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The 20 Best Plot Twists of the 21st Century, Ranked

A great plot twist doesn't just shock, it can make a movie truly unforgettable. Here are the best surprises, twists and turns we've seen since 2000.

10. “Arrival” (2016)

“Arrival”

Denis Villeneueve’s heady, deeply human alien invasion thriller is, well, not exactly that. Based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” Villeneuve’s film weaves together various time periods in what appears to be a structure that leans heavily on flashbacks, many of them focused on Amy Adams’ linguistics professor Louise Banks and her young daughter Hannah, who we soon learn has passed away from a terrible childhood disease. The Louise we meet — and meet again and again in different time periods — is clearly haunted by something, but what “Arrival” tricks its audience into believing is that her pain flows from her daughter’s death, leading into the alien invasion that is its marquee attraction and which Louise is tasked with helping explain via meeting said aliens and breaking down their language.

The twist is two-fold: the aliens’ “language” is really a way of thinking, one that doesn’t get caught up in earthly stuff like “the passing of time,” and Louise’s daughter’s life and death don’t happen until after the events of the film take place, an emotional and rewarding twist that binds up theme and storytelling, while also delivering a heartwrenching message about the nature of life and love. Short version: don’t trust the timeline. Longer message: because it doesn’t really matter. —KE

9. “High Tension” (2003)

“High Tension”

Alexander Aja’s New French Extremity offering starts out innocuously enough, with two college best friends, Alexia and Marie, getting away to the country to study for final exams. But there’s a serial killer on the loose, and in the middle of the night, Alexia is taken hostage by the man after her entire family is brutally slaughtered. Marie manages to outsmart the killer (both at the family home and in an especially taut cat-and-mouse gas station bathroom scene), and pursues him with the intent to save her friend. Over the course of the film, Marie becomes an incredibly badass Final Girl…until it’s revealed that she’s been the killer the entire time. Marie’s attraction to Alexia has split her personality in two: One a sadistic and ruthless killer, and the other, Marie’s heroic savior who won’t let anyone come between them again. Of course, this twist throws a lot of earlier scenes into contention — namely the shocking scene of The Killer defiling and callously disposing of a severed head — but it’s still an abrupt and delicious plot twist that has left people talking all these years later. —JR

8. “Mulholland Drive” (2001)

“Mulholland Drive”

In true Lynchian fashion, the plot (and ultimately plot twist) of “Mulholland Drive” is still being puzzled over and dissected for clues sixteen year later. When aspiring actress Betty comes to Los Angeles, she finds a troubled woman, Rita, hiding in her aunt’s apartment, unable to recall who she is or how she got there. The two women forge a friendship and, despite the troubling mystery of Rita’s amnesia, everything about Betty’s world has a glossy veneer to it. From her famous aunt to her knockout audition, it seems that Betty is on the cusp of the stardom she has always craved. Except, it’s all a lie that Betty has deluded herself with.

Midway through the film, David Lynch hits reverse and shows us that everything we’ve been seeing, even Naomi Watts’ fresh faced appearance has been false. Rita is really Camilla and Betty is really Diane, a waitress and failed actress who has been jealously pining over Camilla, her former lover who has now ascended to stardom. Suddenly, the film’s biggest mysteries come crashing down to earth. Camilla’s mysterious blue key is nothing more than the key to Diane’s shitty bungalow. And the rotting female body they had found inside of it? That’s Diane’s ultimate fate. —JR

7. “Gone Girl” (2014)

“Gone Girl”

Gillian Flynn adapted her bestselling whodunit into a bankable 2014 screenplay, produced by Reese Witherspoon and helmed by David Fincher. Gleaming Gotham transplants Nick (Ben Affleck) and pregnant Amy (Rosamund Pike) recently relocated to Missouri, but the national press pounces when she vanishes on their fifth wedding anniversary. Nick is immediately the prime suspect, assailed for being too composed and unfaithful — a la real-life convicted murderer Scott Peterson — especially when bloodstains are found in their home. Instead, Amy meticulously framed him, and later a doomed ex-boyfriend (Neil Patrick Harris), even swiping urine from an expectant neighbor (Pike’s cunning earned her a Best Actress nomination). She returns home with a fabricated rape claim and another surprise: she actually is pregnant, thanks to Nick’s banked sperm. When they film ends, the couple presents an uneasy, united front. —JM

6. “Kill List” (2012)

