Neither one of us is a rabid cinephile or film critic; we just love movies. So our respective lists turned out to be hodge-podges of personal favorites and guilty pleasures (as opposed to a more sober, hypercritical assemblage of undisputed “classics”). Sorry no Casablanca, Chinatown or Citizen Kane here. That’s not to say that I don’t take the movies on my list seriously; I take them very seriously. I love them all. Especially their endings.
BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!
Jaws (1975) – “Smile you son of bitch!”
When pushed to name my favorite movie of all time, inevitably I always come back to Jaws. I’ve seen it countless times and am amazed by how well it’s aging and holding up against newer, slicker technology and wunderkind directors. Steven Spielberg went on from Jaws to direct some of the best, most important, cultural watershed motion pictures ever made, but of them all, I still love Jaws the best.
And who can forget that ending? After an intense, prolonged shark chase at sea the movie builds to a crescendo. We’ve watched Quint die spectacularly, bitten in half by the Great White, screaming blood as he is pulled from the Orca into the ocean depths. We have no idea what’s become of Hooper. We have to assume he’s dead too. Which leaves poor Chief Brody, hanging on for dear life as the damaged Orca rapidly sinks. But he has a plan. A crazy plan, but one that just might work. When Brody shoves that oxygen tank into the gaping, toothsome maw of Jaws we don’t know what to think. Until he takes aim with a rifle and begins to shoot at it. Can he hit it? What’s going to happen when he does?
Brody misses — once, twice, five times … and then… as the shark is almost upon him, in a final Hail Mary pass, Brody curses: “Smile you son of a bitch!” and fires. The bullet makes contact with the tank — KA-BOOM! Tank and shark explode. Brody screams in victory and joy. He may drown yet, he may die of exposure and thirst, but he WILL NOT be eaten by a goddamn shark. Not today.
If the movie had ended right there I would have been happy. But we get a nice denouement. Hooper is not dead after all and reunites with Brody and the two swim their way back to shore using Quint’s barrels.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) – “I’m scared to close my eyes, I’m scared to open them. We’re gonna die out here!”
Since its original theatrical release in 1999, the BWP has spawned countless, sometimes terrible, copycat films and heralded in an orgy of found-footage / shaky cam movies. I happen to have a fondness for this sub-genre, but I know some of you curse this movie for what it started, and hate it now. It’s been mercilessly parodied so often that it’s one of those movies where it becomes difficult to remember what it was like seeing it for the first time with no context, prejudice or baggage. Let me tell you if you can’t, or refuse, to remember — IT WAS MOTHERFUCKING SCARY. Full stop. Case closed. We might be sick of it now and all others of its ilk, but in the summer of 1999? There hadn’t been anything quite like it, ushered into theaters after a brilliant marketing campaign that Hitchcock would have slavered over.
In an earlier sequence in the movie, an interview subject explains to our intrepid documentary crew how the serial killer of children — Rustin Parr — would take kids down into his basement in pairs and make one face the corner while he murdered the other. When asked why he would do that, the man responds with the chilling explanation: “he couldn’t take the eyes on him; he could feel the eyes watching him and that’s why he made ’em face in the corner.” As audience members, this gets filed away into the lizard part of our brain where fear and terror live. By the time we get to the grueling climax of the movie where we follow a screaming Heather down into the basement of the crumbling, decaying ‘cabin in the woods’ (Rustin Parr’s hermit abode?) we are prepared to be confronted with just about anything. But Michael standing in the corner?
OH MY FUCK, HE’S STANDING IN THE CORNER!!!!
So obviously I’m a devout horror fan, which explains why there are more scary movies on this list than any other kind. And of all the horror movies that have ever made me pee my pants in abject terror (there’s been a few), Brian De Palma’s Carrie ranks in the very top for me, even more than Kubrick’s The Shining (blasphemy, right? to the prayer closet with me!) Yes, I realize The Shining is a terrifying, visually powerful film far more influential, but this is a list of favorite endings. And Carrie has the better ending. You will never convince me otherwise.
Not only do we get the tremendously emotional and terrifying sequence of Carrie crucifying her mother with kitchen utensils so that in death she resembles Christ on the cross, we get the nightmare-inducing, bloody hand coming out of the grave in Sue Snell’s dream. Even Stephen King has said upon first viewing (even knowing it was coming): “When that hand comes out of the grave… Man, I thought I was going to shit in my pants.” Yup. Even after repeated viewings, Carrie still has the power to unhinge me and I jump, no matter what, when that bloody hand comes shooting up out of the ground.
Scarface (1983) – “Say hello to my little friend!”
Do I really have to explain this one? It’s Al Fucking Pacino playing the infamous Cuban refugee-turned-Miami drug kingpin Tony Montana. In a tragic downfall worthy of Shakespeare, Montana surrenders to arrogance and hubris and gets high on his own supply. He becomes paranoid and vengeful and by the end is left surrounded by mountains of coke, an M16 assault rifle with an M203 grenade launcher attachment, and his enemies.
