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Jan 9, 2008

The 20 Best Movie Characters of the Last 20 Years (part I)

I'm 31 years old. I'm a "movie buff" (it feels so great to call yourself a "buff," really). If I were to pinpoint the time when I went from just being a kid who watched movies to being one who fell in love with them (awww), I'd probably say sometime right around 1990. Unfortunately, doing a list of "The 18 Best Movie Characters of the Last 18 Years" just doesn't have the same cache or ring that "20" does. Besides, there was nothing good in movies in between 1988 and 1990, right? (Kidding.)

I have to say that this was one of the toughest lists to come up with - or rather, narrow down. The process was rather unscientific - as I said previously, it's tough to quantify what makes the best characters. Is it the most memorable? Most quotable? Durable? In this case, I think the best answer is the easiest one; when the phrase "best character" is said, who pops into your head? There are some things I took into account, deducting points (mentally) to characters whose source material came before the film (though, as you'll see, there are still plenty who made it) and all but, if not entirely, nixing characters who had appeared on film prior to 1988 (sorry, Indiana Jones). Though the first 8 or so were pretty easy to name, the final paring down was extremely difficult. As a result, I'm sure there will be many "Where's X?!?!" responses or the like, to which I say bring it on. Also, a big thank you to all the folks that sent along their input - it was a big, big help.

So, without further ado, and presented in no special order, The 20 Best Movie Characters of the Last 20 Years.

Character: Tyler Durden
Film: Fight Club
Year Released: 1999
Chief traits: Imaginary, Fearless
Trademark line: "The first rule of Fight Club is - you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is - you DO NOT talk about Fight Club."
Additional Comments: This one is pretty personal for me, as not only am I a fan of Mr. Pitt, but Fight Club is one of my all-time favorites. All biases aside though, what a killer character.

Character: Wolverine
Films: X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand
Years Released: 2000, 2003, 2006
Chief traits: Solitary, Adamantium-ish
Trademark line: "What do they call you? "Wheels"? This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Students."
Additional comments: Admittedly, he doesn't have the best lines, as evidenced above, but he hardly needs them. Sure, he's a comic book character, but they don't come much cooler than he, as he's probably been the most popular comic book character of the last 30 years (since the Spider-Man, Batman, Superman era). What's not to love?

Character: Trent Walker
Film: Swingers
Year Released: 1996
Chief traits: Bawdy, Boisterous
Trademark line: Too many to choose from. Though "you're money, baby" was certainly the most aped, I'm going with this one: "Yeah, man just kinda... you know, you got these claws and you're staring at these claws and your thinking to yourself, and with these claws you're thinking, "How am I supposed to kill this bunny, how am I supposed to kill this bunny?""
Additional comments: You probably couldn't even tell me what Trent's last name was before you read it; heck, I don't think I knew it, either. It's irrelevant, though, as any fan of the movie could tell you when they weren't busy spouting half the script off to you.

Character: The Joker
Film: Batman
Year Released: 1989
Chief traits: Pale, Insane
Trademark line: "Where does he get those wonderful toys?"
Additional comments: I alluded to a mystical time at which point I became serious about movies. Well, this movie is probably the one that's most responsible. The perfect comic book movie has not aged all that well, but Nicholson's performance as The Joker is priceless (sure, he played Jack Napier as well, but Napier isn't the appeal here). He gave menace a new name, and the matching of character to star was probably one of the best ever.

Character: Napoleon Dynamite
Film: Napoleon Dynamite
Year Released: 2004
Chief traits: Unselfconscious, Great Dancer
Trademark line: "Freakin' idiot!"
Additional comments: Love him or hate him, Napoleon is one of a kind. He has a fro. He wears moon boots. He runs like a girl. He can dance like nobody's business. Whatever you think of him, I doubt that Jared and Jerusha Hess (the film's writers) even were aware of what a unique, hilarious, stupid character they had created. What's more, his brother Kip is a terrific character unto himself, and just as easily could be featured in his own film. "Peath out."

Character: Darth Maul
Film: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Year Released: 1999
Chief traits: Silent, Deadly
Trademark line: "At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge." (his only line)
Additional comments: That George Lucas is a genius! He managed to create a terrific villain that, though he may not match Darth Vader, had people hyped to see that first prequel. And they loved him! And Lucas was smart enough to kill him off at the -- huh? George, you're killing me. Instead, we got Count Dookie for the latter two films. Nice going, nimrod. Darth Maul was the ultimate badass, and he deserved a longer spot in the limelight.

