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The Top 50 Movie Endings of All Time

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I've seen Chinatown a dozen times, and while it's a great movie, two specific things about it stick in my mind: Jack Nicholson's bandaged nose and the final line of dialogue. Acting, directing, a great script… these are essential to any film. But a classic ending, now that can really make a movie.

We spent literally months brainstorming and corralling the 50 films with the absolute best endings we've ever seen. We're not talking about the last half hour. We mean the last minute of movie. You know, the ending.

Needless to say you can consider this entire article one monster SPOILER ALERT. Most of the films here are classics that you've probably seen several times over. But if not, skip past the ones you haven't seen and put 'em in your rental queue, otherwise you're going to ruin a whole lot of good films. Check out the flicks and we promise you won't be disappointed when the credits roll. As always, apologies in advance for the ones we stupidly forgot (and we know you'll be writing to let us know -- yes, Jaws, The Sixth Sense, Seven, Carrie, we're sorry!).

- Christopher Null, Editor-in-Chief



50. The Blair Witch Project (1999) - The movie isn't particularly scary... at least until the last two minutes, which take the tension level from 10 to 100 at an exponential pace. The final seconds -- wherein a member of the cast is spotted, back turned and facing a corner, as an unseen spirit does away with the remaining member of the crew, who's been filming all of this in a panic-stricken run through an abandoned house -- rank as some of the most terrifying moments ever put to film. It gives me chills just to write about it. -CN

49. A History of Violence (2005) - David Cronenberg’s sly, brilliant merger of a revenge fantasy and an essay on the American Dream has an appropriately messy, provocative ending. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) has exposed a terrible truth about himself that’s left his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), in despair. They gaze at each other in silence across the dinner table, and the looks in their eyes lets you know it’s impossible, yet painfully necessary, to pretend nothing has changed. -MA

48. Batman Begins (2005) - As the title suggests, the Dark Knight's mission to cleanse Gotham has just begin. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) hands Batman (Christian Bale) a playing card left at the scene of a recent crime. He flips it over, and fanboy hearts race in unison as we contemplate director Christopher Nolan's next move. -SO

47. All That Jazz (1979) - A film especially priceless in its rendering of death in big, Broadway musical number style. Extremely well collaged as the self-defeating choreographer ties up all his loose ends in fantastical choreographic zeal, Roy Scheider's Joe Gideon simply walks into a flirtatious angel's embrace. -RG

46. Dead Again (1991) - The second film Kenneth Branagh directed before his ego became too inflated from his Shakespeare renown, is also still the best helming he has managed to date. Beautifully combining intelligent romanticism with reincarnation between he and his then wife/co-star Emma Thompson, the film gracefully culminates with a death scene, love re-established, and the past resolving itself, without losing an emotional beat. Even those who don’t believe in filmic romance melt as the modern day Branagh holds his partner and exhaustedly says “The door is closed.” -RG

45. Pulp Fiction (1994) - It's hard to pick this over Reservoir Dogs, since Quentin Tarantino plagiarized himself here, but Pulp is more refined and more funny in its treatment of a Mexican standoff, this time with a "happy" ending to it. Of course, we know the buffoonish Vincent Vega's going to get shot coming out of the toilet on another job, but he and his Bible-spewing pal get to walk away this time, even if they do look like idiots. -CN

44. Fargo (1996) - Cinema, especially recent cinema, isn't known for its portrayals of happy marriages -- especially not in crime movies. But the last scene in this Coen brothers masterpiece doesn't involve any blood, bullets, or double-crosses. It just shows the Gundersons, Marge (Frances McDormand) and Norm (John Carroll Lynch), sitting in bed. He tells her that his painting is going to put on a three-cent stamp, she tells him how great that is, and the emotional core that has been developing throughout the film is suddenly sitting right in front of us. No wood chipper needed. -JH

43. Shane (1953) - When the kid yells, "Shane, come back!" at the departing hero, it's one of the rare tear-jerker scenes that just feels right. -DB

42. The Terminator (1984) - One of the first major science fiction trilogies to be a true inspiration to an entire new generation of filmmaking, the initial installment is brutal, bright, and brilliantly executed. From Ah-nold’s one-liners to Sarah Connor learning to want to be great female hero, it was also one of the first films to create a spellbinding circle in its narrative, to have the end reflect where it all began. He'll be back. -RG

41. Say Anything... (1989) - Lots of romantic comedies end with the boy getting the girl; Say Anything makes him, her, and us all earn it. We leave Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and Diane Court (Ione Skye) not in passionate embrace, but sitting on an airplane, holding hands, looking upward, waiting for the "ding" that will tell them everything is okay. This final shot is everything that's great about Say Anything: sweet, a little bit funny, and completely believable. -JH

