THE LISTS: Top 20 movie endings of all time

Posted by · 3:56 am · July 14th, 2008

Anthony Perkins in PsychoAlright, this was painstaking indeed. After The Times of London saw fit to rock out a list of the 20 best movie endings of all time last week, I thought I’d try my own hand at such a collective.

There are some omissions that might surprise some folks (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “Carrie”). At the same time, there are films that, on any other day, would easily slip into the list (“A Clockwork Orange,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Reservoir Dogs”).

Rest assured they were taken into account, but they didn’t speak to me on whatever levels must have been necessary to push into the top 20. But I can say these are the denouements that most affected me, be it viscerally or emotionally.

Send in your picks for the top five movie endings of all time and I’ll publish a collective readers’ list in a few weeks. Email me or post your list below in the comments section.

Here’s what I came up with:

20. “The Iron Giant” (Brad Bird, 1999)
“You stay. I go. No following.”
Animation genius Brad Bird made his feature directorial debut with this effort, packing an emotional punch by film’s end with shades of “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” — and an energizing final shot to boot.

19.”Jacob’s Ladder” (Adrian Lyne, 1990)
“He looks kind of peaceful, the guy.”
Capping off one of the most bizarre cinematic visions ever captured (and, ultimately, quite underrated as well), this closing scene is a twist that has been lifted in various other forms ever since. (see next)

18. “The Sixth Sense” (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
“I think I’m okay, really. I think it just went in and out.”
Hot prospect M. Night Shyamalan tainted the original power of the twist ending by attempting to make a career of it, but in the final moments of this early effort, his buried talent poked through the surface.

17. “The Shawshank Redemption” (Frank Darabont, 1994)
“Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. That’s God damn right.”
Less a closing scene than a closing sequence, the entire third act of Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptation manhandles the heartstrings and lifts the spirit.

16. “Se7en” (David Fincher, 1995)
“John Doe has the upper hand.”
Andrew Kevin Walker crafted a near masterpiece that culminates as perfectly as it could have, death and despair, ambition and art, plus a Hemingway rebuttal for the ages.

15. “The Conversation” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1973)
“We’ll be listening to you.”
The calmly paranoid conclusion to a mind-bender from a mid-“Godfather” Francis Coppola, this finale put Gene Hackman in a position to give perhaps the greatest performance of his career.

The full list after the jump!

14. “Night of the Living Dead” (George A. Romero, 1968)
“Good shot. Okay, he’s dead, let’s go get him. That’s another one for the fire.”
George Romero let a dash of social commentary slide into his original zombie classic when he did away with poor Ben (Duane Jones), safe after locking himself in the basement overnight only to be mistaken for a zombie by early morning hunters.

13. “Unforgiven” (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
“Well he shoulda armed himself, he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”
Director Clint Eastwood locked David Peoples screenplay “The William Muny Murders” away for a decade until he was old enough to portray the grizzled protagonist who obliterates a town with swift vengeance by film’s end.

12. “The Godfather” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
“Don’t ask me about my business, Kay.”
Al Pacino offered perhaps his greatest portrayal to date in this Francis Coppola masterpiece, capping off the star-making turn with a chilling announcement of his moral disintegration and seizure of the family business.

11. “Memento” (Christopher Nolan, 2001)
“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind.”
Despite offering a narrative that begins where it ends, filmmaker Christopher Nolan kept us on the edge of our seat awaiting his tapestry’s inevitable conclusion, leaving our heads spinning as the wheels of a Jaguar come to a screeching halt.

10. “Heat” (Michael Mann, 1995)
“I told you I’m never goin’ back.”
Bringing two of the cinema’s greatest icons together on screen for the first time ever, director Michael Mann took the symbiosis of hunter and prey to a new, tear-jerking level on the runways of LAX as the sounds of Moby drone on.

9. “There Will Be Blood” (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
“I am the third revelation! I am who the Lord has chosen!”
In one of the most memorable scenes of the new millennium, actor Daniel Day-Lewis flew off the rails, losing as many viewers as he thrilled with this final act of desecration, ridding the world of his ails.

8. “The Departed” (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Beginning with a bloody construction site shoot-out and culminating with a delicious slice of revenge, Martin Scorsese’s return to form never lets up throughout, even when he shockingly (and suddenly) does away with the film’s hero amid all the carnage.

