A movie is only as good as its ending. At the very least, that’s certainly how it can feel right after you finish watching one. Of course, each film demands a different kind of finale, and it would be futile to try and generically describe what makes for a “good” one — you know one when you see it. Some stories are best served by ending with a jarring twist that makes you reconsider everything you’ve seen before it. Others require the perfect note of ambiguity, or that immortal line of dialogue to help seal the deal. Every great film ends on its own terms, but all of them do so in a way that ultimately makes the whole experience impossible to forget. Here are the 20 best movie endings of the 21st Century.
Note: Needless to say, there’s a five-alarm spoiler alert in effect for the rest of this article.
20. “The Others” (2001)
Twist endings are seldom great endings — they can be a lot of fun, but they often have a way of leaving behind a cheap aftertaste. “The Others” doesn’t have that problem. Infinitely more satisfying than anything M. Night Shyamalan has ever engineered, Alejandro Amenábar’s fogbound Gothic horror film is more than just an immaculate homage to “The Innocents.” It’s a bonafide haunted house classic in its own right, one that uses age-old genre tropes to tell a fresh story about the pervasive influence of grief. After more than 100 minutes of atmospheric scares and a Nicole Kidman masterclass in the art of unraveling, Amenábar suddenly turns the tables, revealing that our heroine and her kids have been the ghosts in this story from the start. It’s a vintage twist done right; not only is the unveiling itself a wicked scene of suspense, but the information casts everything before it in a cold new light, proving that people can be possessed as easily as the places where they live, or the places where they die. — DE
19. “Enemy” (2013)
Now that Denis Villeneuve has moved on to the likes of “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049,” it may be easy to forget that he made such a small, off-kilter movie just four years ago. “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” is the epigraph that opens “Enemy,” not that it’s much help with what’s surely the most bizarre last shot of any movie in recent memory: Jake Gyllenhaal walks into his bedroom and discovers that his wife has transformed into a giant, cowering tarantula. Fin. Images of spiders recur throughout the film, providing just enough thematic breadcrumbs to be confident that this eight-legged metaphor has a perfectly good reason for being there. Exactly what that reason might be is the ultimate question, but it’s certainly fun to ponder. — MN
18. “Crazy Love” (2007)
Fisher Stevens’ best-known documentary may be “The Cove,” the Oscar-nominated Japanese dolphin hunting expose, but his first feature documentary has much more in common with the great “Grey Gardens” than with “Blackfish.” A versatile character actor, Stevens wrote, produced and co-directed (with Dan Klores) the unbelievable story of an obsessive attorney Burt Pugach and Linda Riss, who became blinded and scarred when men hired by Pugach threw lye in her face when she broke off their affair. The case made national headlines, and Pugach received 14 years in prison, but what comes after that is even more shocking. The film moves quickly, piecing the story together like tabloid clippings, and revealing disturbing things about human nature. There are better documentaries, to be sure, but not better documentary endings. Anyone who sees the movie knowing very little about its history is in for a treat: the ending is one of the greatest reveals in recent years. — JD
17. “La La Land” (2016)
Damien Chazzelle knows how to pull heartstrings better than anyone. Mia (Emma Stone) – five years into the future and accompanied by her husband – enters the jazz club owned by her ex-lover Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). As he plays an old song, Mia enters a daydream in which she reimagines her last five years and rise to stardom with Sebastian by her side. But is it just a dream? Chazelle lingers in uncertainty as he swoops into a candy-colored, ’50s-era MGM musical homage dripping with pure Hollywood artifice, with beautifully painted abstract sets and gliding camerawork. It’s the entire preceding movie minus the heartbreak. The happy couple even watch an 8mm film of their baby being born – and then, quite suddenly, she’s back in the club with the real-life father of that child, watching Sebastian play the piano. When Mia and Sebastian’s eyes finally meet in the film’s final shots, there’s a moment of recognition: They did it – she is a famous actress standing in the club he always dreamed of owning. It’s a melancholic moment, but Chazelle helps us see the beauty in it as well. — CO
16. “Mountains May Depart” (2016)
Jia Zhang-ke’s most recent film tracks the lives of three friends over three distinct time periods: 1999, 2015 and 2025. The great director’s work examines the evolution of Chinese society through the emotional tenor of his characters, with “Mountains” being his most personal and emotional. Singer Shen Tao chooses to marry money-hungry developer Zhang over mineworker Liangzi, even as the two remain close. Her marriage ends in divorce, and she becomes estranged from her son, who comes to embody the new soulless ideals of his father and their country in 2025. In the final scene, Shen Tao takes her dog for a walk in the snow as we learn that her desire for “a better life” have left her alone. And then, suddenly, a flash of inspiration: “Go West” starts playing on the soundtrack, and she starts to dance, as memories rush back to her. It’s an unexpected joyful moment that echoes the film’s jubilant opening, and brings the full emotional scope of the movie full circle. Jia then cuts to a different perspective for the film’s final image: a wide shot of Shen Tao continuing to dance with architectural symbols of the old world hovering in the background, a powerfully symbolic moment that requires no further elaboration. — CO
The list continues on the next page.