The 25 Best Movie Endings of All Time
We've all had the same feeling. You're watching a good movie, everything is moving forward exactly the way you feel it should, and then the ending comes and it just doesn't land. Plenty of great stories have been derailed by lackluster endings, or endings that simply chicken out on the bold promises the rest of the film made to its audience. The 25 movies below, thankfully, are not those stories. These are the ones that got it right, whether we realized it upon first viewing or not. Here are our picks for 25 of the greatest movie endings of all time (in chronological order).
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
On a surface level, Orson Welles's masterpiece Citizen Kane would seem to have an extremely simply, if tragic, ending. Welles's doomed tycoon Charles Foster Kane utters a dying word, Rosebud, and later the audience is shown that the word referenced the sled Kane played with as a boy just before his life was thrown into upheaval. Therefore, it would seem the film ends with a straightforward elegy for lost innocence. Yet, decades after its release and despite countless re-examinations of the film, we are still talking about "Rosebud" and its many meanings as a component of memory, nostalgia, and the way we both control and lose control of our own narratives in life. It remains a puzzle very much worth playing with, even if we can never fully solve it.
2. Casablanca (1942)
We tend to think of "Hollywood endings" as universally happy things, particularly when it comes to romance, but Casablanca—one of the most recognizable classics from Hollywood's Golden Age—has been flouting that conventional perception for decades. Rick and Ilsa's bittersweet goodbye remains one of the most famous romantic moments in all of film history, made even more powerful by its refusal to give the audience what they want. Instead we get what we need, and the combination of Ingrid Bergman's passion and Humphrey Bogart's resolve sells the whole thing.
3. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock's ability to assemble perfect thrillers is the stuff of legend, in part because he always seemed to know exactly how to end a film in a way that his audience wouldn't be able to get out of their heads. The ending of Psycho, featuring a smirking Norman Bates and a haunting inner monologue, crawls into your brain and just keeps buzzing there like the fly Norman refuses to swat. It's still buzzing there now, 60 years later.
4. The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder told a lot of great love stories in the course of his career, but The Apartment remains the most emotionally complex. It's not so much a story of falling in love as it is a story about keeping the faith that love will find you, and what happens when that faith is almost lost. The final scene culminates not in a sweeping romantic kiss but in a simple game of cards, as Bud and Fran finally see something in each other that the rest of the world never seemed to give them: comfort.
5. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
At the time of its release, the ending of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde generated instant interest in conversation because of how bloody it was in the eyes of 1967 audiences. Modern viewers are less likely to notice the brutality of the actual imagery now, but the way the ending lands as an inevitable consequence of a doomed love story hasn't dulled at all with time. The most striking thing about the film is how often it tells you that the title characters are destined to go down in flames, and yet each time you watch it—thanks to the unshakeable charisma of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway—you expect a clean getaway that never comes.
6. The Graduate (1967)
What's perhaps most striking about the ending of The Graduate now is how many movies we've seen since it was made that would stop right before it chooses to. Plenty of films traffic in a similar comedic tone, but still manage to end at a moment of apparent happiness without interrogating deeper. By giving us one more moment to sit with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross), Mike Nichols leaves us with something that sticks in our minds a lot longer than pure joy would have.
7. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The ending of Planet of the Apes—featuring a horrified Charlton Heston screaming at the ruins of the Statue of Liberty—is one of the most referenced, parodied, and commented on endings in all of cinema history. It's so recognizable that you probably know what it is even if you haven't seen the film, but it didn't just reach that status because it's a memorable image. It's a payoff to a rather direct metaphor for a world gone mad that works almost as well today as it did amid the Cold War.
8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick is a master of iconic endings, from Dr. Strangelove to The Shining, so it's hard to pick one of them that stands out above the rest. The ecstatic, mind-expanding conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey is our pick, though, because it's the one that fans still debate in a way that even The Shining devotees don't. Both films induce chills with their final moments, but 2001 does it in a more hopeful, not to mention absolutely visually dazzling, way.
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead's ferocious, unflinching final moments land, tragically, just as heavily today as they did more than 50 years ago when the film was released. Actor Duane Jones spends the entire film building himself as a sympathetic, smart, heroic man determined to last long enough to see a better world, only to be shot by an unthinking militia when the dawn comes. The rest of the movie is scary, but the final scene's depiction of a Black man dehumanized and cast aside by a white mob is haunting.
10. The Godfather (1972)
Marlon Brando may have won the Oscar for The Godfather, but Al Pacino's Michael Corleone is at the heart of its epic, tragic story. What begins with a simple desire to protect his family morphs into a chain reaction of violence and callousness that all builds to the moment when Michael, surrounded by his new followers, literally and metaphorically closes the door on a part of himself that's been lost forever. It's a gut punch that the sequel miraculously somehow amplifies rather than diminishes.
11. Chinatown (1974)
There are so many threads being woven together in Chinatown, from the film noir elements to the corruption to the family and sexual drama running through the whole piece, that by the time you get to the final minutes of the film it seems impossible that it can all be brought in for a smooth landing. It turns out it can't be, and that's the point. The film ends in a hail of bullets, and before you've even grasped the scope of the tragedy, the film itself ushers you away with an unforgettable final line. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" is to this day an all-encompassing way of saying "You can't solve this."
12. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
For almost the entirety of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, its main characters are static. The criminals are on the train, and the Transit Police lieutenant (Walter Matthau) trying to slow them down is behind a switchboard, begging for more time. When it all breaks down, it breaks down quickly and dramatically, which is why the film's ultimate ending is so sublime. After all that, the solution (or is it?) to the mystery comes down to a single, poorly-timed sneeze.
