SPOILER WARNING HERE
1. Les Misérables (2012)
No matter who dies in a stage musical, it’s a fairly safe bet that they’ll be back onstage for the finale—maybe the actors will show up in different costumes or as different characters, but they’re generally there in some form, since typically, every voice is needed for the final number. (Besides, it’s a logistically convenient setup for the curtain call.) That’s certainly the case with the theatrical version of Les Misérables, which ends by cramming the stage with the full cast for a bittersweet but triumphant reprise of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation didn’t need to be as literal—the voices could have chimed in on the number without the warm bodies all turning up onscreen—but he stages it like a much bigger, more sweeping take on the theater version, with the dead and living characters standing and singing together in a triumphant rally that has nothing to do with the actuality of the story he’s telling. Thematically and emotionally, perhaps they’re still united in purpose, and in giving their lives up in hope of a better tomorrow. Or maybe it’s just because that humongous crowd looks good on the screen.
2. V For Vendetta (2005)
James McTeigue’s film adaptation of Alan Moore’s comics series V For Vendetta has a fairly high body count, given that it centers on people caught under the bootheel of fascism. Some try to escape or defy their oppressive government, sometimes in very small ways; others die for their beliefs, their sexuality, or just because they’re caught in the crossfire. Regardless, they all turn up in the end for a sequence that reads as slightly ridiculous. Called to rally in their own defense, thousands of people turn up in the center of London dressed as the outlaw terrorist V—black cloak, black hat, Guy Fawkes mask—and form a potent image of anonymous, defiant, unanimous rebellion. (No wonder hacktivist group Anonymous has adopted the V mask for public appearances.) But then V’s protégé (Natalie Portman) addresses the question of his identity by saying, “He was my father. And my mother. My brother. My friend. He was you. And me. He was all of us.” In a sudden bid to literalize this, as if responding to a hidden signal, the giant crowd of V imitators all whip off their hats and masks, revealing a sea of faces—with the camera lingering on people who died at various points in the story. As with Les Misérables, it’s symbolic of common cause and the spirit of defiance, but it also steps so far away from the grim literalness of the rest of the story that it undermines the point.
3. Longtime Companion (1989)
Sometimes the end-of-story reunion between living and dead characters isn’t metaphorical so much as fantastical; with a devastatingly sad narrative, it can be a way to send people away from the screen with a little feeling of uplift, a little cathartic release. That’s certainly the case with 1989’s Longtime Companion, a film that caused a stir at the end of the ’80s by closely, humanistically documenting the AIDS crisis through a fictional narrative following characters in the gay community. Some fall victim to the syndrome in the days when it’s mistakenly identified as “gay cancer”; others helplessly watch their friends deteriorate and wonder what’s going on. Meanwhile, the film follows their lives and explores their friendships and relationships. It’s a tragic film, but it’s more interested in painting a portrait of a circle of friends and a range of experiences, as viewed in an era when gay people were rarely seen onscreen, especially with this level of calm realism, and without tragic camp or villainy. The film ends with three of the survivors walking along the beach, musing about how at some point in the future, when a cure is discovered, it’ll feel “like the end of World War II.” Then they indulge in a sweet reverie where their departed friends join them for a tearful, huggy reunion, appropriately set to Zane Campbell’s “Post Mortem Bar.” They snap back to reality before the film ends, but the song continues as they walk away, holding onto that moment of love and positivity.
4. Titanic (1997)
For the people who survived (okay, and those who didn’t, too), the Titanic disaster was the defining event of their lives. At least that’s what the ending of James Cameron’s über-successful film posits. Gloria Stewart—who plays the old version of Kate Winslet’s character, Rose—drops her priceless necklace in the ocean at the Titanic crash site, completing some unfinished business that began 85 years prior. But the real unfinished business happens in the next scene, when she dies in her sleep. The camera moves into her cabin, passing a bunch of her photos to show she’s lived a full life, sweeping over her face, and then underwater at the crash site. The wreck slowly transforms back into the majestic Titanic from Rose’s perspective, as if she were walking its sunlit deck. A steward opens the door for her, and inside, all of her fellow passengers and friends welcome her to what’s apparently Titanic Passenger Heaven. At the top of the grand staircase awaits Leonardo DiCaprio, still young and handsome. At last, everyone’s together, happy and safe.
