What makes the perfect Hollywood ending? Is there anything worse than having a superb movie botched with a terrible ending? Some endings may fall flat, end abruptly or feel incomplete, but when an ending ties all loose ends together, the final project is cinematic gold.
Some movies have endings that satisfy the viewer by tying the entire movie together by solving an enigmatic plot twist like Citizen Kane’s famous “Rosebud”. Some endings stupefy us by providing the “I didn’t see that coming” ending like Planet of the Apes’s final beach scene with the grisly discovery of the fossilized Statue of Liberty indicating that the alien planet is Earth. Some endings bestow us with ultimate satisfaction that create an unparalleled connection with the protagonist like The Shawshank Redemption. Whatever the ending may be, the finale can solidify a movie’s mark in history.
All of the films discussed in my list embody what I believe to be the greatest movie endings. They prompt the viewer into deeper thought and remain historically relevant, quotable and significant with how they chose to conclude. This list is subjective to my personal taste and memory of what movies have impacted me throughout the years.
10. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
“Some day, they’ll go down together / They’ll bury them side by side / To a few, it’ll be grief / To the law, a relief /
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.”
Plot: ” A somewhat romanticized account of the career of the notoriously violent bank robbing couple and their gang.”
The fate of Bonnie and Clyde is no mystery; we know they meet a morbid conclusion based on history, so their demise on film is no shock. I didn’t choose this to be on my list because of it’s unsurprising fatal finale, but because of how revolutionary the final scene was shot in 1967.
In a TV Interview, director Arthur Penn pointed out that this film was the first time audiences saw firing shots and the consequences in one single frame. In previous films, shots were fired, followed by cuts then exposing the bleeding, battered body aftermath, etc. Bonnie and Clyde is a brutal massacre in every sense, and the scene would have been censored in the past. They were shot down to a bloody pulp, and the cinematography and the straight forwardness of the scene upholds this movie as one of the most shocking movie endings.
9. Gone With the Wind (1939)
“And I’ve loved something that doesn’t really exist”
Plot: A manipulative Southern belle carries on a turbulent affair with a blockade runner during the American Civil War.
When Gary Cooper turned down the role for Rhett Butler, he was passionately against it. He is quoted saying both, “Gone with the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history,” and, “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.” I think we all know that Gable didn’t fall on his face, and Cooper is probably still eating his words.
Gone With the Wind has one of the most gut-wrenching endings of a nearly four-hour love affair between two characters. There’s such a connection to Rhett Butler’s unconditional devotion to Scarlet that incinerates in the final scene when he decides to leave her. While you just want this couple to somehow find their happily ever after (hell, they just survived the Civil War among other things), this ending taps out on a bitter note.
The movie’s line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” was voted as the #1 movie quote by the American Film Institute (out of 100) and still stabs a dagger in my heart.
8. The Graduate (1967)
“Mrs Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?”
Plot: “A disillusioned college graduate finds himself torn between his older lover and her daughter.”
What makes The Graduate’s conclusion so satisfying is that it somewhat blindsides the audience, but we’re okay with that. It’s heavily romanticized ‘love conquers all’ theme tied together with the Simon and Garfunkel score unveils a mass of questions about the decision Ben and Elaine abruptly make–Are they going to make it? Was this the right decision? Are they even in love? It doesn’t really matter, because it’s an ending that feels right satisfying our inner Romeo.
7. Fight Club (1999)
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
Plot: “An insomniac office worker, looking for a way to change his life, crosses paths with a devil-may-care soap maker, forming an underground fight club that evolves into something much, much more…”
It was somewhat difficult for me to initially get fully emotionally invested in Fight Club, but it’s undeniably tense and loaded with subtext that anyone can appreciate. I like to think that Fight Club is two totally different movies compounded into one film, and it has one of the greatest surprise endings to satisfy any viewer. Once we realize why Tyler Durden is the narrator, we’re forced to rethink the entire film and the sociopathic nature of Durden. We also don’t receive a clear explanation of what happens to Tyler and Marla–do they die, do they escape? If so, are they finally able to be their true selves? This is one of the more thought-provoking endings on this list, and it’s clever conception from start to finish is brilliantly executed.
6. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Plot: “A sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which begin when five criminals meet at a seemingly random police lineup.”
