Film writers like to use a metaphor from sports to describe the importance and difficulty of ending a movie well: “sticking the landing.” All the goodwill a movie builds up during its beginning and middle can be spoiled if the ending is executed clumsily or predictably. Nailing it can be tricky: loose ends must be tied up in a satisfying way, with the resolution landing somewhere on the “happy”/”sad” spectrum that both feels right and hasn’t been telegraphed from the beginning. Good endings are hard enough to come by that great ones stand out all the more. This explains why, although there are hundreds of movies I love, it wasn’t especially difficult to narrow them down to twenty-five for this list.
Like my previous top 25 lists, the choices below range from individual images to entire sequences. When we think of movie “endings,” we might picture one of two discrete things. In screenwriter’s terms, they are the climax and the denouement. For the purposes of this list, I’ve tried to focus on the latter, but sometimes the former can be so strong that it earns consideration basically on its own. I know what you’re all thinking right now. The Empire Strikes Back will make an appearance, thanks to its climax. Its final scene depicts quiet recuperation, one final rest before the two-hour super-climax of Return of the Jedi. Nothing special, except for the fact that the preceding scenes lay the burden of myth onto it. There’s an exception to every rule. Franchise movie endings are rarely memorable, but there are a few below.
It feels like I say this every time, but internet lists tend to start arguments, so: This list is personal. It takes into account my own movie-watching history, the endings that have stuck with me for a long time. Stone-cold classics, from Greed to Casablanca to The Third Man to Chinatown, don’t make the cut, not because I think their endings are “overrated,” but because I couldn’t muster quite as much personal enthusiasm for them. That said, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of great stuff. Constructive discussion is welcome.
(Note: Spoilers will, perforce, follow. I mean that in the standard sense, but also in the sense that some of these endings derive their power from context. I’d be gratified if you watched the movies before reading about them.)
25. Sympathy for the Devil (1968)
For this one, I’m definitely just thinking of the final image. This movie is Godard in full snot-nose mode, and while that can be mighty entertaining, it’s just as often maddening. But the sight of the woman being raised up on the camera crane was, and remains, galvanizing for me — particularly when paired with the Rolling Stones’ insistent “woo-woo”-ing.
Happy or Sad? None of your bourgeois emotions here, thank you very much.
24. The Music Man (1962)
Harold Hill peddles a fantasy, and this musical at least hints at the more mundane reality that results. As soon as the story is resolved, though, all bets are off. The glittering parade, which doubles as a curtain call for the film’s ensemble, is the kind of wish fulfillment that musicals do best.
Happy or Sad? Very, very happy.
23. Mary Poppins (1964)
The rehabilitation of George Banks is one of the most satisfying and moving events in any Disney film. The trajectory — from utter despair to dizzy insouciance to a sudden change of fortune — might have been borrowed from a film higher on my list, but it still works.
Happy or Sad? Happy, but with a hint of sadness (for the audience, anyway) since Ms. Poppins is leaving.
22. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The abruptness with which everything wraps up is key here. Sally’s final flight at dawn, Leatherface’s last futile lunges as she climbs into the truckbed, and finally the magic hour chainsaw dance of…rage? frustration? adrenaline? At any rate, it’s beautiful and primal, and then it stops before we can breathe a sigh of relief.
Happy or Sad? Well, she’s laughing, so I’m gonna say happy.
21. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Believe it or not, this ending is pretty similar to the one above. The primary feeling is exhaustion. Seeing Jefferson Smith’s energy and optimism finally depleted is heartbreaking. Capra gives us reason to believe his efforts were successful, but it took everything out of him.
Happy or Sad? Just get him to a hospital already!
20. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
I probably don’t need to explain what happens here. What makes it legendary, of course, is the way the deaths unfold, in mythologizing slow-motion. The death-twitches of these star-crossed rebels register as a final gesture. This one wraps it up quickly, too, with just enough of a pause to let it all sink in.
Happy or Sad? We knew it would happen, and they knew it would happen. Why be sad?
19. King Kong (1933)
As iconic a final movement as any the movies have ever produced, in which a Wonder of the World is summarily destroyed. The closing line marks the artist’s desire to make a fable out of the whole thing, sexing it up and coaxing audience identification. Here’s your Hollywood self-satire, folks.
Happy or Sad? Very, very sad.
18. Black Narcissus (1947)
This one gets in on the strength of its climax, because it’s totally bananas. The intense repression displayed in the film suddenly gives way, letting out fury like steam from a manhole cover. The horror is sharpened to a serrated edge by cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s use of isolated colors.
Happy or Sad? Resigned, defeated, but with a kind of catharsis.
17. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
The final fight sequences — the Crazy 88, Gogo, and O-Ren — are beautifully shot and choreographed, as exciting as action cinema gets. Then there’s the impish cross-cutting of the final scene, in which Tarantino drops a superbly pulpy revelation. Even if it’s more of an intermission than an ending (see also #11), it’s perfect.
Happy or Sad? Even happier than the Bride thinks at this point.
16. Under the Skin (2013)
If you were hoping some kind of explanation of What It All Means would break out, sorry — the finale is just as tight-lipped as the rest of the movie. The alien has apparently failed in its mission and is set ablaze. Smoke rises, snow falls. All is quiet.
Happy or Sad? It might be ambiguous. I’m not sure.
15. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Spock’s finest moment. Kirk’s, too, ultimately, coming as it does after a film-long trial by fire for the aging hero. The performances are informed by over fifteen years of familiarity with the roles. Then there’s the torpedo coffin shot into the Genesis planet, a lush Eden sprung from humanity’s most idealized ambition.
