Have you ever seen a movie that's pretty darn good almost all the way through, only to squander its potential by lasting too long or taking a shaky turn in the closing moments? This list is committed to cataloging those movies. It's not about terrible endings, it’s about one-two punch moments that leave a bad taste in your mouth. All the movies listed herein could be vastly improved by dropping their last two scenes or sequences from all future physical and streaming editions and film prints. These are films that went on too long.
That said, all of the movies listed fall under the qualitative header “pretty good." You might be inclined to call some of them great. The movie going public and film critics certainly agree that some of these films are straight up classics. But that doesn't change the fact that these are films that should have ended earlier than they did. The cinephiles out there know there are few things more frustrating than potentially great movies where the ending should have come sooner.
Be warned: spoilers (obviously) abound.
Why does Batman have to take the fall for Harvey Dent's misdeeds at the end of The Dark Knight if Harvey Dent is dead? Sure, Dent’s martyrdom is designed, in Batman’s estimation, to galvanize Gotham City's policymakers into decisive action against mob and criminal rule. Instead of leaving Dent's new Two-Face guise to be dealt with in his own movie, co-writer and director Christopher Nolan has Dent abduct Commissioner Gordon's wife and son, then fight Batman to the death.
Batman instructs Gordon to make Batman appear responsible for Dent's crimes, giving Gotham City a criminal to demonize and hunt (not to mention distrust in The Dark Knight Rises). It's a dumb, short-sighted gesture, and seems out of character for everyone involved. Surely the whole thing could've been swept under the rug and no one blamed, so neither Dent nor Batman was demonized.
Nolan and his co-writers are obviously trying to make a point about the necessity of absolute, totemic figures as fixed points toward which the public gravitates; the need for a polarity of good and evil; the public's need for people like Jesus Harvey Dent as models for positive behavior. Batman, a complex figure who does bad things for good reasons, can withstand a tarnished reputation. Torpedoing the foundation of Harvey Dent's good deeds would drastically increase public distrust of officials, furthering the city's descent into chaos. You could argue Batman's agenda is kind of fascist, when you think about it. Despite what Nolan is trying to say and what is actually being said, the reason this ending doesn't work is simple: it's totally deus ex machina.
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The captive audience of Alfred Hitchock's Psycho absolutely does not need a random psychologist unpacking every one of Norman Bates's psychoses after finding out he's a homicidal maniac who killed his mother and imagines himself to be mother and son. You know, the guy who dresses in his mom's clothes and a wig when he kills. Seeing that is all the paying public needed, Hitchcock. That said, the scene in which Bates, via an internal monolog from his mother, decides not to hurt a fly, is deeply creepy, and would have been okay staying in on its own.
But Hitchcock, wife/collaborator Alma Reville, and their team really should have skipped the scene in which the psychologist spews psychobabble at Marion Crane's sister and lover. Sure, it holds lurid appeal, playing to Victorian sci-fi tropes you might find in Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which science and psychology play an integral role in audience fascination, but come on. The best ending of Psycho is the most unsettling option - Bates, in drag, being restrained from killing again, his mom's rotting corpse in the foreground.
Men in Black, as you know (everyone's seen it, right?) ends with a catchy exchange between Dr. Laurel Weaver, newly minted as agent L, and her partner Jay (Will Smith). They talk about aliens, the NBA, Dennis Rodman. It's hilarious. you'll love it.
It should've ended with Dr. Weaver holding a still-smoking alien blaster immediately after vanquishing Edgar the Bug and saving Jay and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones). The ensuing scene, in which Kay asks Jay to erase his memory so he can return to civilian life after decades of MiB-enforced anonymity, was such a massive blunder Men in Black II used its entire first act to undo the damage it caused.
The scene of L and J, which zooms out to reveal our galaxy is just one of many comprising a marble rolled by a massive alien, is cute, but forgettable. Things should have faded to black with the suggestion L would join Jay and Kay, not with Kay (temporarily, as it turned out) being excised from the team.
Of course, there's something interesting going on here in as much as the end of the film sets up a sequel in which Jay has a female partner, which would have been a very progressive move for a '90s tentpole, while the sequel rolls this back and hedges its bets on the boys club. So it's possible MiB II spend so much time fixing the end of it predecessor because the boys club got cold feet and scrambled to fix its blunder. Also, Kay having his memory erased brings a nice sense of closure, something all-to-rare in the agent or relentless franchising.
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Taxi Driver has been hailed by many as one of the greatest movies ever (ranked 52 on AFI's 100 Greatest American Films of All Time and 33 on Ranker's Best Movies of All Time). That doesn't mean you can't pick nits. See, Taxi Driver's blood-soaked climax, in which Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) "rescues" Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old hooker who doesn't want saving, from the clutches of her pimp with the red coke nail (Harvel Keitel) and his creepy goons, is one of American cinema's great moments of demented anti-heroism. The postscript frames it as a righteous rescue, and paints Travis as a hero. But to what miserable life did he return Foster? A home she was desperate to flee.
The audience knows Bickle is a slowly boiling pressure cooker, a fountain of PTSD rage, who happened to orient his first post-Vietnam outburst towards criminals who deserved it. No one needs to be told Bickle's actions are misconstrued as morally just (as happens in the penultimate scene). Neither do you need to see Travis reunited with Betsy, the woman whose rejection of Travis sent him on a murder spree. The end of their reunion is a shot of Travis losing his mind in his car's rearview mirror. Surely all this can be inferred? Or maybe not, according to the film's makers.
Some interpret the final moments as a dream, though according to screenwriter Paul Schrader, it all very much happens, and was his way of showing how America turns violent psychotics into media celebrities, painting alternative narratives that better please the public and corporate bottom line. For his part, director Martin Scorsese says of the final moments, "I decided I’d put something on that shows that the timer in Travis starts to tick again, the bomb that’s about to explode again."
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