Roger Ebert once said, “The movies are like a machine that generate empathy.” Stories and characters are essential to manoeuvre such a machine. Characters, in particular, are our window into an artist’s mind. From losing ourselves to fictional worlds to coming to terms with our painful reality, characterization is the core of film experience. It might seem reckless to pick just 40 greatest characters in the 100 plus years rich history of cinema. Some of the choices are obvious, others might seem bewildering, even controversial. Nevertheless, here’s my pick of the greatest movie characters to have graced the screen. Let the debate begin!
40. Yang-Yang in Yi yi (2000)
Edward Yang’s epic swansong is a profoundly intimate depiction of life’s beauty. The film revolves around the Jian family who live in Taipei. The eight-year old Yang-Yang isn’t a pivotal character in the film, but the boy’s myriad curiosities about life are bewitching to witness. He often comes up with simple questions, which in retrospect come across as deeply philosophical. In fact, Yang-Yang ties together the narrative’s thematic ideas. Jonathan Cheng who played Yang-Yang offers one of the most unselfconscious performances by a child actor.
39. Iris in The Match Factory Girl (1990)
Aki Kaursimaki’s minimalist dark comedies focus on the drab existence of the working-class. The Match Factory Girl opens with positioning pale-faced Iris among the monotonous humdrum of the machines. Marginalized by the society and ignored by her parents, the young woman decides to take revenge. Kaurismaki’s protagonists are generally taciturn in nature. It’s because their socioeconomic status allows for limited social life or human interaction. In fact, the unglamorous portrayal of Iris perfectly captures emotionally numbing life experience.
38. Ana in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)
Victor Erice’s nuanced tale of lost innocence features one of the most incredible child characters in cinema. The narrative mostly follows five-year old Ana and her slightly older sister, Isabel. It dives deep in the psyche of a child. Through Ana, we witness how a child perceives the world. The film further focuses on impact of cinema on children. Ana’s penetrative gaze upon the inscrutable circumstances remind us the impactful experiences of our own formative years.
37. Frances Ha (2012)
Written and performed by Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is an exuberant character study as well as a portrait of post-college generation. Gerwig’s Frances captures modern human experience unlike any other works. Frances is initially seen as a confused woman-child who has developed a deep bond with her best friend Sophie. When Sophie decides to move in with her boyfriend, Frances is left to deal with the pain of loneliness in myriad ways. There’s more to Frances than her quirkiness and childlike sulking. She constantly reinvents herself and always withholds a low-key hope for life.
36. Man with No Name in Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966)
Man with No Name is Clint Eastwood’s most iconic character from Sergio Leone’s Dollar Trilogy. Made between the years 1964 and 1966, the trilogy features a nameless and morally ambiguous gun-slinger. Unlike the conventional John Wayne-type Cowboys, Eastwood’s character is a cryptic outsider whose behaviour at times is unpredictable. Moreover, Sergio Leone’s unique artistic vision made it more three-dimensional than it sounds. The inspiration behind Man with No Name is obviously Kurosawa’s hero in Yojimbo (1961).
35. Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Norma Desmond, a washed-up actress living alone in the Hollywood hills, symbolizes the darker side of fame and fortune. Billy Wilder’s film is an acute examination of the rampant corruption and self-destruction in an industry that sells dreams. Norma, a silent cinema idol, now in her middle-age suffers from delusions of grandeur. Bolstered by Gloria Swanson’s phenomenal performance, Norma’s emotional crisis resonates even in today’s Instagram age.
34. HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of a menacing artificially intelligent robot captured a generation of moviegoer’s imagination. A red-tinted camera-eye and an eerily calm, monotonous voice are the minimal traits of HAL. And this AI sent to assist its human companions during a space travel gradually turns into a killing machine. At the same time, HAL is a cryptic character and something more than a killer robot. In fact, an interesting emotional crisis exists behind HAL’s erratic and dangerous behaviour which is what makes the character haunting.
33. James Bond
James Bond is one of the most influential heroic archetypes to emerge at the height of Cold War. The super-spy character was created by Ian Fleming and popularized by the series of novels he wrote from 1953. From Barry Nelson to Daniel Craig, seven actors have so far portrayed James Bond. Though Bond isn’t a very complex character, there’s been a visible transformation with Craig’s interpretation of the character. Sean Connery’s Bond is definitely lot of fun. But Craig added more layers to the pop-culture icon.
