The Top 10 Greatest Film Characters Of The Modern Age

Great films are often so due to the characters appearing in them – the Good Guy, the Bad Guy, the Fair Maiden In Distress; archetypal characters and the unique, often strike a chord with audiences to almost become larger than the films they appeared in. This list represents our choices for the greatest characters in film over the last 30-odd years – a list which was no mean feat to put together. Thousands of famous characters from hundreds of thousands of films, all with varying degrees of popularity. Often, a character in a film becomes part of the pop-culture lexicon, a touchstone for a generation, if you will. We’ve chosen 10 characters in film that, in one form or another, have become cultural icons of our time.

In the hundred or so years since film was invented and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of ink has been spilled over lists and articles about just who has been the best – the best director, the best actor, the best musician – like humanity can’t get enough out of figuring out the most superior of our own self-importance. The Hollywood awards season seems to last the entire year, with a multitude of industry-based awards shows dominating the blogosphere and newsprint each and every month, culminating in the very pinnacle of cinematic artistic achievement, The Academy Awards. Each year, golden gongs are handed out to those folks judged by others folks to be the best in their category at what they’ve done that year. Whether those awards are warranted or not isn’t the point of this article; here, we’re going to spotlight the very best of the best – the best Actors and Actresses, the best Directors, the best Films, even the best cinematic advances of the Modern Age. What do I mean by Modern Age, you ask. Simple. Hollywood’s boom times of the 30’s and 40’s, at least prior to the War, are known today as the Golden Age, and the three decades after that could be termed the Bronze Age – with a shift into color film, multi-channel stereo and the re-invention of the Hollywood “blockbuster” away from biblical epics and sweeping melodramatic romance. The 80’s, however, when you look at films produced at that time in a reflective mood, represents a shift both artistically and stylistically in the medium of film to such a degree that I think a new “age” of Hollywood could be coined: the Modern Age. An epoch of cinema between 1980 and 2010, 30 years of both massive successes, and epic fails. The Greatest of the Modern Age series attempts to distill the best of the Modern Age into a series of opinion-based lists, and we hope you enjoy (if not disagree with) our work.

Great films are often so due to the characters appearing in them – the Good Guy, the Bad Guy, the Fair Maiden In Distress; archetypal characters and the unique, often strike a chord with audiences to almost become larger than the films they appeared in. This list represents our choices for the greatest characters in film over the last 30-odd years – a list which was no mean feat to put together. Thousands of famous characters from hundreds of thousands of films, all with varying degrees of popularity. Often, a character in a film becomes part of the pop-culture lexicon, a touchstone for a generation, if you will. We’ve chosen 10 characters in film that, in one form or another, have become cultural icons of our time.

It came and went almost without notice: the very first Austin Powers film, International Man of Mystery, flitted in and out of cinemas without barely pausing to stop. Consigned to the dustbin of cinema failures for comedian Mike Myers, the film became a cult favorite on DVD, and soon fans were clamoring for more. Soon enough, two more feature film eventuated, each one revolving around the Naked Gun-style spoof version of James Bond in Myers’ titular character, Austin Powers, a British spy with bad teeth and an insatiable sexual appetite. Myer’s comic timing was never better than it was playing Powers, but it was Powers’ nemesis, the bald headed Dr Evil, whom audiences responded to best. Dr Evil’s unique mannerisms and manner of speech were easy to parody, eminently quotable, and utterly hilarious – the sequel even saw Dr Evil create a tiny clone of himself, Mini Me, to take the place of the good Doctor’s hated son, Scott Evil. Suffering a substantial time-lag in dealing with modern day life as a result of being frozen since the 60’s, Dr Evil remains famous for his single-finger-to-the-mouth routine, something the modern age has used to represent malevolence ever since – in a humorous context, of course.

Since he first swept onto the dock from his sinking ship in the first Pirates Of the Caribbean film, The Curse Of The Black Pearl, audiences took the could-he-be-drunken antics of Captain Jack Sparrow to their hearts and minds. Depp once described his performance of Sparrow as a combination of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Bugs Bunny stablemate Pepe le Pew, and somehow the character just works. Seemingly drunk out of his mind, and yet wily with a touch of great comic timing, Sparrow would go on to star in a further three films, with audiences embracing Depp’s acting genius and even the Oscar crew giving him a nomination for Best Actor in the role. Outside of Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow is probably Johnny Depp’s most iconic role.