It is, how do you say? SPECTACULAR.
The Usual Suspects (1995) – “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Can you believe I’ve only seen this movie one time? Criminal. But let me tell you, I’ve never forgotten that ending. Two words — Keyser. Soze. Who the fuck is Keyser Soze? We spend the entire movie listening to Kevin Spacey spin a twisty tale of crime and intrigue involving five criminals brought together seemingly at random in a police line-up of “the usual suspects.” After a terrible boat explosion leaves many men dead, all roads lead back to the infamous, rarely seen criminal mastermind Keyser Soze. Is he a ghost? A myth? Or a real flesh and blood man?
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
The end payoff here is so huge I don’t think I can remember another movie where I was left so utterly, jaw-droppingly floored and satisfied.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – “They’re coming to get you, Barbara, there’s one of them now!”
The original 1968 George Romero zombie classic is important enough and game changing enough to make a lot of lists for a lot of different reasons. If you really love your zombies, and especially if you love Romero zombies and this movie in particular, do not miss 2013’s stellar five star documentary Birth of the Living Dead. And if you want to really immerse yourself in zombie cinema I recommend 2014’s fun but comprehensive (minus Italian zombies) Doc of the Dead.
I had seen a lot of zombie movies before I ever saw Romero’s black and white classic. My first (and probably longest lasting) zombie love is 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead. I still love everything about this movie and it continues to leave me howling with laughter after repeated viewings. And just as a point of interest, it’s this movie — not Romero’s flesh eaters, or ghouls as he thought of them in 1968 — that forever popularized in the public consciousness that zombies eat brains. But I digress.
Back to Night of the Living Dead. By the time I got around to seeing this one I assumed it would feel dated, old-fashioned and underwhelming. Not a chance. The black and white style of this movie feels documentary like and gives it an authenticity that is totally absorbing. The inexperienced, relatively untested cast is great, especially Duane Jones who plays the lead character, Ben.
A black leading man in 1968 was rare enough; but what makes Jones’ performance in this iconic film stand out is that his presence is not considered out of place nor is his ability to take firm control of the situation treated as a big deal. In a black and white movie, with black and white actors, race becomes a color blind non-issue.
That is — until the ending. My first time watching this movie the ending killed me. I couldn’t believe Ben — after surviving everything — should be taken out this way. So cruel and unfair!!!! So unexpected! When he’s shot through the window it’s the death of the lead character that we had come to know and root for. But what happens after, when the credits roll, becomes a statement on race relations in America whether Romero meant it to be as provocative as it comes off or not. Who knows what his original intent was. But to this day I can’t watch the still images of the desecration that happens to Ben’s body postmortem without cringing and thinking about the worst of the worst race violence and hate crimes.
Seven (1995) – “What’s in the box!?”
Oh Brad. You really don’t want to know what’s in the box. I absolutely love everything about David Fincher’s gritty, noir, deranged, depressing crime thriller. It’s a cerebral cat and mouse police procedural on par with the Academy Award-winning The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In fact, put a gun to my head and force me to choose which one I think is better, and I just might say Seven.
Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are a dynamic pair here and lend fresh, crackling energy to the tired trope of weary veteran partnered with youthful rookie. Only days away from retirement, Somerset (Freeman) wants nothing more than to sit quietly at his desk and count down the hours. Unfortunately, he and his new partner/replacement Mills (Pitt) catch a gruesome murder case that lands them on the trail of serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) who’s using the Seven Deadly Sins as his MO. Somerset wants no part of this, but is like the moth caught in the spider’s web. Soon he and Mills are up to their eyeballs in horrific murder tableaux the likes of which neither has ever seen.
Seven is as bleak and suffocating as a film can get. It’s extremely nihilistic in its point of view. As we move through each murder and uncover another Deadly Sin we inch closer and closer to our breaking point. How much more of this tension can we take without any release? Who is John Doe? What is his ultimate plan? All the pieces of the puzzle snap savagely into place in the final heart-stopping confrontation in the desert — WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!
Become vengeance David. Become Wrath.
Footloose (1984) – “See, this is our time to dance. It is our way of celebrating life. It’s the way it was in the beginning. It’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it should be now.”
Okay, after Seven we really got to lighten things up around here; it’s guilty pleasure time. You’re going to forgive me this one, right? C’mon, it’s a classic! A classic! Nothing or nobody beats dancing Kevin Bacon. Or puts him in a corner.
I was ten years old the year this movie came out, but I didn’t see it then. I was a little too young for the “racy” content. My older cousins were raving about it though, and the Loggins’ title track was playing on the radio every 10 mins so I had a lot of hype and curiosity to bring to this movie. By the time I saw it on VHS (maybe 2 years later?) I was the perfect age. I simply went nuts for it. All these years later as a grown ass woman, I can still say I love it without too much embarrassment.