32. Billy in Kes (1969)
Billy is an underprivileged 14-year old boy from a mining town in Northern England. He is malnourished, hails from a broken home, and education system offers him nothing other than punishment. In this bleak scenario, Billy finds a kestrel chick and takes great care to train it. He develops a skill in training a wild hawk which shows the boy’s true potential. Billy’s life and struggles hauntingly portray the horrors of societal inequality. David Bradley’s naturalistic performance makes the character extremely relatable.
31. Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump is a guy with below-average IQ who was lucky enough to be brought up by a loving mother. The narrative charts his transformation from boyhood to adulthood. What doesn’t change in Forrest in the process is his devotion to the people around him. The character’s outlook on life is best summed up through this line: “Life is like box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” It signifies Forrest’s open-mindedness while perpetually pursuing love, happiness, and peace.
30. Julie in Three Colors: Blue (1993)
Kieslowski’s profound drama revolves around a woman caught in the grieving cycle after losing her husband and son to an accident. The narrative largely showcases Julie’s interiority. We attune ourselves to Julie’s gaze as she gradually comes to terms with the traumatic incident. Of course, the intriguing aspect is that the character’s grief is never expressed through words. Characters in cinema can deeply convey internal emotions unlike any other art form. The fully-realized character of Julie, further strengthened by Binoche’s stellar performance, is a testament to that.
29. Erika in The Piano Teacher (2001)
Erika Kohut is one of the most challenging and complex characters in cinema. Based on a novel by Elfride Jelinek, Erika’s tale traces the effects of repression in a restrictive society. She is a 30-something piano teacher who lives with her controlling mother. Erika’s dysfuctionality escalates when she engages in a romantic relationship. Haneke’s films are often about humans navigating their feelings in a society of control. Through Erika, we deeply perceive how severe personal repression is perpetuated by an institutionalized society and culture.
28. Johnny in Naked (1993)
Set in post-Thatcher era London, Mike Leigh’s darkly funny drama features the most garrulous and incredibly complex anti-hero. Johnny Fletcher is a problematic yet a hard-to-ignore character in cinema. He puts us through several uncomfortable moments, but he’s surprisingly also capable of tenderness. Like most Mike Leigh’s works, the film was developed by improvisations and workshops. In fact, the initial draft of the script was said to be only 25 pages long. David Thewlis’ explosive performance greatly helped in shaping and realizing this challenging and deeply flawed character.
27. Col. Mathieu in Battle of Algiers (1966)
Slim and tall, black sunglasses, camouflage uniform adorned with French military insignia, eloquent speeches – Col. Mathieu is an unforgettable symbol of ruthless colonial rule. Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers is a multi-layered political cinema that chronicles Algerians’ struggles to overthrow their French colonizers. Though it’s largely made with non-professional actors, Jean Martin who admirably played Col. Mathieu is the only professional actor. This fictional character was a composite of several French counterinsurgency officers. The scary notion about Col. Mathieu is that he is neither a sadist nor a madman. There’s a logic and commitment to his ruthlessness.
26. Kaspar Hauser in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Werner Herzog’s quasi-biographical drama is based on the true, mysterious tale of Kaspar Hauser. In 1828, 16-year old Kaspar was found with a note in the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He is claimed to have grown up in a dark cell with little human interaction. At the outset, Kaspar’s life teaches us what conditions of deprivation can do to human development. But dig deeper, and Kaspar’s worldview questions the absurdity of the human condition.
25. The Investigation Magistrate in Z (1969)
Costa Gavras’ incendiary political thriller features one of the most intrepid characters in cinema. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays investigation magistrate, a man who unflinchingly speaks truth to power. Z was based on the real-life assassination of Greek social democrat, Grigoris Lambrakis. The character was inspired from Christos Sartzatakis, the man who prosecuted the assassins in the case. Big, dark glass and a stoic face, the magistrate is a truly neutral man whose steadfast enquiry sends tremors across the establishment.
