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We’ve Got Explanations for the Most Confusing Movie Endings Ever Made
It’s been said that there are only so many stories to be told. Even if that’s true, the best filmmakers can craft and tweak a story to shock, surprise or astound an audience. Sometimes those twists happen at the very end and cause audiences to question everything they’ve seen or assumed. Sometimes, the twists are so unexpected or jarring that they leave viewers puzzled and uncertain, wondering what they really just saw. Here are some explanations for those confusing endings and plot twists. Fair warning: spoilers abound.
Barton Fink is a psychological thriller produced by the Coen brothers. John Turturro played a New York playwright hired to write scripts for a film studio. After everything goes wrong, Fink finds himself in a surreal scene with a beautiful woman on a beach. It’s normal enough — except that the scene is a living version of a painting in Fink’s apartment.
Was Fink dreaming? Not according to Joel Coen. Rather, the increasing weirdness in the film parallels the deterioration of Fink’s mental state. Encountering a real-life version of the painting indicates that Fink’s illusions about the world had finally been shattered.
Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood starred in The Wrestler. Rourke plays an aging pro wrestler who keeps wrestling, despite his dwindling glory and fame and his failing health. He’s desperate to cling to the good old days. Rourke won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar for this performance. Tomei won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
The movie ends with a cut to black while Randy Robinson (Rourke) leaps into the wrestling ring. This is meant to suggest that Robinson knows wrestling will kill him — immediately or eventually — but is determined to die doing what he loves most.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange in this 1971 dystopian crime film. The anti-social, delinquent main character, Alex, is played by Malcolm McDowell. He’s an odd antihero, one who’s interested in rape, theft and “ultra-violence.”
Alex is conditioned and brainwashed to be cured of his violent tendencies, but was he actually cured? Alex seems to return to his former ways of ultra-violence. The novel ends more hopefully. Alex started turning his life around in the final chapter. But that final chapter wasn’t published until 15 years after the movie was made.
Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt starred in 2012’s Looper in which the titular Loopers are contract killers hired by bad guys from the future to kill off victims sent back through time. This movie opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012.
Looper ends when hitman Joe kills himself so that his future self can’t accidentally set off a chain of events that will give birth to the baddest bad guy, The Rainmaker. A dead Joe can’t grow up to kill The Rainmaker’s mom in front of him. And if that doesn’t happen, The Rainmaker may not turn bad. That makes sense…right?
Arrival is an adaptation of a short story by Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life . The movie stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Adams plays a linguist who needs to find out how to communicate with aliens that have landed on Earth.
Adams’ character develops precognitive abilities while interacting with the extraterrestrials. We thought she was having flashbacks of her daughter’s death; they’re actually glimpses of the future. Her daughter’s father will leave her when he finds out that she knew their future child would die all along. Future Amy is helping present Amy solve the mystery in the past (or is it the present?).
This movie based on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name stars Christian Bale as a murderous investment banker — maybe. Is Bale actually just playing a banker fantasizing of being a murderer? Or both? As the film ends, Bale’s character Patrick Bateman confesses his crimes in a voicemail message for his lawyer. What doesn’t happen next is odd.
There’s no manhunt. There’s no arrest. Bateman’s confession is laughed off. Was Bateman an “innocent” engaged in fantasy or hallucination? Or is American Psycho commenting on culture’s insulation of a privileged few against accountability? While the ending isn’t definitive, it heavily implies the violent events took place in Bateman’s head.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Michael Keaton plays faded actor Riggan Thomson in Birdman. Thomson is famous for playing the superhero Birdman and is tormented by its mocking voice. Thomson also visualizes (imagines?) himself levitating and performing telekinesis.
The washed-up actor begins behaving much more erratically and is hospitalized, only to leave the hospital through a window. Did he jump to his death? Or fly? Thomson’s daughter gazes skyward out the window, leaving the audience to believe her father flew away. It’s an oddly hopeful ending given the darkness of the film. But what’s more likely is that Thomson plummeted to his death, and his daughter lost her own grip on reality.
Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels. Daniels investigates the disappearance of a patient from an asylum — or so it seems. In fact, Daniels is a patient engaged in an elaborate roleplay exercise with the goal of curing his own delusions and criminal insanity.
It seems to work, but not for long. Daniels’ symptoms return — faked or not — when he’s confronted by the horror of his own crime. He had murdered his wife, who had murdered their children. Daniels’ next treatment? A lobotomy that leaves him half brain-dead but unaware of his crimes.
At the end of The Shining, the audience is shown a photograph of the Overlook Hotel’s staff. In that photograph — taken 60 years earlier — appears Jack Torrance. In the 60-year-old picture, the now-dead Torrance seems to be exactly the same age as he was throughout the rest of the film.
Was Jack’s soul transported into the photograph upon his death? Maybe not. In an interview, director Stanley Kubrick said, “The ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack.” Jack was the reincarnation of a past staff person. This isn’t the only film that Kubrick closes with a twist which may — or may not — be important.
Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt starred in the science fiction-action film Edge of Tomorrow. Every time Cruise’s character Cage dies on the battlefield, he wakes up again 24 hours earlier only to repeat the same 24-hour period a la Groundhog Day . After many loops, Cage recruits Emily Blunt’s Rita to help defeat the alien Mimics.
Rita is killed, and Cage loses his reset-and-rewind ability — but kills the Omega Mimic. The Omega Mimic’s blood finds its way into Cage’s wounds. With that, his reset-and-rewind ability returns. Cage resets time again to find Rita, but earlier than usual. Maybe the much-awaited sequel will clarify this someday.
The Matrix Revolutions
The Matrix Revolutions ends when hero Neo is killed by Smith. For reasons that are unclear, this results in the destruction of an evil computer virus. Then, peace emerges. Neo may or may not have survived. How did this work?
Remember algebra class when you had to remove something from one side of an equation if you removed it from the other side? In the matrix, Neo and Smith represent the two sides of the fundamental equation that needs to be balanced out. Removing one allows for the removal of the other. With Neo gone, the machines scanned for and removed all traces of Smith.
Interstellar is a classic black holes-and-time travel puzzle. Long story short: Astronauts looking for a new home for humanity have two choices. They make the wrong one. But is this the end of humanity? No.
Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper manages to communicate with his daughter Murphy on Earth, using a giant tesseract that may have been constructed by future humans. Cooper sees Murphy and uses Morse code on an old wristwatch he’d given her to send quantum data. Murphy uses the data to solve a propulsion problem so that the astronauts can make the right choice, and so humanity can escape Earth and survive.
Life of Pi is a fantastical tale of a shipwreck leaving Pi Patel in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Until the end, when everything changes and a wholly new version of the story emerges. The alternative? The animals were a sailor, a cook and Pi’s mother. This version ends with Pi killing and eating the cook. Pi tells both stories to investigators who are looking into the shipwreck.
But which is true? It’s up to you. The more important question is the one presented by the investigators from Japan: Which story would you prefer to believe? Because the choice is yours.
Is there an explanation for Mulholland Drive’ s ending that makes sense? Director David Lynch insists there is. That explanation may lie in just what the story is (amongst what it appears to be). Here’s one explanation.
Mulholland Drive is about actress Diane arranging to have her girlfriend killed. Everything else is a fantasy Diane created to make herself and her circumstances seem much better than they really were. As is so often the case with fantasies, Diane can’t sustain hers. By the end, guilt drives her to suicide.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey ends with Astronaut Bowman aging rapidly and becoming an old man at a Jupiter “zoo.” At the foot of his bed in an otherworldly bedroom stands the monolith with which the movie began. Bowman is transformed by the monolith into an interplanetary fetus.
Humanity evolved from apes to interstellar travelers. Bowman’s arrival at the monolith in Jupiter marks his transcendence and humanity’s evolution. With it, he is transformed into a new kind of life. Kubrick put it this way: “[Bowman] is reborn, an enhanced being, a star child, an angel, a superman…”
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner is set in 2019 in Los Angeles. Synthetic human replicants that were bioengineered to work on colonies on other planets escaped to Earth, where they were hunted down by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).
The key to understanding the ending of Blade Runner ? Deckard is potentially a replicant. The clue comes in the final moments of the movie when Deckard and Rachael run away, knocking over an origami unicorn. Eduardo Gaff left the unicorn there. Gaff likely could only know its significance to Deckard if he had seen dreams that had been implanted into cyborg Deckard’s memory.
No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men ends with Tommy Lee Jones’ Tom Bell recounting two dreams. First, Bell loses money that his father had given to him. Second, an old Bell is walking with his much younger father, who lights a fire.
They represent themes through the whole movie. Money’s unimportance to Bell meant he could survive things that greedier folks couldn’t. Bell feels guilty for his inability to hold back the violence. As for the fire? It symbolizes that old men like Bell are out of their depth; the young must light the fires to push back the dark. Hence, the title.
What many people consider to be the greatest film ever made, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane ends with a single word that has caused much puzzlement: “Rosebud.” Why would publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane utter “rosebud” as he lay dying? Reporter Jerry Thompson never found out.
The answer is in the very last scene as Kane’s belongings are being sorted. One of them is Kane’s own childhood sled, named “Rosebud.” For all his moguldom, Kane died treasuring a childhood memory and, with it, some regret. Like Thompson said, you can’t sum up an entire life with just one word.
Sci-fi psychological thriller Donnie Darko starred Jake Gyllenhall. Categorizing and summarizing Donnie Darko — a trip from beginning to end — isn’t easy as Donnie tries to explain his visions of doomsday. Director Richard Kelly dropped a few more pieces of the puzzle when he released the director’s cut of Donnie Darko.
Prophetic rabbits aside, Donnie Darko is a big player in the time travel-loop genre. In the film, future humans who are unseen in the present left a time loop open. It had to be closed to preserve the time-space continuum. But closing it meant erasing the film’s events from history.
Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes ends with Leo Davidson back on Earth at the appropriate moment in history. It may be the right time, but everything else is out of whack. At the very end, we see the simian warlord General Thade sitting in Abraham Lincoln’s chair at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. What happened?
It’s easily chalked up to a tainted timeline, but that begs the question of how General Thade managed to taint the timeline and get the apes in power on Earth without a spacecraft. Maybe the answer will appear in a future sequel.
Travis Bickle, the cabbie in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, goes on a shooting rampage. His goal? To rescue Iris from her pimp. It makes Bickle something of a complicated hero. Later, Bickle and his beloved Betsy reconcile, and Bickle drives off in his cab.
As Robert De Niro’s Bickle drives off, he takes a glance in the rear-view mirror at the sound of a clashing cymbal, played in reverse. It’s not, according to Scorsese, Bickle dreaming or hallucinating. Rather, Bickle’s jumpiness and the thrashing cymbal suggest Bickle may be en route to another bloody spree.
Was “dream-heist-caper” a genre before Christopher Nolan’s Inception , starring Leonardo DiCaprio? Remember this: A spinning top means Cobb is in a dream. By the end of the movie, Cobb is exonerated of murder charges and happily reunited with his children.
But as the film goes dark, the top keeps spinning. Did Cobb just dream of his happy ending? There are clues that the happy ending was real. But Nolan himself has suggested it doesn’t matter: “[Cobb] was in his own subjective reality. He didn’t really care anymore, and that makes a statement: Perhaps all levels of reality are valid.”
Post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box , directed by Susanne Bier, was based on Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name. Sandra Bullock’s character is determined to protect herself and her two kids from whatever it is — supernatural entities? — that are driving people insane when those people look at them. And those people are driven insane to the point of committing suicide.
Bullock and her children finally reach sanctuary — a school for the blind. Blind people who couldn’t see the evil supernatural entities couldn’t be driven to insanity or suicide. The scene is symbolic of weakness turned to strength, and of the blind faith that drove Bullock’s Mallory to save her children entirely blindfolded.
The psychological horror movie mother! starred Javier Bardem, Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. But is it just about a mysterious couple disrupting a young woman’s quiet country life? The film was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, so that’s one big clue that nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
What should we make of the burning house at the end? In an interview with Variety, Aronofsky offered some insight. Javier Bardem plays God. Jennifer Lawrence is Nature. The house is Earth. Nature (Lawrence) is tortured and used, as we have abused nature and our planet. The fire is the apocalypse that results.
The premise of Christopher Nolan’s debut film Memento is itself a twist. Memento works in reverse. Leonard’s attempts to figure out who Sammy Jankis is pushes us back in time. Leonard is determined to discover the identity of Jankis because Jankis murdered his wife by forcing her into an insulin overdose.
The explanation here? Leonard is Sammy Jankis, meaning Leonard killed his own wife. The mystery is a construct built out of guilt. Every time Leonard solves the mystery of his wife’s murder — by discovering that he was her killer — he loses his memory. Then, in another Groundhog Day -like twist, he begins the quest again.
The Dark Knight Rises
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, hero Bruce Wayne attempts to save Gotham from the destruction of a nuclear blast. He does this by getting the bomb on a plane and crashing it into the ocean. Gotham is plunged into mourning.
At the end of the film, Alfred goes to Venice and finds Bruce Wayne sitting with Selina (Catwoman). Surprise! Bruce Wayne wasn’t in the plane. He wasn’t killed. Alfred wasn’t dreaming! Selina is wearing a necklace belonging to Mrs. Wayne.
Ah, another Darren Aronofsky offering. Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina and Mila Kunis as Lily. Nina, playing the innocent White Swan and sensual Black Swan in “Swan Lake,” is overwhelmed with the pressure of competing with Lily.
As the film ends, Nina falls while performing and then changes for the next act. She sees Lily, ready to replace her. Nina and Lily get into a fight that ends in Lily’s death. Nina stabs Lily before hiding her body. Nina completes the second act, then finds Lily alive in her dressing room. Nina hadn’t stabbed Lily, but herself, and had been hallucinating.
Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam war veteran in 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder . Robbins’ character, Jacob Singer, experiences visions and hallucinations attributed to the military’s use of psychedelic drugs to make killing machines out of soldiers. The visions are horrific and disturbing, but then they begin to shift. As the film goes on, they become more peaceful.
The explanation is provided by Singer’s chiropractor, Louis. When we resist death, devils tear our lives away. Once we’ve “made our peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.” Jacob had made his peace.
There are echoes of Memento here. In The Machinist , Christian Bale plays an insomniac machinist whose lack of sleep and psychological problems cause a workplace accident. Bale’s Trevor is fired before descending into paranoia. In his paranoia, Trevor believes he is being persecuted by a man named Ivan, whom no one has ever seen — or so they think.
Trevor is Ivan. Or, at least, Ivan is a version of Trevor when Trevor was well and happy. Trevor created Ivan out of his guilt over a hit-and-run accident in which a child was killed.
The Australian film The Babadook , released in 2014, is the tale of a mother (Amelia) and child (Samuel) haunted by a supernatural monster. So far, so ordinary. In The Babadook , though, the monster leapt from the pages of a children’s book.
Samuel banished the monster that plagued his mother, Amelia. It seems that it was banished into the basement, but what else was down there? Amelia’s memories of her dead husband. As the movie ends, Amelia is seen taking a bowl of worms into the basement so she can feed the monster. Amelia had nurtured that monster — her pent-up grief — all along.
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The 33 best movie endings of all time, ranked
- Nothing beats a great movie ending.
- Here we rank 33 of the all-time best.
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Movie endings can leave you with a sense of satisfaction or make you want to throw your chair at the screen.
Every filmmaker strives for the former, and in some cases, they manage to pull off something that will be remembered forever.
Whether it leaves you happy or sad, or has a visual or line of dialogue that just brings everything together, a movie ending can make or break how you feel about the story you just watched.
From "Gone with the Wind" to "Avengers: Infinity War," here we rank 33 of the best movie endings of all time (spoilers galore, obviously).
33. "There Will Be Blood" (2007)
In a movie filled with mind games, the ending of Paul Thomas Anderson's classic is its most memorable.
Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in hopes of selling him land for oil. Plainview agrees, but only if Eli, a preacher, denounces his faith. Sunday does, but then Plainview reveals that the land is worthless as the oil has already been taken from it. This leads to a confrontation that ends with Plainview killing Sunday with a bowling pin.
The last line of the movie is Plainview shouting, "I'm finished!"
32. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975)
In one of Jack Nicholson's greatest performances, the fate of R.P. McMurphy is sad but also inspiring. His rebel attitude, sapped due to a lobotomy, transfers to the gentle giant Chief, who finally has the strength to escape the ward. And we like to think the spirit of McMurphy is right there with him.
31. "Shane" (1953)
Gunfighter Shane (Alan Ladd) has beaten the bad guy and brought justice to the West, but as he gets on his horse, young Joey (Brandon De Wilde) sees blood dripping from Shane, his arm limp as he rides off.
What follows is one of the most quoted closings in movie history — Joey shouting out, "Shane! Come back!"
30. "Easy Rider" (1969)
Driving home the "we blew it" statement in the scene before the conclusion of the revolutionary counterculture tale, Billy (Dennis Hopper) is shot by a hillbilly, and when Wyatt (Peter Fonda) drives off to get help, he's also shot and killed.
An aerial shot shows Wyatt's burning motorcycle on the roadside.
29. "La La Land" (2016)
Mia (Emma Stone) and her husband (Tom Everett Scott) stroll into a jazz bar and suddenly Mia realizes she's in Sebastian's (Ryan Gosling) establishment. And there he is on stage introducing the band that just played. The two lock eyes and it completely shatters Sebastian. He gets on the piano and begins to play a song.
We are then thrust into a sequence of flashbacks of what he could have done to have kept Mia. It all would have culminated with him sitting next to her at the jazz bar instead of her current husband. The scene ends with no words just Mia and Sebastian locking eyes for the last time as she leaves. It's one heck of a way to end a love story.
28. "The Sixth Sense" (1999)
For better or worse, director M. Night Shyamalan became the king of the surprise ending with the reveal at the end of "The Sixth Sense." It turns out Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) was in fact one of the dead people Cole (Haley Joel Osment) sees.
Shyamalan reveals this through a series of flashbacks at the end of the movie and finally the reveal that Malcolm never survived the opening scene of the movie when the intruder entered his house.
27. "Gone with the Wind" (1939)
The epic love story set during the Civil War ends in grand fashion. Tired of the games being played by Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) walks out on Scarlett with the epic line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." This leads to Scarlett pledging to win back Rhett because "tomorrow is another day." The film closes with an incredible shot of Scarlett standing in front of a setting sun as the score by Max Steiner plays.
26. "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)
After successfully obtaining the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis' possession, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) brings it back to the US and is told sternly that the Ark will now be studied by "top men." But in a final shot, director Steven Spielberg shows the Ark boxed up and wheeled off in a warehouse among thousands of other boxed secrets.
25. "Rocky II" (1976)
"Rocky" had the incredible first bout between Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and the famous "Adrian!" line at the end. But the "Rocky II" ending tops the first.
The rematch between Balboa and Creed ends with the two knocked down in the final round and racing to stand before the referee gets to a 10 count. The scene is intense regardless of how many times you've seen it.
24. "The Thing" (1982)
After destroying the alien that has terrorized him and his crew, R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) thinks he's all alone in Antarctica. That is until Childs (Keith David) comes out of the darkness.
MacReady thinks Childs could have been contaminated by the alien, but doesn't have the strength to do anything about it. Instead, the two share a drink from the same bottle and "see what happens."
23. "Inception" (2010)
It's an ending that continues to befuddle many. After Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) completes the job that gets him back home he goes to see his kids, he spins his small top, the totem that will convince him he's in reality. But before he can see the top stop spinning he sees his kids and runs to them. The camera turns back to the top, still spinning. Or is it finally about to stop?
We'll never know, the screen turns black and the credits roll.
22. "The 400 Blows" (1959)
Francois Truffaut's landmark story of a delinquent boy's life in Paris (partly based on his own) ends with the main character Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) running away from a troubled boys' school to the ocean, a sight he's never seen before. He turns and looks directly into the camera. The freeze-frame of his face is one of the most powerful images in movie history and has led to countless interpretations.
21. "Psycho" (1960)
After the big reveal that shows Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was in fact dressed as his mother and committed all the murders at the Bates Motel, director Alfred Hitchcock shows Bates in a holding cell as the voice of his mother protesting the murders is heard. If you look closely, you'll see the chilling skeleton head of Norman's mother as the picture dissolves to show Marion's (Janet Leigh) car being pulled out of the swamp next to the Bates Motel.
20. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978)
One of the better remakes of a horror movie, the 1978 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" has a great shock ending as we find Michael (Donald Sutherland), thought to still be human, walking around until he runs into Elizabeth, who has also stayed human. But when Elizabeth gets closer, Michael points at her and lets out a scream that the pod people do.
Elizabeth is frozen in terror. Michael is now one of them. Try to go to sleep after watching that scene!
19. "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
Controversial at the time of its release because of the violence depicted, the film's ending drove home that unrest as outlaws Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) are killed in a hail of gunfire from police who had finally caught up with them.
What's most memorable in the ending (outside of the violence) is the editing done. A fast close-up on both characters just before the shooting starts.
18. "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)
After being the first man ever to successfully escape Shawshank, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sends a message to friend "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman) on how to find him once he is paroled. This leads to a powerfully touching reunion between the two on a beach.
17. "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018)
"You should have gone for the head" — and with that line Thanos snaps his fingers and disappears, destroying half of all living things. We watch as many of our favorite Avengers disintegrate, leaving the ones who survived in complete shock.
We then see Thanos on another planet, sitting down as the sun sets and smiling. It's definitely the most powerful ending ever to a superhero movie.
16. "The Wild Bunch" (1969)
Director Sam Peckinpah was always for delivering harsh visuals to his audience and with this classic Western he gave a blood-soaked ending that's hard to forget. Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his gang take on the Mexican army with their sidearms and a very big machine gun. It's a complete bloodbath with few survivors.
15. "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)
In an ending that is very much commentary on the racial unrest in the US at the time of its release in the late 1960s, Ben (Duane Jones), the lone survivor in the house from the zombie attack, is shot and killed by hunters the morning after the attack as he's mistaken for a zombie. Ben, who is black, is then thrown into a bonfire.
14. "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964)
With nuclear weapons certain to destroy the world, the politicians and generals in the war room think of how mankind can live. Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) begins to explain how a super-race can be created and begins to stand from his wheelchair.
He shouts: "Mein Führer, I can walk!" Then the doomsday device goes off. There's only one better ending from a Stanley Kubrick movie. (Keep reading to find out.)
13. "Scarface" (1983)
As drug lord Sosa has his men attack the compound of Tony Montana (Al Pacino), Tony goes out in one of the most incredible shootouts ever filmed, with a machine gun and a lot of smack talk. It's the scene that will link Pacino and director Brian De Palma forever.
12. "The Godfather" (1972)
After putting out hits on all the heads of his rival mafia families, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is confronted by his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) about the death of his disloyal brother-in-law, Carlo. Saying he doesn't talk about his business, Michael finally gives in and tells her he had nothing to do with Carlo's death.
We then see from Kay's point of view Michael being greeted by the men in his family who call him "Don Corleone." As the door closes on Kay, she realizes Michael is no longer the man she fell in love with.
11. "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is to be taken by the police for the murder of screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) but doesn't move until the press arrives — with cameras. Then, with her public waiting, she gives her final performance. It's a walk down her long staircase, all press frozen in time. Desmond continues to walk, directly right at us to the screen as the movie ends.
10. "The Graduate" (1967)
Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) successfully breaks up Elaine Robinson's (Katharine Ross) wedding, and the two run off on a bus. After the excitement subsides, the camera inspects the two sitting in the back of the bus as they contemplate what they have just done.
The camera stays on them as their smiles move to "oh, s---" blank expressions.
9. "Chinatown" (1974)
When Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) finally figures out the twisted love affair of Noah Cross (John Huston) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), it's too late. The cops are hot on his tail, and everything comes to a head in the Chinatown district of LA. Evelyn is killed, and Noah leaves with Katherine (Evelyn's sister and daughter). It's then that Jake is told the classic line, "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
8. "Carrie" (1976)
When you think all the scares are done, director Brian De Palma gives one more at the end of his adaptation of the Stephen King novel. As Sue (Amy Irving) walks to Carrie's old home to pay her respects, a hand comes out of the ground to grab her. We realize she is actually dreaming and she wakes up in hysterics in her bedroom while the haunting music rages.
