There’s nothing like going to a movie that follows all usual conventions, with expected character arcs and familiar plot progressions, which are all upended by a surprising ending. Of course, not all mind-boggling movies earn that descriptor just in the ending, some carry the bizarre and unexpected through the entire film experience.
All movies, regardless of genre, can spring something on the viewer at the last time. We all know some classic ones: M. Night Shyamalan’s infamous twist in The Sixth Sense, the grisly reveal at the end of Se7en, Hitchcock’s unveiled villain in Psycho… the list could go on for a while.
But what about recent movies, of the 21st century? What are some of the best and least expected movie twists from the last sixteen years? This list discusses some of our picks for the greatest mind-blowing movie endings in recent history. We’ll talk about the movie fits with normal genre conventions, and what makes the ending such a surprise.
Need we provide a spoiler alert? SPOILERS ABOUND. Read on at your own risk.
The expected: One of the rare darlings of both critics and the public, Inception‘s fascination with dreams gave the creative team a lot of flexibility with visuals, producing some amazing ‘architecture’ within the characters’ dreams. While the story itself is new in a lot of ways, the characters follow more basic problems. We have the genius who doesn’t have a grasp on reality, the morally conscious newbie, the rich benefactor, the sadistic love interest. All the pieces of a truly great drama, and Inception delivers. And while the plot itself is complex and hard to predict, the end is what truly separates this movie from others.
The unexpected: That top. You know what I’m talking about. One last shot and the entire ending of the movie shifts from the cozy and easy to the discomforting or unreal. Amazing work by director Christopher Nolan?
14. The Others
The expected: The Others begins like many other psychological horror movies. An old house, newcomers with odd habits, children who are creepy as all-get-out, a beautiful central female character. Nicole Kidman carries herself with an unnerving yet graceful anxiety, and the viewer isn’t certain of who they should be rooting for. These suspense-based movies are often successful based on their ability to keep their audiences guessing, but more often than not, the twists are telegraphed and the real thrills of the movie come from the jumps – the dark corners and simmering music that also build tension. And the beginning of this movie follows the formula pretty well, from the slamming doors to fears of haunting to scripture quoting.
13. Mulholland Drive
The expected: Mulholland Drive‘s first half is driven by a cutesy, idealistic version of Hollywood that follows in the steps of other more mainstream movies, where bubbly protagonists achieve their dreams and solve mysteries through hard work and resourcefulness. The entire first part is gilded with this fake glamour, with only a few knives through the heart of the storyline that alert the viewer that all is not as it should be, and promises that the movie won’t maintain its cheery plot.
The unexpected: It doesn’t. Our protagonist, played by the talented Naomi Watts, is really struggling through being overlooked and untalented, without a real mystery to solve, without anything bubbly or cheery at all. Mulholland Drive‘s twist isn’t a bid to solve the mystery or make things clearer, but to make things more grounded, darker, and less like the more traditional Hollywood treasure hunt. It packs a hearty punch and more than earns its place on this list.
The expected: Identity is a whodunnit mystery with an ensemble cast. Stranded at a hotel during a storm, the characters start to die off, and it’s clear very early that the deaths aren’t accidental. Each character appears as a bit of a caricature, and as they seek to determine who is responsible for killing them off, one by one, they find strange similarities between themselves.
The unexpected: Identity has a double twist. The first is that the characters aren’t people at all, but representations of the different personalities of a single man, struggling to take control of him as doctors work to see if he’s safe for release – if a ‘safe’ personality wins control of his mind. This changes the entire plot of the movie, but it also raises the stakes. One person must be left, and at the end of the movie, it appears to be Paris (Amanda Peet), one of the two characters we’ve been rooting for. Until she’s hit in the head with a shovel, revealing the forgotten, unassuming child. Meaning the doctors think the man is safe, but really he’s sadistic and psychotic. Double whammy.