When you see the words “The Hunchback” appear onscreen, you probably don’t think too much of it. And how could you? Everything that’s already transpired in “Kill List” has been graphic and disturbing, from the brutal methods Ben Wheatley’s two hitmen employ when dispatching their targets to the messy results of them going well off list, leaving little time to wonder what might happen next. What does happen is an utter gut punch, less a conventional twist than an inevitable-in-hindsight revelation of the awfulness this movie was building toward all along. “Kill List” ends with a fight to the death between a man and his masked opponent, whose identity isn’t made clear until it’s much too late; suffice to say that there are no winners here, only survivors. —Michael Nordine

5. “Orphan” (2009)

Conceptually, “Orphan” is a strange movie to begin with: Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard are overqualified to play the parents of an adopted child from hell named Esther in this Jaume Collet-Serra joint. As the director is no stranger to making B-movie premises look great onscreen (“The Shallows,” “Non-Stop,” etc.) “Orphan” is almost as much a sturdy family drama as a lurid horror tale. But then an all-time great third act reveal happens when it’s discovered that Esther is actually a little person who is trying to hook up with Peter Sarsgaard. When he declines, she kills him and tries to kill the rest of the family. While the concept may elicit gasps, groans, and laughs, the scene where Esther ditches her disguise and prepares to fuck shit up is genuinely chilling. —WE

4. “Memento” (2000)

The movie that shot Christopher Nolan to fame as one of the most inventive filmmakers working today, “Memento” is both enigmatic and highly accessible. The premise — a man who suffers from extreme short term memory loss tries to avenge his wife’s death — instantly draws you into Nolan’s carefully constructed narrative. The audience follows a complex trail of breadcrumbs along with Leonard (Guy Pearce), who uses an intricate system of polaroids and tattoos to remember important information. When the film’s two timelines, one color and one black and white, finally converge, Leonard must face the ugly truth of the secret he has been repressing. It’s a wallop of an ending following a wild ride full of intricate surprises. Cerebral crime thrillers were never the same after Nolan had his way with them. -JD

3. “Oldboy” (2003)

Park Chan-wook’s visceral and stylish “Oldboy” is one of the most beloved foreign titles of the 21st century, and that has everything to do with its no-way-can-this-be-real twist (okay, maybe that one-take, four-minute hallway fight scene is also why). Chan-wook’s revenge story is driven by a paternal bravery for much of its runtime. After all, any father that goes on a manhunt to find his lost daughter after spending 15 years in solitary, drug-tampered isolation has to win some kind of “father of the year” award whether he succeeds or not. But then comes that third act jaw-dropper, a plot twist so revoltingly deconstructive that it folds the entire story in on itself with a nasty, can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head punch. It turns out the woman who has been helping the father find his daughter is actually his daughter, and they’ve already fallen in love and consummated the relationship. The twist is rightfully regarded as one of the most shocking turn-of-events in film history. Damn you, Park.—Zack Sharf

2. “The Prestige” (2006)

A magician never reveals his secrets, especially one as great as the twist in “The Prestige.” Christopher Nolan explores the rivalry between two magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), who try to outdo each other with illusions in Victorian London. The plot loops in a wonderful performance by David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, who manages to create a machine that allows Angier to duplicate himself for each performance of “The Real Transported Man,” a magic act where Angier vanishes within an electrical field, only to emerge on the balcony of the theater.

At the end of the film it is revealed that Angier, who has now disguised his true identity, had been duplicating himself and allowing his clones to drown below stage, while he appeared on the balcony. This is especially significant because Angier’s “death” sends Borden to prison, where he is eventually hanged for his crime. Angier allows this to happen, getting revenge on his long-time rival for the death of his wife Julia, who died in a magic trick gone wrong. But Borden has the last laugh when it is revealed that he was actually identical twins posing as one man without ever breaking the act. The long-term magic act allowed Borden the ultimate success on stage, but eventually destroyed his personal life (Borden loved his wife but his twin didn’t and she hanged herself). In the end, with his secret revealed, Borden shoots Angier, but he is left with nothing as a result.  —JR

1. “The Others” (2001)

The twist at the end of “The Sixth Sense” is good — the one at the end of “The Others” is better. On the surface of things, they’re pretty similar: In M. Night Shyamalan’s culture-shaking breakthrough, it turns out that Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time; in Alejandro Amenábar’s atmospheric ghost story it turns out that Nicole Kidman’s foggy English mansion is haunted, but that she and her photosensitive kids are the ones haunting it. The reveal itself is executed to perfection, arriving during a seance that allows viewers to put the pieces together at their own pace. But the twist is so immensely satisfying because of what it means for the rest of the movie. As a refined bit of gothic horror, “The Others” is hard to beat. As a portrait of entitlement that completely sells you on its characters’ perspective before pulling the rug out from us all, it’s in a league of its own. —DE

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