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20 Best Ambiguous Movie Endings of All Time

December 20, 2018
15 min read

“Wait!!! What just happened?” Haven’t all of us been in such situations in the past while watching a movie? Sitting through a fairly candid film only to find out that the line didn’t go where it was supposed to go. The ambiguity of the climax made us scratch our heads for days. We come up with self-made theories only to content ourselves. Creating ambiguous endings is, in my opinion, one of the biggest achievements for a filmmaker. After all, as a filmmaker, you would want your audience to discuss your movie forever. And that’s why complicated, confusing endings, if pulled off properly, is an amazing experience — both for the viewer and the filmmaker. Today, we are going to look at the list of top ambiguous movie endings that are open to viewers’ interpretations. You can watch several of these movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. SPOILER ALERT!

20. Cache (2005)

Image result for cache filmMichael Haneke and us. The interaction is never absolute, nor imminent at any point. It just springs out of the blue, leaving us dazed and confused, and him, slyly taking joy out of our misery. I am yet to comprehend the approach, or the film as a whole, so please pardon my impoverished knowledge. What I could get to was that Majid’s and Pierrot’s sons had some vague discussion, which Haneke intentionally left out of the loop. George’s flashback was another point wherein I was lost, and further respect for Haneke was found. That dream too had themes similar to the movie, which makes it a big point of discussion for you all in the comments section. ‘Cache’ is widely regarded as Haneke’s best work and one of the greatest films of the 21st century.

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19. Donnie Darko (2001)

Image result for donnie darko‘Donnie Darko’ came at a time when the trend of leaving films abruptly at an ambiguous end started. The uninspiring yet thickly talented cast was not expected to pull out anything special, and when they did, everyone gasped for air. It became a big commercial hit, also getting substantially rave reviews from critics. It has gone on to become a cult film, with many citing it as one of the best sci-fi movies of its time. Was it just a dream? Or did he have an alter ego which prompted him to imagine things? There are no clear answers, but n number of speculations and deliberations. Some believe that the world is a different one than that in which Donnie lived; while some still purport it as Donnie dreaming in his bed and getting killed in his sleep, was actually another dream he had. Phew.

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18. Enemy (2013)

dual‘Prisoners’ is another movie which has been talked about a lot. The film employed the graphical images of webs and spiders throughout the movie, if you notice closely. Through the whole set-up, the growing conflicts between Adam and Anthony are indicative of a thrilling end, that has some serious action. The web of lies gets broader and thicker with each passing scene, furthering both of the involved parties to a place they won’t come back from. One of the two doesn’t come back, after he meets an accident. The other one’s fate isn’t decided yet. That is why the spider comes for him in the end, in order to decide for the other person of the same physicality. You understand?

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17. Total Recall (1990)

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‘Total Recall’ can be termed as ambiguous as a whole. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s character visits a special facility to implant fake memories of his non-existent mission to mars only to find out that those memories already exist. He then tries to find out whether the recall messed with his mind or whether those memories really existed. In the end, both Arnold and the viewers are on the unsure side.

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16. American Psycho (2000)

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Who can ever forget Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in this psychological thriller. A Wall Street guy who is very conscious of his appearance occasionally commits brutal crimes — or does he? The movie is pretty much straight forward till the penultimate scene leaves you puzzled in the final scene. The scene where you realize that Patrick may or may not have committed those heinous crimes is as confusing as it ever could be.

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15. Memento (2000)

Christopher Nolan‘s indie masterpiece is a taut, riveting drama that tells the story of a man suffering from short-term memory loss looking to hunt down his killer’s wife. He takes the help of several people he meets on the road and gathers pieces of his fragmented memories, jotting down key notes on a piece of paper. The film’s famous reverse chronology narrative lets you in the head of its protagonist as we are revealed only pieces of information before a hard-hitting climax storms in, baffling and devastating you. Nolan meticulously crafts every frame and provides clues that are crucial to uncovering the truth of its protagonist. ‘Memento’ is as exciting and intellectually entertaining as cinema can get; one with immense scope for heated arguments and discussions.

