The 50 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time


Last month, Empire magazine released the results of their online poll of the greatest movie characters of all time, and it was, well, depressingly predictable — pretty much the same crop of characters you see every time one of these lists is made or polls are taken, a slight reordering of the same homogenous assortment of blockbuster protagonists. And to be sure, some of them have earned their iconic status, but there are also plenty of remarkable cinematic creations who don’t get their due. So in an attempt to compile a more up-to-the-moment ranking, Flavorwire’s movie buffs — Jason Bailey, Alison Nastasi, and Judy Berman — put our heads together, and reached out to a couple of our favorite film scribes — Nathan Rabin and Sheila O’Malley — to come up with this definitive (read: totally subjective) ranking of cinema’s most memorable characters.

50. Black Dynamite THE FILM: Black Dynamite PLAYED BY: Michael Jai White

Comedy is generally born of humility and self-deprecation, in a funny person’s willingness to make a fool of themselves and sacrifice their dignity for the sake of a laugh. Black Dynamite, the star of the blaxploitation spoof/parody/homage of the same name, is such a glorious badass, however, that if audiences had the nerve to laugh at him, as opposed to enjoy a manly chuckle with him, he’d probably leap through DVD screens and karate-chop them straight in the throat. Spoofs typically exaggerate the conventions of their targets to comic degrees, and Black Dynamite takes the hyper-macho perfection of strapping exemplars of black masculinity like Shaft to deliriously over-the-top new realms of comic-book awesomeness. Black Dynamite is a one-man wrecking crew who barely even needs to touch foes to send them crashing to the ground, a sex machine to all the chicks, and a detective with an intellect so keen it puts Sherlock Holmes’ powers of deduction to shame. He is, in other words, everything Rudy Ray Moore imagined himself to be when he threw his hat into the blaxploitation ring with Dolemite, and star Michael Jai White, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has the charisma, humor, and impressive physical presence to play a character who instantly catapulted himself into the pantheon of great blaxploitation heroes, satirical or otherwise. –Rabin

49. The “Elvis Presley character” THE FILM: All of Elvis Presley’s movies PLAYED BY: Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley’s movies have few defenders (outside his loyal fan base, who love it all). He is always the same in every movie: Elvis, the race-car-driver-singer, the soldier-singer, the beach-bum-singer. The movies are undeniably silly, and the plots irrelevant; the reason to see them is to enjoy seeing Elvis. You can count on one hand the figures who can sustain such careers (let alone for ten years), who are powerful and appealing enough just by showing up to justify a picture getting made. Elvis never looks like he’s slumming in these movies: he’s hilarious and goofy, he’s charming, he entertains. Being simply entertaining is a lost art that should be celebrated, not scorned or dismissed. Elvis’ acting chops and “sui generis” position in the industry has rarely been understood, since many think acting has to do with transforming your looks, putting on accents, and crying mighty amounts of tears. But Elvis was in the old-studio-system model, where you created a strong persona that worked with audiences, and then … you kept doing that. He’s a singular figure, in so many ways, but the “Elvis Presley Character” in all of those silly movies deserves serious re-examination; these were reliable hits during a very difficult era in Hollywood, not because they were well-made (they often weren’t), not because they featured thrilling stories (they didn’t), not even because they were good Hollywood musicals (some of the songs are terrible), but because he was in them. That’s some major movie magic right there. –O’Malley

48. Jake Shuttlesworth THE FILM: He Got Game PLAYED BY: Denzel Washington

Writer/director Spike Lee and actor Denzel Washington’s third collaboration finds the star tackling one of his most complex characters to date: the father of America’s hottest college basketball prospect, granted a temporary furlough from prison to convince his son to attend the governor’s alma mater. It is, to put it mildly, a tricky relationship — Jake killed the boy’s mother — and the way the character is allowed his humanity without some sort of simplistic “redemption” allows Washington to explore both the character’s considerable darkness and his surprising light. –Bailey

47. Special Agent Dale Cooper THE FILM: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me PLAYED BY: Kyle MacLachlan

While MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper isn’t the ubiquitous, sage narrator that he is in the Twin Peaks TV series, his brief presence is essential in uniting the puzzle of Twin Peaks’ meta-narrative as it traverses worlds and media. Director David Lynch offers Chris Isaak’s Chester Desmond and Kiefer Sutherland’s Sam Stanley as Cooper doppelgangers, but the dimpled FBI Agent with a penchant for a damn fine cup of coffee, cherry pie, and Tibetan and Native American mythology has always been Lynch himself — in addition to his appearance in the film as FBI chief Gordon Cole. The faces are different, but it’s impossible to separate the universe of Twin Peaks the movie and Twin Peaks the TV show. And Cooper, or Lynch, is an integral signpost for how to read and navigate one of Lynch’s richest works. –Nastasi

46. Eunice Burns PLAYED BY: Madeline Kahn THE FILM: What’s Up, Doc?

In a riotous film debut, Madeline Kahn minces her way onscreen in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? as Eunice Burns, and once you’ve met Eunice, you never forget her. Eunice is the prissy yet imperious fiancée of Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal); she wears a stiff blue dress that could stand on its own and a ridiculous bouncy red wig, her voice always threatening to tip into hysteria. Eunice goes from proud, ambitious woman to a shrieking wreck covered in cream-pie, waving a gun at strangers, and participating in an insane car chase through the streets of San Francisco. Madeline Kahn gave many funny performances, but Eunice Burns, her first onscreen, makes an enormous impression. At one point, when confronted with a baffled volunteer at a chic event who can’t find Eunice’s badge, Eunice shrieks in outrage, “I am not A Eunice Burns. I am THE Eunice Burns.” She is, indeed. –O’Malley