40. The Thing (1982) - Easily the most chilling ending in horror, Carpenter purposefully never lets the audience in on exactly how the contagion is spread and allows us to stew in absolute terror as to which man will split apart and become the alien host. The last thumps of the moody score are enough to make anyone shiver with fear. -CC

39. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - Find me a better last line uttered by any villain than "I'm having an old friend for dinner." With wit, charm, and unyielding bravado, Hopkins caps off his career performance with an exit (forgetting Ridley Scott's forgivable Hannibal) that oozes menace and wild provocation. Fava beans, anyone? -CC

38. 8 1/2 (1963) - As the crazy director finally embraces the joy and absurdity of life, a group of freaks, friends, loonies and journalists begin to dance in a huge circle, with the great circus behind it; it's so good that Woody Allen would outright copy it in Stardust Memories. Has any ending, or any film for that matter, better encapsulated what it's like to understand life as the great, crazy joke it is? -CC

37. Rocky (1976) - As Bill Conte's score soars in the background, a bloodied Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and a hatless Adrian (Talia Shire) finally proclaim their love for one another. And in the distant background, a ring announcer tells a frenzied crowd that our hero has actually lost the fight that held us captive for an entire final act. In one dramatic move, two shy nobodies find their hearts and nothing else matters. -NS

36. Jacob's Ladder (1990) - It was all a dream, freak-out style. This time at least it's with good reason: We find out that Jacob (Tim Robbins) was on his deathbed, having been shot during the Vietnam War, and everything that has preceded has been a sort of cruel flash-back-forward because Jacob hasn't been willing to let go. Suddenly it all makes sense. -CN

35. Back to the Future (1985) - The most brazen call for a sequel imaginable. What if the movie had flopped? Not a chance. All seems right with Marty's world, until Doc Brown returns from the future to alert him of a troubling family issue. The stage is set for an eventual trilogy that continues to entertain to this day. -SO

34. King of New York (1990) - After facing the last (and oldest) cop of the four that stalked him, crime lord Christopher Walken sits in a cab, letting the bullet in his gut take its final resting place. Abel Ferrara's crime sonata ends the idea of the great overblown gangster ending, seeing Scarface as an aging villain who can't say anything else, feeling the only thing left for him to do is silently drift off to death amongst the dazzle of the city he loves. -CC

33. A Clockwork Orange (1971) - Stanley Kubrick excised the last chapter of the book in order to give Clockwork a nihilistic ending that has Alex (Malcolm McDowell in the role of a lifetime) learning absolutely nothing from the last two hours of screen time, dreaming of a pseudo-orgy while trapped in a hospital bed. It's a controversial choice that has had cineastes debating for decades, but it still packs a wallop. The book's ending, suffice it to say, would have hardly been cinematic. -CN

32. Being There (1979) - Peter Sellers' crowning achievement ends with a little bit of mysticism, which is at once completely out of character for this very grounded movie while also being totally apropos. You have to smile when you see it. -CN

31. Magnolia (1999) - Everyone remembers a certain cataclysmic plot turn in the final act, and while I love P.T. Anderson's audacious willingness to simply let frogs fall from the sky, the real ending to Magnolia is much simpler. In an extended close-up, we see troubled Claudia (Melora Walters) listen to sweet cop Jim (John C. Reilly) talk. His words are barely audible; instead, we focus on Claudia's face, which finally breaks into a slight smile, a split second before the movie cuts to black. Desperation turns to hope in an instant, and Aimee Mann's "Save Me" ices the cake perfectly. -JH

30. Pickpocket (1959) - Copied and re-rendered by hundreds of films (most recently: L'Enfant and Art School Confidential), French master Robert Bresson ends his tale of spiritual bartering with the pickpocket and the girl who loves him, pressing against each other in a prison visitor room. Emotionally penetrating and gorgeously shot, the ending brings up all the yearning and transcendental themes into complete concentration, using Bresson's patented flat acting style. -CC

29. Wait Until Dark (1967) - In this suspenseful period thriller, Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman targeted by a hit man (Alan Arkin). At the end of the film, she is trapped in her flat and he's stalking her. She knocks out all the lights so that they will be equal... but she forgets one light! This one is exciting right up to the last minute. During its first run, theaters turned out all the lights for the last few minutes to enhance the effect. -DB

28. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): For sheer pleasure, you can't beat the sweetness of watching reformed drug addict/punk-rock chick Dianne Weist and comedy writer/religiously-confused Woody Allen cuddle in a dim hallway as she breaks the good news to him. Call it artful sentimentalism. -CC

