My Favorite Things – ‘Top 5 Film Endings’

c68c2300.jpg

For this edition, I decided to focus on my favorite closing segments to a handful of flicks. Three of the films on my list, I love in their entirety. As for the other two, one is well done but a bit overrated and the other is a major disappointment redeemed by a ballsy ending. Tread carefully. Here there be spoilers.

As always, let me know your favorites in the Comments section below.

5.   The Sixth Sense

6thsense11.jpg

M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough thriller was one of the first films to kick start the twist ending craze of the last decade. Following this 1999 flick, you couldn’t pass a Law & Order ad without being reminded, “This one has a twist you won’t see coming’ – meaning you’d have the whole story spelled out in the first five minutes because a challenge like that sends the brain spiraling into such a fever pitch, no television writer could ever keep up. Of course, there have been twist endings and surprise denouements since time immortal, but Shyamalan’s pic, buoyed by a marketing campaign that urged viewers to keep the secret, had everyone guessing.

Everyone but me.

The problem I have is a damn brain that doesn’t know when to shut off. The second I heard there was a twist ending, my mind began running through possibilities. I knew the basic plot outline – little boy sees dead people, gets help from somnolent Bruce Willis.

‘Nuff said. Bruno’s a stiff. My rationale was – if there’s a big twist and the boy’s hanging around with Bruce and his special power is to see dead people, then he must be a ghost.

Well, I went to see the flick and my assumption was confirmed right away. The very first scene features a skeletal Donnie Wahlberg bustin’ a cap in Brucie (or Dr. Malcolm Crowe). We then fade out and pick up several months later. From that point on, I watched the film with different eyes than my fellow opening weekend audience. I noticed all the clever bait and switch machinations that Shyamalan laid out. Outside of Cole, nobody ever spoke to Crowe. A chilly dinner engagement with his wife features the two engaged in one-sided dialogues edited together to give the effect of two disconnected souls. For much of the film, their dynamic plays out like the dissolution of a marriage. It’s really clever on Shyamalan’s part – as the film plays well both ways, independent of its twist.

So even though I knew the twist thanks to my spoil-sport head sponge, I delighted in studying the construction of the film and watching the audience get supremely suckered by that finale. As for my curious cabeza, how ’bout this little arrangement?

All right brain. I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but let’s just let me get through this and I can get back to killing you with beer.

4.   John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A.

snake_plissken.jpg

I am a huge Carpenter fan – but he has let me down so much in the last two decades that I have precious little goodwill to toss his way. Carpenter burned bright in the 70’s and 80’s with some genuine genre classics – such as Escape from New York, Halloween and The Thing. Then he lost his groove big time right around the time he started branding every title with his name (i.e. John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness – what the hell does that even mean? Was John Carpenter swallowed by Elisabeth Hasselbeck?).

When John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. was announced – with a mega-budget by his standards ($70 million), I had high hopes. Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken is iconic and further adventures for this ultimate bad ass just seemed like a no-brainer. When news of the casting spilled out – with Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell, and Peter Fonda jumping aboard – it just seemed like pitch-perfect camp casting.

Then the film released and just shocked me with it’s flat, boiler plate execution. The bigger budget seemed to have been wasted in craft services, as the film looked as cheap as every other flick Carpenter released since hitting his half life.

So just when all seemed lost and I had written this off as another 104 minutes sucked from my life, Carpenter pulls out a whopper of an ending. Through the course of the film, Plissken had been charged with finding the President’s daughter (who was lost in the penal colony of California – created when the land broke off the continental United States). His second objective was to locate the plot’s McGuffin – a device which could control a series of satellites in orbit and effectively target various countries with a devastating EMP device – essentially destroying all of their technological advancements.

