“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” – Orson Welles
The most important part of any story is how you start it and how you end it, with the film’s climax the lasting taste of the director’s artistic vision before you leave the cinema. No matter how great a film may be, for the majority of the runtime, if it fails at the last hurdle, it will forever be remembered as a damp cinematic squib.
The typical ‘Hollywood ending’, where the downtrodden protagonist finally fulfils their dream, is the most popular climax in American cinema, but endings can be spiked by sadness, twists or ambiguity. A good ending will tie the story together into a satisfying close and bring the lead character’s narrative arc full circle, without throwing in nonsensical spanners or nipping the action in the bud far too early. Standing as monoliths of disappointment, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes ridicules the films source material in the final scene, whilst the found footage horror The Devil Inside shockingly redirects audiences to a URL to complete the story for themselves.
Instead, the following list of ten films chose to end their films with a lasting question mark, as opposed to a definitive full stop, immortalising their legacy as pertinent pieces of meditative cinema.
Top 10 best movie endings:
10. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Establishing Dustin Hoffman’s name into the history books of cinema, The Graduate is a provocative comedy romance that follows the relationship between a college graduate, an older woman and her daughter.
Desperate to stop the wedding of his love Elaine (Katharine Ross), Hoffman’s Ben Braddock breaks into the church where she is getting married and shouts her name, sparking a mass brawl and he tries to convince her to leave with him. Eventually agreeing, they both run off together and jump on a moving bus before sitting down, smiling, then hastily realising the gravity of their decision.
It’s a powerful scene, made better by ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel.
9. There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the finest filmmakers of contemporary cinema, made history with There Will be Blood, a monolithic piece of American art that perfectly fuses each part of its complex makeup.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a manic businessman, a powerful figure obsessed with family, religious hatred and greed who helps herald in American capitalism as an oil prospector at the turn of the new century. Whilst his career slowly descends into chaos, the life of a local preacher sees success, and in the film’s climax, these two personalities clash in a chaotic brawl of desperate cowardly greed.
Killing Eli with a bowling pin, Daniel sits back and announces “I’m finished”, a masterful ending to a stupendous piece of cinema.
8. In the Mood for Love (Kar-Wai Wong, 2000)
One of cinema’s most romantic creative voices, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is known for his soft, elegant poetic grace in films such as Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and, of course, In the Mood for Love.
Gliding through the spotlight of each others’ lives, the lead characters of Kar-Wai’s film, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung), engage in a platonic relationship that oozes with passion. The film’s final scene takes place several years later and shows a chance encounter between the two characters where they discuss the missed opportunity of the past.
Despite so clearly sharing a romantic connection, the love between the two of them ebbs away, a faded relationship that could’ve been, but never was.
7. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
John Carpenter’s creature feature The Thing, itself based on Howard Hawks’ and Christian Nyby’s 1951 film The Thing from Another World, stands as one of science fiction’s greatest tales, depicting a monster so enigmatic that it lends itself to the spectacle of cinema.
After going through almost every single one of the scientists working at the Antarctic research facility, the alien monster, who has the ability to take on the shape of any living creature is thought to have been finally killed off by Kurt Russell’s MacReady, or has it? The film’s final scene shows Russell’s character stumbling out from the fiery wreckage of the research facility, joining his friend Childs (Keith David) outside.
The question is, how can we be sure that Childs, or in fact MacReady, is not the monster? It’s this paranoia, punctuated by Ennio Morricone’s terrifying score that has left fans thinking for decades since the film’s release.
6. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Master of cinema Stanley Kubrick was fully in control of each and every word and widget of his films, with each of his endings carefully planned out to act as satisfying final farewells to his stories and characters.
1957s Paths of Glory, or his 1971 provocative masterpiece A Clockwork Orange could easily make this list, though it is the pertinent terror of the climax of Dr. Strangelove that vanquishes them. In Kubrick’s satire of the nuclear holocaust, the bomb is mistakenly dropped in a string of bumbling mistakes, before Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove arises from his wheelchair and announces, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk”.
Cue Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll meet again’, and one of cinema’s most haunting final sequences.
5. La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
The story of Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is one that has since gone down as a classic of French cinema and has even permeated into the identity of subcultural groups.
Tracking the life of the three young men living in the Paris suburbs shortly following violent riots in the city, La Haine is a ‘slacker movie’ with deep contextual roots that speak of social and racial injustice. The film’s ending is an ambiguous one, leaving the audience in limbo between “the fall” and “the landing” as described in Kassovitz’s film. Underlined by terrific sound work, the climax that sees Hubert and a local crooked police officer aiming guns at each other is a truly breathtaking one.
As the film’s final line explains, its climax is futile as, “How you fall doesn’t matter”.
4. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Perhaps horror cinema’s most iconic conclusion, with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a close second, Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, reveals the true insanity of Norman Bates in Psycho’s chilling final scene.
Subverting audience expectations, Hitchcock does away with the film’s lead, played by Janet Leigh, early in the film, showing her demise in the infamous shower scene. After capturing Norman Bates and discovering his mother’s mummified body, he is taken to the police station and examined by a psychiatrist. Revealing the true psychological terror of Bates’ actions, we take a trip inside his mind where his “mother” resides, manipulating his decisions with bitter insanity.
Anthony Perkins’ final smile to the camera is maniacal genius.
3. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
“Welcome home Ethan,” Martha Edwards (Dorothy Jordan) utters to John Wayne’s lead character as he emerges from the horizon of the barren Western landscape.
A wanderer and bitter individual representative of the identity of contemporary American culture, John Wayne’s Ethan is on a mission to rescue his niece, Debbie, from the clutches of the Comanches. Tracking her down with Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), Debbie has now integrated with the Comanche community and Wayne attempts to kill her, preferring to see her dead than to become ‘the enemy’.
Changing his mind, he takes Debbie back home and leaves the homestead he so heroically arrived in on his own, clutching his arm as a lonely victim of the harsh wild west in an iconic piece of cinematography.
2. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
When it comes to iconic final sequences, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows may be the ending that has been copied, recycled and reappropriated the most.
Truffaut’s coming-of-age tale follows a mischievous young boy who delves into a life of petty crime before being sent to an observation centre for troubled youths situated nearby the sea. One day whilst playing football in the playground the boy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) escapes and runs to the beach.
Ending on a freeze-frame of Antoine’s face, we see his uncertainty and vulnerability, at an age where now he is responsible for his actions. Suddenly, he finds himself alone, without the buffer of parental guidance, he is a lonely lost figure in Truffaut’s masterpiece of French New Wave cinema.
1. Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
A dance film of peculiar sorts, Claire Denis’ incredible Beau Travail is an artistic exploration of suppressed masculinity and an innate yearning for youth that manifests itself as rage.
It follows an ex-Foreign Legion officer, Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant), recalling his glorious youth leading troops into Djibouti when a young, beautiful man Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) joins his ranks. Jealous of his aesthetic beauty and physical strength, Galoup indirectly kills Sentain and is subsequently sent back to France for a court-martial.
To bookend this beautiful tale, we join Galoup, clad in black on a twinkling dance floor, where he smokes, pirouettes and glides across the room. Building into an explosive rhythm and dramatic movement he leaps off the walls and onto the floor in frenetic madness, embracing his newfound liberation and finding true happiness in the spontaneity that has forever evaded him in the strict structure of the army.