What’s a film without an ending? It’s the payoff to about a two-hour journey with characters you’ve become invested in. They teach you in screenwriting that a character should evolve by the time you resolve the third act; the character’s journey should take him or her to a place that shows they have changed from the beginning. How substantial and meaningful that change will be is entirely up to everything that comes before. A film works towards its ending, everything a film is builds to a climax and resolution.
The best films leave a haunting, emotional and substantial impact on its audience. It leaves you silently reflecting as the credits roll. A perfect film can have a great ending that is perfect for what the film is, yet simply be just a narrative end. Does Roman Polanski’s Chinatown have a perfect ending? It does, but it ends on one of the most quotable lines in film history, and feels more like a writer typing “THE END” and dusting their hands off in self-congratulatory approval. Endings like The Sixth Sense, Casablanca, The Godfather, Gladiator and many more brilliant films setup the stage for their perfect endings. But for this list I was looking for something else. The perfect resolution for the character(s), not for the audience. It's rare to find that ending that's so perfect, so lasting, so emotional that you as an audience member reflect on it in silence. The ending that makes you reflect on yourself instead of standing up and applauding. The ending that makes you quietly look at events and choices in your life instead of saying "boy, what a great film". Those are special, those are films that deserve to be re-watched and re-experienced and carried with you.
These are endings that can be a devastating reflection of your own inner turmoils and conflicts, a reminder of pains and joys of your own so-called hero’s journey. To me, these are the best film endings. Nothing about them screams theatricality, they aren't twists, and they aren't too on the nose. These are endings that I believe complete a character’s journey and leave the most emotional impact on the audience.
10 Honorable Mentions:
10. Harold & Maude
9. The Road To Perdition
8. The Shawshank Redemption
7. The Thin Red Line
6. The Third Man
4. The Graduate
3. The 400 Blows
2. Once Upon A Time In America
1. Duck, You Sucker
The Dancer Upstairs:
The Dancer Upstairs is what I think to be an extremely underrated film. The only directorial effort from John Malkovich starring, at the time, an unknown Javier Bardem. The story is about a detective hunting down a political revolutionary figure who is using violence and terror to take down a corrupt government in an unnamed Latin American country. Detective Rejas sees violence and murder every day, but in his personal life he begins to fall in love with his daughter’s ballet teacher. Yolanda, the teacher inspires a sense of love and life in him that Rejas hasn’t felt before. The darkness of his professional life juxtaposed with the beauty of the simple innocence of his daughter’s love for dance and her teacher’s passion is arresting. Throughout the film Rejas slowly closes in on his target, the revolutionary leader named Ezequiel. They finally find his location, he was hiding in the attic of the dance teacher he fell in love with.
The Ending: (No video of the ending exists online)
Rejas closes in with his SWAT team and arrests Ezequiel, he sees the SWAT team dragging a hysterical Yolanda to the SWAT car as well. Rejas intervenes trying to explain that she is just a dance teacher who was unaware of Ezequiel hiding above. He quickly realizes she was supporting him, and was part of the terrorist group. She spits on him and is hysterically carried away. Devastation is the only thing on Rejas’ face. Afterwards Rejas rejects the idea of running for president after the taking down of Ezequiel, he receives a letter from Yolanda saying “Don’t help me. I’m already dead. I live for the revolution.” Nina Simone’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” begins to play on the radio, one of the detectives makes a remark about why she is talking before the song. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diagetic as Rejas realizes he is late for his daughter’s dance recital. His daughter looks for him, but he isn’t there. She begins her dance as the song continues to play. The song is now acting both as diegetic and non-diagetic. Rejas makes his way to the recital hall, he catches a glimpse of her dancing and is frozen by her beauty. They lock eyes and smile.
What you take away:
Rejas finds the beauty and purpose of life in his bright and shining daughter. Beyond the devastation, Rejas finds solace in love. We feel assured and safe that our loved ones give us strength in dark times. A powerful ending that doesn't need words. Just the simplicity of music and images.
5. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford:
The film is a stunning and haunting portrait of the tragically weak Robert Ford. Ford is a young man who never amounted to anything and looks up to the outlaw Jesse James. He befriends the mythical figure and throughout the film his greed for fame, recognition and acceptance take over him. He decides that the only way to become a hero is to in fact kill Jesse James, the outlaw.
What you take away:
We’ve all felt the need to be appreciated, to be cared about. This simply sad insight into a man who made all the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons is a tale of regret. It’s a tale of fading into obscurity with no one to whisper your name after you’ve gone. It’s as haunting and poetic an ending as you’ll come across, and it sticks with you. It's also a tragic end to Jesse James, who walks willfully into death, ending the pain and numbness his life has become.