7. "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)
The ending of Stanley Kubrick's "2001" is a technological masterwork. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) flies into the monolith, where he finds a vortex of colored lights, sees an older version of himself, and finally becomes the star child.
Well, we think that's what happens, anyway. It's an ending with countless interpretation to this day.
6. "The Third Man" (1949)
The beautiful end to Carol Reed's film noir proves that sometimes action really does speak louder than words. The single shot with no dialogue shows Alida (Anna Schmidt) walking from Harry's (Orson Welles) funeral and completely passing Holly (Joseph Cotten), proving how much she really cared about Harry. All of this is over the unique score by Anton Karas.
5. "Seven" (1995)
The shocking twist in David Fincher's "Seven" brings to a thrilling conclusion a police whodunit that we thought couldn't get any more insane. Finally having captured John Doe (Kevin Spacey), Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) are led by the madman to an open field, where a box is delivered.
The reveal of what's inside the box — the head of Mills' wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) — is an incredible shock and leads to the final sin being committed: wrath.
4. "Casablanca" (1942)
With plans to run off with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Rick (Humphrey Bogart) instead shocks her, and the audience, by telling her to leave with Victor (Paul Henreid) to America. After Rick kills Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) so the two can get away, Rick is left with Captain Louis Renault, who tells his officers to "round up the usual suspects" for the Major's death.
Rick and Louis famously walk away in the fog as Rick says one of the most memorable closing lines to a movie: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
3. "Citizen Kane" (1941)
What does "Rosebud" mean? That's the word MacGuffin director Orson Welles plugs into his classic movie, using it as a device to tell the life of Charles Foster Kane (Welles). We learn the truth at the end, as objects of the late Kane are thrown into an incinerator, including his boyhood sled, called Rosebud.
2. "The Usual Suspects" (1995)
One of the most surprising endings in the history of movies, the reveal in the last few minutes that "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) is actually the legendary crime lord Keyser Söze is a twist that may never be duplicated.
1. "Planet of the Apes" (1968)
Thinking he has been on a planet where apes evolved from men, George Taylor (Charlton Heston) realizes that he has been on Earth the whole time after seeing a destroyed Statue of Liberty.
It's the most powerful movie ending of all time — not just because it's the perfect ending for a sci-fi movie made in the late 1960s, when the country was in turmoil and a sweet ending just wasn't on the cards, but because to this day it still has a strong shock effect.
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The 101 Greatest Endings in Movies History
Good finales offer catharsis. the best deny us closure altogether..
Not every great movie has a great ending. The reverse is also true: We’ve all had that experience of watching a ho-hum flick that became instantly unforgettable thanks to an awesome conclusion ( famously , or more recently ). It is, arguably, the most important part of any film — how a filmmaker wants you to feel when the lights go up is often the key to what that picture was really about.
In compiling a list of the greatest endings in movie history, we had many arguments over many months about this very dynamic, and found ourselves drawn to certain types we deemed successful more than others: Ambiguous, dark endings; endings that purported to explain something but secretly did not; endings that denied us (and the characters) closure; endings that featured people dancing, but not always in joyous, triumphant fashion. Maybe that was a reflection of the times we were living. (Dark, uncertain, marked by a significant amount of human flailing.) Sometimes, we did go for the cathartic, bring-happy-tears-to-your-face finale, but we frequently found ourselves opining the sorts of stories that lack that release. The unendings.
Our goal from the jump was never to determine a set formula for the Great Movie Ending. We began with an absolute morass of nominations, hundreds of finales that stuck in at least one Vulture staff member’s maw. The idiosyncrasies piled up; if the key to a good ending was a feeling, we’d surrender to impulse. Still, we did set ourselves some rules. Most significantly, we only considered one movie (feature length) per director, in part so Billy Wilder and Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock titles didn’t swallow up the whole list. We prioritized a diversity of tone, origin, authorship, subject matter, and genre. And we were a bit flexible on what constituted an actual “ending”: a final shot, a final passage; it just had to come at the end of the film. (You’d be amazed at how many scenes are remembered as being great endings that came well before the movie in question went to credits.) Still, there was no escaping our own unbound tastes and biases. You’ll see some classic endings on this list. You’ll also wonder (probably angrily) where some of the more iconic ones are. And you’ll hopefully see a few you’ve never heard of. ( This is as good a time as any to remind you that this list contains many, many spoilers. ) The thread that pulls all of these choices together is that after rewatching them, we felt that tough-to-articulate sensation when the lights went up (metaphorically, because of course we’re holed up at home just like you): The key to the story was more often a notion, not an answer.
( Jump to No. 1 on our list here .)
101. yentl (barbra streisand, 1983).
The end of Yentl is, fittingly for this list, a beginning. Barbra Streisand’s long-gestating passion project follows the titular young woman (played by Streisand), who’s so desperate to study the Talmud that she poses as a boy — and then falls in love with a fellow student (Mandy Patinkin), who is in love with a woman he cannot marry (Amy Irving), who then falls in love with and marries Yentl in boy form, who then must reveal her true self to both. Somehow, this wild shtetl soap opera ends … happily? When Patinkin’s character admits that he, too, loves Yentl and wants her to be his wife, Yentl promptly rejects him for a life of solo Jewish study, sending him back to Irving’s character, meaning everyone gets what they wanted in the first place.
The final sequence sees Yentl sailing joyously from Poland to America, singing “Piece of Sky,” a dramatic song about how she’ll always want more from life, interpolated with the famous “Papa Can You Hear Me” to really amp up the spectacle. It’s triumphant, a bit kooky, extremely high-key. ( Conntentious , too.) In other words, it’s Barbra, but it also transcends Barbra: Yentl offers a template not for a romance but for a culturally specific success story, so much so that it’s been echoed and referenced in other canonically Jewish tales, including, most recently, Seth Rogen’s American Pickle . — Rachel Handler
Stream Yentl on Pluto TV or rent it on YouTube , iTunes , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
100. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
When it comes to endings, it would be hard for any other filmmaker to top the surrealistic imagery of the raft full of monkeys in Aguirre: The Wrath of God . And I myself am partial to the Dada-esque charms of Stroszek ’s dancing chicken . But for sheer emotional potency, nothing in Werner Herzog’s filmography can rival the ending of Grizzly Man , his 2005 documentary on the life and death of wildlife activist Timothy Treadwell. Much of the film is pieced together from Treadwell’s own videotapes of himself in the wild, frolicking around wild grizzlies, but there’s one piece of material Herzog can’t bring himself to include: the audio from the night Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by bears. Instead, the director films himself listening to the grisly scene, tellingly keeping the focus not on his own face, but on Treadwell’s friend Jewel Palovak as she breaks down in tears watching Herzog. We’re twice removed from the horrors contained in the audio, but that’s close enough — when the filmmaker tells Palovak she needs to destroy the tape, we trust him implicitly. Herzog built his legend on depicting the extremes of the human experience; here, his restraint is even more powerful. — Nate Jones
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99. Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985)
Most lesbian romances, as we’ve established here at Vulture , involve two women engaging in forbidden lust under extremely stressful conditions, only for one of them to die or move away or marry a man (or all three). That’s part of what makes Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, based on the novel of the same name, so refreshing. The 1985 rom-dram follows Vivian (Helen Shaver), a tightly wound, recently divorced 35-year-old New York City professor who heads to a Reno ranch to sign the papers and clear her head, and surprises herself by falling head over heels for free-spirited, 25-year-old local Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). Their romance isn’t without its detractors or its complications — Vivian, for one, is terrified of her feelings and subsequently of Cay until they fall into bed for an extremely hot, several-day sextravaganza — but by the end, nobody has died tragically or wept through a forced hetero wedding. Instead, Deitch gives the pair (and us) a happier ending: Vivian, about to hop on the train back to New York to resume her life, spontaneously asks Cay to go with her. Cay isn’t convinced: How will it work? Where will she live? Vivian smiles and asks Cay if she’ll just accompany her to the next train station so they can talk about a future. Cay relents; she’s madly in love. The two women bound happily onto the train, grinning at one another, the very picture of queer possibility. — R.H.
Stream Desert Hearts on HBO Max , Showtime and with a premium subscription on Hulu , Sling TV , fuboTV and Amazon Prime Video .
98. Us (Jordan Peele, 2019)
Look, it’s impossible to explain what, exactly, is going on at the end of Jordan Peele’s twisty, twisted horror hit, but that’s also why it’s so transfixing and resonant. The suggestion that Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) has for years secretly been her “tether” — the alternate, underground version of herself, the result of a failed experiment — is certainly a great genre twist, but what makes the whole thing so incredibly eerie and unforgettable is the sight of all those tethers, holding hands across fields and hills and mountaintops — which will send a chill down the spine of any child of the ’80s who experienced the “ Hands Across America ” craze. There’s a bit of the famous ending of The Birds here, but it’s in many ways an unlikely way to end a horror movie. Because horror is the most intimate of genres — it’s so often about personal, unspoken demons made real — and great horror endings usually focus on the protagonist’s experience: They close in rather than expand out. But Peele takes the drama of what’s just happened beyond the boundaries of this family and this community and makes it national, perhaps even universal. It’s a rich metaphor made even richer by the fact that it never quite tells you what it’s a metaphor for. — Bilge Ebiri
Stream Us on HBO Max and with a premium subscription on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , Vudu and Google Play .
97. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
Jean Renoir’s great 1937 humanist drama about French officers in a German prisoner of war camp during World War I is only intermittently a prison-escape drama — it’s more about classism, anti-Semitism, and the different ways in which different people understand honor. It strikes the perfect note of liberation and uncertainty in its stark final image of two distant figures — the two men who have managed to escape, thanks largely to the sacrifice of others — as they trudge through the snowy wastes of Switzerland, the future before them like a vast blank page. For a Europe that was once again on the brink of war, the light at the end of this film was both hopeful and weirdly melancholy. It was also an enormously influential finale, its open-endedness presaging entire generations of existentialist (often French) films that closed on notes of hesitant freedom. — B.E.
Rent The Grand Illusion on YouTube , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
96. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)
The fourth-wall-shattering final sequence of Mel Brooks’s classic comedy Blazing Saddles works so well because Brooks’s characters — especially Bart (Cleavon Little), Jim (Gene Wilder), and Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) — are already established as unbound by the limiting technicalities of diegesis and spatio-temporal continuity. Instead, Bart and Jim operate with the deft comic mastery of Bugs Bunny. They are trickster gods. In the film’s climax — a town-wide main-street shootout — Brooks pans out from the horse-punchin’ action to reveal what the audience knows, but what we’re not supposed to be reminded that we know: The Western town is a flat-lined studio backlot.
Brooks cuts to a neighboring soundstage, where rows of gay-coded chorus boys are filming a Busby Berkeley–inspired top hats and tails number called “The French Mistake.” The brawlin’ cowpokes burst through the wall, tussle with the chorus boys, and eventually spill out into present-day Hollywood at large, coloring the world with their slapstick Roger Rabbit - leaving-Toontown routine. The most technically impressive and hilariously captivating moment is when Hedley chases Jim to the Blazing Saddles premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and Jim hides out inside, to see how his own movie, that he’s currently starring in, will play out.
This leads to the most timeless joke of the film — Hedley trying to get the student-ticket discount with an old ID. By this point in his career, Brooks had mastered the rules of comedy filmmaking; Blazing Saddles is him throwing those rules off a cliff. — Rebecca Alter
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95. Mikey and Nicky (Elaine May, 1976)
Some movie endings gain legendary status because they present a twist, a reversal. And then there’s the ending of Mikey and Nicky, so emotionally potent for its tragic inevitability. Elaine May’s seedy 1976 crime flick is a type of ending in itself, acting as a sobering postscript to the macho heist and mafia movies of the decade. It begins with Nicky (John Cassevetes) fearing for his life, certain that the mob has a hit out on him, calling his oldest and last friend in the world, Mikey (Peter Falk), for help. We soon learn he’s right to be paranoid, and he was even right to be doubtful of Mikey, who is urging hitman Ned Beatty to get the job done that night. Although the pair spends the night hopping from seedy to seedier spot — the bar, another bar, a midnight movie, some mistreated women’s homes, various sundry alleys, buses, a cemetery — they can navigate these spaces. Real danger for an overgrown street kid like Nicky comes in early daylight, in a prim and exclusive residential suburb, where Mikey has sold Nicky out and sold out at large.
With the curtains drawn and with Nicky’s paranoia turned contagious, Mikey realizes that by killing the last living person outside of himself to have known his own deceased family, it’s like he’s killing his brother and mother twice over. Nicky arrives and pounds on the door to be let in; Mikey barricades it with the world’s ugliest suburban floral footstools. Death stalks Nicky in the form of a hitman’s black sedan, and as the gun peeks out the window he yells to it in a heartbreaking, desperate moment — “you, wait!” — as if he could reason his way out. But death doesn’t listen and so he is shot, on his oldest friend’s doorstep, begging for refuge. The brotherly betrayal is Old Testament stuff, and Mikey’s already told Nicky he’s forgotten his Kaddish. To say this movie’s ending sticks to your ribs implies too much nourishment; rather, it tears through you like a stomach ulcer. — R.A.
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94. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962)
As promised, this list is populated by endings in which characters dance — sometimes ecstatically, sometimes solemnly. Let’s begin with Bette Davis, twirling at the close of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? This hagsploitation classic from director Robert Aldrich remains firmly embedded in our collective cultural imagination thanks to the heated offscreen rivalry between stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. But we’re here to talk about what happens onscreen, when “Baby” Jane Hudson (Davis), a former child star gone mad, learns from her once-ultrafamous sister, Blanche (Crawford), that Jane did not cause the accident that left Blanche unable to walk. It was Blanche who tried to run over her sister, and in the process crashed into a gate and severed her spine.
But by this point in the story, Baby Jane is too far gone for the confession to sink in: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?” She spins on the beach, strawberry ice cream in hand, in front of a crowd of gawkers as the police discover the body of Blanche nearby. Baby Jane maintains a spiritual connection to the ending of Sunset Boulevard , in which Norma Desmond descends into the utter madness of a crowd of press and police onlookers. But Baby Jane is more tragic, deftly mining — thanks to Davis’s tremendous performance — the prickly reality of a woman beset by mental illness and guided by cruelty. — Angelica Jade Bastién
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93. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020)
Early on in Thomas Vinterberg’s film, one of Mads Mikkelsen’s fellow Danish teaching buddies mentions that Mikkelsen’s character, Martin, trained in jazz ballet. At first, it registers as just another memory the friends left behind on their way to dreary middle age. In order to reinvigorate themselves, the group launches into an experiment in microdosing alcohol in accordance with a theory that humans are born with a .05 percent deficiency. It works, and then it quickly doesn’t. They’re cheerier at school, but soon launch into deeper binges, messing up their personal and professional lives. Eventually, Martin’s friend Tommy, seemingly more depressed than the others have realized, travels out into the ocean on his boat and dies.
In the film’s stirring final sequence, Martin slips into his students’ celebration on the Copenhagen harbor and launches into an exuberant dance sequence set to the Danish pop group Scarlet Pleasure’s “What a Life.” It’s a showcase for Mikkelsen’s talents — the actor has his own dance background — and a moment that is at once an act of mourning and a celebration of life . The scene’s euphoria is all the more poignant considering the context of its making: the death of Vinterberg’s daughter days before the film’s shoot began. “I think every scene in this movie is to some extent about my daughter, for everyone who made it. But maybe particularly that scene, because when Ida died, we all just surrendered to life, no barriers, everything,” Vinterberg said . — Jackson McHenry
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92. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
When Universal executives screened Terry Gilliam’s dystopian epic for the first time, they had one big note: It’s too long; cut a few minutes. Specifically, the final few minutes, in which Jonathan Pryce’s Sam escapes his captors and retreats to a bucolic hideaway with his true love Jill (Kim Greist), only for that to be revealed as a fantasy concocted by his torture-addled brain. Gilliam refused, kick-starting a bitter battle between filmmaker and studio that involved dueling cuts, a public war of words, and the weaponization of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards. Eventually Universal relented, and the film was released with its original ending intact. You could say that both sides were ultimately proven right: As the suits feared, Brazil did indeed flop in wide release, but the bleaker ending was undoubtedly the better creative choice, its darkly comic twist cementing the film’s reputation as Gilliam’s masterpiece. — N.J.
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91. High Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987)
For much of Gillian Armstrong’s 1987 film, Lillie (Judy Davis), a down-and-out backup singer who’s reached the end of her rope, and her teenage daughter, Ally (Claudia Karvan), are kept apart. Lillie left town long ago, and Ally has no idea that the odd, alcoholic lady whom she met facedown in the public bathroom one day is actually her long-lost mom. Lillie, for her part, has been warned away from reconnecting with Ally by the girl’s grandmother. And besides, Lillie knows she can’t handle the responsibility of raising a child. But in the film’s final act, mom and daughter go off together, making an impromptu decision to get in Lillie’s car and venture into an uncertain future. But then, at the first rest stop, Lillie steps away and contemplates driving off — as she has from so many of her problems over the years. She watches her daughter, sitting in a rest-stop restaurant, by herself, waiting for her mom. The way Armstrong frames their reconciliation — with her camera taking on Lillie’s point of view and gliding toward the girl, and finally letting the two of them embrace in the center of the frame (all the while Peter Best’s amazing score kicks into high gear) — is one of the most beautiful, emotionally explosive things you’ll ever see. — B.E.
High Tide is not currently available to stream or rent in the U.S.
90. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001)
The best sports-movie ending ever is proof you don’t have to be a fan to get invested. This is a movie about cricket, but while the rules of the game may be obscure to some viewers, the stakes are crystal clear: In 1893, a team of plucky Indian farmers face off against the dastardly Brits. If the former win, their drought-stricken village won’t have to pay any tax for three years; if they lose, they’ll have to pay three times as much. At the big game, everything comes down to the final ball, at which point we get flashbacks to pivotal moments earlier in the film, at least two fake-outs where it seems like all is lost, and a generous helping of slow motion. It plays like gangbusters, of course. I don’t think all movies need to be so shamelessly crowd-pleasing, but I’m very glad this one is. — N.J.
Stream Lagaan on Netflix and with a premium subscription on Sling TV .
89. The Painter and the Thief (Benjamin Ree, 2020)
Here’s a documentary that ends with that rarest of things in nonfiction cinema: a twist. Charting the complicated, yearslong friendship between Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, an addict and thief who helped steal two of her paintings from a gallery in Oslo, Benjamin Ree’s documentary always hovers on the edge of something, only kind of hinting at a certain attraction between these two people who lead very different lives. For all their difficulties, the painter and the thief each see each other in ways other people seem unable to. Ree also cuts at times to a sensuous painting of Nordland and his girlfriend in bed that Kysilkova has been working on. In the film’s final shot, when we finally see the painting finished, we see that she has inserted her own face in place of the girlfriend’s. It’s not so much prurient as it is a portrait of two souls who have found an inextricable bond. And, yes, it’s also a welcome acknowledgment that horniness and the sublime are often connected. — B.E.
Stream The Painter and the Thief on Hulu or rent on YouTube , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
88. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)
After an hour of search parties and police interrogations in English settler society proves fruitless, this Australian New Wave adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel ends with a documentary-style voiceover. The case of the missing schoolgirls, we learn, was never solved. The audience is left, aptly, hanging , with the gauzy, impressionistic images of the picnicking girls at the edges of civilization. How much agency did they have, in their magnetic compulsion to the rock? What did we really understand about their cloistered innocence? As the audience watches the “Botticelli” Miranda wave good-bye, she turns away from Russell Boyd’s soft-core-glowy camera. It’s an invitation for generations of curious young women in the Appleyard Girls’ wake to follow her, into the depths of the rock, to continue telling stories of young women coming into their own, beyond the reach of sense-making Victorian society, wherein mysteries must have clinical answers and young women are to be infantilized and sexualized all at once.
It is a testament to the generosity of Weir’s filmmaking that he leaves the story open. As long as the case is never definitely closed or explained, it allows the story to be taken up and retold in the imagination of female filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, whose Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled are spiritual and stylistic sequels. I like to think the girls knew what they were doing when they abandoned their boots and gloves and corsets and disappeared into an ancient and unknowable nature. Or maybe they simply fell down a hole. You get to choose, and therein lies the beauty of the un-ending. — R.A.
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87. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (Ol Parker, 2018)
There are only two ways to watch the Mamma Mia franchise. One is to believe that nothing is a miracle. The other is to know that everything is a miracle. I strongly suggest the latter. The exquisite joy of the Mammas Mia is that they are insane, the only films that have ever existed wherein Colin Firth allows himself to be filmed dancing in a spandex jumpsuit cut to the navel and Meryl Streep’s ghost sings Abba. It’s only fitting that Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again , part two of a franchise that unfolds entirely in Greece but takes its title from a Swedish pop song borrowing from a stereotypical Italian catchphrase, concludes its hallucinogenic run by having its entire cast — some of whom are meant to be dead and some of whom are different versions of the same person, in the style of a film ending that will show up later on this list — perform “Super Trouper” (while gazing adoringly at Cher, who has just arrived randomly via helicopter).
The last 20 minutes or so of this objectively perfect masterwork throw any remaining structure and rationale to the wind, discarding the notions of time and space and mortality in the interest of allowing Andy Garcia and Cher to make out while Meryl watches. There’s also a brief, incredibly emotional interlude between dead Meryl and Amanda Seyfried that, paired with the aforementioned “Super Trouper” number, induces the purest form of catharsis — which is appropriate, as “catharsis” was also invented in Greece. — R.H.
Stream Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again with premium subscriptions on Hulu and Sling TV or rent on YouTube , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
86. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls, 1948)
At first blush, Letter From an Unknown Woman has the posture of a tragic romance. But upon closer inspection, this story is powered by obsession more than anything else, and its ending exemplifies the costs and particulars of that obsession. In early-20th-century Vienna, an aging playboy, Stefan (Louis Jordan), comes to the end of a letter written by a dead woman, Lisa (Joan Fontaine), whom he could never quite remember over the span of their various entanglements during her life, but who in fact long held him in a passionate grasp. Faced now with the totality of Lisa’s suffering — among other things, she bore his child after a single tryst he can’t recall — Stefan agrees to duel with the widower she left behind, realizing that such a decision might very well lead to his death. On the way, he encounters Lisa’s ghostly image opening the door to the apartment building as she did as a teenager at the beginning of the film. It’s an ending type plentiful in the history of cinema: the revelation followed by resignation. But Letter puts a trenchant spin on it, finding not sorrow but pure yearning in the grooves of this decision. — A.J.B.
Stream Letter from an Unknown Woman on FlixFling .
85. First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018)
By director Paul Schrader’s own accounting , First Reformed takes the main character from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest , about an ill priest facing an unfriendly congregation, and drops him into the plot of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light , about a man who fears a nuclear apocalypse, but places it all in the context of contemporary America’s climate crisis. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller does his best to console Philip Ettinger’s despairing Michael at the encouragement of his pregnant wife, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. Michael shoots himself, fearing that God could not forgive what man has done to the world. His doubt haunts Toller, who takes steps toward carrying out a plan to detonate the suicide vest Michael left behind and kill the CEO of a major polluter at a church service. At the last moment, he sees Mary in the pews, reverses course, wraps himself in barbed wire, and pours Drano into his whiskey glass. Then, suddenly, Mary appears, the music swells, and they kiss.
It’s a mirror of the ending of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet , where, suddenly, pastoral life is interrupted by a miracle, except maybe not. “Isn’t it very odd that all of a sudden she’s there? And the room is bright? […] Could this not be an ecstatic experience?” Schrader told Vulture . The ending, according to him, is calibrated to split the audience 50/50. “Here’s my favorite explanation,” he added. “You have this man in the garden with the cup. No one is going to take that cup away from him. So he drinks it. And then he falls on all fours, and starts disgorging his stomach. And then God walks in the room. God, who had never talked to him over the course of the film. And God says, ‘Reverend Toller, would you like to see what heaven looks like? I’m going to show you right now. Heaven looks like one long kiss.’ And that’s the last thing he sees.” — J.M.
Stream First Reformed on Showtime and with premium subscriptions on Hulu , Amazon Prime Video , Sling TV and FuboTV , or rent on YouTube , Vudu and Google Play .
84. Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)
It’s the kind of ending that will give you nightmares, not just because it’s scary but also because it’s so weird . In the big climax of Tod Browning’s 1932 cult horror film, the heartless but beautiful trapeze artist who has been attempting to get her hands on the fortune of a carnival sideshow performer is finally found out, pursued, and caught by the so-called “freaks.” It is then revealed (in the film’s final scene) that they have turned her into a “human duck” and put her on display. Yes, it is just as gruesome and shocking as it sounds — proof that nobody made stranger movies than pre-Code Hollywood. But in its suddenness, its almost avant-garde surrealism, it also feels so … well, modern might not be the right word, simply because most movies today still couldn’t get away with an ending like this. — B.E.
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83. Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, 2019)
Many films have ended by lingering on the face of a single actor (you’ll see several more on this list), but who can sustain the attention of the camera with the aplomb of Alfre Woodard in the closing moments of Clemency? The focus on Woodard is bifurcated here — at first, the close-up lasts for nearly three minutes, fixed on death-row prison warden Bernadine (Woodard) as she watches the state-sanctioned murder of Anthony Woods (played by an excellent Aldis Hodge). It’s only interrupted by the voice of a priest, after which the shot continues for over a minute as Bernadine walks from the death chamber out into the fresh air.
The sequence is the result of a collaboration of cinematic elements — the costume design, in which prisoner, warden, and doctor all wear white; the assured direction of Chinonye Chukwu and cinematographer Eric Branco; the subtly effective sound design of the chamber in contrast to the area beyond the glass occupied by a tremulous audience. All work in tandem to support Woodard’s tremendous performance — her face, streaked with tears, shifting from shock to existential despair. She’s reeling, expertly broadcast in the subtle shifts of Woodard’s eyebrows and the loosening of her jaw. — A.J.B.
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82. Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons, 1997)
Very few films end on such a beautiful, emotionally dynamic image of the interior lives of young Black girls. That’s precisely where writer-director Kasi Lemmons roots the finale of her first (and best) film, about contested memories and familial trauma. After discovering a letter in which her father (Samuel L. Jackson) accuses her sister of instigating a sexual encounter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett) confronts her older sibling, Cisely (Meagan Good), about what really happened. Did she suffer abuse at the hands of their father, like Cisely had originally recounted to Eve, or was it something else entirely? Eve doesn’t come up with a clear answer when she puts her hands over her sister’s and, using her gift of second sight, visualizes the night the bond between Cisely and her father was irrevocably broken. So the two sisters stand together, hands clasped, looking out onto murky waters and a sunset. They remain there, in a liminal state, underscoring the film’s interest in the sheer power of storytelling rather than a tidy conclusion. — A.J.B.
Stream Eve’s Bayou on Philo and with premium subscriptions on Hulu , Amazon Prime Video and Sling TV , or rent from YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
81. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)
The Silence of the Lambs , written by Thomas Harris, ends with a final communication from cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter to FBI Agent Clarice Starling in the form of a letter. For the film adaptation, screenwriter Ted Tally knew something more cinematic was required. After writing an initial ending that director Jonathan Demme deemed too “horrifying, ” Tally crafted the simultaneously wry and chilling final phone call between Jodie Foster’s Starling and an elegantly sinister Anthony Hopkins as Lecter that made the final cut. When Demme cuts to Lecter, who hasn’t appeared onscreen since he escaped incarceration earlier in the film, he’s in disguise and calling Clarice from the Bahamas. He tells her that he’ll leave her alone — “The world is more interesting with you in it,” he coos — if she does him the same courtesy. Then he says one of the all-time great final lines in a motion picture — “I do wish we could chat longer but I’m having an old friend for dinner” — as Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), Lecter’s former jailer at a Baltimore prison, arrives on the island, blissfully unaware that he’s probably about to become a meal.
In the closing shot, after he hangs up on Clarice, who’s repeating “Dr. Lecter” in vain, Lecter dons a fedora and glides into the crowd, heading in the same direction as Chilton. It is an image that perfectly matches Lecter’s personality: purposeful, sophisticated, terrifying. It confirms that the murderous may actually be walking among us. — Jen Chaney
Stream The Silence of the Lambs on Showtime and with premium subscriptions on Hulu , Amazon Prime Video , Sling TV and FuboTV , or rent from YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
80. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1983)
Possession is the kind of movie that evades easy description. Andrzej Żuławski’s cult horror classic is full to the brim with images beguiling and repulsive in equal measure. On the surface, it’s about a married couple — Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna (Isabelle Adjani) — whose roiling issues are brought to the surface when she asks for a divorce. But this premise gives way to a violent consideration of the matters of the heart, ending with Mark and Anna dying in the most bloody fashion possible, leaving their doppelgangers to survive. The final image is of Anna’s other, Helen (Adjani), staring directly at the camera with those unnatural, nearly aglow green eyes, as Mark’s twin writhes on the other side of the frosted glass door she stands in front of, the noise of explosions and sirens crowding the air. Many films close with their madwomen staring defiantly at the screen ( Revenge, Black Swan ), but Possession feels singular thanks to the weight of Adjani’s and Neill’s performances, and how they bluntly uncover with a delicate accuracy the horror that comes on the other side of romance. — A.J.B.
Possession is not currently available to stream or rent in the U.S.
79. F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1977)
For his final feature film released during his lifetime, Orson Welles went out with a spectacular cinematic bang to match that of his first feature, Citizen Kane . The story goes like this: Welles was handed footage his cinematographer Francois Reichenbach had shot for a never-completed documentary about the art forger Elmyr de Hory. He then discovered that one of the film’s interview subjects, biographer Clifford Irving, had himself been outed as the author of a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. Welles stitched these stories together with his own life and observations and came up with something genuinely pioneering: an essay-film meditation on the nature of art, fakes, celebrity, and whether who made what ultimately matters. (Don’t laugh, but it would make a fascinating double feature with Mank . )
Welles promises in the opening scenes to tell us the truth for the next hour. But at the end, he reveals to us that our hour was up a long time ago and that for the past 17 minutes, he’s “been lying his head off.” The whole film is a moving discourse on how art is a lie that tells the truth, but perhaps more importantly, it’s also an explanation of why we need such lies. As Welles puts it, right before he bids us good night: “Reality? It’s the toothbrush waiting at home for you in its glass. A bus ticket. A paycheck. And the grave.” — B.E.
Stream F for Fake on HBO Max or rent on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video .
78. The Last Days of Disco (Whit Stillman, 1998)
How strange to come of age right when something is ending, though maybe that’s the perpetual lot of college grads who move to New York. In Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco , Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale arrive in the early 1980s, get entry-level jobs in book publishing, move into a railroad apartment with the help of their parents’ money, and spend most of their time going out to clubs just as the disco scene is falling apart. The characters are really uppercrust tourists in the whole business, but they feel deeply about it, so much so that, as the movie ends, Matt Keeslar’s neurotic, and now also unemployed, former assistant DA gives a whole speech about how “people will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits, and platform shoes, but we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco.” “Those who didn’t understand will never understand,” he adds. “Disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever.”
It’s one of those overblown youthful statements that’s also kinda true. He and Sevigny then get on the subway, stewing in aimlessness, as the O’Jays’ “Love Train” starts to play. They dance awkwardly, and the film fades to black. But then it returns, now with the whole train car and everyone on the platform dancing too. Suddenly, they really are part of something much bigger than them. — J.M.
Stream The Last Days of Disco with Starz and Philo , and with premium subscriptions on Hulu , Amazon Prime Video and Sling TV , or rent on YouTube , iTunes and Google Play .
77. Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982)
The final shot of Losing Ground has Sara Rogers (Seret Scott) acting in a student film, slowly, tearfully raising a prop gun and pulling the trigger on her co-star, Duke (Duane Jones). There’s a reading of that gunshot where her true target is her husband of a decade, Victor (Bill Gunn). After all, Victor’s been philandering for years, and that summer he’s blatantly cultivated a paramour. Maybe she’s finally had it, and we’re getting to watch her set herself free. Losing Ground is a film about the search for ecstasy — Victor’s not just fucking around on Sara, he’s also keeping her at arm’s length from happiness, something Victor finds easily in his art and other women, but that Sara, a bookish philosophy professor, can only imagine. She attempts another way in, a fling with Duke, who seems such a perfect gateway to the “amorphous energy” she’s read about. But Victor sabotages her romance because he needs Sara’s cool rationality to counterbalance his tranced wanderings.
Like so many of Collins’s stories and plays, and so many other great film endings, Losing Ground ’s final scene is steeped in the tensions of ambivalent characters stuck in emotional quagmires. Sara’s most instructive relationship is actually with her mother, who, when asked to console a daughter whose husband takes advantage of her levelheadedness, confides: “That’s the quality in you that even I admit to counting on.” Coming just before the gunshot scene, it’s the moment when the tears welling in Sara’s eyes begin to fall, when her solitude balloons, when an easy resolution recedes from view. — Melvin Backman
Stream Losing Ground on the Criterion Channel .
76. Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij, 2011)
In all of their projects together — The OA , Sound of My Voice , The East — Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have proven themselves to be absolute masters of the jigsaw-puzzle narrative. In Sound of My Voice , Marling is Maggie, a cult leader who claims she’s traveled back in time and demands absolute loyalty from her small group of devoted followers in exchange for her wisdom. Unbeknownst (or is it?) to Maggie, two of those followers, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), are actually fledgling documentary filmmakers attempting to expose Maggie for the con artist they believe her to be (or do they?). Near the end of the film, Maggie asks Peter to prove his fealty by bringing her a child, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Kristen Pohl), an odd little girl whom Maggie claims is going to grow up to be her mother. At this point, a horrified Lorna decides to deliver Maggie straight to the FBI under the guise of arranging the requested meeting.
But just before the FBI barge in and put Maggie in cuffs, Maggie and Abigail have an impossible moment: Both wordlessly perform the cult’s elaborate secret handshake. “How do you know my secret handshake?” asks Abigail. “You taught it to me,” says Maggie, her eyes brimming with tears. Peter looks on, his mind entirely blown. Sound of My Voice, like all of Marling and Batmanglij’s art, asks questions about faith, belief, cynicism, vulnerability, the unknown — and rather than answer those questions, it leaves you to consider your own assumptions. — R.H.
Stream Sound of My Voice on HBO Max and with premium subscriptions on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
75. Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)
We’ve written about Moonstruck at great length here at Vulture : how it’s the funniest film ever made about astrologically induced horniness, about love and death and fear and opera and eggs in the hole, about the sheer exuberance and pain of being alive. John Patrick Shanley manages to touch on all of these themes in the film’s final scene, a madcap tribute to familial bonds and being extremely Italian. Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) shows up to tell Loretta Castorini (Cher) he can’t marry her; moments later, his brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) proposes to her at the breakfast table in front of her entire family, where her mother (Olympia Dukakis) and father (Vincent Gardenia) have just calmly resolved a marital conflict over bowls of oatmeal. Loretta’s grandfather, confused, bursts into tears.
In a span of minutes, everyone at the table experiences nearly every human emotion — anger, jealousy, horror, love, gratitude — only to conclude by pushing aside everything save for love and gratitude, popping the Champagne and toasting joyfully to one another’s happiness. Whereas most rom-coms might end the movie with an image of the happy couple, Moonstruck slowly pulls away from the Castorinis and settles on something else: an old photograph of their ancestors, suggesting, not so subtly, that there’s nothing stronger and more worth protecting than la famiglia . — R.H.
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74. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Having your hero announce, “This just might be my masterpiece,” is certainly a bold way for any filmmaker to end a movie, especially if you immediately cut directly to your own writing and directing credit. But of course that’s how Quentin Tarantino would choose to end his victory of American revenge-movie tropes over the Nazis in his World War II fantasia. His alternate history climaxes with Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna announcing to the German high command that they are all going to die, literally, through film , in the midst of a fiery massacre.
But then it carries on to a scene where Christoph Waltz’s “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa, who had given up his compatriots in exchange for his life, surrenders to Brad Pitt’s Aldo “The Apache” Raine, the leader of a group of Jewish American soldiers. Instead of letting Landa slip into civilian life as many Nazis did, Aldo announces that he’s going to give him something “he can’t take off,” and carves a swastika into his forehead with his knife. Tarantino, who claims to be one-quarter Cherokee, said at the time that he was “equating the Jews in this situation, in World War II, with the Indians.” The film carries on that queasy equivalence through Pitt’s character, also described as part-Cherokee, and his Jewish squad’s scalping of German soldiers in reductive and stereotypical appropriation of what Tarantino dubbed “Apache resistance.” Like many a bombastic yet unsettling Tarantino ending — as in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — it’s a triumph of gushy, gory, in-bad-taste movie violence over actual violence, asking, what if schlock rewrote history? — J.M.
Stream Inglourious Basterds on Philo and with a premium subscription on fuboTV , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
73. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
Studio Ghibli is responsible for so much wonder, whimsy, and bittersweet delight — and also one of the most devastating endings of all time, courtesy of Isao Takahata’s landmark 1988 World War II film. We know from the first scene that teenage Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) is dead. He tells us so himself, his spirit surveying his own battered body as he starves to death in a train station, as indifferent and hurriedly sympathetic travelers pass him by. But knowing that, and knowing that he was carrying around the ashes of his late sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), at the time, doesn’t do anything to soften the blow. After the film takes us through the tragedies the two children endure over the course of the war — including the loss of their mother and their desperation after running away from the resentful aunt who takes them in — little Setsuko dies just as her brother uses the last of their money to get her some food. The final shot of their spirits sitting together, overlooking the rebuilt, contemporary cityscape of Kobe, where they used to live, is just about the saddest look forward imaginable. — Alison Willmore
Stream Grave of the Fireflies on Hulu , or rent on Vudu and iTunes .
72. The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)
Ida Lupino, known among other things as the first woman to make a noir in the U.S., filled her story of a hitchhiker on a killing spree with men. The movies she’d made before this tended to revolve around actresses ( Not Wanted tackled pregnancy out of wedlock; Never Fear was partially based on Lupino’s own experience with polio; Outrage was the second post-Code Hollywood movie to address rape), but in fictionalizing the story of Billy Cook, the Missouri-born drifter who killed six people (including a family of five) just a couple years before the movie premiered , she turned to a trio of actors (Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman) to bring her stunning indictment of a certain kind of masculinity to life. She puts it plainly in a scene that comes before The Hitch-Hiker ’s final act, in which antagonist Emmett Myers forces his captives, two male friends meant to be on a fishing trip, to shoot at cans in each other’s hands — a relentless scene of psychological torture that situates men as the victims of their own violent tendencies.
The film crawls in sequences like this toward a climax that could have been bombastic. But instead, after dragging the audience along on Myers’s sadistic journey, denigrating his prisoners with the goal of setting one against the other, Meyers is brought down not with a bang, but a whimper: After a failed gambit, he’s easily handcuffed by authorities who’ve been on his trail the whole time. His captives are free to walk away, arm in arm, knowing that their commitment to each other served them well; neither prevails as an outright hero. Decades before a generation of bloggers and podcasters made true crime an object of fascination for the 21st-century audience, Lupino made clear that the most horrifying aspect of serial murder is not how difficult is to take a perpetrator down, but how easy it is for him to exist in the first place. — Katherine Brooks
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71. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Who is sending ominous videotapes to Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and his family? The answer, director Michael Haneke has said , is ultimately less important than the other questions the plot raises — questions of guilt, colonialism, and historical memory. But if you do want to solve the mystery, your eye may be drawn to the film’s final shot: a crowd scene where, if you look closely, you can see two characters we thought were strangers having some sort of conversation. Haneke gives us just enough to set our mind wandering down paths: Is this their first meeting, or do they have a preexisting relationship? And if they haven’t just met, could they be the ones making the tapes? And if they are behind the tapes, why did they do it? — N.J.
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70. American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)
John was killed by a drunk driver. Terry went MIA in Vietnam. Steve became an insurance agent. Carl is a writer in Canada. American Graffiti was not the first movie to end with text revealing the fates of the main characters — Army of Shadows , for one, had done it a few years earlier — but it was the most influential, inspiring the epilogues of Animal House , Stand by Me , The Sandlot , and That Thing You Do! , among others. You’ll notice that all those films take place in the innocent days of the late ’50s and early ’60s, an era that acquired a honey-hued glow only a few years later. (Thanks, in part, to the success of American Graffiti .) This literary-inspired flourish became a handy tool for filmmakers looking to nod to the seismic cultural shift to come , and the technique even made its way into music when Bryan Adams used a similar construction on “Summer of ’69.” — N.J.
Stream American Graffiti on HBO Max and with premium subscriptions on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
69. A Moment of Innocence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)
Sometimes known by the more accurately translated title The Bread and the Vase , Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s key work of the New Iranian Cinema follows the director’s own attempts to re-create the moment when, as a young anti-Shah protester, he stabbed a policeman and went to prison. Also helping out: the policeman himself, who has tracked Makhmalbaf down after 20 years. As they cast and prepare the actors playing their younger selves, the two men separately try to settle old scores with the past and to rewrite the incident according to how they view themselves now. The whole movie builds up to this cinematic re-creation with a disarming mixture of documentary, comedy, and, ultimately, extended tension. And then, it all ends on a very sudden, unexpected freeze-frame that will rock your world — it comes in the middle of the action the film has been leading up to, leaving the audience to decide how to interpret it. Amazingly, audiences tend to burst into applause at this precise moment, in part because Makhmalbaf has calibrated the whole film so well. — B.E.
Rent A Moment of Innocence on Vimeo .
68. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
The Descent is a ruthless and wild ride, somehow successfully squeezing at least four different types of terror into one Brian De Palma–level bloody, 110-minute horror film. The first is a trauma narrative that kicks off about five minutes in, when protagonist Sarah (Shauna McDonald) loses her husband and child in a horribly violent car accident. The second — claustrophobia incarnate — begins shortly thereafter, when a PTSD-ridden Sarah and her five close friends descend into an uncharted cave system, where they promptly get trapped and lost. The third centers on a series of humanoid cave monsters who, hungry for land-dwelling human flesh, begin preying on the spelunkers. The fourth and most unsettling horror story explores the ways Sarah and her friends begin to turn on one another underground.
Neil Marshall’s gut-punch ending — which has two incarnations, one of which played nearly everywhere around the world and the other of which Marshall made slightly less bleak for American audiences specifically — pulls it all together brilliantly by returning us to the initial arc of Sarah’s grief. In the original U.K. version, Sarah escapes the cave and races to her car, where she’s confronted with the ghost of her friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza), only to wake up and realize she’d been dreaming and is actually still trapped underground. Now entirely dissociated, she smiles calmly at what she believes to be her dead daughter blowing out a birthday candle as the humanoids slowly close in on her. (The American version leaves the possibility of her escape more open-ended.) It’s hopeless and incredibly grim, but ultimately a cathartic exploration of the impossibility of truly escaping deep grief. — R.H.
Stream The Descent on Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
67. Gimme Shelter (Albert and David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
The Maysles Brothers probably didn’t think that when they got the chance to film the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Altamont Free Concert that the event would turn into a generational catastrophe, thanks to the Hells Angels’ killing of Black audience member Meredith Hunter. The result is both concert doc and procedural, intercutting the performances with the preparations for the event as well as scenes of the Stones themselves viewing the footage afterward. (That last framing device was the brainchild of editor and co-director Charlotte Zwerin.) It all leads up to the remarkable, unnerving image of Mick Jagger watching, frame by frame, the murder of Hunter, and quietly walking away. The freeze-frame on Jagger’s face is inscrutable: Is this a man forever haunted by what he’s seen, or an aloof rock god slinking away from the disaster he helped cause? (Jagger was unhappy with his depiction in the film, for what it’s worth.) This is followed by the title track playing over sunlit scenes of concertgoers walking through the fields toward Altamont, a lyrical coda to what would turn out to be regarded, at least in some corners of the popular imagination, as the death of an entire era. — B.E.
Stream Gimme Shelter on HBO Max , or rent on YouTube , Amazon Prime Video and Google Play .
66. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
The movie that taught an entire generation the meaning of the word meta . It’s the story of Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggling to write the very movie we’re watching — a smart, original adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief — as his deadbeat brother, Donnie (Cage again), effortlessly coasts into a successful writing career by slavishly following Robert McKee’s storytelling formula. As Charlie gradually defers to the more assertive Donnie, so, too, does the film’s plot: Suddenly there’s more sex, drugs, and even a car chase. On its face, the action-packed climax is artificial and unearned, but that is of course the point. What started as a Charlie movie has now become a Donnie movie. (The script is credited to both of them, though only one of them exists.) Not everyone enjoys the trick — one critic said the movie “ends up slapping its target audience in the face by shooting itself in the foot” — but if you’re on the Kaufmans’ wavelength, it’s rarely been more fun to watch a film disappear up its own asshole. — N.J.
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65. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid The Parallax View — a movie that feels like it was spontaneously generated by the bad political juju of the 1960s — opens with a grisly assassination and cover-up, and over the course of its running time we watch curious but strangely hapless journalist Warren Beatty try to get to the bottom of it. Our hero finds his way into the world of what appears to be a secret organization of assassins, and in the film’s intense, creepy finale, fails to prevent another political assassination and then winds up walking into his own murder. Needless to say, his killing is also covered up, in the same calm, pro forma, we-will-not-be-taking-any-questions stonewalling fashion as the earlier murder. To a society just a decade removed from John F. Kennedy’s assassination (and even closer to the murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.), it’s a nausea-inducing finale, and it maintains its icy resonance to this day. — B.E.
Stream The Parallax View on Amazon Prime Video and Pluto TV , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
64. The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)
Jane Campion has said that she “didn’t have the nerve at the time” to close The Piano the way she now thinks she should have: with her electively mute heroine Ada (Holly Hunter) drowning alongside her precious instrument. As it exists now, the climactic high point of the film finds Ada looping her foot into the rope attached to her piano after asking that it be thrown overboard, and gets pulled into the water alongside it — a gesture of dark resolution that, like her refusal to speak, seems like something she would not be entirely able to explain. And then she kicks free, a choice she marvels at in the voiceover: “What a death. What a chance. What a surprise. My will has chosen life.” Campion’s initial impulse would have made for a more dramatic conclusion, certainly, than the epilogue in which we see Ada, her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin), and her lover Baines (Harvey Keitel) leading what appears to be a happier life in a new town. But then we couldn’t have had the haunting final touch. Ada confesses that sometimes, at night, she lulls herself to sleep by thinking of her body down there in the sea, tethered above the sunken, where everything is still and silent. We see her there, in the murky waters, and it’s infinitely more unsettling an image for not being literal, and instead being one of comfort. — A.W.
Stream The Piano on Pluto TV or rent on iTunes and Vudu .
63. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1975)
The Wicker Man marks one of the freakiest twist endings in horror history: For the duration of the film, both the audience and Detective Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) believe Howie has been summoned to the mystical Summerisle to investigate the reported disappearance of a young girl — but it turns out the island’s incredibly chill, attractive cult members just want to burn him to death inside a massive, man-shaped wicker building as an offering to their pagan gods. The reveal is both elegantly dreamlike and disturbing. Howie, who believes he’s rescued the young girl in question from what ends up being his eventual fate, learns in real time, alongside the audience, that the entire trip has been a ruse, that everyone he’s met has been playacting — and that their beliefs are so fundamentalist, he’ll never be able to talk them out of it. Regardless, he tries to reason with the villagers. “I am a Christian, and I believe in the resurrection,” he tells Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle. “It is I who will live again, and not your damned apples.” They don’t believe him, nor do they care to listen; as Howie burns and screams inside the wicker structure, they drown him out with a cheerful song about the imminence of summertime. The ending is as chilling and startling as it is riffable — we’ve seen its direct influence in everything from Nicolas Cage’s unhinged Wicker Man to Midsommar . — R.H.
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62. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)
In Maren Ade’s nearly three-hour-long Toni Erdmann, each scene, each bit of dialogue, is fresh and unpredictable. The whole thing is an exercise in excruciating build-up and explosive payoff: For two hours we watch uptight, miserable corporate executive Ines (Sandra Hüller) ignore and lash out at her father Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a sad, lovable clown of a man who can’t help but turn everything in life into a sweet little practical joke. When Winfried realizes just how despondent and detached Ines truly is, he creates and becomes the titular character — a goofy, false-teeth-sporting, bewigged life coach — in order to reach her. He nearly fails, until the film’s final scenes, when he shows up to her apartment on her birthday, flowers in hand, dressed in a gigantic mask and bodysuit made of hair. Ines, naked both literally and emotionally, follows Winfried to a local park, where the two have a breakthrough, finally able to see past their shortcomings and embrace as two lost souls.
