What are your favorite movie endings?

January 3rd, 2013 by

I posted this yesterday, an LAT article from Steve Zeitchik:

The filmgoer was noticeably upset. He didn’t like a moment in “Lincoln.” More specifically, he didn’t like the final moments of “Lincoln.”

“I don’t understand why it didn’t just end when Lincoln is walking down the hall and the butler gives him his hat,” he said. “Why did I need to see him dying on the bed? I have no idea what Spielberg was trying to do.”

The man on the mini-rant wasn’t some multiplex loudmouth. He was actor Samuel L. Jackson, and he was just getting started. “I didn’t need the assassination at all. Unless he’s going to show Lincoln getting his brains blown out. And even then, why am I watching it? The movie had a better ending 10 minutes before.”

Jackson was offering a sentiment common among people who’ve seen “Lincoln” and moviegoers in general: Hollywood films are struggling to find the exit. Stories that seem to end, end again, and then end once more. Climactic scenes wind down, then wind up. Movies that appear headed for a satisfying resolution turn away, then try to stumble back.

The post generated some interesting comments which you can read here.

One comment came from Teddy Pasternak:

How about we list our favorite movie endings and dissect why we like them and why they work?

Good idea. Easy to criticize movie endings that don’t work. Why not look at movie endings that do work?

So which movie endings are your favorites? Why don’t we create a list and go through them, analyzing why they work.

See you in comments for movie endings that work — and why.

40 thoughts on “What are your favorite movie endings?

  1. Erica R Maier says:

    Tootsie is one of my favorites.

    It doesn’t end with Michael & Julie in a full-blown romantic relationship (that would have been godawful).

    It ends with the idea/possibility/tease that maybe someday down the line, that may happen. It’s their FRIENDSHIP that is the highlight of the end.

    The final freeze frame of them putting their arms around each other as we watch them walk away gets me every time.

    1. Scott says:

      One intriguing thing about Tootsie [which by the way is on the list for a GITS Script Reading & Analysis this year] is after the Final Struggle [Dorothy reveals herself to be a man on live TV], there is an extended postscript. First Michael has to make amends with Les [the late Charles Durning], Julie’s father. Then the meeting between Michael and Julie. I guess you can call that ending a ‘mature’ one in that it’s open-ended, a possibility they can reconcile, but not visualized on screen. To have Julie fall into Michael’s arms would be patently false to her character. Michael betrayed her trust which is a fundamental thing, so he’s going to have to work to gain it again.

      Of course, the denouement between them offers Michael the opportunity to lay out in dialogue the central theme of the movie: I was a better man as a woman than I was as a man.

      Takeaway: We have to respect the characters within the context of the story, so they act honestly and authentically to who they are, even if it doesn’t lead to a deliriously happy ending.

      1. Erica R Maier says:

        True! I never thought of that as extended postscript, but yes, it certainly is.

        And I’m thrilled Tootsie is going to be a GITS Script Reading & Analysis offering this year! Looking forward to it.

    2. Erica – I totally agree! It was such a satisfying ending. Also, the bit about whether or not she could borrow the Halston. I love that bit.

      1. Erica R Maier says:

        YES! Loved that! I loved his response: “Noooo. You’ll ruin it.” Sweet & flirty.

  2. This will sound strange, but my favorite ending is from an arthouse film. L’Eclisse, by Michelangelo Antonioni. In the previous scene we see the relationship of the movie finally bloom. But in the final scene, we see all the places our characters have been through the whole movie shutting down or turning off. It might look like a bunch of poetic bullshit images, but the pessimism they contain about the fate of their relationship (and of relationships overall) stunned me. I actually fell into depression for a whole week after watching that scene. You may watch it here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSqhOzdTG-g

    1. Bryan Colley says:

      Nothing strange about that. It’s a beautiful and amazing ending.

    2. Scott says:

      SOS, thanks for posting this. I haven’t seen L’Eclisse since college. Watching the clip, I’m reminded of my feelings all those years ago, similar to yours, stitching together potential meaning of all the visuals, the overriding sense of alienation and despair.

      And there’s this: A classic reminder that movies are primarily a visual medium!

      Thanks for that!

