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The 50 Greatest Last Shots in Film History

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Filmmakers have understood the value of an unforgettable last shot since at least 1903, when Edwin S. Porter ended “The Great Train Robbery” with a scene divorced from the main narrative in which one of the outlaws comes back from the grave, stares down the lens of the camera, and fires a couple of rounds directly at the audience. In many prints, that footage opened the film, but the fact that it’s since settled into its place at the end speaks volumes as to its profound effect as a coda. Like the final sentence of a novel, the closing image of a film has the power to color the entire narrative, echoing just a little bit louder than everything that has come before it. Unlike the final sentences of a novel, the last shot of a feature film has, in the medium’s brief lifespan, already acquired its own formal language, certain camera movements and musical cues (“the camera cranes up, the soundtrack swells!”) having conditioned viewers to read some final shots in a different way than they do the hundreds of others that comprise the movie. There’s a unique weight to the last shot – a burden, but also a sense of infinite possibility, as though the cinema inherently realizes that its greatest potential doesn’t live on screen but rather in those who stare at them, the moment at which a movie hands its narrative off to a viewer one of the great cruxes of the medium’s power.

Earlier this year we brought you our list of the 50 Greatest Opening Scenes in Film, and while this new list was partially intended to close the circuit opened by that one, it’s important to stress that this isn’t a countdown of our favorite movie endings. This list explicitly deals with our favorite final shots, the (usually brief) time between when the director calls “action!” and the closing credits begin to roll. This list isn’t intended to reflect our love for these movies as a whole (though that certainly played a part), but rather to measure the contributions of their final images, and their value to the work as a whole.

While all lists of this kind are inherently arbitrary, this one felt especially vulnerable to forgetting obvious favorites. In the event that we forgot one of yours, well… as the final shot of one omitted movie might say, “shut up and deal” (translation: share your picks with us in the comments!)

Without further ado, we present you with Film.com’s list of the 50 Greatest Last Shots in Film History.

Oh, and beware spoilers. Duh.

#50.) THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson) 2007

At the end of his ruthless oil mogul climb to the top, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is last seen from behind, with the hunched back of a child that’s just uncomprehendingly thrown a toy to destruction. Plainview always wanted to make enough money to “get away from all these people,” but evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) came to visit him one too many times, and Blood ends with his bowling-pin bludgeoning to death. What makes the finale’s fulfillment of the title promise really work isn’t just that final shot but how it transitions to the end credits with Brahms’ “Violin Concerto in D Major,” leaving first time viewers to contemplate the unexpectedly pulpy end they’ve just seen against the ironically classical/mock-triumphant music cue. – Vadim Rizov

#49.) STRAY DOGS (Tsai Ming-Liang) 2013

Stray-dogs-poster (1)

Tsai Ming-liang’s latest/maybe last feature devotes the bulk of its last half-hour to just two shots, both of which monitor, from different angles two people regarding a mural of a riverbed on a rundown tenement wall. After staring into the inscrutable faces of the people for a time,Tsai reverses to end looking at the mural from behind them, where the backs of the characters’ heads say as much (or little) as the fronts. What about the mural transfixes them? The simplicity of nature versus the urban sprawl that physically suffocates them? An escape from that development’s symbolic accompaniment, economic marginalization? Whatever it is, they cannot find it, and the long but barely changing shot that ends “Stray Dogs” sends it off on as quiet and unrevealing a note as anything else in the movie. – Jake Cole

#48.) PINK FLAMINGOS (John Waters) 1972

The final scene of “Pink Flamingos” is an epilogue of sorts. By the end of this debauched 1972 miracle, the case for Divine as “the filthiest person alive” has been pretty effectively made. But, just in case, John Waters includes this last moment of revolting cinema. It’s what turned Divine into a legend and “Pink Flamingos” into a cult classic. What’s impressive isn’t so much the coprophagia itself, which is obviously quite something, but Divine’s smile as she mugs for the camera with the filthiest teeth in the world. – Daniel Walber

#47.) FIGHT CLUB (David Fincher) 1999

“Fight Club” is an (overlong) joke about aggressive men running unproductively amuck as late ‘90s-consumerism spreads its inane tentacles around them; in retrospect, the men are like quirkily individualized riffs on Tom Arnold’s many ‘90s male incarnations of rage. The movie’s shots are individually sharp and Fincher-y while uncharacteristically slack, his mpw characteristic rapid-cutting urgency not yet developed. The impulse behind the final shot of a couple in mutual hock looking on as the credit card record repositories blow up is even more understandably utopian now. – VR

