100 Memorable Movie Characters – The Top 10

The most amazing thing for me is that every single person who sees a movie brings a whole set of unique experiences. Through careful manipulation & good storytelling you can get everybody to clap at the same time, to hopefully laugh at the same time, and to be afraid at the same time. – Steven Spielberg

“Stay tuned for the Top 10…coming…soon-ish.” That’s what I said at the end of the previous installment of this series…a little over a year ago. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but this isn’t the time to dive down that rabbit hole. At this moment I just want to finish what I started way back in October 2019. As I’m sure you’ll want a little refresher please check out how we got to this point by going here, here, here, here, & here. It’s good to be back.

10      Forrest Gump (Forrest Gump)

An unnamed person, in a conversation with legendary college football coach Bear Bryant, describes the titular character in 1994’s Best Picture simply & succinctly as “a local idiot”. Of course he is so much more. It is my understanding that the film is significantly different in tone from the book it is based on, but either way it is a flight of fancy in which the aforementioned idiot finds himself in a number of inexplicable situations, from playing college football at Alabama to becoming a war hero to blowing the whistle on Watergate burglars to owning his own shrimping business. Forrest isn’t completely oblivious, and he has a level of common sense that would be the envy of many real life individuals nowadays. He loves his Mama and meets his girl Jenny in grade school, although it takes her a few decades to return his affection. Those two ladies are all he really cares about until he gets to Vietnam and meets his buddy Bubba, whose life is cut tragically short, and Lt. Dan, who eventually becomes his best friend & business partner. Tom Hanks won his second consecutive Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, and we all should be thankful he got the part after John Travolta, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Sean Penn all allegedly passed on it.

Quotes

“Mama always said ‘Life is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get’.”

“Jenny and me was like peas & carrots.”

“Mama says stupid is as stupid does.”

“I never went back to work for Lieutenant Dan, though he did take care of my Bubba-Gump money. He got me invested in some kind of fruit company. And so then I got a call from him saying we don’t have to worry about money no more. And I said ‘That’s good…one less thing’.”

“I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”

“I don’t know if Mama was right or if it’s Lt. Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it’s both happening at the same time.”

9        Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz)

Judy Garland was 16 years old when she portrayed Dorothy in the 1939 classic, which was an annual television tradition when I was a kid (a quaint notion these days). Garland starred in dozens of films in a career that spanned four decades (remarkable when you considered she passed on at the young age of 47), but she’ll always be remembered as Dorothy, a Kansas farm girl who gets caught in a tornado and either has a really cool dream or actually goes to a fantasy land called Oz, depending on one’s interpretation of the movie. L. Frank Baum wrote 14 novels about Oz, which means that we missed out on a bunch of potential sequels. I guess Hollywood did business a whole lot different back then. At any rate, Garland’s talents as a singer & actress, as well as her youthful innocence, made her the perfect choice for the role.

Quotes

“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“Lions, and tigers, and bears! Oh my!”

“There’s no place like home.”

8 Batman, Superman, & Spider-Man (various films)

I’m not a comic book guy…never was, even as a little boy. However, superheroes are such a ubiquitous part of the pop culture landscape that there are plenty of ways to become familiar with and be entertained by the plethora of adventures they engage in. Though it might be a fun debate I am fairly certain that most would consider the Big Three superheroes to be Batman, Superman, & Spider-Man. My particular favorite has always been Batman, precisely for the reason that some question his status as a superhero at all. He’s not an alien. His body hasn’t been genetically altered in any way. He doesn’t have any kind of magic powers. Batman is simply a mega rich business mogul who has dedicated his life to vigilante justice because he is psychologically damaged after watching his parents get murdered when he was a little boy. I dare you to come up with cooler origin story. Superman is an “undocumented worker” from the planet Krypton whose spaceship lands in Kansas. After growing up on the farm he becomes a big city reporter, but when he takes his glasses off & uses a phone booth to change into his red caped costume he becomes indestructible, has x-ray vision, and can fly. Spider-Man is a typical American teenager who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops all kinds of cool powers, including the ability to shoot webs from his wrist that help him to scale tall buildings & fly. He decides to use his unique skills to bring bad guys to justice after his Uncle Ben is shot by a street thug. Our three superheroes have starred in dozens of movies & TV shows. My favorite big screen Caped Crusader was portrayed by Michael Keaton in the late 80s Tim Burton films. As far as I’m concerned the late Christopher Reeve will always embody Superman. And though I am pretty fond of Tobey Maguire’s version of Spider-Man from a couple of decades ago I have to say that the current incarnation as presented by the Marvel Cinematic Universe is quite entertaining.

