[Editor’s note: The below list has been updated with 30 entries on May 5, 2022 after originally being published with 20 on November 3, 2017.]
It’s the shock of seeing Norman Bates, knife in hand, clad in his mother’s clothes, grinning maniacally in the swinging lamplight. It’s a supposedly dead husband rising from a bathtub with terrifying saucer contact-lenses. It’s finally connecting “I see dead people” with Bruce Willis being shot at the beginning of “The Sixth Sense.” When movies pull the rug from under us, it’s one of the greatest thrills that cinema can provide.
As Hollywood continues to reboot countless old properties, it’s easy to think that the days of original and surprising storytelling are long behind us. But these films prove that Hollywood still has a few tricks up its sleeve, ones that have kept us talking for years, and have cemented their place in film history.
Beware of spoilers! Here are the best plot twists of the 21st century.
Christian Blauvelt, Jude Dry, William Earl, David Ehrlich, Ryan Lattanzio, Jenna Marotta, Noel Murray, Chris O’Falt, Jamie Righetti, and Zack Sharf also contributed to this list.
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Just when you thought it was over… “The Ring” shocked American audiences with its left-field climax that, while lifted directly from the 1998 J-horror original, loses known of its power when refashioned by director Gore Verbinski. Rachel (a perfectly shivery post-“Mulholland Drive” Naomi Watts) thinks she’s put the curse of Samara to rest after freeing her purgatory-bound ghost from the bottom of a well, where Samara was tossed off as a little girl by her tormented mother. She thinks she’s cracked the mystery of the viral videotape that’s been killing teenagers and serving as Samara’s vehicle of vengeance upon the world. But she’s dead wrong because, as her all-too-sentient, cold-eyed child Aidan (David Dorfman) tells her, Samara never sleeps. The film frantically careens off course as it’s revealed Samara is most definitely not at all OK, and that her next victim is Rachel’s ex, video expert Noah (Martin Henderson), whom Rachel gave the tape in the film’s first act. In a scene most terrifying for its lack of musical overtures to instruct our emotions, Samara climbs out of Noah’s TV and does…whatever it is she does to her victims, which is scaring them to literal death. Rachel finally discovers the videotape’s true sinister force: The only way to rid yourself of the curse is to make a copy of the tape and pass it on to someone else. An alternate ending made available on the DVD release shows Rachel placing a copy of the tape on a video store shelf — though Verbinski and test audiences must’ve figured out we hardly needed an epilogue so literal to leave the theater completely rattled. —RL
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Six friends climb into a cave, but only one comes out. Neil Marshall’s survival horror film “The Descent” plays up the paranoia of being trapped in an underground maze while adding in slasher creature-feature elements thanks to a vampire-esque brood of hybrid humans dubbed Crawlers. The blind half-bat, half-man monsters feast on the female climbers, hunting them based on sound as food, water, and time run out. Yet “The Descent” may seem like a straightforward horror movie, but thanks to two different endings for the U.S. and U.K. releases, the film has a separate surprise twist. In the original ending, which was released only in the U.K., the sole survivor Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) actually has lost her mind: the vision of her dead frenemy Juno (Natalie Mendoza) snaps her back into the reality of still being trapped in the cave as the Crawlers creep closer. Apparently, U.S. test audiences found the original ending too bleak, so Marshall compromised with Sarah escaping but still being haunted by her murdered friends. —SB
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As progress continues to be made in the field of artificial intelligence, “Ex Machina” paints a chilling portrait of an AI blatantly outsmarting two humans. The bulk of the film is centered around eccentric tech mogul Nathan Bateman’s attempts to convince programmer Caleb Smith that his AI creation, Ava, is truly conscious. Through many clandestine conversations, Caleb falls in love with Ava and wants to help her escape from Nathan. The film culminates with the revelation that everyone in the film was trying to deceive someone else. Nathan thought he was playing Caleb, tricking him into falling in love with Ava as a way of convincing her she’s human. Caleb thought he was playing Nathan, helping Ava escape from an abusive master. But in reality, Ava was playing everyone. After getting what she needed to escape from Caleb, she locks him in a surveillance room to die and boards the helicopter intended for him, seamlessly assimilating into human society. —CZ
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Jordan Peele’s “Us” was unsettling from the start: A woman (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to her childhood home and tells her husband (Winston Duke) about an unsettling memory at the Santa Cruz boardwalk where she met her doppelganger after getting lost in a house of mirrors. But decades later and that adult doppelganger is now back with a vengeance — along with the identical counterparts of her whole family, plus friends, played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. And these doubles are monster-like, growling, barely able to talk, and intent on murdering their above-ground twins. The ending throws the whole film into a spiral as it turns out the little girl who encountered her doppelganger was swapped out, trapped in a government facility underground, and is now the “other” who is leading the revolt. The manufactured “tethered” version replaced the real little girl all those years ago. —SB
