The Greatest Finales in Movie History

A comprehensive movie, in my mind, is only as good as its finale. How many times have we seen films that were generally satisfying, but ended with a resounding dud? I generally walk out of the theater disappointed after seeing this sad category of films. Conversely, sometimes a finale can uplift a movie experience to even higher levels of excellence. Here’s a list of some of my favorite of such endings. Keep in mind that I’ll probably change my mind as some of you recommend movies with even better endings, or remind me of those which I completely forgot about. SPOILERS AHEAD.

12. Blue Velvet
Blue Velvet ends very similarly to how it begins, including a carbon copy of some shots, such as the white picket fences and cheerful suburban neighborhood. The context of this montage, however, has a completely new meaning after the dark trials of our protagonist Jeffrey Beamont (Kyle MachLachlan), and the sexually abused Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossini). Director David Lynch is keen on demonstrating that light will always out-balance darkness, but only when those who pursue the good choose to expose themselves to the evil which may pervade a seemingly pleasant environment. The tone here is extremely bright, and coupled with Julee Cruise’s distinctive musical background, provides an uplifting finale to an otherwise extremely dark film. It’s a bit corny, but the corniness is still somehow fitting.

11. The Truman Show
This may be one of, if not the most meta final scenes in film history. Truman, having discovered the nature of his TV show reality, walks the stairs to a solitary door, speaks with his “God”, gives a bow, and leaves. The End. The framing of this scene and simple design is perfectly befitting. I find the ensuing global reactions of Truman’s exit to be perfectly comedic, as they represent The Truman Show’s actual audience cheering on Truman. The only folly for this whole scene is when the two bozos say “What else is on?”. It’s funny but a bit cheap considering the magnitude of what just happened for our hero.

10. La La Land
The ending to La La Land is in my mind one of the most clever of the 21st century. It plays out primarily as a surreal dancing dream-sequence, reminiscent of Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s dance in An American in Paris. The meaning here is far more profound though. Mia and Sebastian re-unite in a nightclub years after their first meeting, both having taken very different paths in life, despite their initial relationship and career goals. The dream sequence plays out as both a reflection of past events, and an outline of what could have been. Alas, this was not the case: Sebastian concludes his piano piece and gives Mia a heartfelt nod, a sobering but honest indication of the realities of achieving success. I could not have imagined a more fitting ending to tell the quintessential age-old story of artistic hopefuls and their paths to stardom in Los Angeles.

9. The Empire Strikes Back
I need not cover this one in detail. The final image of C-3PO, R2-D2, alongside the injured Luke and Leia looking out towards a distant star system after suffering a major defeat is one of the most iconic in film history. This shot conveys a message of hopefulness, but does not shed away the preceding moments of horror that our band of heroes suffered. The somber but optimistic tone is accentuated by John William’s brilliant score.

8. Inception
I will be honest when I say that Inception’s ending wasn’t particularly intriguing to me as it was to many others, but like The Empire Strikes Back, it is so iconic that I would be remiss to exclude it from this list. Cobb walking away from his signature top, (his main tool to distinguish dream from reality), in order to embrace his children leaves us with an uneasy feeling that all is not as it seems. Cut to black, and we never find out. This is the type of ending more audiences deserve.

7. Avengers: Endgame
The last minute or so of Endgame is what makes this finale golden. Steve’s reunion with Peggy was unexpected yet so emotionally ideal a final moment for a series that was otherwise crammed with massive CGI battles and loud explosions. This simple moment of the two dancing to Kitty Kallen’s “Its Been a Long, Long Time” was the beautiful scene we didn’t know we needed.

6. The Graduate
This may be the most underrated finale on my list. I have another write-up on the way which discusses the major themes and importance of The Graduate, but this finale plays a key role in illustrating the film’s underlying message. Benjamin Braddock, having engaged in an affair with the iconic Mrs. Robinson, thereby squandering a real romance with her daughter Elaine, decided to make things right by helping her spring from a forced marriage on her wedding day. Successfully causing a ruckus in the church, the two gleefully hop on a bus to nowhere. However, their happiness quickly but subtly turns to regret as Simon and Garfunkel’s famous “The Sound of Silence” plays in the background. In this fable on post-graduate angst and desire to break from the mold, this ending is a perfectly executed image that conveys the consequences of spontaneity in place of pursuing the ideal “nuclear family”.

5. Casablanca
Casablanca is iconic on many levels, but the final moments of this film are beyond legendary. “Here’s looking at you kid”, said by Rick to Isla as she departs from him forever, now on her own journey towards resistance alongside Victor Laszlo, is a kind of romantic moment that has inspired so many others that it’s borderline futile to count how many. The film’s other iconic line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”, closes out the action and drama focus of the film with a crescendo of dramatic energy. It is escapist melodrama perfected, which has been and will be a model for many other films to come.

4. The Godfather
Michael Corleone’s character transformation from sheepish youngster to ruthless mob boss is perhaps one of the strongest developments in film history. While The Godfather Part II is a greater exposure to Michael’s dark side, the finale to The Godfather is a poignant introduction. The final moment where Kate looks at her brooding husband with fear and worry as his capos address him at the new “Don Corleone” provides a dreadful feeling for things to come, literally closing the door on an epic story, and a perfect setup for the next chapter.

3. The Usual Suspects
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This remains one of the greatest lines in movie history. When said earlier in The Usual Suspects, it comes off as a cool piece of dialogue that’s said as a fun way to frame a scene. In the context of this “whodunnit” thriller’s infamous ending, this phrase takes on a shocking meaning. The twist to this movie is so good that I won’t even post a link to the scene. Go watch this excellent film and see for yourself.

2. There Will Be Blood
The sum of all Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day Lewis) envious and greedy evils is revealed in this penultimate explosive moment. “Wrath” is the one word I would use to describe this scene. Daniel’s vicious tirade against the scheming and fraudulent preacher Eli Sunday is somehow satisfying in a dark way. While Daniel is the one with the upper hand, this is clearly an emotional collapse as a total subside to pain and anger. Without any competition to drive his only sense of being, having eliminated any remaining familial bond, Daniel ends up being the loser in his own race. The dialogue in this whole sequence is brilliant, much of it improvised by Daniel Day Lewis, and the dramatic result is fantastic.

1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
The greatness in Dr. Strangelove’s finale is simplicity. It is a pure, to-the-point message. Made by Stanley Kubrick at one of the darkest moments of the Cold War, the conclusion to this film is far from inspiring. After the US and Soviets accidentally doom themselves to Mutually Assured Destruction and Dr. Strangelove comically screams “MEIN FUHRER, I CAN WALK!!”, we are shown a montage of real-life nuclear explosions set to Vera Lynn’s World War II hit “We’ll Meet Again”, a sign of things to come. It is literally just a raw-footage montage, but it is horrifying. The audience is sucked back into the reality that we made these horrible weapons, and at any time a combination of negligent and/or irresponsible leadership can end the world dozens of times over. Amidst the masquerade of comedic cinematic escapism, Kubrick abruptly reminds us of the absolutely dire yet darkly comedic reality of the insane situation humanity put itself in, something important enough for us to never forget.