When they meet again at a funeral in Berlin, Winfried briefly explains himself: He’s just trying to turn everything into a memorable moment, so he can capture the elusive present, which he recognizes now is an impossible task. Ines, for the first time, tries to meet him on his level, putting in false teeth and popping on a kooky hat. Thrilled, he runs off to grab a camera, and the moment is, ironically, lost. Ines pulls off the disguise and stares off into space. It’s unclear if she’s sad, pondering the brief time she and her father were able to transcend the endless static, or thinking about something else entirely. — R.H.
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61. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
By the year The Social Network came out, birth-to-death biopics had gone out of style, which is lucky for the filmmakers, since Mark Zuckerberg was only 26 at the time. Instead, the idea was to find a specific episode that would stand in and represent the whole life, which, in the hands of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, became Zuckerberg’s battle for sole ownership of the Facebook empire. At film’s end, Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuck is now so rich he can simply pay all the former friends he betrayed to go away. (“In the scheme of things, it’s a speeding ticket,” his lawyer says.) But it’s not the triumph he, or we, might have expected. Completely victorious and completely alone, he turns for solace to Facebook, where he sends out a long-shot friend request to the girl who once dumped him. Even the man who created the monster isn’t immune to its simulacrum of human connection. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a lonely nerd online-stalking his ex, forever. — N.J.
Stream The Social Network on Netflix , or rent on YouTube , Amazon Prime Video , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
60. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s 2008 documentary uses animation to contend with the effects of guilt and the slipperiness of memory, but its most striking moment comes at its end, when it switches, abruptly, to live-action. Throughout the film, Folman tries to reckon with the amnesia he developed around the time of the 1982 Lebanon War, when he was a 19-year-old soldier. Animation becomes a way of realizing onscreen both those gaps and the nightmares of a friend who also served at the time — especially when it comes to what the filmmaker remembers of the night of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when the IDF stood by while hundreds to thousands of refugees and other civilians were killed. At first it comes to him only as a strangely beautiful tableau in which he bathes in the ocean and watches as flares fall on torn-up West Beirut. It’s after talking to fellow former soldiers and reporters that he comes to terms with what he was really doing that night, and his feelings of culpability. An account of the carnage gives way to actual, horrifying footage from the aftermath of the killing, with women wailing in grief and bodies piled in the street, the squishy subjectivity of human recollection replaced by brutal reality. — A.W.
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59. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)
Christopher Nolan loves an obsessive, and in his dueling-magicians movie The Prestige , he gets to tell a story about two of them. Well, technically, three of them, though identical twins Alfred and Freddy Borden (Christian Bale) have effectively been sharing a single life, including the women they’ve married or taken as lovers. That realization, coming after one of the brothers is hanged for murder, serves as the ending’s first big reveal, bringing with it the shock of the immensity of their commitment to their calling. And still, it’s nothing on what Borden’s rival, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), has up his sleeve. As the film ends, and Angier dies, he confesses that whenever he uses the machine built for him by Nikola Tesla to replicate Borden’s teleportation trick, it creates a copy of himself who’s then drowned in a waiting tank of water. Angier dies surrounded by dead versions of himself, an image that rhymes with a certain Jane Campion conclusion that’s on this list, but that also serves as a monstrous metaphor for what it means to make sacrifices to your art. — A.W.
Stream The Prestige on Amazon Prime Video or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
58. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943)
How do you qualify an ending as iconic and influential as Casablanca ’s? It would be impossible to list all the works that rip off, steal from, and pay homage to this finale, which contains the oft-quoted lines “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.” But it’s the final line that makes the moment — “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” — which Rick (Humphrey Bogart) delivers to Louis (Claude Rains, reminding everyone why he was one of the best character actors to ever exist) as they walk into the fog to face their uncertain, but more morally upright futures. It’s tricky to fully capture the power of this film, seen as stuffy by contemporary detractors who can’t appreciate the platinum poise and silken qualities of the story. This is the might of the classic Hollywood studio system firing on all cylinders — the acting sings, the use of shadows envelope, the emotional dimensions are richly expansive. It’s what happens when a great film does in fact land on a great ending. — A.J.B.
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57. A Place in the Sun (George Stevens, 1951)
Few movie endings are as despairing as the sight of ambitious, brooding George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) making his way to his execution at the end of George Stevens’s classic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy . Despairing … and also philosophically thorny. Eastman has been convicted of killing his girlfriend Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters) in part because he was so mad with desire for gorgeous society scion Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). His defense has rested on the question of thought versus action: He had thought of killing Alice, he confessed, but he couldn’t go through with the plan. In the film’s closing minutes, however, Stevens turns this into a spiritual question: Whom did George see in his mind at the time? The helpless, working-class girl he was unable to save as she drowned, or the beautiful, wealthy Angela, the symbol of his ambition and the upper-class life he could never have? And so, as George walks, he sees (and so do we) images of Angela. The spell has still not been broken. We are as condemned as he is. — B.E.
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56. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
In some of history’s scariest movies, there is no end to the horror and no sense of closure. The Blair Witch Project , the surprise indie hit that smartly deployed the internet to make audiences believe in its mythology before they had even taken their movie-theater seats, understands this. Within its found-footage-from-a- faux -documentary framework, it leads to a place that, like virtually every bone-chilling moment in the movie, is more disturbing for what it doesn’t show than for what it actually does. In the final moments of this investigation into a Burkittsville, Maryland, entity responsible for killing young children over decades, allegedly by forcing a third party to stand in a corner while the murders of two others are committed, Montgomery College student filmmakers Heather (Heather Donohue) and Mike (Michael C. Williams) wander around a creepy cabin deep in the woods, hoping to find Josh (Joshua Leonard), the other member of their trio. The sounds of Mike and Heather shouting for Josh and their feet running up and down stairs are all we hear. The possibility of Josh — or worse, something or someone else — suddenly popping into the frame looms around every turn.
Then the movie goes to the basement. That’s where Mike’s Hi-8 camcorder camera gets dropped on the ground, and through Heather’s stark, black-and-white 16mm footage, we see the final image of The Blair Witch Project : Mike standing in a corner, his back facing out, as Heather screams and her camera, too, gets knocked to the ground. We do not get any gory imagery, but we know exactly what’s happened. Filmmakers Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick let our imaginations do the work of making sense of the ending, knowing full well that doing so ensures that our brain cells will hold on to the discomfiting horror of it for a long time. After all, legends about witches only continue to thrive if human beings believe fully in what their eyes, and their camera lenses, don’t see. — J.C.
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55. Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
With the authorities nipping at their heels, Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are faced with a choice: prison, or continue to run. It’s Thelma who suggests, as they look out toward the majesty of the Grand Canyon, “Let’s not get caught. Let’s keep going.” Louise hits the gas and they launch over the cliff, the film ending on a freeze-frame of the convertible suspended midair. This could of course feel deeply tragic, but instead it makes my heart soar watching the ways two women decide to live (and die) on their own terms rather than fall prey to societal and patriarchal forces closing in on them. This ending wasn’t set in stone, with director Ridley Scott suggesting to Sarandon that while her character would definitely perish, Thelma’s fate wasn’t as inflexible. Thankfully, the story sticks to the ending scripted by writer Callie Khouri, a bold, feminist-minded, and achingly sincere finale that highlights the strength of the bond between these women. — A.J.B.
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54. Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992)
Vanity is not for the weak of spirit. The Broadway star Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) and her best frenemy, the best-selling author Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), claw their way toward the next implant or brow lift. In Death Becomes Her , the duo gets their hands on a magic potion that leaves their every feature perfectly plumped — and their wrists without a pulse. By the end of the movie, they’re less focused on looking young than they are satisfied to just look alive: They smear on paint instead of foundation, paint thinner instead of moisturizer. There was a man they used to fuss over — Bruce Willis, whose complexion is always hilariously corpse-y — but he’s long gone. The price of their beauty is living forever, just long enough to turn up at his funeral. As they’re doing their usual fussing, eyebrows and lips sliding down their faces, Helen trips on one of their used paint cans. Old habits and all that, Madeline pauses before she reaches to help her. Why not let the old girl fall? Helen has the same instinct, and they both go down together. They tumble over the stairs, split into a dozen limbs, the music that soundtracked Battleship Potemkin ’s runaway baby-carriage scene played for laughs. They’re spray-paint soul mates, after all. It’s the perfect ending to Robert Zemeckis’s Technicolor gonzo confection about friendship and beauty and the mysteries of both: All these women need is each other, and a bit of Bondo on the chin, babe. — Hunter Harris
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53. Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1983)
Ingmar Bergman loved bleak, ambiguous endings that encouraged his audience to ponder the futility of the human condition (think: Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Cries and Whispers ). But with Fanny and Alexander, which he described as his most autobiographical work, Bergman took the rare step of concluding a movie joyfully, with something resembling life-affirmation. In fact, its entire mind-bending final act is hopeful, arguing for the existence of a world filled with magic, mystery, and unconditional love — all things Bergman seemed to question earlier in his career.
In the final series of scenes, our young and jaded protagonist Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) is rescued, along with his sister Fanny (played by Pernilla Allwin), from his evil stepfather by a gentle rabbi who hides them away inside a sort of magical, ever-expanding curio workshop. There, Alexander meets and is forever altered by an ethereal figure named Ismael, who imbues in him a fresh sense of wonder. When he is returned to his family home, which he’d once thought lost forever, Alexander curls up with his beloved grandmother, who reads to him from August Strindberg’s A Dream Play as he drifts off to sleep: “Everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. Only a flimsy framework of reality. The imagination spins, weaving new patterns.” The lines between states of being are now permanently blurred, but this isn’t the cause for alarm that it was earlier in Bergman’s work; it marks an appreciation for the expanse and generosity of the human imagination, for our collective ability to get comfortable with the unknown instead of rage against it.
F&A was intended to be Bergman’s final film, and to watch it is to see the evolutionary endpoint of his perspective, which moved from a kind of nihilism to something much deeper and warmer. — R.H.
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52. High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
At the end of Akira Kurosawa’s immortal crime saga, Toshiro Mifune’s businessman finally faces the man who kidnapped his driver’s son (and led Mifune’s character to ruin). The kidnapper has been sentenced to death. As the two men sit facing one another, their faces merge in the reflection on the glass partition separating them, symbolic of the fact that they are, in some ways, similar. Both came from nothing, but while one rose to prominence and success in the boom years of postwar Japan, the other found only hatred, madness, and crime. It seems as if there might be a human connection between them, but then the kidnapper starts screaming, out of control, and is taken away. Suddenly the partition is closed. Mifune is left to face his own reflection, and what brief link they might have found has dissolved. It’s a strikingly grim finale to a film that, up until now, has been very deliberate and methodical in its storytelling. A lot of crime movies deny us closure by the very end, but Kurosawa’s does it with incredible poignancy and power; until that final shot, we may not have realized that we’ve really been watching a movie about two men who are effectively two sides of the same coin. — B.E.
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51. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
The final act of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight begins with a heartbreaking transformation: The reedy, sensitive boy of the first two parts has grown into a hardened man. His grill, his muscles, his silence — everything about adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is a wall keeping others away. A late-night reunion with childhood love Kevin (André Holland) crackles with the emotion of old-school melodrama. Will Chiron admit how much Kevin means to him, or will he keep up the pretense that he’s just visiting an old friend? Kevin chips away at his armor, question by question, until he comes to the heart of the matter: “Who is you?” It’s an agonizing question, and it’s what finally breaks Chiron, who admits he hasn’t been physically touched since the night they shared years ago. As the two men embrace, we cut to a shot of 7-year-old Chiron on the beach. It’s a mark of confidence for Chiron — the man has let the boy out again — and also for Jenkins. In nodding to the final shot of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows , he was consciously putting himself in conversation with the greats. — N.J.
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50. Raising Arizona (Ethan and Joel Coen, 1987)
In their endings, the Coen brothers tend to reveal an extra dimension to their stories, suggesting a secret through line that has always been there, lurking just under the surface. Well, this is the greatest example: In the Coens’ freewheeling caper-comedy-action, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter play a couple who, unable to conceive, steal a newborn from a local furniture mogul who has too many. Paced like a runaway train and filled with both broad, surreal humor and delirious action scenes, the film doesn’t dare pause to take a breath, until its incredible finale, in which Cage’s H.I. McDunnough has a vision of himself and his wife growing old, raising a family, and sitting with their kids and grandkids around a big old dinner table. It’s an incredibly tender image, and — coming at the end of a movie that hasn’t previously had much room for such sincerity — it is thoroughly overwhelming. — B.E.
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49. The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988)
The definition of “Hollywood ending” should simply be a recounting of the difference between the conclusion of George Sluizer’s 1988 thriller The Vanishing and the Dutch filmmaker’s own 1993 English-language remake. The Vanishing is a horror story terrifying in its mundane details — a man and a woman are on vacation when the woman disappears at a rest stop and is never seen again. The man eventually moves on to a new relationship, but can’t let the past go. When a stranger contacts him, identifying himself as the kidnapper and claiming to be able to reveal what happened if the man agrees to go through everything his girlfriend did, the man can’t help himself. Here’s where the big divergence happens: In the American version, which stars Kiefer Sutherland, this leads to the new girlfriend riding to the rescue, and to the baddie being defeated. In the original, though, it leads to a conclusion so sublimely dark it’s enough to haunt dreams. The main character, played by Gene Bervoets, is poured a cup of drugged coffee by the perpetrator, and after raging fruitlessly, he decides he has to know, and drinks it. He awakens in a box underground, buried alive the way his dead love was, while the pair’s killer goes back to his respectable life. In a nightmarish way, everyone gets what they want. — A.W.
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48. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017)
To the residents of the low-cost motels that dot Route 192, Walt Disney World is like the sun: a necessary part of the ecosystem, but you shouldn’t try to touch it, or even look at it directly. Disney is for other people; the closest 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) can get is watching the nightly fireworks over the horizon. So the motel becomes her theme park, a world of freewheeling joy untouched by the hand of a global corporation. But her world is also fragile, and it shatters in one heartbreaking moment — at which point the film suddenly switches from 35 mm to iPhone video, and Moonee and her best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) flee hand in hand into the Magic Kingdom. Then the film cuts to black. There’s no Graduate -style rude awakening here: The girls get to live forever in that fleeting moment where the park really does live up to its billing as the most magical place on earth. — N.J.
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47. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
Trapped in a house and glued to the news because the great un-distanced masses are carrying a rapidly spreading deadly disease outside? I’ve never heard of such a thing! The ending of George Romero’s genre-defining zombie movie Night of the Living Dead (it’s so genre-defining that the shambling, flesh-eating monsters aren’t even called zombies yet … they’re “ghouls”) isn’t scary for the reasons you expect. The hero, Ben (Duane Jones) has survived through the night thanks to his cool-headed ingenuity, as the other characters holed up in the farmhouse with him succumbed one-by-one to the invasion. The sun rises, the posse of zombie-huntin’ vigilantes makes their way to the farmhouse with their guns and their dogs, and they shoot Ben through the window. They slap one another on the backs — another ghoul felled! — and police photos of Ben’s body being carted away and eventually burned in a fire roll with the credits over the ambient sounds of the posse.
It’s bleak, and the bleakness boils down to more than just innocent confusion over Ben’s humanity. Ben is a strong and heroic Black lead, still rare in a movie with a mostly white ensemble in the ’60s, and the posse is made up of white Southerners, whose zealous mission to eradicate the zombies reads eerily as the consequences of sundown-town racism. From the posse’s vantage point, we can see Ben holding a gun, carrying himself like a man and not a zombie. Whether or not the hunters made a mistake, or saw him as less-than-human the whole time, is left ambiguous. A simple misunderstanding would make this ending a tragedy. Instead, it’s an indictment. — R.A.
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46. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)
Dirk Diggler’s penis is the Jaws shark of Boogie Nights . Everyone knows that Dirk, the protagonist played by Mark Wahlberg in Paul Thomas Anderson ’s gonzo portrait of the porn industry in the 1970s and ’80s, is hauling a lot of cargo below the belt. It’s Dirk’s calling card in that world and what makes him famous. But we never actually see the thing, played by Mark Wahlberg’s prosthetic appendage, until the final scene, much the way the Great White in Jaws doesn’t show his chompers until that blockbuster’s third act. (Anderson even frames the moment in those terms: “I kept thinking, This is exactly like seeing the dinosaur in Jurassic Park or seeing the shark in Jaws or seeing E.T. for the first time .”)
After a long tracking shot through porn patriarch Jack Horner’s house, the camera settles on Dirk, who has returned to the adult-film world after crashing and burning outside of it. He’s dressed in what could pass for a Miami Vice Halloween costume and nervously running lines in the mirror for the scene he’s about to shoot. Then he stands, unbuckles his white trousers, and pulls out that famous 13-inch organ, which is, indeed, jarringly large. “I’m a star,” he repeats. “I am a big, bright, shining star.” His face is no longer in the frame. Dirk is only visible from the neck down. It is a dehumanizing moment, a money shot that gives the audience its payoff — hey, we finally saw the thing! — and makes us feel cheap for ever wanting it. After zipping up, Dirk punches the air a few times to psych himself up and leaves his dressing room while ELO’s “It’s a Living Thing” — a double entendre of a song choice — begins to play. — J.C.
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45. Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg, 1980)
The expression on Theresa Russell’s face at the end of Bad Timing is that of someone who was burned alive and who emerged from the experience stronger, tempered like steel. Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 movie is the story of a toxic relationship that’s folded up like a mystery. It jumps back and forth in time from when the free-spirited Milena Flaherty (Russell) and possessive psychoanalyst Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) meet in Vienna, and when Milena is being treated for a possible suicide attempt. Just how bad it gets between them as they spiral into ugliness — and what Alex does to the object of his obsession, and what he doesn’t take responsibility for — becomes the stuff of a bleak reveal. But then there’s that coda, in which there’s one final encounter between the two in passing in New York, Milena piling out of a taxi in front of the Waldorf Astoria and Alex getting into one. He glances up and sees her, and the camera zooms in on the scar on her throat from the procedure that allowed her to survive an overdose. He calls out her name, but she only stares down at him, impassive and entirely done, and then walks away. It’s the gesture of someone flaunting her own survival in the face of her abuser, with the pain she endured written right onto her skin. — A.W.
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44. Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)
Hal Ashby’s Being There is a prescient, pitch-perfect satire of the superficiality and platitudinal meaninglessness of modern life. Chance the gardener-turned-Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers) is a man whose entire world has been limited to caring for another man’s flora and watching copious amounts of television. When that man dies, and Chance is forced to leave the mansion he’s spent his entire life in — looking the part of a rich white man himself — he becomes something of a tabula rasa onto which the outsiders he soon encounters project their expectations. A dying millionaire (Melvyn Douglas) finds the empty-headed Chance to be a trustworthy friend and future business leader. The actual president of the United States believes him to be a keen political mind. A wealthy, soon-to-be widow (Shirley MacLaine) falls desperately in love with him. The much-debated, suddenly whimsical end of the film sees Chance literally walking on water, implying, perhaps, that Chance is an allegorical Christ figure, whatever that might mean to Ashby — maybe he’s poking fun at us for being as gullible as his characters, or perhaps he’s suggesting that Jesus was a sort of similarly projected-upon cipher. But it’s also possible Ashby’s implying that the only thing stopping us from walking on water is the belief that we can’t: As Chance strolls across the lake, we hear the president intone, “Life is a state of mind.” However you interpret it, it’s the rare movie conclusion that’s genuinely enigmatic, borne out in the fact we’ve been chewing on it for a few decades now. — R.H.
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43. The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949)
Has any character ascending stairs ever been as powerful as Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) at the end of William Wyler’s The Heiress ? For most of its run time, The Heiress is a stately, detailed portrait of a young woman whose controlling, rich father (Ralph Richardson) is deeply disappointed in her plainness and will remind anyone he can how she doesn’t hold a candle to her deceased mother. In many ways, The Heiress is a film about power. By the end, the balance has shifted in Catherine’s favor: She inherited her father’s great wealth in the wake of heartbreak over Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who left her before their plans to rush a wedding could be executed. Years later, Morris tries to snake his way back into her heart, and Catherine puts on what we eventually learn is a ruse, convincing him that they can marry now despite the past betrayal. But when he returns to her home, the doors are bolted and the windows draped. He beats against the door as Catherine — lit by the lamp in her hand — ascends that staircase wearing a facial expression that can only be read as triumphant. Here is what it looks like for a woman to live, unabashedly, on her own terms. — A.J.B.
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42. The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980)
Harold Shand, the Cockney gangster brought to snarling life by Bob Hoskins, is a man who knows how to coin a memorable phrase. He sums up the global contributions of England versus the U.S. like so: “Culture, sophistication, genius … a little bit more than an ‘ot dog.” Here’s him on a late, exploded colleague: “Apart from his arsehole being 50 yards away from his brains … he ain’t too happy.” And his most famous boast needs no explanation: “The Mafia? I’ve shit ‘em.” So it’s all the more striking when, having been caught in a trap from which there’s no escape, Harold is suddenly wordless. Instead, for two long minutes we simply watch the emotions play out on Hoskins’s face: confusion, fear, anger, incredulity, and then finally, acceptance. As we’ve already made clear, ending a film on such a close-up has since become a popular filmmaking flex, but it was Hoskins who set the bar future generations would measure themselves against. — N.J.
Stream The Long Good Friday on the Criterion Channel .
41. The World of Apu (Satyajit Ray, 1959)
Satyajit Ray’s classic “Apu Trilogy” is both a collective cinematic bildungsroman as well as a tale of relentless loss. Our protagonist, Apu, is faced with tragedy in each installment — from the death of his beloved older sister to that of his mom. In this third installment, he loses his young wife in childbirth, and can’t even bear to face his newborn son. After years of drifting on his own, and giving up on his writing career, Apu finally returns to see the boy, only for his son to angrily reject him. Their reconciliation doesn’t happen until closing frames of the film, and Ray builds up to it with such queasy mastery that it’s hard not to find yourself awash in tears right as the credits start to roll. It all makes for a great, surprisingly joyous ending not just to this film, but to the entire trilogy. — B.E.
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40. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) has been mistaken for the Messiah one too many times; now he’s strung up on a cross waiting to die. But before he does, here comes Eric Idle’s cheerful Cockney on the next cross over to sing a little ditty about staying optimistic through times of trouble. (“When you’re chewing on life’s gristle / Don’t grumble, give a whistle.”) It’s a joke, of course — if there’s one situation where a frown might be permitted, it’s crucifixion — but, weirdly enough, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is so catchy that it actually does do exactly what it says on the tin. Just ask the British sailors who sang it after their ship sank in the Falklands. — N.J.
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39. The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)
A sad discovery from a card-carrying Anglophile: This Swinging ’60s caper comedy doesn’t hold up as a film nearly as well as I’d hoped, but the ending — that’s still killer. Having pulled off a delightful heist on the streets of Turin, Michael Caine & Co. ditch their iconic Minis, load their haul of stolen bullion onto a bus, and head for Switzerland. Mission accomplished, in perfect style. But thanks to some movie high jinks, the bus ends up teetering on the edge of a cliff, Caine and the boys on one end, the gold on the other. Any attempt to retrieve it only places it further out of reach. “Hang on a minute, lads,” Caine says. “I’ve got a great idea.” Whatever that plan is, we don’t see it. The camera pans away with the bus still perilously seesawing on the ledge. Predating the similarly ambiguous ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by a few months, the cliffhanger was originally intended to set up a sequel. Though that didn’t end up happening, the scene still works as a perfect time capsule of its era — the crazed optimism of the ’60s frozen in amber. — N.J.
