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20 Best Movie Endings of All Time

Updated June 26, 2018
13 min read

If in any case you have forgotten the maxim, “All’s Well That Ends Well”, we, at The Cinemaholic, would be delighted to refurbish your memory with the best movie endings. If any of the readers here happens to be a student of literature, he/she would know that the given proverb originated from a comedy of the same name by William Shakespeare. In essence, it means that anything that has been blessed with a good ending is considered to be good even if there were hiccups along the way. This couldn’t have been any truer for the field of cinema and more so because genuinely good movies are supposed to have lasting impressions on our thought processes. Remember all those good films that had horrible endings and how you cursed the makers of such films for ruining your evenings. On the other hand, there are movies that have become constituents of popular folklore subject to not just their top movie endings, but endings that compelled the audience to go beyond the confines of their collective understanding.

While we do admit that the understanding and perception of a good ending might vary from person to person, this is equally true that celebrated critics have a more nuanced way of looking at the subtle intricacies of filmmaking. Hence, we have religiously followed the versions given by renowned film scholars in addition to popular sentiments while making a list of ‘The 20 Greatest Movie Endings of All Time’. Please appreciate that we are not expecting you to agree with our list. However, what we do expect from you is the spirit to agree with disagreements and that is exactly how any democratic setup is supposed to function. Without any further beating around the bush, let us get down to the list of top movie endings ever.

20. The Third Man (1949)

Lauded for its acting, unique ambient cinematography and music; Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’, essentially a film noir and starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles, is now considered to be one of the finest movies to have ever been made. The central plotline involves a writer getting embroiled in the mysterious death of one of his friends in postwar Vienna. The ending, considered to be a brilliant anti-climax, portrays the dead antagonist’s girlfriend ignoring the writer and walking past him as a definite sign of rejection.

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19. Inception (2010)

I am sure the internet will vote this as one of best movie endings of all time, if not the best. ‘Inception’ made intellectual movies look cool again. When you have countless forums, articles, blog-posts, think-pieces being written about a spinning (or falling) top, it is evidence enough of the popularity and influence of the ending of ‘Inception’. Whether ‘Inception’ is truly a great piece of cinema will remain arguable, but we have no doubt in our minds that its ending will remain a fodder for discussion and arguments for years to come, and that’s enough to warrant its place on this list.

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18. 8½ (1963)

Considered to be a major avant-garde feat, Federico Fellini’s Italian classic ‘8½’ is a trip down the fantasies and imagination of a confused filmmaker. Roughly autobiographical in nature, the Italian movie is a comedic take on the tribulations that befall the protagonist while trying to make a science fiction movie. Notwithstanding, the film also garnered a lot of attention subject to its unique and bizarre ending. The movie ending shows all the major characters of the movie form a sort of a circus ring and involve in a parade. Scholars have since praised the ending for its metaphorical representation of a philosophical resolution that the protagonist had aspired for during the course of the movie.

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17. The 400 Blows (1959)

‘The 400 Blows’ is essentially about juvenile and adolescent delinquency that is often driven by societal and parental neglect. Not only did this film put the nascent French New Wave on a firm footing but also projected François Truffaut as the brand new face of contemporary cinema. The movie ended with a bang with the ending scene establishing the film’s intent in entirety. The camera zooms in onto the protagonist’s ecstatic face as he looks straight at the camera and the frame freezes. This happens while he is running away from a correctional centre and facing the sea. This frozen frame has been the subject of many a cinematic discussions across the world.

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16. Les Diaboliques (1955)

One of the original psychological thrillers having elements of horror, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic ‘Les Diaboliques’ was an inspiration behind Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960). The plot revolves around the supposed murder of a man by his wife and his mistress and the strange incidents that follow the murder. The ending of the movie has been hailed as a cinematic wonder. It shows that the man had actually conspired with his mistress to kill his wife by using fear factor following his fake death. However, the twist comes when the wife is also shown to be still at large even after her death, real or not!