Happy or Sad? Both, absolutely.
14. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Maybe the ending is telegraphed a little bit this time. Just look at the title. The world going to hell in a handbasket is the clear theme of Kubrick’s comedy; the ending is just that idea taken to its logical endpoint. This is the worst that can happen, but we can still laugh at it.
Happy or Sad? Better dead than red.
13. Barton Fink (1991)
The strangest, most chilling warning against pretension that I’m ever likely to see, this film ends with brimstone and anti-resolution. The Coen brothers always conjure up endings that seem to march to the beat of a drummer no one’s ever heard before, and this one’s my favorite.
Happy or Sad? I don’t think Barton’s ever going to figure that out.
12. Blow Out (1981)
First comes the tragic climax, unfolding with slow-motion certainty and posed ironically against a red, white, and blue celebration. Then there’s the decision that ties the whole movie together, in which trauma is molded into art. Supremely dark.
Happy or Sad? Devastating.
11. Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Yeah, yeah, the first one ends with a flying car. How can you beat that? What makes this ending, and Part II in general, special is its considerably wonkier approach to time-travel, its willingness to explore the concept’s craziest implications with gusto.
Happy or Sad? Happy, because, you see, he’s back from the future.
10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
From the melting Nazi faces to that wry final shot of the endless warehouse, this is Spielberg’s finest ending, and he can have trouble with them sometimes. The only possible flaw here is the promise of “happily ever after” for Indy and Marion. If you can look past the sequels, though, that doesn’t matter.
Happy or Sad? Happy, but tempered by Indy’s disappointment in the “bureaucratic fools.”
9. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
“Revenge of the Giant Face” might be the most awe-inspiring sequence Tarantino has ever devised: glorious immolation and lunatic joy. And all of it devoted to the idea and substance of film itself. Then there’s the placing of the Mark of the Beast on Col. Landa’s forehead, in the squirmiest of close-ups. “Masterpiece,” indeed.
Happy or Sad? All the coolest people died, but so did Hitler.
8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Leone’s most beautifully protracted showdown, a masterpiece of editing for its own sake. The three figures are appropriately larger than life. With the villain, Van Cleef, dispatched, Eastwood gets the last laugh against his partner in crime, Wallach, and the film ends with a landscape and Morricone’s immortal yelp.
Happy or Sad? Giddy.
7. Vertigo (1958)
It’s a good thing Hitchcock had the clout to stand up to Production Code censors. The film might have ended with a scene of people listening to the radio. What we have instead is a moment of abrupt shock, a man left suspended — and possibly purged. Standing up, looking down. Narratively and thematically perfect.
Happy or Sad? These are starting to look reductive, aren’t they?
6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Luke loses a hand, learns the truth about his absent father, falls almost to his death, and is left bitterly alone. Just for a moment, though. There’s something special about Leia, as it turns out. What more is there to say about this one? The heroes don’t win, they survive to fight another day. It’s revelatory.
Happy or Sad? They can save Han, but I don’t know about Vader.
5. Fantasia (1940)
The Night on Bald Mountain sequence is probably the greatest piece of animation in the history of the medium. If the Ave Maria sequence that follows looks insipid by comparison, that was practically inevitable. It’s still experimental and interesting. And there’s no faulting the music.
Happy or Sad? Dawn follows the darkness.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The pure, enveloping love of the final scene is absolutely overwhelming, coming as it does after the movie sinks to the depths of lonely depression. Capra’s beloved masterpiece is Christmas in a nutshell, lighting a candle on the coldest of nights.
Happy or Sad? You don’t get happier than James Stewart at the end of this. You just don’t.
3. Babe (1995)
Supernaturally odd and mesmerizing. The ending enthralled me as a kid, and it still does today. An embattled spirit rises to the occasion with quiet perfection. Am I talking about the pig or the farmer? They are kindred spirits, as we see in the final shots of Cromwell’s haloed visage and Babe’s dog-like deference.
Happy or Sad? Blissful.
2. Magnolia (1999)
This one really won’t register without the context of the three-hour film that precedes it. You just had to be there. The last shot comes on the heels of an unforgettable climax that I refuse to spoil. It’s a simple push-in to a close-up. Then the subject addresses the camera, a flash of extraordinary cinematic beauty. Take it away, Aimee Mann.
Happy or Sad? The faintest of happy endings, but it’s well-earned.
1. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Three Tarantinos on the same list is probably excessive, but I can’t help it. The guy knows how to save the best for last. Pulp Fiction has a totally fantastic ending, and I couldn’t find room for it here. The ending of Reservoir Dogs is just more important to me personally. It was the first part of the movie I saw. I caught it on IFC one day about ten years ago and was riveted. To this day it’s my go-to example of the fact that “spoilers” don’t necessarily spoil anything. When I later saw the movie from start to finish, the ending was still devastating, gorgeously constructed (never mind the logistics of “who shot Nice Guy Eddie”), and more serious about violence than Tarantino has been since. Mr. White is a tragic hero to stand with the great legends of the gangster genre. Take it away, Harry Nilsson.
Happy or Sad? Sadness wins in a shocking upset!
What an amazing top ten of endings. I’m glad you didn’t spoil Magnolia though because I still haven’t seen it! Great post!
Hey, thanks! If I help just one person see “Magnolia” for the first time without knowing exactly how it ends, I’ve done something right!
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