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38. Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)
Of course, this wasn’t the only Ang Lee ending considered for this list; Brokeback Mountain (2005) was also discussed. But it’s Lust, Caution by which I feel fully enraptured. The image of Tony Leung as Mr. Yee, with his hand slowly grazing the bed his lover once slept in, cuts me to the quick. There’s something achingly sad and poignant in this moment that makes the film sing at the mournful register it aims for. The fate of all those involved hinges on a single pink diamond ring. When faced with it, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is so overcome by her love for Yee, she urges him to leave, revealing to him an assassination plot that’s been unfolding around him. In doing so, she effectively ensures her own death as well as the deaths of her co-conspirators. That’s when we find Yee on her bed, reminiscing. The score overwhelms. The blocking and shot composition highlights the utter desolation. The acting captures the tricky particulars of love formed on the basis of deception. Ultimately, the sequences that comprise this ending cut like the edge of a freshly sharpened blade: precisely, and with an ability to draw blood. — A.J.B.
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37. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
There’s a reason Vulture named Melancholia the best film of the 2010s. As our film critic Alison Willmore wrote at the time, “ Lars von Trier’s 2011 magnum opus is a film about depression, and it’s a film about the end of the world, and more than anything, it’s a profoundly resonant film about how the two can feel indistinguishable from one another.” Melancholia is both beautiful and disconcerting to watch, with a rare honesty about what those apocalypses — both personal and planet-wide — would actually look and feel like. It’s something we almost never get to see onscreen; the Bruce Willises and the Dennis Quaids usually manage to scramble to the rescue before it’s too late. But Melancholia goes all the way, burning it down, literally and figuratively.
The final scene sees Kirsten Dunst’s Justine building a “magical cave” with her nephew Leo (Liam Smith/Alexander Artemov) and her terrified sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), all gripping one another’s hands as the rogue planet Melancholia barrels toward Earth. Where most movies might fade to black, Melancholia stays trained on its characters’ faces: Justine’s quiet sadness; Leo’s blind trust; Claire’s profound horror. We watch the planets collide, unleashing flames that consume the trio — and the entire Earth — in seconds. At the end of Melancholia , just as Leo puts it at the end of the world, “There’s nowhere to hide.” — R.H.
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36. Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)
A great needle drop can make an ending, and Lynne Ramsay’s 2002 film features one of the greatest, juxtaposed over a scene it clearly doesn’t match. It’s one of the tracks on the mixtape left to the title character (Samantha Morton) by her boyfriend. Morvern Callar is an elliptical film about the mysteries of mourning that finds its heroine hiding her lover’s body and taking his manuscript, and his money, for her own — an act of seemingly ruthless self-interest that’s counterbalanced by the way she wraps herself in the music he left for her like it’s a protective garment. Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning” turns a trudge through the grocery store where Morvern works into something dreamlike and distant. And the Mamas & the Papas’ sumptuous version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” blossoms over the final scene, after Morvern has left behind life in Scotland and everything she knows for new terrain. She’s in a club somewhere, out on a dance floor full of people bouncing and gyrating in slow motion. The flickers of light illuminate Morton’s smooth oval face and fathomless eyes, as well as the headphones she has in, as her character moves through the crowd. She’s with them and alone at the same time, and nothing can touch her. — A.W.
Stream Morvern Callar on Amazon Prime Video .
35. Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983)
Studio-note serendipity. An American oil man (Peter Riegert) has fallen in love with an enchanting Scottish village, but now he’s back home with only a pocketful of seashells and some memories. He looks out at the Houston skyline, a million miles away from the place that changed his life. Cut to black, roll credits … until Warner Bros. asked director Bill Forsyth if he couldn’t send viewers out on a happier note. Forsyth didn’t want to ruin this idiosyncratic film with a big Hollywood ending, but, as he later revealed , he only had a day to think of something else. The filmmaker found his solution in B-roll: a throwaway wide shot that highlighted the red phone booth that serves as the town’s only link to the outside world. Forsyth put it in, added a sound effect of a telephone ring, and voilà, a bittersweet ending got slightly sweeter — that million miles doesn’t seem so far away after all . — N.J.
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34. Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)
What may be the swooniest closing scene on here is notable for being, as promised by the title, never quite a love story. Peter Chan’s 1996 film is at least as much a migrant drama about two people whose trajectories bring them temporarily together, then fling them away from one another before they can admit they’ve fallen in love. Naïve Xiao-Jun (Leon Lai) and wheeling-dealing Qiao (Maggie Cheung) meet as lonely mainlanders trying to make it in Hong Kong, bonding over a shared love for pop star Teresa Teng and pretending they care more about their plans than each other. The movie follows the two after commitments and aspirations pull them apart, tracking the reversals of fortune that eventually have them both washing up in New York. And it’s there, far from home, that Xiao-Jun and Qiao find one another again by chance, both of them walking the streets of an indifferent city while poleaxed by the news that the singer they loved so much has died. Qiao comes to a stop in front of a storefront filled with televisions playing footage of Teng, and then Xiao-Jun does as well. It’s a moment of grief that slowly, perfectly, gives way to something else as they turn and see whom they’re standing next to, breaking into smiles of joy and disbelief. It may not be a love story, but at that moment, you can tell it’s about to become one — if you can even see through the tears. — A.W.
Comrades is not currently available to stream or rent in the U.S.
33. Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969)
A showpiece of earned cynicism. In a film based on actual events in director Costa-Gravras’s native Greece, the leader of the opposition in an unnamed Mediterranean country has been killed by right-wing paramilitaries. Eventually, a straight-arrow magistrate is appointed to investigate the death, and he discovers a shocking cover-up that stretches into the senior ranks of the government. In the end, the truth is exposed: Four high-ranking generals are indicted for murder. But if it’s a triumph for the good guys, why does the leader’s widow look so sad? Because she knows it’s not really the end yet. A newscast informs us that the key witnesses all died before the trial, the killers received light sentences, and the generals saw their charges dropped. The resulting scandal seemed likely to power the opposition to victory in the upcoming elections … but then there was a military coup. (A second newscast then reveals the original newscaster got thrown in jail for disclosing government secrets.) It’s a pitch-black vision of what happens when the powerful get to be their own jurors, a lesson that remains depressingly timely more than 50 years later. — N.J.
Stream Z on HBO Max , or rent on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video .
32. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Steven Spielberg’s movie endings are famous for their sentimentality. E.T. closes with teary eyes and a rainbow streak across the sky. Saving Private Ryan winds down with a love note to veterans, complete with a graveside salute and an American flag blowing in the breeze. Even some of Spielberg’s darker sci-fi, like A.I. , Minority Report and War of the Worlds , can’t resist the temptation to wrap on a note of uplift. But the strongest ending in the Spielberg canon, in part because it stands out from the showier conclusions he’s delivered, is the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark , a film conceived by George Lucas and Spielberg and scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, that is big in a lot of ways: big star, big adventure, big boulder. Yet it concludes with restraint and a quality that Spielberg didn’t often evoke early in his career: cynicism. After risking life, limb, and excessive exposure to snakes, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) finally recover the Ark of the Covenant from the clutches of the Nazis and hand it over to the U.S. government. Officials assure Dr. Jones that the Ark will be handled with care, but he has doubts.
The final scene validates those doubts: The last thing Spielberg shows us is a large warehouse where the crate that houses the Ark is being placed in storage alongside an endless array of other identical crates. The government is doing the opposite of what an archaeologist like Jones seeks to do. It is burying a treasure. Spielberg keeps panning out wider and wider, revealing how vast the collection of boxes is while the worker pushing the one that contains the Ark, a crate labeled “Top Secret,” shrinks smaller and smaller until he’s lost in the space. The last image in this adventure is not of our hero in all his swashbuckling glory, but an acknowledgement that in a flawed system, an incredibly powerful, valuable religious artifact is just another piece of inventory. — J.C.
Stream Raiders of the Lost Ark on CBS All Access and with a premium subscription on Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
31. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
The seminal closing-with-a-smile finale has to be the one in Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 milestone, which ends on an exquisitely choreographed sequence in which the Tramp, Chaplin’s famous recurring character, reunites with the no longer blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) he devoted himself to helping. She always believed her guardian angel was a rich man, and here the Tramp is, fresh out of prison and being taunted in his tattered suit by the newsboys, a ridiculous figure she giggles at, not knowing his identity. But she’s still kindhearted, so she makes him an offering of a flower and a coin, and it’s when she reaches out to him to insist on giving him the money that everything changes. She stops, and her smile fades, as she recognizes the touch of his hands from the time before she regained her sight. “You can see now?” he asks her, abashed, and she answers that she can, and as she clasps his hand to her chest, it’s clear that she means it in more than just the literal sense. His answering smile feels like it could be a beacon over decades of dark nights — providing a final-shot template that movies going forward would look to. — A.W.
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30. The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)
Errol Morris’s groundbreaking documentary follows the case of Randall Dale Adams, who’s serving a life sentence for the murder of a police officer. Morris is convinced that the real killer is a man named David Harris, and over the course of the film, we gradually become convinced, too. For reasons known only to himself, Harris agreed to take part in the film, but during his final interview, the camera broke. Morris had no choice but to tape-record the rest of the session and hope he got something usable. Boy, did he. In a spellbinding scene, we hear Harris all but confess to the murder — “I’m the one that knows” — his words all the more chilling because we can’t see his face. Morris’s film eventually helped Adams get out of prison, a high that true-crime filmmakers have been chasing ever since. — N.J.
Stream The Thin Blue Line with premium subscriptions on Sling TV and Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , iTunes and Google Play .
29. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
Music is central to so many of the endings on this list, whether it be in the context of a climactic song-and-dance number or a precisely chosen needle drop. But there’s maybe no choice quite as piquant as that made in the final moments of Robert Altman’s 1975 sprawler. Everyone’s gathered at a fundraising gala for the populist presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker, who never actually appears onscreen. The fragile country singer Barbara Jean, played by Ronee Blakley, is performing onstage when she’s shot by a character in the audience, throwing the attendees into a panic. As she’s carried off, her status unclear, the ambitious impresario Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) rallies the crowd by exhorting everyone to sing, insisting that “this isn’t Dallas,” and, “They can’t do this to us here in Nashville.” The aspiring star Winifred (Barbara Harris) is handed the mic, and she launches into “It Don’t Worry Me,” first with uncertainty, and then with growing confidence as the choir joins in. It’s music as a sedative, and music as a repudiation of reality — a perfectly rousing feel-bad take on a feel-good ending. — A.W.
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28. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
At the end of All About Eve , its titular schemer (Anne Baxter) has everything she’s ever desired: She’s usurped Margo Channing (Bette Davis), garnered recognition and praise, and is now heading from the stage to Hollywood. After she wins the defining Sarah Siddons Award, she opts to skip a party being held in her honor to head home, where she finds a young fan, Phoebe (Barbara Bates), just as eager as Eve was at the start of the film. Unbothered by the fact that Phoebe has wiggled into her home, Eve allows the intruder to stay and resigns to rest in another room. That’s when Phoebe puts on Eve’s elegant robe and clutches her award, admiring the reflection in a multi-paneled mirror. One of the reasons All About Eve has endured is due to director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s lightning bright arc: There will always be Eves nipping at the heels of successful women. It’s a never-ending cycle, and one that has gained resonance in a time when the line between famous and not is as porous as ever. — A.J.B.
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27. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
Hitchcock knew how to send audiences out on a big note: Judy jumping from the bell tower in Vertigo , the reveal of Norman’s mother in Psycho . (We will not discuss the scene with the psychiatrist.) But for The Birds , he went smaller and quieter. Having survived a night of winged terror, Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor emerge at dawn to discover that the avian onslaught has paused, if only for a moment. But the birds are still there, hundreds of them, watching impassively as the humans flee Bodega Bay for good. Hitchcock invests the scene with muted dread. We’ll never know why the birds stopped, or when they might start again. And isn’t that convertible top looking awfully fragile? Only one thing is clear: The beaks shall inherit the earth. — N.J.
Stream The Birds with premium subscriptions on Sling TV and Hulu , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
26. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
The Searchers sees John Wayne play one of his least-lovable heroes, a man so consumed with hatred for the Comanches who abducted his young niece that he decides to kill the girl when he learns she’s assimilated into their culture. He ultimately changes his mind, but still, this is not a cuddly guy. Which is why, after he’s scooped her up and brought her back home (a mirror of the film’s opening sequence), he lingers on the doorstep, unable to cross the threshold. He doesn’t belong in the land of happy endings; his place is outside, in the world of violence that’s slowly fading into the past. The famous shot of Wayne silhouetted against the doorframe is both painfully human — the Duke was never so vulnerable as in those few wordless seconds — yet suffused with the weight of myth. No wonder it inspired a whole generation of imitators . — N.J.
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25. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
“This life came so close to never happening.” At the end of Spike Lee’s devastating drama about the final free day in the life of drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), our protagonist’s father (played by the great Brian Cox), while driving his son to prison, makes one last-ditch attempt to convince him to run away. We see images of Monty and his father driving out West, finding some small town for Monty to hide out in and start a new life. We see a whole life play out — before being pulled back to that car, still on its way to prison. It’s a variation on an ending not long after this entry , and as such it’s immensely powerful in its own right. But dad here isn’t a devil. And that’s the key. What makes the sequence really sing is Cox’s delivery, at times stern, desperate, loving, a broken father imagining an alternate world where his son might find the thing parents always want for their children: happiness. It’s an absolutely agonizing way to end a picture that has already put us through the emotional wringer in all sorts of ways. — B.E.
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24. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone (Francis Ford Coppola, 2020)
It might seem a bit silly to put the ending of the third Godfather film on this list, since the first two (far more widely acclaimed) entries in the series both had iconic endings — in particular the second picture, which of course ends with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) having his brother Fredo (John Cazale) killed. But hear us out: The third Godfather film ends on the most emotionally shattering moment of the entire series: Michael Corleone’s “silent scream” as he wails over the death of his daughter Mary (played by Sofia, director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter), quickly followed by a shot of him as an elderly man, sitting alone in a nondescript garden somewhere.
In the original cut of the 1990 film, we saw him drop dead; in Coppola’s recently re-edited version, Michael gets to live, while an end-title card reminds us that “a Sicilian never forgets,” which means that he will be haunted by his daughter’s death till the end of his days. When considered in light of the fact that the director himself was at the time still grieving the shocking death of his son Gian-Carlo just several years earlier, this finale gains an even more tragic dimension. It is not only a great capper to this film, it is a great capper to the entire Godfather saga. — B.E.
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23. Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
The structurally and emotionally perfect Brief Encounter shows us its ending in, of all places, the beginning. It starts with a seemingly dull interaction in a rail station café: Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson have a cup of tea; a lady joins them; he leaves for his train. After he goes, Celia pops out briefly to the platform as an express train roars by. Only at the end of David Lean’s film, after we’ve seen the couple’s story in flashback, do we appreciate that the scene was the rudely interrupted end of a deeply felt affair and — very nearly — a heartbroken woman’s suicide attempt. In that jolly, bustling tearoom were the Great Things: love and loss, life and death. Brief Encounter is like an instruction manual: It teaches us how to perceive the immensity hidden in the everyday, which people cannot or will not see. (Tellingly, the pair meet when he takes a mote out of her eye.) Both times we see the lovers’ silent leave-taking, it’s wrenching, but the second time, it’s also hopeful. When Celia goes home to her dull husband, we’ve been primed to look beneath his jolly, bustling façade to see the beating emotional life in him as well. For as long as we stay under the film’s spell, we seem to see it everywhere — a great passionate humanity all around us, modestly veiled by this humdrum world. — Helen Shaw
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22. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
There are more abbreviated or interrupted romances on this list than ones that end in fulfilled clinches, and Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 masterpiece offers one of the great melancholic conclusions to a love story. In the Mood for Love may bubble over with longing, but it’s about two people — Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) — who seem to be living in sync while never managing to fully connect. They’re married to other, mostly absent people, and their almost affair evolves out of proximity and loneliness. While it’s chaste, it’s also suffused with desire, which may be why even a final sequence that finds Chow alone, resigned to never reuniting with Su, has a distinct sensuality to it. “In the old days,” Chow tells a friend, “if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share, they went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole.” And on a visit to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, Chow does just that, telling a hollow in a wall what he will never tell a person, and then covering the hollow up and leaving it behind. Somehow, it still has the feeling of a kiss. — A.W.
Stream In the Mood for Love on HBO Max .
21. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
Now, Voyager is best known as a wonderous and beautiful example of the women’s picture, a unique proto-feminist genre spanning from the 1930s into the 1950s, curtailed only by the dissolution of the original incarnation of the studio system. The genre made stars out of women like Bette Davis, who leads this film with a performance unlike any other in the history of cinema. It’s a singular work charting the transformation of a spinster into her own woman — romantically, financially, psychologically. When Charlotte Vale looks at her married lover, Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), sighing with a well of emotion behind her words — “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” — your heart can’t help but swell, recognizing the platinum elegance at play. The final scene has it all: the eroticism of Jerry’s cigarette; the grace note of dialogue that is both melancholy and romantic; a final image that harkens to the emotional expansiveness of the story. It demonstrates what the women’s picture could do better than Hollywood has been able to in recent decades: explore the cultural, interpersonal, and singular dynamics of what it means to be a woman with clear-eyed honesty and a capitulation toward glamour. — A.J.B.
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20. The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
Never has blasphemy been more moving. Near the end of Martin Scorsese’s controversial Christ tale (adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’s equally controversial novel), Jesus (Willem Dafoe, in his greatest performance) is urged by an angel to descend from the cross and live a normal life, and he gets married, has kids, and grows to a ripe old age. Then, as Jerusalem burns around him, the elderly, dying Jesus is visited by his embittered old pal Judas (Harvey Keitel, in his greatest and most misunderstood performance — fight me), who reveals to him that the angel who freed him was in fact Satan himself, offering to Christ one last temptation: that of an ordinary, happy, anonymous life. But it’s more than just a temptation — it is also a motivation, the final barrier to Jesus’s very human heart. He screams at the skies, “I want to be the Messiah!” And, in a flash, he’s back on the cross.
Throughout the film, Scorsese has tried to depict a Christ who is believable and relatable, and the tension between his holy fate and his very human anxiety has fed the picture’s drama. Now, the two are finally reconciled. And then suddenly, we see the film go off its reel. We get some surreal flashing lights, and Peter Gabriel’s wondrous banger of a score kicks in. Scorsese has always loved to give us one final jolt with his endings — think of Travis Bickle looking in his rearview mirror in Taxi Driver , or Jake LaMotta’s final speech in Raging Bull , or the close-up of the hidden rosary in Silence . The Last Temptation of Christ offers the director’s greatest jolt to date. Not to mention one of his most influential: Over the past 30 years, any number of filmmakers — from Spike Lee in 25th Hour to Richard Kelly in Donnie Darko — have utilized some variation of the Last Temptation concept to close out their films. — B.E.
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19. My Best Friend’s Wedding (P. J. Hogan, 1997)
Reports of the death of the romantic comedy have been greatly exaggerated, but it’s true that the genuinely wonderful ones have been fewer and farther between in recent years. Sometimes I worry that we may have reached the apex of the genre back in 1997, when two-faced, big-haired food critic Julianne (Julia Roberts) conspired to seduce Michael (Dermot Mulroney) away from the deliriously perky Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). The first two-thirds of My Best Friend’s Wedding represent the platonic ideal of a rom-com, overflowing with low-stakes high jinks, quirky charm, and incredible Julia Roberts hair, but the ending is a genuine rejiggering of the formula. Ronald Bass’s whip-smart script didn’t need to totally reinvent the rom-com denouement — the movie would’ve worked nearly as well if it had continued to adhere to the formula, and Roberts had walked away with Mulroney’s heart. But Bass went ahead and subverted our expectations anyway, letting Roberts’s Julianne lose the guy — and her dignity — and then get swept off her feet by her gay best friend, George (Rupert Everett). (This ending was, in part, a matter of necessity: Bass originally wrote an ending for Julianne that saw her meeting and falling for a new man, but audiences were so irritated by her bad behavior that they wanted her to suffer, at least a little bit.) Maybe there isn’t marriage, maybe there isn’t sex, but by God, there’s dancing. — R.H.
Stream My Best Friend’s Wedding on Netflix , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
18. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
The ending of Point Break , much like the film itself, hits directly at the pleasure center. Months after his failed attempt to capture the criminal who has in turn wholly captured his imagination, FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves in top form) tracks down Bodhi (a pitch-perfect Patrick Swayze) on an Australian shore in the midst of the “50-year storm” he eagerly spoke of earlier in the movie. The two men — whose bond radiates with a certain romanticism — fight on the beach, but Johnny ultimately lets Bodhi go from the handcuffs he surprises him with. Johnny’s last words are “vaya con Dios” as Bodhi paddles out into the mammoth waves, only to be consumed by them. Here, the strengths of the story collide: its exploration of the fraught bonds between men; its obsession with capitulation to nature. Director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Donald Peterman excel at demonstrating the terror of the ocean as well as the essential wonder of cinema: watching bodies in motion. Action flicks that have come since — including the forgettable remake from 2015 — never quite reach the emotionally rich, downright beatific final note of Point Break . — A.J.B.
Stream Point Break on HBO Max and with premium subscriptions on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
17. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)
Before Sunset features the sexiest movie ending that doesn’t involve onscreen sex. Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) have reunited in Paris nine years after they first fell in love on that fateful, garrulous evening in Vienna. (This is, after all, the sequel to Before Sunrise, and the prequel to the finale of Linklater’s trilogy, Before Midnight. ) The sparks are still there, the conversation just as rousing, the attraction just as intense. But this time around, Jesse’s trapped in an unhappy marriage. The two twirl around each other for most of the film, flirting delicately, then pulling back, each unsure of whether they’re going to go so far as to blow up their lives for a person they still don’t actually know. But Jesse keeps finding excuses not to leave Celine: He’ll drop her off at home on the way to the airport. He’ll walk her to her door. He’ll just pop up to her apartment so she can play him a song. Once he settles on Celine’s couch and watches her dance around her apartment to Nina Simone, it’s clear that he’s totally cooked. Celine looks at him slyly. “Baby,” she sings, “You’re gonna miss that plane.” We don’t even get to see them kiss before the camera fades to black, but the palpable attraction and anticipatory nervousness in the air leave us feeling just as electrified. — R.H.
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16. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
In the run-up to its release, Michael Mann’s Heat was billed as the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino would be onscreen together (after having appeared in different timelines in The Godfather Part II ). But the two legendary actors would still be separated for the vast majority of this crime saga, as it was a cat-and-mouse thriller about them evading one another. They came together only twice in the movie: once, for that legendary, chatty coffee-shop scene, and then, for the film’s nearly wordless final scene, in which Pacino’s cop finally shoots De Niro’s master thief, and then stands there holding the man’s hand as he quietly expires. (And of course, because this is Michael Mann, the scene takes place right next to the runway at LAX, with planes landing all around them, and Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” playing on the soundtrack.) It’s a moment both epic and intimate: The whole film has been about the abortive relationships of these men, and about the fact that the connection between them is more powerful than any romantic one could ever be. Without one, there is no other. And in the magnificent closing image of this magnificent movie, that idea is finally made heartbreakingly explicit, because in truth, it’s not just De Niro’s death scene; it’s Pacino’s, too. — B.E.
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15. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)
Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman might be the most brazen movie ever made — 201 hypnotic minutes of a single mother and part-time sex worker (played by the great Delphine Seyrig) going through her routines of cooking, cleaning, and care over the course of three days. But it also has one of the most brazen endings ever filmed. After stabbing one of her johns with a pair of scissors — framed in the same kind of oblique, purposefully static way as the rest of the picture — Jeanne sits by herself, completely quiet and immobile, for seven whole minutes. Is this a post-traumatic pause? Just another moment in her day? A meta-textual break? The film has already put us in such a state that by the time this ending comes, our minds are racing with ideas, interpretations, and counterinterpretations, even as we remain riveted to the screen. — B.E.
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14. Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)
In the third entry in Abbas Kiarostami’s humanist hall-of-mirrors “Koker Trilogy,” a film crew attempts to shoot a scene from the previous entry, And Life Goes On , featuring two young nonprofessional actors playing newlyweds. But the boy has real feelings for the girl he’s acting opposite, thus turning the film into a kind of mock-meta-documentary about the ways in which real life affects cinema and vice versa. The picture is self-reflective, but it’s never aloof; if anything, it’s one of the director’s most lyrical, touching films, never more so than in its remarkable final shot, a long take from a distance that shows the boy running toward the girl in a field, talking to her, and then running back. Did she reciprocate, or tell him off? Is he running in joy, or dejection? It’s an exciting, emotional moment — and yet the director doesn’t tell us what we should be feeling. How we interpret the scene is up to us. In its final image, the film reflects its audience, and each of us sees something different. — B.E.
