Few moments are more important in a movie than the last one, the one that wraps your story into a neat little bow and leaves a final emotional nugget for the audience to contemplate when they leave. As we discussed a few weeks ago, bad endings can destroy an otherwise good movie or compound its folly past the point of all redemption. Good endings on the other hand, can help redeem an otherwise mediocre effort… or, in the case of the best movies, elevate them to the pantheon of greats. We’ve covered the worst; it’s only fair that the cream of the crop get their due as well.
We’ve left dozens off this list that rightfully have a place there: Casablanca, The Godfather, The Usual Suspects, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Birds, Rocky, Boogie Nights, Dr. Strangelove, Citizen Kane… it gets out of hand real quick. (I also confess a personal fondness for the end of Force 10 from Navarone – a far-from-classic film that benefits immeasurably from its final speech.) We’ve culled eleven from their ranks – combining two to make an even Top Ten list – but the choices are as much personal as objective. Let us know what other films you think belong here, or which ones you’d drop from this list. We’re assuming you’re familiar with most of them. If not, then take care: serious spoilers lie ahead.
The ending of Fight Club prompts the kind of seething film-geek slap fights usually reserved for discussions of Jar Jar Binks. Are we looking at the apocalypse? Is Tyler Durden’s transgressive vision coming true? Is that really a bad thing? The literal minded would say it means nothing (“every bank has off-site back-ups,” a friend of mine quipped after viewing it), and the film’s skepticism at Durden’s nihilistic pranks suggests it shares that view. The debate is what makes it so fascinating, however, and Fight Club will never want for discussion fodder. Personally, I think the film makes it quite clear that we’re dealing with the perceptions of a madman, that everything we see is subjective, and that the end-of-the-world scenario before us signals more of a personal rebirth than any widespread destruction. That doesn’t make it any less powerful; indeed, it actively accentuates the film’s anti-consumerism, and the notion that you may literally have to lose your mind to escape the corporate cages in which society now exists.
You could make a strong case for replacing this with the ending to The Dark Knight: one of the most powerful, complex and emotionally ambiguous conclusions to a blockbuster ever made. We’re a bit distracted, however, by the decision to use Jim Gordon’s son as a focal point, rather than a certain little red-headed girl who’s sitting right freaking there. The decision slightly muddies an otherwise masterful moment. So instead, we’ll go with the equally powerful ending to Batman Begins, which accentuates the selfless nature of Bruce Wayne’s mission while hinting that the real work has only begun. And when Gordon hands him that evidence bag, every fanboy heart in the world just sings with joy. The sequel proved better than our highest expectations, but Batman Begins set an ideal table for the masterpiece to come.
The irony of Raiders is that the Ark of the Covenant remains just as lost in that colossal warehouse as it was in the Egyptian desert. Spielberg married the notion to a slightly sinister comment about the secrecy of the U.S. government, as well as raising the marvelous question of what’s in all those other boxes. (Crystal Skull ultimately answered it during its deeply underrated opening sequence.) Most importantly, however, it stressed the importance of Indy’s growth and change as a character. In the beginning of the film, the Ark is everything to him; he’s even willing to leave Marion in the hands of the Nazis to get it. By the end, he’d rather blow it up that let her come to harm: a change that heals not only the damage he did to her, but his own feelings of regret and betrayal. The last shot signals everything he’s lost, but also the much more important things he’s gained in the process. In light of that, we’ll forgive him a last yearning backward glance as he walks away. (Apologies for the poor quality of the clip, btw. Raiders footage is few and far between on the interwebs.)
You will never see a put-down as measured, ruthless and coldly executed as the one at the end of The Third Man. The extended final shot not only closes the film’s protracted love triangle, but reveals just how much hold Harry Lime (Orson Welles) still has on those close to him. Even in death, he incites unwavering loyalty from people he exploited and used. Joseph Cotton’s Holly Martins ultimately gives Harry a taste of his own medicine… at the cost of their mutual love interest’s (Alida Valli) affection. She has no prospects, she’s facing deportation behind the Iron Curtin, and yet she can’t even be bothered to break stride for Martins: final proof that no good deed goes unpunished.