45. Aniki Murakawa PLAYED BY: Takeshi Kitano THE FILM: Sonatine

Takeshi Kitano, who directs, writes, and stars in his 1993 yakuza crime tale Sonatine, breaks the traditions of action and gangster antiheroes. “I shoot fast because I get scared fast,” is not something you’ll hear uttered from an American blockbuster star with any sincerity. A formalist character study steeped in nihilism, Kitano’s Murakawa is a “tough guy,” as Aya Kokumai’s Miyuki declares, but it’s his sensitivity that defines his gruff behavior. –Nastasi

44. Devlin THE FILM: Notorious PLAYED BY: Cary Grant

“Devlin,” the cynical misogynist in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, may not be Cary Grant’s most beloved role, or even his most well known, but it’s a great character study of a damaged and remote man, tormented at the thought of love coming into his life. Like a miracle, love appears, and he sets out to kill it. Grant bravely shows how the character’s hatred of women comes from fear (“I’ve always been scared of women. But I get over it.”), and the lengths Devlin will go to punish Ilse (Ingrid Bergman), who has the misfortune of falling in love with him. It is one of Grant’s best performances, with a breathtaking final scene where Devlin finds redemption in love, when his carapace cracks. That scene would not work if Grant hadn’t been willing to go so far into the darkness; the character is still startling in its considered emotional brutality. –O’Malley

43. Stansfield THE FILM: Léon: The Professional PLAYED BY: Gary Oldman

Luc Besson set a hitman tale in the confines of a claustrophobic New York City apartment building, unleashing Gary Oldman’s corrupt and utterly insane DEA agent Norman Stansfield upon the tenants in one of Léon: The Professional’s greatest scenes. Stansfield’s cool wrath, explosive temper, and eccentric tics make him the monster of the movie, but also incite uncomfortable laughter. The reptilian agent slithers down a narrow hallway, filling the space and reminding us that there’s no way to escape him. Stansfield pantomimes conducting an orchestra as he blasts everyone in sight, pinpointing the film’s odd blend of quiet poetry and fierce savagery, while proving he’s a worthy adversary for retired hitman Léon. –Nastasi

42. Bob Harris THE FILM: Lost in Translation PLAYED BY: Bill Murray

The second act of Bill Murray is one of the true legacies of the 1990s indie boom, and in this delicate 2003 comedy/drama, he teamed with writer/director Sofia Coppola to create the perfect fusion of actor, character, and persona. As such, it’s a film that’s fascinated by the space between performance and interaction, which is part of why that “More Than This” performance is so haunting; he’s a man who usually slips away from himself when he’s in front of people, and Harris, like Murray, is a movie star who’s been charming and funny for so long that he’s all but got it on a switch. Coppola is interested in the moments when he chooses to flip that switch, and when he decides to leave it alone. –Bailey

41. Hushpuppy THE FILM: Beasts of the Southern Wild PLAYED BY: Quvenzhané Wallis

Stomping around a Bayou community perpetually on the verge of flooding out, six-year-old Hushpuppy is tiny but fierce, determined and stubborn; she doesn’t need anybody else, which is good, but she often doesn’t have anyone else. The character is brought to vivid life by the Oscar-nominated Wallis, who creates one of those roles that feels less performed than overheard — the way she talks, the way she carries herself, and the brave face she puts on when encountering the hardships around her (and there are plenty of them) combine to form that rarest of cinematic entities, a true original. –Bailey

40. Dewey Cox THE FILM: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story PLAYED BY: John C. Reilly

Dewey Cox, the protagonist of director/co-screenwriter/producer Jake Kasdan and producer/co-screenwriter Judd Apatow’s musical comedy Walk Hard, is a one-size-fits-all parody of just about every pop star whose dramatic trajectory was ever chronicled on Behind the Music or in breathlessly hyperbolic, reductive biopics. The array of icons lovingly spoofed include Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson, but most specifically the great Johnny Cash, whose Oscar-winning 2005 biopic Walk The Line was still fresh in the public imagination when Walk Hard came out in 2007. But he’s also one of Judd Apatow’s emotionally stunted man-children, and the wonderful John C. Reilly plays him as an overgrown toddler for whom rock stardom is a blank check to indulge his every demented whim. He is rock history rendered flesh, a man whose career allows the filmmakers to lampoon and pay tribute to a staggeringly broad spectrum of musical trends and movements, from the raw rebellion of Sun Records to lascivious contemporary hip hop. But Walk Hard would not endure as something more than a clever pastiche if the music in it weren’t so infernally catchy and infectious in addition to being pitch-perfect parodies, and if Reilly didn’t pour so much heart and soul into such a ridiculous character. Walk Hard and Dewey Cox work spectacularly as parody — but they sneakily invite an awful lot of sympathy for their debauched protagonist, and anyone who can watch or listen to the climactic performance of “Beautiful Ride” (a song with the modest intent to encapsulate all of its singer’s existence in a few minutes rich with meaning and portent) without a lump in their throat and a tear in their eyes is built of sterner stuff than we are. –Rabin

39. Lancaster Dodd THE FILM: The Master PLAYED BY: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Hoffman’s towering performance as Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic and complicated author and cult leader nakedly based on L. Ron Hubbard in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 drama The Master, accomplishes the remarkable feat of inviting compassion and empathy for a fraud and a liar, a glorified con man whose long game was so endless and ambitious that it outlasted his life by decades. Hoffman brings to the character an unmistakable vulnerability and melancholy; he’s equally adept at capturing those bright, busy moments where Dodd charms the whole world and luxuriates in the extraordinary power his imagination has afforded him, and the dark nights of the soul where the mask of ultimate authority slips off to reveal a man plagued by demons and ferocious insecurities his megalomania only partially help conceal. Dodd’s chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is volcanic — they are fractured halves of a shattered whole, a surrogate father-and-son duo, in which each nakedly desires what the other possesses. These two lost souls exist in a state of toxic co-dependence before the universe and fate separates them permanently. What makes Dodd ultimately a tragic rather than comic figure is his need to believe his own fanciful rhetoric; Hoffman plays him as a brilliant fabulist trapped and imprisoned by his own lies. –Rabin