Anyway, Plissken is successful and returns with the girl and the device. The President takes both then quickly turns on Plissken, saying he returned too late and thus would be executed – essentially looking to cover up this little indiscretion and avoid a stain on the White House. As a Secret Service hit squad surrounds Plissken, he stands stoically and barks a few insults. The Prez gives the order to fire and the men perforate Plissken. Yet, he doesn’t drop. One man approaches a smirking Plissken and goes to tap him with the barrel of his gun – which passes completely through a holographic image of Plissken. A great distance off, we spy Plissken walking away. He pulls out the device and presses the button which triggers all satellites to come on line and aim EMP devices across the entire globe. We spy from space as these massive blasts rake the world, then all goes dark. Plissken has sent the Earth back to the Stone Age. Fade Out.

That’s what I like about Carpenter. At his best, he’s got this great un-Hollywood anarchic spirit that wants to end things messy. Shutting down the world was a potent way to end his parable – and while it’s pregnant with possibilities for future installment, I’m not sure I want Carpenter’s ham hands on Escape from Earth.

3.   The Dead Zone

410deadfulfilldestiny.jpg

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is one of my favorite King films. Cronenberg is known for excess (with his ‘body horror’ theatrics in Scanners and The Fly) but he dials things down for this restrained character study of Johnny Smith, King’s school teacher pawn who – through a cruel twist of fate – loses 7 years off his life in a terrible car accident but wakes from a coma with the ability to see the future. Christopher Walken plays Smith with a haunted grace. This is Walken a million miles away from the ‘camp’ counselors he plays these days.

The film, like the novel, focuses on Smith’s struggle to regain his life (including a lost love) after awakening. He views his precognitive abilities as a curse. While the film has touches of the supernatural and horror – including a tense episode surrounding the hunt for a serial rapist – it is largely a drama.

Around the midpoint of the film, we are introduced to Martin Sheen’s Congressional candidate, Greg Stillson. At a campaign rally, Smith inadvertently shakes hands with a stumping Stillson and gets a terrifying flash. Years later, Stillson will be President of the United States. The world is on the brink of war and in a frightening display of power-mongering, Stillson gives the order to unleash hell, entering the key code for a nuclear salvo aimed at Russia.

The film then follows Smith’s obsessive drive to stop Stillson, culminating in a finale where Smith sneaks into the church where Stillson will deliver a campaign speech. Smith finds a perch in the balcony and waits with a high powered rifle. Eventually, the masses funnel in (including children) and Smith readies himself. As Stillson takes the stage, Smith gets ready to fire but an aide notices Smith and alerts security. Stillson spies Smith with the gun and in a fit of panic, grabs a child as a human shield. At that moment a photographer is seen snapping away. Smith is ultimately shot and crashes to the floor. When Stillson and his aides go to investigate the scene, they find Smith moments from death. Smith grabs Stillson’s hand and gets a new vision. Stillson is alone in his quarters – finishing a drink. He reaches down for a loaded gun and places it in his mouth. We hear a gunshot and blood splatters on a nearby Time magazine which features the shot of Stillson holding the child. The headline screams ‘STILLSON FINISHED.‘ Smith looks Stillson in the eye, says “You’re finished” and then dies.

2.   Seven

sevence3.jpg

William Somerset:   This isn’t going to have a happy ending. 

Seven is one of those movies that haunted me for days after seeing it. Director David Flincher did such an amazing job at capturing mood and atmosphere – setting his tale of the hunt for a bizarre serial killer enacting the seven deadly sins in a sin city desperately seeking cleansing in never-ending baptismal showers. The film just slithered upon you.

It’s that protracted finale that really got me – everything following the uncredited revelation of Kevin Spacey as John Doe. Doe walks into the police station, his hands bloody from having skinned his finger prints, and offers to confess to the crimes. He says he’ll show the cops where they can find his final murder scene and accompanies them on a fateful trip into the desert.

There they sit, and we wait, as the oppressive heat and tension settle in. Suddenly, a van is spotted in the distance. We’re unsure what’s going to happen. Is this a rescue attempt? A big time Hollywood shootout? Pitt and Freeman’s characters, Mills and Somerset, are nervous. They order Doe to the ground. Above, a police helicopter monitors the developments. Finally the van arrives and a scared delivery driver exits with a box.

Here comes Gwyneth’s head in a box.