  3. Jordan Paige says:

    Life is Beautiful has, by far, my favorite ending of any film ever. When the little boy is rescued, rides in the tank and finds his mother. Especially since the “game’s” prize was a tank, that pay off is just perfect.

  4. My favorite movie ending is by far Aliens. when we see ripley in that overload, this had to be the greatest pay off of all time. i still remember how good it felt.

  5. Harold and Maude is one because we see Harold make metaphorical a leap of faith with his talisman, the banjo which represents an extension of Maude, moments after his car goes literally plunging over the cliff.

  6. So many great endings to chose from… let’s start with two from David Lynch:

    The Straight Story (1999)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CIOP-YkeyQ

    After driving 240 miles across Iowa on a lawn tractor to go see his dying brother, Alvin Straight finally reaches his destination. With only a few words between them and after seeing Alvin’s mode of transportation, Lyle understands what an undertaking Alvin’s journey has been. All is forgiven and they can put their animosity behind them.

    Why it works: We wait the entire movie for this one moment. And when it arrives, it is done such a subtle and beautiful way with minimal dialogue and with visual storytelling that goes beyond what any words could say. It is the culmination of Alvin’s journey, both physically and emotionally. He risked life and limb to reconcile with his brother and his actions spoke louder than words. After this moment, there’s nothing more to say so the story ends. One of my favorite movie endings of all time.

    The Elephant Man (1980)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GajDw1NSFuw

    Here, as well, the story ends because there’s nothing more to be said. It ends for John Merrick because he has achieved his goal to feel like a human being. To be treated like an equal. Much like finishing building the model of the cathedral, he has reached the end of his journey and reached the top. There’s only one thing left for him to do and that is to lie down to sleep like everyone else. Knowing full well that it will end his life, he goes through with it anyway so he can die with dignity.

    Why it works: The story feels complete. It feels like it could not possibly have a different ending. It had to end this way. That may sound subjective but I believe a great ending is built into the very idea of the story. Not only should an ending feel right plot-wise, but (maybe even more importantly) it should make thematic and emotional sense as well. Here we get it in spades.

    1. choose*

      Now it makes sense. Whew!

  7. edw1225 says:

    Rocky is one of my favorites. A happy ending, but going against the norm with Creed winning.

    I loved the last scene in Pulp Fiction. It surprises us by being a continuation of the first scene. It builds on the near miss from a previous scene. And since it didn’t follow chronological order, it explains tings in earlier scenes, such as why Jules wasn’t around in the scene after Butch’s fight.

  8. La Strada (1954)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FMhJ2A2IDQ

    Oh man, talk about a powerful ending. Completely wordless, but it communicates something that everyone can understand no matter what language they speak or what country they come from. Zampanò finds himself alone on the beach, alone in this world, and filled with remorse. Realizing his past mistakes, he collapses in tears and becomes human, so to speak.

    Why it works: The movie deals with universal themes and ideas that we can all recognize as persons on this planet. We have all felt these emotions of regret, confusion, sorrow and loneliness. The genius of this scene is that we don’t realize what the movie is truly about until Zampanò has this epiphany.

  9. Scott says:

    As long as we’re talking about great endings, here is one that absolutely slayed me when I saw it the first time at its debut in the Telluride Film Festival in 1987: The final sequence in Manon des sources, the second part of a beautiful, yet tragic story begun with Jean de Florette. Staggeringly sad, yet perfect cinema. You may see the clip here.

    1. Love these two films. Saw them as a double feature back in ’87 and they blew me away.

  10. Corey * says:

    My favorite movie ending, without a doubt, is the ending to ‘Survive Style 5+’. It’s somehow odd, exhilarating, and heart-wrenching all at once. An absolute must-see.

  11. Some of my “it depends on the time of day” faves.

    – Casablamca… “Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

    – Some Like It Hot… “Nobody’s perfect/”

    – Godfather… Michael lies to Kay, then we see all the gangsters kiss his ring. Special mention to the ending of Godfather 2.

    – The Matrix… phone calls bookend the movie: “When is Neo”, “Here I am”, plus Rage’s awesome Wake Up as the outro.

    – Love And Death… “What’s it like? You know the chicken at Tresky’s Restaurant? It’s worse.”

    – The Usual Suspects… Keyser Soze, nuff said.

