Most films end happily and uplifting. Sometimes, and depending on the story, movies can end in sad, even tragic ways. And in between there’s a whole different kind of ending: the bittersweet ending that’s simultaneously sad and uplifting.
Getting them right isn’t always easy, but when a filmmaker can pull off a really great, bittersweet ending, it can be extremely satisfying and memorable. In fact, the best bittersweet endings are often among the best endings of all time, because what’s better than making the audience happy or sad at the end of a movie? Doing both, as the following nine film endings will hopefully demonstrate.
The list below contains some spoilers for all of the films discussed.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
As a conclusion for the first 10 years of the MCU, Avengers: Endgame had a lot on his plate and managed to pull it off quite successfully. Part of the reason it felt so much like a finale was that sacrifices were made in her final fight against Thanos, meaning the victory was hard-fought and certainly bittersweet (at least one cast member still claims it was too emotional , to reiterate).
Black Widow sacrifices herself before the final fight, and then Iron Man uses the Infinity Gauntlet in the final fight, wiping out Thanos and his army while overpowering and killing Tony Stark. The film’s final moments focus on his funeral and characters mourning his death before going their separate ways, acknowledging that while the heroes got what they fought for, it came at a great cost.
‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1988)
cinema paradise Overall, it’s a very bittersweet film. It’s a coming-of-age drama revolving around a little boy – Salvatore – who grows up without a father and instead forms a bond with a projectionist. Growing up, falling in and out of love, the boy pursues his dream of becoming a film director, but always feels that something is missing in his life.
Towards the end, however, the film heightens its emotions even further. Salvatore returns home for the projectionist’s funeral and sees his beloved childhood cinema destroyed there. But his father figure left him something – a compilation of all the romantic scenes from old movies excised by the strict censors – and as Salvatore watches the scenes he is overcome with emotions – nostalgia, happiness, sadness and pride in knowing that he made it in the film industry at once. Thanks to the beautiful Ennio Morricone Music audiences will surely also be touched by this literal declaration of love to cinema at the end of the film.
Ridley Scotts Epic is about a man – Maximus – who is betrayed by the son of a Roman emperor, who then murders his family. Maximus is sold into slavery and seeks revenge by fighting in a series of gladiatorial combats in which the Emperor’s son (now Emperor himself) often takes part.
Maximus is so intent on revenge – and has lost his family – that his death at the end of the film might not come as a surprise. Still, it’s bittersweet to see him die after clearing his name, exposing the Emperor and killing him in a one-on-one battle. Whether the sight of him approaching his family in the afterlife is real or some kind of dying dream is up to the audience.
“Toy Story 3” (2010)
It’s hard to pick a favourite toy story film, but the strength of toy story 3 Closing scenes certainly makes it a contender. At the end of the film, Andy gives away his childhood toys before going to college, giving them one last play with Bonnie, their new owner, who is delighted to have what Andy loved even as a small child.
The maximum amount of emotion possible for an ending like this is shown here. It makes sense that Andy would move on and never see the toys again — viewers and the toys themselves know it — but it’s still sad, even if it’s true. The fact that many children who grew up with toy story were college-age themselves in 2010, which made the emotions even stronger at the end of this film.
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
Through That of the Dark Knight In the end, the Joker was captured and at least part of his plan prevented. But the life of the city and its citizens has been permanently disrupted, two of the heroes are dead (one of whom – Harvey Dent – was also morally corrupted before his death), and Batman himself must flee and go into hiding for a while.
As Jim Gordon famously says: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the hero it needs right now.” which means Batman himself has to take the heat from what happened to Dent or you risk things getting more messy. It leaves things open-ended, ensures Batman’s future is uncertain, and shows that good people can go bad and/or die. It shows that a major crisis is being averted, but at a heavy cost for the heroic characters who are still alive at the end of the film.
“Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
One of Tim Burtons best films (and certainly one of his most emotional), Edward with the scissor hands follows an unusual scissorhanded man who struggles to fit into the suburban lifestyle of those around him, with unrequited love and violence among the things he must contend with.
At the end of the film, he is forced to retire to the place he came from, and most of the townspeople continue to believe that he has died. He never gets the girl he wanted to be with, but they should still think about each other. There is hope that he can enjoy his lonely life and at least he is safe. Otherwise, this modern fairy tale ends rather sadly.
“Seven Samurai” (1954)
When a town is under constant threat from greedy bandits, several townsfolk decide they’ve had enough and enlist the help of seven skilled swordsmen to protect their homes from future bandit attacks.
This is how the main story begins Seven samurai, with everything turning into one big battle by the end of the film. When the dust settles, four of the samurai are dead, although at least the bandits are defeated. Still, the townspeople appear apathetic at best towards the surviving samurai once the battle is over. Despite victory, this bittersweet ending brought about by numerous sacrifices is perhaps more bitter than sweet.
‘La La Land’ (2016)
la la country is about a young couple in Los Angeles who have a lot in common, which leads to a relationship full of ups and downs. What ends up being the greatest similarity between the two is their passion for their chosen careers, leading them to break up to focus on their individual dreams.
They see each other by chance, a few years after their split, at the end of the film. What follows is an elevated, colorful, fantastical montage in which they imagine what might have been if they had chosen differently, before the dream disappears and reality takes its place. There’s no way of knowing exactly what they’re feeling, but everyone seems at peace. But the notion of “what if the path you didn’t choose worked or worked better” is hard to take and leaves a little uncertainty and slight sadness La La Lands moving end.
Perhaps one of the original, definitive bittersweet endings in film history – and still one of the best – Casablanca famously ends with the main couple, Rick and Elsa, not being together by the end of the film and both agreeing to go their separate ways in an emotional and satisfying final scene.
Born in the middle of World War II, everyone chooses to do what is best for the world and in return makes two personal sacrifices to be selfless instead of selfish. The fact that they both seem confident in their actions helps make it a little less stingy, as does the idea that no matter what, Rick and Elsa will “always have Paris” that they commit to can remember.
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