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The Best Movie Plot Twists of All Time — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Psycho" to "Gone Girl," film critics pick the plot twists that gave them the biggest shocks.

“Adrift”

STXfilms

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Last weekend saw the release of “Adrift,” a true-life survival story that builds to an improbably big plot twist (big by biopic standards, anyway).

With that example fresh in our minds, we asked critics to pick the most satisfying plot twist they’ve seen in a film, and to expound upon why it worked so well for them.

This should go without saying, but spoiler alert.

Emma Stefansky (@stefabsky), Vanity Fair, Uproxx

“The Orphanage”

I tend to miss out on classic film twists that have become so deeply entrenched in the culture that it’s easy to have them casually spoiled for you. I knew about the Keyser Söze thing before I watched “The Usual Suspects,” and I don’t think “I am your father” really registered for me when I saw “The Empire Strikes Back” as a kid. But I had no idea what I was in for when I watched “The Orphanage” for a class in college, or how much the final twist would affect me.

The entire last act of the movie ends up being a series of twists and revelations that build on each other, and the big reveal that Laura had caused her own son’s death by trapping him in the basement while she was searching for him, concocting this elaborate explanation involving ghosts and ghostly games that kind of turns out to be real—or at least based on fact—softens the horror into heartbreak. It’s much easier, and much more emotional, to watch each subsequent time—though that “knock on the wall” game scene is still the single scariest two minutes of a movie I have ever witnessed.

Richard Brody (@TNYfrontrow), The New Yorker

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

The history of art is based on unsurpassable plot twists—Oedipus’s discovery that his mother is more than a boy’s best friend, the parting of the Red Sea, the resurrection of Jesus—and so, with all honor to the psychological reverberations of Norman Bates’s impersonation and the resurrection of Laura, I’m in enduring awe of the quasi-Biblical power of the historical and romantic revelation on which “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is built, which is why it’s spoiler-proof and equally great with each subsequent viewing.

Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp), Freelance for Little White Lies, The Quietus, BFI

Gone Girl

“Gone Girl”

The moment that the tables turned in “Gone Girl,” I remember spending the subsequent 15 minutes struggling to believe there hadn’t been a glitch, that this was the way the film was always meant to go. What made it so satisfying for me was the way that it wasn’t just the contents of the story that played out in a different way – the voice of the story itself switched, messing with anyone who would have dared to judge these people with the same despicable prejudice that was now being condemned. I felt like a fool, but then increasingly empowered and so impressed by the “drop everything” surprise I felt from such an emotionally manipulative twist. Rosamund Pike brought the book to life in such a wild and evil way, I still feel a nervous laugh bubbling inside whenever I think about it.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages

“Se7en”

Some classic movie twists feel like “a blow to the senses,” but the most impactful ones cause temporary sickness. For example, Frank Darabont’s sci-fi horror “The Mist” (2007) caught me off guard with its final act, as Thomas Jane’s David Drayton screams into the void after a mass mercy killing just minutes before help arrives. He nearly hurls while attempting to process everything, and it’s indeed a major punch to the gut. Still, it’s a twist that’s all about the moment. Twelve years prior, David Fincher provided a sick twist that connects the entire narrative.

Released in 1995, “Se7en” succeeds with its extraordinary character dynamics and subtextual conflict, but it also has a deeply disturbing conclusion. Throughout the film, Brad Pitt’s David Mills and Morgan Freeman’s William Somerset don’t quite understand each other while they track down a serial killer, or at least how it seems. Despite some differences, however, they’re connected by their own sense of duty and humanity, which makes the final reveal — full of existential horror — so hard to handle. “Seven” is methodic and surgical with its multi-layered twist.

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelance

“A Separation”

Marital relationships in crisis are the most consistent component in Asghar Farhadi’s body of work. His fascination with secrets and mysteries within the family unit, using modern Iranian society as realistic backdrop (or on occasion France and now Spain), make the two-time Academy Award winner a master of subtle twists. In “A Separation,” honor and faith fuel a plot that is as undeniably riveting as it is culturally specific. The religious parameters that rule every aspect of life in the Islamic republic influence the characters’ ability to lie and their understanding of the truth. In a tale about an incident where two people have polar recollections of what happened, their moral compasses are powerful variables. The final revelation works because it doesn’t push the limits of believability and incorporates a belief system in which spiritual guilt is too much for someone to bear, even when financial gain is at stake.

Candice Frederick (@Reeltalker), Harper’s Bazaar, /Film, Wear Your Voice Magazine

“The Sixth Sense”

“The Sixth Sense.” I’ll never get this out of my head. It is one of the few plot twists that was so great that I was compelled to re-watch every single frame of the movie because I just knew that I should have been able to spot one hint that the co-lead was actually not alive. After multiple views I realized that it’s not important that the film tells you what is actually happening; it’s not going to ever hold your hand in that way. I’m so invested in the character and the story that I want him to prevail and be tangible–so much so that the question of his death posed at the very beginning of the film becomes merely a distant fear until the plot twist materializes. It’s brilliant.

Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore Magazine

“The Sixth Sense”

A basic answer, but an honest one: “The Sixth Sense.” You have to understand that I saw “The Sixth Sense” at a critics’ screening, before the general public had seen it. Those haunting “I see dead people” commercials were already pretty buzzy, but beyond that, we were all in the dark, so to speak. No, I didn’t see the twist coming, and yes, it blew my mind. I also thought the film pulled off this amazing trick: Reflecting on it, you realized it was completely bizarre that Bruce Willis had never once had a real conversation with anyone other than Haley Joel Osment’s Cole, but you were so wrapped up in the whispery intimacy of their relationship, it was like you were immersed in their subjectivity.

