NB: The following contains spoilers. If you stumble on an entry for a movie you haven’t seen yet, you’re advised to skip to the next one.
We love them, we hate them, and sometimes, we love to hate them. Villains are the driving force of just about every story, and there was no shortage of great ones in 2013’s movies. Whether they were violent and weapon waving, or quiet and slyly insinuating, last year’s films were full of great antagonists of every sort.
You’re sure to have some of your own ideas over who deserved to be listed among 2013’s best baddies (so feel free to add yours in the comments, as ever), and honourable mentions should go to James Woods’ Martin Walker in White House Down and Cameron Diaz’s Malkina in The Counsellor. But at any rate, here’s our pick of the finest movie villains of last year.
Butch Cavendish – The Lone Ranger
We remain quietly addicted to the reliably brilliant William Fichtner’s performances, and he was really on form in Gore Verbinski’s larger-than-life western, The Lone Ranger. Perhaps realising that he had to play against Johnny Depp with a dead bird on his head, Fichtner appears to put every sinew into his turn as vicious outlaw Butch Cavendish. With his gruesome complexion, curious teeth and snake-like stare, he’s a fearsome creation, and one scene of cannibalism remains among the more unexpectedly harsh movie theater moments of last year.
Reactions towards The Lone Ranger were mixed to say the least, and audiences failed to queue up for it in the way they did for Verbinski’s Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, but none of this detracts from Fitchner’s performance – as ever, he brings menace, humor and personality to what could have been just another stock villain.
Agent Kruger – Elysium
In director Neill Blomkamp’s second feature, Elysium, Sharlto Copley switched from the quirkily affecting anti-hero of 2009’s District 9 to outright villainy. And as Agent Kruger, the hirsute assassin who does the bidding of Jodie Foster’s snootily brittle Defense Secretary Delacourt, Copley pretty much walks away with the movie thanks to his raving performance.
While Matt Damon is saddled with a likeable but somewhat anonymous everyman hero character, Copley gets to fire and fling a variety of exotic weapons, has a temper tantrum during a lonely barbecue on the roof of his own house, and yells “It’s just a flesh wound!” at a victim he’s just blown to smithereens.
Kruger isn’t exactly the most sly or subtle villains of the year, but he’s definitely one of the most fun to watch – just look at the moment where he comes stomping down the corridor of the title space station, headlights glaring out from each of his man chests. It makes us chuckle every time we see it.
Smaug – The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
We waited a long, long time before we finally got to see Peter Jackson’s version of Tolkien’s gold-obsessed dragon, and thankfully, it was more than worth the wait. As voiced and partly performed (via the miracle of motion capture) by the seemingly indefatigable Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is a villain of both wit and menace – and vitally, Jackson gives him a grand entrance.
That first glimpse of Smaug, who’s revealed one scale at a time as the mountain of gold he’s lying beneath gradually falls away, is a great introduction, showing us how gigantic he is compared to the diminutive Bilbo (Martin Freeman). Freeman’s scene with the returning Gollum in An Unexpected Journey was one of the highlights of that movie, and in The Desolation Of Smaug, WETA once again created a masterful interplay between live actors and CG characters.
Most importantly, though, there’s Cumberbatch’s sonorous voice growling out from behind all those pixels – and it’s this, as much as technical wizardry, that brings this timeless villain so memorably to life. And while we were in two minds as to whether we should include Cumberbatch’s villain John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness on this list, we decided that, although the former’s a great adversary in his own right, he’s roundly eclipsed by this incarnation of fantasy’s most famous dragon.
The Mandarin – Iron Man 3
Drew Pearce and Shane Black’s handling of longstanding comic book antagonist the Mandarin was always going to be controversial for some, but for us, it worked magnificently. Just as Tony Stark wrestles with his own demons in the wake of The Avengers’ events, so enigmatic terrorist the Mandarin turns out to be a mirage created to strike fear into the population of America.
Ben Kingsley is great value in his twin roles as the Mandarin and booze-addled British actor Trevor Slattery, and while some would argue that the villain deserved a more respectful handling on the big screen, it nevertheless provided one of the funniest and most surprising rug-pull moments in 2013 mainstream movie theater.
Uncle Charlie – Stoker
Director Park Chan-wook’s first English-language movie was an ice-cold and visually sumptuous thriller in the Hitchcock mold, and the quality of its performances and production really lifted it from being just another genre movie to something far more complex and symbolic. Matthew Goode plays the handsome and seemingly benign Uncle Charlie, who shows up at the remote, rambling house of his niece India (Mia Wasikowska) and late brother’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).
Although it’s evident that something dark lingers behind Uncle Charlie’s broad smile, Park Chan-wook keeps the suspense taut, and Goode’s turn here is perfectly restrained – we know there’s something not quite right about him, and we’re just waiting to see when the mask will finally slip. In a movie full of great acting – Wasikowska and Kidman are both excellent – Goode is a vitally brilliant part in Chan-wook’s twisted love triangle.
Calvin J Candie – Django Unchained
Before finally settling down in a theater to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, we were anxiously wondering whether the fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio was really right for the role of the brutal Mississipi plantation owner Calvin J Candie – especially considering he’d have to share one major scene with Christoph Waltz, who blazed through the screen as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.
