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:
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.
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.
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.