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15. Carol (2015)

Directed by Todd Haynes, ‘Carol’ is a film about two women — Carol and Therese — who find themselves in love with each other in unexpected circumstances. Their plans of persisting with their love sadly comes to a sudden end. It is a beautiful film that explores love in its most vulnerable form. Very few films are this honest in its rendering and fewer still have such a brilliantly conceived ending. The final scene involves Therese — after having been separated — coming to meet Carol at a restaurant. When finally Therese’s eyes meet Carol’s, they both look at each other with such affection and warmth that you feel their love running into your veins. It’s magical, to say the least. The film ends, but not before leaving an everlasting impression on your mind. Easily, one of the most touching movie endings.

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14. L’Avventura (1960)

Known for its unusual narrative structure; Michelangelo Antonioni’s Italian masterpiece ‘L’Avventura’ primarily deals with the sudden disappearance of a woman during a boat trip and the subsequent development of a relationship between her boyfriend and her friend. The ending, which has been repeatedly praised by scholars for its immaculate visual style, shows the resurrection of relationship between the newer couple after an act of infidelity on the part of the man. The final scene emphasizes on the inevitability of human follies and its acceptance.

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13. The Godfather (1972)

One of the most influential movies of all time, ‘The Godfather’ is the first part of a trilogy dealing with the family of an Italian Mafia boss in the United States of America. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, the film has been consistently ranked amongst the best creations of global cinema. Although not too visually riveting, strong emotional undercurrents punctuate the ending of this movie as the wife of a new generation mafia boss finds out the murderous credentials of her husband through the words of his accomplices.

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12. Fight Club (1998)

Based on a novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, ‘Fight Club’ might just be one of the most celebrated cinemas. There are several reasons why it attained a cult status, but none more important than its ending. The film ends with the narrator (Edward Norton) thinking that he has solved the problem by shooting himself in the mouth and “killing” Tyler, but then the world around him begins to crumble. He, as Tyler, had created a mayhem by instructing his followers to blow up all of the city’s financial companies in order to erase everyone’s debt. In a way, the film’s ending is a strong social commentary against the culture of greed.

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11. Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Vittorio De Sica’s timeless Italian classic, ‘Bicycle Thieves’ essentially deals with a man and his son desperately trying to recover their stolen bicycle without which the man would lose a job that promises to take his family out of poverty. The economic depression in Italy following the Second World War forms the cataclysmic background. The ending shows the man turning into a thief himself as he unsuccessfully tries to steal another man’s bicycle in a frantic attempt to preserve his job. This scene became iconic over the next few decades.

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10. Casablanca (1942)

Directed by Michael Curtiz and featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, ‘Casablanca’ chronicles the unique love story between an American in the city of Casablanca during the Second World War and a woman whose husband happens to be a Czech revolutionary. Hailed as the finest romantic movie of all time, it has a rather unique ending where the American protagonist unselfishly helps the woman in escaping to America with her husband with the active help of a local Vichy official.

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9. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

If you are thinking that ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is on the list because of the jail-break scene then you are wrong. The film doesn’t end there, mind you. It ends when Red makes his way across the border and, finds his old friend, who has clearly been waiting for this moment, and they shake hands. It is an ending that will leave your eyes filled with tears of overwhelming joy. The film could have so easily ended at the escape scene, but remember the film is as much about Red as it is about Andy. Therefore, justifiably, it ends once both friends have met each other as free men.

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8. Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Essentially a jab at the ludicrous nature of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is a comedic take on a possible man-made Armageddon brought about by a nuclear clash between the USA and the USSR. With distinctly political undertones, it went on to become a cult classic. Starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles, the ending of the movie is nothing but a retake of the Biblical Noah’s Ark. The movie was highly controversial and evoked contradictory responses from multiple quarters.

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7. Cache (2005)

Caché in English means hidden, and frankly, there couldn’t have been more apt title for this film, for Haneke is not just playing the hide and seek game with his characters, but the audiences of the film too. In an act of pure genius, Haneke carefully uses still shots where the action may not always be happening at the center of the screen — sometimes, it may not be happening on screen at all. The climactic still shot that actually has clues to understand the film hidden in it is nothing short of a masterstroke. Only a maverick like Haneke can have the audacity to shoot such an ending and pull it off brilliantly.

