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10 best movie villains of all time, ranked

Blended image showing the Joker, Maleficent, and Anton Chigurh.
Custom Image by David Caballero

Heroes are a dime a dozen, but everybody loves a good villain. Indeed, if you look back at motion picture history, villains are among the most dynamic, engaging, and memorable characters in any movie. It’s in their very nature to stand out, whether due to their ruthless plans, killer dialogue, or outright lunacy. A great villain elevates the story, confidently guiding it to new heights.

Cinema has produced many worthy villains, but a few tower above their fellow sinners. These are the all-time best cinematic baddies, whose criminal deeds have turned them into pop culture icons that we love — always from a distance. Unhinged, Machiavellian, terrifying, and ever magnetic, these movie villains have earned their place among the titans of the silver screen through blood, sweat, and tears—most likely someone else’s.

10. Amy Dunne, Gone Girl (2014)

Rosamund Pike as Amy Elliott Dunne with a toothbrush on her mouth in the film Gone Girl.
Image via 20th Century Studios

Few films from the 21st century have been as influential or instantly iconic as David Fincher’s 2014 psychological thriller Gone Girl, and it’s largely thanks to Rosamund Pike’s outstanding performance. As Amy Elliott Dunne, the seemingly perfect and doting wife of the detached Nick Dunne, Pike is a revelation: wicked, manipulative, deceiving, and always one step ahead. She’s a remarkably intelligent woman running the show and toying with everyone around her.

Amy is a brilliant creation of female rage, a deliciously crafted psychopath with layers upon layers of depth and complexity. Pike firmly guides her journey from helpless, unhappy housewife to vengeful, duplicitous mastermind, delivering a character that effortlessly captured the 2014 zeitgeist. Even today, Amy remains an infamously popular character, a terrifying villainess who terrifies men and enthralls women. After all, you think you’d be happy with a nice Midwestern girl? No way, baby. She’s it.

Gone Girl is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

9. Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty (1959)

Maleficent smiling wickedly in the film Sleeping Beauty.
Image via Disney

“Now shall you deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!” When you were a child, that line must’ve been terrifying; as an adult, you can recognize it’s quite possibly the coolest thing ever uttered by a Disney villain. A powerful evil fairy, Maleficent is the ultimate party crasher, cursing baby Aurora and spending the next 16 years looking for her to enact her revenge, all because she wasn’t invited to the christening.

No Disney villain is as petty as Maleficent. The Mistress of Evil is the embodiment of wickedness and is extra as hell, making a big deal out of the slightest offense, to the point where she’ll literally kill a baby. Utterly devious, yet regal, mighty, and outright awesome, Maleficent has become a pop culture icon who has far surpassed the titular princess. Arguably the greatest animated villain ever, Maleficent’s influence in pop culture rivals Disney heavy hitters like Mickey and the Princesses. Never has spite looked so deliciously wicked.

Sleeping Beauty is available to stream on Disney+.

8. Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson looking at something off-camera in the film Double Indemnity.
Image via Paramount Pictures

The term femme fatale is all-encompassing and vague enough to apply to countless characters. However, when talking of cinematic femme fatales, no one comes close to Phyllis Dietrichson, the antagonist of Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir crime thriller Double Indemnity. Masterfully played by the mighty Barbara Stanwyck, Phyllis is the manipulative and provocative wife of an unsuspecting man who easily convinces a mediocre insurance salesman to kill her husband.

Stanwyck is among the best and most versatile performers in classic Hollywood, and Phyllis Dietrichson is among her finest creations. The embodiment of the icy detachment and fiery allure of the femme fatale, Phyllis is arguably the greatest representative of the archetype. Countless characters have borrowed greatly from her, from Ava Gardner’s Kitty Collins to Linda Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory, all the way to Pike’s Amy Dunne. Few cinematic characters can boast of having such a chokehold in pop culture.

