Warning: Spoilers are an inherent part of this list!
My favorite, small part of a movie is undoubtedly the final shot. Like the closing sentence of a great novel, closing shots cement a film’s intent. It’s a very self-aware moment, the last chance to leave an impression on the audience. Because of this, you often get some of the most beautiful images, and stunning moments.
Unlike a novel, though, a great final shot should ideally be cinematic in nature. I kept that in mind when creating my list of the Top 10 Closing Shots. Each shot is successful due to image and sound. I also employed a rule that the shots on my list should have at least some stand-alone relevance. This means that a film with a great closing shot, like Michael Haneke’s “Caché”, is ineligible – a great, powerful shot, but meaningless to someone that hasn’t viewed the entire film.
One final note. Closing shots are always best appreciated when earned – by putting in the time to watch the full film. For that reason, I have included only a still frame from each film’s final shot in an attempt to preserve the aura and emotional impact of the shot for those that seek out the entire film. You could always cheat and find the full closing moments on YouTube, but I at least want to make you work for it. Every film on the list is worth seeing in its entirety.
Enjoy, and whether I got it right, or left out your favorite closing shot, leave a comment after you’ve gone through the list. There’s always a chance I’ll write a follow-up blog to your comment if I haven’t seen a film, or haven’t revisited it recently enough to put it on a list.
10. A Serious Man (2009)
Dir: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
DP: Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC
The Coen Brothers’ dark comedy “A Serious Man” is one of their less seen films despite a Best Picture nomination, but it remains as quirky and skillfully made as any of their bigger hits. The film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a Jewish professor who begins to question his religious faith after his life begins to unravel.
The final shot, captured by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, is pretty shocking. Having been tempted to accept a bribe in exchange for passing a failing student, Stuhlbarg’s decision may just have provoked the wrath of his god. In the schoolyard outside his window, a dark, furious tornado touches ground in the distance. Coincidental natural disaster, or the professor’s reckoning? We’re left with no answers, only an image that leads you to rethink the entire film that has suddenly become darker and more dramatic than expected.
9. Inception (2010)
Dir: Christopher Nolan
DP: Wally Pfister, ASC
Christopher Nolan’s epic mind-bending action thriller “Inception” follows Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a skilled extractor – a sort of tactical agent specializing in entering the dreams of others to steal information from a target’s subconscious. This dangerous and unethical work has landed Cobb in a world of isolation – unable to live with his children or partake in a normal life in the United States. He is offered a chance to have all of that back by completing one final information heist – this time planting an idea rather than stealing it (a process known as inception). Throughout this journey through dream worlds, Cobb carries a totem – an object used to test whether or not he is dreaming. Cobb’s totem is a spinning top. In dreams, the top doesn’t stop spinning.
The film ends with Cobb spinning the top one last time, now having finally regained his life at home. The camera pushes in slowly as the top spins, drawing you in closer and closer. Cobb walks away to meet his children, the totem keeps spinning. It begins to falter in its perfect spirals, offering just the hint of a tip, but we cut to black before it tips.
This now iconic shot has gained reputation as the ultimate cliffhanger, and it’s hard to ignore. It’s inspired many conspiracies into the meaning of the totem and clues within the film that point to the truth, but as it sits – there is no answer as to whether Cobb was really dreaming or not in the end, or whether he cares to know the answer to that question. Regardless, I cannot think of a moment in recent cinema that insights more immediate discussion of a movie the second the credits roll than “Inception”.
8. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow
DP: Greig Fraser
Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her 2008 sleeper hit, Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker”, again turns to the American war in Iraq. This time, it is to dramatize the culmination of a decade of military and intelligence effort: the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The film stars Jessica Chastain as Maya Lambert – a C.I.A. analyst that becomes obsessed with tracking Bin Laden after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Obviously, based on a very recent true story, everyone knows where the story is heading – she will eventually be successful in her hunt.