11. 10 Cloverfield Lane
The expected: A girl has an accident and wakes up chained to a bed in total confusion. We, the viewers, have seen this before. We’re all too ready for the creepy man to psychologically torture the girl, a la every horror movie known to man. But instead he claims to have saved her from a biological nightmare outside his bunker. So begins the game of ‘is he lying?’ that carries the whole movie. Even without an ending twist, the tension is played up beautifully throughout, and each sequence is filled with second-guessing and curiosity.
The unexpected: There’s an alien invasion outside. Not a skin-eating gas, and not nothing. But the final episode of the movie plays out with the girl escaping from a monster. This is the film’s truest reflection on its 2007 film companion, Cloverfield. So the twist is actually given away in the title? Genius, by our count.
10. The Village
The expected: This is a challenging one, because anyone who sees M. Night Shyamalan‘s name on a movie will know that there will be twists, for the better or worse. But Shyamalan still uses some conventional horror buildup before his twist. We have night-prowling monsters in a closed off cult-like colony. Moments of real suspense result. The feeling of something always being outside the window pervades the whole movie.
The unexpected: The final shock of the realization that the community central to the film exists in present day is an all too real one. While not considered a great ending by all viewers, The Village‘s reveal definitely boggles the mind, at least until the anger at a great film ruined sets in.
9. Donnie Darko
The expected: By now, Donnie Darko has become a cult classic, and one of the films that really put superstar Jake Gyllenhaal on the map. It begins with some familiar traits in the titular character: estranged from parents, volatile at school, and a bit of an oddball, though brilliant to be sure. Most of the rest of the movie veers toward the unexpected (huge bunnies, random disasters, etc.) but at others it feels like the most human drama possible.
The unexpected: For a time travel movie, this one feels so grounded in the now, in the small interactions with girls and strange assignments from bad teachers and chance encounters with old ladies. That’s what makes the realization that Frank has saved and manipulated Donnie in order to survive so striking.
8. American Psycho
The expected: What people know about American Psycho, even without seeing it, is that it’s bloody and a lot of people die. A haunting and disturbing performance by Christian Bale helps make this one of the most iconic films, ever. Patrick Bateman is a businessman by day and a serial killer by night. The film follows his gory exploits, sexual and violent, to disturbing and all-too-real detail.
The unexpected: Did he kill those people? Or not. After admitting to his lawyer about his penchant for murder, he returns to places where he should find evidence of dead bodies, but it’s all gone. The lawyer refutes his admission, claiming to have seen one of the victims Bateman admitted to killing just days before. The end leaves the viewers wondering: was it all just in his head, hatred distilled into fantasy.
7. The Illusionist
The expected: Movie magic is nothing new. From Now You See Me to The Prestige, magic tricks can be done in fascinating ways or in just as unbelievable of ways. The Illusionist isn’t concerned with making all of its tricks totally understandable to the viewer, so we’re partly as in the dark as the audiences of Eisenheim’s shows, or as the inspector following his movements.
The unexpected: Maybe what sticks out about this ending is the underlying joy throughout. Most often with these endings, the final twist is mind-bending but also dark, heavy. But in this one, even the duped inspector is amused by the reality that Eisenheim’s love interest Sophie is still alive. The final illusion, the twist that makes the movie a memorable one.
6. Shutter Island
The expected: We’re at a familiar setting for a thriller movie – an asylum – where two gentleman are investigating a missing woman. We get all of the jumps and confusing turns we expect from this style of movie, and there are a lot of clues that something is not what it seems, which occur in, let’s face it, basically every suspenseful movie ever. These warnings put us on edge about the investigation. We know the investigators are missing or overlooking something, and we’re not sure what it is right away. The asylum heads are suspicious. The stories don’t add up. But we can’t place it.
The unexpected: Until the ending. One of the investigators is actually a patient, and the entire movie was a setup to try to get him to face his problems. The satisfying thing about this ending (as opposed to other tries at twists, even others on this list) is that it adds up. We remember the moments that didn’t fit with our previous assumptions, and they fit with this new version of looking at the story. That satisfaction and unexpectedness of this turn make it one of the most mind-bending of the 21st century.