Stream Through the Olive Trees on the Criterion Channel .
13. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
Can a lie cause a physical reaction in the person telling it? During the now-disputed finale of Andrew Jarecki’s 2015 docuseries The Jinx , Robert Durst appeared to be overcome by a series of uncanny burps, as though his very body were rebelling against what he was trying to say to the camera. But for anyone who’d seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant documentary from three years before, the sight was nothing on the final moments with Anwar Congo, one of the two gangsters turned death-squad members the film is centered on. Throughout the The Act of Killing , the two unapologetic participants in the Indonesian genocide of the ’60s recount and reenact their days of slaughter by way of different genres, in full costume, until something appears to start bleeding through the denial they’ve been maintaining for decades. It’s playing one of the victims that finally breaks Anwar, and at the film’s close, there’s a remarkable sequence in which he stands on a rooftop, which he says was the site of many murders, and begins retching. He curls over a concrete ledge, but he doesn’t throw up — instead it’s as though something he long ago swallowed were trying to force its way out of his throat. Maybe it’s the truth. — A.W.
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12. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
The Thing is a perfect encapsulation of the horror of isolation, which makes it an especially cutting rewatch during a pandemic. The Thing ends with MacReady (Kurt Russell) facing Childs (Keith David), unsure if he’s the monster, but rightfully suspicious. They share a bottle of liquor, aware that neither can do anything about their predicament, stuck in the icy tundra of Antarctica, staring down their assured deaths. It’s bleak. Director John Carpenter has crafted some dynamite endings throughout his career (I am particularly partial to the meta-fashioned closing of In the Mouth of Madness with Sam Neill maniacally cackling in a movie theater watching what we’ve just seen). And there are many other carefully wrought ambiguous endings from other directors worth noting on this list. But I’d argue none arrives with the gut punch that is The Thing ’s return to square one. — A.J.B.
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11. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)
Look, it’s all perfectly simple. The Hobo of Death puts a small box in a paper bag, out of it scramble two tiny, cackling grandparents, who then show up in our sad, lonely heroine’s apartment, whereupon they become life-size and shriek at her until she blows her brains out (because she was dead all along) and then a blue-haired woman whispers “Silencio” and then the movie’s over. Just another neatly packaged and thoroughly satisfying ending from Mr. David Lynch of Missoula, Montana, USA, who definitely intended this finale all along and was certainly not trying to desperately salvage a TV pilot that had been abruptly canceled, no sir. One of the great mindfuck horror movies of all time gets one of the great mindfuck endings of all time (and a jump scare, no less) and we’re still arguing about it, 20 years later, the hallmark of a fantastic finale. — B.E.
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10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, 2019)
Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a cinematic poem about the act of watching, of seeing and capturing, the erotic power of the female gaze. Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is hired to create a portrait of a noblewoman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), so that the latter can be married off to an Italian suitor; over the course of the film, the two fall inextricably in love by quietly looking at each other, as we quietly look at them. It’s fitting, then, that the final scene is yet another extension of that gaze. Years after their love affair has ended, the two end up at the same orchestra performance — meaningfully, of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer,” which Marianne played for Héloïse earlier on in the film as their relationship bloomed. Héloïse has no idea Marianne is in attendance, but from her seat, Marianne can see Héloïse perfectly, and she observes silently as Héloïse begins gently sobbing. The camera stays on Héloïse as she allows herself to fall back into the memories of her love for Marianne. As Marianne does the same from afar, neither acknowledge the other. (This recalls another key thread in the film, about Orpheus and Eurydice and the act of choosing, painfully, the memory of someone over the reality.)
It’s heartbreaking, and, as Sciamma put it, “It unveils itself as cinema. It’s a reverse shot between the two characters. And at that point, it’s not about the story anymore. It’s about you being in your seat, her being in her theater seat, and you watching.” — R.H.
Stream Portrait of a Lady on Fire with a premium subscription on Hulu , or rent from YouTube , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
9. In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)
Running throughout Nicholas Ray’s 1950 noir is the possibility that screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a killer. It becomes the filter through which we, and the other characters in the movie, start seeing the guy — even for Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), who embarks on a sparky, uneasy relationship with Dix that becomes increasingly serious even as her fear of him builds. Dix has anger issues; he’s prone to bursts of violence; he’s a little too good at imagining how the murder of the hatcheck girl that shapes the movie might have gone. By the time the movie reaches its indelible conclusion, the romance at its center has been snuffed out by the stress of suspicion and the realities of who Dix really is. In that final sequence, Dix discovers that Laurel has been making plans to run away and wraps his hand around her throat in a fit of rage, throwing her down while she swears she’ll marry him and begs for her life. It’s only when the phone rings that he relents, walking away to take a call clearing him of the crime. As Laurel puts it herself, by this time, this revelation “doesn’t matter — it doesn’t matter at all.” There’s no going back from where they were, and what he did, and what was always there inside him. — A.W.
Stream In a Lonely Place on Tubi and Amazon Prime Video , or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Vudu and Google Play .
8. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Stanley Kubrick was the master of the abrupt ending. Think of the smash cut to a frozen Jack Torrance right before that slow zoom-in on the Fourth of July photo in The Shining . Or the cut to the atomic-bomb explosions in Dr. Strangelove . Or even that final title card in Barry Lyndon. But the master outdid himself with the very final moment (and very final line) of his very final film, in which Nicole Kidman’s Alice Harford informed her sorta-kinda-straying husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that there was one last thing they had to do after their final reconciliation: “Fuck.” For a filmmaker who loved to close out his films on dark thoughts that unsettled us one last time before the lights came up, this was an oddly sweet note on which to end a movie, not to mention an entire career. The MVP here, however, is Kidman, who delivers that last four-letter-word with a combination of compassion and confrontation. “Fuck.” It is more than an invitation — it’s a challenge. — B.E.
Stream Eyes Wide Shut on Hulu or rent on YouTube , iTunes , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
7. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
The iconic and-all-my-friends-were-there dance ending belongs to Federico Fellini’s magnificent 8 ½ , his 1963 film about a creatively blocked director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), struggling with the vision for his new autobiographical sci-fi film as well as with his personal life. As Guido frets and struts and indulges his own angst while avoiding working throughout the movie, people cycle through, giving a sense of his personal sphere — like his producer, his mistress, his estranged wife and their friends, a film critic, a cardinal. Then there are the figures from his memories, and the ones from his fantasies, among them the “ideal woman,” played by Claudia Cardinale, that he dreams will save him. In the end, all these layers of Guido’s self collapse into one, and the setting it takes is not the rocket ship that was originally built for his set. It’s something warmer and sillier and appropriately absurd — a circus. And somehow everyone is there, impossibly together, including Guido’s younger self, all of the milling around the ring and joining hands in a joyous dance. What can Guido do but join them? It’s life as a messy, absurd spectacle, and it’s wonderful. — A.W.
Stream 8 ½ on HBO Max , or rent on YouTube , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu or Google Play .
6. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)
Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) has survived the Holocaust, but what comes after proves to be a different kind of harrowing. After facial reconstruction surgery to accommodate a bullet wound, Nelly tries to reconnect with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). He doesn’t recognize her, but he does see this person’s presence as an opportunity: He’ll have her pretend to be his wife so he can secure her inheritance. We study the ways these two interact, with Johnny unaware that Nelly is who Nelly says she is. The ending sees the couple visit friends who have already grieved Nelly. After an initial establishing shot, the camera pays less attention to the friends and more to the musically inclined Nelly and Johnny. Her numbered tattoo, a relic from the concentration camp, peeks out from under the sleeve of her red dress as she sings “Speak Low.” He stops playing the piano. He looks hollowed out at the realization that, yes, this is the wife he thought died in the war. The same wife he betrayed. It’s a pure punch to the gut, with the tender song and warm noonday lighting directly contradicting the emotional resonance of this moment. — A.J.B.
Stream Phoenix with a premium subscription on Sling TV , or rent on YouTube , iTunes and Google Play .
5. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)
Like Phoenix, this film’s ending is predicated on a revelation, although one of a very different mood. “Well, nobody’s perfect,” ultrarich Osgood Perkins (Joe E. Brown) says to Jack Lemmon’s character, after the latter reveals he’s not “Daphne” and is actually a man. In that moment, the romantic dealings between Joe (Tony Curtis) and Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) take a literal backseat to the humorous high jinks that have been happening between Osgood and Daphne/Jerry. It’s hard to imagine a better ending. With those three simple words, Some Like It Hot brings the queer undercurrents of its story to the surface, emphasized by both the flustered shock on Lemmon’s face and the peaceful delight on Brown’s. (We have both the rhythm of the acting and the camera’s eye to thank for the scene’s perfection.) Co-writer I.A.L. Diamond came up with the famed last line as a placeholder until he could come up with something better. He never did. Writer-director Billy Wilder had a knack for coming up with stellar endings — take, for example, Kirk Douglas’s scheming newspaperman falling to his death, with his face landing in front of the camera in Ace in the Hole (1951); a wholly different kind of revelation concerning a cunning Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution (1957); Norma Desmond descending those stairs, lost in her own reverie in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Yet no matter how many times I’ve watched Some Like It Hot, the ending still surprises me with its artistry and sparkling wit. — A.J.B.
Stream Some Like It Hot on YouTube , Pluto TV and Tubi , or rent on iTunes , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
4. Big Night (Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott, 1996)
The climax of Big Night — a movie about two brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secundo (Stanley Tucci), attempting to run a modest Italian restaurant on the Jersey shore — arrives at the end of the evening promised by the title. Up until this point, the story has been marked by the kind of silence that fills empty dining rooms, and small moments between pairs of characters with comically divergent accents. (Only two of the four actors playing Italian, Tucci and Isabella Rossellini, have the ancestral bona fides. Shalhoub grew up in an Arabic-speaking household, and Ian Holm was born in Essex to Scottish parents.) By the time a momentous timpano is served, the camera has been agitating for the ecstatic reactions a great meal can provoke for more than an hour; at one point, the lens physically shakes in time with a raw fish bouncing in the back seat of a vintage car. So when it’s revealed, after frames of decadent dishes and dancing and anything but the silence of an empty dining room, that the reason for their big night is a ruse — that their restaurant will not be saved — the brothers unravel on the beach nearby, loudly, with waves crashing behind them.
But that’s not the end. The camera winds its way back to Primo’s kitchen, where a defeated Secundo is fixing an omelet. It’s silent again, save for the scrapes of his fork against a metal bowl and the sizzle of the skillet. The shot here is steadier, so that when Primo walks in, sits down next to Secundo, and wordlessly accepts breakfast, the emotional denouement is as perfectly rendered as their eggs. It’s hardly a happy ending, but there are few sweeter images than Shalhoub and Tucci, arms on shoulders, scarfing down the only thing that mattered this whole time: good food. — K.B.
Stream Big Night on Pluto TV and with a premium subscription on Amazon Prime Video , or rent from YouTube , iTunes , Vudu or Google Play .
3. Mother (Bong Joon Ho, 2009)
Bong Joon Ho is incredible with endings, but there was never any question of which of his most belongs on this list. By itself, the final scene in 2009’s Mother is brutal, but, bookended by the opening, it’s brilliant. Mother begins with its unnamed protagonist (Kim Hye-ja) winding her way toward the camera in an empty field, and then beginning, meditatively and unselfconsciously, to dance alongside the credits. It’s droll the way the premise seems to be: an aging widow and unlicensed acupuncturist turns amateur detective to clear the name of her doted-on son. But as Mother unravels its murder mystery, the maternal ties at its center go from amusingly close to an inescapable burden. By the time the title character finds herself on a “Thank You Parents” bus tour with other mothers, she’s learned terrible things about herself and the person she’s devoted her life to. Sitting alone, she takes out her needles and puts one in the spot on her thigh where, she’s said before, it “unknots the heart.” It’s a bright afternoon, and the other passengers are dancing in celebration in the aisles, for a moment, the sounds drops out. Then the song from that first scene starts up, and she joins the other women, and we understand that she will keep going, no matter how broken she is inside — such is love, as she sees it. — A.W.
Stream Mother on Tubi , Vudu and Crackle and with a premium subscription on Hulu .
2. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)
Noir is a genre often defined by its great endings, some of which are on this list (the emotionally bruising In a Lonely Place and the firecracker of a flick The Hitch-Hiker ). But The Third Man stands out in this landscape. After faking his own death, cunning racketeer Harry Lime (an ever-magnetic Orson Welles) tries to escape the authorities closing in on him by fleeing into the sewers. This gives way to a wholly engrossing chase sequence. The camera’s use of space is immaculate, instilling a sense of claustrophobia and tension into the proceedings. Silhouettes and shadows are used to maximum effect; a slinking vein of water glows against the cobblestones. It’s all amped-up by the sound design and zither score by Anton Karas, thrilling in equal measure. Lime exchanges a final, icy look with his friend and protagonist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) before a single shot echoes through the tunnels. Cue the second (and final) funeral for Lime, and his girlfriend Anna’s (Alida Valli) solitary yet assured walk past Holly on the side of the road afterward — a cherry on top of another conclusion that brings us back to the location where everything began. — A.J.B.
Rent The Third Man on YouTube , iTunes , Amazon Prime Video , Vudu and Google Play .
1. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
As we argued over the many endings on this list (and, of course, the many, many endings not on this list), we saw ourselves regularly drawn to scenes and moments that exemplified a specific type of conclusion: the all-dancing ending. The freeze-frame ending. The repressed-character-finally-lets-it-all-out ending. The “Was it all a dream?” ending. The “Wait, what just happened?” ending. But here, in Claire Denis’s Beau Travail , we have a finale that somehow fits a number of these categories, and yet remains unclassifiable. Yes, it’s a dancing ending, but it’s not quite the joyous, oh-well dance-off that we might expect. That’s not to say it’s not delightful: There are few spectacles more wondrous in all of cinema than the great Denis Lavant dancing his ass off to Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night.” But in the context of the film itself, the scene becomes (literally) otherworldly.
Lavant plays Galoup, a nervous, submerged officer in the French Foreign Legion who becomes both obsessed and repulsed by Sentain (Grégoire Colin), a young, beautiful new arrival. In director Claire Denis’s oblique, lyrical telling, their relationship takes on the qualities of a tense, sadistic dance itself. Lavant was known at the time for his intense physicality and his whirling-dervish performances in films by Leos Carax, including The Lovers on the Bridge . To see him so constrained and coiled was quite a thing. At the end of the film, a disgraced Galoup, now out of the military and back in France, seems to contemplate suicide — right before we cut to him dancing alone in a nightclub, finally letting go. Is it a flashback, a dream, a fantasy, a glimpse of his afterlife? Is it maybe all of these things? The whole film is transcendent, but this final moment — unforgettable, bizarre, hilarious, exuberant, and also, on some level, deeply, deeply sad — is downright life-changing. — B.E.
Purchase Beau Travail from the Criterion Collection .
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Best Movie Endings of All Time, Ranked
From The Sixth Sense to The Shawshank Redemption, these ten movies had the best endings of all time.
Some of the greatest moments in cinema history come from the last scene of a film. The anticipation an audience member feels towards the end of a great film is unlike anything else. The urge to see how a story will unfold and where a character's fate lies is a huge reason why we even watch movies in the first place. From dramas and romances to comedies and action films, iconic movie endings can be seen across all genres. The best endings are the ones that stick with you even after you leave the theater, and in some cases linger in the back of your mind for years to come. You connect so deeply with the characters and the story being told on the screen that you feel as though you lived through the event with them.
Ranging all the way from 1960s classics to movies of the 2000s , our list of incredible movie endings are all filled with passion and anticipation, and have left audience members completely overwhelmed. From Alfred Hitchcock's notorious Psycho to James Cameron’s epic Titanic , we can see all the factors that go into making a timeless ending. Not only do these two films star incredible actors like Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet , respectively, but the direction choices, cinematography, editing, and costuming all play into the reason why their endings are so revered. Here are the best movie endings of all time, ranked.
Related: 14 Best Final Shots in Movie History, Ranked
10 The Sixth Sense
The ending of the 1999 thriller/horror The Sixth Sense is one of the most shocking and unexpected endings we've seen in the last 30 years. Malcolm, played by Bruce Willis , is a child psychologist whose existence is forever changed after working with a very gifted boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Cole has a unique gift where he can see ghosts, a secret that weighs heavily on him, and he keeps hidden from most people aside from Malcolm. At the end of the film, Malcolm learns that he himself is a ghost and has been dead the entire time, coming as a complete shock to both the characters and the audience.
9 Stand by Me
Over the years, Stand by Me has become a classic and is one of the most beloved coming-of-age films released in the 1980s. Wil Wheaton, Jerry O'Connell, River Phoenix, and Corey Feldman play four small-town best friends from Oregon who go on an adventure to see a rumored dead body near their homes. Despite how dangerous the journey was, the boys looked out for one another, and their on-screen relationships are what made countless people connect so deeply with the movie. At the end of the film, after the boys find the dead body, they end up going home and say their goodbyes to each other. This ending may seem simple, but after watching their journey and seeing what a strong friendship the boys have, their goodbyes are incredibly emotional for the viewer to watch.
8 The Notebook
Nicholas Sparks' iconic lovers Noah Calhoun and Allie Hamilton, played by Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, are by far one of the best movie couples of all time. Despite all the people in their lives trying to pull them apart, Allie and Noah always seem to find a way back to one another. The film is narrated by Noah as an older man retelling the love story to Allie who now suffers from dementia and can no longer remember who Noah is. At the end of the film, while the audience is most likely already in tears ,Allie and Noah lay down and die in one another's arms, proving that their love is so strong, it is capable of anything.
7 Eyes Wide Shut
Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise star as Bill and Alice Hartford in Stanley Kubrick's 1999 drama/mystery Eyes Wide Shut . This film is provocative, intense, and at times unsettling, but also extremely entertaining and a perfect example of what Kubrick does best. As tension builds in Bill and Alice's marriage, the two begin to fight and learn secrets about each other that will prompt the other to question the foundation of their relationship. Bill finds himself sneaking into a private meeting, which he very quickly comes to regret. At the end of the film, Bill realizes how terrifying the people in power can be and cries on his bed with his wife Alice. In the final scene, Alice tells her husband that they should be grateful to have made it through their adventures even if they were only a dream.
Fargo is truly a masterpiece and an example of how incredibly talented the Coen brothers and Francis McDormand are. The film follows a car salesman named Jerry Lundergard, played by William H. Macy, who hires two men to kidnap his wife after getting himself into deep financial trouble. Marge Gunderson, played by Francis McDormand, is the chief of police investigating a murder committed by the two men who kidnapped Mrs. Lundergard. Through her investigation, she is able to locate the killers and takes Gaear, the only living partner into custody. The beauty of Fargo lies within its simplicity and the fact that crazy events can take place in the most mundane areas. While Marge is driving Gaear back, she says "And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."
Related: Fargo: Is The Coen Brothers' Movie Based on a True Story?
5 The Godfather
The Godfather is one of the most famous and beloved films of all time. The Corleone family is an extremely powerful and successful Italian American crime family whose leader Don Vito Corleone, also known as Godfather, has the capability to change someone's entire life with a single word. Throughout the film, the family is constantly being portrayed as above every other family, and they seem almost inhuman, hiding in the shadows and covered in a cloud of mystery. At the end of the movie, Don Vito's son Michael, played by the great Al Pacino, lies to his wife Kay, played by Diane Keaton, about having Carlo killed. This lie seals Michael's fate to the audience, showing everyone the man he is choosing to be.
This epic crime/mystery is filled with an incredible cast including Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Kevin Spacey. Detectives William Somerset and David Mills investigate terrible murders that are popping up all around their city. The murderer is attacking citizens whom he feels represent one of the seven deadly sins, hence the film's name Se7en . After both detectives go to grueling lengths to try and catch the killer, they are finally in a position where they will be able to stop him, only to realize that they are too late, and the murderer had already killed his final victim, Detective David Mills' pregnant wife.
Alfred Hitchcock is credited as one of the greatest directors of all time, responsible for the creation of masterpieces such as Vertigo, The Birds, and of course Psycho . After Marion Crane flees from her home, job, friends, and family, she finds herself at the Bates Motel. A seemingly quiet and boring place that turns out to be much darker than anyone anticipated. Marion is brutally murdered in a motel bathroom, a scene that has become iconic in the world of cinema. At the end of the film, we see that the motel owner Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, is a very sick and disturbed man who murdered Marion. He created an alternate personality where he inhabited his dead mother and turned into a monster. Norman Bates staring into the camera at the end of Psycho is one of the most unforgettable movie scenes ever.
James Cameron's Titanic is an epic masterpiece from start to finish. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star as the star-crossed lovers Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, who fall in love while aboard the Titanic. After watching the two come together, despite all the people in Rose's world who disapprove of their relationship, it makes the sinking even more heartbreaking to watch. Jack ends up dying in the freezing North Atlantic waters while saving Rose and making her promise him that she won't give up and live a full life without him. At the end of the film, we see pictures of Rose throughout her adult life flying in a plane, riding horses, having children, and doing all the things that Jack wanted her to do. A 101-year-old Rose lays peacefully in her bed, and we drift off into a dream where Rose finds herself back aboard the Titanic, where she is greeted by all the passengers and meets Jack, the love of her life at the top of the grand staircase. They share a passionate kiss and the passengers all applaud them.
1 The Shawshank Redemption
The ending of The Shawshank Redemption is all about hope and what beautiful change can occur when you surround yourself with the right people. The two main characters Red and Andy, played by the great Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, are inmates in prison who have given up on any hope for a life outside Shawshank. The two connect on a deep level that goes beyond just a friendship, and together they end up changing life in prison for not only themselves but for all the inmates. At the end of the film, Andy is able to escape from prison, and he and Red find their way back to one another on a beach where they can start this new chapter of their lives full of hope for the future.
The Best Movie Endings of All Time
Making a great movie is not an easy task, but if a filmmaker succeeds in getting just about everything right, it still hinges on one thing: the ending. How are you going to let the audience out of your story? What do you want them thinking about as they leave the theater? What feeling do you want to stick with them? Getting all of this across on top of wrapping up your story can be tricky, and more often than not the ending is more of a footnote than anything—not as memorable as what came before.
But a precious few films are able to take the conclusion to new heights, offering up a final scene or shot that viewers are unable to shake. This may come on the heels of a massive plot twist, it may be a genius visual idea that taps into the film’s thematic throughline, or it may be a frustratingly/excitingly ambiguous note that leaves a portion of the conclusion up to the viewer.
There’s no math equation that gives you a great ending. There’s no formula you can stick to in order to guarantee a brilliant conclusion. That’s part of what makes great endings so memorable—they don’t happen too often. Below, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites from cinema history. They run the gamut from tearful to joyous to delightfully twisted, but they all have one thing in common: they’re unforgettable. Behold the best movie endings of all time.
Oh, and spoiler alert , obviously.
Before M. Night Shyamalan or The Coen Brothers , there was Alfred Hitchcock —and boy did he know how to end a movie. Obviously the most famous Hitchcock ending of all time comes in the form of Psycho , which not only throws the audience for a loop at the end of the first act by killing off perceived protagonist Marion Crane ( Janet Leigh ), but offers a doozy of a twist at the end of the film. The audience is led to believe that Norman Bates’ ( Anthony Perkins ) mother is the one who killed Marion in the shower earlier in the film, and thus the tension continues to play out. But when Sam ( John Gavin ) and Lila ( Vera Miles ) venture to the Bates Motel to question Norman’s mother, it’s revealed that Norman’s mother is nothing but a rotting corpse in chair. In the film’s final moments, Norman sits alone in a room at the courthouse, having been outed as the real murderer. A psychiatrist explains that Norman murdered his mother, but out of guilt exhumed her corpse and began acting as if she was still alive, sometimes pretending he himself was his mother. For the final shot, we close in on Norman’s face as the voice of his mother plays in his head, claiming she wouldn’t hurt a fly. The murders were all Norman’s doing. All the while Norman gets this devilish smirk on his face. Roll credits.
