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The Top 10 Best Movie Endings of All Time

By Rudy Devine · November 11, 2014

Endings. While they may not seem to be much in the grand scheme of things, they potentially separate good films from great films, or shelf movies from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart.

Good endings also create buzz, which is the only reason for those multi-million dollar marketing budgets. This is a Top 10 list of movie endings that did not allow audiences to be indifferent about the outcome.

The list is representative of the endings that not only satisfy the events of the plot, but include unexpected twists. As dated as they may be, each one carries weight for their respective film.

10. The Departed (2006)

Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by William Monahan, Alan Mak, and Felix Chong, includes twists, twists, and more twists. This ending makes the list as the most recent film because of two things, Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and the rat dancing across the railing on the balcony overlooking the Massachusetts State House seconds after he shoots “the rat” Colin Sullivan, only a few scenes after everyone offs everyone.

A type of social Darwinism plays out as the characters off each other and contrive stories to protect themselves, which plays great as far as dramatic scenes are concerned.

9. Scent of a Woman (1992)

Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) left to defend himself against George Willis (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his powerful father, as he’s put before the student/faculty disciplinary committee for witnessing a prank against the headmaster.

Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), who Charlie rescued from suicide while looking after the blind man over Thanksgiving weekend, returns to the school and defends Charlie, calling out the integrity of the school and the headmaster in a brutal rant for pressuring Charlie into ratting out his classmates.

The line that seals the deal, “If I were the man I was five years ago, I’d take a flamethrower to this place!”

The scene is so loaded with emotion that when Col. Slade walks up the stairs to defend Charlie, it’s hard not to get misty-eyed. Col. Slade’s character wins the day here.

8. The Sting (1973)

This film edged Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), but just barely. Writer David S. Ward also wrote Major League (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and The Program (1993). Random, eh?

A con man prompted by Henry Gorndorff (Paul Newman) and Hooker (Robert Redford) hustles Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) into making a bad bet for $500,000. In a wild turn of events, Gorndorff shoots Hooker, then is himself shot by a con man posing as an FBI agent, and Lonnegan is ushered away from the scene. In the meantime, the con men strip the room and get away with all the money.

Dramatic tension plays out in the twists where the men shoot each other, taking full advantage of the reversal of expectations. It’s a satisfactory ending because Hooker gets revenge against Lonnegan for the murder of his partner in Act I.

7. Psycho (1960)

Hitchcock. To understand why this ending is Top 10, is to understand the controversial nature of the movie for the period. Mrs. Bates’ desiccated corpse is discovered in the basement and Norman Bates is revealed to be the murderer with split-personality disorder, the other personality belonging to “Mother” due to her domination of him as a child.

The police dissect Norman’s personalities and detail his background. Bates details his thoughts in his mother’s voice.

While the ending may not play the same tune were it released tomorrow, it is a great example of paying off a plot point that has been set-up repeatedly in the film. The ending is satisfactory for the characters and Norman Bates draws a parallel to the villain in In the Heat of the Night (1967) with his mannerisms, but adds a monologue to boot.

6. The Killing (1956)

Adapted by Stanley Kubrick and Jim Thompson. After the elaborate racetrack heist, Johnny (Sterling Hayden) and Fay (Coleen Gray) are forced to check the suitcase full of money, and are not permitted to take it on the plane as a carryon.

With police on their tail, they wait to board the plane, but the suitcase falls off of a baggage cart and breaks open. The money blows away in the wind and they attempt to leave the airport, but cannot find a cab, and do nothing to escape the police.

The timing of the suitcase breaking open is a great use of reversal of expectations and dramatic tension. The ending is arguably anti-climactic, but it differs from traditional anti-climactic endings like Chinatown (1974) because of the excitement felt as the money is swept away by the wind.

5. The Jerk (1979)

The only comedy on the list, written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, and Michael Elias. The irony established at the beginning is what makes this ending, as Navin (Steve Martin), prepared to live life on the streets after losing everything, is discovered by Marie (Bernadette Peters) and his family, who have successfully invested the money he sent home periodically and are now wealthy.

He maintains his imbecile characteristic, but the ending validates him as an accidentally intelligent character, which doesn’t play the same in any other genre except comedy.

4. The Sixth Sense (1999)

This ending features a similar plot twist as the one seen in Angel Heart (1987) and other films where information is revealed to the protagonist at the end which turns their perspective on its head.

Dr. Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis) is revealed to be one of the dead people Cole (Haley Joel Osment) sees. It is cut and dry, but shocking, and satisfies the demands of the mystery-thriller genre.

3. Planet of the Apes (1968)

The only adventure pick. When you consider that it was adapted by Michael Wilson and Twilight Zone host Rod Sterling, the ending gets a little bit more logical, and offers a sort of social commentary.

George Taylor (Charlton Heston) discovers the fallen Statue of Liberty, and realizes that the “alien” planet is Earth, which has been destroyed by humans via nuclear war.

2. Citizen Kane (1941)

Rosebud is identified on the sled as it is tossed into a furnace, with the rest of Charles Foster Kane’s possessions.

The film may be expected to show up on a Top 10 best endings list, but earns its place on the list because it pays off a set-up in Act I, which is frequently revisited as the story progresses.

1. The Usual Suspects (1995)

“Well, I believe in God… and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.”

When Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), ditched his limp outside of the police station and walked freely to a waiting car, it solidified the best ending a movie could have, tying in the “Skokie, Illinois” bulletin board, with various buzzwords on the documents including “Redfoot,” “Guatemala,” and the coffee cup produced by Kobayashi porcelain, only seconds after the fax with his likeness arrives at the police station, leaving the detectives dumbfounded.

The ending is so well constructed, it is impossible to see it coming, and redefines the term plot twist. It is worth noting that excellent character work created this twist, not the other way around.