Friday, April 27, 2007

All’s Well: A List of Great Movie Endings

I came up with what I think is a superb final image for a script I’m working on, but Herr Direktor thinks otherwise. So I’m thinking about endings. Why are some endings so perfect. and others not so much? Here’s my endings theory: Good endings feel like an Inevitable Surprise. Bad endings are either too inevitable (you saw it coming, so it’s a letdown), too surprising (you feel tricked)—or perhaps I should say, surprising in the wrong way—or else they just try too hard and you can feel the strings being yanked on, and you resent it. Inevitable Surprise. Surely someone has said this before. But I’m claiming it as my pet theory. And I need a pet theory, now that we’ve given up on guinea pigs.

Inevitability implies that the ending is prepared for. Because movies run the storytelling gamut, a “happy ending” is only occasionally inevitable. Among my favorite movie endings, only a handful are what anyone might describe as happy. As I thought of endings to add to my list, each seemed to fall into one of four categories:

1. Uplifting
2. Chilling
3. Bittersweet/Ambivalent/Poetic/Melancholy/Mysterious
4. Perfect Bummers

So. Let’s get the UPLIFTERS out of the way:

1. Cinema Paradiso: Just one of the greatest endings ever. If the middle section of the film weren’t weakened by a lame actor playing Our Hero, this would be one of my top ten movies of all time.

2. A Room With A View: Love triumphs over Edwardian repression. Yay!

3. The Game: Michael Douglas is only good at playing arrogant pricks, but this role at least gives him some interesting psychological texture. It’s great to watch him get broken down to his real humanity. As iffy as the ending is in terms of what seems realistically possible, it’s completely satisfying, inspiring, even funny. It's Finchery.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: This would have been in the Bittersweet/etc. category if Charlie Kaufman’s original ending had survived. He says that when Joel and Clementine decide to give it another go, the original ending makes it clear that they’ve done this (erasing their memories of each other and then trying again) not just once before, but over and over. I have to say, I like it better that they’re not stuck in an endless loop. A little more hope.

5. High Fidelity: It’s a real feel-gooder, after all that narcissistic dithering and getting dumped and failing to grow up. It should be a cardinal rule of filmmaking: If an upbeat ending is called for, just get Jack Black to sing Marvin Gaye.

Honorable-mention Uplifters:

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin: Let the sunshine in!
Napoleon Dynamite: Both endings qualify.
Flirting With Disaster: One of my fave movies from start to finish.

Next category: great CHILLERS:

1. Seven: Yikes, what’s in the box, we know what’s in the box, aaaaaaaah, jeez....

2. Easy Rider: This could as easily be in the Perfect Bummer category. But it seems to resonate with all the disappointment of post-‘60s America, taking on a big chill. (Hmmm, does The Big Chill have a good ending? I can’t remember.)

3. The Godfather: Ooooh, look at Pacino through that doorway, becoming The Godfather. Look at Diane Keaton absorb the fact that her life is FUCKED. Look at them shut the door in her face... Oooooh.

4. Apocalypse Now: The horror.

5. Dr. Strangelove: Weird, how a movie this funny, and a song so light and sunny, can feel like a megatonny of grim, chilly-willy ice-cubes down your back.

Honorable-mention Chillers:

Sunset Boulevard: Maybe “creepy” is a better word for this one.
Silence of the Lambs: It’d be chillier if we didn’t actually want Lecter to kill the guy. It’s more Chiltoning than chilling. But still.

Next category: Bittersweet/Poetic/Ambivalent/Melancholy/Mysterious

1. Days of Heaven: My favorite film of all time. Mind-blowingly beautiful, utterly sad.

2. A Map of the Human Heart: Transcendent, yet melancholy. Yet glorious.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey: What the hell does it all mean? I don’t even care.

4. Children of Men: Too heavily symbolic, maybe? Nah. God, I love this movie. I just got the DVD and watched it again. Splendid extra features about the production.

5. Witness: Nothing like star-crossed lovers for the bittersweet. As Our Hero is leaving, he passes his romantic rival coming the other way and his brake lights go on, just for a moment. Perfect.

