The 20 Greatest Film Characters of the Last 20 Years
Obviously I appreciate films from all eras, but as a 19-year-old there is a certain special bond that exists between a film-lover and works of fiction created during his or her own generation. They just speak to me in a much deeper, more personal level than anything from before my time (especially the 1980s’s). Why is that? Because they reflect themes relevant to my own time. Because people still discuss them, and are still influenced by them. My entire grade in year 12 was unhealthily obsessed with Harry Potter, the principle even mentioned it in his closing speech at graduation. Certainly many are quick to argue that movies just aren’t what they used to be in the days of Bogart and Kubrick, but to those I say: you’re not looking hard enough. Every year there are still handfulls of brilliant films produced throughout the world of the same quality as the classics – containing characters richly complex and emotionally stirring, brought to life by equally talented actors and actresses.
But I’ve rambled on about my youth for far too long already. Without further adieu, here is my picture of the 20 greatest film characters of the last 20 years.
20. Professor Snape – Alan Rickman – Harry Potter Series (2001-2011)
“Look at me… you have your mother’s eyes.”
Self-sacrifice is among the most admirable qualities any character can possess, and Snape exudes this in spades. He was a tormented child, and as such adopted a strict attitude (seemingly a hatred) for his students, especially Harry Potter. However, his unrequited love for Harry’s mother, and the subsequent bullying he suffered at the hands of her future husband was heart-wrenchingly resonant. Serverus Snape is a reminder that characters (and people) are not always as they seem; everyone has a story to tell. His sternness with Harry seemed to be born out of malice, but in reality was simply a tough measure to ensure he could protect himself. He is a character that cared for others immensely, it did not matter if they didn’t return his affection as long as it was for the greater good.
19. Regina George – Rachael McAdams – Mean Girls (2004)
“Get in loser, we’re going shopping.”
Regina George is the high school equivalent of Hannibal Lector. A truly, deeply, immensely awful human being in the most extreme capacity possible in a modern American school. She’s not a murderer, she blow up hospitals, but she’ll socially destroy anyone’s life who challenges her dominance as the queen bee of high school’s artificial hierarchy. Calling her a bully doesn’t even come close. Universally despised, yet Regina is the girl everyone wishes they could be – the epitome of shallowness and self-indulgence, thriving only off the misery of others. In a way Regina George is like everyone’s worst nightmare of what high school is really like, and for that this film is far more terrifying than even the most blood-chilling of horror movies.
18. Nick Naylor – Aaron Eckhart – Thank You For Smoking (2005)
“You know that guy who can pick up any girl? I’m him, on crack.”
Nick Naylor’s self description is more perfect than anything I have to say, but just in case you crave a little more detail, here’s his deal. Naylor is intensely charming, dashingly good looking, and fronts an industry responsible for many millions of deaths every year. Chief spokesperson for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a company essentially set up to disprove the link betweensmoking and lung cancer. He’s the face of cigarettes, and could convince the Pope that God doesn’t exist. Nick Naylor could’ve become president of the Earth, but that would be too little challenge. His mastery of spinning media and information is unparallel, but what’s most fascinating are the scenes where he explains his unique craft to his son Joey, and teaches him some profound realities about the world we live in, most strikingly “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
17. Wikus Van De Merwe – Sharlto Copley – District 9 (2009)
“Get your fokkin’ tentacle out of my face!”
As Wikus becomes more alien he becomes more human. District 9 proved itself as one of the most thought-provoking films in recent memory, examining themes of social segregation and xenophobia through a group of unpleasant extraterrestrials unexpectedly stranded on Earth after their massive spacecraft crawled to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg. This film is dripping with bitter nods to the racism of apartheid-era South Africa, but what gives all this intellectual storytelling its emotion is the transformation of Wikus Van De Merwe, a MNU bureaucrat in charge of displacing over a million aliens (commonly known by derogatory slang ‘prawns’) from the enormous shanty-town of District 9 to a concentration camp facility far away from the disgruntled locals. Initially unsympathetic and impersonal toward the prawns, through exposure to a mysterious black liquid he is slowly transformed into a member of the alien species he so despises. His subsequent persecution sees Wikus seek refuge in District 9, and he changes from an uncaring office-worker to a tragic victim of circumstance, and in doing so wins the hearts of the audience who desperately want him to be turned back into a human, just not the man he was.
16. Billy Bickle – Sam Rockwell – Seven Psychopaths (2012)
“I didn’t mean to break his nose. His nose was just in the middle of where I was punching.”