Jim Jarmusch’s protagonists are often ordinary and solitary men. His Paterson offers an outstanding portrayal of a simple man with a mundane job and a penchant for poetry. Featuring a riveting performance from Adam Driver, the film chronicles an uneventful week in the life of a bus driver. Paterson, who shares his name with the city of Paterson, is a man of unchanging routine. He is gentle, hardworking, and doesn’t beat himself up in an effort to find the meaning of life. His eye for poetry finds great beauty out of the mundanity.
23. The Chief Inspector in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)
In Elio Petri’s political satire, the homicide detective chief – only credited as The Chief Inspector – symbolizes the authoritarian mindset. The film opens with the Inspector visiting his mistress and killing her. The man deliberately leaves evidence that might implicate him. What unfolds is the Inspector wickedly testing the boundaries of his power. ‘Repression is civilization!’ proclaims the fascistic Inspector whose shenanigans would resonate across time. Besides, Gian Maria Volonte’s thunderous performance intensifies the character’s impact on the viewers.
22. Gollum in Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Frodo and Samwise’s persistence in the face of greater evil is undeniably inspiring. But what captivates me more in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the dark and tragic story of Gollum. The unquenchable desire for the Ring mutates the human named Smeagol into Gollum. Gollum is a symbol of maliciousness, obsession, and greed. It’s also a poor wretched creature that often brilliantly displays the conflicts deep within. Eventually, what makes Gollum a memorable screen-character is Andy Serkis’ breathtaking motion-capture performance.
21. Keiko in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)
Mikio Naruse’s seminal Japanese drama is centred on Keiko, a young and widowed bar hostess. Played with great restraint by the strikingly beautiful Hideko Takamine, Keiko survives in an environment where she is seen as a commodity by men. Through Keiko, Naruse explores the various social constructs that restrict women, including marriage. But this isn’t a uniformly bleak affair though Keiko goes through several devastating ordeals. In fact, Takamine and Naruse don’t push us to pity Keiko, rather admire and respect her.
20. Hossain Sabzian in Close-Up (1990)
Hossain Sabzian is a real person, and not a fictional creation. He is a poor man who is interested in cinema. He passed himself as director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to the well-to-do Ahankhah family. When Sabzian’s secret came to light, the family had him arrested for fraud. In Close-Up, Kiarostami brilliantly re-enacts the aforementioned real-life scenarios. He asked everyone including Sabzian to play themselves. Subsequently, he registers Sabzian’s suffering and his desire to be seen and heard. Close-Up blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Similarly, though Sabzian is a real person, Kiarostami’s artistry deeply probes into the intriguing facets of his personality.
19. Jeanne Dielman (1975)
Chantel Akerman’s powerful character portrait excruciatingly captures the mundanity within the domestic space. The eponymous character is a middle-aged woman living with her teenage son. There are long and lingering shots focusing on Dielman’s household chores. The minimal character traits plus meticulous yet repetitive visuals deliberately challenges the viewers. But with patience, we gradually start paying attention to Dielman’s caged existence. And later we identify with her anxiety and emotional pain which consequently leads to chaos. Delphine Seyrig’s extremely nuanced performance makes the character more memorable.
18. Amélie (2001)
Amélie Poulain is a shy and isolated young woman. Due to her sheltered life as a child, Amélie lacks friends. Hence, she puts a fantastical spin on everything, and learns to celebrate life’s small pleasures. On the outset, Amélie seems like a vivacious heroine archetype. But director Jeunet and actress Audrey Tatou dig deep into the character’s psychological makeup. Amélie’s mission in life is simple: to spread love and happiness. At the same time, she takes care of herself and finds her own happiness. I wish to possess Amélie’s poetic vision of everyday life.
17. Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s satire polarized viewers at the time of its release, and gradually attained a cult following. The greatest appeal of the narrative is Tyler Durden. Created by Chuck Palanhiuk, but brilliantly shaped by Fincher and Brad Pitt, Durden is a charismatic anarchist. He is also one of the most misunderstood movie characters, since with the advent of social media networks Durden was turned into a heroic figure. However, despite his truthful sermons, Durden is a monstrous creation of a ruthless capitalist society.
