Most movies end in a way that’s happy and uplifting. Sometimes, and depending on the story, movies can also end in sad, even tragic ways. And then in between is another type of ending altogether: the bittersweet ending, which is an ending that’s both sad and uplifting, all at once.
They’re not always easy to pull off well, but when a filmmaker nails a genuinely great bittersweet ending, it can be extremely satisfying and memorable. Indeed, the best bittersweet endings often rank among the best endings of all time, because what’s better than making an audience happy or sad at the end of a film? Making them both, as the following nine movie endings will hopefully demonstrate.
Updated on November 4th, 2022, by Hannah Saab:
Any movie with a bittersweet ending is automatically more memorable, as audiences can be either moved to tears or unsatisfied by the disappointing conclusion. Bittersweet movies that do their endings right are hard to come by, but there are a few that have stood out over the years. Viewers who enjoy these types of narrative styles may want to add some new entries to their to-watch list.
‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)
Serving as the finale for the MCU’s first 10 years, Avengers: Endgame had a lot on its plate and managed to pull it all off quite successfully. One reason it felt so much like a finale was that in their final battle against Thanos, sacrifices were made, meaning that the victory was hard-won and certainly bittersweet (at least one cast member still claims it’s too emotional to revisit).
Black Widow sacrifices herself before the final battle, and then in the final battle, Iron Man uses the Infinity Gauntlet, which eradicates Thanos and his army whilst also overwhelming and killing Tony Stark. The film’s final moments focus on his funeral and characters mourning his passing before going their separate ways, acknowledging that while the heroes got what they were fighting for, it did come at a great cost.
‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1988)
Cinema Paradiso as a whole is a very bittersweet film. It’s a coming-of-age drama focusing on a young boy – Salvatore – who grows up without a father, instead forming a bond with a cinema projectionist. The boy grows up, falls in and out of love, and achieves his dream of becoming a film director, but always feels as though something is missing in his life.
The film ramps its emotions up further towards the end, though. Salvatore returns home for the projectionist’s funeral and sees his beloved childhood cinema get demolished while there. But his father figure left him something – a compilation of all the romantic scenes from old films cut out by strict censors – and as Salvatore watches the scenes, he’s overcome with emotion – nostalgia, happiness, sadness, and pride in knowing he made it in the film industry, all at once. Owing to the beautiful Ennio Morricone music, the audience will surely be moved too by this quite literal love letter to cinema in the film’s ending.
Ridley Scott’s 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 aims to get his revenge by fighting in a series of gladiator battles, which the Emperor’s son (now Emperor himself) often attends.
Maximus is so hellbent on revenge – and has lost his family – that perhaps his death at the film’s end isn’t too surprising. Still, it’s bittersweet to see him pass away 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 sort of dying dream is up to the audience to decide.
‘Toy Story 3’ (2010)
It’s hard to pick a favorite Toy Story movie, but the strength of Toy Story 3’s final scenes certainly makes it a candidate. In the film’s ending, Andy gives away his childhood toys before heading off to college, giving them one last play with Bonnie, their new owner, who’s delighted to own that which Andy himself loved as a young child.
The maximum amount of emotions possible for an ending like this is on show here. It makes sense for Andy to move on and never see the toys again – the viewers and the toys themselves know it – but it’s still sad, even if it’s right. The fact that many kids who grew up with Toy Story were themselves college-age in 2010 also made the emotions in this film’s ending hit even harder.
‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
By The Dark Knight‘s end, The Joker has been captured and at least part of his plan is prevented. But the city and its citizens have had their lives permanently disrupted, two of the heroes are dead (one of whom – Harvey Dent – got morally corrupted before dying, too), and Batman himself is required to flee and lie low for a while.
As Jim Gordon famously states, “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now,” meaning that Batman himself needs to take the heat off what happened to Dent, otherwise risk things becoming more chaotic. It leaves things open, ensures Batman’s future is uncertain and shows that good people can become evil and/or die. It shows a larger crisis is averted, but at a great cost to the heroic characters who are still alive at the film’s end.
‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)
One of Tim Burton’s best films (and certainly one of his most emotional), Edward Scissorhands is about an unusual man with scissors for hands who struggles to fit into the suburban lifestyle of the people around him, with unrequited love and violence being among the things he has to deal with.