13. Carrie (1976)
There's an element of impish glee running through Brian De Palma's Carrie, from the way the film showcases the often clueless arrogance of Carrie White's (Sissy Spacek) tormentors to the absolutely unhinged performance from Piper Laurie as Carrie's mother. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that De Palma would want to pay off the devilish delight one last time with a jump scare that had popcorn sticking to movie theater ceilings all over America. It's an ending so good, it convinced a young Stephen King that the film would be a hit.
14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
How do you top the climax of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which features Kevin McCarthy screaming "You're next!" directly into the camera? If you're Philip Kaufman, you both pay homage to that ending in your new interpretation and you build up such a level of paranoia and dread that the audience clings to the one sane man in your narrative right up until the final, haunting shot. With that achieved, you ask Donald Sutherland to make one of the most horrifying faces in all of horror cinema, and unleash a primal scream that will have everyone squirming in their seats as the credits roll.
15. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter's The Thing is perhaps best remembered among horror fans for its dazzling visual effects and, of course, the amazing blood test scene. But the sense of utter paranoia and tension running through those moments is present throughout the film, and it all builds to one of the greatest ambiguous endings in horror cinema: Two men, alone in the frozen dark, each ready to be proven right and be destroyed at the same time.
16. The Vanishing (1988)
The Vanishing is a film about obsessive search for truth, and the real brilliance of George Sluizer's filmmaking approach is in the way he makes us a part of that obsession rather than just observers of it. The audience gets to know more about the killer than the protagonist does, but we still never get the whole story. Sluizer pushes us, just as he pushes Rex (Gene Bervoets), to absolutely crave that last piece of the puzzle above all else. The horrifying payoff remains one of the most chilling conclusions ever put on film.
17. Do the Right Thing (1989)
A dead Black man, a riot, a ruined local business, a violent police response, and two men left standing in the rubble of an even more complicated world. It sounds like something you might have read about yesterday, and that's why Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing still hits so hard decades after it was released. The ending's lack of any real answers only makes it more powerful, and the quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the end only serve to further remind us that answers don't come easy, no matter how much time has passed.
18. Thelma & Louise (1991)
In the hands of the wrong storyteller, an ending like the one in Thelma & Louise would fall absolutely flat, be little more than a joke, or even transform into a misogynistic snipe at "dramatic" women. In the hands of Ridley Scott and his two shining stars, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, it becomes a primal shout in the face of an unfair world, a triumphant moment in which two women for whom the game has never been fair simply refuse to play anymore.
19. The Usual Suspects (1995)
A lot of storytellers have done the "supervillain inserts himself into the narrative so he can shape it to his liking" trick, but few stories have ever pulled it off quite like The Usual Suspects. The film is a masterclass in slow burning, groundwork-laying dialogue, all in service to creating a legendary figure who may or may not really exist. By the time the reveal comes, we believe the myth of Keyser Soze so thoroughly that all it takes to send our jaws to the floor is a walk.
20. Fargo (1996)
When it comes to Fargo, most people get the infamous woodchipper scene stuck in their heads right away. The more time you spend with this Coen brothers classic, though, the more you come to appreciate the quiet moment that follows it: Marge Gunderson, back home with her husband, celebrating his art on a three-cent stamp and their impending baby. It's a reminder that, even in a world that seems determined to rip itself apart, you have to celebrate in your own quiet way whenever you can.
21. Big Night (1996)
Baking a big tonal shift into the ending of your film is always a risk, but having one of the most endearing casts ever assembled certainly helps to pull it off. The final act of Big Night largely plays out as one big party laced with some of the greatest food porn ever put on film. Then the ending comes, and the film deflates like a falling souffle, as our restaurateur heroes (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) watch their dream fade. Still, there's an element of hope to the final scene, as the brothers realize (in silence) that they still have each other. And they still have to eat.
22. American Psycho (2000)
In director Mary Harron's hands, American Psycho becomes a black horror-comedy about a man thoroughly devoted in every respect to building his own myth. Christian Bale's brilliant performance as Patrick Bateman is drenched in toxic masculinity that transcends even the 1980s excesses that run through the plot, so even now the film's conclusion lands flawlessly. Is Patrick Bateman a man who failed to craft the brutal legacy he thought he was chasing, or is he so delusional that he only thought he'd even tried? There are so many layers to it, and all of them are satisfying.
23. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
To this day, you can mention "the ending" of The Return of the King and hear someone in the room quip "Which one?" in response. It's a joke that has plagued the final film in The Lord of the Rings trilogy since it was released, and while it's amusing, it's also an oversimplification. The ending of Peter Jackson's epic—stretched out across several scenes that span the breadth of Middle-earth—is a fitting farewell to the scope of the narrative. It could only ever have ended on such a scale, and there are so many beautiful smaller moments within that grand scope that the length of the journey was worth it.
24. Lost in Translation (2003)
Lost in Translation is one of those films that has built a lot of pop culture clout and staying power because of what it doesn't tell the viewer. The question "What did he say to her?" permeates the conversation around the film, but what's sometimes lost in that conversation is that it isn't meant to be a mystery. The story of Bob and Charlotte is a story about the power and necessity of unlikely human connection, and the more time you spend with this film, the more it matters to you that Bob made the choice to say anything at all.
25. Moonlight (2016)
You don't need a lot of characters and converging plotlines to generate an intensely emotionally complex ending for your story, and Barry Jenkins proved it with his stunning, Oscar-winning drama Moonlight. In the end, after doing what he could to adapt and survive in a world determined to keep him from being who he really was, all Chiron needed to let go was a little warmth from another human. It's a stunning interrogation of our perceptions of masculinity in general, and Black masculinity in particular, that's both haunting and soothing.