38. Ah Jong THE FILM: The Killer PLAYED BY: Chow Yun Fat

The soulful ethos of director John Woo’s Hong Kong golden age — roughly speaking, from 1986’s A Better Tomorrow to 1992’s Hard Boiled — was never more fully embodied than in the breathtaking central performance of Woo’s international smash, first released in 1989. Chow Yun Fat’s Ah Jong, a ruthlessly efficient assassin-for-hire, sports a taciturn morality and complicated masculinity, haunted by his sins and desperate to atone for them — and making this foreign action hero a welcome respite from the monosyllabic, blank-slate killing machines (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, et al.) who were populating American screens of the era. –Bailey

37. Alien THE FILM: Spring Breakers PLAYED BY: James Franco

It seems awfully reductive to call James Franco an actor, since he seems equally committed to his other careers as an academic, perpetual student, writer, director, producer and performance artist specializing in the life and career of one James Franco. Acting can seem like an afterthought to Franco, especially when he’s in a big Hollywood movie (a good rule of thumb for Franco seems to be that the larger the budget and audience, the less he seems invested), but he has never been as spookily committed as he was playing Alien in Harmony Korine’s hallucinatory contemporary fairy tale Spring Breakers. Alien isn’t just a role Franco played; it’s a mindset and a universe that he inhabited, a neon realm of utter debauchery, free-floating sex, shocking violence, and complete amorality. In a performance that draws heavily on Franco’s art-freak persona and eagerness to do everything to distance himself from the expectations that come with being a pretty-boy actor with box-office appeal, the actor/icon plays Alien as a deranged Pied Piper, a Big Bad Wolf for the age of Snapchat and selfies. He’s everything that’s terrible and secretly wonderful about the grotesque excesses of contemporary youth culture in one outrageous package. Franco’s career is defined by an alternately admirable and regrettable fearlessness, but his big risks have seldom paid off as spectacularly and unforgettably as they do here. –Rabin

36. Karen Sisco THE FILM: Out of Sight PLAYED BY: Jennifer Lopez

Handy with a shotgun, fast with a quip, and utterly unable to resist the roguish charms of escaped con Jack Foley (played by a particularly silver-foxy George Clooney, so y’know, no blame, no shame), federal marshal Sisco is far and away the most interesting character in Elmore Leonard’s crackerjack crime novel, and consequently in Steven Soderbergh’s ace 1998 adaptation. It’d be easy to paint Sisco with the broad (and potentially sexist) brush of the tough woman who’s turned to Jello by the right man, but Leonard and scripter Scott Frank’s writing couple with Lopez’s no-nonsense playing to give the character the right combination of resolve and temptation; there’s never any doubt that she’s the one in control of the attraction, during either its (beautifully executed) “time out” or its inevitable conclusion. This is a character of codes and contradictions, and a welcome respite from the typical, thankless “The Girl” roles of crime cinema. –Bailey

35. Maria Elena THE FILM: Vicky Cristina Bacelona PLAYED BY: Penélope Cruz

Cruz’s fiery artist doesn’t appear until 50 minutes into Woody Allen’s 96-minute charmer, and it’s one of the most carefully prepared entrances this side of Harry Lime — she’s spoken of in hushed tones, as if she might appear at any moment to dispute the stories about her, which have taken on the air of legend. After that much build-up, you can’t whiff the entrance. Cruz does not. The character of the tempestuous Latina isn’t exactly a fresh one, but Allen’s writing and Cruz’s playing (it was, as is increasingly rare for the filmmaker these days, written expressly for her) give her an anything-goes unpredictability; Maria Elena makes it all up as she goes along, making love and crippling resolves at will, and that sense of danger scrambles what could have easily been a predictable, sun-drenched rom-com into something a good deal more interesting. –Bailey

34. Rosemary THE FILM: Rosemary’s Baby PLAYED BY: Mia Farrow

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is a disturbing portrait of the mundane reality of a 1960s housewife, disguised as a Satanic shocker. But Mia Farrow’s Rosemary isn’t living; she barely exists in the labyrinthine New York City apartment occupied by a strange cast of characters. Her isolation and increasing paranoia, raising themes of gender and sexual anxiety, culminates in a terrifying scene where Rosemary finally meets the thing that was growing inside of her. By this time her face is gaunt with sickness, and she shrinks inward trying to disappear inside herself; Rosemary’s revulsion toward the newborn is all we see, allowing our imagination to run wild. She is a shadow of her former self, a ghost rocking the cradle of her diabolical son, forced to embrace the darkness. And we are by her side peering into the pitch black, trying to make sense of it all. –Nastasi

33. Cher Horowitz THE FILM: Clueless PLAYED BY: Alicia Silverstone

Silverstone rocketed to brief superstardom as Cher Horowitz in Amy Heckerling’s brilliant Jane Austen riff Clueless, playing a carefree child of privilege whose pretty pink plastic exterior masks a lot of offbeat smarts. She begins Clueless filled with the brash cockiness of youth, and over the course of the film comes to realize that wisdom is largely a matter of coming to terms with all that you do not know, in acknowledging your fundamental cluelessness. Popular, pretty girls in teen comedies are generally stereotyped as shallow villains, but Cher Horowitz uses her popularity and genius for makeovers, shopping, and matchmaking for good, and not evil. Accordingly, she is the rare popular girl who is also eminently relatable. Silverstone is irresistible enough in her star-making role that it’s easy to see why her ex-stepbrother love interest, played by a gloriously cranky young Paul Rudd, would be willing to overlook the quasi-incestuous nature of their relationship and want to be more than just friends with her. Cher Horowitz is at once the most totally 1990s entertainment this side of a trailer scored to both Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” and Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” and a deceptively strong heroine for the ages. –Rabin