7. “Planet of the Apes” (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)
“You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
One of the more striking denouements in film history (and, therefore, one of the more infamous screen moments), actor Charlton Heston is met with the wicked, gut-wrenching truth behind this “far away” land.

6. “Gattaca” (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
“Maybe I’m not leaving. Maybe I’m going home.”
One of a few cinematic moments that can still reduce the writer to tears, writer/director Andrew Niccol wraps up his brilliant vision of the not-so-distant future with emotion and gusto as the gorgeous themes of Mychael Nyman swell.

5. “City Lights” (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
“Yes, I can see now.”
In what might be Charlie Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece, the groundbreaking filmmaker lights up hearts to this day with the final exchange between his smitten Tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s Blind Girl.

4. “Dr. Strangelove” (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
“Mein fuhrer! I can walk!”
Capping off an hour and a half of sheer comedic perfection (featuring at least three spotless performances), director Stanely Kubrick (always having a way with endings) takes us out with a hell of a punchline and the vocals of Vera Lynn.

3. “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941)
“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life.”
Quickly becoming the most classic ending in movie history, Orson Welles’s final touch on his shadow study of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst manages to put all the perspective in the world to the film’s complex subject.

2. “Psycho” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
“They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know. And they’ll say, ‘Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.'”
This (shamefully) Oscar-ignored horror staple probably introduced the twist ending to a generation of filmmakers unaware of its visual storytelling power, capping off one hell of a performance from a 27-year-old Anthony Perkins.

1. “The Usual Suspects” (Bryan Singer, 1995)
“After that, my guess is you’ll never hear from him again.”
No other movie ending has ever taken the writer out of his seat like the final, head-spinning moments of this hard-boiled genre entry from Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer. Every piece of an elaborately designed, deliciously manipulated puzzle falls into place as the camera ultimately settles on the image of a crippled leg settling back into perfect stride. John Ottman’s melodic string score lulls the viewer into the reality of the film’s conclusion as Kevin Spacey wraps up his Oscar-winning performance. And just like that…he’s gone.

The greatest movie ending of all time:


Send in your picks!

→ 33 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

33 responses so far

  • 1 7-14-2008 at 6:40 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Shouldn’t The Departed be just the Infernal Affairs ending? It’s basically the same.

  • 2 7-14-2008 at 9:03 am

    Dan said...

    Everyone points out the Usual Suspects as being one of the greatest endings of all time, but to me, in order to have a great ending, a great plot and story needs to be built up behind it ; something the Usual Suspects did NOT have. It’s a typical story elevated into what many consider great simply because of the “shocking” ending.

    Great endings missing from this list:
    The Killing
    The Searchers
    The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
    The Bicycle Thief

    But as for my top 5:
    1. City Lights
    2. Ikiru
    3. The Bicycel Thief
    4. There Will Be Blood
    5. After Hours
    4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
    The Great Dictator

  • 3 7-14-2008 at 9:04 am

    Dan said...

    4 Months and The Great Dictator are more of an honorable mention if anything.

  • 4 7-14-2008 at 10:24 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Damn good list, Kris. I would only add Barry Lyndon, Traffic, and definitely Chinatown in there somewhere.

  • 5 7-14-2008 at 11:43 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Mr. Gittes feels left out ;).

    I agree with him too. Chinatown should be in there. I watched it again last week with my noob girlfriend and she was totally flabbergasted with the ending and its revelations.

  • 6 7-14-2008 at 12:21 pm

    Kyle said...

    No love for Casablanca?

  • 7 7-14-2008 at 12:22 pm

    Joseph said...

    No personal knock, but the lack of “Nights of Cabiria,” “The 400 Blows,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “Chinatown” really hurts. And NO foreign cinema whatsoever? Hmmm…

    My Top 10:

    01. Nights of Cabiria (Fellini)
    02. The 400 Blows (Truffaut)
    03. The Godfather (Coppola)
    04. Chinatown (Polanski)
    05. Sunset Boulevard (Wilder)
    06. On the Waterfront (Kazan)
    07. Some Like it Hot (Wilder)
    08. La Dolce Vita (Fellini)
    09. The Bicycle Thief (De Sica)
    10. Casablanca (Curtiz)

    We don’t have a lot of ones that overlap… haha.