As it turns out, we needn’t have worried; in every one of Tarantino’s lengthy scenes with the character, DiCaprio is seldom less than pitch-perfect. The dinner table with Christoph Waltz’s Dr King Schultz and Jamie Foxx’s Django is electrifying, with Candie’s horrifying monologue laced with menace.
In fact, DiCaprio became so immersed in the moment that he famously injured his hand when he slammed his hand down on the table, breaking a glass – the wound ultimately required stitches, but his unblinking performance remains in the movie.
Mizuki – 47 Ronin
Here’s a late entry to the list, and a character who’s the exact opposite of the one Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi brought to the screen in her other major movie of 2013, Pacific Rim. In director Carl Rinsch’s flawed yet entertaining fantasy samurai movie, Kikuchi plays Mizuki, a witch whose magic helps central villain Lord Kira to bring about his plans to dominate a tract of 18th century Japan.
Although Tadanobu is perfectly entertaining as said villain, it’s Mizuki who emerges as the most memorable and downright fun character in the entire movie. She’s a slithering sorceress who can transform herself into a menagerie of creatures, conjure up deadly purple spiders from surprising places, and gets to generally antagonise every other player in the story.
Kikuchi attacks the role with evident glee, and the sense of fun she has as Mizuki lifts every scene in which she appears.
Polite Leader – The Purge
This mash-up of dystopia, horror and home invasion flick was by no means perfect, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have plenty of good things going for it, not least a superb turn from Rhys Wakefield as its central villain.
Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, the father to a wealthy middle-class family in a near-future America, where an annual event called the Purge gives citizens a 12-hour period where they can commit whatever crime they like. But when a group of feral thrill seekers turns its attention on Sandin’s household, he’s forced to resort to extreme measures to protect his loved ones.
Like Smaug, Wakefield’s nameless villain is given a superb introduction. A leader to a masked group of impeccably dressed killers, he’s first seen through a distorted fish-eye lens on Sandin’s front door. Then he takes off his ghoulishly grinning mask, revealing that the face beneath is even more leering and scary.
That image proved to be effective enough to lead the movie’s advertising campaign, and it’s made all the more powerful because Wakefield’s performance is so economical – the bit where he smilingly explains why he has the right to kill Sandin’s entire family is, in the midst of a sometimes uneven genre movie, utterly chilling.
Crystal – Only God Forgives
There certainly aren’t any heroes in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, where it’s almost always night time and karaoke cops mete out brutal acts of bloodshed. Yet even among the movie’s minimalist (and divisive) landscape of retribution and despair, Kristin Scott Thomas’ glowering gangster matriarch emerges as its darkest shadow.
Much of what Crystal says can’t safely be repeated on a family site such as this, but it’s sufficient to report that she has her own brand of acid-tongued putdowns. The key scene where she sits down for an extraordinarily uneasy meal with her monosyllabic son, Julian (Ryan Gosling) and his girlfriend Mai (Rhatha Phongam) makes for painfully uncomfortable viewing, and it’s interesting to note that, in a movie full of wince-inducing violence, it’s Crystal’s cajoling, bullying performance that emerges as one of its most unforgettable aspects.
Or for a further illustration of Crystal’s fearsome nature, just look at the scene where Julian describes the cruel murder his brother committed on an innocent girl. “I’m sure he had his reasons,” she coldly shoots back. Brrr.
President Snow – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Donald Sutherland’s President Snow doesn’t get much screen time in The Hunger Games movies, but crikey, he makes the most of it. Sutherland’s clearly feeling the importance of working on a project that talks to a relatively young audience about ultra serious things. And Snow, a man who quietly oozes power, is the archetypal man in power who will do whatever it takes to preserve it.
More to the point, he’ll do whatever it takes using some cunning, often passive-aggressive tactics to do so. Manipulative and almost living under the skin, we suspect we’ll be talking about his performance in the next Hunger Games movie this time next year too…
Trent Ramsey – The Way, Way Back
One of the most wonderful gems of the summer movie theater season, The Way, Way Back not only provided a golden role for Sam Rockwell, but it also proved once more the range of Steve Carell. He’s come a long way since the days of Dunder Miflin, and here, he creates one of the most compelling villains of the year. He’s compelling because in many respects he’s so normal. He plays Trent, the new man in the life of Duncan’s (played by Liam James) mother.
And while he starts off as the friendly, wanting-to-get-to-know-you type, he gradually french fries away at Duncan, undermining him and inflicting subtle, knowing damage. It’s a controlled performance from a skilled actor. And by pulling back and being so believable in his work, Carell creates one of the very best antagonists of the year.
Edwin Epps – 12 Years A Slave
There’s hardly an abundance of pleasant people in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave. On the surface, Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Ford is quite a good person, but the movie does point out that for all his niceties, he still keeps Chiwitel Ejiofor’s Solomon as his slave. Yet Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps chills to the bone (edging out an excellent turn from Paul Dano too). Epps is overt in beliefs on slavery, and how he feels he’s entitled to treat ‘his’ slaves.
Cruel and abusive, Fassbender plays the character straight and unpleasant, a man contained within what he believes – and, to be fair, many around him – to be reasonable. His vile actions are ones you can sense are coming, but their power is never diluted. Epps isn’t a character you’d want to spend any more time in the company of. Fassbender’s work, however, is outstanding.