Quotes

“Maybe that’s what Batman is about. Not winning, but failing and getting back up. Knowing he’ll fail, fail a thousand times, but still won’t give up.” – Batman

“No matter where you go in life there’s always going to be the one person that wants to bring you down, so stay strong and face your problems instead of running away.” – Superman

“Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.” – Spiderman

7 Gordon Gekko (Wall Street)

Gordon Gekko represents a moment in time, or atleast some people’s perspective of that particular era. Were the 1980s a Decade of Greed, wherein the populace engaged in intense levels of conspicuous consumption?? Certainly pop culture embraced that mythology, with TV shows like Dallas & Dynasty and movies ranging from Trading Places & Arthur to Scarface & St. Elmo’s Fire. Yuppies drinking Perrier on their yachts while constantly checking in with their stock broker were a popular stereotype. Class warfare was encouraged. Did any of that have a legit connection to the real world?? Certainly the economy was robust in the 80s, but as a kid in small town West Virginia I never encountered those kinds of people. Unlike preconceived notions of Appalachia our family wore shoes, had indoor plumbing, & didn’t have vehicles on blocks in our front yard, yet we definitely weren’t wealthy. At any rate, even if folks like Gordon Gekko were rare Michael Douglas made him seem very real, sort of cool, & really interesting. His return in the 2010 sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps probably came about a decade too late, but it was still fun to see him onscreen again.

Quotes

“The most valuable commodity I know of is information.”

“What’s worth doing is worth doing for money.”

“Gimme guys who are poor, smart, & hungry. And no feelings. You win some, you lose some, but you keep on fighting. And if you need a friend, get a dog.”

“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies & gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

“It’s a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred from one perception to another. Like magic.”

“You got 99% of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it.”

6 Marty McFly & Doc Brown (The Back to the Future Trilogy)

I don’t think there’s any way to separate the pair. They are peanut butter & jelly, Bert & Ernie, peas & carrots…one without the other just isn’t right. I am a huge fan of the Back to the Future Trilogy. I assume most people have some level of familiarity with the franchise, but just in case I’ll refresh your memory. Marty is a typical California teen in the 1980s with a family that he finds slightly embarrassing. Dr. Emmett Brown is an eccentric scientist who builds a time machine out of a DeLorean. Marty accidentally gets sent back in time to the 1950s, inadvertently screws up the space-time continuum, jeopardizing his parents relationship and therefore his own existence. It’s pretty heavy. Throughout three very entertaining films Doc & Marty take us from the 1980s to the 1950s to the 21st Century and even the Old West. Michael J. Fox wasn’t even the original Marty, but when actor Eric Stoltz just didn’t click in the role he was replaced, and thank God for that. BTTF is just the right mix of fun, adventure, suspense, & romance, and Doc & Marty are the centerpiece.

Quotes

“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you’re gonna see some serious shit.” (Doc)

“Whoa, wait a minute, Doc. Are you trying to tell me that my mother has got the hots for me?” (Marty)

“Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?” (Doc)

“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that, yet. But your kids are gonna love it.” (Marty)

“Great Scott!”  (Doc)

“So, you’re my Uncle Joey. Better get used to these bars, kid.” (Marty)

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” (Doc)

“Time traveling is just too dangerous. Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women.” (Doc)

“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.” (Doc)

5 Rocky Balboa (The Rocky Series)

When ranking my favorite sports films several years ago I opined that Rocky redefined the genre. It was the first sports movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (only two others have achieved that feat since) and was actually written by Sylvester Stallone. Hollywood power brokers wanted a known entity like James Caan or Burt Reynolds to play the lead because at the time, in the mid-1970s, Stallone was a nobody. The fact that Stallone not only got the part but received an Oscar nomination and created an iconic character in the process actually mirrors the plot of the film. I like the other actors considered for the role just fine, but Stallone portrays Rocky in such a way that we see ourselves in him. He’s not rich or successful. He isn’t a well-spoken intellectual. He’s just a guy from the neighborhood doing what he can to get by and chasing a dream in his spare time. The fact that he succeeds (eventually) and builds a great life for himself & his family gives the rest of us hope that we can do the same.

Quotes

“She’s got gaps, I got gaps. Together, we fill gaps.”

“Yo Adrian! I did it!!’

