Last week, I wrote about my 10 favorite scenes to open a film. So, in the parlance of our time, turn about is fair play – so I thought I’d write about my favorite ending scenes. As I thought this over and compiled my list, I couldn’t narrow it down to only 10 and even 15. So here are my top 16 favorite film endings. The ending of a film can be a revelation, tying the entire film you just watched all together in a perfect bow, it can leave the resolution to characters’ dilemma open-ended allowing you the license to think and discuss what became of them and the events before, it can piss you off asking what the fuck the writer and director were thinking (Oliver Stone – I’m looking at you for that shit ending to Savages, which sucked anyway), or it can totally destroy a film begging you to ask yourself why you just wasted the 90-120 minutes you just spent watching it.
Now, Let it be known that watching many of these may give away key points to the films. I will have tried to list which have spoilers. Beware.
Lastly, I urge you to watch all of the following films. They are all fantastic. They wouldn’t have left the impression on me that they did if they weren’t.
Here we go…
(this is the entire film – watch from 1:43:20-1:46:20)
It is unfortunate that this film remains relatively unknown to many in this country. It’s really incredible. I was fortunate to see this at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2004 where it won the Gold Hugo, its top prize. And well deserved, I might add. The film follows a group of slacker subway ticket controllers in Budapest as they try and find out who has been pushing patrons in front of oncoming trains. Led by Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), the group must deal with their hotheaded boss, rival gangs of ticket controllers, punk kids and an ethereal girl dressed in a bear and fairy costumes (Eszter Balla) who may or may not really exist. This film is extremely ripe for interpretation and presents many mysteries that challenge its viewer. That it is Hungarian probably turns some people off. Don’t let that bother you – you know you watched Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and that shit had subtitles too. This may not have hot ass kung fu, but it does have a narcoleptic who provides very funny comedic moments and a peek into a different slice of the world you might not otherwise see.
The Crew – Professor, Bulcsú, Tibi, Lecsó and Muki
This film ending may not mean much without the entire context of the film, but I do know it is one of the most satisfying I’ve seen. I’ve provided a link that allows you to watch this badass film for free. DO IT.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
SPOILER – this one pretty much gives away the entire premise of the film, so BEWARE.
Made at the height of the Cold War, Kiss Me Deadly is exceedingly representative of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. A film noir staple, this one’s got it all – beatings, intimidation, dames, broads, cars, guns, double-crosses…and a mysterious box that everyone seems to want to get their hands on. The ending is one of the more twisted and deranged I’ve seen, but it fits so well with all of the other bizarre shit that happens before it. Without a doubt one of the most memorable I’ve seen and it certainly deserves to be on this or any best-of ending list.
This film features Cate Blanchett, who I feel is the finest actress working today. Typical of her role choices, this is one you wouldn’t expect from many Hollywood women. She plays a school teacher living in Italy whose husband dies of a drug overdose. When she sees a chance to get even with the powerful drug lord who was responsible, she plants a bomb intended to kill him. When that plan goes wrong, four innocent people die. With the help of a young policeman (Giovanni Ribisi), she escapes and goes on the run. The film ends with the inevitable confrontation between her and the police and what director Tom Tykwer (who has two films appear on this list) gives us is one of the most elegiac endings I’ve ever seen. It completely blew me away.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Probably the most the iconic ending of all the films from my childhood. I’ve recently written about this film here so I won’t elaborate too much more than I already have. This ending is a great example of the synergy of filmmaking elements – music, narration and editing all play keys roles in contributing to why I think this ending is so wonderful. Without Brian Johnson’s (Anthony Michael Hall) narration of the letter coupled with the Simple Minds’ song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and the cuts between Vernon (Paul Gleason) in the library and John Bender (Judd Nelson) walking home over the football field, I don’t think this would have been anywhere near as successful and the perfect culmination of the events we had witnessed the prior 97 minutes.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
SPOILER ahead – not in the scene above, but the text below.