Gwyneth Paltrow, the one lone burst of sunshine in a dark, dreary film, played Mills’ wife. In just a few short scenes she sketches a heartbreaking portrayal of a woman choked by fear of the big scary world around – of the city that threatens to swallow her husband – of bringing a child into a world that is beyond redemption. In one poignant conversation with Somerset – she reveals that she is pregnant and is hesitant to tell her husband because she is petrified to bring a baby into this world. She is considering abortion. Somerset imparts sage advice – “If you decide to keep this baby. You spoil it with every inch of your life.” Paltrow breaks down into great sobbing tears – tinged with hope.

Which is what makes Doe’s final sin – the culmination of Wrath – so heartbreaking. Somerset opens the box and spies (off camera) what we suspect is inside. Mills continues to bark “What’s in the box?” In classic Hitchcock fashion, Fincher does not show us. But we know. So does Somerset. And soon, Mills. And it’s at that moment of realization that Mills becomes Wrath.

And the bad guy wins.

1.   Raiders of the Lost Ark

warehouse1.jpg

Raiders of the Lost Ark jockeys for top slot among my favorite movies with a close cousin. Jaws is always there and when Jaws isn’t in first place, its nipping at Indy’s heels. These two films consistently shift because they are so tied to my childhood. It’s these films and others like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that teased my imagination and set fire to this love affair with celluloid that I’ve had since I was a little boy. Hell, I was dubbed Movie Man by my Aunt and Uncle at a very young age. Spielberg had a hand in that.

The ending for Raiders of the Lost Ark is the most pitch-perfect final shot. Following Indy’s inquisition with federal agents who have secured the Ark of the Covenant, Indy meets up with Karen Allen’s Marion on the marble steps of a government building. Indy looks downtrodden and Marion offers to buy him a drink. “You know, a drink?” Indy perks up a bit, but is haunted by the agent’s words:

Major Eaton:   “We have top men looking at it.” “…Top men.”

We then cut to a massive warehouse dotted with crates which seemingly stretch for miles. Down a center aisle, a lone forklift travels the length of this structure. The forklift arrives at a destination buried in the heart of this cavernous catalog and deposits a crate containing the Ark. The camera pulls back and we realize very quickly that the Ark is once again lost for the centuries.

There’s just something about that final shot that gets me. I’m a sucker for conspiracy theories in film and the fact that somewhere in the US lies evidence of the Ark and the Roswell space crash and the faked moon landing just gives me such a great charge. Hell, it’s a common fact that Jimmy Hoffa is laboring away in the bowels of the Social Security Administration.

The sands of time may not have been able to conceal the Ark of the Covenant – but they have nothing on good old fashioned government bureaucracy.

Comments now closed (19)

  • Interesting that you start the post off with a picture from Empire and it doesn’t make the list.

  • That’s a consolation prize. It’s my nuumber 6. I used it merely to showcase an ‘ending’.

  • Interesting that you’d have two movies you don’t like that much ahead of it on your list. I realize you might like the endings a little better, but overall enjoyment has to boost it somewhat. I’d say you should have made LA a six or 5a since the movie sucked except for the end.

  • I will give my thoughts…I love the category..

    5. The Good Son…Something about that Macauley Culkin getting dropped off the cliff…I like happy endings.
    4. Rocky…The good guy doesn’t always win…but Stallone could have done better than Talia Shire running into the ring.
    3. Empire Strikes Back…C’mon Ed, you’re better than that.
    2. Seven…Still the thought that Seven and this movie were launched on back to back weekends is amazing.
    1. The Usual Suspects…Good movie from the start and the end just puts it over the top.

  • Besides – the point of this list is top endings (in my opinion). The movie before it could have sucked a$$ – I don’t care – this list is only about the ending. Escape from LA sucks in every conceivable way – but its ending rocks. On a lesser scale, T3 is merely average but is elevated by a similar ballsy ending. I just like these dark endings.

    If I had to do over, I’d probably slot Empire in somewhere, but I’m lazy.

