So, remember what I said before about the trouble finding pictures? Well, as luck would have it, all 10 films to land on my best endings list happen to be on DVD (trust me, I couldn’t have planned that if I tried), and luckily I own 6 of them. So I’m psyched to get this particular list out to you guys much more quickly than I expected.

To make a great ending, it’s not as simple as creating bold images or throwing in unexpected plot twists. For an ending to truly soar, it has to be earned. The 10 films on this list all earn their powerful conclusions in one way or another, and shock and surprise the viewer in extraordinary ways.

I probably shouldn’t have to tell you this, but, seeing as we’ll be discussing some endings in detail, spoilers abound. You’ve been given fair warning.

The year’s finest finales are:

#10

Paranormal Activity (Director: Oren Peli)

The unfortunate fact of the matter is that too much hype can kill even the purest of joys. For my money, there was no horror thrill purer than the final moments of Paranormal Activity, the most profitable film of all time. While the film’s original ending is much more chilling, the ending of the theatrical cut is jump-out-of-your-seat magic. I have never seen a horror film that has made me scream out loud in a theatre. Well, at least I never had, until Micah’s body came hurtling towards the camera. Seeing the demonic Katie approach the camera is a somewhat cheap moment that I didn’t really need, but it doesn’t rob the initial scare of its raw power.

#9

District 9 (Director: Neill Blomkamp)

It’s just about as sobering an ending as you can get out of a blockbuster action film. After a few final testimonials from the loved ones of Wikus van de Merwe, his wife mentions a mysterious trinket left on her doorstep. With one cut, we learn exactly where it came from, and our hearts break. Because Wikus’ wife will never know that her husband is still alive. Because who knows if she would want to know that he’s fully transformed into a Prawn. Because we know Wikus is still waiting for Christopher Johnson to return. But more than anything, its Wikus’ undying love and humanity after his transformation that makes the film’s final shot an emotional powerhouse. It is the one pure and beautiful thing to come out of the bleak landscape of Jo-burg.

#8

The Hurt Locker (Director: Kathryn Bigelow)

The most striking thing about the ending of this year’s soon-to-be Best Picture winner (bet on it) is the odd disconnect between the bias of its largely liberal audience and Sgt. William James’ actual experience. For most people watching The Hurt Locker, James has dodged a bullet, served his time, and gotten out of jail; he’s lucky to be alive. But the truth of the matter is never that simple. What James truly finds on the other side of the world is that his home is no longer familiar. The same things we take comfort in or take for granted seem cold or mundane. In an image that sends the viewer for a loop, the cereal aisle at a local grocery store becomes alien and oppressive. James has never felt more alone before this moment. To quote this year’s other (and, for my money, superior) Iraq war offering The Messenger, it’s like coming back from another planet. Sgt. James’ inevitable return to combat only adds a more bitter after-taste, as the countdown to the end of his rotation starts over again at 365 days.

#7

Drag Me To Hell (Director: Sam Raimi)

The climax to Sam Raimi’s triumphant return to horror is a bit on the O. Henry side (the envelope Christine returns to Mrs. Ganush’s grave is, in fact, her boyfriend Clay’s rare quarter, not the accursed button from her coat), but there’s no other way for the story to end. In the end, the film isn’t about a woman who makes a mistake and gets what she deserves. It’s a surprisingly psychological shocker, as Christine gets exactly what she thinks she deserves. After spending years of her life hiding from her past and trying to blame all of her problems on other people, Christine is tired of running. Denying the loan to Mrs. Ganush was just the straw that broke the camel’s back as Christine tailspins into guilt and madness. In her mind, she deserves to suffer forever, and so she does. Chills ran through my body as Christine is forced down into an eternity of damnation, and the sight of her face melting off in the flames cannot be unseen. Suddenly, the title card flashed on the screen after the film’s final images declares Drag Me To Hell not as a looming threat, but a desperate plea for escape from a life that has become torturous.

#6

A Serious Man (Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen)

It’s interesting that the Coens and their former collaborator and comrade Sam Raimi both cover such similar thematic territory, albeit in dissimilar ways. After suffering God’s body blows for 90 minutes, Larry Gopnik and his son Danny have finally found some peace in the world. Though Larry never gets to hear it, Rabbi Marshak has dispensed the most simple and powerful advice of the whole film: “Be a good boy.” Larry and Danny have reached the same point by doing nothing. With a new lease on life, they are both driven to action, but completely against Marshak’s advice. Danny continues to listen to his radio during class, and Larry, in a moment of desperation, changes Clive’s failing exam grade, allowing him to accept the bribe to help pay for his brother’s legal fees. Not a moment later, a tornado heads toward Danny’s school, and Larry receives a very grim phone call from his doctor concerning the results of some X-rays. In this world, God is never finished with you, and you can’t stop what’s coming. As the tornado draws ever closer, Danny takes little solace in the words of Jefferson Airplane (words that gave him such joy and comfort coming from the mouth of Rabbi Marshak not two days prior), left only to watch its inevitable approach and pray for the best.

#5

World’s Greatest Dad (Director: Bobcat Goldthwait)

If it weren’t for the seemingly tacked on minute or so following the climax of this dark and biting comedy, this could have ranked much higher. But as it is, the lead-up is divine. In the funniest scene in an already uproariously funny film, Lance dares to tell the truth (“You guys didn’t like Kyle. But that’s OK. I didn’t either. I loved him. He was my son. He was also a douchebag.”), and while it has made him completely reviled, it has (as the old adage goes) set him free. He is unburdened and reborn with the revelation that being all alone is, in fact, better than “ending up with people that make you feel all alone.” In an act of defiance and liberation (set to Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure”), Lance strips down, naked as he came, and finally dares to take a dive into the giant school swimming pool. It ranks with Ronnie gunning down the flasher in Observe & Report as the most cathartic moment on film all year.

