(Warning: A spoiler alert applies to the following 10 movies. If you don't want to know the endings, stop reading now.)
10. The Others (2001)
In traversing the murky narrative terrain of the line between life and death, this movie only serves to render the subject a bit murkier. By the end all the pieces may finally fit together or not; all most viewers will care about is the fact that the mother, played by Nicole Kidman (caught at the height of her career), and her two children, believing their house to be haunted by ghosts, discover that they are in fact the ghostly ones. The fact that the kids can't go out in the sun is an obvious clue. Inspired mightily by the Henry James novella Turn of the Screw, The Others leans heavily on the atmospherics, important to any ghost story.
9. Shutter Island (2010)
Anyone catching this film shortly after viewing The Others should be able to figure out its mysteries fairly quickly. Leonardo DiCaprio, in his fourth collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, stars as a U.S. Marshal investigating a missing-patient case at a psychiatric institution. In time it becomes apparent that DiCaprio's character is himself a patient there, with the further twist, perhaps straining credulity, that the hospital's staff had invented the elaborate ruse as a treatment method. The movie received good if not great reviews, with many critics taking Scorsese to task for dressing up what is really just routine genre material.
8. The Mist (2007)
The Stephen King novella dates to 1980, and filmmaker Frank Darabont wanted it for his debut, but directed King's The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile instead. When he did get his hands on this monster story, the director had some very specific changes in mind. The creatures that trap townspeople inside a small-town grocery are elaborate and varied, and the movie's ending is considerably darker. On the road, doomed, devoid of hope, Thomas Jane's character, holding a gun with four bullets, kills the four others in the car, including his young son, and then awaits his grisly fate in the mist — only instead of death by monsters, soldiers come to the rescue.
7. Primal Fear (1996)
Richard Gere was the star of this film, it's his mug on the poster, but Edward Norton stole the show as a simple-minded young man accused of murdering a cleric. During the trial he suddenly lashes out like a sociopath, is diagnosed with multiple-personality disorder and committed. But Norton's character, we later learn, knew what he was doing all the time. Norton earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work on the film, which launched a promising career. A very public disagreement with Marvel over the script of 2008's The Incredible Hulk branded the actor as difficult and has since diminished his profile.
6. The Crying Game (1992)
There's a twist of sorts to the twist that occurs when Stephen Rea's character discovers the woman he's preoccupied with is actually a non-operative transgender person. It doesn't occur at the end of this political thriller, allowing us to see how this game-changing event affects all that follows (not so much, as it turns out). Neil Jordan's movie was a flop in Great Britain, where audiences were too familiar with its backdrop of the Irish troubles. In America, however, the story's twist became a marketing bonanza, with the film receiving six Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture (it won a screenplay award).
5. No Way Out (1987)
It's one of the better movies on this list. A thriller set in the Pentagon, it stars Kevin Costner as a naval officer in the midst of a relationship with a woman played by Sean Young (remember when she had a career?). The other man in Young's life is Costner's boss, the secretary of defense (Gene Hackman). The film, a loose remake of a 1948 title called The Big Clock, ratchets up the tension nicely. When Hackman’s character inadvertently kills his lover, an aide convinces him to cover up the crime and blame the death on a Russian spy. Costner’s character leads a tense manhunt for the spy, until at the very end we learn he himself is a Russian spy, changing everything we've just watched. It's hard to buy Costner as a Slav, but with the revelation at the end we don't really have to.
4. The Usual Suspects (1995)
The potential pitfall with surprise endings emerges when screenwriters feel they must create convoluted plots in strained efforts to set them up. None of the movies on this list suffers from the problem — except for this one. Accordingly, many prominent critics hated it, yet in the end the flick about a gang of criminals who meet in a police lineup evidently pulled it off, winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Kevin Spacey also won an acting Oscar, lighting a fire under his career, a good thing. So, who is Keyser Soze? Look carefully at the initials. A better question might be whether it matters. Probably not.
3. Psycho (1960)
A new critical consensus has emerged that filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is overrated, that most of his movies are the work of a hack. Even if that's true, Psycho remains a shimmering exception. Familiarity has dulled the impact of the movie's surprise ending — Norman Bates' invalid mother is actually the deeply disturbed Norman in a dress and wig — but it's the picture's remarkable sense of dread and foreboding, from the very first frame, that most impresses. Anthony Perkins, the actor who played Bates so well, reprised the role for three more schlocky pictures from 1983-90, popular at the time, but they haven’t dimmed the power of the original.
2. Planet of the Apes (1968)
It's rare to come across a surprise film ending that does more than just show off how clever it is. When Charlton Heston's astronaut, on a strange planet in the distant future where humans and primates have reversed roles, happens upon a crumbled and broken Statue of Liberty, he realizes he's been on Earth all along. Good science fiction — and this is that — leads one to ponder all sorts of larger questions. The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling wrote the original screenplay, and although a couple of other writers were brought in for revisions, Serling is generally credited with concocting the surprise ending. Fun fact: The climactic scene was filmed on the beach in Malibu.
1. The Sixth Sense (1999)
There are better endings on this list, but no movie is as renowned for its surprise ending as this one (a child psychologist played by Bruce Willis works with a boy, Haley Joel Osment, who sees dead people; Willis's character, it turns out, is one of them). The movie was very well received, garnering six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but came away empty-handed. The picture has proved something of a curse for writer/director M. Night Shyamalan as well. Despite multiple attempts, the filmmaker has never been able to achieve anything close to the critical success of this, his first major picture.