My 5 Favorite Movie Endings
Movies are under a lot of pressure to stick their landings. In many cases it doesn’t matter how well a movie is constructed, if it doesn’t end well then the general consensus tends to be, well then what was the point? It is a truth universally acknowledged that moviegoers like a good ending, but what we can’t seem to agree on is what makes an ending good.
There are a few endings that appear to be universally beloved, like The Sixth Sense‘s, but even the most iconic endings inspire fevered debate amongst movie fans. So rather than compile a list of the best endings ever, I decided to sidestep the hyperbole and simply share my personal favorites. I’m not saying these are the best endings in cinematic history, but each one of them did hit my good ending sweet spot.
Since we are talking endings here, I’m giving you fair warning, I’m about to spoil Planet of the Apes (which the collage already did, sorry about that, but really you have to have seen that one by now, right?), A Serious Man, Inception, Drag Me To Hell and The Graduate, so if you haven’t seen one of them yet, be prepared to shield your eyes.
It’s hard to remain unspoiled for an ending as iconic as the ending of Planet of the Apes, which is why I believe every parent has a sacred duty to make sure their child sees the movie before they encounter a parody of its final scene. My dad let me watch the movie when I was around eight and seeing Charlton Heston stumble upon the ruined Statue of Liberty was a formative experience. Even at that young age I realized I was witnessing something shocking.
It’s a haunting ending, one that leaves Taylor hopeless and defeated, but it’s also epically, unnervingly cool. To this day, I still get goose bumps watching Heston rage against the truth–that humanity, that his beloved America–was not infallible and that he himself was completely and utterly lost. Planet of the Apes set the bar for twisty sci-fi endings.
A Serious Man garnered a few Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod, but it’s still one of the lesser known films in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. It’s small and strange, and I’m the first to admit that I don’t completely understand it, but I love it anyway. Its primary focus is on a series of misfortunes that befall a man, Larry, and his family. As the movie progresses things get worse and worse for Larry–his wife leaves him, he’s denied tenure at the college he teaches at, he’s involved in a car accident, but through it all Larry, who is Jewish, relies on his faith to carry him through the trials.
The movie ends with Larry getting a call from his doctor about the troubling results of his chest X-ray and then it cuts to his son watching as a tornado bears down on his school. The metaphor is as powerful as it is inescapable, like Planet of the Apes, A Serious Man ends on a note of uncertainty that emphasizes the fragility of life. It’s the movie’s refusal to allow us any comfort in the end that makes it so fascinating. Larry is Job without the happy ending.
If the first two endings on this list were about the fragility of life, then the ending of Inception is about the fragility of reality. The movie’s director, Christopher Nolan, cleverly refuses to let us see if Cobb’s totem stops spinning, throwing the validity of the final sequence into doubt. Was it just another construct? Was he lost to his dreams? Does it even matter? I have no idea, but it is clear that Cobb is exactly where he wants to be. The ambiguity of the ending makes the final shot of Cobb reuniting with his children not only more interesting, but also more poignant than it would have been had it been straightforward. It’s a fitting end to a movie that got so much mileage out of uncertainty.
Despite the title, I didn’t expect Drag Me to Hell to end with the protagonist actually getting dragged to hell, but that is exactly what happened. And it was awesome…horrifying, but awesome.
The iconic and much debated ending of The Graduate was actually something of a happy accident. Benjamin and Elaine make their grand escape and run off to lead lives of anti-establishment style bliss, or more likely, as director Mike Nichols once said, “to become their parents,” but first they sit at the back of a bus and laugh, deliriously happy about the future that awaits them. The story goes that Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross were waiting for Nichols to call cut, and when he didn’t their faces gradually changed from euphoric bliss to awkward uncertainty and Nichols liked it so much he kept the shot in the film.
Intentional or not, it’s the perfect way to end a movie about the ennui of youth. The characters get their happy ending, but that doesn’t make them immune to the fear of the unknown. What happens after you get what you thought you wanted? The movie doesn’t even attempt to answer that question and that’s exactly why it’s one of my favorite final scenes.
As I compiled this list, I realized that all of my favorite endings are on the bleak side. What can I say? Ambiguous darkness happens to be a quality I value in movies. What about you? What are your personal favorite movie endings? I would love to see your lists in the comment section below!
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