    – The Terminator… “Viene la tormenta”

    – The Sixth Sense. Helluva twist.

    – Shawshank Redemption.

    – Empire Strikes Back.

    1. matthewlaunder says:

      I should’ve read your list before submitting mine. We’re on the same page for a lot of these…

      1. Most of those are all-time classic final scenes

        Also, the final scene from Topsy Turvy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rP2qJXT3olM

  12. Shaula Evans says:

    Jesus of Montreal and Så som i himmelen / As It Is in Heaven are both stories with endings that leave me in tears.

    I won’t spoil either of them for you as I expect many of you haven’t seen them (watch them and you’re in for a treat!) but both involve “saviour”* figures and… the endings are impossible to predict, but once you see them, they are inevitable and emotionally satisfying. And, in different ways, both tie up story lines for the ensemble casts.

    *Scott, as you continue with the theme of “spirituality” in movies in 2013, if you don’t know the films I highly recommend them as excellent films that engage directly with many of the themes you’ve already been writing about.

    Another movie I haven’t seen for a long time but remember as having a hugely powerful ending is Malcolm X. The pitfall of a biopic is everyone knows what’s going to happen, and where this movie flies, is you are watching events careen towards the assassination of Malcolm X, deeply invested in the characters of Malcolm and his family, with a superior knowledge about what is about to unfold that the characters themselves don’t have, powerless to make history stop. The whole extended final sequence left me floored.

  13. The ending of BEFORE SUNSET:

    Celine: Baby, you are gonna miss that plane.
    Jesse: I know.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMqePx7Kp3A

    I don’t know why it works. It just does.

  14. Regarding “Lincoln”: Spielberg did the same thing with “Saving Private Ryan.” When Tom Hanks whispers, “Earn this…” THAT was the end. Absolutely perfect. And then we get the hammer-on-the-nail bookend scene at the cemetery. Bah.

    The ending that stayed with me the most from 2102 was “The Grey”. It didn’t show us the badass scene where Liam Neeson finally fights a wolf. It didn’t have to. The fact that he chooses to fight at all when it’s clearly the end is just powerful, and the perfect moment to cut to black.

  15. matthewlaunder says:

    That’s a very broad question, really. I guess I like huge payoffs and big reveals…

    And for that, I feel like “Inception” is up there — it’s the first time I can recall hearing an entire audience actually gasp. Also, with its impressive ambiguity, “Basic Instinct” is a guilty pleasure of mine. The ice pick under the bed is a fantastic ending.

    “Empire Strikes Back” is notable because you’ve just spent 5 hours of your life hating Darth Vadar, only to find out he’s Luke’s father (and Han Solo is still frozen!).

    “The Godfather” trilogy is legendary because of the character arc; Michael’s final transformation into the aforementioned title is completed with the hand-kissing and the big door slowly closing, keeping us (the audience) on the outside of “the family”… He was the good guy, the war hero, and I wanted him to avenge his father and return to innocence. But he takes this incredible turn and embraces the dark side of his past — and does so for almost six more hours of film — until his final years, when he seeks God’s retribution.

    I just saw “Rust and Bone”, so that ending is fresh in my mind (and utterly fantastic).

    But my favorite ending is probably “The Usual Suspects”. All at once, you have Verbal’s big reveal (his gimpy foot straightening out) on the sidewalk; Agent Kujan smugly reading the bulletin board; and the fax document coming in all at the same time. “And like that [CUT TO BLACK], he’s gone…” Every time I watch it, I pick up on a new moment or a look or a story beat that reveals the ending early, and it tortures me that I didn’t see it coming the first time.

    I guess it goes to show: You can have great openings, great performances and set pieces, but if the ending is shit, that’s what everyone talks about (“Lincoln”).

    Going back to “Basic”, the opening isn’t anything special, the writing has been panned, and it’s no masterpiece; but that ice pick had people talking and going back to the theater time after time, so much so that an R-rated erotic thriller did $350 million at the box office, and Joe Eszterhas got a huge payday for “Basic 2″, which he never wrote a word on. That’s a lot of importance for a little ice pick…

  16. Shaula Evans says:

    Monsieur Hire, adapted by Patrice Leconte and Patrick Dewolf from a novel by George Simenon, has an outstandingly excellent ending. It’s one of those films that, while you’re watching it, you can’t imagine the ending being satisfying. And then it is perfect beyond anything you could have anticipated.