  • All right, without writing another 1200 words, I’m just gonna’ offer up my revamped list. Here goes:

    5. John Carpenter’s The Thing – I totally spaced on how much I love the ending to this film. This movie is money through and through. It looks great, uses the Arctic locale for great atmosphere, and holds up 20 years later. Also, it’s got one helluva eerie score. Anyway – the ending features Kurt Russell’s McCreedy and Keith David’s Child’s left as the only two members of an Artic research station alive after a fierce battle against an alien shape changer. They have no communications devices, no transportation, dwindling supplies and no idea if the other guy is now an alien. The film ends with the two, outside, in the Arctic night, sitting across from each other, eyeing the other guy wearily, talking about what comes next. They both wonder aloud if the other guy is an alien. We never find out. Carpenter cuts the film there – leaving the audience to ponder one of two fates – either one guy is an alien who kills the other or they are both gonna’ die out there in the cold night. It’s bleak as hell and really closes out a damn creepy flick. I’ll write more in my piece on horror movies.

    4. Empire Strikes Back – Fine. Y’all have gotten to me. This ending rocks. It sent me out into the summer haze with my pre-adolescent brain abuzz about all manner of cliffhangers. Luke is Darth’s boy. Han is frozen. Lando shills Colt 45. That trifecta really messes with a young boy’s brain. As a kid, the anticipation of a gift is sometimes better than the package within. Walking out of the theater with all of these thoughts rattling through my cerebral crawlspace had me comping at the bit for the next installment – hence the gift analogy. Empire stands above all Star Wars flicks as the greatest film in that series and one of the best sequels of all time. Tis a shame I dropped it from this list, but now, hopefully, all is right with the world. Sean and Juice can rest easily – although Sean moreso because he doesn’t have The Good Son on his list.

    3. The Dead Zone – See above.

    2. Seven – No change.

    1. Raiders – Same.

    LA and Sixth Sense have dropped down to my Bizarro Ed list.

    Can someone please explain Juice’s notes on Seven? Seven and what movie? It’s like that snake eating its tail.

  • @Juice – You are talking about Seven and Suspects coming out at the same time, right?

    @Ed – Yeah, okay… I like this list much better. I actually thought The Thing would make your list when I first started reading it, but I forgot to mention it when it came time to comment. I guess I got hung up on the Empire picture.

    But, like you said, this is your list so as long as you like it…

    Like you, I also appreciate the dark, non-Hollywood ending. The Good Son is not on my list as I barely remember seeing it, but I am having a hard time with coming up with my own. Empire and Seven are definitely there, but I wouldn’t have your other three. I might have Suspects though.

    How about this for now:
    5. Fight Club – Just thought it was cool
    4. The Usual Suspects – Another unexpected and cool
    3. The Shawshank Redemption – I just enjoyed the ending
    2. Seven – Same reasons as Ed
    1. The Empire Strikes Back – Same reasons as Ed

  • @ Sean: First off, my new list is now my list. I’m just not going to re-edit my post because… well, that took a lot of time to write.

    Your list is good but I counter one. Fight Club. I enjoyed the movie up until the end when the whole thing unravels. By making Ed Norton’s character one and the same with Tyler Durden – negates almost everything that came before it. If he was one person all along, how the hell did he get the fat from the soap factory (they show the two guys struggling with it – with one guy handing the other this massive sack of fat.) And the biggest problem I have – if I came out of a bar and saw a guy pounding on himself, the very LAST thing I would do is glom onto this guy and follow his every command.

    … or am I to interpret the ending to mean that there was never a fight club – that much like Durden, it all existed in his head?

    Anyway – it was a good movie until that point – but taking that ending literally means Fincher has a lot of ‘splaining to do.

  • Yes, my point was that you only changed your list because you wanted to and not because you caved to me and Juice whining about Empire. Also, you should definitely always keep your content, even if you change your mind, because it does take a while to write and it is still worth reading for anyone that had not seen it before you changed your mind. If anything, it makes the new list even better.