In the portion of the film that precedes this one, you just can’t get over how damn depressing it is. Chief (Will Sampson) suffocates McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) after he’s been lobotimized. Just gutting. But what comes next is uplifting and really takes the edge off that scene. McMurphy’s death, both in the physical and spiritual sense (Nurse Ratched and the doctors took care of that over time), gave life to Chief who can be held no more by confines of the sanitarium and in a way, gives life to the rest of the group who remain. I remember seeing this film at a very early age (perhaps too early – Todd Solondz would have been jealous) and it left an indelible mark on me. This is my father’s favorite film of all-time (outside of Lonesome Dove, which is technically a mini-series) so it always reminds me of him.
The Bad News Bears (1976)
The inappropriateness of this ending is what touches me so deeply, I think. That any film would show kids from 11-13 years old drinking beers and cursing after losing in the championship of a Little League baseball tournament hits this guy right where it hurts – these are kids, especially Tanner (Chris Barnes), who could have been me. Their philosophy of “Wait ‘Til Next Year!”, a favorite mantra among us poor Chicago Cubs fans, is also one I employ in my real life, always banking that next year will be better (it usually isn’t). This ending also marks the transformation of manager Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau, so perfectly cast) from drunk who cares about nothing but himself and his liquor to showing this band of misfit kids how to be ballplayers, how to never give up and play the game the right way. Except for the beer. And cursing. That the other parents join in the celebration in this clip is unreal.
Engelberg and Tanner imbibe after a tough loss to the evil Yankees.
This ending is the product of its times, which is good. Not a chance this ending is ever made today. Case in point: the what-I-assume-is-a-SHITTY-remake Richard Linklater put together (never have and never will watch it – why mess with perfection?) in 2005. In the end of that one, the kids drink non-alcoholic beer. SIGH. I also love the pull back of the camera capturing the American flag in the frame. ‘MURICA!!!
The 400 Blows (1959)
This ending literally stunned the jury and everyone else at its screenings at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. 27-year old François Truffaut, film critic-turned-director, earned Best Director for The 400 Blows and helped usher in the French New Wave with the film. And the ending of this film is one of the most famous in film history. The freeze-frame of Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud), Tuffaut‘s alter-ego, looking directly into the camera was nothing like anything that had been done before, especially in french cinema where the young critics who turned into filmmakers (Godard, Resnais, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette) had grown tired of the boring traditional filmmaking that had occurred since the war. They sought to change it and boy did they ever. This final shot of Antoine leaves us to wonder whether he will emerge from the shitty circumstances that led him to reform school or if he will fall back into the behavior that got him there. Neither hopeful nor pessimistic, Truffaut leaves the viewer to decide what Antoine’s fate is…at least with this film. He did go on to make three more films about Doinel (all played wonderfully by Leaud).
SPOILER – this clip and subsequent commentary gives the ending of the film away.
As a HUGE fan of Patrick Süskind‘s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, I was always wary of whether it could make a great or even good film. With many sequences inside the head of protagonist Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and the overwhelming description of the olfactory smorgasbord he encounters in the novel, I just wasn’t sure it could be done. Tom Tykwer, along with German superproducer Bernd Eichinger (may he rest in peace) and Andrew Birkin, crafted a script that captured the best elements of the book and transferred them to the screen…well, except Dustin Hoffman‘s Italian-esque accent – what the fuck was that? Anyway, this is a grisly story and Grenouille’s (Ben Whishaw, the new Q in the Bond films, worked nicely in his role) fate deserves something special. Just when we think he’s gotten away with his murder spree at his trial, we get the proper ending that Süskind gave us in the book, which is absolutely fitting given his actions throughout the film. And thus the magic of cinema takes us by surprise again.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
This is quite possibly the most polarizing ending of a film I’ve ever witnessed. When I saw this film in the theater, about 80% of the people there moaned and complained out loud about how terrible it was. To me, it seemed like the perfect ending to such a brutal film, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) telling of a dream about his dead father ushering him to heaven, there waiting for him. As Bell states, he is about 20 years older than his daddy ever got to be and I think that this dream revelation he gives also tells us why there is no country for old men like him – bored, desperate now that he is retired, waiting to meet his daddy on the cold, dark mountain, horn of fire in hand. This ending is pure Cormac McCarthy, writer of the novel on which this film is based. While the film adaptation of the ending is different as Bell tells his wife about the dream, the book describes it as sort of in Bell’s head without him verbalizing it. This film ends very abruptly and I think is a bit confusing to people who may not be aware of the book or how McCarthy writes. That doesn’t take away from how honest and fabulous it is.