  17. I might be a bit late on the replies here: but I love the endings that also turn into surprises, so lighter fare (Note: I am a sucker for happy endings)

    *Pirates of the caribbean – deadman’s chest – when Barbossa reappears.
    * The Shrek series – when Fiona decides to stay an ogre, then the second Shrek movie with the easter egg ending with Donkey, his dragon girlfriend and their six ‘dronkey’ babies, totally hilarious.

    More serious stuff:
    * Someone cited the sixth sense ending, loved that one.
    * Loved the ending of Shawshank too, a nearly perfect film, with Red and Dufresne reuniting at the beach.
    *Finally, the ending of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings, when Frodo lets Sam join him, a testament to friendship.

  18. John Arends says:

    BEING THERE — Chance walking across the pond, as Jack Warden’s voice from the eulogy up the hill sums up the entire essence of the film: “Life is a state of mind…”

    LOCAL HERO — Mac, back in lovely Houston, picking up the phone, then cut to the red phone booth in Scottland (sic) ringing, ringing, ringing…

    CUCKOO’S NEST — Big Chief, first setting RP free, then lifting the fixture and the water running free, and then his loping stride into the trees, the score with the whistle and rattle and drum just perfect…

    RAIDERS — The warehouse.
    JAWS — The swim.
    E.T. — The departure.
    [Yes, Steven, you did get many of them just right..;-)]

    THE BLACK STALLION — The entire movie, visually, capped by an almost wordless Act 3…

  19. SabinaGiado says:

    My favorite endings have always got to be films from my childhood:

    Back to the Future 1: Dad decked Biff! I cry and whoop for joy for the nerd revolution every time I see that.

    Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “Indy….let it go.” “You were named after the dog! Hahaha!” John Rhys Davies came to Dubai’s first ever Comic Con this year. I missed him but I heard he went around and personally spoke to the owner of every stall and was an absolute delight during his interview.

    “Empire Strikes Back.”

    “American Beauty.” Peace in death. The final moments of sublime gratitude. I guess that’s what the film was about. Though I haven’t analysed it yet. Lusting for more makes us miserable. Loving what we have is the key to peace.

    “Blade Runner” – “She won’t live. But then again, who does?”

    “Prometheus” – the birth of the first face-hugger.

    “Looper” – everyone protects what’s theirs and that gives birth to a vicious circle. Which Joe finally ended. That made me cry.

    1. Blade Runner, omg, how could I forget that one?!?

  20. SabinaGiado says:

    Oh God and how can I forget an ending that makes me weep every single time?

    The ending of Signs. Again the unification of themes – ‘It was meant to be. God always has a plan.’ The saving of the son who’s hated him since his mother died. The ‘reasons’ for all the family members various hang-ups.

    Sigh. Perfect.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zyj0AnF8ziE

  21. keviniso says:

    the end of man on fire..

  22. Agree with all of the above, but have to add “La Cinema Paradiso.” No spoilers, but it’s sublime, poignant and passionate–without dialog.

    Go. Go now and watch it. ;)

      1. Erica R Maier says:

        100% agree. One of my favorites of all time.

  23. markbotts says:

    “Michael Clayton” – the camera rests on George Clooney’s face and lets the actor do the work with mere expression. A quiet, reflective moment. A hint to the viewer to do the same after a good film, book, song, sermon…

    1. Erica R Maier says:

      YES. Another great choice.

  24. Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about Karate Kid and Rocky for endings — they pretty much end after the end of the climactic fight… pretty much as soon as possible. No need to see where they end up afterwards. No reason to allow us a cool down period before we walk out of the theatre.

    But when I think of great endings, I’m always reminded of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” I actually really disliked the movie as a whole – not that it was poorly written, but Mr. Holland reminded me of some of my most unfavorite teachers growing up. Alas, seeing his students perform his symphony at the end – the very thing he abandoned so he could teach – was surprising, emotionally powerful, and pulled together the entire film.

  25. Carla Cyr says:

    Just re-watched it over the holidays but I love the ending of The Princess Bride, when Peter Falk/Grandfather looks straight into the camera and says, ‘As you wish’, sweet without being saccharine.

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