6. Local Hero: This used to be on my Top Ten list for movies, period. I wonder if it still is? Anyway, a great ending, with that lovely twinge of yearning.

7. Oh, yeah. Casablanca.

I feel like there should be a dozen more in this category. A few Honorable Mentions:

Big Bad Love: Actually ineligible for ranking due to conflict of interest. But I like it.

Raising Arizona: One of the best last lines in movies.

The Graduate: A very influential movie. If it had never been made, how would the next one have ended?

Say Anything: Ding!

Next category: PERFECT BUMMERS

1. Citizen Kane: The whole movie is a perfect bummer, really. The ending just gives it a wistful twist. I mean, a twistful wist.

2. Thelma & Louise: By the time they actually go over the edge, it’s no longer a complete surprise. But it’s just enough of one to balance out the inevitability.

3. Memento: I’m trying to think of another ending that forced me to watch the movie again. I know there’s another obvious one, but this is a prime example of the effect, because the ending of the movie is actually the beginning of the story. You only understand what you’ve seen when the ending/beginning clicks in.

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Coming out of the theater, I was still elated by the movie as a whole, so the bummer-ish ending wasn’t a letdown. It still seems like a great, if disenchanting, surprise. Yet inevitable.

5. The Wizard of Oz: I’m sure some people find it heartwarming or uplifting, but I think “The next time I go searching for my heart’s desire, I won’t go any further than my own backyard” is one of the saddest lines ever delivered by a teenager. Especially in Kansas.

OK, and here are a couple of great endings that probably deserve their own category. Maybe we should just call it EASY TO SPOIL. These are endings that may be inevitable, but mainly, they’re surprising. One answers a question we really needed to have answered, and the other comes out of nowhere to hit us upside the head:

The Usual Suspects: I watched this again on cable recently and got bored. But the ending was still great. It’s the editing that does it, really.

The Sixth Sense: Oh, this is the other ending that made me go back to see the movie a second time. But after the second time, I need never watch it again.

What else should go on this list? Since my categories derived from films I love, I wonder if I’m missing a whole category. I’m sure I’ve missed some movies. Make me slap my forehead in inevitable surprise.


Mol the Doll said...

The number 1 uplifing movie ending for me is the poetic act of defiance in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Worst, most manipulative ending ever? "Titanic." "I'll never let you go. Oops. My bad."

One of my favorite li'l surprise endings is "Midnight Run." The movie is enough of a sleeper that I don't want to spoil it for anyone. (May have been predictable for some people-- I suspend reality more willingly than anyone I know.) Anyway, the film was so great at showing how people work through externally imposed antagonism to build friendships.

This next one puts me over the top as a sentimental jerk, but I think the mystical ending of "Music Man" is rewarding and fun.
How did all those little kids turn into a fully-orchestrated, grown-up marching band. Huh?

What happened to your guinea pig?

I agree with you about Wizard of Oz. The "only a dream" device reminds me of what happened in 1979, when three out of four of us decided we'd had enough of our marathon Risk game. Judi, the 4th, has never forgiven us for "wasting six hours of her life." Like those hours wouldn't have been wasted if she'd completed her conquest of Europe.

scotland said...

I've always missed the fact that sometime during the 1960's, we as a society ceased to publicly applaud the ending of a movie at the local cinema. That in itself has a value which affirms where reality exists and where it is only suggested.

What I really like is an ending that hasn't given up its attempt to enter our more real world as if the reason why we didn't clap was that we were witnessing something profound. Anything else is creative staging at its best or an obvious sales pitch.
There is an enevitable experience of echo and undertone which supports the kind of magic that is more than an ending.
I like Westside Story!

Anonymous said...

Best surprise ending came from Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects. Never saw it coming.

Can we have another category?
Movie That Most P*ssed Me Off:
THE SIXTH SENSE. I'm no genius, but when Bruce Willis wears a big black trenchcoat to his first meeting with Haley Joel Osment...
SNAP! WINGS OF DESIRE!!! = Bruce is dead.