16. Mabel Longhetti in A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
John Cassavettes’ film offers an achingly intimate portrait of an emotionally turbulent housewife from a lower middle-class household. Gena Rowlands’ Mabel Longhetti is eccentric, imaginative, and idiosyncratic. She often doesn’t conform to the iron-clad expectations of ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ social behaviour. Mabel lays bare her pain and anguish that at times is hard to watch as a viewer. But her vulnerability and desperation to be accepted makes us deeply reflect on the lives trampled by social conventions.
15. Noriko in Late Spring (1949)
Late Spring marks the new phase in Japanese master Ozu’s career. It’s also Ozu’s first of the many collaborations with Japan’s most admired actress, Setsuko Hara. Hara played the different characters that was named Noriko in three of Ozu’s films. Noriko is one of the many strong-willed female characters of Ozu who navigate their way through post-war Japan. It might seem like a simple story about a father and daughter. However, there are deeper undercurrents to Noriko which slowly get pushed to the surface.
14. Dr. Mabuse
The mysterious criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse was a fictional character created by German novelist Norbert Jacques. The great German filmmaker Fritz Lang made three films about the character. Actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge offered a chilling performance as Mabuse in two of the films – Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). Apart from Lang, few other filmmakers also made Dr. Mabuse films. However, only Lang perfectly brought to screen the sociopathic tendencies of this character. Dr. Mabuse, a master of disguises and mind control, is probably one of cinema’s first super-villains. He is a scary stand-in for all the perceived evils in the society.
13. Sinan in The Wild Pear Tree (2018)
Turkish auteur Ceylan’s extraordinary drama follows Sinan, a young aspiring writer, coping with loneliness and disappointments. He is arrogant, hypocritical, and lot of his statements brim with pessimism. Yet there’s more to Sinan as Ceylan painstakingly dissects the character’s internal conflicts. Sinan’s conflict with his father or his quest to overcome societal judgments is deeply relatable. Sinan’s arc in the narrative gracefully emphasizes on the complicated process through which we come terms with our lives and goals.
12. Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part I & II
Vito Corleone is one of the only two characters in cinematic history in which two actors have won an Oscar for playing the same character. The other character was Joker. One of the most unforgettable trivia in movie history was how Marlon Brando auditioned for the role. Who would have thought Brando’s transformation into the patriarch of Corleone family started with Kleenex and some shoe polish? The iron-willed Vito’s younger version was played with greater nuance by Robert de Niro. Both the actors brilliantly capture the iconic character’s moral compass as well as his resilience.
11. Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Daniel Plainview is more enigmatic than some of the classic American fictional characters like Charles Foster Kane and Michael Corleone. His evolution from an oil prospector to a hardened oil tycoon was captured with breathtaking intimacy. Plainview is ambitious as well as obsessive. There’s a tender side to him, but at the same time he uses emotions to manipulate. He is charismatic as well as foolhardy. In fact, there’s a lot to him than meets the eye. It would be reductive to label him a ‘villain’ or ‘anti-hero’. Overall, it’s a compelling study of an individual in the face of greed and power.
10. Gelsomina in La Strada (1954)
The cruel fate of sweet, naive and fragile Gelsomina always makes me cry. Fellini’s gritty drama tells the story of a young woman, who is sold by her mother to a brutish man running a travelling sideshow. Giulietta Masina’s brilliant physical performance turns Gelsomina into such an iconic character. Her sad eyes and waiflike face expresses Gelsomina’s struggle to achieve dignity and affection. Through the compassionate Gelsomina, Fellinis asks deeper questions about human nature.
9. Monsieur Hulot
Wrinkled long trench coat, stripped socks, soft hat pipe, and umbrella – that’s how we recognize Monsieur Hulot. The shy, awkward, and complex Hulot was the creation of legendary French comic actor Jacques Tati. Tati himself played the role of Hulot in five of his films, made between 1949 and 1971. The films have almost no dialogues. These films largely observe the character’s peculiarities as he navigates his way through modern landscapes and human behaviour. Overall, it’s an undeniably timeless character with a humane gaze.
8. Darth Vader
Darth Varder in Star Wars franchise is probably the most iconic antagonist of all time. More than his spine-chilling voice and armoured costume, the Sith Lord’s ruthless actions make him an unforgettable character. In fact, the legacy of Darth Vader led to the Prequel trilogy, made between 1999 and 2005. There we get to see the meticulous transformation of young Anakin Skywalker to Darth Varder. Impatience and fear of loss are what make him embrace the dark side. In a way, Vader’s story is the story of all tyrants.