Character: Silent Bob
Films: Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Clerks II
Years Released: 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2006
Chief traits: Silent, Not Silent
Trademark line: " "
Additional comments: Probably not since the days of silent films has one man said so much by saying so little. Pairing with his hopped-up sidekick Jay (or is Bob the sidekick?), Silent Bob went from a quirky minor character in Kevin Smith's debut Clerks to the co-star of his own film, along the way spawning a franchise for Smith and Bob alike, including comic books, cartoons, and guest spots on crappy TV shows (Yes, Dear).

Character: Forrest Gump
Film: Forrest Gump
Year Released: 1994
Chief Traits: Good Runner, Uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time
Trademark line: "Life [is] like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
Additional comments: Who knew that a dullard (IQ in the 80s, if I recall) could captivate the nation, not to mention lead the way in the film capturing the Best Picture award (stealing it from Pulp Fiction, I might add)? The lead in Robert Zemeckis' opus was endearing, dumb, sweet, and full on one-liners, helping to spawn a restaurant chain of all things (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.).

Character: Tracy Flick
Film: Election
Year Released: 1999
Chief traits: Ambitious, Unwavering
Trademark line: "It's like my mom says, "The weak are always trying to sabotage the strong.""
Additional comments: Though her inclusion on this list is most definitely warranted, when I was narrowing down the choices for this list and got to the really difficult part (choosing the last 4 or 5 from a list of 20 or so), I noticed that Tracy was the only female character on the list. She had to be on here. Whether the fault lies with me (and the other people who gave input) for failing to name any ladies amongst our "best characters" or with Hollywood for failing to write quality parts for women I will leave for you to decide. After pondering more, I can up with quite a few other potentials (Marge Gunderson, The Bride from Kill Bill, Juno), but it certainly was odd that, from a list of 80 or so characters that I started with, Tracy stood alone.

Character: Anton Chigurh
Film: No Country for Old Men
Year Released: 2007
Chief traits: Driven, Inhumanity
Trademark line: "Call it."
Additional comments: Simply scanning the memorable quotes from the movie and reading Anton's lines just about sent shivers. Suffice it to say that the Cormac McCarthy and the Coens crafted one of the all-time great villains, and though it's difficult to give perspective to a performance so fresh in our minds, it's hard not to believe that we'll be thinking the same thing in 20 years.

(As I wrote this post, I could see that it was going to be necessary to split it, for my time's sake in putting it together and for yours in reading it. Part II can be found here.)


25 people have chosen wisely: on "The 20 Best Movie Characters of the Last 20 Years (part I)"

Jason said...

"the matching of character to star was probably one of the best ever"

On the other hand, Heath Ledger as The Joker could be one of the worst matches ever.

Nick said...

Awesome list so far. Yay for Napoleon and Silent Bob and Tyler Durden.

Jason: I trust Christopher Nolan... and have you seen the trailer? Heath looks like he's gonna pull it off greatly.

WampaOne said...

I think the new Batman will be fine...Unfortunately, I never understood the appeal of that 89 Batman, Nicholson, meh, Prince, double meh. Michael Keaton, triple meh.

Liking the list so far Fletch.

After you mentioned it, I am pretty sure there are great female characters out there, but all that quickly comes to my mind are before 88: Sean Young replicant´s from Blade Runner and Zira from the Planet of the Apes :mrgreen:

Maybe a list of the great female characters of all time could be a future feature.

Sheamus the... said...

Oh man...I am loving Heath as the joker. The trailer looks awesome. When watching Jack play the Joker I am not thinking "Oh wow...its the joker." I am thinking..."Oh Jack, what a guy".(not saying Jack did a bad guy but just saying I never forgot he was Jack)
But with Heath from what I've seen so far he has completely disappeared inside the character to the point where you see nothing but the Joker. I got a chance to see the fist 7 minutes of Dark Knight. I trust Nolan too...When asked why he chose Heath he simply replied, "The actor is fearless".

Great post man. Looking forward to part two. I agree with most of the selections and I could argue others but i think i have already said enough HA.

Robb said...

Napoleon! Can't believe I hadn't thought about him.

Enjoying the list so far.

Foy said...

I must say, one character that needs to be in is Ruprect, from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Absolute hilarity from such a small character.

And if only you did this last year. Then we could include "The Princess Bride". Vizzini, Miracle Max, and Peter Cook as the Clergyman all were terrific.

Nick said...

foy: lol, that's what I said in an email to him. I mentioned The Princess Bride. Except how dare you mention The Princess Bride and not Inigo Montoya. If any character from that movie would be on the list, it'd be him. "Hello. My Name is Inigo Montoya. You Killed My Father. Prepare to Die."

Fletch said...

Yeah, half the characters from The Princess Bride could have made the list had it been done a year earlier.

As for the Joker, I think Heath will do a damn fine job - more serious, less campy (not to say that the camp was bad at all). It will fit the tone of Nolan's series, just as Jack's perfectly fit the tone of Burton's.

soundtrackgeek said...

