Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Top 13 movie endings

I was recently watching The Usual Suspects, which has one of the best endings in recent movie history. Endings are so important for my enjoyment of a movie, but have you noticed that most movies don't really have killer endings?

The best scenes of most movies are at the beginning or in the middle somewhere. Sometimes movies like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King can be excellent in every way, but the ending is a bit of a letdown. What's worse, a bad ending can completely destroy an otherwise good movie - think A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Some movies like The Third Man have endings that are acclaimed by others, but I just don't get. It's so rare to see a movie where the end is the highlight of the entire work, a surprising revelation, or says something about the story with a perfect touch - for me.

Naturally, if you haven't seen any of these movies, I'd advise you to skip that write up to avoid reading any spoilers.

13. Titanic - Before it became a phenomenon, James Cameron's melodrama was actually a pretty good movie. Let's face it, how creative can you get when you know the damn ship is going to sink and hundreds of people are going to die? That's a pretty downer ending you're saddled with in your screenplay. But by restoring the two young lovers in front of all those who perished to a swelling James Horner score, Cameron makes lemonade out of lemons, fashioning an ending that is uplifting in the face of tragedy.

12. Unforgiven - This is one of those movies that you either love or hate. It's subtle and quiet, a modern reinvention of the Western by Clint Eastwood, who won the Oscar for directing in 1992. The ending is just a melancholy guitar solo and a text crawl in front of a silhouetted scene of a grave marker. Those few words say volumes about the character of William Munny and how misunderstood a man can be.

11. The Shawshank Redemption - The friendship between Andy and Red is the heart and soul of this movie, one of the best ever made about unlikely friendships and the #1 movie on IMDB's top 250 (for years it was second to The Godfather, but it has finally overtaken it). Interestingly, this ending almost didn't happen. The original cut's final scene was Red in the bus, driving toward Fort Stockton. It was only when it was screened for test audiences that director Frank Darabont realized everyone needed to see the two main characters actually meet again at the end.

10. Ben-Hur - Here is another movie that, like Titanic, turns what looks like is headed for a tragic ending into a triumph, with a little deux ex machina (literally). The reunion between Judea and his restored mother and sister always makes me cry.

9. A Beautiful Mind - Another one of my tear-jerking endings, when John Nash takes the stage in Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize after all his trials. He says words that I try to keep in mind for myself, every day: "It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reason can be found."

8. Let Me In / Let The Right One In - I get to sneak an extra movie in here because one is a remake of the first, and a reasonably good one too. I love this ending because it is at once poignant, horrifying, touching and tragic. Oskar and Eli have forged an unbreakable bond of love. Two outcasts have found each other, and they are happy in the moment. But you also realize that you've just witnessed how a vampire finds and captures its human servant, something no other vampire movie has ever portrayed. You also realize that you are seeing the birth of a serial killer and the continued murder of untold numbers of future victims.

7. Inception - Is the spinning top going to fall or not? Was it all a dream or is this reality? After watching Christopher Nolan's mindbending masterpiece, this ending makes you hold your breath a little bit longer.

6. Raiders of the Lost Ark - Government bureaucrats finally do the right thing: pack up the Ark of the Covenant and put it where it can never be found in a crowded warehouse that seems to go on forever. It's an ending that is unexpected and unforgettable. The fact that it makes a cameo appearance three movies later in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a clever bonus.

5. Schindler's List - Like A Beautiful Mind, the fact that this is based on a true story lends extra weight to this ending that shows descendants of the 1,100 Schindler Jews paying their respects at Oskar Schindler's grave site. The caption stating that only 1,000 Jews are left in Poland and there are over 6,000 descendants of Schindler's Jews brings home the scope of both the atrocity and the triumph.

4. Toy Story 3 - This ending benefits because it's the finale of a trilogy of movies that were all excellent, groundbreaking movies. These are the characters that built the Pixar juggernaut that has yet to put out a flop in theaters. Woody, Buzz and the gang get a proper send-off as Andy passes them along to a worthy successor, completing the circle of love and happiness for everyone. Like all the Toy Story movies, it's an improbable ending that ends up being pitch-perfect.

3. The Usual Suspects - This is the movie that launched Brian Singer's career and gave him a shot at helming X-Men and all the movies that followed. This is the standard by which all modern movies are measured when it comes to powerhouse endings, surprising on many levels and making you realize you had no idea what's been happening. Kevin Spacey delivers a monologue that makes you want to watch the entire movie over again.

2. Casablanca - The whole five minutes at the end of this classic is a veritable cornucopia of quotable lines and memorable turns of phrases, none so much as the last line, which had to be dubbed in post-production because the writers hadn't thought of it yet during filming - "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

1. Citizen Kane - The original mystery ending to arguably the single greatest cinematic achievement in American cinema. One word - Rosebud. 'Nuff said.