And Bruce has this air of authority about him in that film, this rock solid manner of competence and ominscience—it never occurs to us that he’s the vulnerable one. Having us focus on the vulnerability of a child is such a wonderful misdirection. I think “The Sixth Sense” is a great film, and it kind of bums me out that its reputation has waned over the years. That being said, Shayamalan hasn’t made anything nearly that good since. And his reliance on twists became awfully gimmicky awfully fast. (I figured out the twist in “The Village,” for example, precisely because I knew one was coming.) When I review movies, I try not to reference a twist. It turns the viewer into a detective, which is never a good way to watch a film.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

Nicole Kidman in The Others

“The Others”

I’m struck — if unsurprised — by how many of the responses to this question are modern movies; these polls tend to skew towards the contemporary, but I can’t help but wonder if the popularity of the big reveal is something of a recent phenomenon.

Anyway, I’m not going to upset the applecart by digging too far into the past. I don’t know if any twist has hit me quite like the one at the end of “The Others,” which I’ll go to my grave (and come back again) believing is infinitely better than the similar one at the end of “The Sixth Sense.” It’s so much more than just a neat parlor trick — it transforms the film’s entire perspective from the ground up, swapping entitlement for egoism in one swift pull of the rug.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail / Film Festival Today

“Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”

For the best (downer of a) twist ending, reflective of the realities that govern our world, I’d have to go with Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981). Yes, the hero triumphs, saves the world and defeats the Nazis, but then what happens to the all-powerful device that houses the force of an angry god? It is locked up in a wooden crate, shipped to a huge basement warehouse and buried in the middle of a near-infinite collection of identical crates. The image is the symbol of all that can go wrong when we allow those who rule us to act without accountability. Much of Spielberg’s work focuses on the collision of hubris and government overreach, and this last scene of “Raiders” is the best example of that. Plus, though it be a twist within the actual film, given the hidden secrets–often later revealed–we know exist in all government files, it’s a double twist: fictional, but true.

Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance

“Psycho”

“Psycho,” of course. But not for the reason people might think.

Yes, there’s the famous twist (and I will never forget watching this with my soon-to-be-wife, that rare creature who did NOT actually know the ending, and having her mother’s loser boyfriend walk into the room and blurt out, “Oh, yeah, this is the one where he’s his mother, right?”).

But that’s only the last, and maybe least, of this movie’s surprises.

Oh, you think this is a movie all about a lady embezzler? Well, it’s not, she’s going to be killed in the first half-hour. Oh, well, maybe at least the stolen money will help that nice Norman build a new hotel? Nah, it’s garbage, forget about it, he throws it in the swamp.

Well, perhaps this is going to be a movie about a private eye solving the case? Nah, he’s going to be killed, too. Well, at least Marion’s sister and boyfriend wind up together? Eh, don’t be so sure. There’s only one happy ending in this film, and it’s Mom’s.

People have written about the “historic” nature of “Psycho” — that it bucked various taboos (including showing a flushing toilet onscreen!). That it showed what a great director could do with a low budget and, basically, a TV-show crew.

But the biggest twist in “Psycho” was that — as I think Peter Bogdanovich once wrote — once it came out, it was no longer safe to go to the movies. ANYTHING could happen. And that’s because the first victim, in this brilliant movie, was the audience’s assumption of what movies meant.

Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for Vanity Fair, The Guardian

“The Crying Game”

I’ll use this opportunity to share a li’l story about life as it was before these series of tubes we call the Internet.

In the summer of 1991 I saw and quite liked a motion picture called “The Miracle” when I, as a high school student, attended what was basically a “film camp” at Boston University. (It was an opportunity to putz around with a Bolex 16mm camera and watch Fellini movies, and also to drink wine along the Charles River Esplanade and discuss poetry and shoo away all the girls that were hopelessly in love with the svelter, more idealistic version of me that, hey, wait, come back, this is my reminiscence and I’ll present it any way that I like!)

Anyway, the follow-up to “The Miracle” was something called “The Crying Game,” and it, I have just read, played at the Toronto, Venice and New York Film Festivals. But it wasn’t on any of the minds of my peer group as a freshman at NYU, when it finally opened in theaters. (At the time, anything with an, ewwwww, plot was verboten. It was more important to watch washed-out VHS dubs of Japanese Jodorowsky laser-discs with the pubic hair airbrushed out while trying to cut off the oxygen supply to your head.)

But I went and saw “The Crying Game” on opening day at the Angelika Film Center. I was very brand loyal to Neil Jordan! It was a matinee and it was empty and I was alone and I was enjoying the Irish espionage thriller and then  — wow!

So when I saw my friends, all of whom were renting Nick Zedd films from Kim’s and listening to cassettes of Sebadoh side projects, and said “you gotta see this movie ‘The Crying Game’ it’s kinda wild!” they were all very suspect. “Why? What’s the deal?” And I had a genuine crisis of conscience! How to sell this squaresville-seeming flick without spoilers? Mind you, this is before anyone used the word “spoilers”!

Luckily, word-of-mouth did the job for me, and soon the whole world and even Zucker-Abrams-Zucker were talking about the twist in “The Crying Game.” But for a few pre-Internet days, I really felt like I was the only one who knew about it.

Mike Ryan (@MikeRyan), Uproxx

BEN AFFLECK as Tony Mendez in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and GK Films’ dramatic thriller “ARGO,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“Argo”

Claire Folger

When Ben Affleck turned into a ghost in “Argo.”

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “First Reformed”

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