Here is part II of the 25 best movie ending scenes. Now, I realize that any kind of “best” list is very subjective, but I do have some gauges that I use to determine what I believe is a great ending scene. I’ve alluded to these within my remarks on individual movie endings, but I thought I’d mention some of these before finishing the list.
- Are the images captivating, artistic, unique and elicit an emotional response beyond what most films do?
- Are the performances compelling, rise above the normal and layered?
- Does the scene sum up or put a big exclamation point on the entire film?
- Does the scene linger in the mind after the credits have finished and either moves you emotionally or makes you think or both?
- Is the dialogue such that it is not only memorable but contains lines that have entered into the national consciousness and repeated often.
- Is the scene one that is mentioned often by critics, fans and others when talking about the film and cannot be left out of discussions about the film.
- Does the music not only complement but becomes as memorable as the rest of the elements in the scene?
- Does the scene provide a message or commentary about social, political, philosophical, or other issues that continue to resonate or be examined years after the release of the film?
I do not mean a scene has to include all of these to be great, but several of them for sure. Without further ado, here are the next 11 great endings to complete this list.
The Godfather (1972) is another film on many top 10 lists, as well as its sequel, The Godfather Part II, almost in tandem. Not only does it have outstanding performances (Brando, Pacino, Caan, Duvall, Keaton, Cazale, Vigoda), but dialogue that is still quoted today and that has entered into the world’s lexicon, thanks to Mario Puzo, such as: “I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.”; “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”; “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”; and “Sleeps with the fishes”. Simply hearing Nina Rota’s score also conjures up images of all things mobster and phenomenal direction by the great Francis Ford Coppola, the “Don” of this classic series. Even the poster is memorable. And, of course, it has a great ending. It is a combination of performance, writing and visuals that together act as a revelation of the completed transformation of the main character. Michael Corelone (Al Pacino) begins as a youthful, innocent youngest son of an Italian-American crime boss, Don Vitto Corelone (Marlon Brando), who marries outside his ethnicity as the story begins. As the tale progresses Michael goes through an emotional osmosis and like a piece of metal to a magnet is pulled into the family business by necessity, becoming the antithesis of what he was at the beginning of the film – the ostensible heir to the family business. The ending is simple, solidifying Michael as the new Don, meeting with a consigliere, his hand being kissed to show respect and status, all shown from his wife’s perspective - down the hall and through a doorway. It is the coda on his metamorphosis. The door then closes, shutting his wife out of the conversation, which he would not have done at the start of the story. But it also means that he has also shut out all his morals and ethics and has now committed to become a crime boss, shedding any sense of his incorruptibility or virtuousness that he may have had in his past. Cue music. See ending here.
is a mystery film noir directed by the infamous Roman Polansky and written by academy award-winning screenwriter Robert Towne about the water wars in Los Angeles during the early 20th century. More than any other film, Chinatown
has been studied by film students since its release and the ending is considered its most innovative scene, checking most of my criteria boxes for great endings. The imagery and setting create more than it seems. Noir films, as the word implies, take place mainly at night (and mostly shot in black and white, yet not this one), symbolizing the corruption that infests a city and this final scene unfolds in the title’s location. The protagonists and villains square off. Polanski keeps the camera at eye level, with little cutting and no extreme closeups to allow the audience to emulate one of the onlookers watching the confrontation. Like Sunset Boulevard
, there are no winners, just death and despair among the main characters. The performances from Jack Nicholson (Jake), Fay Dunaway (Evelyn), and John Huston (Noah) shine, with all embodying their characters to a tee. Finally, it has a final line that sums up the entire film’s theme that also ties into the title. “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Like the Trump equivalent, “It is what it is.” or “You can’t beat City Hall,” Jake is basically told you can’t change it so why try. Though guys like Jake don’t listen to that kind of advice. The perfect noir ending. See ending here
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is the only sci fi monster horror noir film on the list and this version is actually a remake of a 1950’s film of the same title. The update includes not only an upgraded cast and improved script, but also a move from a small-town setting to a big city (San Francisco); add to that superb direction from Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) and you have top notch eeriness. If you haven’t seen it or even its predecessor the story revolves around an alien invasion who are replacing humans with alien duplicates; each a perfect copy of the person replaced, only devoid of human emotion. After the film was released the term “pod people” entered the populist glossary signifying conformists who act mechanically. The gelatinous aliens manifest themselves as pods and take over humans while they sleep. Mathew (Donald Sutherland), a San Francisco Health Inspector, is attempting to keep himself from being transformed. The end scene shows Mathew inspecting a field of pod plants growing in the middle of the city. One of his colleagues who has been helping try to find a way to fight off the aliens sees him from afar, calls after him and approaches him in a hush voice, but then Mathew suddenly demonstrates the characteristic pose by which the "pod people" identify unconverted humans and points at the woman with a high pitched, ear-piercing scream signifying that he has been converted. The ending still makes you shimmer as if you were yourself discovering that the end of humanity was inevitable. Just writing this makes me uncomfortable. See ending here.