27. The Searchers (1956) - John Wayne, a symbol of the male ego, dominance, and everything right with the Wild West, stands alone in a doorway, isolated by feelings and ideologies that simply won't be accepted anymore. Deconstruction of the cowboy myth began here and John Ford, haunted by his own racist past, gives the shot a haunting, sobering feel of loneliness and change. -CC

26. Rushmore (1998) - The Salinger of the screen ends his best film in his lovable faux-theatrical and pastel style without a hint of irony. Max and the woman of his obsession stand prepared to dance as The Faces' "Ooh la-la" plays, easily ranking in the top 10 best ending songs of all time, as the other characters dance around them. It sure beats the hell out of a gate closing on a headstone. -CC

25. Real Genius (1985) - The entire film builds and builds to this exquisite ending, where Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) and his brainiac pals finally revel in their revenge plot against the evil Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton). How they pulled off the stunt to make an entire house look like it was filled with popcorn I still can't figure out. The effect is, ahem, genius. Growing up, my little sister called this film "the popcorn movie." -CN

24. The Bank Dick (1940) - This great W.C. Fields film comedy ends with a parody of a car chase, which was already a film cliché in 1940. Then, in a case of art imitating life, Fields heads to his favorite bar for another drink. -DB

23. House of Games (1987) - David Mamet's finest movie and a personal favorite: After demure psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) murders the ringleader of the gang of con men that cost her thousands of dollars, she takes a vacation. After a little misdirection, she steals a gold lighter from a woman dining one table over. She's got the con game bug, now. So satisfying, but so creepy. -CN

22. Brazil (1985) - Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) swoops in to save the day, but it's not to be: Our hero Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is revealed to be wallowing in a torture chamber and, alas, "He's gone." The ending was so controversial that the studio basically stole the film from director Terry Gilliam and edited together a happy ending, known as the "Love Conquers All" ending. Comparing the two versions is a film geek's wet dream. -CN

21. The Usual Suspects (1995) - For two hours, Kevin Spacey's spineless Verbal plays helpless lamb being lured to Chazz Palminteri's slaughter. But with the drop of a coffee cup, and the shaking off of a limp, the true identity of a criminal mastermind is revealed. -SO

20. Before Sunset (2004) - Cooler than pre-Scientology Isaac Hayes in Antarctica eating popsicles and drinking iced coffee, Julie Delpy dances and sings Nina Simone in front of Ethan Hawke and croons, sexy as they come, "Baby, you're gonna miss that plane." Delpy has never been given enough time on screen to fully capture audience appeal, but in this moment, she has it over any hip chick this side of Santa Monica. -CC

19. Memento (2001) - Our sympathetic hero commits an abrupt, cold-blooded, and vengeful murder, entirely to serve his own purposes. He's not the Leonard Shelby we thought we knew. And major bonus points for it coming at both the very beginning and the end of the movie, which are actually the ending and the beginning. Got that? -AG

18. The Wizard of Oz (1939) - The first "it was all a dream" ending ever? I'm not sure, but it's certainly one of the most memorable. The revelation that nearly all the characters we've seen in Dorothy's fantasy world were drawn from her friends (and enemies) is magical. -CN

17. Planet of the Apes (1968) - Charlton Heston (as a lost astronaut) spends most of this modern classic convincing a dominant ape race that man can indeed communicate and reason. And while there's plenty of irony and social commentary there, co-writer Rod Serling's trademark storytelling really surfaces in the final scene. As a cowboy of sorts, a half-naked Heston grabs his woman and rides his horse into unknown territory... but quickly finds that many have been there before him. In an ending worthy of the greatest Twilight Zone zingers, Lady Liberty's head and torch emerge from the sand. And Heston drops to his knees and damns us all to hell. We got it coming. -NS

16. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - Lethal fight scenes, great dialogue ("I love you." "I know."), a traitorous Billy Dee Williams, and the biggest paternal twist in sci-fi history. And then the final shocker: Han Solo is still frozen, and he's not getting out 'til the next movie! What!? Empire turned George Lucas' universe on its ear, raising his franchise's bar to a height no Star Wars sequel or prequel managed to touch. -SO

15. The Godfather (1972) - Derelicts will argue the second one is better, but the ending of the Godfather is everything it should be, foreshadowing all the dark, murky secrets that would be dragged from the depths in Part 2. Kay finally asks about Michael's business and he lies, outright, as the door closes on a good kid who turned into the ultimate family man, and a brooding, calculating monster. -CC

14. The Tenant (1976) - You simply can't comprehend it: after plummeting through glass once, the titular tenant drags himself up the stairs again to finish the job, only to end up the crazed lunatic that kicked off Polanski's most concentrated study of paranoia. It doesn't have the acute horror of Rosemary's Baby, but The Tenant sits in your stomach with sick discomfort, like remembering the most private, embarrassing ordeal you've ever been through. -CC