Hitchcock was a consummate entertainer, and Psycho is a perfect example of the filmmaker using every trick in the book to take his audience on a thrill ride from beginning to end. The twist ending not only makes perfect sense (it was inspired by true-life serial killer Ed Gein), but leaves the audience’s jaw on the floor as the lights come up in the theater. – Adam Chitwood
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Heartbreak is hell and memory is a cage that keeps us there, but could we ever escape the lure of love, lust, and all its perils, even if we knew for sure we were doomed to fail? Probably not. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , Joel ( Jim Carrey ) and Clem ( Kate Winslet) discover just that after a devastating breakup leads the impulsive Clem to erase Joel from her memory for good via an experimental new procedure. Naturally, Joel decides to do the same and the bulk of the film follows his desperate attempts to thwart that decision as his memories of the woman he loves are stripped from his mind one by one. At the end of the film, Joel and Clem stand face-to-face, no memory of their relationship, but with the knowledge that they were once in love and the irresistible desire to give it another shot. They know they're all but certain to end in pain, that they're proven bad fit, and that trying again will only break their hearts. Okay. Laughing and crying and desperate not to feel lost and alone, they accept it. That's ok. That's the cost of putting yourself on the line for love and that's just fine. Eternal Sunshine boasts plenty of clever camerawork and narrative innovation, but the simple, honest emotional truth of its final frames cement it as a classic. — Haleigh Foutch
The film that spawned a thousand reddit theories. Christopher Nolan is known for his twisty narratives, but Inception pushed that to the limit as Nolan presents four stories happening simultaneously at wildly different paces, tracking a team of “extractors” incepting the mind of a corporate heir. The emotional throughline of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio ’s Dom Cobb, who lives in exile as his wife framed him for her murder back in the U.S. He dreams of seeing his children again, and at the film’s end, as the team has seemingly completed its mission successfully, Dom is finally reunited with his children. The camera pans to a spinning top—the sign of whether one is still dreaming—but cuts to black before the audience ever knows for sure whether it falls over. What’s important here is not whether Dom is dreaming or not, but how he feels. That’s the brilliance of this ending—narratively it offers an ominous conclusion, but emotionally it’s 100% satisfying. Dom is happy. Whether he’s trapped in dreamland or not, he’s finally at peace. – Adam Chitwood
E.T. is Steven Spielberg at the top of his game, and he’s a living legend. It’s not just that the ending is emotional or powerful. It’s that the entire movie earns the farewell between E.T. and Elliott, so that when it races to its climactic finish and heartfelt good-bye between its two leads, you can feel what’s been gained and lost in the moment. The scene also functions as the culmination of the film’s themes where Elliott finds some peace with his parents’ divorce, learning how he can “be good” and still loved even when someone he loves leaves him. It’s absolutely beautiful. – Matt Goldberg
Go ahead and say it, you know you want to. We can do it together. “What’s in the box?!” Se7en ’s ending has become iconic and endlessly quoted because it’s a perfectly crafted culmination of an intricately threaded film that cements John Doe ( Kevin Spacey ) as one of the best film villains of all time. Scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher , Se7en stars Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as Taylor and Somerset, two detectives on the hunt for the biblical serial killer John Doe, who hunts down his victims according to the seven deadly sins. Methodical and precise, and always one step ahead, John Doe leaves behind a string of deviant tableaus inspired by his victim’s deadly sins, and he saves his best for last. Just when the detectives think they have the upper hand, Doe reveals his full hand — they were always in his trap. He wins. And they become the final pieces to complete his life’s hideous work. A box is delivered, and the decapitated head of Taylor's wife is inside it. In that instance he becomes Rage, and falling in lock-step with the killer's plan, he executes John Doe in cold blood -- a fate Doe set for himself, punishment for his sins of Envy.
It’s disturbing and expertly crafted, and it’s easy to see why it’s become one of the most famous “twist” endings of all time. It’s also easy to see why the studio mandated the brief coda that follows, that delivers a salve in the form of a Hemingway quote. Fincher fought for the film to end in blackness; he wanted the audience to sit with the brutality. But he needn’t have worried, because Seven ’s ending sits with you for years. — Haleigh Foutch
There Will Be Blood (2008)
This is what’s called a “mic drop.” Paul Thomas Anderson already crafted one pretty terrific (and big ) ending with Boogie Nights , but when it came to closing out his 2008 opus There Will Be Blood , he took no prisoners. After spending over two hours with Daniel Day-Lewis ’ Daniel Plainview, the audience comes to understand what makes this bad dude tick. We see his life ebb and flow, and the film’s final act shifts forward in time to when Plainview is a wealthy—if lonely—oil tycoon. But a visit from Paul Dano ’s Eli Sunday lifts his spirits in the most nefarious way, and the long-held tension between these two characters comes to a bloody end. “I’m finished!” still stands as one of the best—and most striking—closing lines in cinema history – Adam Chitwood
The Social Network (2010)
One of the most expertly constructed films in recent memory, The Social Network packs a punch from beginning to end. While many balked at David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin tackling “a Facebook movie,” the finished film is a prescient narrative of power plays in the 21st century—movers and shakers are not fiftysomething men, they’re teenaged geniuses thrown into the deep end without the emotional maturity to handle such dangerous waters. As the film concludes with Jesse Eisenberg ’s Mark Zuckerberg rich and powerful, the camera lingers as he refreshes (and refreshes, and refreshes) the Facebook page of his former girlfriend. The one whose breakup may or may not have spurred something inside him to create one of the most successful ventures in history. He may have all the money and power in the world, but at what cost? To what end? – Adam Chitwood
Les Diaboliques (1955)
Les Diaboliques is an OG of movie twists, and an essential thriller that set the stage for generations of mysteries and film noir that would follow. Henri-Georges Clouzot 's 1955 French feature stars Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) as a bitter, tyrannical headmaster hated by his wife ( Vera Clouzot ) and mistress ( Simon Signoret ), who conspire to murder him. But his body goes missing, hijinks ensue, and it turns out Michel was never dead at all; instead, he and his mistress were conspiring the whole time, setting the stage to trigger his wife’s weak heart and literally scare her to death. At the time, Les Diaboliques ' ending was revolutionary and mind-blowing (and it still packs quite a punch today), and it’s become the basis for countless twisting tales of deception to follow, from countless film noir classics to Wild Things . — Haleigh Foutch
Arguably Hitchcock’s most twisted film, the culmination of his fascinating examination of the male gaze ( James Stewart’ s Scottie is the epitome of the male gaze and yet Hitchcock is just as guilty of this obsession) ends when our hero seemingly gets everything he wants—the woman he loves is alive, he’s conquered his Vertigo, he’s solved the mystery—and yet through dumb luck and circumstance, she falls to her death. His obsession and guilt will never end, and he will always be consumed. It’s a powerful metaphor for the nature of cinema, both as a viewer and an artist. – Matt Goldberg
Slasher movie endings had become so predictable and paint-by-numbers Carol Clover wrote a whole book about it ( Men, Women and Chainsaws ) and coined the phrase “final girl”; a horror trope that’s still in effect to this day. Penned by screenwriter Kevin Williamson , Wes Craven ’s 1996 meta-slasher Scream was constructed by a creative team who knew those tropes in and out, embracing them and subverting them in just the right measure, culminating in a final act reveal that layers on the surprises and sticks the landing with subtle, smart deconstruction of your standard slasher standoff. Not one killer, but two! Including the final girl's supposedly dead boyfriend! Sidney Prescott ( Neve Campbell ) is the “final girl”, but in her movie, she gets to break the rules and live anyway, giving Scream a refreshing distance from the inherent puritanical leanings of horror's traditional moral metrics, and genuinely surprising the audience in turn. Slasher movies have never been the same after Scream , and the surefire ending is proof in the pudding that self-reflective horror can be more than a gimmick -- in fact, it can change all the rules. – Haleigh Foutch
Before Sunset (2004)
The most unlikely sequel in history, Before Sunset is a masterpiece. Richard Linklater revisits his Jesse ( Ethan Hawke ) and Celine ( Julie Delpy ) characters nine years after the events of Before Sunrise , this time tracking their day-long conversation in real-time. The movie sets up a ticking clock—a plane Jesse has to catch—that makes every word of their conversation precious, and as we watch these characters fall back in love (or realize they’ve always been in love), the pain of their inevitable separation lingers. But Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy brilliantly refuse to take the obvious route for the film’s conclusion, as Jesse has followed Celine back up to her place and settled into a relaxed position, minutes before he has to leave. Celine’s final words—“Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane”—are music to the audience’s ears, as we see that maybe these two will end up together after all. – Adam Chitwood
La La Land (2016)
It’s been two years since La La Land hit theaters, which I’m pretty sure is enough time to safely say it has one of the best movie endings ever. The musical romance takes a shocking turn in its third act, jumping forward to an epilogue in which our lead romantic duo are no longer together, and haven’t been for some time. Emma Stone ’s Mia, now a famous actress, goes out to dinner with her husband when they stumble upon a popular jazz club—Sebastian’s ( Ryan Gosling ) Seb’s. But instead of devolving into a “happy” ending where Mia and Sebastian end up together, writer/director Damien Chazelle instead opts to show us what their lives would have been like had they made a couple of decisions differently—in musical form, obviously. It’s one of the most emotional few minutes of cinema in recent memory, and the pang of regret and “could-have-been’s” stings hard . But that familiarity is exactly what makes this ending so damn effective. – Adam Chitwood
“For what? A little bit of money.” The conclusion of the dark morality play Fargo shows the true north of Marge Gunderson, a woman who is not oblivious or naïve to the darkness of the world, but ultimately is too good of a person to fully understand what would drive one person to put another into a woodchipper. And yet even faced with that kind of darkness, she doesn’t let it twist or corrupt her. Instead, she settles in to bed with her husband, they reassure each other, and find peace in their simple lives. It’s lovely. – Matt Goldberg
The Godfather (1972)
The completion of Michael Corleone’s journey is almost bittersweet. He starts out believing he will be different from his family, and he discovers that he’s the one best suited to lead their dark legacy. Every attempt he makes to get away, he only finds that he’s in deeper and more adept as being a mob boss. So it’s particularly chilling when he becomes “The Godfather”, lies to Kay with a straight face, and then, in a powerful shot, the door between them closes, Michael living a life of crime with one family, and his actual family on the other. – Matt Goldberg
The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont ’s The Mist is a rousing, tightly crafted parable by way of B-movie creature feature that updates Stephen King ’s 1980s novella and plants the action firmly in America’s post-9/11 culture of fear, rage, and blind panic. Darabont once described the film as a “wounded, angry cry” and never is that more clear than in the film’s final moments, which have earned a spot of infamy as one of the most blistering, brutal film endings of all time. King’s novella ends, quite literally, with hope; Darabont’s film ends at the soul-crushing defeat of giving up hope. It’s the anti- Shawshank Redemption . King himself described it as “the most shocking ending ever” and said “there should be a law passed stating that anybody who reveals the last five minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead." So uh, no spoilers for this one, even ten years later. — Haleigh Foutch
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards upon its release in 1950, Sunset Boulevard has the distinction of standing the test of time as a classic film that still holds up incredibly well today. Moreover, while audience tastes and trends have evolved, the ending to Billy Wilder ’s film noir remains tremendously effective—it’s the epitome of evergreen. This story of an unsuccessful screenwriter who gets drawn into the secluded home of a forgotten silent film star is packed with tension and heightened emotion, but Wilder tells the audience up front you’re not in for a happy ending—the film begins with our protagonist lying dead in a pool. By the film’s end we empathize with poor Norma Desmond ( Gloria Swanson ) even as she commits murder, rendering her final line ”All right, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up,” not one of delusion or insanity, but tragedy. – Adam Chitwood
Almost Famous (2000)
If Cameron Crowe never made a great film after Almost Famous , he’d still be considered one of the greats. That's how good Almost Famous is. His 2000 semi-autobiographical comedy-drama is a genuine masterstroke, chronicling the exploits of a teenage journalist on the road with a rock band in the 1970s. It covers all your traditional coming-of-age tropes like young love, sex, and insecurity, albeit against the backdrop of superstardom, fame, and ego. It’s this perfect concoction that comes to a tremendous close in William’s ( Patrick Fugit ) bedroom, where he’s visited by Stillwater standout Russell Hammond ( Billy Crudup ) to finally complete that interview he’s been promising. The two have a heart-to-heart that miraculously avoids the saccharine and instead comes off as intimate, while we also get a peek of Penny Lane making her way to Morocco. “To begin with, everything.” – Adam Chitwood
The Act of Killing (2012)
The Act of Killing is a wildly difficult film to watch and a genuinely perspective-augmenting piece of filmmaking. That might sound dramatic, but this unconventional documentary tackles genocide and human cruelty in a way that rips down the walls of defensiveness we’ve built to the horrors of the world, and makes them feel fresher and more horrifying than ever. Even to the men who committed them.
To make The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer spent years alongside the men responsible for untold violence and death during the Indonesian genocide. Oppenheimer side-steps standard documentary format by having these men recreate their crimes on camera, through their perspective, offering a searing look at the deluded and appalling thought processes of these casual killers. They laugh and brag about their crimes, relishing in the details of their memories, until the film’s final scene, which sees one of these men finally confront the magnitude of his crimes. He gags and shudders, retching on the rooftop where he once callously executed innocent men. “Have I sinned?” he asks as his body contorts and heaves. It’s a shocking moment of empathy from a monster and empathy for a monster that brings the full weight of inhuman cruelty crashing down on you. — Haleigh Foutch
All That Jazz (1979)
The “tortured artist” has become a Hollywood cliché, but what happens when the tortured artist makes an incredibly self-aware autobiographical biopic? That’s Bob Fosse ’s musical masterpiece All That Jazz , which lays out the good, the bad, and the ugly of the filmmaker, writer, and choreographer’s life via Roy Scheider . As the film comes to a close with Scheider’s protagonist on his death bed, the five stages of grief present themselves as a grand musical finale featuring figures from all throughout his life. It’s at once incredibly egotistical, apologetic, gregarious, and beautiful, and it wraps up in a stark closing shot that brings us crashing down to reality. It’s truly unforgettable, and one of the greatest “grand finales” of all time. – Adam Chitwood
The Graduate (1967)
I adore this ending. The head fake is that Benjamin and Elaine will run off together and live happily ever, but director Mike Nichols cleverly brings it back to where the film started: Benjamin being carried along, wondering if his life will have any meaning or even be different than what his parents had. Letting The Graduate just sit with these two characters as their impulsiveness leaks away and they’re forced to just sit with their choice is a powerhouse of an ending that never needs to raise its voice. – Matt Goldberg
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◄ imdb polls, poll: most iconic movie endings, make your choice.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Dark Knight (2008)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Raging Bull (1980)
Fight Club (1999)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Godfather (1972)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Into the Wild (2007)
Shutter Island (2010)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Schindler's List (1993)
American History X (1998)
The Graduate (1967)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
City Lights (1931)
The Boat (1981)
American Beauty (1999)
Seven Samurai (1954)
The 25 best movie endings of all time, from Casablanca to Avengers: Infinity War
From shocking twists to famous last words, we look back at 25 of the best movie endings in cinema history
The final scenes of a movie can make or break an entire picture. However good the previous couple of hours, if the last five minutes go spectacularly wrong, you could be looking at the difference between a classic and an also-ran. The best movie endings should feel consistent with what’s come before and emotionally satisfying. Within those caveats, there are tons of great ways to close a film – the only boundaries are a filmmakers imagination and, just as importantly, talent.
You can have the credits roll after a massive cliffhanger, have your heroes going down in a blaze of glory, let the bad guys win, or make the audience question everything they’ve just seen with a killer twist – in fact, there are enough memorable twist endings in cinema to fill an entire feature (opens in new tab) . All of the above – and many more – are represented in our list of the best movie endings of all time.
Spread across 76 years of cinema history, the 25 movies are listed chronologically, rather than being ranked – frankly, putting them into a countdown would have melted our minds. How do you decide that the twist ending of The Usual Suspects is better than the emotional close of Casablanca? That Planet of the Apes’ big reveal trumps The Italian Job’s literal cliffhanger?
And with this being a list of the best movie endings, it should go without saying that we’re going to be telling you what happens at the close of a lot of films, so there are many, many spoilers ahead . You have been warned…
Arguably the greatest propaganda film of all time – if you’re ever in any doubt about doing the right thing in wartime, just think, “What would Rick Blaine do?” – also has one of the best movie endings. Rick could have Ilsa, the love of his life, stay in Casablanca with him, but instead he sacrifices his happiness to make sure she boards a plane bound for Portugal with her husband, resistance fighter Victor.
Rick’s bittersweet farewell speech is one of the most quoted of all time – “You’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life”; “We’ll always have Paris”; ”Here’s looking at you, kid” – and has made generations of viewers weep. At least Rick gets the consolation of hanging out with his new friend, the dodgy chief of police. “Louis, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Told you it was quotable…
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Like Citizen Kane and The Third Man, Billy Wilder’s classic comedy is a shoo-in for most critics’ countdowns of the best movies of all time. What Some Like it Hot (opens in new tab) has over its rivals, however, is arguably the greatest final line in cinema. Having spent most of the movie masquerading as a woman to hide from gangsters, double bass player Jerry makes such an endearing Daphne that ageing millionaire Osgood takes a shine to him – and won’t take no for an answer to his proposal of marriage.
Increasingly exasperated as his excuses fall flat, Jerry resorts to pulling off his wig and telling Osgood, “I’m a man!” The unfazed Osgood simply replies, “Well, nobody’s perfect” – and there’s not much you can add to that.
Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Made at the height of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear war satire may be a comedy but it doesn’t take the easy option. Indeed, few serious dramas of the era would have dared to end the world in the sort of mutually-assured-destruction scenario that plays out at the end of Dr Strangelove.
After an American bomber fails to receive the message that their mission has been aborted, the Soviets retaliate and the movie ends with a montage of monochrome mushroom clouds – backed by a soundtrack of Vera Lynn’s World War 2 standard “We’ll Meet Again”. It’s one of the best movie endings because it’s simultaneously funny, tragic and powerful. The close of Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines went down a similarly nihilistic route, and the sight of the missiles raining down is, by some distance, the most memorable bit of the movie.
The Graduate (1967)
Could this be the most unromantic romantic movie ending of all time? With his ex-girlfriend Elaine (daughter of the famous Mrs Robinson) set to marry another man, eponymous graduate Ben Braddock races across LA to interrupt the wedding. After his car breaks down, it turns out a breakneck sprint isn’t enough to get him to the church on time, and he arrives too late to stop Elaine tying the knot. But as he screams her name from the balcony, she eventually calls back and decides to abandon her groom to go with Ben – despite the protestations of everyone else.
There’s a sting in the tail, however. After the euphoria of escaping the scrum in the church, the new couple end up leaving on a bus – but it’s not necessarily a happily ever after. The Simon and Garfunkel-backed final shot of the pair on the back seat – Elaine still in her wedding gown – shows two people thinking, “What the hell have I done?” An idealised vision of the ’60s evaporates in an instant.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Undoubtedly one of the best movie endings and probably greatest final reveal in cinema history. American astronaut Taylor has been through hell as the prisoner of a bunch of intelligent, talking apes, but it feels like things are looking up when he rides to freedom across the wastes of the Forbidden Zone. It’s already been established that the Planet of the Apes was home to an advanced human civilisation before the simians took over, but that doesn’t prepare Taylor for the ultimate kick in the teeth.
The Statue of Liberty is usually an impressive, spectacular sight, but nobody expects to see it on the beach of an alien planet. It turns out he’s been on Earth all along, and that the human race had obliterated itself with nuclear weapons. “Those bastards finally did it,” indeed.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
James Bond doesn’t usually deal in emotions – they tend to get in the way of being a lethal assassin – but the end of George Lazenby’s only outing as 007 packs a real punch. Just married to Diana Rigg’s Tracy di Vicenzo, Bond has stopped by the roadside with his new wife when Blofeld and his henchwoman Irma Bunt perform a clinical drive-by shooting.
Tracy is shot in the head, leaving Bond to cradle her lifeless body. “It’s quite all right, really,” he tells a passing policeman. “She’s having a rest. There’s no hurry, you see. We have all the time in the world...” Even 50 years later, Bond has never seemed so human – not even in the brilliant Casino Royale (opens in new tab) .
The Italian Job (1969)
The cinematic embodiment of the swinging ’60s was always going to face a tricky dilemma when it came to wrapping things up. Charlie Croker and his gang of Mini-driving crooks are so damn likeable that you’d never want anything bad to happen them, but, at the same time, such a family-friendly caper couldn’t really end with a bunch of cons getting away with the loot.
The Italian Job has its cake and eats it, however, as the team pulls off the gold bullion heist of the century in Turin, seemingly driving away to freedom until their bus loses control and ends up dangling precariously over an Alpine ravine in one of cinema’s most literal cliffhangers. As everything weighs in the balance – thieves at one end of the bus, gold at the other – Croker makes sure the audience is left hanging too. “Hang on a minute, lads. I got a great idea…”
The Godfather (1972)
Decades before Breaking Bad delighted in showing a good man’s descent to the dark side, Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic wreaked similar havoc on Michael Corleone’s soul. As the former golden boy and war hero ascends to the head of his crime family, he goes to brutal lengths that even his late father, Don Vito, would never have dared. As well as engineering the simultaneous last act assassinations of the heads of the rival Five Families, Michael arranges the murder of his brother-in-law, Carlo, in punishment his part in older brother Sonny’s death.
The most chilling moment comes at the climax, as Michael calmly tells wife Kay that he had no part in Carlo’s killing – coldly adding that she should never to ask about his business again. The closing shot, where one of Michael’s henchmen closes his office door in front of her, is final proof that the good man she married is long gone.
The Wicker Man (1973)
There’s never any doubt there’s something sinister going on when devout Christian policeman Sergeant Howie arrives on the remote Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. But it’s not until the final act that you realise he’s the unwitting pawn lured to the island as part of the islanders’ plan to sacrifice a virgin in a pagan ritual.
There’s something insidious and relentless about the way the trap slowly closes around Howie, and as soon as he’s shut inside the giant wicker man of the title, you know there’ll be no escape from his fiery grave. Uncompromising, dramatically perfect, and the final shot of Howie trapped inside the burning monument is one of the most powerful in cinema history.
The high school prom has ended in disaster and Carrie White has literally brought the house down, burning herself and her domineering mother to death in the process. It feels like the drama in Brian De Palma’s classic Stephen King adaptation is all done and dusted when we cut to a soft-lit sequence where sole survivor Sue Snell walks through a graveyard to lay flowers on Carrie’s grave.
Then Carrie’s hand unexpectedly shoots out of the ground, grabbing Sue who wakes up screaming. Shock codas are now the norm in horror movies, but it was Carrie’s hand that drew the heart-stopping blueprint, and deserves a place in any list of the best movie endings.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Hollywood has revisited the sci-fi tale of humanity being replaced with sinister, emotionless pod people on numerous occasions, but Philip Kaufman’s 1978 vintage is the best of the bunch, the product of the era of classic paranoid political thrillers. This addition to the pantheon of the best movie endings is a brilliant piece of misdirection. Having just been seen lighting a warehouse fire that’s destroyed thousands of pods – in what would usually be the movie’s climactic scene – we next see hero Matthew Bennell going about his business in San Francisco, blending in with the mindless invaders. Then fellow survivor Nancy Bellicec spots him in the crowd and calls out to him.
As Matthew lets out a bloodcurdling shriek (we won’t attempt to transcribe the sound here), he simultaneously reveals himself as a pod person and gives birth to an internet meme. It doesn’t look like humanity’s coming back from this one…
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Nazis have been defeated, the Ark of the Covenant has been recovered, and all should be right with Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood. It turns out, though, that there’s one enemy cinema’s coolest archaeologist can’t defeat – government bureaucrats. While Indy and his old chum Marcus Brody were expecting the Ark – “a source of unspeakable power,” don’t forget – to find its way into a museum for research, the stonewalling government officials tell them that unnamed “top men” are taking care of it.