“If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”

“The world ain’t all sunshine & rainbows. It’s a very mean & nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

4 Darth Vader (The Star Wars Series)

Has there ever been a more iconic cinematic badass?? The costume. The mask. The voice. Put Vader in a cage with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and any other lunatic in the history of film and I’m guessing he’d hold his own. The question is, did the prequels ruin his story?? Aside from the weak writing and poor casting that lessened the impact of the prequel trilogy I’m going to say no…Darth Vader is still Darth Vader. I view Anakin Skywalker as a different character altogether. At the end of Rogue One (a criminally underappreciated film that’s better than any of the prequels) Vader has a brief yet effectual appearance that’ll make the hair on your neck stand up, but nothing beats that moment in The Empire Strikes Back when he drops the biggest truth bomb ever on Luke Skywalker. That scene is still quoted & parodied more than four decades later, which is quite a legacy.

Quotes

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

“Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the galaxy.”

“I am your father! Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father & son!”

“Obi-Wan has taught you well.”

“You under estimate the power of the dark side. If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny!”

3 Rick Blaine (Casablanca)

Do men like Rick even exist anymore?? Cool. Smart. Pragmatic. Mysterious. Debonair. A rare mix of romantic & jaded. He’s the kind of guy that makes women swoon yet men can’t help but respect & admire. His aloof demeanor hides a principled heart of gold. He owns a nightclub in Morocco that people flock to during WWII to forget about war for awhile. People from all walks of life & all nationalities (including Nazis) are welcome at Rick’s Cafe Americain because he’s a businessman who’ll gladly take anybody’s money. Perhaps men like Rick don’t exist anymore because they never did in the first place. Rick Blaine is an idealistic notion of what a man should be, and there are worse characters one could emulate.

Quotes

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

“I stick my neck out for nobody.”

“When it comes to women, you’re a true Democrat.”

“I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.”

“I’m not fighting for anything anymore except myself. I’m the only cause I’m interested in.”

“If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. We’ll always have Paris. I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

2 Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

It is rare that an attorney is viewed as a role model even in fiction, but Atticus Finch is the ultimate quixotic fantasy. Not only is he the most virtuous lawyer ever, but he’s the epitome of a perfect father. Modern audiences tend to prefer anti-heroes, or atleast a flawed protagonist in which we recognize our own imperfections and soothe ourselves with the notion that it’s okay to be a little messed up. We scoff at ideals like integrity, honor, ethics, loyalty, & altruism. That being said, is it really that bad to have such a measuring stick in our fiction?? On top of all that let me remind you of something I stated two years ago when we began this journey: “the value of a character’s name cannot be overstated”. How cool & memorable is the name Atticus Finch?? As usual I urge everyone to read To Kill A Mockingbird. It is one of my favorite books and most agree it is amongst the finest novels ever written. But we are discussing movie characters here, right?? The book had already won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize, so adapting it into a film just a year later had to have been a daunting task. Gregory Peck had already been nominated for four Academy Awards in the 1940s, so the powers-that-be knew what they were doing. It turned out better than anyone could have ever dreamed, with Peck beating out Burt Lancaster, Jack Lemmon, & Peter O’Toole to win his only Oscar.

Quotes

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

“In this country our courts are the great levelers. In our courts all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system…that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality.”

“I remember when my Daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house, and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted, if I could hit ’em, but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncribs. They don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.”

1 Michael Corleone (The Godfather Trilogy)

We’ve reached the pinnacle, and I am contradicting myself one last time…or am I?? When discussing Pacino’s portrayal of Lt. Col. Frank Slade I opined that, while The Godfather is his best film, Slade is his best performance. I stand by that because there is a difference. Michael Corleone is a much more memorable character, especially since he has an entire trilogy to impact our pop culture consciousness. That influence is made all the more impressive when considering the fact that Pacino shares the screen with Marlon Brando & James Caan in the original film, Part 2 is focused on Robert Deniro’s depiction of young Vito Corleone, and so many people despise Part 3 (I don’t hate it). But the one constant flowing thru all three Godfather films is Michael Corleone. He is introduced as a young war hero in a new romance, then reluctantly gets pulled into the family business. Finding that he has a knack for ruthlessness Michael evolves into a stone cold killer and merciless husband, even having his own brother murdered. As he grows old & ill he becomes consumed with regret and concerned with his legacy, his story ending with one of the more depressing deaths in cinema. The evolution of Michael Corleone is well written & performed and remarkably sad. 

Quotes

“My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Luca Brasi held a gun to his head and my father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract. That’s a true story. That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.”

‘It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.’

“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again, ever.”

“Today, I settle all family business, so don’t tell me you’re innocent because it insults my intelligence. It makes me very angry.”

“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!”

“My father taught me many things here. He taught me to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

“You’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother, you’re not a friend. I don’t want to know you or what you do. I don’t want to see you at the hotels. I don’t want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance so I won’t be there.”

“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

“I command this family, right or wrong. It was not what I wanted!”

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

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