Clockwise from left to right: Lust, Caution; Moonlight; Some Like it Hot; The Last Days of Disco; Beau Travail; The Searchers; Losing Ground; Big Night; Grave of the Fireflies; The Thin Blue Line.
Illustration: by James Clapham
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 “The Spirit of God Moving Over 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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*A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
To jump to other celebrated documentary finales on this list, head here, here, here, here, and here.
This might be one of our few truly “happily ever afters.” The romance endings we tended toward included this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.
Want more horror? Head here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
And so begins the unraveling of many unendings, like this, this, this, this, this and this.
You’ll find a lot of death on this list, like here, here, here, here,here and here.
Ah, the endings that are actually visions, dreams and or bouts of insanity, like this, this, this and this.
For more close-ups, head here, here and here.
The sentiment is different, but Gangs of New York also closes out with a shot of the modern city looming large above the landscape its historical characters were existing in. Loop in 2020’s global box office champ The Eight Hundred, which takes place on the cusp of World War II and concludes with a shot of present-day Shanghai, and you’ve got a subgenre of endings. — A.W.
You could even say that, following American Graffiti, George Lucas turned the whole idea of finding-out-the-characters’-ultimate-fates-after-the-movie-ended into a lucrative film franchise in and of itself. One way of looking at the Star Wars saga is as a decades-long attempt to explain what happened to all these people. — B.E.
I am haunted by the fact that this is on our list. The Prestige cheats on its own premise by creating a fake scientific deus ex machina conclusion that has nothing whatsoever to do with stage magic. The ending of this movie is like the ending of a rambling story being told by a 4-year-old as he is falling asleep. — R.H.
The downside of making interesting, unconventional choices is that sometimes you wind up passing over one of the best closing lines of all time: “I’m finished!” Sometimes the obvious picks are obvious for a reason. — N.J.
Congratulations: After this one you will have completed Nate’s course on Famous Endings in Post-Sixties British Cinema. — N.J.
We don’t have many other Westerns on this list, but it’s worth noting here how much the Western genre has been one of unforgettable endings. There is, of course, the classic cliche of the cowboy hero riding off into the sunset, but so many Western films play with that idea: from John Wayne and Claire Trevor fleeing “civilization” at the end of Stagecoach, to Eli Wallach screaming profanities at an increasingly distant Clint Eastwood in the final frames of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, to an enraged Eastwood snarling one final threat to the hellish town of Big Whiskey before disappearing forever into the mists of time in Unforgiven. We could probably do an entire list of the 101 Greatest Endings in Western Movie History. — B.E.
Some titles that ended up on the cutting room floor: The Good The Bad and the Ugly, Simeon, Faces Places, The Rapture, Enough Said, Widows, Call Me By Your Name, Salaam Bombay, Faces, Clerks, Take Shelter, Cabin in the Woods, Death in Venice, Days of Heaven, Stalker, Avengers: Infinity War, Ginger Snaps, Se7en, Rosemary’s Baby, First Wives Club, Chinatown, Only Angels Have Wings, Farewell My Concubine, and so many more.