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14. Shutter Island (2010)

‘Shutter Island’ is nowhere near Martin Scorsese‘s best work but it would be unfair to deny the craft of it. With stunning visuals, Scorsese beautifully translates the paranoia of a man who, apparently, has visited a frightening, isolated mental asylum as part of investigating the disappearance of a woman. On repeat viewings you see that the film offers subtle hints and clues regarding the truth of its protagonist and his mental state. ‘Shutter Island’ is a film of possibilities and the movie’s ending is one that calls for hours of discussion from your friends. Does Ted realise his own state of mind? Was he really paranoid or was the entire plot just a game play to mask his guilt? And so it goes on…

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13. Fight Club (1999)

‘Fight Club’ is a phenomenon. Every aspect of this film — the dialogues, scenes, visuals, acting, and score — is iconic in every way. It follows a young, mentally disturbed insomniac who finds solace from his life of miserable monotony by forming a fight club with a charismatic, carefree soap salesman. The film is ambiguous on many levels and leaves you to decipher the hidden clues and meaning behind it. ‘Fight Club’ is a film that one would have fun discussing and talking about for it’s replete with philosophy on modern life, consumerism, passion and rebellion and would make you think about life, despite how expository and over-the-top it might seem at places.

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12. Predestination (2014)

‘Predestination’ is a ravishingly scintillating piece of cinema that entertains on every viewing. It’s a film that has fun with its genre, toys with your senses and takes you on a mesmerizing journey of love and identity via an intense time travel play. The film tells the story of an agent who is asked to travel back in time in order to avert an explosion in New York in 1975. ‘Predestination’ leaves you with quite a bit to chew on long after the film rolls out and provides spaces for numerous interpretations and conclusions. The whole concept of time travel paradox revealed at the end is quite fascinating and demands you to evaluate and analyse the entire plot of the film again.

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11. Zodiac (2007)

Clinical, ambitious and endlessly intriguing, David Fincher‘s ‘Zodiac’ is a modern classic. The film chronicles the unabated obsession of Robert Graysmith with the infamous Zodiac killer who frightened the San Francisco Bay area back in the late 60s and early 70s. The ending might leave some of you infuriated as it does not expose the identity of the killer and we are left wondering of his existence, his reasons and motives. The film does not provide answers in relation to those aspects and instead engages you to have a heated discussion with your peers with regards to the culprit behind these brutal murders. ‘Zodiac’ is a rare cinematic experience; one that initiates conversations, demands discussions and triggers intense arguments.

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10. Pi (1998)

Eerie, bizarre, surreal and almost Lynchian in its scope, ‘Pi’ is one of Darren Aronofsky‘s best films. The film depicts the life of a mathematician obsessed with mathematical theories and regularities and finds himself torn between the solid, coherence, regularity and consistency of mathematics and the imperfections of the human nature. The film draws parallels with the contrasting relationship between the human nature and mathematics. ‘Pi’ covers a wide range of themes from obsession and religion to the unfathomable complexities of the human nature and the universe. It is a must watch for cerebral film lovers as it makes you ponder over things for a long while after the film rolls out and like all great films, leaves a lot for us to chew on.

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9. Ship of Theseus (2012)

Anand Gandhi’s profound philosophical exploration of human existence, purpose of creation and self discovery is one of the most life changing cinematic experiences you’ll ever have. Hailed as one of the greatest Indian films ever made, ‘Ship of Theseus’ depicts the lives of three seemingly unrelated people; a blind photographer, an ailing monk and a stock broker, all connected by one common element revealed in the film’s ending that leaves you astonished in a way you probably haven’t before. With a sweeping narrative, Gandhi explores and questions human identity, the subjectivity of sight and vision and the intricacies of human morality. Needless to say, this is a film that is sure to instigate a debate among your peers and the beauty of it comes out only through more discussions and analysis. ‘Ship of Theseus’ is an absolute gift to the human race and is one of those films you must watch before you die.

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8. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Yes, an absolute no-brainer. ‘Mulholland Drive’ is ambiguous in its entirety and every time, you come out of the film with a different interpretation and more possible theories. A film as layered, ambiguous, complex and emotional such as The film gets better and better only on multiple viewings and can be discussed, talked about for eternity and yet every viewing gives a thoroughly fresh experience. With a bizarre, dream-like narrative, ‘Mulholland Drive’ explores the themes of love, ambition, desire, fate and dreams. Contradictory theories of its plot continue to attract countless cinephiles and over the years, the film’s reputation has grown considerably.

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7. Upstream Colour (2013)

Shane Carruth’s magnum opus is a stunning, experimental work of art that explores the philosophy of life, human existence and love. With an abstract narrative, Carruth infuses universal themes of human identity, the nature and cycle of life. ‘Upstream Colour’ is one of the most challenging pieces of cinema you’ll ever see. It baffles and engages you, demands you to think and come up with your own interpretations. The film leaves spaces for infinite theories and possibilities to be thought of and imagined and is definitely one that gets better the more you discuss and dissect it.