32. Lee THE FILM: Enter The Dragon PLAYED BY: Bruce Lee

It’s rare that an icon’s mythology is built largely, if not exclusively, around a single film. 1972’s Enter The Dragon is not the only major Hollywood film Bruce Lee made during his brief but eventful lifetime, but it’s the film that made his legend in the West and launched a brief mania for martial arts that found in Lee its greatest and most enduring icon. In Enter The Dragon, perhaps the definitive martial arts film, Lee has the beauty and charisma of a born movie star and the preternatural grace of a panther. He is poetry in motion, a devastating fighting machine who never loses his cool, even in the midst of furious battles. Lee’s performance here would become an instant landmark in the annals of cool; generations of kids grew up wanting to be Bruce Lee, and it’s safe to assume that a goodly percentage of Enter The Dragon’s audience left the theater slavishly if incompetently imitating Bruce Lee’s signature moves. Lee would die not long after Enter The Dragon made him an international icon and bankable movie star, but the enduring appeal of his breakout performance ensured that his legend would live forever. –Rabin

31. Jackie Brown THE FILM: Jackie Brown PLAYED BY: Pam Grier

The iconic Ms. Grier has embodied plenty of memorable characters over her long career, but her title turn in Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 Pulp Fiction follow-up plays like the culmination of those women — now a little older, a little wiser, yet still as sly and scrappy and, yes, foxy as ever. The protagonist of Elmore Leonard’s source novel Rum Punch was “Jackie Burke,” a white 44-year-old airline stewardess; Tarantino rewrote the role specifically for Grier (and changed the last name to echo Foxy Brown, her most famous character to that point), drawing on the toughness and charisma that had pulsed in even her weakest vehicles, and fusing it with the weariness of a woman — and an actress — who fears her best days are behind her. Over the course of Tarantino and Leonard’s leisurely heist picture, she rediscovers her spark and vibrancy, and captures the (understandable) affection of a kind man to boot. –Bailey

30. James Bond THE FILMS: 26 total, from Dr. No to the forthcoming Spectre PLAYED BY: seven actors total, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig

Who’re we kidding, it’s an easy pick — at the center of the third-highest-grossing film series in history (before inflation, even), and one of the longest-running as well (from 1962 to the present), MI6 agent 007 has become part of the pop culture fabric, from his much-quoted introduction to his signature drink to his sexual escapades. But it’s not just those qualities that make the character so vital; countless screen spies have come and gone throughout those years. No, the key to Bond’s durability is his malleability; it’s easy to see him as a relic, but the creative personnel behind the Bond series have tweaked him, ever so slightly yet quite successfully, for each actor and for each era. –Bailey

29. Termeh THE FILM: A Separation PLAYED BY: Sarina Farhadi

Though A Separation‘s greatest achievement is using the small interpersonal matter of a divorce to dramatize so many issues of class, gender, and political bureaucracy in Iran, it’s the film’s cast of characters that sells every one of director Asghar Farhadi’s trenchant critiques. Particularly convincing is 11-year-old Termeh, the daughter of the central couple, played by Farhadi’s own daughter, Sarina. Termeh is that rare child character who is wise and strong without coming across as cloyingly precocious, a full person with insight and agency rather than a cute accessory — and Sarina Farhadi is that rare young actor who can convey a broad range of emotions so authentically that we forget she’s acting. –Berman

28. Bess THE FILM: Breaking the Waves PLAYED BY: Emily Watson

Lars von Trier’s characters — and particularly his endlessly deconstructed heroines — shoulder a lot of metaphorical weight. But plenty of them are also strikingly complex, well-constructed human beings, from The Idiots‘ wounded Karen to every role Charlotte Gainsbourg inhabits in von Trier’s recent Depression trilogy. Without question, though, his most memorable character is Bess from Breaking the Waves, as delicately yet thoroughly inhabited by Emily Watson. A true believer trapped in a cloistered religious community, Bess follows her faith in God and love for her critically injured husband into a life that scandalizes the philistines who surround her. She shows signs of mental illness and perhaps also developmental disability — this is, after all, a woman who hears the voice of the Creator issuing forth from her own mouth. But it’s her openheartedness, her honest desire to do good, and her constitutional inability to act hypocritically that form the core of Bess’ character. Even in moments when she is supposedly being defiled, she is the picture of innocence. And Bess is as frustrating as she is lovable, which is pretty impressive when you consider that she’s also supposed to be the human embodiment of saintliness. –Berman

27. Asami Yamazaki THE FILM: Audition PLAYED BY: Eihi Shiina

“For me, Audition is not horror. At least, there is no monster, it’s not supernatural. It’s a story about a girl who has just slightly strange emotions, so it’s not impossible to understand her. She just wants the person she loves to stay by her side,” director Takashi Miike told Midnight Eye. Adapted from a novel by Ryu Murakami, Audition centers on a widower businessman (Ryo Ishibashi’s Aoyama) in search of a new wife through a mock casting audition. He falls in love with Asami, played by a captivating Eihi Shiina, who possesses an innate vulnerability, but her mask of innocence quickly drops. Asami wields the instruments of torture in Audition, but her captive suitor is not without his own selfish motives. In the final act, the most crucial performance of all, there is a transference of self that imprisons and empowers — which speaks to the complexity of Miike’s characters, who are at once ciphers, victims, and monsters. –Nastasi