Guillermo del Toro once defined horror as the presence of something that shouldn’t be there or the absence of something that should be there. That philosophy finds exquisite expression in the empty suburban lawn where a killer should be lying at the end of Halloween. John Carpenter’s minimalist classic is astonishing today for its use of suggestion over gauche reveals and developing a visual language devoid of budgetary frills. Lots of horror films muse on the eternal nature of evil; only this one embodied it so succinctly… both in the sinking look on its protagonist’s face and that simple empty frame that created more sleepless nights than a thousand slasher movie kills.
J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is everything you want a noir protagonist to be. He’s tough, he’s resourceful, he thinks on his feet, and he retains just enough ethics to stay human on the dark paths he has to walk. Every bit of it comes crashing down around him in the last five minutes of Chinatown. All his diligence and dedication – all of the perseverance that led him to unravel the film’s cloying mystery – means nothing in the face of a human monster who holds all the cards. A good woman dies, her daughter falls into the hands of pure evil, and Gittes can do absolutely nothing but stand there and take it. The final line is supposed to encapsulate cynical moral relativism. But director Roman Polanski – who knows a thing or two about evil – viewed it as the final denial of our power to affect positive change. Sometimes, your best just isn’t good enough… in Chinatown or anywhere else.
George A. Romero had nothing in mind but a marketable horror flick when he replaced the vampires of Matheson’s I Am Legend with lurching corpses. But not only did Night of the Living Dead conjure serious scares on a budget the size of your average Starbuck’s order, it infused a huge amount of Vietnam-era outrage beneath its cannibalistic terrors. The sole survivor of a farmhouse assault – one who held onto his soul as well as his life in the long siege that preceded it – finally stumbles out to daylight and rescue, only to be mistaken for a zombie and gunned down by the sheriff’s dipshit posse. The fact that he was a black man makes it even more disturbing, and the film’s release during one of the most turbulent eras in recent memory brought the comment home in ways that none of its so-called betters ever could.
These two endings belong together, both because of their greatness and because they both deliver the same basic scenario to stunningly different effect. Each concerns the death of a pair of irreverent bank robbers, forced to face the music after a lengthy period on the run. Old West criminals Butch and Sundance find themselves far from home, facing a literal army waiting to claim their heads. Depression-era bandits Bonnie and Clyde are struck down by an orchestrated ambush in their getaway car. The first pair never acknowledges the trouble they’re in. They continue to quip until the very end, and the camera freezes on them just before the fatal shots cut them down for good. Bonnie and Clyde receive the opposite treatment: keenly aware of their fate and slaughtered in a New Wave montage that accentuates every bloody bullet. Butch and Sundance leaves us with their defiance; Bonnie and Clyde with their hubris and futility. Together, they perfectly encapsulate the doomed iconoclasm of the American outlaw.
The deconstruction of the Western so fittingly embodied in those two films really began with The Searchers, which quietly undermined a number of previously held truisms. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is an open racist whose hatred blinds him to the true purpose of his task. He spends years seeking out his kidnapped niece, but he may be doing so just to kill her for her perceived defilement at the hands of the Indians who took her. His obsession plays dividends – driving him onward for years after anyone else would have turned back – and his forgotten humanity reemerges in time to stay his hand. But the final shot makes it clear that there’s still a price to pay. For while the remainder of the cast enters the homesteader’s cabin to enjoy their hard-won togetherness, Ethan turns away and heads back into the desert: denied the very closure his sacrifice made possible.
“Beware the beast man,” Roddy McDowell recited ominously. If only he knew. Planet of the Apes represented the ideal embodiment of a twist ending, perfectly realized and untouchable in over a century of filmmaking. Charlton Heston’s hero spends the whole film fighting to affirm his humanity, only to be reminded exactly what membership in that club entails. His realization hits us where it hurts: simple, visually inescapable and so powerful that it doesn’t need a single line of dialogue to enhance it (though Heston’s futile rage certainly doesn’t hurt). The real surprise though, is that it eschews an equally chilling ending from the Pierre Boulle novel. The movie made vast changes to the book, such that the original ending couldn’t work. But co-screenwriter Rod Serling (who knew how to stick a dismount) actually managed to top it… and every other finale anyone else had ever penned.