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6. Certified Copy (2010)

Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami‘s European classic is one of the most intriguing explorations of human relationships, art and the ambiguities in our perceptions of reality. The film follows a British writer and a French antiques dealer whose relationship takes a strange turn over the course of a day in the beautiful Italian city of Tuscany. ‘Certified Copy’ questions art, the relevance and originality of it and examines our perceptions of reality. With a deceptively simple narrative, Kiarostami crafts a deliciously memorable cinematic piece, replete with raw human emotions and deep philosophical undertones. ‘Certified Copy’ is a film that stimulates your thoughts and revives withered emotions in you. A must-watch for those looking to have deep philosophical and intellectual discussions.

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5. The Master (2012)

This might come off as a surprise considering the film has a straightforward narrative with a linear plot. But ‘The Master’ is as ambiguous as cinema gets and is a film that demands repeat viewings to completely grasp the underlying meanings and themes it deals with. The film tells the story of a mentally fragile World War II veteran who finds hard to adjust to a civilized society. He meets the charismatic leader of a religious movement known as “The Cause” and joins him, travelling with him and spreading his teachings all around. The film explores the relationship between the two characters and the protagonist’s troubled state of mind. There is no single theory that could pin down ‘The Master’. Was the film about self-discovery? Rejuvenation? Identity? Were Freddie and Quell lovers? We never know but that’s the brilliance of it all. The more you discuss and think of it, the more the film opens up to you.

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4. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Wildly ambitious, bizarrely funny and seductively bold, Charlie Kaufman‘s directorial debut is one of the most cerebral and emotionally devastating experiences you’ll ever have. The film enters its protagonist’s psyche and crafts a world inside of him; a world of torn desires and ambitions, fading memories and withering relationships. It is impossible to put ‘Synecdoche, New York’ into plain words and demands several viewings and discussions to grasp the film in its entirety. It is not an easy film to like but with time it absorbs you and you’ll find yourself going back to the film over and over.

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3. Birdman (2014)

The best film of 2014 is a film-viewing experience of a kind. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s ‘Birdman’ is one of the most fascinating films to have come out in recent times. Almost entirely filmed in a single, long shot with no cuts in between, it tells the story of Riggan Thomson, a faded Hollywood superstar, who is desperate to revive his faded fame with a highly ambitious play to be performed in Broadway. Thomson tries to desperately come out of the shadows of Birdman, a superhero character which he portrayed during his heydays. What puzzled the viewers is the window scene in the climax where Emma Stone looks down from the window and up into the skies and smiles. Numerous theories surrounding the film’s ending continue to fascinate movie buffs and is one of the most widely discussed, debated films in recent times. What happened to Riggan Thomson? Did he exist? What if Birdman was Riggan’s alter ego? (We tried to answer that for you) Well, I guess that’s enough endorsement for the film.

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2. Inception (2010)

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Everybody saw this coming. How can this movie not be on this list? There is absolutely nothing that hasn’t been discussed or talked about this rare, riveting and bizarrely original thriller that stormed audiences back in 2010. Christopher Nolan’s searingly ambitious and wildly imaginative sci-fi drama tells the story of Cobb, a man who steals vital information from his targets by sneaking into their dreams.

In one of the most famous movie endings of all time, Nolan leaves the fate of his protagonist to the viewers’ interpretation as we see the top spinning and spinning before the film blacks out. Did the top keep spinning? If yes, that means it was another dream. Did it fall? Did Cobb get back to his family in reality? Countless posts and forums still continue to debate on these questions. Numerous articles have been written all over the web explaining the climax of the movie but the answer to which only the spinning totem knows. ‘Inception’ is a film that you should definitely watch in order to have a great amount of discussion and arguments with your friends.

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1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967)

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This movie has truly the mother of all obscure climaxes. Stanley Kubrick‘s stone cold masterpiece is the mother of all ambiguities. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ triggered a cinematic revolution and paved the way for modern science fiction. With extensive use of classical music and a bizarrely toned narrative, Kubrick journeys into the unknown and unexplored of the universe. Never has a film come close to the daring ambition of ‘2001: Space Odyssey’, leaving you with infinite possibilities and countless theories to chew on. Critics and scholars, to this day, remain fascinated by its visual boldness and thematic audacity and continue to dissect, critique and analyse the film in its entirety.

David Bauman and his crew take a space mission to Jupiter in order to investigate a mysterious monolith. Things go wrong when the AI murders the entire crew except Bauman due to a slight malfunction. In the final scenes, Bauman is thrown though a wormhole and is seen floating in space as a star child. This last scene gets everyone. What happened inside the wormhole? Did Bauman become god? Trust me, this requires repeated viewings.

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