Great list! I really enjoyed going from top to bottom and giggling when I saw Napoleon. Now there's a character!

WampaOne had a great idea. How about a great female characters list? Oh I love lists :D

Fletch said...

I completely agree - a great female characters list is an excellent idea. Yet another post for my long list of potential posts...I'm sure I'll be soliciting for suggestions soon.

Foy said...

Another great list:

Worst charachters. Or even, Worst actors.

Who can say Hadyen Christenson as Anakin the fastest?

Matt said...

I love this idea but I hate the exclusion of Indiana Jones. After all, The Last Crusade came out in 1989. Not respecting Dr. Jones doesn't make you a Nazi, but it doesn't not not make you a Nazi either. That's all I'm saying.

Fletch said...

Like I said - they couldn't have been onscreen prior to 1988 - it's the same reason the Predator, Alien, etc were left off as well. I give much respect to the good Doctor. Now, his dad could have made the list, had he been a good enough character...

film dude said...

i agree with the choice for tyler durden... what about his alter ego, Jack? their technically the same person...

Fletch said...

what about his alter ego, Jack? their technically the same person...

Same person, yes, but still two different characters, played by two different actors, and as Tyler more or less told "Jack," he is the much more interesting one.

Anonymous said...

Only one woman?? Please, whoever selected this was clearly just looking at men. Cher Horowitz in Clueless. Kimberly Joyce in Pretty Persuasion. Lisa Rowe in Girl Interrupted. Vanessa Lutz in Freeway. Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Maggie Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof...

Anonymous said...

Bill Murray as Phil in Groundhog Day?!

Anonymous said...

oh and while on the subject of bill murray..how about his character of "bob wiley" in what about bob or as "bob harris" in lost in translation? the man is comedic genius.

Warhammer said...

I think that you absolutely have to include Daniel Day Lewis as Bill "The Butcher" in Gangs of New York. The character was an example of duplicity making the audience love him for his convictions, yet reel in terror at the monstrosity unleashed in pursuit of them.

Fletch said...

@ Anon 1 (who mentioned Pretty Persuasion, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, etc.) - As for Pretty Persuasion, I think that judging by the box office ($300,000?!?), I can be forgiven for having not seen this. As for characters from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - please re-read the title of this post (last 20 years!).

@ everyone else - Bill the Butcher should have definitely been on the honorable mentions, if not on the list. My fallback excuse will be that I started with a large list, compiled by not just me but many others, and I don't recall seeing his name, so maybe he isn't as loved/remembered as he should be. Not a great excuse, but works for me.

As for the Bill Murray chatter, I can see Phil Connors making a list like this, but none others from the last twenty years. What About Bob? is a funny movie, but I've never thought it was THAT great. Ditto Lost in Translation (minus the funny part).

Charlotte said...

I agree that not enough women are on this list, but a "Greatest Female Characters" list would just be patronising, I think Hollywood needs to be more open to female characters that actually have unique character as opposed to being the same old cliches-hence why I love Juno so much :-)

Anonymous said...

wow. worst most typical list ever. try harder next time. Or actually start watching movies.

vandergraaf said...

How about the character Henry Fool in the movies "Henry Fool" and "Fay Grim"? Geez!! Has Hal Hartley fallen that much off the radar?

Anonymous said...

Okay, I agree with most of these characters (Darth Maul definitely deserved a spot), but, frankly, I don't care if they have to appear only in movies 1988 and up, there is one character who absolutely HAS to be on this list no matter what:

Darth Vader.

That character forever shaped the way we see villians today--big, mean, and scary. His mere presence on the screen would draw attention. And the voice...James Earl Jones did a fantastic job. (And, of course, David Prowse.)Darth Vader is just the kind of guy you have on any best character list, even if he doesn't meet the criteria for eligibility.

Here are some of my other choices to be considered for a spot:
Indiana Jones (Who cares if he's not eligible? He's Indiana Jones, for crying out loud!), from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"
Agent Smith, from "The Matrix"
Gandalf Stormcrow (That's right-I know his last name), from "The Lord of the Rings"
Optimus Prime (Because, lets face it, he has one of the best names ever), from "Transformers"
Batman, from "Batman Begins"
Buzz Lightyear, from "Toy Story"
Jack Skellington, from "The Nightmare Before Christmas"
General Grievous (I think by now it's been established that I am a Star Wars fan), from "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith"

Oh, and Fletch? Vader finds your lack of faith disturbing.

Fletch said...

@ the latest Anon - hey, I have it on good word from a loyal reader (Wampa) that the force runs strong with me, though I vehemently disagree about Grievous. He was a terrible character in my opinion - perhaps if he'd been fleshed out and/or used more, I might change my mind.

You list many good ones, but 20 characters can only go so far...