5. Return Of The Jedi (1983)
Everyone who is between 20 and 50 knows the ending to the last episode of George Lucas’ first “Star Wars” trilogy. The rebels have defeated the Empire once again, this time more or less for good. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and company blew up the second Death Star, and Luke finally came to terms with his father Anakin/chief tormentor Darth Vader, as Vader lay dying. In the last scene, as the rebels are celebrating in the Endorian jungle with the Ewoks, Luke sees the ghosts of his Jedi mentors, Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda, appear and give their nod of approval to him as the defender of the Force. Then the image of a Vader-free Anakin fades in alongside the other two ghosts, and the circle is complete. It was a touching scene and a good way to end the trilogy… until the 2004 DVD release, when Lucas decided to “tweak” the scene by removing Sebastian Shaw, who played Anakin in the original, with the ghostly image of a much younger Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin in the last two prequel films.
6. Pontypool (2008)
Set in a radio station in the tiny, titular Canadian town, Pontypool concerns a bizarre “virus” spread via language. Its victims become disoriented, lose the ability to communicate, and begin speaking in gibberish, before finally attacking anyone nearby. As the film unfolds, it’s not entirely clear who’s infected, how bad the infection is, or if there’s any treatment—indeed, it’s possible to think the protagonists could be spreading the virus as much as they’re counteracting it. Then, just before the end of the movie, the army shows up off-screen—its presence announced through commands via loudspeaker—to shut down the radio station. After a countdown, the screen cuts to black, suggesting the station has been bombed, killing everyone inside. Following the credits, though, is a strange, minute-long scene with the two main characters at a bar. One’s dressed as a slick gangster, the other a geisha. It begins in black and white, then slowly fades into color as they speak in a strange, poetic language and cadence, cutting off suddenly with one hushing the other. Is it heaven? It is all in their heads as they die in the rubble? Does the linguistic virus create some kind of alternate reality? The scene adds a whole new level of weirdness atop the already bizarre preceding 95 minutes.
7. Sid & Nancy (1986)
The seemingly inevitable flameout of punk rock’s Romeo and Juliet, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, was well documented long before the arrival of Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic about the doomed couple, but the film offers a highly romanticized conclusion to their troubled lives. Following Spungen’s 1978 stabbing death, which Cox posits Vicious did accidentally, Vicious suffered a similarly bleak demise, overdosing on heroin a few months later. Onscreen, however, Vicious’ final moments find him wandering alone through an urban wasteland, having a slice of pizza as his last supper, and then dancing to KC And The Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” with a trio of ghetto urchins. A taxi pulls up and Spungen beckons him from the back seat to join her in oblivion, which he does without hesitation. Fellow Sex Pistol John Lydon sneered in his 1994 autobiography Rotten: No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish about the way Sid & Nancy celebrated heroin addiction, but he reserved particular venom for the last scene. “It definitely glorifies it at the end when that stupid taxi drives off into the sky,” Lydon said. “That’s such nonsense.”
After seven seasons, Medium began its series finale with a plane crash that killed Joe (Jake Weber), the long-suffering husband of protagonist Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette), a stay-at-home mom/psychic consultant to the Phoenix police department. But did he die? The show then jumps ahead seven years, where Dubois dreams that Joe is still alive in Mexico but amnesic, which explains why neither he nor his body made it home. That leads to a convoluted search for him, but it turns out all of that was a dream, too. The final moments of the finale find Dubois living in a nursing home 41 years in the future, where she dies quietly and peacefully of natural causes. As her spirit steps outside her body, she’s greeted by Joe, who’s been waiting for her in the afterlife all this time.
9. The Ghost And Mrs. Muir (1947)
In the 1947 film The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, a young widow named Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) moves into a haunted cottage in a seaside village, where she falls in love with the ghost of the cottage’s former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). She also develops feelings for writer Miles Fairley (George Sanders), and Gregg, not wishing to stand in the way of her happiness, convinces a sleeping Muir that he was only a dream and disappears from her life. Although Tierney soon discovers that Fairley is already married and goes on to live a solitary existence for the rest of her life, Gregg returns to her upon her death, when he lifts her spirit from her now-lifeless body, and the two stroll out of the house and into the clouds together. The film spawned a short-lived TV series in 1969, which ended before its second season was able to provide the same kind of conclusion.