26. The Beast THE FILM: La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast) PLAYED BY: Jean Marais

La belle et la bête becomes a tale of empathy as Beauty’s love and the Beast’s courage converge, tempering the fear, sexual anxiety, and anger that once divided them. Empathy was the heart of the story behind the scenes as well: director Jean Cocteau suffered from a debilitating skin disease that left him hospitalized. “The face and the hands of Jean Marais are covered with a so painful crust that removing it is similar to suffer my treatments,” Cocteau wrote of his star and real-life partner — whose makeup took five hours to apply. The tireless Marais played a trio of roles in the film, but it was his Beast audiences mourned when the actor transformed into the prince. With just his eyes, Marais conveys a range of emotions as he struggles to fight his base impulses. –Nastasi

25. Indiana Jones THE FILMS: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull PLAYED BY: Harrison Ford

It’s easy to classify Indy as a conventional action hero — after all, creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas drew their inspiration for the series from the Saturday-afternoon adventure serials, not exactly renowned for their three-dimensional characterizations. But in spite of the franchise’s period trappings, Indiana Jones is a decidedly modern man, often reluctantly propelled into action (see the famous dispatching of the swordsman in Raiders), occasionally plagued by real doubt and fear (snakes!), and dependent on supporting characters, who often save his ass and keep him from losing his mind. Nothing’s less interesting than a bland, square-jawed Hero; Spielberg, the writers, and (especially) Ford made Indiana Jones grounded and human, and thus made his danger seem (slightly more) palpable. –Bailey

24. George Bailey THE FIM: It’s A Wonderful Life PLAYED BY: James Stewart

Throughout his career, Stewart excelled at playing what we now deem, rather predictably, the “Everyman.” But the inherently vanilla connotations of such a designation are put to rest by his most enduring role, the small-town family man of Frank Capra’s 1946 drama (initially a flop, later a holiday perennial). George has the warmth, the sunniness, and the shambling likability typical of the actor playing him, but in the grim and powerful third act, Stewart and Capra unpeel Bailey’s unexpected darkness, foregrounding the disappointments and frustrations that have been carefully cataloged over the preceding 90-plus minutes. The journey that Clarence the angel takes George on after his suicidal pause on the bridge isn’t just the Christmas Carol–style gimmick that countless TV shows and parodies have reduced it to; it’s a reminder that each and every one of us touch countless lives, and, in our own quiet way, wield as much power as mean ol’ Mr. Potter. –Bailey

23. Orlando THE FILM: Orlando PLAYED BY: Tilda Swinton

There are actors who disappear into characters, and then there are actors who remake characters in their singular image — like Tilda Swinton. She’s performed this feat dozens of times, from the films of Derek Jarman to I Am Love to last year’s Only Lovers Left Alive. But none of those roles can quite rival her career-making performance as the title character in Sally Potter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a novel that might well have proven unfilmable if Swinton hadn’t been around to star in it. Orlando, you see, is an Elizabethan-era male courtier and poet who mysteriously transforms into a woman and lives well into the 20th century. Swinton — an actress of aristocratic birth, artistic orientation, and endlessly appealing androgyny, who might well also be a 400-year-old alien from Planet Stardust — has the presence to sell all of it. And more importantly, she’s got the charm to make Orlando’s story as enticing as Woolf must have intended in composing it for her lover, Vita Sackville-West. -Berman

22. Tony Manero THE FILM: Saturday Night Fever PLAYED BY: John Travolta

So much unforgettable goodness in Travolta’s performance: the strut. The hair. The posters on his bedroom wall. Peacocking in front of the mirror in his underwear. Tormented family dinners. The clothes. Nights on the dance floor evocative of dreams, of something better, something glamorous, something more. At the tail-end of an exhausted burnt-out decade, Tony Manero struts onto the screen bringing electricity, yearning, and a sexual pulse beating beneath his silky polyester sleeves. Tony is an iconic figure, symbolic of a brief moment in time, and perfectly realized, captured in celluloid forever. It is, in many ways, a grim performance, but the dreams are what we are left with, the yearning and the fantasies. Escapism is not being “in denial.” It’s survival, plain and simple, and Tony Manero is a survivor. –O’Malley

21. Sugar Kane THE FILM: Some Like It Hot PLAYED BY: Marilyn Monroe

The cult of Marilyn Monroe has always been more than a little sad and more than a little bewildering. Her appeal is evident to anyone with a pair of eyeballs (or without them, as a lot of her sexiness was wrapped up in her breathless, little-girl coo), but it seems perplexing that so many would look for wisdom and pithy epigrams from a woman who was as famous for being desperately unhappy as she was for being glamorous and sexy. But the whole cult of Marilyn is damn near justified single-handedly by her performance in Billy Wilder’s deliriously entertaining, hormonally over-driven cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot. Monroe’s hot-to-trot singer in a (theoretically) all-girl band is everything a lady of her time was not supposed to be: aggressively oversexed, invariably with the wrong man (and in this upside-down world, the right man is a man in a dress), ditzy, easy prey for musically minded womanizers, none too bright, and intent on marrying a millionaire, or at least relieving a millionaire of much of his fortune. Sugar Kane is no lady: she’s a dame and a dynamite, and an overpoweringly sexy and charismatic one at that. Monroe’s defining performance offers a singular combination of physical-comedy chops and sex-bomb sensuality; to paraphrase a pearl of wisdom often attributed to Monroe, the majesty of Monroe at her best (and she was never better than she is in Some Like It Hot) allowed an endlessly indulgent public to handle her at her frequent worst. –Rabin