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6. Before Sunset (2004)

The ending of ‘Before Sunset’ is so perfect that I feel its sequel ‘Before Midnight’, even if a great film, ends up ruining it. As with everything else in life, the pleasure of unknown is what makes the ending so good. It leaves the canvas blank for you to paint the life that you want to paint for Jesse and Celine. Does Jesse board his plane to spend his life with his wife and children? Or do he and Celine decide to stay together for the rest of their lives? It is up to you how you imagine their lives to be.

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5. Citizen Kane (1941)

Directed by and starring the then 26-year-old Orson Welles, ‘Citizen Kane’ has been repeatedly voted as the best movie of all time. Essentially a narrative drama with elements of mystery, the film deals with the ambiguity associated with the dying word of a media mogul. Hailed for its thematic richness, the ending reveals the exact meaning of the word, which is actually the name of a sled that the protagonist used to play with when he was a kid. It has been the subject of many a debates and the topic of numerous reel studies.

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4. The Usual Suspects (1995)

Arguably, this film has the best of all twist endings. Unable to convict Kent of anything, Agent Kujan lets him go free, and Kint’s stroll toward his new life starts off in a limp but, brilliantly, culminates in a straight leg. Kujan is too late to realize that nearly every detail in Kint’s story was lifted, by name, from the various knick-knacks in the agent’s office. It all wraps up with the pitch-perfect closing line, voiced by Kint/Soze: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist; and like that, he’s gone”.

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3. Chinatown (1975)

Chinatown remains a word and a place the characters seldom mention throughout the length of the film. The ever-looming fear that Roman Polanski had associated with the place Chinatown, added a suspense element to the narrative, which is only revealed in the final showdown — that takes place in Chinatown itself — when these final words are spoken: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”. Movie endings don’t come in better form than this.

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2. Psycho (1960)

Largely recognized as one of the finest creations of Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Psycho’ is a psychological horror thriller that has been able to enter the lexicon of cinephiles across the world. The film deals with a psychologically deranged person living a dual life to justify his murderous and lecherous tendencies. The ending of the movie has now become legendary with the sister and the boyfriend of a portrayed victim discovering the duality of the antagonist. The concerned scene could take the heart out of practically anyone.

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1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

movie endings

Undoubtedly the most authoritarian piece of work directed by the maverick filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ could aptly be described as a crazy rendezvous with mayhem and uncertainty. With themes ranging from existentialism to evolution, the British movie has acquired a cult status over the years. The film’s ending scene has been the subject of much debate with the director refusing to give any explanation of the scene where an astronaut is portrayed traveling through the various stages of his life in one single go during a space journey as a mysterious monolith appears from nowhere.

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6 comments

  • I agree on many of your favorite film endings. I’ve seen about half of the films in your top twenty. My Master’s Thesis in 1970 was on CITIZEN KANE. In any case, after seventy odd years of seeing films, I still feel that the ending of THE THIRD MAN is exceptionally simple yet elegant and profound and should be #1. It’s my favorite all time film by the way. As Anna walks down that long road towards Holly, it not only echoes the loneliness of Vienna, but also the loneliness of every rejected lover. Of course she ignores him (she loves Harry, and though Holly was Harry’s friend, he felt obligated to shoot him). She passes by Holly and the camera and into film history.
    By the way, I’m also one of those rare people who believes that CASABLANCA is essentially an average film with stock characters and almost frivolous dialogue. Nothing compared to great script writers like Robert Bolt or Herman Mankiewitz. Oops – Did I misspell his last name?
    I currently teach courses for OSHER at George Mason University and am interested in possibly writing for you.

    Respectfully,
    Ted Mosser

  • Witness for the prosecution has the best ending IMO. The twist is written in so perfectly. It’s completely shocking, but can totally be accounted for with the subtle foreshadowing.