10. American Horror Story (2011)
The fundamental economics of television, which dictate shows run until they’re no longer profitable, conflict with the horror genre, which dictates constant death. So fans watched the first season of American Horror Story with a mixture of shock, awe, and confusion. Would this haunted-house story stand by itself, the first edition of an anthology, or would the story of the Harmon family continue into subsequent seasons? As all the main characters wound up dead as season one drew to a close, the latter became unlikely—though a sweet holiday reunion of ghosts seemed just as unlikely. That’s what happened in the season finale, as the majority of the show’s ghostly cast gathered in the home to decorate a Christmas tree. For a show that specialized in dysfunctional family dynamics as much as gimp suits, it was an oddly sweet end to the season, as people who fought in life embraced each other in death. It’s a Christmas miracle!
11. The Tree Of Life (2011)
Critics who dismissed Terrence Malick’s transcendental naturalism as hippie-dippy New Age hokum need to revisit The Tree Of Life’s final scenes. Toward the end of the film, Jack (a very confused-looking Sean Penn) imagines himself walking along a rocky beachfront, where the ghosts of dead loved ones join him. In a film that’s basically a loose patchwork of memory, dream, lived experience, and dinosaur compassion, The Tree Of Life’s memorable ending collapses all these narrative planes (except for the dinosaur stuff). It’s a stunning, instantly memorable scene, regardless of Mallick’s fuzzy intentions.
12. Gladiator (2000)
The track of Hans Zimmer’s score that plays over the final scene in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is “Elysium,” named for the afterlife that is the resting place for demigods and heroic and virtuous souls. Although it’s a Greek mythological concept, it certainly fits the extremely loose historical accuracy of Scott’s depiction of ancient Rome. With his dying breaths, Russell Crowe’s mortally wounded yet triumphant Maximus frees his men and restores power to the Roman Senate. As Maximus closes his eyes, his body appears to float over the ground as he’s whisked away to his idea of paradise: his family farm, reunited with his wife and son. Scott took countless liberties with Roman history, but all in service of crafting a story around one fiercely virtuous character, so it makes sense that the depiction of the afterlife is so focused and personal, with Maximus running his hands over tall grass as his son runs toward him along a path.
13. The Godfather Part II (1974)
The sequel to The Godfather divides its time cutting between the parallel ascensions to power of Vito Corleone and his son Michael—and Coppola underscores the importance of seemingly quotidian events with echoing ramifications in the film’s final scene, a brilliant coda to the Shakespearean family drama. After Michael’s second flurry of destruction, he sits alone at the Corleone compound in Lake Tahoe as his mind flashes back to a formative scene: the family together for Vito’s 50th birthday on December 7, 1941. It’s significant for a number of cameos: James Caan’s Sonny introduces his sister Connie to her future husband Carlo Rizzi, Abe Vigoda’s Tessio brings in a birthday cake as the family discusses the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Michael announces his decision to leave college and enlist in the Marines. Ominously, only John Cazale’s Fredo supports Michael’s decision. It’s a halting flashback, a microcosm of the dichotomy between the importance of blood loyalty and ticking time bomb family conflict that plays out over the course of both films. (Yes, let’s just forget about Part III.)
14. Lost (2004-2010)
The structure of Lost’s last year replaced the flashbacks and flash-forwards of previous seasons with “flash sideways,” to a strange alternate dimension where the show’s protagonists were living in Los Angeles, largely unaware of each other or of the magic island they’d all crashed on back in Lost’s first episode. Throughout the season, the characters reconnected and regained their memories, until in the last episode, “The End,” they learn the secret of this strange version of L.A., and why some of them are alive again after having died on the island. In the final scene in the sideways universe, an assortment of these deceased former castaways gather in a church, filled with peace and giddy anticipation of what lies beyond this life. This controversial narrative gambit allowed Lost to have a conventionally warm, sentimental TV finish, letting fans say a fond goodbye even to characters who’d come to tragic ends years before the finale.
15. Casino Royale (1967)
The 1967 Casino Royale exists because the producer, Charles K. Feldman, found himself in possession of the film rights to the only one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels not owned by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Rather than take on the “official” Bond series directly with a straightforward adaptation, Feldman elected to aim for a gargantuan super-spoof, with multiple directors and a cast that included David Niven as the actual James Bond, Peter Sellers as a Bond impersonator, Woody Allen (who was one of several famous writers called in to work on the script) as Niven’s treacherous nephew, and several beautiful young starlets (including Ursula Andress and “Jackie” Bisset) as spies and double agents. Sellers is killed off halfway through the movie, and everyone else is blown up at the end, along with the casino. Then, all the various Bonds and fake Bonds are seen in heaven, strumming harps—except for Sellers, who shows up wearing a kilt and playing a fife, sees the villainous Woody, and with one breath consigns him to hell. (Both Sellers’ early exit and his manner of dress in the epilogue were apparently dictated by the fact that he either quit or was fired from the film before all his scenes had been filmed, forcing the editors to patch him in as best they could with whatever footage they had.)