  • 8 7-14-2008 at 12:28 pm

    Kyle said...

    Sorry, forgot to ask about It’s a Wonderful Life as well. I may just be a sentimentalist but I’ve always felt that the closing moments of It’s a Wonderful Life are some of the most hard earned big-hearted moments in all of cinema.
    “The richest man in town…”

  • 9 7-14-2008 at 12:39 pm

    Joseph said...

    Ugh, now I feel bad I forgot “City Lights,” “Seven Samurai,” “Lost in Translation,” “American Beauty,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Network,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

    Ah well. It’s always hard to narrow down to 10, and sacrifices must be made. Consider those the runners-up.

  • 10 7-14-2008 at 7:59 pm

    Proman said...

    The Usual Suspects? Seriously?

    That’s your number one?

    Look guys it may be a “clever” ending (and I liked the film) but it’s hardly “earned”. At least not to the same extent as “Memento” and other greater films.

  • 11 7-14-2008 at 8:51 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    No other film ending has ever leveled me and effected me (again. viscerally) as The Usual Suspects. And I disagree with Dan that there wasn’t a good story built up behind it. I thought it was a fantastic genre film regardless of where it ended up going, and that ending resonates more than the final minutes of anything I’ve ever seen on screen.

    Not sure what you mean by “earned,” Proman. Not in this instance, in any case.

    But yeah. It’s my number one. Keyword: MY.

  • 12 7-14-2008 at 8:52 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    And the only ending mentioned here that I’m kicking myself for having left off is “Cinema Paradiso.” That would definitely score somewhere on the top 20, but it completely slipped my mind.

  • 13 7-14-2008 at 11:47 pm

    Dan Tayag said...

    “Jonathan Spuij said…

    Shouldn’t The Departed be just the Infernal Affairs ending? It’s basically the same”

    Well, I’d replace Kris’ ending with IA original ending which is actually not the same. Sure, both heroes in both movies are done away shockingly but the Damon character in the original Hong Kong film doesn’t share the same fate. I felt desensitized by Scorsese’s ending while the original was haunting.

    I’d add Batman Begins to this list despite its mediocre third act because the ending was so goddamn great.

  • 14 7-15-2008 at 3:54 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    You’re right Dan. I forgot Scorsese added some more deaths :).

  • 15 7-15-2008 at 1:19 pm

    Proman said...

    I guess I was a bit harsh there. After all favorite endings are very personal things (and as such are very subjective).

    As much as I liked “Usual Suspects” and agree that it’s a great genre film (Singer has never been so stylish since) I always found the film a bit overrated. Maybe the fact that I was able to guess the ending contributed to that.

    And what I meant by “earned” is that while the ending was clever it wasn’t entirely justified in the sense that aboslutely anything could have happened prior to it and it still would have worked. And yes, that’s exactly the point I understand that too.

    It’s just that I admire the endings that are entirely consistent with what has happened before (and still manage to suprise me) even more.

  • 16 7-15-2008 at 1:21 pm

    Proman said...

    I just want to add that I totally understand the visceral reaction justification. Nearly all of my all time favorite movies are the ones that have managed to affect me emotionally or provoke a near-physical response.

  • 17 7-16-2008 at 4:35 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    OK, I finally did it… and boy was it hard. I’m just going to splurge them out right now before I change my mind, which will be in approximately five minutes.

    (Note: I am in no way pretending that these are the ten greatest endings ever. I submit that there are probably many greater, cleverly more ingeniously constructed endings that didn’t connect with me emotionally in the same way.)

    1. BONNIE AND CLYDE (Arthur Penn, 1967)
    How to make the inevitable shocking.

    2. THE THIRD MAN (Carol Reed, 1949)
    The exquisite patience of that final shot. And THAT music.

    3. HUSBANDS AND WIVES (Woody Allen, 1992)
    “Can I go now? Is this over?” Allen’s most lacerating film leaves with its wounds still open.

    4. Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)
    As perfect a use of the omniscient voice as there is – it’s all in what the characters don’t know.

    5. THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, 1960)
    Sure, “Nobody’s perfect” is a great last line. But “Shut up and deal” is better.