The expected: While most of the films have followed more of the suspense-without-the-gore genre, Saw comes in with a hearty combo of both. While a lot of non-Saw-watchers might look down at Saw as being lower brow than some of the other films on this list, the complexity of the first movie especially should be highlighted. We have the familiar harm-yourself-to-save-yourself trope, and some grisly decisions to be made. The main premise is that there are two men chained up in a bathroom, with a dead body between them. And they learn they have to kill the other to survive, or kill the other to save their loved ones. All of this is engineered by the sadistic Jigsaw Killer, who communicates only through his altered voice.
The unexpected: Through flashbacks, viewers are left to conjecture at the Jigsaw Killer’s identity. At the end of the film, we learn it’s the dead man in the middle of the bathroom. And he’s obviously and definitely not dead.
The expected: Time travel, one of cinema’s favorite screwball attempts at blowing people’s minds. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it feels like a cheap gimmick without enough rules to make the stakes very high. Primer starts out slow. Basically, two guys stumble into the creation of a time machine. But they approach everything very logically and carefully, and we see how very determined they are not to screw everything up by seeing their past selves or doing too much to alter the world besides investing smartly in things they know do well the next day. As moviegoers, we know that this care means that eventually one of them will screw it up. And they do.
The unexpected: I watched this movie twice in a row my first time, just because it was too complex for me to wrap my head around the first time. A few video essays later, and a I had enough of an understanding to realize that there was a lot cooking beneath the surface of the film, and a lot of the plot happens off-screen, making it hard to follow. The end result, however, is a movie that reminds you how rules make everything harder. Maybe it’s a meta moment too, where the creators could poke fun at other movies that deal with time travel problems at a much more basic level. A riveting, though hardly fun, watch.
3. The Prestige
The expected: Two handsome competitors, a beautiful women, even some voiceovers by Michael Caine. These are elements of movies we’ve become used to, and grown to love. There is so much intrigue and double crossing throughout this whole movie that we can barely even touch on it without just saying, “Go watch it,” because you really should. The tricks are always explained, even if one of them is a huge machine that duplicates objects.
The unexpected: The final reveal is huge. As one of the magicians is executed (for an alleged murdering of the second magician’s duplicates), he simultaneously murders the second magician. What does this mean? The first magician was a twin the whole time, revealing how some of his tricks were done, and also why his home life fell apart. No one knew. If that all sounds insane, I’ll say again, “Go watch it.”
2. Gone Girl
The expected: The movie begins with the murder of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), with an obvious suspect of Amy’s husband Nick (Ben Affleck). As we’re carried on for a ride full of intrigue, we start genuinely distrusting Nick, even as we’re more and more sure that he didn’t do it, due to how obvious it seems. It’s not until about halfway through the movie that we see Amy is alive and well, having planned the whole scheme herself to take revenge on her husband. This was a huge twist already, but the viewers were led to think that there was something afoot, even if they couldn’t guess what it was exactly. From that point, both characters take huge strides to keep themselves afloat in their separate revenge plots, as the other’s motives become clearer and clearer.
The unexpected: They stay together. In a dark and sizzling look into the sterility and pretense of suburban marriages, Amy comes back to Nick after setting up a past lover for her murder. Nick can’t expose her without looking crazy. Suspicious, uneasy, and resentful of their respective partner’s malice, the two take hands and start the rest of their life, still pretending at being content.
The expected: It’s hard to know where to start with Memento, another Christopher Nolan flick that seems like it would have been shot down in every planning meeting ever, just due to its sheer ambition in dealing with a style that was previously completely untested. There are parts of the story that are recognizable: the mysterious women, the suspiciously helpful sidekick, a main character without a backstory. But there are too many that aren’t to pretend that Memento is anything expected. It works its way backwards through the story, so we see the end first, and slowly get more and more perspective. The main character has short term memory loss, so in a way our scope just gets wider and wider than his.
The unexpected: The final scene depicts a kind of vengeful self-sabotage by the main character, in which he makes a decision to force his future self to not trust another character, eventually resulting in his murder. It’s the first scene of the movie chronologically, but its inclusion changes all of the other ones. Truly memorable, and truly mind-bending.