16. The Crow (1994)
The baroque, overripe revenge fantasy The Crow (based on the baroque, overripe comic book by James O’Barr) stars Brandon Lee as Eric, a rock guitarist who is mortally wounded and left for dead by thugs who rape and murder his fiancée. A year later, Eric, abetted by a mystical crow that represents the unkillable spirit of love or something, literally rises from his grave and dispatches all the colorfully grungy character actors who had a hand in his personal tragedy. His mission accomplished, Eric crawls back to the cemetery, where his fiancée appears. They share a kiss, then presumably ascend to some place that is beyond the reach of earthly suffering, represented by the sound of Jane Siberry and Scott Weiland’s voices singing over the closing credits.
17. Melvin And Howard (1980)
Jonathan Demme’s beautiful comedy opens with a sequence that re-creates the meeting that may have taken place in the Nevada desert in 1967, when a truck driver named Melvin Dummar claimed to have given a ride to a man who told him he was Howard Hughes. Most of the rest of the movie is about Dummar’s life as he bounces from one job to the next, losing one family and building another, until the news that he has been named a beneficiary in what may be Hughes’ will turns him into a tabloid celebrity. Dummar is a sweet-natured guy who can’t catch a break, and if Hughes really did name him in his will, all he did was turn him into a punchline. But at the end, Melvin, napping in a car, has a dream, or a flashback, to being in that truck with Howard. They’re friends now, and Hughes, seeing how badly he needs to rest, offers to take the wheel and drive for a while.
18. The Wild Bunch (1969)
Sam Peckinpah’s great Western pays homage to John Huston’s The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre in a scene when the Bunch, after discovering that their latest job was a bust and coming perilously close to violence against each other, instead give in to an explosion of self-mocking laughter. At the end of the movie, after most of the outlaws have been killed in an apocalyptic final battle, the two surviving members laugh together over what they’ve been through, and Peckinpah cuts to each dead member of the Bunch laughing, as if they were joining in. As the survivors ride off, the movie fades to a flashback image of their fallen comrades back in the idyllic Mexican village they would have been well-advised never to have left.
19. Wuthering Heights (1939)
The classic Hollywood version of Emily Bronte’s novel stars Laurence Olivier as the tortured romantic sadist Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as the thwarted love of his life, Cathy, who succumbs to a broken heart and dies in his arms. The story is told in flashback, using the aged Heathcliff’s death as a framing device: He recklessly rushes outside, after dark in a snowstorm, in response to the plaintive cries of Cathy’s ghost on the moors. The next morning, the doctor visits to report that Heathcliff has been found dead in the snow. The housekeeper retorts that whatever the doctor may have seen out there, the master is “not dead” and “not alone. He’s with her. They’ve only just begun to live.” A closing image of the spectral forms of the young Heathcliff and Cathy walking together in a winter wonderland confirms that this is so.
20. Our Town (1938)
First produced on the stage in 1938, made into a movie (with an altered ending) in 1940, and re-created in umpteen TV productions, Broadway revivals, and high-school gymnasiums, Thornton Wilder’s American classic depicts the details and pace of life in a typical small town—high school, teen courtship, marriage, and the like—and then, in the third act, it kicks the dust off its shoes and gets cosmic. The concluding section is set in the Grover’s Corners cemetery, where several of the people the audience met during the preceding two acts (including the heroine, Emily) have taken up permanent residence. The newly deceased Emily gets reacquainted with her old friends, shoots the shit with them about eternity and how strange the living can seem to the dead, and cashes in her coupon for the chance to re-live one day of her choosing. But seeing her loved ones going about their business without being fully cognizant of the full, rich value of “every minute” of precious life so depresses her that she returns to the boneyard, where her husband is weeping inconsolably at her grave. In the play’s final moments, the omniscient stage manager addresses the audience, urging them to remember what they have just seen and learn from it, but to try not to think about it so hard that, on the drive home, they might feel the urge to veer into oncoming traffic.