In Honor of the 20th Anniversary of The Usual Suspects, we take a look at some of cinema’s most famous twist endings
Twenty years ago this past week, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects was released to mostly positive reviews, but little fanfare. It was discovered more on video, however, and now is beloved by many moviegoers. Interestingly enough, Siskel & Ebert gave The Usual Suspects “Two Thumbs Down”, but the film and it’s twist was way more appreciated by other critics and fans. The film would go on to win two Oscars; one for Kevin Spacey, and the other for Christopher McQuarrie’s script. It is currently number 24 on IMDB’s user rated Top 250 movies.
Of course, Kevin Spacey is revealed to be Keyser Soze in McQuarrie’s twisty narrative that benefits from tight direction by Bryan Singer (still his best film). I believe the twist is the main reason why this film is so remembered.
During and after the 1970’s, major motion pictures began to “play tricks” more regularly on audiences, partly in homage to the “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock, but also after the re-discovery and appreciation of acclaimed B-films – film noirs in particular that used plot twists fairly regularly – and found that audiences reacted well to them. For example, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was one of the first films to caution audiences to not reveal the “shocking secrets” – other films were to follow, e.g., Planet of the Apes (1968), Presumed Innocent (1990), The Crying Game (1992), The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001), though unlike Hitchcock’s carefully devised marketing ploy, these were grassroots campaigns by the filmgoers themselves.
So, that got me thinking, what are the 10 best twist endings in movie history?
Top 10 Best Twist Endings in Movie History
Note: There will be spoilers, obviously…. Also, I will not include The Usual Suspects twist in this list because we’ve already gone over it.
Honorable Mention: The Sixth Sense (1999) d. M. Night Shyamalan
Yes, we were all Shyamalan’d in 1999. I know many would have this higher than an honorable mention, but sadly the twist ending involving Bruce Willis’s character was ruined for me…
Honorable Mention: Identity (2003) d. James Mangold
For about 80 of its 90 minute running time, Identity is pretty ho-hum, albeit well made. However, the twists at the end of this film, and there are multiple, work very well. The ending is quite inventive.
10. Citizen Kane (1941) d. Orson Welles
I know, I know, it’s just his fucking sled. However, the sled Rosebud symbolizes more than just a physical object. It’s about the ideas the sled represents. Rosebud signifies Kane’s childhood, the happiest memory he has of his childhood. It’s also sad because it shows us how Kane couldn’t really relate to people on an adult level. The sled, in a way, serves as a barrier between Kane’s carefree youth or innocence, and the responsibilities of cynical adulthood.
9. Frailty (2001) d. Bill Paxton
One of the most underrated films of the past 15 years is this Bill Paxton directorial debut that has one hell of a twist. Like The Usual Suspects and Memento, it plays with the idea of an unreliable narrator or character who sets the plot in motion.
8. TIE: Chinatown (1974) & Oldboy (2003)
I’m cheating again, I know (why didn’t I just do a Top 15?). However, I’m pairing the Chinatown and Oldboy twist endings together because of there obviously disturbing incestuous revelations.
7. No Way Out (1987) d. Roger Donaldson
Here’s another example of a film that hums along rather well for a spy film then unleashes a completely unexpected ending that really drops the hammer.
6. Se7en (1995) d. David Fincher
Come on, what’s in the box!? New Line executives originally balked at the film’s ending, but Brad Pitt refused to make the film if the ending were changed.
5. The Mist (2007) d. Frank Darabont
One of the ballsiest and saddest twist endings in the history of movies. Devastatingly brilliant. Adapted from Stephen King’s novella, Darabont conceived of a new ending in translating the novella for the big screen. Author King praised Darabont’s new ending, describing it as one that would be unsettling for studios.
One of the most underappreciated films released in the last decade.
4. Planet of the Apes (1968) d. Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenwriter Rod Serling (creator of The Twilight Zone) loves a good twist ending, and the one in Planet of the Apes is easily one of the most remembered. An adaptation of Pierre Bouelle’s novel, Serling created a new ending for the screenplay, the revelation — that the distant planet “where apes evolved from man” was, in fact, Earth itself far in the future — was a masterstroke, and one conveyed via the simple, stark, and iconic image of the Statue of Liberty, half-buried in the sand.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) d. Irvin Kershner
One of the most famous twist endings ever because it not only was a surprise in the film itself, but it changed the entire dynamic of the Star Wars universe and the characters we had come to know.
2. American Psycho (2000) d. Mary Harron
Normally, the “it was all a dream” twists usually land with a thud. However, in Mary Harron’s fantastic adaptation of the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel, the ambiguity of the possibility that it was all in Patrick Bateman’s head adds a whole other level to the film that the book doesn’t have.
1. Psycho (1960) d. Alfred Hitchcock
Come on, it’s the mother (no pun intended) of all twist endings! Hitchcock’s classic film was one of the first and therefore most influential films to have a psychological twist ending.