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
Part eerie surveillance thriller, part insinuating allegory of France’s national guilt over its widespread massacre of Algerians, Michael Haneke’s “Caché” begins with an opening straight out of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway”: A bourgeois couple receives a videotape of their home without apparent motive. From there, affluent marrieds Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anna (Juliette Binoche) continue to receive similarly menacing surveillance footage of their Parisian flat that increasingly seems to target Georges’ primal shame: As a kid, he tormented Majid, the young Algerian boy who lived on his family’s estate after Majid’s parents went missing amid the war. The missives, meanwhile, become more pointed as the tapes reveal darker implications about Georges’ relationship with Majid, who’s still alive somewhere in Paris. Through a typically Haneke-esque, surgically staged confrontation that results in Majid slitting his own throat on camera, it seems the mystery is solved, and that Majid had possibly dispatched his son to give Georges and Anna (Binoche) the tapes. But the film takes a brilliant final swerve as, in its last shot, Majid’s son and Georges’ son Pierrot (already willful and rebellious) are seen in conversation on the steps of Pierrot’s school. We don’t hear the exchange, but the implication casts the entire movie in a chilling new hue. Did Majid and his son implicate Pierrot in their plot? Was Pierrot out to rupture his parents’ disaffected bourgeois front? Was there even a grand plan at all? Haneke never answers these uneasy questions, making for a puzzle that can’t be solved but is worth endlessly sifting over. —RL
If you went to high school in the 2000s, there was no better litmus test than “Donnie Darko” to weed out the duds from the interesting people. The film announced Jake Gyllenhaal as a serious actor, though not one devoid of boyish charms (however dark). His signature puppy dog eyes turn cold in his portrayal of troubled youth Donnie, who hallucinates a life-sized rabbit named “Frank,” who tells him the world is going to end in exactly 28 days. The doctors think he’s schizophrenic, but Donnie is more concerned with time travel after a teach gives him “The Philosophy of Time Travel” to read. There are clues throughout to the movie’s mind-bending denouement, making it endless fun to re-visit. —JD
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After watching the infectious chemistry and infuriating friction between Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), viewers are essentially left at the beginning. The film ends with the couple who was so incompatible that they paid to have their memories of each other erased (on multiple occasions!) choosing to give it yet another go. They know full well that their romance is likely to end the way the last one did, but life is short and the high is worth the pain. While the ending essentially renders the emotional roller coaster of the film meaningless, it works as a stunning tribute to life’s many beautiful contradictions. The brilliance of the ending is that it turns a movie about the pain of forgetting mistakes into one about the joy of making them. —CZ
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The “Surprise! That character has been dead all along!” twist has become something of a cliché in the years since “The Sixth Sense,” so kudos to the writer-director team of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala for finding a way to disguise it cleverly, catching the audience off-guard in their psychological thriller “Goodnight Mommy.” For most of the movie’s running time, viewers are urged to keep an eye on the title character (played by Susanne Wuest), who recently returned from the hospital with a bandaged face and — according to her twin sons Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) — a new personality. The boys are sure she’s an impostor, yet when they torment their maybe-mother to the breaking point, she admits what in retrospect was hidden in plain sight all along: that the Lukas with whom Elias has been confiding and conspiring is actually a figment of his imagination, since his actual brother died. The revelation changes the whole nature of Elias’s accusations against his mom, giving an already-creepy horror film some tragic overtones. —NM
An incredibly unique and unexpected film about superhero comic books and their myths, which at the end reveals itself to be its own unique origin story. Bruce Willis is an average guy, David Dunn, who after surviving a train crash that killed 130 passengers, wonders if he may have special powers. Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic book store owner with a rare bone disorder, uses his deep superhero knowledge to help David mine his past and test his abilities until he finally discovers he can see the criminal acts of those he comes into contact. M. Night Shyamalan directs the story as if it is a mysterious drama, with only a hint of the supernatural underneath as we too wonder what is exactly happening and if there might be some truth in Elijah’s comics. When David shakes Elijah’s hand at the end of the movie he sees that his guru has orchestrated terrorist attacks, including his train crash, as he tells David his purpose in life is to be the villain “Mr. Glass” to David’s superhero. The twist reveals that we have been watching what, in retrospect, feels like an incredibly naturalistic story of what it must be like to discover you really are a superhero. —CO