The Shining (1980) is yet another Kubrick film, this time based on superstar horror writer Stephen King’s book of the same name about a possessed hotel. It stars Jack Nicholson as an inspiring alcoholic writer who takes on the winter care-taking job at a Colorado resort and brings his wife and son along with him. The son, Danny, has psychic abilities along with the hotel’s cook and is a threat to the hotel’s possessed entities: the previous caretaker it seems murdered his family and killed himself. Jack (also the name of the character) slowly descends into madness as he is being manipulated by the evil hotel and attempts to murder his son, nothing getting in his way. Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and Danny (Danny Torrence) get away by trapping Jack in a garden maze where he freezes to death. But the story doesn’t end there. The last scene is a slow truck into a black and white photo on a wall in the hotel ballroom. As Kubrick continues to cut closer and closer the photo reveals an early 20th century party with a man looking exactly like Jack, with a devilish smile at the front and center of the revelry, then the camera tilts down to reveal an inscription that reads: Overlook Hotel July 4th Ball 1921. Huh? One can surmise that Jack has been indoctrinated into the supernatural entities that haunt the hotel and will contribute whenever the hotel feels threatened again. The film got mixed reviews when it came out. King had been one of the harshest critics since it deviates from his novel. But as the years have gone by it has gained cult status and even King has come around, somewhat. It is now considered one of the best horror films of all time. See ending here.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
. It’s surprising that there aren’t more Stephen Spielberg films on this list and many have pretty good endings, such as Jaws, but none more so than the first of the Indiana Jones films. Written by Lawrence Kasdan, who also wrote The Empire Strikes Back from a story by George Lucas and Phillip Kaufman (sound familiar). It’s the well-known story about Indiana Jones and his trek in finding the mysterious and powerful Ark of the Covenant. It’s full of iconic scenes and familiar archetypes: The Nazis, the hated snakes, “throw me the idol”, the giant boulder, the poison dates, shooting the guy instead of getting in a sword fight, the guy getting chopped to death by a plane propeller – you know, adventure of a high order. After the climax, where the ark is opened and its supernatural power melts the villains, comes the true ending, one of those that kind of sums up our society in one slow crane shot out. It’s a coda to the story and one that reappears in the opening of the fourth installment. Previous to this last scene Indy and his university cohort question a government man about the whereabouts of the ark, Dr. Brody saying it “is a source of unspeakable power and must be researched.” The man promises that they have “top men” working on it. After a scene of Indy lamenting to Marion about how they’re all “bureaucratic fools”, Spielberg cuts to a series of close ups of a large crate being nailed shut, locked up and dollied off somewhere. Cut to the slow crane shot revealing an extremely large warehouse full of thousands of like crates, representing the great government bureaucracy that stymies any productive work. If only Indian Jones could run for president. He could whip things into shape, (sorry for the pun). See ending here.
Cinema Paradiso (1998). I didn’t originally have this film on my list, but I was reminded about it, and such, took another look at the ending. This film is very sentimental to me, reminding me of the time spent in my father’s small Southern Mexican hometown where my grandfather ran the local open-air movie theater adjacent to the hotel my grandmother operated. As a kid I would sneak to the roof of the hotel where you could see the movie screen - the second feature often an R-rated flick (the modern equivalent being unsupervised HBO or Netflix). The protagonist of the film, Salvatore, lives in a small worn-torn Italian town with a similar (though with a roof) movie house. He befriends the projectionist, Alfredo, and hangs out in the projection booth with him (as I did sometimes), witnessing him cutting out all the kissing scenes and steamy shots per orders from the town’s priest. The two share a dislike of the censorship. As he grows up, Salvatore falls for a girl and takes over as the projectionist, but Alfredo keeps telling him he needs to leave the small town and seek his passion for filmmaking. The film ends with the now middle-aged Salvatore, a celebrated, though pompous, film director who one day finds out Alfredo has died and realizes he had not seen him in years. After the funeral he is given a reel of film that was a gift left to him by his mentor. He watches the film in a screening room and discovers that it is a compilation of all those clips that had been cut out of the movies of his youth – the kiss reel - as it is referred to. Salvatore sheds tears as the amazing Ennio Morricone’s lush score crescendos. The message: What is important in life are those human connections we’ve made during our lives. I cry each time I watch the end and sometimes in other parts because of memories in my mind, much like Salvatore. A note. When first released on international screens 51 minutes were cut from that which was first shown in Italy. It seems it didn’t do very well on its initial run, but after winning Cannes, things turned around. In 2002, they released the “director’s cut” in the U.S. with 171 minutes restored. Make sure you watch this version because it really is better, and surprisingly doesn’t feel longer. BTW - This is the only foreign-language film on the list. See ending here.
