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Top 10 Best Film Twists

By Noelle Buffam · March 1, 2011

Maybe it’s because I’m an avid Jeopardy fan. Maybe it’s because the Jeopardy “computer vs. human challenge” got me all worked up last week. Maybe I just have too much time on my hands, but it seems to me that more things in life are relating to America’s favorite quiz show.

Take plot twists for example.

When Alex Trebek reads questions that I don’t understand, I get frustrated. When he reads questions that are easy, I feel smart. When he reads semi-difficult questions that I understand and answer correctly, I feel super smart. Plot twists work the same way.

A plot twist can leave the audience feeling agitated if it is too convoluted, while a predictable plot twist can leave the audience feeling like their intelligence has been insulted. However, when a plot twist comes along that hits a sophisticated happy medium, the audience feels a sense of satisfaction and euphoria. It’s the same euphoria felt when you answer the final Jeopardy question correctly.

You undoubtedly know from reading the Five Plot Point Breakdowns, that the Third-Act-Twist is a crucial part of a film. But for some movies, the Third-Act-Twist doesn't just add to the film… it makes the film. As seen below, the best plot twists actually change the audience’s view of the characters, the story, and often the whole damn film in its entirety.

Great plot twists definitely cater to a certain kind of film. They are often the kind of films that allow for gross and unusual (Old Boy, anyone?), but at the same time keep a certain level of believability. No one would really have bought it if Miley Cyrus went all St. Valentines Day Massacreon the crowd at the end of Hannah Montana: The Movie, right? So here’s a tribute to the films that did the Third-Act-Twist right. The films that walked the fine line between unbelievable and unbelievably awesome. The films that totally blew away our minds.

I’ll take “Really Awesome Plot Twists” for $2,000, Alex.

10.The Prestige (2006)

Open sesame! Two illusionists, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), vengefully compete against each other’s magical acts in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. The two men are especially competitive about their “disappearing man” trick. At the climax of the film, Angier accidentally drowns in a water tank leaving himself, along with the rest of the audience, breathless. Even though he is innocent, Borden is blamed for the death and is sentenced to hang. Just before his execution, a collector by the name of Lord Caldlow visits. However, Lord Caldlow is Angier in disguise. Angier refuses to clear Borden’s name, and so Borden is hanged. Simultaneously, Borden’s “doppelganger” Fallon (actually revealed to be Borden’s twin brother) confronts Angier and kills him. As the two men die, Borden’s “disappearing man” act is exposed. Fallon and Borden were twin brothers wherein each of them lived half of the same life, to keep the illusion from being uncovered. Whew. Got it? Good.

9. Soylent Green (1973)

What’s a list without a 1970s Sci-Fi movie starring Charlton Heston? Everyone grab your copy of Soylent Green, some wafer cracker snacks, and settle in! The film takes place in the future within New York. The city is overpopulated, unemployed, and just plain ugly. Pollution is a huge problem as it causes temperatures to rise, making life unlivable for everyone except for the extremely wealthy. Thorn (Heston) is a cop assigned to investigate the assassination of an executive from the Soylent Corporation. The corporation produces Soylent Green- a sustainable “food source” for the starving masses. The investigation is called off, but Thorn continues to try and discover why the executive was murdered. Thorn visits his friend, Sol Roth, who has decided to die by assisted suicide. His dying words tell Thorn the horrible truth about Soylent Green. The food that everyone is eating is not plankton as the corporation has said. The Soylent Green wafer crackers are actually made out of dead people. Yep. Dead people. Thorn sneaks into the Soylent facility and sees the atrocities for himself. The film ends with him screaming the iconic line, “It’s people. Soylent Green is made out of people!!!” Mmmm, crackers…

8. Se7en (1995)

Two homicide detectives hunt for a serial killer, “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey), who uses the Seven Deadly Sins as inspiration for his crimes. The film shows the tortured remains of each victim as John systematically murders them in accordance to the sin they are guilty of: gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, and pride. However, with two sins still left, John turns himself in to the detectives – enter the plot twist. John confesses that there are two more bodies buried in the woods, and he and the detectives travel to the location. Upon arriving, John confesses that he became jealous of Detective Mills’ life and has killed Mills’ wife, Tracy. In fact, he has cut off Tracy’s head as a souvenir. As if that’s not enough, he reveals that Tracy was pregnant. And if that isn’t twisted enough, it suddenly becomes clear that the detectives have fallen into John’s trap. There are no buried victims. John has planned that he would be the sixth victim, as he is guilty of envy. Mills’ kills him in a rage, thus becoming guilty of the Seventh Deadly Sin- wrath. And on the 7th day God created Kevin Spacey, to play really scary dudes in super twisted films.

7. Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan again. I know, right? Well. No best plot twist film list would be complete without Memento. It’s more than the film that tells the story backwards, it’s a great plot twist. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) has short-term memory loss from an injury that he sustained in associated with his wife’s murder. Leonard dedicated himself to finding and killing his wife’s murderer, as he learns to live with the memory loss and issues. He believes that the man who murdered her is named “John G.,” a name that is tattooed on his body. After being tipped off by his friend, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), Leonard kills a man that he believes to be the murderer. Teddy then tells Leonard that he is confusing details of his life with a con artist who never had a wife. A lot of controversy surrounds this movie. Is Leonard actually Sammy? Is the wife alive? The plot twist comes in when it becomes apparent that Leonard makes the clues surrounding his wife’s death just vague enough to continue on forever. And ever. And ever. And ever. And ever. And ever… The search for his wife’s killer gives him purpose in life. Judge him if you will… but really, aren’t we all looking for the same thing?