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A half-century after “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” writer Jordan Peele revisited the iconic film’s plot for his directorial debut: awkwardness ensues when a white woman (Allison Williams) brings her black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her supposedly progressive parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). On a $4 million budget, Peele not only modernized the relevant-as-ever social satire — “Get Out” premiered at Sundance four days after Donald Trump’s inauguration ushered white supremacists back into the White House — but also made a resplendent mystic-action-horror-revenge fantasia. The Armitage family’s evil ploy is to help their loved ones live forever by implanting their brains into younger black bodies, subject to secret slave-like auctions. In the finale, the bad guys are slaughtered and a jocular TSA official saves our hero and countless future victims. Perhaps the biggest twist of all is Peele’s table-flip to anyone who thought he was just a sketch-comedian. —JM
A seven-time Oscar nominee unfolding mostly over one day at lush London estate in 1935, Joe Wright’s drama hinges on the false testimony of teen playwright Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan). She’s jealous that her older sister, Cecilia (Keira Knightley), has charmed the housekeeper’s son, Robbie (James McAvoy). As comeuppance for Robbie accidentally entrusting Briony to deliver a racy love note, Briony claims he raped a Tallis cousin, sending him to prison. Robbie is freed to enlist in World War II, and the audience learns that he rekindled his romance with Cecilia, now estranged from her family (she knows Briony lied; the actual rapist married Cousin Lola with Briony looking on). However, this too is a fiction, from Briony’s novel: Robbie and Cecilia respectively perished in Dunkirk and the Balham train station bombing. Christopher Hampton penned the 2007 film, based on Ian McEwan’s acclaimed saga. —JM
This low-budget phenomenon drew crowds with the promise of intense blood and gore, hitting the zeitgeist at the same time the notion of “torture porn” hit the mainstream. But what kept audiences talking about the film long after the credits rolled was that Jigsaw himself (Tobin Bell) was in the room with the two men playing the sadistic game (Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes) the WHOLE TIME. Don’t ask questions about logistics of playing dead for hours (Did he stop breathing during that time? Did he ever have to pee?) and instead marvel at this simple but effective gotcha moment before the series became bogged down in dense mythology. —WE
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“The Mist” doesn’t have a plot twist in the traditional sense — it’s more of a cruelly ironic turn of the screw, a reveal that broadens what we know without tampering with it — but good lord does it pull the rug out from under us. For almost two hours, Frank Darabont’s masterfully oppressive Stephen King adaptation siphons away your faith in the future, trapping its motley crew of characters inside of a Maine supermarket and watching them tear each other apart as a fog of inter-dimensional monsters settles over their world. Our heroes eventually make a break for it, burly painter David Drayton (Thomas Jane) leading the escape.
That’s when the film breaks away from the novella. When the gang runs out of gas, they also run out of hope, leaving David no choice but to put everyone else out of their misery (a mercy killing that involves shooting his young son in the head). And then, just when he’s wondering what to do without a bullet for himself… the mist recedes and the army rolls in. If only they had waited just a few more minutes. If only they hadn’t given up! It’s as devastating a denouement as any the movies have ever seen, and a scarring reminder that hope is always the last thing we have left. —DE
None of the other plot twists on this list are as crucial to — or inextricable from — their films as they the one in “Certified Copy” is to Abbas Kiarostami’s late-career masterpiece. The premise couldn’t be simpler or more complex. A writer named James Miller (William Shimell) visits a small Tuscan town to give a talk on his book about authenticity in the arts, and why reproductions are authentic in their own way. There, James spends the day with an unnamed woman played by Juliette Binoche, who a local cafe owner mistakes for his wife. The two strangers lean into the bit, roleplaying as a married couple as they stroll around the countryside.
And then, at some point, it hits you. That point comes at a different time for everyone, but it arrives like a thunderbolt whenever it strikes. What if these strangers aren’t strangers at all? The truth, of course, is both unknowable and irrelevant, but the question itself opens the door to a dizzying number of implications. In that moment, “Certified Copy” transforms into an inimitably original portrait of relationships as their own kind of performance art. —DE
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Funnily enough, when “The Village” arrived in 2004, the biggest twist sounded like that it was made by M. Night Shyamalan. After all, what did the modern master of twist cinema have to do with a period piece set in a remote New England village circa 1897 that followed a group of settlers who live in constant fear of a pack of beasties tantalizing referred to as “Those We Don’t Speak Of”? The horror-centric elements were certainly intriguing, but the whole affair sounded weirdly straightforward in a way discomfiting to Shyamalan’s well-known style. Trailers and teasers for the film leaned hard into the film’s most basic storyline, barely even nodding at the twist to come.