20. Howard Beale THE FILM: Network PLAYED BY: Peter Finch

One of the measures of a great movie character is how much that character has seeped into the language of our culture — and Howard Beale, the increasingly crazed news anchor in Network, definitely qualifies. His screamed battle cry “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore” is so often quoted, on practically a daily basis, that it’s become a cliché. The performance is creepily prophetic, the specter of Howard Beale haunting us still: What would Howard Beale think of us now? What would he make of network news? Beale takes a “rage, rage against the dying of the light” approach to the insanity of the world and his own profession, and the hysteria of his language is now par for the course, the air we breathe. Glenn Beck breaking down into tears in front of his ubiquitous blackboard about how we are all doomed and why won’t anyone listen to him? That’s Howard Beale. He’s still with us. Howard Beale will live forever. –O’Malley

19. Mrs. Chan THE FILM: In the Mood for Love PLAYED BY: Maggie Cheung

Simple gestures and quiet spaces help portray the sexual and romantic tension between two neighbors, both married to spouses they suspect are having affairs, in In the Mood for Love. The budding relationship between Maggie Cheung’s Mrs. Chan and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s Mr. Chow isn’t told with words. The scene compositions are intimate; Mrs. Chan’s longing and sadness are captured in the curve of her hip, the lines of her neck, and the way her hand clenches when she finds herself unable to say a word after making a phone call to Mr. Chow. Her kisses come in the form of lipstick-stained cigarettes she leaves behind. Time has passed and distance has grown, but the rituals between them are still the same. –Nastasi

18. Annie Wilkes THE FILM: Misery PLAYED BY: Kathy Bates

In the character of Annie Wilkes, Stephen King (who wrote the novel Misery is based upon) brought to life a successful writer’s worst nightmare: a fan so insanely devoted that they would rather destroy the source of the art, or at least the entertainment they love, than see it travel in a direction they’re not comfortable with. She is the super-fan as super-villain, a stalker whose love of Misery — the plucky heroine of a series of romance novels that have made Paul Sheldon (James Caan) very rich and very creatively unsatisfied — makes her murderously apoplectic once she finds out that her very favorite writer plans to kill off her very favorite character so he can finally devote himself to the cause of Serious Literature. Annie Wilkes is off from the very beginning; there is a sad and sinister edge to her tacky little wallflower existence the moment we meet her, but she plunges deeper and deeper into madness as the film progresses. Bates nails the character’s whiplash shifts from bland cheerfulness to violent, blinding rage — she represents the banality of evil, the Cathy fan as murderous psychopath. She’s pathetic, but she’s also a roaring, dangerous force of nature who is more than a match for the educated, worldly author she keeps in her home as a prisoner. Bates won an Academy Award playing Wilkes and created a character that transcended her origins to become something of a pop-culture archetype: the ultimate crazed fan. –Rabin

17. Tuco THE FILM: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly PLAYED BY: Eli Wallach

Sergio Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western proved that if the “ugly” guy is smart enough, he can land the most screen time. Eli Wallach’s Tuco convinces us of his worth with clownish charms, the buffoonery that hides his true motives, as the Mexican bandit reluctantly teams up with the “good” guy, only so he can uncover some buried treasure. Leone forces us to confront our own wavering moral compass through the character, and it took an artist like Wallach — a trained stage actor with a decade of success when he made the 1966 Western — to create such a character from what could have been a throwaway role. –Nastasi

16. Marcello Rubini THE FILM: La Dolce Vita PLAYED BY: Marcello Mastroianni

One of many fictional forerunners to Don Draper, the protagonist of La Dolce Vita is a handsome and (when he wants to be) affable man who can navigate just about any social milieu. His work as a tabloid journalist — not to mention his libido, and his restlessness — takes him from a long night with a glamorous actress to the site of a religious hoax to a party at an aristocratic castle in the country. In between, we get glimpses of his personal life: a histrionic and rightfully jealous fiancée, an aging father, a friend whose intellectual circle seems to offer Marcello an all-too-fleeting glimpse of what a more fulfilling existence might look like. What makes Marcello, played by the magnetic Marcello Mastroianni, a remarkable character isn’t his charisma — it’s his terrifying lack of a core self. Part of the tragedy of Fellini’s masterpiece is that its antihero has the entire world laid out before him, and despite his intelligence and talent and good looks, he can’t build himself a meaningful life out of any of it. In the half-century since La Dolce Vita‘s premiere, the world Marcello represents has made so many more incursions into mainstream culture, and the emptiness his character signifies has only grown more resonant. -Berman

15. Harry Lime THE FILM: The Third Man PLAYED BY: Orson Welles

Carol Reed’s The Third Man holds back the appearance of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) until nearly halfway through the film. Everyone talks endlessly about Harry Lime, and his presence grows and grows and grows until finally… we get the famous entrance: Orson Welles’ glowing head peeping out of a pitch-black doorway. Harry Lime only has three scenes total in the film (the most memorable the one on the Ferris wheel). Harry Lime is a figure who thrives in times of stress, chaos, and war — a user and a realist, and an opportunist. Symbolic of our worst impulses, and the parts of us we wish to hide or deny, Harry Lime is the kind of man we hope we will not be when times get tough; we hope that we will make the right choices, we hope we will put others above ourselves, we hope our moral compasses will remain intact. Harry Lime, jolly and realistic about his choices, should make us all very uneasy in our certainty about ourselves. –O’Malley