Because it’s a high energy movie with an earnest, indie feel about it. It’s not in the slick Hollywood style but rather takes a generous and sincere point of view. Relatively unknown at that time Kevin Bacon kills it in the role of Ren MacCormack – the big city kid transplanted to a small, religiously conservative farming town. Where dancing is illegal. Hallelujah! Praise Jesus.
So yeah, on the surface it’s a movie about teenage rebellion, and dancing, and falling in love — all that good stuff. But it’s also a movie about grief and loss. John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest are each wonderful in their respective roles as the preacher and the preacher’s wife. They are the town’s moral compass, who have become estranged as they continue to battle through the depths of their grief over losing a son in a terrible car accident. As I’ve gotten older, it’s this quieter aspect of the movie that resonates with me more now.
But I still love the dancing of course. And the music. And that ending? It’s goddamn contagious with so much heart. It makes me smile every time I see it — a joyous, cathartic release of energy and exuberance. The montage of decorating the grain factory for the victory prom and the final fisticuffs showdown between Ren, his sidekick Willard (a very thin, young and hilarious Chris Penn) and the town’s redneck good ‘ol boy assholes (“You’re a goddam hero when it’s five to one!”) are just teasers for the penultimate ending and Kevin Bacon’s battlecry: LET’S DANCE!!!!!!!!!!!
SAW (2004) — “He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet!”
Okay, now that we’ve got the unicorns and rainbows happy clappy Footloose out of the way, let’s bring it back to dark and depraved shall we? 2004’s SAW, along with Hostel released a year later, have been more or less blamed/despised for kick-starting a resurgent frenzy of torture porn in horror. Perhaps that’s true — but the original SAW is a lot more thoughtful and terrifying than the rest of its franchise would have you believe. It’s a great script, executed with unerring instincts by newcomer director James Wan. Its titular villain is aptly named Jigsaw, because this movie really is about the puzzle. Not just solving the deadly traps Jigsaw sets for his victims, but unraveling the mystery of Jigsaw himself, his purpose, and the fate of the two hapless main characters (played convincingly by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) who find themselves in a frightening predicament.
Elwes and Whannell are great as Jigsaw’s latest victims, Dr. Lawrence Gordon and young Adam. Both are desperate and panicked and suspicious of each other, as anyone would be awakening out of unconsciousness with no memory of how they got to be in such a terrible place — chained to piping in a dirty, deserted warehouse bathroom. As Adam comically laments at the beginning of the movie: “I went to bed in my shithole apartment, and I woke up in an actual shithole.” But the men are not alone. In the middle of the room lies the body of a seemingly dead man, face down in a pool of blood.
As the movie plays out and the stakes get higher and higher, as the tension ratchets up to eleven, we practically forget about the corpse lying in the middle of the floor, so intently, singularly focused have we become on the plight and survival of Lawrence and Adam. For myself, I really did forget. That dead body had almost become a piece of furniture in the room, unnecessary, unseen, a non-threat. You would think by now as an avid consumer of the genre some little voice would have made me think: “the call is coming from inside the house!!” or made me remember Hannibal’s similar shocking reveal in the infamous ambulance escape from The Silence of the Lambs. But that didn’t happen. I was oblivious until that very moment when the “dead body” stands up, makes eye contact with a delirious, hysterical Adam, and reveals himself to be Jigsaw. What. The. Fuck.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. That final scene of Jigsaw slamming shut the heavy door sealing Adam into his tomb of certain death still gives me shivers.
The Game (1997) – “They just fuck you and they fuck you and they fuck you, and then just when you think it’s all over, that’s when the real fucking starts!”
Another David Fincher movie, and another favorite ending. What can I say, I’m a fan. Fincher also directed 2007’s brilliant and too often underrated Zodiac starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. that doesn’t make this list of favorite endings, but features one of my favorite scenes ever from any movie.
But back to The Game. This movie is a brain teaser, mind bender, puzzler, that’s a lot more fun and a lot less gory horrific than SAW. Wealthy San Francisco financier Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) receives a mysterious giftcard from his younger brother Conrad (Sean Penn). It turns out to be an invitation to a live-action role-playing game (“the object of the game, is to discover the object of the game”). The only problem is, once the game is set in motion, there is no turning it off. Nicholas’s rigid, OCD, workaholic affluent lifestyle is soon turned to chaos as the stakes get higher and the game becomes more dangerous — eventually threatening his very life.
I love how the movie plays with the audience so ruthlessly and teasingly — is it a game? No, it’s real. No, it’s a game. No it’s really happening! No…..ARGHHHH! What the hell is going on here?!
You can try guessing (and you may guess correctly), but only until the very end will you know for sure the exact nature of the game. Michael Douglas is so good here. His expression of confusion and disbelief as he walks on wobbly, unsteady legs certain he had jumped to his death is still priceless to me.
**Looking at this ending clip again only days away from the final episode ever of Mad Men, I can’t help but be reminded of its opening credits and I really hope Matthew Weiner doesn’t have a similar fate planned for Don Draper (without the happy ending).
So there you have it: my Top 10 movie endings of all time. I’d love to hear yours in the comments!