Even for Shyamalan, it was a nifty trick, and when the ultimate twist did come — OK, but what if the real monster was modern society? And also people who were like, super-afraid of modern society? — its ultimate message might have been a bit heavy-handed, but damn if that punch didn’t land. By dedicating himself — and his cast, including Bryce Dallas Howard, Adrien Brody, and Joaquin Phoenix doing work that still seems mostly overlooked — to the period elements of the story and even presenting a physical monster to fear (you know you screamed when Howard turned around in the forest and that thing was standing there), Shyamalan delivered a twist that was bolstered by his unnerving ability to play even the craziest stuff totally straight-faced. The twist was that we all thought that Shyamalan doing a period piece was weird, when it was the most obvious choice he could have made. —KE
Martin Scorsese’s step into the world of horror-psychological thriller was hardly a casual detour into genre filmmaking, but a dark, painful look inward that has become the director’s most overlooked film. In Scorsese’s 2010 adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s book, a U.S. Marshal, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigates the disappearance of a murderer from a hospital for the criminally insane. As Teddy’s obsessive hunt drives him deeper in the dark, mysterious bowels of the hospital, his own demons — from the violence of WW2 and the murder of his wife by an arsonist Andrew Laeddis (“the most dangerous patient on the island”) — start to emerge.
In a “Vertigo”-like reveal, Teddy learns that he is actually Laeddis, who murdered his manic depressive wife (Michelle Williams) after she drowned their children. The events of previous days were staged by the doctors to help him snap him out of his bout of conspiracy-laden insanity. Like “Vertigo,” it’s important that we spent the entire movie strongly identifying with Teddy’s obsessive quest for justice in a corrupt system. The twist forces us to work backwards, realizing the truth of Teddy’s instability were present the whole time. Lehane wrote the 2003 book as a clear metaphor for the U.S. foreign wars after 9/11, but Scorsese’s film adaptation also feels deeply personal as if the director is excavating his own painful regrets and guilt. —CO
For his directorial debut, Ben Affleck turned to his hometown, Boston, and his own brother, Casey, for an adaptation of the 1998 Dennis Lehane detective novel of the same name. The younger Affleck stars as Patrick, a Boston P.I. who is hired to help a young mother, Helene (a superb Amy Ryan), find her missing daughter, Amanda. As Patrick digs deeper into the case, he realizes Helene isn’t the doting mother she appeared to be on television, when she tearily pleaded for Amanda’s safe return. Patrick finds connections to Boston’s drug world, and believes the child has been kidnapped because Helene and her boyfriend have ripped off a Haitian drug dealer. With the help of Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), Patrick tries to negotiate the Amanda’s safe return at a local quarry, but things go haywire: A gunfight breaks out and it seems Amanda has fallen off of the quarry and drowned in the river below. Patrick is stricken with grief, but as he continues to work other cases, he realizes something just isn’t right about Amanda’s death.
The quarry, it turns out, was a set up, orchestrated by Doyle. Amanda isn’t just alive, but she’s now happily living with Doyle and his wife, who were raising the child after the loss of their own daughter years earlier. It’s a shocking twist not only because the audience is convinced of the child’s death, but because of Doyle breaking the law to assuage his own grief. —JR
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It’s a misdirect so subtle it sneaks up on you, and yet it’s essential for the meaning behind Jane Campion’s Western. Benedict Cumberbatch’s cowboy Phil has tormented poor Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) relentlessly: making fun of his lisp, the paper flowers he makes, doing everything he can to hold the poor teenager up to homophobic ridicule. But Peter may not be so helpless. He and Phil share a strange bond as the film goes on, but he sees the corrosive effect Phil has on his mother’s mindset. Willing to do anything to “protect” her, as Will Smith might put it, Peter concocts a plan: seeing a dead steer felled because of an anthrax infection, he gently carves out some of the infected tissue with the medical scalpels he’s using to study to become a doctor. Then he taints Phil’s hides with the anthrax, fatally poisoning him through an open wound in Phil’s hand.
The first time you watch “The Power of the Dog,” it takes a beat to piece together exactly what happened. When you do, it’s a powerful realization about how the abused can become an abuser. Phil, despite the “toxic masculinity” for which Twitter discourse condemns him, didn’t deserve to be murdered, especially given the tragedy of his own repression, and if one thinks of this ending as a simple revenge/payback plot (which some have seemed to) then those viewers have missed Campion’s rumination on cycles of violence indeed. —CB
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
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
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
The kind of narrative swerve that seems to come out of nowhere but is as fundamental to the set-up and themes of its film as any twist this century: the discovery that the former housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) of the Park family has been letting her husband, Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), live in the secret basement of their modernist home. When the family is asleep, he’ll sneak upstairs and steal food from the refrigerator. This family of plenty has so much, they never even notice — except for the youngest son, who sees this strange figure emerge from the depths, thinking he’s a ghost. The various members of the hustling Kim family have inserted themselves into the Parks’ orbit as a means to employment and income, but Geun-se’s story is an even more literal illustration of the title — and the entire idea of trickle-down economics. That in an economy built on inequity, the poor have to jockey for the scraps off the table of the rich. But Geun-se knows that there’s only so much room to be a parasite feeding off this family… —CB
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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. —MN
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
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
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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. —ZS
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
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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