The Usual Suspects solidifies and revolutionizes the concept of the movie plot twist. When Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) ditches his limp outside of the police station, the audience, along with the detectives, realize they’ve been duped. The various words and documents scattered throughout the detective’s office that helped construct Verbal’s illustrious story of Keyser Soze comes crashing down when the detective pieces together the clues behind Verbal’s fictionalized account. Excellent writing and acting accompany this ending that make it one of the greatest plot twists in cinema history.
5. Se7vn (1995)
“Hemingway once wrote, “The world’s a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.”
Plot: “Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.”
Everyone today stills knows what’s “in the box” and Brad Pitt’s harrowing plea in the desert remains one of the most chilling and powerful movie endings. Se7en’s producers were never comfortable with the film’s ending–one alternative ending had Somerset killing John Doe in order to save Mills from his ill-twisted fate schemed by John Doe. Pitt believed that this ending would have never worked, and it’s hard to disagree that it would have been the grim conclusion that we would want to settle with. Another cop-out alternative ending had John Doe killing Mills followed by Somerset killing John Doe, which wouldn’t have made sense nor satisfied any viewer. John Doe’s meticulous plan has a lasting effect in the finalized conclusion and the repercussions of Mills leave the audience in awe of what they just witnessed.
4. Casablanca (1942)
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Plot: “Set in Casablanca, Morocco during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.”
One of the greatest scenes of Casablanca is also one of the most enduring scenes of the Golden Age of Hollywood–and to imagine that things didn’t end happily ever after. Although several endings were considered for the movie, the one that was decided upon has become the classic ending of a motion picture.
Casablanca had every opportunity to end on a cliche, but it doesn’t, and it’s upheld as one of the classic, quotable endings that was nearly entirely adlibbed by Humphrey Bogart. “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and “We’ll always have Paris” remain staples in movie history.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Plot: “Humanity finds a mysterious, obviously artificial, object buried beneath the Lunar surface and, with the intelligent computer H.A.L. 9000, sets off on a quest.”
Leave it to director Stanley Kubrick to give us one of the most ambiguously strange endings possibly ever created. This ending has been interpreted from writers to filmmakers to audiences alike, and no one can quite grasp it, which is exactly what Kubrick wanted. Kubrick denied to offer audiences any explanation of “what really happened” in the end and wanted to leave it up for wide interpretation so that audiences could embrace their own ideas.
In an interview with Playboy, Kubrick said that the God concept is at the heart of 2001, but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God.
Many interpretations have been brought to the table, and this is a film that has left audiences still thinking decades and decades later. Not many films can claim to have that type of life span or power.
2. American Beauty (1999)
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”
Plot: “A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter’s best friend.”
One of the most shocking endings on this list, this is literally the death of the American Dream realized on film. What I like about American Beauty is it’s unflinching exposure of how grim the American Dream has evolved over the years, and it still resonates today. Kevin Spacey’s character is one of my favorite antihero stories in cinema, and his cautious tale transcends the years and still remains relevant. Both shocking and carnal, the final scenes in American Beauty are quite the spiritual journey through the tortured souls of each character.
By the end of the film, each of the characters gets a taste of their dreams only to uncover the emptiness of their lives. One of his final lines is, “It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world,” begs us all to look closer.
1. Chinatown (1974)
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Plot: “A private detective hired to expose an adulterer finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder.”
“You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t” is one of the greatest and most pertinent lines from the film noir Chinatown. This movie kept me guessing until the very end, and to the shocking revelation of “she’s my daughter, she’s my sister!” spiel, I was completely speechless.
It isn’t until the final scene of Chinatown that you uncover the most striking scene in the dark streets stumbling upon the real crime scene of the film. The darkly lit scene showered only by the street lights remind us how grim is to the film, and the subsequent consequences that are to follow. The long, droning sound of the car horn only prepares us for the inevitable fate of Katherine ending with the worst possible conclusion.
Jake remembers the DA’s words: “Do as little as possible”, but only now it makes sense to him. Jake now sees that Chinatown is a metaphor of the whole world.
What I didn’t know was that Polanski changed the ending. In Robert Towne’s original script, Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway) and her illegitimate daughter get away, and the evil Noah Cross (John Huston) is killed. But Polanski wanted a tragic ending. Polanski said to a TV interviewer, if Chinatown had ended happily, “We wouldn’t be sitting around talking about it today.”
What other movie endings should have made the list? Let me know!