A great ending can leave a lasting impression. A smile on your face, a laugh in your belly, a tear in your eye, or a heavy weight on you soul.
Conversely, a bad ending can ruin a perfectly good movie. If it's a great movie, the ending might not necessarily RUIN it, but it means that you're forced to add "except for the ending" when discussing it as a great movie.
Here is a list of my favorite endings to film that aren't twist endings. I've separated those out for two reasons. One, the obvious fact that by the very virtue of being a twist ending, they pack a huge punch. Two, I figure I can get another list out of those.
But before I present the list, let me be clear what I'm talking about. I literally mean the ending of the film. Not near the end. Not the awesome scene that's right before the little tag at the end. I mean the moment before it cuts (or fades) to black. Sure the stuff leading up to that influences how great of an ending it is, but these films end at just the right moment.
And I think it goes without saying since we are talking about film endings, but here's the warning just the same: THERE BE SPOILERS!
#5: Being There
The book does not end the same way. In fact, I was impressed with how the author took his own pretty short book and expanded it into a two hour plus movie without it feeling unbearably slow.
That's not to say that it doesn't feel slow because it does...on purpose. It's a simple movie about a simple man.
We never learn much about Chauncey. He's a gardener. He's learned most of what he knows from television. And he has some sort of learning disability, though it's never fully explained.
By the end of the film, Chauncey is a well-known figure in both America and across the globe. No one can figure out who he is or where he comes from. Despite the fact that all of his advice is in actuality gardening advice (which people take for metaphors) there are plans to make him the next president of a major company. The current president, whom Chauncey has become close friends with, has just died.
Meanwhile, Chauncey wanders away from the funeral and attends to a small tree. And then he literally walks on water. Just to make sure we're paying attention, he sticks his umbrella under the water to show us this isn't supposed to be an illusion. Then he continues on his merry way, pausing to take care of some other branches.
It's nonsensical, yet at the same time, it makes perfect sense for this character whom we really know nothing about.
#4: The Godfather
While it's up for debate, the majority of people would agree that this is Al Pacino's best role. For those of us that are used to "crazy yelling" Al, it's remarkable to watch him play Michael Corleone, a quiet subdued "good son" who ultimately winds up in the family business that he was desperately trying to avoid.
In the last scene, Michael's entire demeanor has changed. It's not so noticeable at first because his character is fairly emotionless (externally, that is) from the beginning. But you can see it in his eyes. They don't react to his sister's sadness at her husband being killed. They don't betray his lies as he swears he had nothing to do with the killing.
As if it weren't bad enough to lie in the first place, he then tells his wife not to ask about his business. That's pretty horrible, but he takes it a step further and tells her that, just this once, he'll allow her to ask. He treats it so that telling her the truth is a compromise on his part instead of what should be expected.
And when she asks him if he had his sister's husband killed, HE POINTS BLANK LIES TO HER.
She's relieved. But she doesn't really believe him. She tries to tell herself she does, but that only lasts as long as it takes to walk out of his office. Then she turns back, watching as his associates gather around him.
One looks her in the eye before closing the door, forever separating her from her husband, and finalizing the transformation of Michael Corlenone from the man he was to the man he has become.
#3: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
What makes this ending work so well is that EVERYTHING has been previously set up. McMurphy has faked being lobotomized. He's spoken of the escape plan that involves ripping the water fountain out of the ground and hurling it through the window. And Chief, who for most of the film was thought to be at least as crazy as everyone else, has been shown to be probably the sanest one of all. He doesn't belong here. He's a prisoner.
If ever a murder could be completely justified, this is it. McMurphy wasn't in any real pain and could have lived for many years to come. But he was already dead, because the McMurphy that Chief smothers is not the McMurphy we've fallen in love with during the course of the movie.
With that mercy killing done, Chief has had enough. That this place would do this to his friend is too much for him to take. So he strains and struggles, pulls the water fountain free, hurls it through the window, and runs off into the woods.
The sound awakens the other patients who begin to cheer for him. And though we might not hoot and holler, we are cheering right along with them as we watch Chief disappear into the night, finally a free man.
#2: Monsters, Inc.
As fate would have it, I can't find videos of my favorite two endings. Hopefully I can describe them well enough that it won't matter. (Or at least well enough that you'll want to go check them out again.)
If I didn't love Boo and want to adopt her as my own, the movie wouldn't have worked at all, much less the ending. But the fact is that she's amazingly cute and fun.
The last we see of her is an incredibly sad moment, where Sully has to take her back home and leave her there. She opens the closet to scare him, but there's nothing there except her clothes. "Kitty?" she asks. Thankfully, it cuts away before she starts crying, which is undoubtedly what happened.
Meanwhile, back in the world of the monsters, her door is shredded so that Sully can never see her again.
Cut to some time later where things have changed. Now they gather the laughs of children instead of their screams. Everything and everyone is happy.
Except for Sully. He still keeps the drawing that Boo made of the two of them, along with a piece of the door to her room.
That's when Mike takes him aside to show him a secret. He's rebuilt the door from scratch, carefully gathering all of the pieces of wood. And it only needs the final piece before it will work.
Sully goes through the door and appears in Boo's room. All we can see is him as he looks around, searching for Boo.
And then her voice, with that high pitched squeal of excitement. "Kitty!" And a big smile on Sully's face before we cut away.
Man, that ending makes me cry out of happiness every single time. Actually, I just teared up writing about it.
#1: say anything
While the 80's did a great job of making high schoolers feel like real people with real problems, this film has two extra elements. One, John Cusack. Simple as that. And two, the subplot featuring Diane's father's tax evasion, which results in him being put in prison.
Even when Lloyd visits him in prison, trying his best to patch things up between him and his daughter, Diane's father insists that it's a bad idea for Lloyd to go with her to France where she plans to attend art school.
And you know what? He's probably right. We're talking about people that just graduated high school. Sure, they're in love now, but things could change and cause a lot of drama for both of them.
While the film doesn't really address what will happen down the line, it does hint at those feelings of wondering where their road will take them.
In the final scene, Lloyd and Diane are sitting in the airplane as it takes off. She's headed to art school. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life other than be with her.
Diane is nervous, mainly about the flight, but really it's a way to show that she's nervous about everything that's yet to come. So are we.
Lloyd tries to calm her, explaining that it's just some turbulence, and that once the "seatbelt light" dings off, everything will be okay. He means in regards to the flight, but again, it's a subtle way of assuring her and us that they'll be okay.
The film doesn't try to act like this is the best idea. They are both nervous, and you can see that they aren't so sure this is a good decision.
They focus on the light. We focus on the light. Then suddenly it DINGS. Cut to black.
Perhaps their relationship doesn't work out in the end. But at the moment we last see them, everything is absolutely perfect. Including the ending.