Redefining the sexy, slutty, sultry Mom I’d Like To Fornicate (with), Jennifer Coolidge’s single scene portrayal of loudmouth jockstrap Steve Stiffler’s mother in seducing nerdy Paul Finch at a school party was enough to drag the acronym MILF into the modern vernacular, and almost single-handedly steal the entire film: that film being American Pie. It was the iconic fantasy of a young man having his first sexual experience with an older woman, alluded to through the film by Finch himself, that created such an iconic moment in audiences’ minds – with the added bonus of Stifler himself walking in on his mother inflagrante delecto with a classmate being the hilarious, if slightly awkward, icing on the cake. What could have been a pretty icky scene in the film is given charm and wit by the glint in Coolidge’s eyes, and Eddie Kaye Thomas’s youthful enthusiasm as Finch. And for those reading this, I know what MILF means. And “fornicate” isn’t the word.

The Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker, has been portrayed by only 3 actors through the cinematic journey; in 1989 Jack Nicholson brought his trademark sneer to the part, and prior to that, Caesar Romero essayed the role in the campy 60’s TV show and it’s subsequent big-screen iterations. However, it wasn’t until 2008’s sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, where the character really outshone the lead role – Heath Ledger’s last full performance on film before his untimely passing was both evocative and profoundly moving, both for its off-screen echoes of sadness and its on-screen creepy menace. Ledger was awarded numerous posthumous awards for the role, including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. His Joker, unlike the previous incarnations before him, was filled with true insanity, the kind of madness which pushes aside the character’s comic book roots and strives for a realism, a cinematic truth, which had hitherto escaped most comic-book films. Jack Nicholson’s swaggering leer was cast aside with a truly awe-inspiring performance from Ledger, and it’s fair to say, I don’t see the role being equaled in our lifetime. Any actor brave enough to try after Ledger will have to suffer the inevitable comparisons.

Powerful, unstoppable, cruel and malevolent – he’s the 2000’s equivalent of the Terminator, only he exists inside a giant computer simulation and only The One can stop him. I am, of course, referring to the central Bad Guy of the Wachowski Brother’s seminal sci-fi epic, The Matrix. Agent Smith is a computer program inside the Matrix, a massive shared hive-mind system designed to enslave humanity for power to the Machines which have taken over the planet, and his sole reason for existence is to hunt down the rogue human known as The One, and in the Matrix trilogy, that guy is Neo (Keanu Reeves). Smith, who together with his programmed fellow Agents, takes point in the pursuit of Neo, engaging in combat and gunplay with our heroes throughout the saga. Portrayed by Hugo Weaving, then a little known Aussie actor best remembered as a drag queen in Priscilla: Queen of The Desert, and who would go on to appear in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy (and in doing so seem to sport the very same accent and mannerisms of Agent Smith in the process!) Agent Smith is a perfect screen villain – he’s powerful, unstoppable and never tired, the antithesis of humanity’s struggle against the Machines. His descriptive monologue to a captive Morpheus, comparing humanity to a virus, is one of the trilogy’s great moments, and perfectly captures the reason for Smith’s existence.

Before 2002, nobody on Earth had even heard of Andy Serkis, a British actor called upon by New Zealand director Peter Jackson to play the pivotal role of Gollum in his production of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. After December 2002, when the second film in the trilogy had been released, everyone knew who he was. Gollum, the wretched creature intent on regaining possession of the titular Ring Of Power from Frodo Baggins, was actually a computer generated character on-screen, but the live action work had been performed by Serkis on set, resulting in a more believable performance from his co-stars. The digital work on Gollum was astonishingly realistic – and still holds up even now, a decade later – but the success of this character would be nothing without the impact of Serkis’ original performance. He perfected the voice, he rolled, kicked and crawled his way across the cinematic Middle Earth in both The Two Towers and Return Of The King, and in doing so became the poster-child for motion capture performances ever since. Serkis went back into the skin-tight suit and computer room for his performance in Jackson’s big-budget King King remake, and in 2011 once more played a simian in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes thanks to the wonders of performance capture – the digital artists on the computers finished the Gollum creation off, of course, but they were guided by the remarkable performance of Serkis himself. And as such a tragic figure in the story, such an iconic role of literature, the confluence of both acting, digital effects and perfect cinematic storytelling, ensure Gollum has a place inside our top 10.

