It’s depressing, isn’t it, when you get to the end of anything you love — a book, a television show, a movie — and the conclusion sucks so hard it ruins everything that came before it?
Well, today is a glass half-full kind of day, so instead of dwelling on the infinite sadness that was the finale of BSG, we’re going to pay tribute to the mashed potato and pumpkin pie eating season by being grateful for some of the most awesome movie endings out there.
In case there was any confusion, this list is about movies that I like — and thus it will, perhaps, not feature all of the classic films that you might be expecting. Which isn’t to say that I can’t appreciate movies that end up on AFI lists . . . just . . . don’t be surprised if you don’t see me waxing poetic about Rosebud here, okay?
Also, considering this whole list is about endings . . . do I really need to give you a spoiler warning? Really?
10. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
While the very last scene in this movie isn’t anything, like, amazing, I sometimes like to imagine the people watching Empire for the very first time in theater having a fucking conniption fit when they realized they had to wait a couple of more years to see how Han Solo escapes from the deep freeze. Unfortunately, I’m too young to have had that particular experience myself — I’m pretty sure I saw all the original Star Wars movies for the first time in a USA marathon — but I have to give credit where credit’s due: it’s a pretty bold ending. You really don’t see a lot of cliffhangers in movies. I kind of wish there were more of them.
9. Death Proof
I liked Death Proof the first time I watched it, although I found it a bit slow. On subsequent viewings, however, I have enjoyed it more and more, and that ending — that is an awesome ending. The intended victims turning around, chasing evil Kurt Russell down, and kicking the shit out of him one by one? Yeah, that’s called payoff. I enjoy me some violent, vengeful payoff, and I love that Death Proof is just so joyous about it — kiss off, Confucius, and your two graves nonsense. Sometimes, a motherfucker just needs to be killed.
8. Smokin’ Aces
Smokin’ Aces has problems. Smokin’ Aces has many problems. But its ending isn’t one of them. In fact, I think it was the strength of that ending that made me give the film a second chance. (And I did like it better on a repeat viewing.)
I very much like Big Choice moments in movies, particularly when they are fueled by grief and rage and especially when they are scored by Clint Mansell. There is just something about this ending where Ryan Reynolds, disillusioned over the needless death of his partner, takes a stand against the government by slowly, precisely murdering the two people they need to keep alive. I just love the whole scene. It’s an unusual ending for a shoot-em up action movie, but it helps give the film actual depth, and Reynolds is just great in it.
So many horror movies feel the need to end on one last, final scare — which was okay idea back in 1976 when Carrie did it, but 35 years later, it’d be nice if Hollywood would come to the realization that instead of using that big, final jump moment that everybody and their dog knows is coming, they ended their horror movie with actual resolution.
And there could be no better resolution for Poltergeist than that last shot of the television being thrown out the door. It is simplicity in itself, and it is beautiful.
6. El Orfanato
Speaking of horror movies who end it right — El Orfanato is part ghost story, part fairy tale, and it ends on a perfect bittersweet note that fits the tone of the film to a T. Laura killing herself is, of course, a touch depressing, but the scene of her reuniting with her son and all of her childhood friends is actually quite lovely and tends to make me cry every time I watch it. (Yeah, I’m a sap. At least I don’t cry because of commercials.) Besides, the fact that she wins the game and gets her wish — as horrible as her wish is — well, that just ties the movie together so neatly. And the whole likening her to Grown Up Wendy? Perfection.
If the movie ended exactly on this scene (and didn’t give us the last four seconds with Carlos, which I don’t feel like we really need), it would be even higher on the list.
5. Iron Man
Not every superhero has a secret identity, but it’s sort of a staple that the genre is known for. Reclusive billionaire by day, dark avenger by night. Timid, bespectacled journalist one minute, manly superhero with 20/20 (plus x-ray) vision the next. Now, I’ve never read the Iron Man comics, and there wasn’t an Iron Man cartoon when I was growing up, so I didn’t know much about the story before going to theater, and I just assumed that Iron Man’s alter ego would remain mysterious to the public.
So it was kind of a thrill when Tony Stark looks directly at the camera, ignores his cue cards — as is his wont — and just tells the world that he is Iron Man. It was a great way to end the movie. Not only does it set up for a sequel — in a way that makes sense, even — it’s a great character moment and it feels like a fresh turn in the genre. This is one superhero who’s not hiding in the shadows.
4. Let the Right One In
I actually like this ending for a lot of the same reasons I like the ending of El Orfanato — it ties in well with the movie, gives the story a great sense of shape, and fits the overall tone of the piece really well. We’re all suckers for certain types of stories, and one of the kind I tend to like are about kids who either rebel against or otherwise abandon their shitty home lives in search of something better on their own. You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to Oskar — will he eventually become a vampire; will he grow old and pathetic like Hakan — but you want to hope that he and Eli will go on magical, blood-filled adventures together and be happy.
Oh, and the knocking? The knocking is what really makes this ending as gold as it is. It’s a great conclusion to a really great vampire story.
3. The Cabin in the Woods
There are a lot of horror movies out there about dumb kids who get slaughtered in remote cabins, but most of those movies don’t end with the imminent destruction of the entire world. Actually, most movies of any kind don’t end with the imminent destruction of the entire world.
The Cabin in the Woods, however, is not most movies, and I absolutely the adore the last scene. Honestly, I adore the whole third act — which is a hard trick to pull, actually, considering how badly so many third acts flop — but I specifically love the last few minutes with the two friends who decide that humanity really isn’t worth saving. I’m also kind of a sucker for “friends sitting on the edge of the world” stories, and this is an especially awesome and original conclusion to a very smart horror comedy.
Memento is an extremely clever, wildly ambitious movie that depends heavily on the ending. Some movies still work even if the ending isn’t all you hoped for. Memento could never be one of those movies. The whole story depends on it. And that’s a big risk, but boy, does it pay off here. Seeing how Leonard deliberately forgot the truth because he didn’t want to remember it, how he set himself up to kill Teddy . . . that is fucking genius.
Also, “Now . . . . where was I?” One of my favorite last lines. Ever. Christ, Nolan is a damn master of structure. So, so much envy over here.
1. The Usual Suspects
You have to understand why this ending is such a hard sell– not only does most of the cast get killed off, not only does the girl die, not only does the bad guy win, but most of what you’ve been watching for the past two hours never actually happened. Willing suspension of disbelief is often attributed to science fiction and fantasy, but we really suspend our disbelief every time we watch a movie, pretending that these characters are real people with real problems that we should care about. If a movie breaks that suspension of disbelief by telling you that everything you’ve watched is a lie, well, it can be awfully hard to stay invested in that story.
So for that ending to work and not be a cheat, to successfully tell a story through an unreliable narrator . . . that is mastery of craft. Many try the Big Twist, but so few actually manage it. Bryan Singer does with The Usual Suspects. This is probably one of the most iconic film endings of all time, and in this particular case, there will be no blasphemy from me — it is, as far as I can tell, one of the best film endings ever.
Feel free to post some of your own favorite endings in the Comments . . . but if I don’t comment back, don’t think I hate you. I probably just haven’t seen the movie in question and am trying to avoid spoilers.
(Or, possibly, I hate you. You’ll never know, will you? Bwahaha.)