#46.) SLEEPING BEAUTY (Clyde Geronimi) 1959

We don’t often think of animation in the context of “greatest shots,” but we should. Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” is one of the best, and his first made for 70mm presentation. Its final moments are a beautiful example of the possibilities of experimentation with the idea of “shot” within animation. With Tchaikovsky’s score rapturously celebrating the final union of Aurora and Prince Phillip, they dance in a regal ballroom. And then, while the motion of the lovely couple remains entirely uninterrupted, they are moved from the earth to the heavens where they dance amongst the clouds. – DW

#45.) BIG NIGHT (Campbell Scott & Stanley Tucci) 1996

… I’m starting to think that Louis Prima might not be coming. – David Ehrlich

#44.) YOYO (Pierre Etaix) 1965

Compressing nearly 50 years of European history and comedy’s evolution into one dense narrative, “Yo Yo” climaxes with the title successful TV comedian fleeing a party in honor of the restoration/reopening of his circus clown father’s mansion. Étaix is both dad and child, with the long-separated pair kept apart in the finale — presumably to avoid the expense of shooting them together, but also a chilling finale to a narrative about a son trying to restore his absentee father’s legacy, only to be rebuffed. The final shot is the son exiting his mansion party on the back of an elephant, part of his father’s long-ago circus legacy still lurking in the woods after all these years. The beast crosses the lawn for parts unknown, abandoning a party full of wealthy social bores for more primitive/welcoming entertainment. – VR

#43.) HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN (Nelson Pereira dos Santos) 1971

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Perhaps the greatest Brazilian film ever made (and hopefully the angriest), “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman” finds the cinema at its most devious, unspooling like a historically accurate Tupi riff on “Avatar” that ends with Neytiri eating Jake Sully. The year is 1594, French and Portuguese forces are fighting each other for control of the verdurous Guanabara Bay area, home to the supposedly cannibalistic Tupinambra people. The Tupinambra capture the titular Frenchman, and are quick to inform him in no uncertain terms that he’s allowed to roam the village as a resident, but will only be their friend until they’re ready to make him their feast. The Frenchman, however, is so arrogant as to think that he can tame the Tupinambra’s wild ways, and he’s sure that the submissive wife that the tribe has provided him (not Zoe Saldana) has been sufficiently awed by his civilized charms. But perhaps he should have paid closer attention to the title of the film. The beauty of the last shot, a palette cleanser after the inevitable climactic scene, restores the village’s beach to a tabula rasa, stamping out the horrific sights to which we’ve just been witness and inviting us once again to make this place our own. – DE

#42.) THE PIANO (Jane Campion) 1993

Ada (Holly Hunter) makes it to the end “The Piano” in one piece, but not for lack of trying. Her brief, chilling suicide attempt in the penultimate sequence of Jane Campion’s Palme d’Or winning film is thwarted, barely. Yet later she will look back fondly on the experience, and she says the idea of this death “lulls her to sleep.” How is that possible? Well, because the image is breathtaking. Campion ends with a shot of this theoretical demise, a piano sunk to the bottom of the sea and Ada suspended just above it, tied permanently to her greatest and most troubling joy. – DW

#41.) FAT GIRL (Catherine Breillat) 2001

Fat Girl

The last shot of Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” is one of great defiance. In the immediate aftermath of a sudden tragedy, Anaïs finds herself in a state of shock. Yet it isn’t the shock of a victim, or at least not someone whose victimhood is purified and idealized by the camera. Breillat’s freeze-framed on her young actress’s is like a brutal inversion of “The 400 Blows,” a challenge to both the audience and cinema to alter their pre-existing notions of girlhood. – DW

THE COUNTDOWN CONTINUES ON PAGE 2 WITH #40-31


Categories: Lists, Top 50

Tags: 2001: a space odyssey, Before Sunset, Breathless, Calum Marsh, Daniel Walber, David Ehrlich, Fight club, Greatest Last Shots in Film History, Halloween, Jake Cole, List, The searchers, The Shining, Top 50, Vadim Rizov

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