The King of Comedy (1983)
SPOILERS in the clip and the comments.
Scorsese is insane. He makes touchpoint films that resonate well after they are released and The King of Comedy is one of them as I wrote here. With all of the intense interest in “celebrity” culture, now so more than ever, this film remains increasingly more pertinent. What is depicted in the clip above is suspect as we don’t know if these events are really happening or if they are just the machinations of antihero Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). If you’ve seen this film, you know that Pupkin has a mock talk show set in his mother’s basement where he practices his comedy routines and television demeanor.
Ladies and gentleman – Rupert Pupkin!
So this film comes full circle from when Rupert acts out a scene at the beginning of the film as if Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis as a stand-in for Johnny Carson) asks him to take over his talk show for 6 weeks to the epilogue where he is a huge thing and everyone wants a piece of him. That the announcer says Rupert’s name seven times in his introduction is a key to me that this is all a delusion – hearing his name on television is all he’s ever wanted. That he is such a hit elsewhere – new TV show, book deal, fans greeting him at prison – is also a key. I could be wrong here, of course. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating ending to an incredible film. One of Scorsese‘s best.
SPOILER: this pretty much gives it all away. If you haven’t seen this film and plan on doing so, don’t watch or read.
Director David Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker bring the thunder in this thriller. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) takes detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman, another role in which he gets to play the wise, old sage) to the brink of his own madness. With 5 of the deadly sins already acted out by Doe and his victims, the ending gives us the final two – envy and wrath. This is one the most clever and creepy endings to a movie I’ve ever seen. Who can blame Mills for what he does even though Somerset is right? Doe does win by Mills blowing him away. Mills doesn’t break his character, though. It would have been a cop out (pun intended) if he had not shot Doe for his transgressions and I’m glad that Fincher and Walker kept it that way. Everything that Mills does leading up to this moment leads us to believe he would shoot him. It makes for a far more powerful ending and is a good comment about mankind’s will to do/not to do the right thing when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Who would have thought this film, of all things, would be the impetus for one of the more overused memes in recent history? Milkshakes. This final scene is the culmination of a man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his most exquisite performances), completing his fall from venerable oil man to money hungry lout. Where we probably once respected Plainview for having taken in the young son of a worker killed in an accident and stood up for himself against bigger oil outfits, that respect has all but gone by this point in the film. I must sickly admit, though, that I found some pleasure in Plainview’s extermination of Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) in this clip. Supposedly a man of God, Eli, like Daniel, becomes a money hungry cretin, forsaking his duties as a preacher in the quest for the wrong almighty…the dollar. Look no further than this clip that comes before the “I drink your milkshake” portion:
Eli cashes in his faith, his beliefs for money: “I am a false prophet. God is a superstition!” He is as soulless and Daniel is, but his transgression is far worse than Daniel’s, who never postures as anything but who he is – a businessman. While brutal and unflinching, this ending is the logical course of the film and one that has made a lasting impression on me since I first saw it.
Since this film is told backwards, the ending of the film is actually the beginning of the story. It’s here we see Leonard (Guy Pearce) begin his quest anew in his search for John G., the man who he believes murdered his wife and damaged his hippocampus, giving him a condition where he can’t make new memories.After putting in the work, trying to figure maintain coherence, you get here and it sets everything up that you just saw. The real question is: can you remember what you saw prior to this scene to piece everything together? That he lists Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) as the John G. he’s looking for as a grudge gives an insight into Leonard that up to this point we wouldn’t have imagined. Teddy is perfectly correct when he says, “You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth.” And when Teddy catches Leonard’s ire…it’s lights out.
