The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
In a post-Hannibal and Red Dragon world, it’s hard to remember a time when Dr Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter wasn’t just a pantomime villain. In The Silence Of The Lambs, however, the Oscar-winning Anthony Hopkins portrays him as genuinely chilling and extremely dangerous. It’s a good job, too, because without such a power-house performance at the centre of the horror movie, the final scene – where the at-large Dr Lecter makes a phone call to rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling, to ask if her metaphorical lambs have stopped screaming – would have been cheesy as hell. “I do wish we could chat longer, but… I’m having an old friend for dinner,” he signs off as his psychiatrist nemesis Dr Chilton gets off a plane – funny and slightly cringe-worthy, but also the perfect ending for a classic thriller.
Thelma & Louise (1992)
When it comes to iconic blaze-of-glory freeze frames, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got there first, but Ridley Scott’s classic road movie did it better. With eponymous fugitives cornered by the authorities on the edge of the Grand Canyon, the duo agree to not get caught and keep going. Holding Thelma’s hand, Louise puts her foot on the accelerator of their vintage Ford Thunderbird, and the car flies off the cliff edge in glorious slow-motion, before the picture freezes, immortalising two characters in their most iconic moment. Optimistic, tear-jerking, and easily one of the best movie endings of all time.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The final scene of the classic prison drama – where Red reunites with his friend Andy on a Mexican beach – wasn’t in writer/director Frank Darabont’s original script. Like the Stephen King short story that inspired the movie, the film was supposed to end more ambiguously with Red on a bus, hoping to find his friend. But, proving that movie studios do sometimes know what they’re talking about, they suggested that after more than two hours of hell in Shawshank prison, the audience would need the catharsis of a reunion – and Darabont eventually agreed with them. It’s a perfect, wordless finale – subtle but utterly uplifiting.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
For some movies, the ending is simply a bookend; a way to wrap things up – if you removed it, it wouldn’t make much difference to what came before. In the case of The Usual Suspects, however, the final scenes are the foundation on which the whole house of cards is built – if the filmmakers hadn’t nailed the closing sequence, it wouldn’t have become a classic piece of ’90s cinema.
Future Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation and Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie’s script is a masterclass in structure from start to finish, but the final sequence, where Agent Dave Kujan realises that Verbal Kint was Big Bad Keyser Sose the entire time, is one of cinema’s most audacious twists. If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, his second was engineering one of the best movie endings in history.
Like The Usual Suspects, David Fincher’s first movie proper (he effectively disowned his debut, Alien 3) is an ingeniously assembled puzzle box whose entire structure is built around its conclusion. Serial killer John Doe is in custody and has seemingly been stopped before he has a chance to complete the last two murders of his Seven Deadly Sins-inspired killing spree. But it turns out he’s planned ahead – with brutal consequences. He’s arranged for a FedEx box to be delivered to Somerset and Mills. Although we never actually see inside, it apparently contains the severed head of Mills’ wife, Tracy. That’s Envy ticked off, leaving Mills to become Wrath by shooting John Doe, and complete the grandest of grand plans. Uncompromisingly brilliant.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
If there was no twist in The Sixth Sense, would the film still exist? From Unbreakable to The Village, director M Night Shyamalan’s subsequent career choices made sure he was pigeonholed as “the guy who does twists”, but never has he bettered the shock conclusion of this creepy ghost story. Some viewers twigged early on that psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe had died from the gunshot wound inflicted by one of his former patients, but the rest of us had to wait until the very end to find out he was one of the dead people clairvoyant kid Cole Sear sees “all the time”. It’s one of the best movie endings of all time because it completely changes everything you think you know about the story – and arms you with knowledge that makes every single rewatch very, very different.
It may not Christopher Nolan’s debut (that honour goes to Following), but Memento is the film that announced the arrival of an exciting new filmmaking talent. Technically speaking it shouldn’t really be on a list of the best movie endings at all, seeing as the tricksy backwards structure means the end is actually the beginning of the story, but it is a genuine original. Up to the final scenes, Memento’s focus is on Leonard Shelby, an amnesiac who can’t make new memories, and uses tattoos and Polaroids as reminders in his quest to find his wife’s murderer.
The big twist is that Shelby accidentally killed his diabetic wife with an insulin overdose, and that he’s created the backstory of the elusive “John G” to give his life purpose – instantly explaining why Teddy (seemingly Leonard’s closest friend) was shot at the beginning. Or should that be the end? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind employed similar narrative gymnastics (albeit in a more romantic setting) four years later.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Until Toy Story 4 arrived this summer, Toy Story 3 felt like the perfect full stop to Woody and Buzz Lightyear’s adventures in Andy’s bedroom. The moment the toys face their impending deaths in an incinerator is emotionally draining enough, but it’s nothing compared to a closing scene where Andy, before leaving for college, hands his toys over to sprightly tot Bonnie, starting a whole new chapter in their lives. It’s a beautiful way to end a trilogy, simultaneously happy and sad – and even if the fourth instalment had never existed we’d have been happy and emotionally satisfied.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
We could easily have included The Empire Strikes Back in this list of the best movie endings, but to call Star Wars: Episode V’s epic final act a mere ending is doing it a disservice. Nearly half an hour of brilliance (a quarter of the movie!) unfolds between Han Solo being turned into a carbonite decoration and the final credits – not even that famous parental revelation really counts as a denouement, because there’s still so much left to play out.
The Force Awakens closes perfectly, however, as Rey finally meets the man we’ve been waiting an entire movie – and the previous 32 years – to see on screen. That final shot of Luke Skywalker on the remote planet of Ahch-To, wearing an entirely ambiguous expression, instantly became one of the most iconic in Star Wars history – and made sure we were desperate to come back two years later for The Last Jedi.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The close of Avengers: Infinity War isn’t really an ending at all – freed from the need to wrap up any storylines, it’s simply a curtain-raiser for Avengers: Endgame and the ultimate cliffhanger – unashamedly so, in fact. With Thanos’s famous finger snap turning half the beings in the universe to dust – including big-name superheroes like Spider-Man, Black Panther and Star-Lord – there’s no question that the Mad Titan has won the battle. We had to wait a whole year to find out how (or, indeed, if) the original Avengers were going to win the war. Fair play to Marvel for keeping us guessing all the way until Endgame. Which, as it goes, would also be a contender for any collection of the best movie endings.