    6. THE ICE STORM (Ang Lee, 1997)
    Four people in a car finally see themselves, and nobody knows what to say.

    7. THE GRADUATE (Mike Nichols, 1967)
    Elation turns to calm, calm turns to uncertainty … all by holding the shot.

    8. THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (Victor Erice, 1973)
    A six year-old girl continues to seek the Other.

    A relationship begins in the shadow of its end. As romantic a conceit as a film ever had.

    10. BEING THERE (Hal Ashby, 1979)
    “Life is a state of mind.” Ergo, a man can walk on water. How the viewer reads this depends on the leap of faith he’s prepared to take.

    Whew. Apologies to On the Waterfront, Cache, Lantana, Gone With the Wind, The Thin Red Line, Persona, etc, etc. Another day, maybe.

  • 18 7-16-2008 at 11:54 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    UGH. Very good call on Eternal Sunshine. VERY good call.

  • 19 7-16-2008 at 12:20 pm

    jason said...

    In no particular order: City Lights, A Clockwork Orange, Stroszek, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Vertigo.

  • 20 7-16-2008 at 12:31 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Dammit, Vertigo was the one I was looking for.

  • 21 8-13-2008 at 2:53 pm

    Ross Miller said...

    I hated the last 15 minutes or so of The Departed. HATED it. Despite it basically being the same in principle as Infernal Affairs, it’s the way Scorsese played it out that was the worst thing of all [SPOILER AHEAD] – “Well we’ve made such a good movie up until this point, but we don’t know how to finish it. Shit. Oh well we’ll just kill everyone; DiCaprio [BANG], Winstone [BANG], Nicholson [BANG] and then finally the disgrace that was the end scene (which I am paritcularly surprised you listed as being one the BEST endings of all time, Kris)….yes that’s right, Damon [BANG]. To me that was as anti-climactic as was humanly possible to conjure. And that underwhelming and arrogant final shot of the rat made me fill up with anger. Such a shame since the first 2 hours is so damn good.

    Rant over…thanks for reading… :P

  • 22 9-23-2008 at 10:18 pm

    Allen Schneider said...

    Where the FUCK is The Empire Strikes Back you fucking tool?

  • 23 9-23-2008 at 10:42 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Fuck The Empire Strikes Back?

  • 24 9-24-2008 at 10:00 am

    Leo Calabrano said...

    this is a real good list… i like it a lot!! and it’s great to be able to see the endings again.

  • 25 10-28-2008 at 1:25 pm

    Andrew said...



  • 26 10-29-2008 at 9:37 am

    Zan said...

    5 Classic Film Endings:
    Contempt (just ask David Lynch)
    Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
    The 400 Blows
    Sansho the Bailiff
    A Clockwork Orange

    5 Modern Film Endings:
    Traffic (Cheadle’s smile in particular)
    Children of Men (for instilling hope)
    No Country for Old Men (in its sheer power)
    The Assassination of Jesse James… (for its genius use of VO narration)
    The Lives of Others (goes without saying)

  • 27 2-18-2009 at 8:01 pm

    saj said...

    I agree with what Eunice said. Exorcism of Emily Rose is a good movie. It is not an out on out horror movie, but yes it has a couple of scenes which can scare the hell out of the viewer. I wonder how Shutter has not been mentioned by anybody so far. Its one of the best horror movie I have ever watched. Right from the beginning of the movie until the end, you will glued to your seats.
    Happy Watching

  • 28 6-30-2009 at 2:54 pm

    Dan said...

    I can’t believe no one commented on the quote from The Godfather. Do you really think Diane Keaton’s name in the film is “Kate?”

  • 29 6-30-2009 at 2:58 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Nope, I don’t. It was an honest slip, actually. But thanks for pointing it out.

  • 30 9-27-2009 at 6:03 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Because I can’t stand it when every plot point is dictated to me in a film, I would definitely take out Psycho. It’s ending was the worst part of the film.

    And I agree that Chinatown should be on there.

  • 31 6-05-2010 at 7:17 am

    unchanged said...

    Nah! where is goodfellas?? is one of the best movie endings ever. Not the best, but one of.

  • 32 9-16-2011 at 9:08 am

    Skunk said...

    Usual Suspects ? Are you serious ?
    You are all fucking retarded idiots.