He is quite simply, the most entertaining (and original) serial killer in years, far from the drab, torturous psychopaths that populate most Hollywood movies. He may be completely daft, nonsensical and merciless, but Billy Bickle is above all else a true friend in the most acute sense. He has absolutely no qualms killing without remorse under the nose of his best friend Marty, but he’ll do anything to help him out no matter how awful. Billy is admirable in many ways, and challenges perceptions of one of the most profoundly heinous crimes imaginable. It’s scary to think it, but we all wish we had a Billy Bickle in our own lives.
15. Sergeant First Class William James – Jeremy Renner – The Hurt Locker (2008)
“There’s enough bang in there to blow us all the Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.”
Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician Sergeant First Class William Jamestruly pushes the boundaries of that is considered sanity. An absolute junkie for adrenaline, he pays no mind for putting himself or others in danger in order to secure his fix. Whereas films such as Taxi Driver examine a forgotten soldier displaced in the very society he helped defend, in The Hurt Locker we see a man almost too intense for the Iraq War thrive on its danger and unpredictability. It translates beautifully on screen, and every moment that features William James is as scary and exciting as the jolts of adrenaline that spark through his body. “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
14. Lil Ze – Leandro Firmino – City of God (2002)
“Where do you want to take the shot? In the hand or the foot?”
Ambition gone wrong, unbound by morality. In Rio De Janeiro’s notorious Favela Cidade de Deus (City of God) you were either a cop or a hood, there was no inbetween, and Lil Ze was the preeminent hood – but despite the terror and awe he inspired as a drug dealing kingpin, socially he could not muster the same respect. Geniuenly loyal to only his friend Benny, and despite being almost completely unsympathizable in every way, Lil Ze is reminiscent of Shapespearean tragedy. He only had his work, and he was good at it, but there was nothing else. Lil Ze’s brutality was the only aspect of his life that met satisfaction, like an apprehensive kid desperately trying to win people’s approval, but simultaneously acting as if he couldn’t care less. That contradiction defines this character; he is as appaling as he is saddening.
13. David – Michael Fassbender – Prometheus (2012)
“There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”
Some theorise that Ridley’s Scott’s immense sci-fi epic, Prometheus is a sort of sleeper masterpiece, under-appreciated in its day but to be hailed as extraordinary in a decade’s time (much like 2001: A Space Odyssey), but whatever your opinion is of this movie, we can all agree that the clean-cut, slightly pompous android David is the best part of it. Well-postured but cold, from the very beginning of the journey to a foreign world it seems as though David is constantly plotting – to what end we cannot say. Traditionally synthetics (or artificial person’s, as they prefer to be addressed) mean bad news in Ridley Scott’s Alien universe, and it’s safe to say that David affirms that generalisation. He is extremely intelligent but completely unhindered by human fallibilities, deeply threatening but entirely reserved, and despite this the crew members of the Prometheus simply dismiss him as an object rather than a person. We start to wonder, are his emotions simulated, or have they become genuine? Can he really begin to feel contempt for the co-workers who resent him themselves?
12. Juno McGuff – Ellen Page – Juno (2007)
“Can you just hold on for a second? I’m on my hamburger phone.”
Offbeat is perhaps the only way to justifiably describe the protagonist of the delightfully entertaining and emotionally stirring 2007 flick Juno. Morally in this film revolves around such contemporary themes and issues that it begs for a variety of interpretations, but the unorthodox charisma of Juno McGuff is universally recognisable. Juno is not at all a cool girl, but she’s such a cool girl. She’s musical and free-spirited, a perfect picture of the teenager we all wished we dated in high school. Not a vessel of purity by any stretch – she can be as petty and close-minded as any teen – but her quirky charm and grasp of what’s right and wrong well-beyond-her-years all mixes together to create a special character you cannot help but care for – Juno could be your friend, your lover, your anything as long as you appreciate her the unique individuality she pulls of so well.
11. Andrew Detmer – Dane DeHaan – Chronicle (2012)
“A lion does not feel guilty when it kills a gazelle. You do not feel guilty when you squash a fly. And I think that means something. I just think that really means something.”
A deeply underrated character in my opinion, Andrew Detmer, anti-hero of the refreshingly original 2012 superhero film Chronicle, is the perfect summary of the troubles and fantasies of every kid ever forced to face antagonism on a regular basis. Eating lunch alone on the bleachers, no real friends save for an older cousin who’s just a slave to family obligation and years of soul crushing victimization has left Andrew shy and hostile; pushing people away before they can get close enough to hurt him. His self-defeating need to protect himself leads him to film everything he experiences, but this only causes him to be targeted further. Who wouldn’t crave superpowers under such circumstances? Andrew is granted the ability to crush all those who attack him, to come out of his shell and truly be somebody, but most importantly his telekinesis lead him to finding his first real close friends. Of course though (and unfortunately) his incessant need to place an impenetrable barrier around himself overpowered the positivity of friendship; his fall from grace proves both spectacular and tragic in equal measure.