Double Indemnity is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

7. Norman Bates, Psycho (1960)

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates looking at the camera in the film Psycho.
Image via Paramount Pictures

A master of his craft, Alfred Hitchcock is among cinema’s most important directors. His now-iconic style is at its best and most disturbing in the 1960 horror thriller Psycho, starring a never-better Anthony Perkins. The ever-underrated actor plays Norman Bates, the meek owner of a motel who hides a sinister secret in the depths of his home — and, more disturbingly, deep within himself. When the beautiful fugitive Marion Crane arrives late at night at his motel, Norman’s life changes forever.

Psycho is a masterpiece of the genre, a tense and riveting exercise in slow-building horror from one of the best directors in cinematic history. However, it’s Perkins’ deceitful portrayal of Bates that ultimately makes the film excel. A challenging and sinister character, Bates is remarkably difficult to pull off, as he’s both victim and villain. Perkins must be shy, yet engaging, awkwardly charming and unsettling, often in the same scene. Norman Bates is a brilliant creation, an off-putting psychopath who plays on classic mental health tropes to produce a chilling villain unlike any other.

Psycho is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

6. Hannibal Lecter, The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter looking intently at the camera in the film The Silence of the Lambs
Image via MGM

“Good evening, Clarice.” In only 16 minutes, Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins created one of the greatest villains in American cinema. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 psychological thriller/horror masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs adapts Thomas Harris’ novel, with Hopkins as the disquieting cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Imprisoned for his crimes, Hannibal agrees to help FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) catch a serial killer who’s targeting women, developing a complex relationship with her in the process.

Hopkins is truly scary as Hannibal, delivering each line with a clinical precision that can make anyone’s blood run cold. With his meticulous movements and stone-cold expression, Lecter controls each scene he’s in, overwhelming the narrative despite his limited time on the screen. Hopkins’ take on Lecter had a profound impact on the horror genre and pop culture as a whole, becoming the ultimate psychopathic killer of the late 20th century and a horror icon on par with the Bateses and the Cadys of the world. Multiple Hannibal-centric sequels followed The Silence of the Lambs, and while Hopkins returned for nearly all of them, none came close to the heights achieved by Demme’s groundbreaking triumph.

The Silence of the Lambs is available to stream on AMC+.

5. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa looking intently in the film Inglourious Basterds
Image via Lantern Entertainment

Quentin Tarantino has an eclectic filmography that has produced some of the most electrifying characters in modern film. Hans Landa might just be his best creation ever. Played by Austrian-German actor Christoph Waltz, who exploded into the mainstream with his performance, Landa is a ruthless and brilliant SS officer and one of Hitler’s most effective agents.

Clever, quite arrogant, shamelessly opportunistic, and deceitfully ruthless, Landa is near-infallible, an expert hunter who isn’t afraid to kill, but always makes sure to keep the blood off his hands. Waltz is stellar in his role, seamlessly blending confident charm with an uneasy detachment that makes him magnetic, yet decidedly discomforting. It’s a tremendous acting feat that won him a richly-earned Oscar, among a plethora of other awards and recognition. Landa is Inglourious Basterds‘ breakout character and a highlight of Tarantino’s writing career, a duplicitous monster who perfectly represents the opportunistic and inhuman nature of war and conflict.

Inglourious Basterds is available to rent or purchase on Amazon and other digital vendors.

4. Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Darth Vader raising his fist.
Image via Lucasfilm

“No, I am your father” is not only the most misquoted line of all time, but also the most iconic dialogue from the despotic and severely traumatized Sith Lord Darth Vader. Spawned from the mind of George Lucas, Darth Vader is the secondary antagonist of the original trilogy and the protagonist of the prequel trilogy, collectively known as the Tragedy of Darth Vader. His most meaningful and acclaimed role comes in the original trilogy’s middle entry, The Empire Strikes Back, which is widely considered the best film in the Star Wars saga.