4. Once Upon A Time In The West:
The king of all westerns and an epic in its own right. The film tells the story of a widow who inherites a plot of land from her murdered husband. Her husband purchased the seemingly desolate plot in anticipation of the railroad coming through, and that once the rails were laid through, the land would in turn be worth a fortune due to its water source. Frank, a hired gun working for the railroad is the murderer in the brilliant opening scene, and his aim is to gain the land. He frames the famed bandit, Cheyenne who is unwillingly dragged into the plot. A mysterious harmonica-playing gunman appears who seems to have unfinished business with Frank. Everything culminates when Frank and Harmonica duel. It’s revealed that Frank killed Harmonica’s brother, Harmonica exacts his revenge.
What you take away:
Harmonica gets revenge, Jill finally sees herself as the matriarch of a new western frontier with no man dictating her life (she was a former prostitute who only escaped that life by marriage) and sadly Cheyenne is consumed by the new west. The bandit, as charming as he is, dies from his wounds. A new order rises as civilization grows and expands. The lone cowboy rides off with his fallen friend as Jill brings water to the rail workers. This bittersweet ending places Jill and Harmonica on their future paths, while ending Cheyenne’s path. The hopes of a better future with Ennio Morricone’s angelic score shows that the only way to move forward is to resolve your past and embrace what's ahead.
3. Midnight Cowboy:
A country boy decides to leave his poor life behind and head to New York City to be a prostitute only to discover that being the outsider in a city full of millions makes you feel more alone than in the desolate country. Joe Buck befriends a scheming “gutter rat” named Rico “Ratso” Rizzo. The two outsiders form an unlikely bond and decide to work together to escape their poor lives in New York City, and head down to Miami to start anew. The two form a very strong bond, one that could be interpreted as more than friendship. As the film progresses, Rico’s heavy cough keeps progressing and gets worse. When they finally make it on a bus to Miami, Rico is in shambles as Joe takes care of him.
What you take away:
The tragic end to this story shows how we can bond with the most unlikeliest of people. How friendship and partnership blooms from the most unlikely of circumstances. After Rico passes, the look on Joe’s face shows one of genuine loss and confusion as what to do. Beyond his tragic past of abuse and being abandoned and alone, this is the first time he is feeling genuine loss. For Rico, it’s the first time anyone has treated him with any sort of dignity, his last words are “Thanks, Joe”. Right as he passes it’s the first time Joe calls him by his real name, Rico instead of Ratzo. The film opens and closes with Joe on a bus escaping one life and heading towards another, in the end he has changed. He tosses his cowboy outfit and for the first time is himself, no costume, no hiding behind something. But he loses the person that allowed him to do that. It’s a sad and touching end that echoes that we truly are lost and aimless without anyone to share in the journey.
2. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial:
It’s hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t seen E.T. The story of an alien being left on earth only to bond with a small boy. The idea of an outcast child finding solace in a “pet” (who is also usually an outcast) is nothing new and has been retold many times (see: How To Train Your Dragon), but E.T. did it best. John Williams describes the film as a love story, and that’s how he approached the score. It is, it’s a bittersweet love story between a child and the first friend he ever makes, the first thing he's ever loved. He goes through hell and high water to rescue him and help him go home. The ending arguably starts with the bike chase and flows all the way to the final fade to black, but confining that moment to what you can call an “end” is the last goodbye. Told through images and music, nothing needs to be said. A technique that inspired J.J. Abrams to end Super 8 with score and almost no dialogue as well.
The Ending: (No video exists of the full ending all the way to the fade to black)
What you take away:
We all lose important people in our lives to circumstances we can't control, but you never forget them. Elliot lost his friend, the first friend that didn’t make him alone in his life. But the trade was that E.T. was alone in his life while on Earth. The ending reunites E.T. to his life, and changes Elliot for the rest of his. A powerful story about how we let others into our lives, and the love that forms from those bonds.
Bonus: (Watch the ending without John Williams' score and see the film lose all of its impact)
1. All That Jazz:
Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical tale of self-destruction is a movie that sticks with you for your entire life. The story is of Joe Gideon, a famous stage director, who selfishly does what he wants when he wants with no regard for anyone else in his life. He is consumed by work, he cheats on his girlfriend, and ignores his ex-wife and daughter. He is obsessed by his work and ego. He smokes, drinks and has no regard for his health. In fantasy sequences he flirts with the angel of death, and certain moments play out musically. The ending is simply the death of Joe Gideon, but in his mind it’s played out as one giant musical finale. An ending that would later on inspire others such as Bill Lawrence who ended an episode of Scrubs in a similar fashion.
What you take away:
A lesson to never take anything for granted and a tale to appreciate the people in your life because without them you are nothing. The finale and death of Joe is a tragic ending as it reflects on everything he has had and lost, but representative of him since he put himself first before anything. It’s a stunning realization especially when you saw it for the first time. Gideon’s death was never a sure thing, but it happens. And when it does it’s a startling reminder of how short life is, and to appreciate it. Haunting, tragic yet somehow beautiful. All That Jazz remains as one of the most impactful and lasting endings to a film, ever.
Bonus: (See Scrubs utilize the same ending in "My Philosophy"