10. Verbal Kint – Kevin Spacey – The Usual Suspects (1995)
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Meek and somewhat pathetic, Verbal never seemed like any kind of hardened criminal. When called to a police line-up of the usual suspects for an armed holdup he stuck out like a sore thumb; a man who did time for fraud among armed robbers and killers. Though he proved himself capable intellectually, he was never truly accepted by his partners in crime. He thought himself their friends, but in reality Verbal was just a pawn in their game, or so they would believe. A con artist with cerebral palsy, everyone assumed he was wrapped around their fingers, especially the hardline FBI Agent whom Verbal confesses his story. However, he was always one step ahead, outplaying them all at their own game, and in the final moments of the film when al thel pieces fall together in one of the most well-crafted movie twists of all time, the payoff is oh so sweet.
9. Colonel Hans Landa – Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Bastards (2009)
“The feature that makes me such an effective hunter of the Jews is, as opposed to most German soldiers, I can think like a Jew.”
Hans Landa is easily the best part of Tarantino’s quirky World War 2 epic Inglourious Bastards, and believe me it is by no means a bad movie. From the moment he steps on screen this character just strangles your attention and refuses to let go. Totally in control, highly intelligent, and completely merciless in the performance of his duty. You never have the slightest idea what he’s going to do next; every scene of his feels like some form of interrogation no matter how nonchalant it initially seems. Hans Landa can turn every moment on a dime more efficiently and seamlessly than any character I can remember. He keeps us questioning this film and ourselves every step of the way, and I love him for it.
8. Amon Goeth – Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List (1993)
“This is very cruel, Oskar. You’re giving them hope.”
Amon Geoth is the true representation of the Nazi Party’s inhuman final solution. The Holocaust was not executed by sinister sociopaths or fanatics, but by ordinary men and women who had simply accepted their behaviour as normal and necessary. It wasn’t murder, it was pest extermination; a regular job. Enter Amon Goeth, who so perfectly characterises the cumulative evil of the Nazi ideology. A commandant who shoots the malnourished forced labourers of the Plaszow concentration camp from the balcony of his manner on the hill. He isn’t murdering them, just meeting a quota. The everydayness of Goeth’s brutality is what’s most frightening; it reminds us that under the right circumstances, almost anyone is capable of great evils as soon as soon as they accept their lack of accounablity.
7. Marge Gunderson – Frances McDormand – Fargo (1996)
“There’s more to life than a little money you know. Don’t you know that? I just don’t understand it.”
Margie is beautifully pure in a world surrounded by corruption. Almost every character in Fargo is despicably greedy, but as this pregnant police chief investigates a series of murders set in motion by sleazy used car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, we see a woman, though vulnerable due to her pregnancy, who remains untainted by the filth in which she’s constantly exposed. She’ll investigate the crime scene of a triple-homicide then have lunch with her ‘ambitiously’ artistic husband and assure him he’s good enough to make the 29-cent stamp. This conservative, small-town simplicity contrasts beautifully with the violent, selfish investigation Margie is locked into, cementing her as a truly memorable character, aided in no small part by Frances McDormand’s breathtaking performance.
6. Donnie Darko – Jake Gyllenhaal – Donnie Darko (2001)
“They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.”
Troubled Schizophrenic teenager who attends a school full of teachers obsessed with a phony, paedophile motivational speaker and possessed by visions of Frank, the six-foot tall bunny rabbit. It’s no surprise Donnie Darko has become a cult classic, and the abpve description doesn’t even scatch the surface. This film is by no means easy to comprehend; anyone who claims to understood it on the first viewing is clearly a dirty liar who cannot be trusted. One thing is undeniable though, and that is the brilliance of the fascinating central character, Donnie. Confident and handsome, but also deeply troubled and mischievous, Donnie is a kid who just doesn’t want to be alone. As his psychologist Dr. Thurman attributes, Donnie’s disturbing delusions stem from “an inability to cope with the forces in the world that he perceives as threatening.” The more aware he becomes of the mission forced upon him by Frank, and a book mysteriously familiar to Donnie entitled The Philosophy of Time Travel, the greater his fear becomes of being forced to exist alone, a fear every human being can surely relate.
5. Gollum – Andy Serkis – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit (2001-2003 & 2012)
“We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky little hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!”