[Editor’s note: In any other year, any of these next four endings could have been number one. Wow.]

#4

Two Lovers (Director: James Gray)

When Leonard and Michelle decide to run away together, we know it can only end one way. In fact, the title is a Chekovian gun all its own; with two lovers, what will Leonard choose? For a flash, we think that Leonard has broken the cycle as he tosses the engagement ring he meant for Michelle into the ocean. But, as is the case with Leonard, it’s just another empty threat. He retrieves the ring and returns to his parents’ apartment. Rather than going for what he wants, Leonard decides to settle, and proposes to Sandra. We know that the cycle of pain and disappointment will only keep on going. Leonard and his first wife’s both testing positive for Tay-Sachs tore his first marriage apart, and it’s all too likely the same thing will happen with Sandra. Or worse still, he could suffer through the death of a child with her. But in this moment, all Leonard can muster the strength to do is tell the single worst lie he could ever utter: “I’m just happy.”

#3

It Might Get Loud (Director: Davis Guggenheim)

At first blush, Davis Guggenheim’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth seems like a piece of VH1 fluff, a giddy schoolboy delight of seeing three axe gods come together under one roof to talk shop and jam. While that thrill is certainly there, the real beauty of It Might Get Loud is its reverie for sensual pleasures. Its focus on the sonic experience as chief among those senses makes each moment of musical brilliance that much more palpable. There’s something magnificent and reassuring about seeing three guys who are experienced enough to be considered masters of their craft, but wise enough to know that they still have everything to learn. You haven’t really seen the ending unless you stay to the end of the credits, as Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White throw down a collective jam of The Band’s “The Weight.” Just as we think we’ve got the whole thing figured out, Guggenheim gives us one last curveball. As a crane shot pulls back from the three legends rocking out, slowly but surely, the focal point becomes not the musicians, but the crew standing completely still and drinking in the moment. This moment of connecting the artist and the audience as symbiotic beings is absolutely stunning.

#2

Thirst (Director: Chan-wook Park)

Chan-wook Park ends his vampire tale Thirst in a way that only the director of cult classic (and Cannes Grand Prix winner) Oldboy could. The priest-turned-bloodsucker Sang-hyeon has made the decision to spare the world any future damage that he and his mistress Tae-ju could possibly inflict upon innocent people by driving out onto a deserted cliff and waiting for sunrise. But Tae-ju will not go willingly or quietly. In the hands of a less confident writer/director, this could have been a very talky dramatic scene. What follows instead is some of the funniest and saddest slapstick you will ever see. Cue Tae-ju pulling Sang-hyeon into the trunk of the car and closing it shut. Cue Sang-hyeon kicking the trunk door several yards into the air. Cue Tae-ju stepping out, grabbing the trunk door, nestling herself into the trunk, and putting the door back in place. Cue Sang-hyeon walking to the car and nonchalantly removing the trunk door with ease before tossing it into the ocean. And that’s just a taste of this comedy of extremes, balancing back-and-forth between farce and tragedy with every second. Finally, Tae-ju gives in, slides on a pair of Sang-hyeon’s shoes (looking like a suicidal Charlie Chaplin), and prepares herself for the inevitable. The final shot of their shoes dangling off of their charred feet as Tae-ju’s feet turn to ash is utterly devastating.

#1

Crank: High Voltage (Directors: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor)

I could give any number of reasons why Crank: High Voltage has the best ending of any 2009 film. It could be the bold, unforgettable quality of the image of Chev Chelios on fire and flipping the camera the bird. It could be the sudden breaking of the fourth wall that is absent from the rest of the film, shocking the audience back into attention. It could be that no other film this year summed up its entire M.O. in one shot better than Neveldine/Taylor did with this ode to their film’s excess and Dadaist absurdity. Any of these answers are good enough, and they all contribute to its status at the top of this list. But hidden just below the surface of what seems like a trashy action film is a bold slap in the face to the very audience it seems to pander to. Crank: High Voltage, deep down, is a very personal art film about the dehumanizing of the action hero in modern cinema. The action star was, at his best, one of us. Someone we could relate to, someone with working class values, someone ordinary called upon to do something extraordinary (think John McClane). Or even someone already extraordinary that we could strive to be like (think James Bond). Now, he’s a wild animal, jumping through hoops for our amusement, the strong man in a traveling sideshow of freaks. Behold! The Indestructible Man! Watch as we shock his balls with jumper cables and drag him behind a speeding boat! But don’t worry, folks, it won’t kill him. In fact, it’s the only way this monster can survive. As REO Speedwagon blares (“I’m gonna keep on lovin’ you/’cause it’s the only thing I wanna do,” it seems to say to Chelios, insuring him that we will perpetually pay to see his hijinks as long as he continues to degrade himself for our pleasure), the line between Chev Chelios and Jason Statham blurs. It is Statham, not Chelios, who throws down the gauntlet, not to say “You can’t kill me, motherfuckers!”, but like Maximus in Gladiator, to dare to ask the audience “Are you not entertained?!” with a blazing middle finger. It is the perfect ending because it is the best of both worlds: unbridled, unpretentious pop bliss and subversive, biting social commentary, all rolled into the definitive action film of the decade.

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