I tried to disprove my BruceDead theory for the next 2 hours, but it was pretty obvious once the surprise was carelessly blown by 2% overkill. Completely avoidable with more subtle wardrobe and dialog during that first meeting.

Runners Up:
"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil",
and "Million Dollar Baby."
I like Clint. But sometimes he leans toward smarmy and overdone.

Is Haley Joel Osment able to see your Guinea Pig?

Jasph said...

Nice addenda! Can't believe I forgot "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Mol. I saw "Midnight Run," but have no memory of the ending.

As to 6th Sense, Ihooq: I never saw it coming, because I'm thick. I'm like a child at the movies. I just thought he was wearing an overcoat cuz it was raining. You have to club me over the head to pull me out of the moment and anticipate something. So I rarely see anything coming, unless it's porn.

To answer both guinea pig questions:

1. In late March, Pez had twins, a virgin birth that caught us all off-guard. We awoke to three ballistic furpedoes racing around the cage, crapping every three seconds. It was a shitstorm, my friends, and rather than found a new religion on the miraculous event that made it all possible, we called the pet store. They were sympathetic and happy to strike a money-back deal at three for one.

2. Haley Joel can only see our guinea pig if he goes to Waldo Pets.

Scotland, I don't recall the ending of West Side Story, but doesn't it parallel Romeo & Juliet? The lovers sacrificed to lay the inter-family enmity to rest?

The last time I remember an audience applauding spontaneously after a film (other than at film fests, where it happens all the time) was when I saw "Babe." That should actually be on my Uplifting list.

Another Uplifter I forgot: Amelie. Beautiful!

OK, lhooq: Movies That Pissed Me Off:

1. 300
2. The Godfather III
3. The New World--but only because the wrong actor died. It should've been Colin Farrell. Not in the movie, but in real life.
4. Come to think of it, the ending of almost every Spielberg movie has pissed me off. No one ruins a great movie with a crap ending like that guy.
5. And any movie by Nora Ephron. Not just the endings, either. There should be a law.

Tina said...

I HATED the ending for "Million Dollar Baby!" Yeah, I get it. Every sports movie ends in triumph. Ooh, it's soooo different! And—while we're complaining about Clint Eastwood, can I also interject by asking how many more movies we need Morgan Freeman dispensing wisdom?

Saddest ending ever: "Dancer in the Dark." Starring that quirkly little untweezed swan, Bjork. Wow, did I sob. And the next morning, just thinking about it, I sobbed some more.

Saddest, then happiest ending ever: "E.T." Geez. Talk about a rollercoaster of emotions. Thank goodness I had my Mork & Mindy rainbow suspenders on to help cheer me up.

Tina said...

I HATED the ending for "Million Dollar Baby!" Yeah, I get it. Every sports movie ends in triumph. Ooh, it's soooo different! And—while we're complaining about Clint Eastwood, can I also interject by asking how many more movies we need Morgan Freeman dispensing wisdom?

Saddest ending ever: "Dancer in the Dark." Starring that quirkly little untweezed swan, Bjork. Wow, did I sob. And the next morning, just thinking about it, I sobbed some more.

Saddest, then happiest ending ever: "E.T." Geez. Talk about a rollercoaster of emotions. Thank goodness I had my Mork & Mindy rainbow suspenders on to help cheer me up.

Tina said...

Sorry, don't know what just happened.

See what happens when I try to comment when you're talkin' 'bout something deep? Sheesh.

Jasph said...

Double the comments, double the fun, with doubleNeed, doubleNeed, doubleNeedle-mun.

What "Million Dollar Baby" needed was for that skanky dirty fighter who broke Our Heroine's neck to show up at the hospital and apologize. And she gets all worked up over what she's done, a rare display of emotion for a skanky dirty fighter, and she vows to clean up her act, and then Morgan Freeman does a voice-over to explain. "And though her neck was broken, Our Heroine nodded, metaphysically, recognizing in the skanky dirty fighter a trashy, tough-broad sensibility not unlike her own."

Or it could be the voice-over from "War of the Worlds," really. You're missing the point about Morgan Freeman. He is God.

Kirk Moore said...