I have this condition…
This is a film that really needs several views to grasp what’s going on. Director Christopher Nolan is very tricky in the editing of the film and hides nice little morsels in there that sway the meaning of the film…should you catch them. If you don’t, the meaning changes, which isn’t a bad thing. Couple that with its reverse structure, which mirrors Leonard’s condition, and you have a truly unique film that will likely blow your mind. One of the most original films in years, this is a can’t miss.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
SPOILER – this will without a doubt give away one of the best endings ever. If you haven’t seen the film and plan on doing so, DO NOT watch this or read the commentary below.
If you’ve seen this film, you know why this ending is so badass. The real question isn’t whether Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey, yet again on this list) perpetuated the crime that killed Hockney (Kevin Pollak), McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benicio del Toro) and Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). This clip leaves no doubt in that. The real question is, is Kint really Keyser Söze or is he capitalizing on the myth/legend of Keyser Söze, one that he tells to Agent Kujan (Chazz Palmintieri)? There is no definitive answer that I’ve ever seen, although I would fall into the latter camp. This is undoubtedly the best twist ending ever in my mind, much better than The Sixth Sense and even better than Psycho.
He’ll flip ya…he’ll flip ya for real.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Once again – SPOILERS.
This film literally saved a man’s life, much like the Paradise Lost films have done for the West Memphis Three. Think about that. If it weren’t for the inquisitiveness of director Errol Morris, the absolute finest documentarian working today, Randall Adams would still be serving his life sentence for murdering a police officer, a crime he never committed, had he not passed away in 2010. The absolute power of this film is unparalleled. Not only did Morris, with the help of several other folks in Texas, do the legwork to uncover the inconsistencies in the testimony, HE GOT THE DAMN CONFESSION OF THE REAL KILLER. He did what no officer of the law could do and he did it through film. If this doesn’t convince people of just how influential films can be, ask Randall Adams’ ghost. This is one of the most amazing films ever made and would fall into my top 10 favorites of all-time.
This film has my favorite ending to any movie I’ve ever seen. The tensions and rivalries that have gotten the better of the characters Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), Herman Blume (Bill Murray) and Rosemarie Cross (Olivia Williams) throughout the film come to pass here. Max has moved past his crush on Miss Cross and is now dating Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka), but there is work to be done, wounds to be healed including Max’s. When Reuben (Stephen Dignan), the DJ at the cotillion, spins Faces’ “Ooh La La” and the first guitar chord hits, it’s like magic. When Miss Cross removes Max’s glasses in this scene, she is reflecting back on her husband, Rushmore-alum Edward Appleby, who passed away and is the reason she is teaching at Rushmore. Earlier in the movie, she tells Max, “You remind me of him, you know?” And here it’s come full circle. She looks at Max like we assume she looked at Edward Appleby, whom she knew her whole life.
I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.
The usage of slow motion in this scene, a technique favored by director Wes Anderson in the final scene of every film he’s made up to Moonrise Kingdom where it was noticeably absent, is superb. It allows us to linger in this moment, to cherish what these characters are feeling as they’ve finally rounded this corner that caused them all so much grief. The song coupled with this technique are so perfect. For the first time, we see all of the major players of the film – Max, Blume, Miss Cross, Max’s father (Seymour Cassel), Margaret, Max’s best friend Dirk Calloway (Mason Gamble) and even Rushmore headmaster Nelson Guggenheim (Brian Cox) – in the same frame, happy. Without a doubt, one of the most cathartic film moments I’ve ever witnessed. Part of me wishes life was a never ending loop of this scene – slow motion dance and Faces’ “Ooh La La.” What a wonderful world it would be.
I haven’t assigned a number to each of these as I had in the post about my favorite openings. This list was too hard to quantify in that way. I can honestly say that the endings to Rushmore and The Thin Blue Line are the two that hit me most on an emotional level and I would feel safe slotting them in at #1 and #2. Other than that, I can’t do it.