Thelma & Louise (1991). The ending of this female buddy film is similar to another film on this list by using a certain effect to great effect. Before we get to that let’s recap Ridley Scott’s antihero movie. A timid housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) joins her friend Louise (Susan Sarandon), a single waitress, on a short fishing trip. Things go sideways when Louise shoots and kills a man at a bar who tries to rape Thelma. Louise decides to flee to Mexico, with Thelma joining her. On the way, Thelma falls for sexy young thief J.D. (Brad Pitt) and a sympathetic Detective Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) tries to convince the two women to surrender before their fates are sealed. The authorities catch up to them as they hide out on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Resolute in not getting caught they make a pact, kiss, rev their car, hold hands and drive straight for the cliff. The car is seen flying over the canyon but as it begins to descend the frame freezes and then fades to white, much like Butch and Sundance. You can debate the psychology behind their fatal decision or their relationship if you want, but it’s a simple reflection on how women are treated in our society. A bevy of men (loads of police cars and a helicopter) try to suppress them. Slocumb, who continued to fight for them until the end, represents the enlightened male trying to make things right. This film should have been the beginning of the MeToo movement, but it took another twenty years and Harvey Weinstein to turn the tides towards true gender equality (which still has a long way to go). Thelma and Louise are celluloid symbols for all those women who have fought the good fight for freedom and parity throughout history. See the ending here.
The Usual Suspects (1995) may be in the dictionary as the quintessential example of a twist ending, much like the last film on this list, the Planet of the Apes from earlier and others that have big reveals such as Vertigo, Boogie Nights, Get Out, Fight Club, Arrival and The Crying Game, but I think this film’s twist is the least expected of all those. Most of the film is told in flashbacks from the point of view of Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) a con man with cerebral palsy. He tells the story about a bunch of inconsequential criminals who come under the control of an unseen crime lord by the name of Keyser Soze, who they had stolen from unknowingly. Soze subsequently blackmails them into stealing drugs from a ship from one of his rivals. Everyone on the ship is killed except two, Verbal, who claims he hid on the docks while Soze killed his co-conspirators and burned the ship, and Arkosh Kovash (Ákos Kovács), one of a rival gang of Hungarian mobsters who ends up badly burned in the hospital. Verbal is taken into custody and interrogated by US Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). Verbal tells this elaborate story that pins one of the criminals, Keaton, as the real Soze. Verbal makes bail and leaves the police station. Soon after Kujan notices all the names and other information Verbal confessed to all came from things that appear on a bulletin board or from other items in the office – thus it was all made up. Kujan runs out of the building to try to find Verbal but misses him. Meanwhile, Kovash had gained consciousness at the hospital and gave officials a facial composite picture of Soze, which appears on the station’s fax machine while Kujan searches for Verbal – the drawing looks very much like Verbal. Director Bryan Singer then dollies on a tight shot of Verbal’s body as he walks like a gimp down a city sidewalk. But then Verbal slowly loses the limp and contorted arm, finally appearing normal before the shot widens out to reveal Soze getting into a car driven by his subordinate, who had appeared throughout the film as his representative. You then hear Verbal/Soze say, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, and like that…he’s gone.” I guess you have to watch the movie for yourself to really grasp the effect. Some critics said at the time that they felt cheated because they spent two hours watching a story that was just a ruse, but what they didn’t understand was that the script, and any script for that matter, is a fabrication, even if based on true events. Plus, the point of the movie is to be more of a cathartic experience, so by the end we should feel the same as the Kujan character – that we were bamboozled by someone smarter than we. On a side note, a lot of my thoughts about this film come from hanging out with Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the screenplay, for an evening during a screenwriters conference back when the film first came out. I asked him if he believed any part of the story actually happened or was it all made up by the Verbal character. His response, “a film that answers all of your questions is pointless.” That was a fun evening. See ending here.