7. The Dude in Big Lebowski (1998)
Coen brothers’ famous inimitable comedy features one of the greatest slacker characters in cinema. The laid-back Jeff Lebowski aka The Dude has a very simple perspective about life. All he wanted was the rug to tie the room together. Or leave his worries and spend time on the bowling alley. But a case of mistaken identity and a soiled rug entangles him into a convoluted scheme. The Big Lebowski was neither a critical nor commercial success during its release. But the Dude’s attitude towards life and his enjoyable eccentric behaviour is ingrained in pop-culture lexicon.
6. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976)
Written by screenwriter/director Paul Schrader, Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is a mentally unstable Vietnam War veteran. He works as a night-time taxi driver in New York. His perspective of the society is determined by his profound loneliness and paranoia. Unable to socialize with people, what he largely focuses on is the decadence around him. This includes an urge to save a teenage prostitute. Though his violence intimidates us, we can sympathize with this flawed character. Most importantly, Travis’ disturbing descent is astoundingly realized by Robert de Niro.
5. The Ronin in Harakiri (1962)
Director Masaki Kobayashi used his central characters to question authoritarianism and blind obedience. The best of his creation was Hanshiro Tsugumo, an honest samurai condemned by the social system of 17th century feudal Japan. Played to astounding perfection by Tatsuya Nakadai, the narrative opens with Hanshiro arriving at his feudal lord’s mansion. The penniless ronin seeks permission to commit ritual suicide – harakiri – on his lord’s property. It’s one of the best dissident characters in cinema, who narrates his timeless story with a grim resolve.
4. The Tramp
In 1915, the legendary Charles Chaplin made his first appearance as The Tramp, a goofy fellow with toothbrush moustache. Baggy pants, large shoes, derby hat, cane, and the walk with splayed feet – these are all the easily identifiable aspects of Tramp. The 26-minute silent-comedy Tramp (1915) was an instant hit with the audience. However, Chaplin’s creation kept evolving over the next two decades. Chaplin’s Tramp is an impoverished outsider, whom the common populace can identify and sympathize with. Moreover, Chaplin’s genius lies in striking the delicate balance between pathos and humour.
3. The Joker
An anarchic, an antisocial, Joker’s villainy is unparalleled in the fictional universe. The character first appeared on an issue of Batman comic book in 1940. Joker was initially conceived only as a throwaway villain, but gradually became one of the most studied evil characters. His looks – especially his physical deformities – were inspired by the central character in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel. The novel The Man Who Laughs was also adapted into a silent film in 1928. However, from a psychological point of view, Joker is a very unique and iconic creation. Over the years, many actors have played Joker. But, Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of the character are the most celebrated.
2. Michael Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy
The character journey of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic is as fascinating as it is shocking. The character was written by Mario Puzo, shaped by Coppola, and masterfully brought to screen by Al Pacino. Michael Corleone, the third son of Don Vito Corleone, initially comes across as an intelligent yet innocent young man. But circumstances and his own ruthless decisions put him in a position of power. What power does to Michael is one of the most darkest and tragic stories in the history of cinema.
1. Apu in Apu Trilogy
Satyajit Ray‘s Apu Trilogy – Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959) – traces Apu’s growth from childhood to early adulthood. The films are an adaptation of Bibhutibushan Bandopadhyay’s popular Bengali novels. Born in an impoverished family in rural Bengal, Apu is a bright kid who keenly observes the world around him. Despite going through trials and tribulations in life, Apu’s inquisitive eye always withholds hope. Over the years, technological leap in cinema is awe-inspiring. But it’s a rarity in cinema to create such a highly influential and poignant character.
A list of the greatest movie characters can be homogenous and depressingly dominated by Hollywood films. I’ve tried to be more inclusive. In the process, I have left out some of the iconic characters and included the ones which are less talked about but nonetheless deeply impactful. From Indiana Jones to Batman, some of the blockbuster heroes didn’t make the cut. Over to you! Let’s now hear about your favourite onscreen characters that didn’t make it to the list.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’