Designed as an archetypal cinematic hero by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and reminiscent of the pulp heroes they had enjoyed in their youth, Indiana Jones was, like Star Wars, lightning in a bottle that came along at the peak of the creative genius that was early 80’s cinema. Fresh from his Star Wars success, George Lucas teamed with Jaws director Spielberg to craft the perfect Sunday-afternoon-matinee flick, delivering high adventure, great cheesy Bad Guys, square jawed Good Guys, a sexy and strong Leading Lady, and rollicking globetrotting adventure. Indy, as performed by Harrison Ford, became an 80’s icon, with three films released during that decade, and a fourth most recently in 2008. Sporting a bullwhip, a tattered fedora, and a hatred of snakes, Indiana Jones was a battle weary explorer seeking ancient relics around the globe at the potential cost of his own life, and thwarting both Nazi’s and evil Indian cult leaders in the process. Ford’s laconic performance, as well as the razor sharp scripting (especially in the original film, Raiders Of The Lost Ark), gave audiences the thrills and scares they were waiting for, wrapped up in the warm-fuzzy style of Spielberg at his zenith.

One of the great films of the 90’s, Fight Club introduced us to the anarchic Tyler Durden, one half of the duo of leading men in David Fincher’s seminal classic. Brad Pitt portrays the grungy id of the films’ narrator (played by Edward Norton) in the brutal, grimy, anti-social thriller with one of modern cinemas greatest twist endings. Durden incites Nortons character to create an underground fighting organization, surreptitious and secretive in nature, and positively masculine in execution. Under this cover of male bonding through unrestricted brawling, Durden and the rest of the subordinate Fight Clubbers take to creating mayhem on the streets of the unnamed city in which this film occurs. Pitt embodied the bitter, twisted mind of Durden perfectly, the fine balance of complete insanity and crafty subterfuge resulting in one of modern cinemas most iconic roles. Norton is, as usual, solid in his leading role, but the film is stolen by Pitt in his.

Forever ruining Chianti and fava beans for film fans around the world with a single, eerie line, Anthony Hopkins seared the character of Hannibal Lecter into the minds of audiences in Silence Of The Lambs and collected an Oscar for his trouble. Hopkin’s chilling, incredibly enduring portrayal of one of Hollywood’s most psychopathic serial killers, has since become a shorthand in pop-culture for the kind of monsters we now see almost every day on shows like Criminal Minds and Law & Order, and although he only appeared in the film for a grand total of 16 minutes, gave us a horror villain unlike any we’d seen before – or since. The Lecter character had been essayed on screen before Silence, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, with Brian Cox playing the role, yet Hopkins turned the character into his signature role with the wild eyed, whip-smart and coolly icy murderer: perhaps it the fact that he’s locked away in one seriously secure cell that elevates his aura, or perhaps it’s the cavalier way in which he described characteristics about interviewer Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), but whatever it is, the sight of Hannibal standing expectantly, jumpsuit on, waiting for a conversation, in his opening scene, still gives me chills. Hopkins would play the role twice more, in Ridley Scott’s underwhelming and confusing Hannibal, and in Brett Ratner’s good-but-not-great Red Dragon, although he never quite got the same quivering chills as he did in Silence Of The Lambs.