Big Night (1996) is a small independent personal film mostly from the artistry of Stanely Tucci who co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred, along with the great Tony Shaulhoub as Italian emigrant brothers in the 1950s who run a failing restaurant along the New Jersey shore. An uncle has invited them back to help with his restaurant in Rome but the younger brother, Secondo (Tucci) and manager of their endeavor wants to try to make it in America. Primo (Shaulhoub) is the genius chef who can’t understand why Americans do not prefer his authentic dishes over their rival restaurant’s subpar Italian food. He wants to retreat back to Italy which creates tension between the brothers. Secondo goes to his rival Pascal for a loan but gets rejected because they have refused to come work for him, but with a bit of generosity tells Secondo he will call his friend Louie Prima, a very popular singer, to dine at their restaurant when in town; perhaps the publicity will bring in customers. Excited about the possibility, the brothers use all their savings to buy the best ingredients to prepare a winning meal for their “big night.” A big part of the film is the preparation of the food, which becomes like another character. They invite reporters and a large contingent of friends, including Pascal and his wife, who Secondo is having an affair with. When they realize that Prima isn’t coming, they begin indulging in the meal themselves. Then everything unravels – Pascal admits he never called Prima in order to push them to come work for him. Secondo’s girlfriend discovers he was having an affair with Pascal’s wife which ends with a rift and the brothers battle each other, culminating in division and heartache. The ending is simple and contains no dialogue. It is the next morning, Secondo makes an omelet in their kitchen, maybe for the very last time, and divides it into threes. He gives one third to their waiter Cristiano (Marc Anthony) and places the third on a plate he sets next to him when Primo reluctantly enters the kitchen. Primo sits down next to his brother and begins eating. While the two keep their eyes on their plates, Secondo pats his brother’s shoulders and then after a few moments, Primo puts his arm around his brother in solidarity. They then return to eating while it fades to black. No big twists, no fancy effects, just a reminder that family is important and even in disagreement love perseveres. It also recaps the pervasive importance of food throughout the film by showing the entire process of making the omelet. Anyone who isn’t hungry after watching this film must be an android. There’s something for everyone. See ending here.
Fargo (1996) is a classic Coen Brother’s black comedy thriller and has given birth to an equally critically acclaimed television series. It has an ending that many people forget because what sticks in their minds is the previous sensational wood chipper scene. After the conclusion of the kidnapping, murders and deceits our protagonist pregnant police chief Marge (academy award winning Frances McDormand) retreats to her bedroom to join her husband Norm (John Carol Lynch), who reveals that the post office picked his mallard painting to be on a stamp, but he laments it’s only the three cent one. Marge comforts him saying, "whenever they raise the postage people need the little stamps,"(with that “Fargo” accent). As they snuggle Norm pats her tummy and they both say, one after the other, “Only two more months”, referring to the arrival of their baby. And it fades to black. What’s important is the contrast between the extraordinary dark events that fill most of the film and what happens to most people on a daily basis - having babies, loving each other, going to work, etc. The Coen Brothers are trying to put things in perspective. An enduring part of all their films is that they try to reassure that there is good in the world and you should not get too cynical from all the bad. See ending here.
The Sixth Sense (1999) is the last film on the list and probably the film with the best-known twist ending. As I have done before, if you are one of the few people on Earth that hasn’t seen this movie then skip the following comments. I’m not sure how many people figured out the ending beforehand (I place myself in that category) but I’m guessing not too many. Along with the Crying Game, it was one of those films people tried their best not to reveal to their friends and family who had not seen it. I remember people biting their tongues because they really wanted others to experience the ending on their own. The trick ending became a staple for writer/director M. Night Shyamalan who has been tasked to try to one-up this film. That’s been really hard to do. The film contains one of the most quoted lines in film history, told by Cole (Haley Joel Osment), “I see dead people,” which is repeated during the final sequence reveal and was an omen to it. Suffice it to say, without having to repeat the whole storyline, Malcom (Bruce Willis) discovers he’s actually dead and comes to terms with that before disappearing. The ending is more than just a twist – it nicely sums up the themes of the supernatural, fear, communication, human connection and what I believe is the most important, self-love, as Cole learns to like and accept himself for who he is - a boy with special attributes. This realization leads to better experiences and happiness. It is something we can all learn from. See ending here.
That’s a wrap. I hope you enjoyed this list and perhaps it initiated some thinking about other films with great endings that you can come up with. Of course, this list is not definitive in any way as these things are so subjective. I would be thrilled to hear about some of your favorite endings and your reasoning. Perhaps I will create a new list with additional entries, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sometime during the rest of my life.
copyright 2020 Rich Burlingham