    As for Fight Club, I agree with you. It is last for a reason and I have only seen it once. I’m pretty sure different spots break down without a good explanation. I figure a lot of events are just in his head and the others aren’t, but the twist at the end was memorable for me. I’ll lop that one off if I think of something better.

  • @Ed….Seven and the Usual Suspects, the one immediately follwoing it on the list…My Casey Kasem impersonationg does not come through in internet text I guess.

    I was not whining..merely surprised Empire did not make Ed’s list. Ed may have seen the plot twist in Sixth Sense, but no one thought Vader was Luke’s father.

  • Okay, so a second ago I wrote a really long response listing my own choices, but it occurs to me that the theme of Ed’s choices definitely seem to be “clever” or “intriguing” but not so much “exciting” or “satisfying”…e.g., the number one choice on my list was Star Wars…so perhaps I should reconsider my list…

  • @Jason: You should post the list you had. My theme may have been focused on ‘clever’ or ‘intriguing’ endings – because that hits my sweet spot. I like speculating on what happens next. I’m a huge fan of cliffhangers. And I love downer endings.

    But if your list follows through to a more exciting or satisfying conclusion, that’s just as valid a list.

    Essentially, these lists should be a reflection of your own tastes.

  • All righty, here we go:

    Speaking of Fincher, how is it no one has mentioned The Game? In fact, I may have put that one on my list…

    In general, I prefer satisfying and sometimes triumphant conclusions to clever ones. But not always. But one clarification–are we considering “endings” different from “climaxes” here? I’m going to say no, for the purposes of my list at least.

    I could probably come up with tons of movies, but here’s what I ended up with today:

    5. The Game — Somehow I never saw it coming. Great ending.

    4. The Two Towers — Between the Ents destroying Orthanc and Gandalf & Eomer’s triumphant charge down to Helm’s Deep, this is the best ending of the trilogy (even beating the fall of Sauron in ROTK).

    3. Return of the Jedi—I’m going to have to buck the trend here. While I’ll happily recognize Empire as the superior film, Vader’s pre-prequel redemption as he turns on the Emperor to save his dying son and Lando’s frantic race through the Death Star and last-second escape still give me the same chills and thrills I felt as a five-year-old.

    2. JAWS—”Smile, you son of a bitch!”

    Okay, so we all know that it makes no sense that a shark would continue to gnaw on a SCUBA tank, and that even if it did Brody had a one-in-a-million shot of both hitting it underwater and actually puncturing it, and (thanks to Mythbusters) even then the tank wouldn’t explode like it did—BUT it’s still the most satisfying climax I’ve ever seen. The primal roar heard as the shark sinks (also heard when the truck goes over the edge in The Duel) is the symbolic icing on the cake.

    1. Star Wars—”You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this place and go home.”

    It really stuns me how much I still get into the intensity of the last few minutes of Star Wars. The breakneck pace through the Death Star trench, Luke’s allies being inexorably picked off one by one, the Death Star powering up to destroy Yavin, Vader locking on to Luke, and then Han Solo comes in to save the day—say what you will about George Lucas, those last few moments perfectly capture the spirit of the old serials he grew up on. Then the medal ceremony sequence right out of Triumph of the Will—okay, so there’s a lot of deliberate button-pushing going on, but it’s still the most satisfying conclusion I’ve ever seen.

  • @JFCC – Regarding The Game, I was absorbed by that film but when it ended, I immediately thought of one little twist to the finale that would have been truly wicked.

    I would have had Douglas step off the ledge – but instead of landing in a stunt mattress – have him kiss pavement. Then when we discover it was all really a ‘game’ – we walk out of the theater as stunned as we did when we left Seven.

    Am I a sicko?

    I will say that I am a big Fincher fan. I even enjoyed the much maligned Alien 3. It took cajones to offer up that ending.

  • A sicko? Nah. But I can say, despite my personal philosophies regarding existence, I’m generally not a fan of downer endings. I guess I feel like life offers up enough of those.

    I like the ending to The Game, especially Douglas’s little grin in that last half-second. It’s probably the only Douglas film I can sit through (aside from Romancing the Stone).

    And I agree on Alien3—it’s underrated.