious film school.

Without further adieu, here they are: the Top 10 Movies of 2008….

10. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — Everything sounds better when spoken in a romance language. Apparently Woody Allen caught wind of this and decided to apply it to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” his most relaxed, romantic comedy yet. Set in Spain, this little-seen rom-com centers on pragmatic, tightly-wound grad student Vicky (Rebecca Hall, born to be a Woody Allen heroine) and artistic libertine Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who take a vacation in Spain and get wined-and-dined by sensual painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem in F-I-N-E form). Gorgeous scenery, a flamenco-themed soundtrack and a volcanic performance by Penelope Cruz signal that the Woodman seems primed for his second wind.

9. “Sex and the City” — Roger Ebert slammed “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s labor of love. He noted, however, that he wasn’t part of the target audience. Oh, RE, how right you were — “Sex and the City” is as much about men as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was about women. That aside, though it IS a love letter to die-hard fans (guilty as charged), “SATC” also deserves a spot in the best of 2008 because it works as one of the few truly insightful, intelligent films — albeit a highly stylized one — about women and their friendships. Here’s to hoping more directors realize what we chicks have known for ages: If you make smart movies about women, we will buy tickets to see them.

8. “Iron Man” — Listen carefully in “Iron Man” and you can hear the sound of something very, very rare: the improbable sound of a career being reborn. With guidance from Jon Favreau (in danger of becoming one of my favorite directors), a one-liner-lobbing, high-flying Robert Downey Jr. redefined our notion of what makes for a great comic book superhero as Iron Man. His work in “Tropic Thunder” is no less brilliant, but “Iron Man” stands as his own personal Declaration of Independence. Bring on the sequel!

7. “Pineapple Express,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (three-way tie) — For me, 2008 forever will remain the year that the “blockbuster comedy” got a much-needed makeover. Need more convincing? Check out “Pineapple Express,” an explosion-packed yet wildly funny 21st-century stoner flick that featured the best comic pairing — that would be Apatow vets Seth Rogen and James Franco, criminally underappreciated as a comic actor — in recent memory. But wait; there’s more. Nothing tops Ben Stiller’s “Apocalypse Now”-on-acid metamovie about a ragtag band of sitting-duck actors (including the Divine Robert Downey Jr. and a marvelously cast, googly-eyed Jack Black) fooled into thinking they’re making a war movie. Rounding out this trinity is Jason Segel’s keenly observed, heartfelt and unexpectedly touching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” where the actor bears all — anatomically AND emotionally — as a musician crushed when his girlfriend (Kristen Bell) dumps him for a nympho rock star (Russell Brand, giving THE comic performance of the year).

6. “Doubt” — Released just under the wire (Christmas Day nationwide) to merit inclusion for a slew of deserved Oscars, this meticulously paced, fascinating drama unfolds like a play — which it was originally — with a stunner of an ending (re: don’t expect to be spoon-fed). But the real treat? Watching two of Hollywood’s finest, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep, go balls-to-the-wall as a flawed but kind-hearted priest and a by-the-book nun possessed of a stare that would make Hitler tremble. Consider it a lesson in what constitutes “Oscar-worthy acting.”

5. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — Criminally overlooked by Oscar, this gripping Romanian film nonetheless deserves a moment — however brief or unrecognized in this little blog — to shine. Set in Romania in 1987, this flawlessly acted, plotted and paced gem shines a light on the realities of living under a dictatorship. Anamaria Rinca is pull-out-your-thesaurus-good as Otilia, a college student who helps her clueless roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure an abortion from a creepily serene back-door abortionist (Vlad Ivanov). This IFC film offers proof that sometimes, when it comes to thrillers, less is more — and less is much, much more powerful.

4. “Milk” — Anyone who’s followed Sean Penn’s career (that includes this blogger, who has been a devoted fan since “Ridgemont High”) knows he is an actor who revels in risky parts (“Dead Man Walking,” “Mystic River,” … I could go on, but I won’t). Penn is pure dynamite as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected public official, delivering a performance that is every bit as measured as it is electrifying. As Milk, he’s as much a shrewd, system-stroking politician as he is an activist. Josh Brolin deserves props for his subtle but simmering turn as Dan White, the conflicted colleague ultimately responsible for Milk’s death. Still, Van Sant balances the film mostly on Penn’s shoulders, and it’s a gamble that (not surprisingly) pays off big-time.

3. “Slumdog Millionaire” — Within the first 30 minutes, Danny Boyle’s unassuming coming-of-age love story proves why it deserves the title so frequently foisted upon it (that would be 2008’s Little Film That Could, or The “Juno” of 2008). Relative newcomer Dev Patel scores what can only be called a “breakthrough performance” as Jamal Malik, who sees an appearance on a Hindi game show as his chance to win the love of Latika (a first-rate Freida Pinto). It’s the kind of underdog story you can’t help but root for.

2. “WALL-E” — Who could have predicted that a jaw-droppingly colorful Pixar movie about a mostly mute robot would turn into the love story of the year? Certainly not yours truly, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying every last second of this post-apocalyptic love story about a lonely little automaton named WALL-E who finds the love of his life, loses her, finds her again and then discovers he’s got a bigger mission: namely, saving Planet Earth. Part sci-fi adventure, part futuristic fantasy, part romantic comedy, “WALL-E” is nothing less than one of the most charming, imaginative films of the year.

1. “The Dark Knight” — Forget the unfortunate snub by the Golden Globes; pay no attention to the inevitable ignorance of the Academy Awards. For my money, in 2008 there was no better film released than “The Dark Knight.” A dark, nuanced epic tragedy for the ages, this stunner drew viewers to the theater in record numbers — and with good reason. Heath Ledger’s recreation of The Joker as an “agent of chaos” deserves a spot in history. But there’s more to “TDK” than Ledger. Great performances? Check. Breath-snatching cinematography? Absolutely. A bone-chilling score? Please. And all of this makes “TDK” more than the best film of 2008; it makes this creation one of the best superhero movies ever made. Period.

The Best Is Yet to Come: One of the perks — is “perks” the right word? — of living in a glamorous state like South Carolina is that award-gobbling feature films, uh, don’t premiere here until months after New York, L.A., Chicago, etc.-area critics have seen them, wet their pants in delight, praised them to high heaven/beyond and moved on. And so it should come as no surprise that there are three such movies absent from my list: “Rachel Getting Married,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Wrestler.” Rest assured that once I cast my peepers upon these critical darlings, they will (I feel certain) merit addition to my Best Films of 2008. Other films I’m breaking out in itchy hives of anticipation to see: Romantic comedy “Last Chance Harvey” — starring two of my favorite actors, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman — and “Gran Torino,” hailed by critics as Clint Eastwood’s best role since “Dirty Harry.”