By the film’s end, he has to retreat to the place where he came from, and most of the townspeople go on believing he died. He never gets the girl he wanted to be with, but they’re implied to think about each other still. There’s hope he can enjoy his solitary life, and he is at least safe. Otherwise, this modern fairytale ends quite sadly.
‘Seven Samurai’ (1954)
When a town gets continuously threatened by greedy bandits, several townspeople decide they’re fed up, and enlist the help of seven skilled swordsmen to defend their homes from future bandit attacks.
So begins the main plot of Seven Samurai, with everything building to a large battle at the film’s end. When the dust settles, four of the samurai are dead, though at least the bandits are defeated. Still, the townspeople seem apathetic at best to the surviving samurai once the battle’s over. So despite the victory, this bittersweet ending brought on by numerous sacrifices is perhaps more bitter than sweet.
‘La La Land’ (2016)
La La Land centers on a young couple in Los Angeles who have a great deal in common, leading to a relationship full of highs and lows. What ends up being the biggest similarity between the two is how passionate they are about their chosen careers, which leads to them breaking up to focus on their individual dreams.
They see each other by chance, some years after their breakup, during the film’s ending. What follows is a heightened, colorful, fantastical montage where they imagine what could have been, had they chosen differently, before the dream falls away and reality is left in its place. There’s no way to know exactly what they’re feeling, but each seems at peace. But the idea of “what if the path not chosen had worked or worked better” is a tough one to grapple with, and leaves a little uncertainly and mild sadness to La La Land’s moving ending.
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 together by the film’s ends, both agreeing to go their separate ways in an emotional and satisfying final scene.
Made during the middle of WW2, each chooses to do what’s best for the world at large, in turn making two personal sacrifices to be selfless instead of selfish. The fact they each seem confident in their actions helps it sting a little less, as does the idea that no matter what, Rick and Elsa will “always have Paris” to remember.
‘The Worst Person In The World’ (2021)
The Worst Person in the World is a profound drama film that chronicles different stages in Julie’s life. From the beginning of her career to her complicated adulthood, it shows the highs and lows of her personal and professional life. There’s a particular focus on Julie’s messy romantic relationships, which are bolstered, influenced, and ultimately ended by her inner conflicts and transformation.
There’s no shortage of tear-jerking moments throughout the film, as it doesn’t pull any punches when portraying painful storylines. The movie’s bittersweet ending shows Julie as a successful photographer decades later, looking outside to spot a former partner who is happily married and has a kid – it’s a family that could have been hers, but the smile on her face shows she understands she chose her own path.
‘Lost In Translation’ (2003)
Known for the incredible way it blends romance and melancholia, Lost in Translation follows the story of the fading Hollywood actor, Bob Harris. He’s unamused by his time in Tokyo, where he meets a recent college grad, Charlotte. Their relationship helps Bob feel less lonely and isolated in the city, with the duo going on wild adventures during their stay.
They both knew it would have to come to an end – Charlotte has to get back to her life and return with her husband. The movie ends by showing one last interaction between them, with Bob hugging Charlotte and whispering something inaudible into her ear. It’s a sad and loving moment between the two, who seem to acknowledge what the value of what they’re leaving behind.
Her is a renowned sci-fi romance film centered on Theodore Twombly, a lonely man who is dealing with a divorce from her childhood sweetheart. When he purchases a virtual assistant, he doesn’t expect to fully fall in love with the artificial intelligence, Samantha.
After numerous poignant, delightful, and shocking moments in their relationship, Samantha reveals that she is leaving along with the other AIs to go someplace where they can continue to grow and learn. The protagonist, transformed by this experience, apologizes to his ex-wife and expresses gratitude, before finally noticing the woman (his neighbor) who was there all along. It’s a tender and unforgettable ending that makes the film worth revisiting today.
‘Lady Bird’ (2017)
The award-winning coming-of-age drama, Lady Bird, follows high school senior Christine McPherson, who can’t wait to get out of her small town in Sacramento, California. She hates that nothing ever happens and how small-minded the people can be, but most of all, she despises her mother. Their complicated relationship is the focus of the moving film.
By the end, following some traumatic events and after Lady Bird realizes that college is not at all what she expected it to be, she goes to a church that reminds her of home. She picks up the phone, and tearfully thanks her mom for everything she has done for her, drawing comfort from the fact that she will be there for her. It’s a tear-jerking conclusion that will make fans want to hug their mothers.