Whether you’re young or old or anywhere in between, everyone knows the story of the twisted, schizoid victim of the One Ring known as Gollum. As unpredictable as he is ruthlessly obsessed with ‘his precious,’ Gollum was instantly seduced by the Ring, brutally murdering his relative Daegol after he unearthed it from the Gladden River where it lie dormant for thousands of years. He serves as a terrifying mirror for Frodo on his quest to destroy the ring, being forced to witness firsthand what could become of him should he give in to its power. However despite the initial disgust of almost every character who encountered him throughout The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, without fail the emotion he most certainly inspires is pity. Monstrous in both appearance in nature, Gollum is nothing more than a tormented soul. He’ll never be cured of his obsession for the One Ring until it destroys him.
4. Tyler Durden – Brad Pitt – Fight Club (1999)
“Tomorrow will be the best day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.”
True freedom at a terrible price, that is Tyler Durden. A natural born leader, the unrestrained picture of how every modern man sees himself (or wishes he could see himself). Possessed with an enlightening, terrifying charisma, Tyler Durden makes Fight Club one of the most quotable films of all time, though he is by no means a refined man. He’s peed in soup, sold “rich women their own fat asses back to them” and spliced single frames of porn into childrens movies, but everything he does is necessary, even if only in Tyler’s warped view of the greater good. The ultimate counterpoint to contemporary society, unbound by all its restrictions, conventions and anxious insecurities.
3. The Joker – Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
“Introduce a little anarchy.”
Without motivation, without any form of morals or kindness, this deranged psychopath in clown makeup is easily one of the most entertaining movie villains of all time thanks to Heath Ledger’s spectacular (and ultimately self-destructive) performance. Locked in an perpetual contradiction with his nemesis Batman, The Joker never fails to force the Dark Knight to push the limits of both his capabilities, and sanity. Whether its blowing up hospitals or forcing two ferries full of people to chose to either destroy the other or perish themselves, nothing stands in the way of The Joker’s obsessive need to create chaos. Highly intelligent and manipulative, Until the bitter end he always manages to stay one step ahead of Batman. The Joker could’ve been a respected academic if he applied himself correctly, he just preferred the life of a mind-bendingly ferocious lunatic.
2. Daniel Plainview – Daniel Day-Lewis – There Will Be Blood
“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”
The grumbling, scowling, terrifyingly ambitious oil tycoon; the centre of Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely touted masterpiece There Will Be Blood. Perhaps among the purest personifications of capitalist greed in cinema history, as early as the very first scenes of this film we see a man consumed by one universal vice: profit. An entire movie could’ve been built around Plainview’s journey back into town after breaking his leg in his silver mine, however that event proves to be but a fraction of a glimpse into the man that is Daniel Plainview. It’s easy to argue almost every decision Daniel makes is motivated by greed, but there are fragments of a deeper man underneath his callous, heartless exterior, but like many great characters he is as complex as he is ambiguous. He perhaps cared for the town of Little Boston as evidenced by his willingness to use income earned from his oil well for development, however this could just as easily be seen as a manipulation to avoid disgruntled townsfolk, securing his investment. In whatever light you see him, Daniel Plainview is clearly not a man to be crossed, he has no time for liars or phonies, and least of all, competition.
1. Penny Lane – Kate Hudson – Almost Famous
“Famous people are just more interesting.”
Penny Lane is my favourite character in any movie I’ve ever seen, quite simply because I know I’d fall in love with her just as easily as William Miller. You could say it’s her luscious blonde hair – every bit as vibrant as her personality, or her ability to look past William’s awkward shyness in favour of the genuine boy he is, but it is undoubtable that Penny Lane is a wholly beautiful character, providing some of the most emotionally resonant moments in the entire film. The platonic bond between her and William Miller is amongst the most touching ever set on screen. William who is stepping into a totally unknown and unknowable world, and Penny who guides his journey through her delicate artistry. Free-spirited and sure of herself, yet simultaneously totally vulnerable to the world around her; not its stresses, but it’s impersonality. There are no goodbyes on the road, but you still take the people you meet where ever you go.
Some characters prove themselves as brilliant because they remind us of ourselves, reflect our fears and thoughts. Some challenge our perceptions, disturb us, churn our insides but fascinate us nonetheless. Some mirror our lives or counter it completely. We value both ambiguity and depth; characters who exemplify certain emotions or lack them completely. Characters that force us to think and allow us to feel. Penny Lane goes beyond all that in such a perfect way. She doesn’t reassure us of ourselves or our lives, doesn’t announce profound truisms or denounce the forces of evil. Penny exists on a whole other plane, above the heavens but living precariously among us mere mortals. She reminds us that there is beauty in the world, and really, isn’t that all we could ever need?
A now I leave you with what is easily the greatest line of any movie produced in the last 20 years:
What do you think? Leave a comment.