13. Citizen Kane (1941) - Well, we kind of have to put this one on the list, don't we? One of the earliest examples of don't-spill-the-secret endings and also I've-been-robbed anti-climax, that little wooden sled explains everything and explains nothing about Charles Foster Kane, but it's the elusive piece of the jigsaw that drives one of the greatest movies ever made. -AG

12. The Birds (1963) - Our heroine and her strapping man might be making a stealthy escape from Bodega Bay, but the camera pulls further back and there are birds, birds, menacing birds as far as the eye can see. How safe are they really, in that soft-top convertible, with those lovebirds? -AG

11. The Graduate (1967) - Dustin Hoffman crashes Katherine Ross' wedding, whish has just ended, and he steals her away on a bus. Her mother tells her "It's too late" and she yells, "Not for us!" It's unbelievable, it's corny, but also (as the guy says in Barcelona) it's real. It symbolizes the moment when the disenchanted '60s generation started their lives. This isn't how romances were supposed to end. -DB

10. Some Like It Hot (1959) - Jack Lemmon finally drops his drag and reveals his true gender to his horny suitor (the perfect Joe E. Brown), who couldn't care less. "Nobody's perfect!" he says, the final cherry on top of a whipped-cream and chocolate-covered sundae of a comedy. -DW

9. Don't Look Now (1973) - Donald Sutherland chases the little child in the raincoat he's seen for the whole film and then Roeg's nightmare springs one last terror on you. That face under the red raincoat is no child, and it will stay in your nightmares for months... or else you'll put it as your computer's desktop picture like my roommate. -CC

8. Big Night (1996) - The old term "silence is golden" has never seemed so appropriate. After a grand night of arguments, fantastic food, and a no-show crooner, the two idealistic opposites (art vs. commerce) sit down to a simple omelet with their waiter, knowing their lives will go separate ways (and bankruptcy is a near certainty) but not needing to talk about it. Soulful, delicate, and bypassing tearjerk-o-rama, directors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott create a sincere goodbye to their lovely, little film. -CC

7. Night of the Living Dead (1968) - Without a hint of being self-conscious, Romero's horror masterpiece raised the middle finger to all modern narrative constructions. The family dies, the young white couple dies and the black protagonist, surviving the gruesome night, is shot by the cops. It's complete film rebellion, and you can't help but savor it. -CC

6. Boogie Nights (1997) - One of the most unexpected endings in cinema history. Mark Wahlberg's faded porn star stand in the mirror and yanks his penis out, saying with complete conviction, "You're a fucking star." The soul of the inept, underage star still resides in the aged, coke-snorting loser. Its pathetic grandeur (both the ending and the unit on display) is unmatched. -CC

5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) - The constantly underrated Arthur Penn brings his great, gritty tale of the criminal lovebirds to an end with a scene of unyielding violence and shock. Think of it as the alternate ending for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which ends exactly the same way but stops the film about 20 seconds earlier. -CC

4. Casablanca (1942) - "The beginning of a beautiful friendship" and one of the best movie endings – so good it was recycled as the ending of at least one great film, Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. Like the rest of Casablanca, the last scene is now the stuff of cliché, but that's because there are so many dang quotable lines. -DB

3. Chinatown (1974) - "Forget it, Jake, its Chinatown." Chinatown has nothing to do with Chinatown, but it also has everything to do with Chinatown. Explaining its intricacies could fill a book, but it's the very end that punches you in the gut: The bad guy gets away and Nicholson's Jake Gittes, after solving the case, is told to forget the whole affair. Ow. -CN

2. Fight Club (1999) - No matter what you think of David Fincher's translation of Chuck Palahniuk's pre-iPod, post-post-punk nightmare, you have to admire an ending that foresaw things that are still being talked about today. The film predicts the emo-boy nation that we swim in these days, but the ending, with the Pixies' raucous "Where is My Mind?" wailing in the background, sees self-terrorism and numb romance as the new, essential way of life. -CC

1. Dr. Strangelove (1964) - You may remember otherwise, but the climactic scene where Slim Pickens rides the bomb down is not actually the ending of Strangelove (though even if it were, it would still be #1 on our list). Rather, there is a strange scene afterwards in which the leaders of the free world wait for the end of the world while having a demented argument about how to survive the impending nuclear winter ("We must not have a mine shaft gap!"). Then, signaling apocalypse, Peter Sellers' titular mad scientist, wheelchair-bound for the entire movie, stands up and begins to walk, before the War Room (and the rest of the world) explodes to the tune of "We'll Meet Again." It's all weird but absurdly logical, like everything about Kubrick's masterpiece. -DB

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