It’s all political bluster, of course, as the next time we see the Ark it’s being sealed in a wooden crate, hidden away in a giant warehouse for what’s likely to be all time – at the very least it’s still there two decades later, as revealed during the Area 51 chase at the start of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (opens in new tab) . An intentionally anticlimactic climax that adds to the mystique of Raiders of the Lost Ark (opens in new tab) , one of the greatest action movies of all time.
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The best Star Trek film gets the franchise’s best movie ending, as the “no-win scenario” that’s been a theme throughout plays out in the most powerful way imaginable. The vengeful Khan may have been defeated by the Enterprise crew but he leaves a lethal parting gift by detonating the Genesis device. With escape seemingly impossible for a critically damaged Enterprise, Spock follows the maxim that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one”, and sacrifices himself to save the ship.
For a Trekkie audience used to seeing their heroes survive anything the galaxy threw at them, it was one hell of a shock – and Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner make their final scene together (until The Search for Spock, at least) incredibly moving. “I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper.”
The Thing (1982)
In one of the most remote places on Earth, two men contemplate their fate – though one of them is probably not human… With the remains of their Antarctic research station smouldering behind them, sole survivors MacReady and Childs chew the fat. They know that one of them is the lethal shape-shifting alien that’s killed everyone else in the base – and that as soon as they freeze, the monster will have a chance to infect the rest of the planet. “What do we do?” asks Childs. “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while, see what happens,” replies MacReady in a wonderfully ambiguous finale that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
Back to the Future: Part 2 (1989)
“Where we’re going we don’t need… roads.”
Nobody can say that Doc Brown didn’t warn us that the sequel to Back to the Future was going to break all the rules, with its split timelines, return to 1955, and bonkers ending. With the Doc and the time machine seemingly vaporised by a lightning strike, a Western Union delivery guy appears out of the rain carrying a letter they’ve had in their possession since 1885, addressed to one Marty McFly. “There’s only one man who can help me,” says Marty as he sprints back to Hill Valley town centre, where the 1955 Doc Brown has just sent Marty’s previous self back to the future. Messing around in the previous movie’s timeline is an audacious move that pays off spectacularly. And because Part 2 and Part 3 were shot back to back, cinemagoers even got a sneak peek at Marty’s adventures in the Old West…
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Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.
10 best movie endings of all time (according to letterboxd).
Letterboxd users have chosen the films with the best endings. These include classics like The Godfather and Marvel movies like Avengers: Infinity War.
As Marvel fans eagerly wait for more details about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever , it’s the perfect time to rewatch movies from Phase Three. The events in these blockbusters come to a head in Avengers: Infinity War , giving viewers a jarring and unforgettable ending that significantly influences the storylines in the films that follow.
It’s not surprising that the superhero movie is among the most mentioned by Letterboxd users when it comes to the best film endings. Other entries include classics like The Sixth Sense and award-winning movies like Whiplash . These films have powerful endings that are often shocking and memorable and are worth seeing at least once.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Available to rent on apple tv..
The Sixth Sense is famous for its twist ending , as the horror film builds up to a genuinely unexpected conclusion that changes everything about its plot. It follows the child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, who encounters the nine-year-old Cole Sear, who claims he can see and talk to ghosts. Malcolm is soon convinced that he’s right.
While there are many clues that point to the film’s shocking ending, viewers can’t be blamed for missing them. Malcolm’s harrowing realization that he has been dead all along leads to an emotional scene where he says his goodbyes to his wife.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Available to stream on amazon prime video..
The renowned neo-noir mystery film, The Usual Suspects , is centered on the interrogation of a supposed small-time con man, Roger "Verbal" Kint. As one of only two survivors of a massacre, he recounts a messy tale of events that are influenced by the enigmatic crime lord, Keyser Söze.
The iconic last few minutes of the movie depict the interrogator slowly realizing that Verbal was using objects around the office to construct his story. As he chases after the suspect, a sketch from the other survivor is faxed to the station, revealing Verbal’s face. The highlight of the entire sequence is when Verbal stops faking his limp, confirming once and for all that he and Söze are one and the same.
The Godfather (1972)
The first entry in the legendary trilogy, The Godfather , chronicles Michael Corleone’s transformation from reluctant bystander to ruthless mafia boss following in his father’s footsteps. The film represents a turning point in the gangster genre by allowing audiences to look behind the curtain and discover what the mafia is like from an insider’s perspective.
Its ending depicts a confrontation between Michael and his wife, Kay, who asks her husband if he really had anything to do with Carlo’s death. While Michael’s confident denial initially reassures her, a subtle scene showing Michael inside an office surrounded by his capos casts doubt on his response. The door closing on Kay further underscores how she is being shut out of Michael’s life as the new Don.
Available to stream on hbo max..
Set during World War II, Casablanca revolves around the experiences of the American expatriate, Rick Blaine, who owns a nightclub in the titular location. When his former lover Ilsa Lund unexpectedly walks into his establishment, he has to make some difficult choices for her and her husband Victor Laszlo’s safety.
The dramatic ending of the black-and-white film shows a tear-jerking twist, with Rick sending Ilsa off with her husband instead of asking her to stay behind. He’s soon confronted by fellow fatalist, Captain Louis Renault, who doesn’t turn him in and joins him as they walk through the fog.
The mind-bending sci-fi film Inception follows the story of a group of “extractors” who go on their most ambitious mission yet. They’re hired by a wealthy man to implant an idea into his competitor’s son, which is an action that’s considered impossible. The risky task becomes even more challenging when they learn that their leader, Dom Cobb, hasn’t been truthful about how his past could influence the plan.
By the end of the movie, Cobb and the rest of the team are able to wake up in the real world and Saito keeps his promise. Cobb gets through customs without a hitch and is finally able to see his family after a long time. He uses a top, a totem to check if he’s genuinely not dreaming – audiences never know if it stops spinning.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Available to stream on disney+..
Avengers: Infinity War sees the events of Phase Three come to a gripping head, as Thanos threatens the safety of the entire universe by getting his hands on most of the Infinity Stones. All the action scenes in Infinity War perfectly build up the jarring ending, which highlights Thanos’ devastating snap and its harrowing consequences.
It feels surreal to watch fan-favorite superheroes and supporting characters vanish in a plume of dust, with some deaths being incredibly heartbreaking because of stellar performances from the actors. The powerful ending leaves fans wanting retribution or at least a solution to the surreal problem Thanos creates.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The epic sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey , is a film that needs no introduction. It introduced viewers to the iconic AI villain, HAL, who sabotages a mission to Jupiter in the far future. The goal of the space voyagers was to reach and examine a mysterious alien monolith on the planet, but one of them does manage to get to it eventually.
Dr. Dave Bowman is captured by whoever is responsible for the monoliths and the ending shows him rapidly aging in a bizarre room. Even stranger things happen towards the end, as he’s transformed into a fetus and seemingly sent back to earth. It’s a surreal sequence that has been studied and interpreted numerous times since the film’s release.
Available to stream on netflix..
The disillusioned and retiring Detective William Somerset is paired with Detective David Mills in Se7en , with the two of them tasked with hunting down a skilled serial killer. The murderer uses the seven deadly sins as inspiration for his crimes, setting up the deaths to parallel each one.
The riveting twist ending of the movie portrays the serial killer’s final crime, as he reveals that he has targeted Detective Mills’ wife to coax him into fulfilling his role as wrath. The stressful confrontation ends with the killer getting what he wants, as he’s shot to death by Mills, with Somerset unable to do anything but watch.
La La Land (2016)
Often cited alongside the most popular romance movies of the decade , La La Land revolves around the love that blossoms between aspiring actor Mia Dolan and struggling jazz pianist Seb Wilder. The duo works to pursue their dreams together, but their relationship falls apart after a few years.
The ending of the film is designed to cause audiences to shed a tear or two, as, after their separation, both Mia and Seb end up fulfilling their dreams. When Mia, now an established actor, visits Seb’s successful jazz club, they share a meaningful look acknowledging what they’ve lost and gained – they had to be apart to achieve their goals, but there’s obviously still a lot of love and yearning there.
Whiplash is centered on the twisted dynamic between the talented student and jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman, and his abusive instructor at the Shaffer Conservatory, Terence Fletcher. Fletcher pushes Neiman to his limits and uses questionable methods to bring out the best in him, all because he sees he has potential.
Their back-and-forth brings both of them to their breaking points, but Neiman manages to impress a crowd and Fletcher with his final performance at the film’s ending. The intensity and rage felt through that performance make Fletcher smile, emphasizing his belief in his cruel tactics that supposedly bring out Neiman’s best self on the stage.
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The 25 Best Movie Endings of All Time
We've all had the same feeling. You're watching a good movie , everything is moving forward exactly the way you feel it should, and then the ending comes and it just doesn't land. Plenty of great stories have been derailed by lackluster endings, or endings that simply chicken out on the bold promises the rest of the film made to its audience. The 25 movies below, thankfully, are not those stories. These are the ones that got it right, whether we realized it upon first viewing or not. Here are our picks for 25 of the greatest movie endings of all time (in chronological order).
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
On a surface level, Orson Welles's masterpiece Citizen Kane would seem to have an extremely simply, if tragic, ending. Welles's doomed tycoon Charles Foster Kane utters a dying word, Rosebud , and later the audience is shown that the word referenced the sled Kane played with as a boy just before his life was thrown into upheaval. Therefore, it would seem the film ends with a straightforward elegy for lost innocence. Yet, decades after its release and despite countless re-examinations of the film, we are still talking about "Rosebud" and its many meanings as a component of memory, nostalgia, and the way we both control and lose control of our own narratives in life. It remains a puzzle very much worth playing with, even if we can never fully solve it.
2. Casablanca (1942)
We tend to think of "Hollywood endings" as universally happy things, particularly when it comes to romance, but Casablanca —one of the most recognizable classics from Hollywood's Golden Age—has been flouting that conventional perception for decades. Rick and Ilsa's bittersweet goodbye remains one of the most famous romantic moments in all of film history, made even more powerful by its refusal to give the audience what they want. Instead we get what we need, and the combination of Ingrid Bergman's passion and Humphrey Bogart's resolve sells the whole thing.
3. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock's ability to assemble perfect thrillers is the stuff of legend, in part because he always seemed to know exactly how to end a film in a way that his audience wouldn't be able to get out of their heads. The ending of Psycho , featuring a smirking Norman Bates and a haunting inner monologue, crawls into your brain and just keeps buzzing there like the fly Norman refuses to swat. It's still buzzing there now, 60 years later.
4. The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder told a lot of great love stories in the course of his career, but The Apartment remains the most emotionally complex. It's not so much a story of falling in love as it is a story about keeping the faith that love will find you, and what happens when that faith is almost lost. The final scene culminates not in a sweeping romantic kiss but in a simple game of cards, as Bud and Fran finally see something in each other that the rest of the world never seemed to give them: comfort.
5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
At the time of its release, the ending of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde generated instant interest in conversation because of how bloody it was in the eyes of 1967 audiences. Modern viewers are less likely to notice the brutality of the actual imagery now, but the way the ending lands as an inevitable consequence of a doomed love story hasn't dulled at all with time. The most striking thing about the film is how often it tells you that the title characters are destined to go down in flames, and yet each time you watch it—thanks to the unshakeable charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway—you expect a clean getaway that never comes.
6. The Graduate (1967)
What's perhaps most striking about the ending of The Graduate now is how many movies we've seen since it was made that would stop right before it chooses to. Plenty of films traffic in a similar comedic tone, but still manage to end at a moment of apparent happiness without interrogating deeper. By giving us one more moment to sit with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross), Mike Nichols leaves us with something that sticks in our minds a lot longer than pure joy would have.
7. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The ending of Planet of the Apes —featuring a horrified Charlton Heston screaming at the ruins of the Statue of Liberty—is one of the most referenced, parodied, and commented on endings in all of cinema history. It's so recognizable that you probably know what it is even if you haven't seen the film, but it didn't just reach that status because it's a memorable image. It's a payoff to a rather direct metaphor for a world gone mad that works almost as well today as it did amid the Cold War.
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick is a master of iconic endings, from Dr. Strangelove to The Shining , so it's hard to pick one of them that stands out above the rest. The ecstatic, mind-expanding conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey is our pick, though, because it's the one that fans still debate in a way that even The Shining devotees don't. Both films induce chills with their final moments, but 2001 does it in a more hopeful, not to mention absolutely visually dazzling, way.
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead 's ferocious, unflinching final moments land, tragically, just as heavily today as they did more than 50 years ago when the film was released. Actor Duane Jones spends the entire film building himself as a sympathetic, smart, heroic man determined to last long enough to see a better world, only to be shot by an unthinking militia when the dawn comes. The rest of the movie is scary, but the final scene's depiction of a Black man dehumanized and cast aside by a white mob is haunting.
10. The Godfather (1972)
Marlon Brando may have won the Oscar for The Godfather , but Al Pacino 's Michael Corleone is at the heart of its epic, tragic story. What begins with a simple desire to protect his family morphs into a chain reaction of violence and callousness that all builds to the moment when Michael, surrounded by his new followers, literally and metaphorically closes the door on a part of himself that's been lost forever. It's a gut punch that the sequel miraculously somehow amplifies rather than diminishes.
11. Chinatown (1974)
There are so many threads being woven together in Chinatown , from the film noir elements to the corruption to the family and sexual drama running through the whole piece, that by the time you get to the final minutes of the film it seems impossible that it can all be brought in for a smooth landing. It turns out it can't be, and that's the point. The film ends in a hail of bullets, and before you've even grasped the scope of the tragedy, the film itself ushers you away with an unforgettable final line. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" is to this day an all-encompassing way of saying "You can't solve this."
12. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
For almost the entirety of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three , its main characters are static. The criminals are on the train, and the Transit Police lieutenant (Walter Matthau) trying to slow them down is behind a switchboard, begging for more time. When it all breaks down, it breaks down quickly and dramatically, which is why the film's ultimate ending is so sublime. After all that, the solution (or is it?) to the mystery comes down to a single, poorly-timed sneeze.
13. Carrie (1976)
There's an element of impish glee running through Brian De Palma's Carrie , from the way the film showcases the often clueless arrogance of Carrie White's (Sissy Spacek) tormentors to the absolutely unhinged performance from Piper Laurie as Carrie's mother. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that De Palma would want to pay off the devilish delight one last time with a jump scare that had popcorn sticking to movie theater ceilings all over America. It's an ending so good, it convinced a young Stephen King that the film would be a hit.
14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
How do you top the climax of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers , which features Kevin McCarthy screaming "You're next!" directly into the camera? If you're Philip Kaufman, you both pay homage to that ending in your new interpretation and you build up such a level of paranoia and dread that the audience clings to the one sane man in your narrative right up until the final, haunting shot. With that achieved, you ask Donald Sutherland to make one of the most horrifying faces in all of horror cinema, and unleash a primal scream that will have everyone squirming in their seats as the credits roll.
15. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter's The Thing is perhaps best remembered among horror fans for its dazzling visual effects and, of course, the amazing blood test scene. But the sense of utter paranoia and tension running through those moments is present throughout the film, and it all builds to one of the greatest ambiguous endings in horror cinema: Two men, alone in the frozen dark, each ready to be proven right and be destroyed at the same time.
16. The Vanishing (1988)
The Vanishing is a film about obsessive search for truth, and the real brilliance of George Sluizer's filmmaking approach is in the way he makes us a part of that obsession rather than just observers of it. The audience gets to know more about the killer than the protagonist does, but we still never get the whole story. Sluizer pushes us, just as he pushes Rex (Gene Bervoets), to absolutely crave that last piece of the puzzle above all else. The horrifying payoff remains one of the most chilling conclusions ever put on film.
17. Do the Right Thing (1989)
A dead Black man, a riot, a ruined local business, a violent police response, and two men left standing in the rubble of an even more complicated world. It sounds like something you might have read about yesterday, and that's why Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing still hits so hard decades after it was released. The ending's lack of any real answers only makes it more powerful, and the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the end only serve to further remind us that answers don't come easy, no matter how much time has passed.
18. Thelma & Louise (1991)
In the hands of the wrong storyteller, an ending like the one in Thelma & Louise would fall absolutely flat, be little more than a joke, or even transform into a misogynistic snipe at "dramatic" women. In the hands of Ridley Scott and his two shining stars, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, it becomes a primal shout in the face of an unfair world, a triumphant moment in which two women for whom the game has never been fair simply refuse to play anymore.
19. The Usual Suspects (1995)
A lot of storytellers have done the "supervillain inserts himself into the narrative so he can shape it to his liking" trick, but few stories have ever pulled it off quite like The Usual Suspects . The film is a masterclass in slow burning, groundwork-laying dialogue, all in service to creating a legendary figure who may or may not really exist. By the time the reveal comes, we believe the myth of Keyser Soze so thoroughly that all it takes to send our jaws to the floor is a walk.
20. Fargo (1996)
When it comes to Fargo , most people get the infamous woodchipper scene stuck in their heads right away. The more time you spend with this Coen brothers classic, though, the more you come to appreciate the quiet moment that follows it: Marge Gunderson, back home with her husband, celebrating his art on a three-cent stamp and their impending baby. It's a reminder that, even in a world that seems determined to rip itself apart, you have to celebrate in your own quiet way whenever you can.
21. Big Night (1996)
Baking a big tonal shift into the ending of your film is always a risk, but having one of the most endearing casts ever assembled certainly helps to pull it off. The final act of Big Night largely plays out as one big party laced with some of the greatest food porn ever put on film. Then the ending comes, and the film deflates like a falling souffle, as our restaurateur heroes (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) watch their dream fade. Still, there's an element of hope to the final scene, as the brothers realize (in silence) that they still have each other. And they still have to eat.
22. American Psycho (2000)
In director Mary Harron's hands, American Psycho becomes a black horror-comedy about a man thoroughly devoted in every respect to building his own myth. Christian Bale 's brilliant performance as Patrick Bateman is drenched in toxic masculinity that transcends even the 1980s excesses that run through the plot, so even now the film's conclusion lands flawlessly. Is Patrick Bateman a man who failed to craft the brutal legacy he thought he was chasing, or is he so delusional that he only thought he'd even tried? There are so many layers to it, and all of them are satisfying.
23. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
To this day, you can mention "the ending" of The Return of the King and hear someone in the room quip "Which one?" in response. It's a joke that has plagued the final film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy since it was released, and while it's amusing, it's also an oversimplification. The ending of Peter Jackson's epic—stretched out across several scenes that span the breadth of Middle-earth—is a fitting farewell to the scope of the narrative. It could only ever have ended on such a scale, and there are so many beautiful smaller moments within that grand scope that the length of the journey was worth it.
24. Lost in Translation (2003)
Lost in Translation is one of those films that has built a lot of pop culture clout and staying power because of what it doesn't tell the viewer. The question "What did he say to her?" permeates the conversation around the film, but what's sometimes lost in that conversation is that it isn't meant to be a mystery. The story of Bob and Charlotte is a story about the power and necessity of unlikely human connection, and the more time you spend with this film, the more it matters to you that Bob made the choice to say anything at all.
25. Moonlight (2016)
You don't need a lot of characters and converging plotlines to generate an intensely emotionally complex ending for your story, and Barry Jenkins proved it with his stunning, Oscar-winning drama Moonlight . In the end, after doing what he could to adapt and survive in a world determined to keep him from being who he really was, all Chiron needed to let go was a little warmth from another human. It's a stunning interrogation of our perceptions of masculinity in general, and Black masculinity in particular, that's both haunting and soothing.
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30 Films Where The Last Scene Is Actually The Best Scene In The Entire Thing
"the movie is brilliant from its first scene, but that ending solidifies it as one of the best of all time.".
Recently, on my personal favorite subreddit, r/movies , redditor u/downvote_this_mf asked for people to name some " Movies where the final scene is widely regarded as the best scene in the entire film ," and movie lovers really came through with some A+ answers.
So, with that in mind, here are just a few of the most popular responses shared:, 1. avengers: infinity war (2018).
"Man, that had me on the edge of my seat. Going from all that epic fighting to that axe lunge to the snap and the silence. Only to show everyone dusting, people I had been following for 10 years. The theater was just as stunned as I was."
You can watch the ending scene here:
View this video on YouTube
2. inception (2010).
"Is he dreaming? Does is it matter if he is or not?"
3. Halloween (1978)
"After Michael disappears and Dr. Loomis tells Laurie he was the boogeyman. The montage of all of the places in the movie is just perfect."
4. The Matrix (1999)
"Neo flying out to save us all was the perfect ending. I enjoyed the sequels, but without the sequels, the impact of the ending would have been absolutely legendary (probably an unpopular opinion)."
5. Saw (2004)
"I’m still shocked about that ending. It was easily the best scene in the whole movie."
6. The Lost Boys (1987)
"'One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach: all the damn vampires.'"
7. Primal Fear (1996)
"It’s a jaw dropper the first time you see it."
8. Arrival (2016)
"The end is really a montage, but it's spectacular."
9. City Lights (1931)
"I always say it'd still be a favorite of mine if it wasn't as good as it was, but the reason it's my favorite movie is because of the perfect ending."
10. Children of Men (2006)
"It's utter chaos, then suddenly, a child screams, and everything stops for a moment. It moves me to tears every time."
11. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
"This is the one I thought of because it lasts about 20 minutes. Brilliant tension, cinematography, and a nice surprise."
12. Schindler's List (1993)
"Not just where Schindler loses his cool and his persona cracks as the gravity of everything hits him when he thinks, 'I could have saved one more,' but all the descendants that probably would not be here if he hadn't done what he did."
13. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
"You're thinking, 'They won’t ALL shoot…will they?'"
14. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
"That ending is epic and amazing!"
15. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019)
"'Is everyone all right?' 'Well, the fucking hippies aren’t. That’s for goddamn sure.'"
16. Big Fish (2003)
"The whole film is a masterpiece, but the final scene wrecks me."
17. Field of Dreams (1989)
"'Hey dad? Wanna have a catch?' I love this movie for a million reasons, but the simple game of catch at the end is beautiful. This whole movie, this whole quest, was just for this one moment between Ray and his dad. It crushes me every time I watch that movie."
18. Before Sunset (2004)
"There we go. That’s the answer. I’ve been scrolling through all these great responses, but I knew we were missing it. It has to be this just because it’s about two films (and 11 years) worth of tension being released when he says 'I know.' Best trilogy in film history, too, if you ask me."
19. The Game (1997)
"This is such a great movie with just a minor re-watch worth, but oh, what would I give to see this movie for the first time again."
20. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
"The whole movie is great, but the last scene always haunted me."
21. Arlington Road (1999)
"A pretty good film that's about half an hour too long and definitely sags in the middle, but that ending...wow. I realized what was going on at the exact moment that Jeff Bridges's character did, and I'll never forget that split second 'oh shit' moment."
22. Captain Phillips (2013)
"The final scene where he is being rescued and checked out by the medic was surprisingly emotional. I still think about it regularly after seeing it years ago."
23. Michael Clayton (2007)
"This is one that comes to mind. The whole movie is just a constant buildup of tension, and George Clooney just paying a guy to drive a taxi around so he doesn't have to think while he is just silent was really impactful. The whole movie is good, but I think the ending is definitely the standout scene for me. It's also pretty cool that this scene happens while the credits roll, yet it didn't take me out of it."
24. Whiplash (2014)
"Damn, that's catharsis."
25. Se7en (1995)
26. Smokin' Aces (2006)
"There's a few awesome scenes in the movie, but that ending with that soundtrack playing beats everything before it."
27. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
"I love the whole movie, but man, the Darth Vader scene is probably one of the best things in all of Star Wars ."
28. Saint Maud (2019)
"The last fraction of a second is the most chilling thing I've ever seen in a film."
29. A History of Violence (2005)
"No spoilers for the ending, but not one character says a single damn word in the final five minutes, yet you understand everything that is said between everybody in the room. Such a fantastic story, I felt like it flew under the radar somewhat, which is weird considering it's a David Cronenberg film."
30. the truman show (1998).
"It's the greatest closing scene in any movie ever, in my opinion."
You've read their picks, but now it's your turn. Which ones did they miss? Which ending scenes are the best scenes in the entire movie? Share your pick(s) in the comments below!
Some responses were edited for length and/or clarity. H/T: Reddit .
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