If you were to create a list of the best roles Arnold Schwarzenegger ever played, at the top of everyone’s list would have to be the iconic Terminator. Originally a machine sent back through time to kill the mother of a future human resistance leader, and in the sequel sent back by that resistance to protect the now-young son of that same mother (make sense yet?), the Terminator was the perfect killing weapon. Designed for one purpose, to kill humans, Arnie’s monotone portrayal of the role suited his limited acting ability perfectly. In the original Terminator, Schwarzenegger only speaks 18 lines, one of which is the oft-quoted “I’ll be back”, a line which haunted the actor for the rest of his career. In the sequel, the T100 is sent back to protect a young John Connor from a new, more powerful Terminator design, the T1000, a machine made of liquid metal with the ability to morph its appearance to whatever shape – including human – it desired to accomplish its mission. In the third film, the T100 returns once more to protect John Connor’s future partner from harm by an even more deadly Terminator, the female-formed TX. Perhaps because the role didn’t require much thespianism from Arnie, and played to his admittedly impressive physical strengths, the role has since become one of the most enduring and iconic of all those created since 1980. No sight is more terrifying to cinema audiences than Arnie in that leather jacket striding out of the mist, shotgun and mini-gun at his side, ready to obliterate all who stand in his way. For that reason, the Terminator makes its grandest triumph of being our number 1 pick for the greatest cinema character of the modern age.


Think we’ve missed someone? Got an alternative suggestion? We’d love to hear what you have to say – leave your thoughts in the comments section below!!


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16 thoughts on “The Top 10 Greatest Film Characters Of The Modern Age

  1. Terrific list Rodney! I can't argue with number one but glad to see Hannibal Lector rated so highly. He's definitely one of those characters that sticks out when I think of memorable people from the 1990s.

    Jack Sparrow would probably rate higher for me if he hadn't been in such terrible sequels.

    Nice addition to include Stifler's Mom! Just watched the first two American Pie films for the first time in ages recently. I enjoyed them more than I thought I would.

    1. Thanks Dan!! When I first saw Silence Of The Lambs, I had nightmares for a week afterwards and Lecter coming to get me… and he wasn't the main Bad Guy! Go figure! And of course I had to include Stifler's Mom… the archetypal older woman all men fantasize about!

  2. Love this list! Go the villains! Might have to replace Stifler's Mum with the Blair Witch. Love the way she dominates the movie and doesn't even bother to show up! Napoleon Dynamite could also sneak on here with those dance moves.

    1. Ha ha, thanks Pete. It wasn't my intention to have the majority of this list comprising villains, it's just the way it all worked out! LOL! But there's no way the Blair Witch would make it, and, if I was honest, nor would poor Mr Dynamite.

  3. Interesting that most of them are villains but I guess bad guys often do make more of an impression than the heroes, well unless certain actors play the hero, like the one I'm celebrating today 😀

    Totally agree w/ The Joker, Agent Smith and Terminator for the villains, as for the hero, it doesn't get any better than Indiana Jones, at least for the last 30 years. If we go longer, then I'd add James Bond to the list.

    1. Hmm, you're right about the majority of this list containing film villains! I didn't notice that before! Which is going to cause a problem when I try coming up with a list of the best film villains of the Modern Age…. LOL!!

  4. Wow, tough list to write… The Joker should be #1, i think, and then Jack Sparrow (good call!). As for the Terminator, i guess it comes down to the question does "iconic" = "great film character"? If it does, then maybe Rambo beats out Stiffler's Mom.

    Jim Carrey would definitely make my list. You may argue he's not a character, but i don't think he's a real person so…

    1. Bwaa haaaa!!!! Jim Carrey on this list – that's awesome! Love your work, Al! Perhaps a tip-o-the-hat to Ace Ventura, perhaps?

      Rambo…. well, yeah, there's a case to be made for his inclusion as well…

  5. @Rodney: Hmmm, well I haven't seen any Austin Powers movie, so I'll just ignore #10. Definitely Stiffler's mom then, who I honestly don't find a noteworthy character at all. And I think The Terminator. (Sure, he's iconic and all but when it comes down it, he's a robot with no personality.)

    1. So he's an iconic robot but doesn't deserve a place in the sun here? I guess you could argue for Stifler's Mom, but dropping the terminator? Man, you're very brave!

  6. Haha, I only agree with two choices of yours: Tyler Durden (Fight Club being one of my all-time favorites) and Hannibal Lecter. I'd have loved to see The Dude, and Ash from the Evil Dead trilogy on there.

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