The final shot is a close-up of Agent Lambert – she has just succeeded in the killing of Bin Laden, yet the film hasn’t swept us away in celebration with a soaring score and a shot of the American flag blowing in the wind. Instead, we end with Lambert alone on a cargo plane headed back to the United States. As she sits and we cut to the final close-up, she hangs on screen for several beats, unsure of what to do now that her 10-year obsession has come to an end. The backdrop of the airplane’s interior fuselage looks a lot like the U.S. flag, distorted and torn.
The image is so perfectly emotionally resonant that it has stuck with me ever since. What a powerful moment of reflection after a crucial interpretation of history.
7. The Third Man (1949)
Dir: Carol Reed
DP: Robert Krasker, ASC
Carol Reed’s 1949 film noir mystery “The Third Man” tells the story of Holly Martins – a novelist seeking out a friend in post-war Vienna only to discover he was hit by a car and killed. Differing accounts of his death, including the existence or lack of a ‘third man’ at the crime scene lead Holly to investigate the incident. Along the way, he interacts with and tries to take care of the dead man’s girlfriend: Anna.
The final shot of the film finds Holly waiting to speak to Anna after having solved the mystery. In one of the very best examples of the stark photography of noir, Holly waits for Anna in a long street with long lines of trees on either side. Powerful symmetry and a high contrast black-and-white image make the shot immediately distinctive for the time. Anna approaches from far in the distance walking towards Holly, and the camera. She slowly becomes larger and larger as she gets closer – it takes so long that a suspenseful irritation is built up in the viewer. Anna finally reaches Holly, ignores him, and keeps walking by.
6. City Lights (1931)
Dir: Charles Chaplin
DP: Gordon Pollock, Roland Totheroh
Perhaps one of the greatest silent films of all time, “City Lights” is a warm, accessible Charlie Chaplin romance that finds The Tramp falling in love with a blind girl. After saving the life of a suicidal millionaire, The Tramp has the financial means to woo the girl with gifts. After she undergoes surgery to regain her sight, she recognizes The Tramp by the touch of his hand when they run into each other on the street.
The final shot is of The Tramp as the woman is recognizing him as her partner from the previous flirtations. It’s not a brilliantly framed shot, nor does it have any grandiose note of finality. What it does have, is Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s look of vast hopefulness, of apprehension, of excitement that she has recognized him and fear of what she’ll think – it’s one of the most stirring performances captured on film, silent or not.
5. The Searchers (1956)
Dir: John Ford
DP: Winton C. Hoch, ASC
John Ford’s masterful “The Searchers” is often considered the best American Western film. I personally prefer something from Leone, but “The Searchers” is nonetheless irresistible Americana. It stars none other than John Wayne – a civil war veteran turned cowboy that searches for his niece after she is abducted by an Indian tribe. The person who first told me about this film described the portrayal of the Indians as “savagely racist”, and that’s pretty accurate. These are not people, but a separate species that exists only to rape and murder and scream war cries. This makes it pretty easy to get into the heroic rescue story, at the cost of a bit of racism regarding what Native American’s were actually like.
The final shot is a true classic. John Wayne returns his niece to her home, but of course he cannot stay. He is the lone cowboy, and belongs away from the domesticity of a family’s home. Wayne steps out onto the front deck as his niece is carried inside. The doorway perfectly frames him as he walks out into the distant desert. A beautiful composition that firmly separates Wayne from the world around him, and a perfect final note to a classic film.
4. The Graduate (1967)
Dir: Mike Nichols
DP: Robert Surtees, ASC
“The Graduate” is one of the first films that ever struck me as an elevated cinematic experience, and it has a lot to do with the last sequence in the film. The plot goes like this: Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), recent college graduate, is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), but later falls in love with her daughter, Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).
Elaine eventually ends up marrying someone else, but that doesn’t stop Ben from interrupting Elaine’s wedding to declare his love for her. After literally fighting off the wedding guests with a wooden cross pulled off the wall, Ben and Elaine blissfully run from the church and jump on a bus, leaving the wedding guests behind them.