14. Pee-Wee Herman THE FILM: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure PLAYED BY: Paul Reubens

It feels like a bit of a cheat to include Pee-Wee Herman on a list of the greatest film characters, since he began life onstage and was later the star of a 1981 pay cable special. But it was as the star of 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure that the world fell in love with Paul Reubens’ bow-tie-sporting man-child. Working with a young animator-turned-filmmaker named Tim Burton and co-screenwriters Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, Paul Reubens created an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption of a motion picture vehicle that doubles as a deliriously meta meditation on the nature of show business, climaxing with Pee-Wee Herman riding his bike across a Warner Brothers lot that could exist only in a child’s demented, Pixie Stix-addled imagination — where Japanese monster movies, Santa Claus Christmas films, and Twisted Sister music videos all inhabit the same miraculous studio property. Pee-Wee’s wild id of a personality is a forceful and compelling rebuke to the Disneyfied notion of children as innocent little angels. He’s a demented scamp who prioritizes the recovery of his bike above all else in this world and the next; he’s lovable without being sentimental or maudlin. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is the best film Frank Tashlin never made, and in Pee-Wee Herman, it had a live-action cartoon character on par with any in Warner Brothers’ stable, including Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. –Rabin

13. Annie Hall THE FILM: Annie Hall PLAYED BY: Diane Keaton

There are roles that are tailor-made for a performer — and then there’s Annie Hall, a role not only inspired by Diane Keaton’s relationship with writer/co-star Woody Allen, but named after her (she was born Diane Hall). But Keaton’s not just “playing herself”; Annie is a complex combination of independent woman and bubbly goof, glamorous yet earthy, who’s “educated” by intellectual boyfriend Alvy (Allen) so successfully that she ultimately, inevitably outgrows him. Her idiosyncratic wardrobe became popular style and her verbal tics became catchphrases, and Annie Hall became a very specific kind of late-‘70s ideal, but her shadow still looms large over the romantic comedy in particular and popular cinema in general. –Bailey

12. Travis Bickle THE FILM: Taxi Driver PLAYED BY: Robert De Niro

Screenwriter Paul Schrader famously wrote Taxi Driver in a burst that resembled a breakdown, burning the demons of his Calvinist upbringing, gun obsession, and crippling depression into a scorching portrait of a man plunging into madness. It feels, in places, less like an act of creation than of exorcism, and De Niro plays the role with that sense of purpose and possession — while director Martin Scorsese evocatively and mesmerizingly creates the kind of urban hellscape that could not only produce such a man, but push him over the edge. –Bailey

11. Ethan Edwards THE FILM: The Searchers PLAYED BY: John Wayne

Wayne reaches the dark apex of his considerable gifts in John Ford’s 1956 classic. Playing a racist, single-minded killer, Wayne was bold enough to lift up the rock of American history and expose the heartlessness and bigotry behind so much of it. One of the most unforgettable images in cinema is the final shot of The Searchers: Ethan standing alone in the desert, looking through a dark doorframe at the domestic scene inside. He can no longer go through that door. Without self-pity, Wayne turns and ambles off into the dust, but watch for the slight hesitation in his first couple of steps. There’s an internal shattering that happens (Wayne could express that with his back turned). Wayne’s authority in all of the Westerns he made allowed Americans to romanticize their past, to imagine the best about it. Ethan Edwards, in The Searchers, is a harrowing and brutal reminder of the reality. –O’Malley

10. All of Denis Levant’s characters THE FILM: Holy Motors PLAYED BY: Denis Levant

The critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote that Leos Carax’s Holy Motors could “almost be a film made in a time before language, a rendering of modern life – or modern lives – as a kind of cinematic cave painting.” If that’s true (and I think it is), Denis Lavant’s mysterious Mr. Oscar is the figure that represents humanity in every single scene that adorns the film’s rock wall, a caveman actor tasked with playing all the roles. Holy Motors spends a single day with Mr. Oscar, as he changes in and out of elaborate costumes while his chauffeur (or is she?) Céline drives him from appointment to inexplicable appointment. Outside the limo, he transforms into a concerned father, a masked killer, a motion-capture actor, and more; in perhaps the most memorable sequence, he becomes Monsieur Merde (a character who dates back to the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!), a lurching, leprechaun-like oddball who has a bizarre encounter with a model. Carax and Lavant — perhaps the only actor capable of playing such a complex set of nested roles — may be the only people who know exactly what Mr. Oscar represents, but it seems safe to say that the character is to the profession of acting as the film is to the art form of cinema. He embodies the uncanny, miraculous experience of watching real people disappear into fictional roles. -Berman

9. Apu THE FILMS: Pather Panchali, Aparajito, Apur Sansar PLAYED BY: Subir Banerjee, Smaran Ghosal, Soumitra Chatterjee

“The great, sad, gentle sweep of The Apu Trilogy remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 2001 review of the films. “Standing above fashion, it creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived. The three films, which were made in India by Satyajit Ray between 1950 and 1959, swept the top prizes at Cannes, Venice and London, and created a new cinema for India — whose prolific film industry had traditionally stayed within the narrow confines of swashbuckling musical romances. Never before had one man had such a decisive impact on the films of his culture.” Ray’s realist approach and near-sociological focus on Apu’s growth as he acclimates to social and financial pressures makes the Apu Trilogy a stunning work of humanist cinema. –Nastasi

8. Ripley THE FILM: Aliens PLAYED BY: Sigourney Weaver

Weaver’s Ripley — in all of the Alien films, but in Aliens in particular — remains a unique figure in action cinema. Ripley is isolated, internally driven, and a clear leader, with all the loneliness that that implies. Her battles with the aliens usually go down one on one; her strength is as strong as her terror, which gives the performance its rattling tension. The softness she allows herself is necessarily brief, in interactions with the little girl, in banter with Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). But they are the only moments of levity that Ripley can bear — she’s a grim woman in a bleak world. She has endless resources, but even she is not sure how brave she can be. Ripley is one of the greatest of all action heroes, and we are still waiting for her kind to come again. –O’Malley