My favorite movies involve anti-heros who, being called up from obscurity, and without a proper support community, ultimately find the untapped knowledge and strength within themselves to “save the day”.

A fine example of this theme is found in “The Reluctant Astronaut” starring Don Knotts.

Although just a lowly janitor at NASA, and with acute acrophobia, Knotts finds himself alone in a space capsule, circling above earth’s atmosphere, stranded because uncontrolled floating peanut butter has jammed all the communication devises. All hope of his return to earth is lost.

At this point the filmmakers could have left their protagonist struggling with his truer self, (foolish, ignorant, cowardly) floating to his inevitable demise as nature intends - thus foreshadowing Richard Crenna in “Marooned”, 1969, and later Tommy Lee Jones in “Space Cowboys”, 2000. (Coincidently, Jones has signed on to star in the upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer Trilogy: “The Fife Dossier: Bullet in my Pocket”, 2009, “Fife 2: Otis Unlocked”, 2011, and “Fife 3: The ‘Barber’ of Mayberry”, 2012)

But instead of watching a man suffocate, we see a spark of unexpected recognition twinkling in Knotts’ eye. The hordes of doubters and naysayers who surround him don’t know what he knows. But when the camera shows us Knotts’ point of view, we see it too: a button on his control panel that reads “retro rockets” – the same button Knotts used to push while working a kiddie-ride at the fairgrounds of Sweetwater, Missouri. To the surprise of his friends and family on the ground, Knotts pushes the button and successfully brings the space capsule back to earth.

Knotts look into his soul – and the “everyman” becomes the hero. And we as audience members follow his journey so that we too can learn how to take control of our own lives.

Next: The true hero of “The Computer wore Tennis Shoes.” (Hint – it’s not Kurt Russell!)

scotland said...

Hey Jim-Jim, The screen adaption of Westside Story is the example I chose to show the existence of echo and undertone as experiential outcomes of viewing a movie. One might ask if their obvious use by the composer in his overall score for the movie wold be adaptable to other plots and themes. I would answer yes, and each case would prove very different. It would be a matter of discreet artistic choices and not exact theory, but it wouldbe a distinctive approach. Yes, Romeo and Juliet become Tony and Maria,but if you check this film out pay close attention to the incredible thematic structure and power of the musical score all the way thru the final credits.

Kirk Moore said...


I don't think I represented Don Knotts correctly when I wrote " a spark of unexpected recognition twinkling in Knotts’ eye".

In reality, it was more of a manic fear and frustration, exhibited by his quivering, bug-eyed head - spinning and darting about, moments from tearing at his floating prison with his comically-large space gloves. Then, after a patented "triple take", focusing directly on his discovered salvation - the "retro rocket" button.

That sounds more "Knotts-like." Sorry for the confusion.

Jasph said...

Notice how the level of discourse rises, once you leave the actual blog and get to the comments?

A spark of some kind of manic recognition got stuck in my hyperthyroidal eye as I vaguely recalled "The Reluctant Astronaut" and then expunged the memory by washing my eye out with Tang.

Thanks, Kirk, for keeping me up late, laughing.

And Scott, you're a prime candidate for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MInd," if you haven't seen it. The ending depends for its effect on this beautiful Beck song that takes us from the ghostly, hopeful, evanescent final image into the credits. I think you'd love it.

Mol the Doll said...

Kirkrik dasn't forget "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" when examining the career of Don Knotts.

I am an expert on this film, which features the wistful ballad, "I wish, I wish, I wish I were a fish."

The reason I am an expert on this film is that my parents dropped my sister and me at the Terrace Theater four Saturday afternoons in a row in 1964.

I've since learned that this was their strategy
for having a little afternoon delight. Eww.

So don't get me started.

Jasph said...

So the first Saturday must have provided a lot of delight for your folks, or else they wouldn't have kept dropping you at the Terrace.

I wonder if that was a euphemism between them? "Wanna swing by the Terrace?" Or "Let's drop the girls at the Terrace."

If it hadn't gone well the first time, they might still have tried again, but your mom might have used a euphemism like, "OK, bring on Mr. Limpet."