At the back of the bus, Ben and Elaine are elated and giggling. As the bus continues, the moment slips away. The elation turns to something else – anxiety, fear, confusion. The turn of emotions inserts a clear thought into the viewer’s mind: “What do they do now?” The bus pulls away, the credits roll.
I must admit that this pick is a small cheat, as the shot in question of the two characters in the back of the bus is actually the second-to-last shot of the film. The very final shot shows the bus driving away briefly, but that back of the bus moment is just too good to leave out of this list. The power of the moment is crushingly authentic, and is derived not from a monologue but purely the silent performance – the eyes, the music. It is exclusively cinematic.
3. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
DP: Robert Elswit, ASC
Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece among masterpieces “There Will Be Blood” is a film about an oil prospector searching for fortune and a local evangelist that preaches in the small town that sits atop an ocean of oil.
Many years after the main events of the film, “There Will Be Blood” ends in the bowling room of the oil prospector’s lavish mansion when he receives one last visit from the preacher. If you haven’t seen the film, you may have heard of the “I drink your milkshake!” monologue. The truth of it is that the scene is much darker and more substantial than the parodies of that monologue have made it out to be.
After helping fulfill the promise of the film’s title, the oil prospector sits in the middle of a bowling lane and proclaims, “I’m finished”, and a perfectly symmetrical shot of the small bowling alley cuts to black with the sharp tune of violins from the classical score.
“There Will Be Blood” is a film I consider the best of the decade, and the ending is unrivaled in contemporary cinema.
2. The 400 Blows (1959)
Dir: François Truffaut
DP: Henri Decaë
Critic turned celebrated filmmaker François Truffaut was 27-years-old when he became a primary contributor to the evolution of cinema via the French New Wave. The New Wave in France was launched by a small handful of films, and Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” was one of them.
It is a mostly-biographical coming of age tale that follows Antoine Dionel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) – an adolescent living in Paris with his cold, unloving mother and his friendly but distracted father. Antoine begins getting into trouble – skipping school, stealing a typewriter. He is eventually sent to a juvenile center for troubled youths where he is examined by a psychiatrist. Antoine escapes from the center and runs to the nearby sea in the final moments of the film.
The last shot tracks Antoine as he jogs out onto the beach towards the water, and concludes with a haunting, unexpected zoom-in to freeze-frame on his face looking into the camera.
“The 400 Blows” is a devastating film that has the good fortune of being intensely honest, too. The final shot is poignant in ways that are difficult to pinpoint. It is a fascinating and appropriate ending to an intensely personal film.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dir: Tobe Hooper
DP: Daniel Pearl, ASC
Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has recently been remade. Forget about that. The original 1974 film is a one-of-a-kind horror classic in that while the likes of “Evil Dead” have become comedy in retrospect and “The Exorcist” is only still thematically scary, “Chainsaw Massacre” is still to this day one of the most unsettling, disturbing films ever made.
It had a lot to do with cinematographer Daniel Pearl’s documentarian approach to capturing the story that has five friends being chased in the countryside by a chainsaw wielding psychopath wearing a mask of human skin. The camera frequently enters environments to follow the action, not to indulge in stylistic flare or campiness, and it is made all the more terrifying for it.
The final shot shows the killer in the middle of a remote highway viciously whipping his chainsaw around against a stunning sunset backdrop – furious that one of the five teens has escaped his reach by fleeing in the back of a pick-up truck.
This shot completely rejects the diminishing impact of horror films over time; it is visceral as hell. It is pure horror, one of the most definitive images of cinema, and my pick for the very best closing shot of all time.
Honorable Mention: Brokeback Mountain, The Godfather, and Cache (and, we’ll admit it, The Breakfast Club)
Check out our companion piece: The 10 Best Opening Scenes in Cinema History