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Debate Club: The best twist endings in movie history
Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
No matter how great your film is, it's crucial that you stick the landing — especially if you're going to knock us out with some big twist ending. The five movies on this week's list did that terrifically. In fact, it's hard not to think specifically of their ending when these films come to mind — the way they surprise us with their finales force us to reconsider everything we'd seen up to that point in the story.
We'd also argue that knowing the twist going in doesn't deter from enjoying these movies; sure, being shocked by their reveal is very satisfying, but these films work just as well on their tenth viewing. In other words, these are five great twists, but also five very good movies.
Oh, and this should be obvious: SPOILER ALERT.
05. Life (2017)
This underrated sci-fi thriller can't help but be compared to Alien. After all, their premise is almost exactly the same: gnarly extra-terrestrial gets inside Earthlings’ spaceship, and chaos ensues. But Life is helped by director Daniel Espinosa's tight pacing and a really strong performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as one of the scientists fighting for his life. (Also, Life's alien is super-creepy.)
What really sells the film, though, is its ending.
We think Gyllenhaal has bravely sacrificed himself, putting the alien in a pod with him and then blasting off into the sun so that Rebecca Ferguson's quarantine officer can escape safely to Earth in a separate pod. But then we realize the horrible truth: Gyllenhaal failed, and he and the alien are now on Earth (while poor Ferguson is left hurtling through space to an icy grave.) Life may be derivative, but its finale punches you in the gut: Bye-bye, human race.
04. The Others (2001)
Grace (Nicole Kidman) is a good but somewhat smothering mother trying to protect her children from some ghosts in her home. That's a familiar set-up, but The Others is an all-timer when it comes to elegant, old-school haunted-house films. The real killer, though, is the explanation of what's been going on the whole time. To Grace's shock, she discovers that the "ghosts" she keeps seeing aren't dead — she is. In fact, those people are alive, and she (and her kids) are haunting them, never realizing that they're ghosts.
Turns out, Grace wasn't just smothering in a metaphorical way: that's how she killed her brood after going mad. Rewatching The Others, you realize how sad Grace's story is. The ending isn't so much a surprise as it is a tragic inevitability.
03. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Featuring the "did-we-just-blow-your-mind?" ending from a time when they were still relatively rare, Planet of the Apes had the advantage of pulling the rug out from under you when you were least suspecting it — in the last, final, desperate seconds, when you thought the movie was over, when you thought this was all done. We wouldn't say that Charlton Heston is necessarily the subtlest actor, but who wants subtlety when you realize that, the damned fools, they blew up the freaking planet!
02. Fight Club (1999)
David Fincher’s movie messes with your head long before the actual twist is revealed, but once it is, it of course makes total sense: Tyler Durden was a little bit more of a fantastical conceit than a human being, especially as played by Brad Pitt. The casting of Edward Norton works perfectly here, too: he's just normal-looking enough that you believe the madness hiding within. Meanwhile, Fincher's edgy intensity is the ideal primer for what's coming; the way Fight Club is going, you had to be prepared for anything. Even this.
01. The Sixth Sense (1999)
What was wonderful about The Sixth Sense's big twist was how much it made everything that came before it finally click: the movie’s haunting mood and sad undercurrent are explained in a way that makes the film even sadder (and is helped by perhaps Bruce Willis' best-ever performance). Of course, we know what would all come next for M. Night Shyamalan, how he'd become obsessed with the “twist,” and how much that would come to derail and dominate his career, most recently with Glass, which might have the worst "twist" of them all. But this is still a great one — the best one.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.