6. Primal Fear (1996)

An altar boy is accused of murdering a priest. It sounds like your run-of-the-mill Law and Order: SVU episode, right? Think again! A prominent defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) jumps at the chance to represent Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton), who is accused of murdering an Archbishop. When Stampler is questioned on the stand, he transforms into his alter-ego. His other persona, “Roy” is a violent psychopath. Roy confesses to the murder. Because of this new development, the judge dismisses the jury. Aaron will now have a bench trial, and enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. It isn’t until Aaron is alone with his attorney that the twist is revealed. Aaron divulges that he has been pretending to be insane the entire time. In fact, Aaron did not make up the persona of Roy, instead Roy made up the persona of Aaron- a shy, stuttering boy. Not only did Aaron kill the archbishop, but he also killed his girlfriend. Roy taunts the defense attorney as he slowly walks away, leaving the audience thoroughly creeped out.

5. Fight Club (1999)

If you were lucky enough not to have the third-act twist ruined by a loudmouth friend, the plot surprise in Fight Club no doubt came out of nowhere… and punched you in the face. The Narrator (Edward Norton) is a nameless insomniac who befriends a soap salesman – yes, a man that sells soap: Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Eventually, they move in together and start “Fight Club”. The narrator’s life spins out of control as the fight club morphs into “Project Mayhem” – which commits acts of vandalism and violence with an anti-capitalist agenda. Then one night the narrator talks on the phone to Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), and she refers to him as Tyler. Suddenly, Tyler appears in the room and explains to The Narrator that they are dissociated personalities that share the same body. Yes, all this time Brad Pitt and Edward Norton turn out to be the same person. It’s the ultimate “split-personality” scenario that leads to an unforgettable showdown between the two personalities struggling for control, both physically and mentally.

4.The Sixth Sense (1999)

Talk about a twist that changes the whole movie. I, along with many other film viewers, am guilty of re-watching The Sixth Sense in order to find a hole in the plot’s twisted twist. And if not for that, then to at least get a rise out of Mischa Barton’s breakout performance, creepily crouched beneath a bed. Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who takes on the case of a young boy Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who “sees dead people.” At first Crowe does not believe the boy, but as time goes on, he comes to see that Sear is telling the truth. Crowe gets the boy to try to help the ghosts in an attempt to stop them from haunting him. It works. The boy goes on to coach Crowe on his marital problems, telling the doctor to talk to his wife. When Crowe does this, he realizes that he was killed by one of his former patients. This whole time he has been a ghost. This revelation and his effort to talk to his wife makes it possible for Crowe to cross over into the afterlife. Go ahead. Say it. You know you want to. “I see dead people”.

3. The Crying Game (1992)

The Crying Gameis a little Irish film that could. The only thing more surprising than its worldwide success, is its surprising plot twist.  An IRA fighter, Fergus (Stephen Rea), holds a British soldier hostage. Despite their unlikely friendship, the situation goes horribly wrong. Fergus escapes, only to track down the British soldier’s girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson). The relationship between Fergus and Dil blossoms, due to Fergus’ guilt. However, just when the couple is about to heat things up, it becomes clear that Dil isn’t who she says she is… she actually used to be a he. Yes, Dil is a transsexual woman. The Crying Game took a huge risk, and it paid off. Not only did the film become one of the most talked about films of the year, but it grossed over $60,000,000 in the domestic box office. Not to mention, this plot twist helped the film garner an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Ain’t nothing to cry about there.

2. The Usual Suspects (1995)

A while ago, I came to the conclusion that Kevin Spacey can do no wrong. His films are some of my favorite of all time,The Usual Suspects being no exception. In this film, Spacey plays Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint – a conman who survives an attack on a ship in the Port of Los Angeles. Verbal tells a convoluted story to investigators that eventually pins the blame on the mysterious Keyser Soze. It isn’t until the last minutes of the film that the investigator (and the audience) piece together that Verbal Kint is actually Keyser Soze. Not only that, but Verbal used visual cues in the room to make his story more authentic. The sophisticated twist makes watching the film the second time even better than the first. Every word and every action Verbal makes takes on a whole new meaning. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” right?

1. Psycho (1960)

I actually had the pleasure of watching the iconic film, Psycho, without knowing the third-act-twist. While I’m not sure how I made it through life without knowing the big secret, I do know that the film scared the living daylights out of me. For many weeks, I had the irrational fear that my roommate would creep into my room at night dressed in a blue dress and gray wig. I’m not kidding. There was a time period when I made her announce her arrival when she came into my room… just in case. Like many before me, I was horrified, disgusted, outraged, disturbed and well, just plain startled, when it was revealed that Norman Bates had been pretending to be his mother. The conversations between Norman and Mrs. Bates still haunt me – “The fruit cellar!Psycho earns the top spot not only because it set a precedent for horror movies to come, but it turned out to be a prototype for all great modern twists. It’s a film that has a twist that has kept audiences reeling for over 50 years.