7. Daniel Plainview THE FILM: There Will Be Blood PLAYED BY: Daniel Day-Lewis

Another actor would have been lost amongst the stretches of fields and skies in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. But Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil tycoon feeds off the land and undergoes a transformation once his hands reach the slick, dark blood of the earth, building an oil derrick and bringing promises of prosperity to the people of Little Boston, California. Day-Lewis and Plainview are intuitive performers — one takes an organic approach to acting, while the other orchestrates a takeover with “good old-fashioned plain speaking.” But the oil fuels his cruelty. “What are you looking so miserable about? There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet. No one can get at it except for me!” he tells his associate after the Little Boston derrick explodes. The accident cost Plainview’s son his ability to hear, but in the magnate’s mind, small sacrifices bring great rewards — and greed is good. –Nastasi

6. The Dude THE FILM: The Big Lebowski PLAYED BY: Jeff Bridges

There are characters that connect with audiences and become iconic. And then there are characters who connect with audiences to such an extent that they damn near become a subculture in themselves. That is the case with The Dude, the Zen slacker played with laid-back, laconic perfection by a never-better Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brothers’ ingenious 1998 detective comedy The Big Lebowski. The film was released to mixed reviews and modest box office, but super-fans embraced the character in all his shambling majesty — the bathrobe, the bowling, the endlessly recyclable quotes, the rug that tied the whole room together, the whole glorious grand gestalt of just barely trying — to such an extent that he became the epicenter of a weird cultural movement that gathers together in various places throughout the country (and world) for Lebowski Fests where fans dress up like their favorite characters, bowl, watch The Big Lebowski and interact with actors from the film, including Bridges, who memorably showed up at one Los Angeles festival. The Big Lebowski is a perfect example of what Quentin Tarantino has called a “hang-out film,” and The Dude’s endlessly agreeable company is one audiences never tire of. Like few characters before or since, The Dude abides; he makes being a stoned, directionless loser seem far more appealing than being a winner. –Rabin

5. The Tramp THE FILMS: Dozens of short films, five features PLAYED BY: Charles Chaplin

Chaplin’s Tramp was a mischievous figure, resourceful, willing to take risks, make the big gesture, and yet baffled at the scrapes he found himself in. The Tramp had pathos, the Tramp had heart. Chaplin, one of the first superstars of the modern age, crafted the character carefully and specifically, until it was a brilliant vessel for all that he wanted to do as an artist. The Tramp could go anywhere. The Tramp could fit into any story. The Tramp could make us hopeful, make us guffaw, make us weep. Roger Ebert observed in his review of Chaplin’s City Lights, “Chaplin and the other silent filmmakers knew no national boundaries. Their films went everywhere without regard for language.” They did, and the Tramp is still one of the most recognizable figures in the world. –O’Malley

4. Norma Desmond THE FILM: Sunset Blvd. PLAYED BY: Gloria Swanson

Norma Desmond is the dark side of Hollywood, the lonely and delusional endgame, the nightmare that beckons once the spotlights have turned off. The need for fame, to be admired, to be wanted is all just another way of saying that you want to be remembered. Swanson’s gigantic stardom during the silent era had faded; she had already lived Norma Desmond’s career trajectory in her own life. Who remembered her now? Well, Billy Wilder did. She gave the performance of a lifetime — one that is grand, funny, and tragic, sometimes in the same moment. When Norma goes mad, you may have seen it coming, but Norma fought like hell to stave it off. There has rarely been a harsher critique of Hollywood (as well as its brutal treatment of women), coming from inside the gates. –O’Malley

3. Jules Winnfield THE FILM: Pulp Fiction PLAYED BY: Samuel L. Jackson

The strains of redemption and (yes) spirituality that runs through Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece are best personified by the arc of hitman-turned-“shepherd” Jules Winnfield, played with a potent mix of fury, cool, and sensitivity by Samuel L. Jackson (in what remains his definitive performance). Jules’ spiritual awakening is initially played for laughs, and it feels as though that’s all Tarantino wants from it. But the more he talks, the more convincing he becomes, and when he’s provided with a well-timed opportunity to exhibit the most divine of traits — mercy — he provides the picture with the quiet force and emotional stakes that still separate Fiction from the countless imitations that followed. –Bailey

2. Vito Corleone THE FILM: The Godfather PLAYED BY: Marlon Brando

Brando’s turn as the patriarch of the Corleone crime family is perhaps the most imitated in all of movies — in comedy sketches, in pizzeria commercials, by De Niro in the sequel, even by Brando himself (in the 1990 gem The Freshman). So it speaks to the brilliance of the performance, and the magnificence of the character, that even when viewed through all of those lenses and reflections, it still lands with such a wallop. After the initial scenes, the viewer stops thinking about Belushi or De Niro or even Brando; Don Corleone’s gravitas, his power, his contemplation, and his affection lifts the character out of the shackles of iconography and renders it fresh and alive all over again. –Bailey

1. Marge Gunderson THE FILM: Fargo PLAYED BY: Frances McDormand

It speaks volumes about the character of Brainerd police chief Margie — and the extraordinary actor playing her — that she doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the Coen Brothers’ brilliant 1996 crime thriller. Yet she looms large in the memory of everyone who sees it, and for good reason: among a motley crew of criminals, liars, killers, and thieves, Margie stands out not only for her keen detection skills, unflappable interrogation techniques, and general sense of “Minnesota nice,” but as the picture’s moral compass. As she tells Peter Stormare’s Gaear, “There’s more to life than just a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that. And here ya are. And it’s a beautiful day.” –Bailey