The Top 10 Best Surprise Movie Endings... Ever

(Posters courtesy of Castle Rock, Focus Features, Gramercy)

**This article contains spoilers for each of the ten films on this list. Endings are ruined, plots are revealed, and deus ex machinas exposed, so consider this fair warning**

What do the best movies usually have in common? Why, a great ending of course! Ask anyone about their favorite movie and you'll find this to be true. So which are the best? Movies like Citizen Kane, Psycho, and The Sting all set the bar decades ago with killer endings but we've made a list that turned out to be much more contemporary. The best have appeared in films during the past 25 years. Ready for the big reveal?

10. Unbreakable (2000)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Written by M. Night Shyamalan

Although The Sixth Sense's ending is considered by many to be superior, that judgment is rooted only in the fact it came first. Unbreakable is much less predictable and its elegant use of comic book structure makes the ending top 10 worthy. Shyamalan's camera framing, color schemes, and use of shadow all mirror a comic book's and the film's finish is a classic nod to the genre. When David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovers his mentor, Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), has been causing horrific events to find an alpha to his omega, the film turns from a mystery to a classic battle between good and evil, the very essence of the comics.

9. Brick (2005)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Written by Rian Johnson

Perfectly structured, Johnson's Brick may be the best film noir since Chinatown. In his relentless pursuit of his girlfriend Em's (Emile DeRavin) killer, high school loner Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) uncovers a shady world of sex, drugs, and violence in his SoCal suburb. When the film concludes with a shootout between the local druglord known as "The Pin" (Lukas Haas), his muscle Tugg (Noah Fleiss), and the cops, the mystery seems to be wrapped up. But, things aren't as they seem. Brendan meets the film's femme fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner), on the football field and breaks down what she thought was still secret: She stole the brick and set up Em to take the fall. But Laura knows something Brendan doesn't: Em was pregnant with Brendan's kid.

8. Fight Club (1999)
Directed by David Fincher
Written by Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Between Se7en and Fight Club, it's a coin flip which ending Fincher staged better. Both are masterfully done, but Fight Club wins for its magnificent audacity. The answer was always there for us, but we couldn't see it. While we watch The Narrator (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden's (Brad Pitt) friendship evolve throughout the movie, it becomes clear how the film will end. Of course, it usually takes a second viewing to come to this realization. When we finally see the two men are the same person... the same insane person, we tell ourselves we knew it all along. Fincher's hints are everywhere, which is why the film is so fun to watch over and over.

7. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Directed by David Lynch
Written by David Lynch

Perhaps Lynch's best film, Mulholland Dr. is also a noir but with signature Lynchian touches: desperate women, enigmatic supporting characters, and dreams. Bubbly aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) finds an amnesia-stricken beauty (Laura Harring) in her apartment and the two try to solve the mystery of her identity. Lynch is a master of disorientation while viscerally leading the audience through his story. Mulholland's ending is confounding, as Watts and Harring both appear in different roles it becomes clear the film's main story was a dream or hallucination. Names and places emerge as fragments of Watts' character's imagination and she kills herself, overcome by the unrequited love that propelled her madness.

6. Dark City (1998)
Directed by Alex Proyas
Written by Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer

Another neo-noir (aren't they the best?), Dark City is one of most underrated sci-fi films ever made. Filled with classic homages to old Hollywood, the film is set in the future, but looks straight out of 1940. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens nude in a bathtub. He finds a curious needle on the floor and a dead body in the bedroom. He can't remember anything but soon finds a group of trenchcoat-clad beings (the Strangers) are stalking him. When they confront him, he finds he has telekinetic powers as they do. He escapes and discovers everyone in the city is under the control of the Strangers, who can stop time, implant memories, and alter the architecture of the city itself. Murdoch's search for the truth leads him to the actual end of the city where he breaks through a wall to find the infinite dark of space on the other side. The city itself is actually an island habitat, floating through outer space.

5. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Christopher McQuarrie

In Singer's Oscar-nominated mystery, "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) is interrogated about a series of events that explode in a bloodbath on a yacht. Kint tells of a notorious gangster named Keyser Soze, who had commissioned Kint and a gang of felons for assorted robberies. Soze is a faceless mystery, a shadow in the darkness, feared by cops and thugs alike. Singer weaves the tale methodically, introducing a lineup of characters and subplots that all culminate in one of the greatest final scenes ever made. After Kint is released, interrogator agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) discovers many of the details of Verbal's story aren't adding up. We see Kint outside, walking with his signature limp. Slowly we see the limp correct itself and he walks normally. Kint was Soze all along.

4. Barton Fink (1991)
Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (uncredited)
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the Coen Brothers' cerebral, allegorical homage to writers and the writing process has one of the most polarizing endings in film history. Barton Fink (John Turturro), trying to write a screenplay at the creepy Hotel Earle in L.A. is the toast of Broadway but can't seem to get the hang of writing a screenplay. He just stares at the beach painting on his wall and extols the virtues of high art to his neighbor, Charlie (John Goodman). Charlie is fat and friendly, conceding that he's just an ordinary joe and Barton is the artist. As the film draws to a close, Barton receives a mysterious package from Charlie, who is revealed to be a serial killer. The hotel burns and Charlie tells Barton he's killed the writer's parents. The film ends with Barton on a beach with the package, the scene mirroring the beach painting from the hotel room. The Coens' puzzling symbolism comes to the forefront: is art but an imitation of life? And, what the hell is in that package?

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry
Written by Charlie Kaufman

A flawless film, Eternal Sunshine has a mind-bending finale that becomes the story's final puzzle piece. The movie begins with Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) meeting on a train and the story weaves its way through their relationship and breakup. We discover each of them have had their memories erased by a strange company in order to get over one another and move on with their lives. Kaufman's Oscar-winning script is woven magically by Gondry as much of the film takes place in Joel's subconscious as he battles the memory-erasers to hold on to his memories of Clem. He fails, but the end reveals the story we've been watching has been turned upside down in a labyrinth of the past and present. The beginning train scene is actually chronologically closer to the end of the film. The two lovers were meeting each other again for the first time.

2. Memento (2002)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan, based on a short story by  Jonathan Nolan

Another labyrinthian screenplay, Memento is the story of a man who cannot keep short-term memories. To remedy this problem, he takes notes... the ultimate example being the many tattoos he covers his body with, detailing the most important facts he cannot forget. On a desperate search to find his wife's murderer, Leonard (Guy Pearce) follows the clues he has collected to a man named John G. The film begins with the end, showing Lenny killing this man, and it works chronologically backwards. This plotline is accented by a black and white subplot showing Lenny in his hotel room explaining his "condition" on the phone to someone. This subplot moves forward normally in time. As the film marches on, the two plots meet at the end in a shocking finale that is actually, chronologically, the middle of the story. Confused yet? So is Lenny... his search is an endless maze as it's revealed he's consciously fabricating an unsolvable series of events to give his life purpose.

1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Directed by Frank Darabont
Written by Frank Darabont, based on the novella by Stephen King

Although the end is revealed in the film's poster and DVD cover art, it doesn't spoil how Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) actually escapes Shawshank Prison. The innocent Dufresne plots his escape over the course of 22 years, tunneling his way out inch by inch every night of that sentence - a detail revealed in the film's iconic final sequence showing Warden Norton discovering Andy's tunnel (hidden by a poster) and rock hammer, which he kept in his hollowed-out Bible ("salvation lies within"). Perhaps the greatest and most satisfying ending to any film ever made, Dufresne's redemption is only enhanced when his jailmate and best friend, Red (Morgan Freeman), is paroled and able to join Andy in Mexico in a new life by the sea.

Honorable mentions: Citizen Kane, The Birds, The Sting, Casablanca, Psycho, Chinatown, The Planet of the Apes, Primal Fear, Oldboy, The Sixth Sense, Se7en, Donnie Darko, The Departed, High Tension

(Poster credits: Unbreakable: Touchstone, Brick: Focus Features, Fight Club: samraw08, Mulholland Drive: Le Circle Noir, Dark City: nuke vizard,, The Usual Suspects: Gramercy, Barton Fink: Circle Films, Eternal Sunshine: Focus Features, Memento: internozero comunicazione, Shawshank: Castle Rock)

See more photos of Kate Winslet here:
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  • Kate Winslet in Kate Winslet at the "Titanic 3D" Premiere
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Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.