Darth Vader is Star Wars‘ most famous character and one of cinema’s greatest villains. Nearly everything about him is iconic, from the instantly recognizable mask to the heavy breathing to the utterly badass theme that has become synonymous with him, The Imperial March. And while the franchise itself has undergone numerous changes in terms of relevance and quality, Darth Vader remains a consistent source of acclaim from critics and audiences. The Sith Lord is arguably the face of Star Wars, an intimidating and awe-inspiring figure who has stood the test of time and will probably never go out of style.

The Empire Strikes Back is available to stream on Disney+.

3. Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched looking at someone intently in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Image via United Artists

Miloš Forman’s 1975 psychological drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t only a brilliant depiction of life itself, but also a showcase of the late Louise Fletcher’s mighty acting abilities. The actress created one of cinema’s most nightmarish figures of authority, Nurse Mildred Ratched, a ruthless and heartless woman who rules a mental institution with fear and near-total control.

Nurse Ratched is the embodiment of power abuse and the damning, hurtful nature of bureaucracy, which sees people not as human beings, but as cogs in a larger machine that never stops running. Ratched’s callous, detached, near sadistic treatment of her patients is horrifying, depriving them of their humanity to subdue them under her absolute control. Fletcher keeps her deliberately vague and distant, turning her into a vessel for our fear and mistrust. She won the 1975 Academy Award for Best Actress in 1976, delivering possibly the all-time best Oscar speech and ensuring Ratched’s place in the annals of film history.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is available to stream on Netflix.

2. The Joker, The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger as the Joker sitting down with Batman behind him in The Dark Knight.
Image via Warner Bros.

The Joker is Batman’s archenemy and arguably the greatest villain in the comic book medium. His already great reputation, however, rose to its peak with the late Heath Ledger’s now-legendary portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s game-changing 2008 film The Dark Knight. A riveting crime thriller that just happens to have a superhero, The Dark Knight is one of the best films of the 2000s and a triumphant showcase for Ledger’s mighty talent.

Whereas Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson embraced the Joker’s Clown Prince of Crime persona, Ledger turned him into a full-fledged psychopath and anarchist, a self-described agent of chaos looking to throw Gotham into lawlessness. Ledger’s take on the Joker is unsettling, yet utterly mesmerizing, a hypnotic and electrifying tour de force that’s wholly terrifying, yet impossible to turn away from. The Dark Knight lives and dies with Ledger’s all-consuming performance; it’s pretty much a Batman movie in name only — the Caped Crusader might be at its center, but it’s the Joker that dominates the whole piece. More so than Nolan, Ledger changed the perception of superhero movies, crafting what is possibly the 21st century’s most influential villain.

The Dark Knight is available to stream on Max.

1. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) – No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men.
Image via Miramax Films

The 2000s were truly a golden age for cinematic villainy. Countless great baddies flooded the screen, raising the bar for all antagonists to come. Yet, none is more chilling or effective as Javier Bardem’s transfixing portrayal of Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ 2007 neo-Western No Country for Old Men. An unfeeling and near-unstoppable hit man, Chigurh relentlessly hunts welder Llewelyn Moss to retrieve a satchel containing drug money.

Bardem’s harrowing portrayal is a master class in acting. Chigurh is something out of the darkest, most disturbing corners of Cormac McCarthy’s mind. Described as the most realistic depiction of a psychopath ever, Chigurh is devoid of mercy, guilt, anxiety, or empathy; there’s nothing there but purpose and cunning. The perfect hunter, Chigurh lives for the chase, not for the thrill of it, but for the sake of it. He’s incessant and possibly inescapable, the embodiment of true evi — death itself in a terrible hairstyle. Never in cinematic history has a coin flip been more unnerving.

No Country for Old Men is available to stream on Paramount+.

Editors' Recommendations

David Caballero
Freelance Writer
David is a Mexican freelance writer with a deep appreciation for words. After three years in the cold world of Marketing…
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