The 14th anniversary of The Prestige felt like as good an excuse as any to create a package devoted to the movie and TV twists through the years that have stunned us, destroyed us, and changed the way we think. (The twist here is that we’re celebrating a 14th anniversary rather than waiting one more year for a round number.) Join us on Twist Tuesday, as we break down what goes into an effective twist, explain the drastic consequences of shocking your audience, and below, rank the greatest twists of all time.
Before we get to the list, a few notes. First of all, here is the working definition of plot twist that our staff used when voting on their favorites. Second of all, scroll with caution—by definition, this is basically a collection of the biggest spoilers in the history of pop culture. Third of all, if you disagree with anything in here, that’s just us, The Ringer, pulling off a great twist on you personally. Consider yourself owned.
50. Spider-Man: Homecoming
I’m Dating the Villain’s Daughter?!
I have to admit: I was ignorant. Because Peter Parker’s high school crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), is Black and Spider-Man’s nemesis, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), is white, I never once considered that the latter could be the former’s father. That’s the genius of the twist in Homecoming—the way it leverages our simple minds to stunning effect. What comes after is brilliant as well—the car ride from Liz’s house to the high school dance is a master class in tension—but nothing tops the reveal, when a high school boy’s hopes for romance are dashed with the swift opening of a front door. The theater I was in collectively gasped in that moment—the sound of an all-time great twist. —Andrew Gruttadaro
The Truth About Ernesto de la Cruz
The twist in Coco is fun because it’s actually, very cleverly, a quadruple twist that gets rolled up into one mega twist. The first twist: They make it seem like Miguel, the youngest son in a family that has decided to actively hate music, is related to Ernesto De La Cruz, an all-time great musician who died at the apex of his popularity. The second twist: They make it seem like some dorky skeleton in the afterlife is going to help reunite Miguel with Ernesto De La Cruz. The third twist: It turns out that Ernesto De La Cruz is an extreme scumbag who not only stole the music that his partner wrote and passed it off as his own, but also murdered that partner. (He later tries to murder Miguel, which is a wild level of evil.) This sets up the fourth twist: The aforementioned dorky skeleton that was helping Miguel connect with Ernesto De La Cruz is the long-lost family member who Miguel thought Ernesto was. It’s all really great, and really well done, and it all leads us to one undeniable conclusion: Fuck Ernesto De La Cruz forever. —Shea Serrano
48. Knives Out
Ransom Did It
Even if you’ve never seen Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, you know the sweater. The dichotomy of watching Chris Evans’s chiseled body draped with the world’s softest white sweater sent the internet ablaze in 2019. The minute Evans’s character Ransom appears on screen, your mind barely registers that he’s undoubtedly the prime suspect. His charm, charisma, and laissez-faire attitude is a blinding balm in contrast to the toxic energy swirling around the Thrombey and Drysdale clan. By the time Ransom helps a terrified Marta (Ana de Armas) escape in his cozy sartorial choice, he’s been scratched off the list. So when Benoit Blanc finally reveals that it was Ransom, it becomes clear how much Johnson and Co. leaned on the innate celebrity of Evans to deceive the viewer. We don’t want it to be Ransom, because deep down in our hearts, we don’t want it to be Evans. —Charles Holmes
47. Battlestar Galactica
Starbuck wasn’t Battlestar Galactica’s main character per se, but she came to define the series through her attitude and the fact that everyone on the show either felt familial affection or overwhelming romantic love for her. (In Lee’s case, a little bit of both!) When she died, the crew of the Galactica went into a funk. (The show even did away with the opening credits!) That malaise clarified only with what should have been the game-changing cliffhanger of Season 3: the revelation of four of the final five Cylons, “All Along the Watchtower,” things of that nature.
But no, as the newly revealed Cylons sleepwalk back to battle stations, Lee flies out to intercept an even bigger plot twist: Starbuck is not only alive, she’s been to Earth, and she knows the way there. (The definitions of “alive” and “Earth” came to change over Season 4, but we had no way of knowing that at the time.) This was the converse of your usual TV drama shocker: Yes, a revelation that altered the narrative arc of the series, but with the resurrection of a beloved character (the beloved character, in BSG’s case) rather than said character’s death. Maybe not all of this has happened before. —Michael Baumann
46. Donnie Darko
Into the Wormhole
In the forward of director Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko Book, star Jake Gyllenhaal writes about how much he adores the 2001 cult classic—but he also admits to still not being totally sure what the movie’s about. Keep that in mind when you’re trying to dissect its mindfuck of an ending.
Put simply: Donnie, a teen who throughout the film has disturbing apocalyptic visions, uses what he’s learned in the book-within-a-movie, The Philosophy of Time Travel, to turn back the clock and reverse the events of the past month to save both his family and the world. It is a mind-bending development, and also the ultimate sacrifice: Because of the reset, the errant jet engine that he manages to avoid in the original timeline ends up crashing into his bedroom and killing him. And indeed, it leaves you head over heels. —Alan Siegel
45. The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard Is a Con Man
You know a twist is good when it spawns an idiom. “The man behind the curtain” can refer to anyone from Zendaya’s stylist to Steve Bannon in the 2016 election, but its origin lies at the end of the yellow brick road, where Dorothy discovers the omnipotent sorcerer she’s spent the entire movie tracking down is just another stranded Midwesterner like her. The reveal is now so well-known it’s barely remembered as a twist, but in a story that involves witches, flying monkeys, and a talking tin man, the supernatural being ordinary counts as the biggest twist of all. Besides, The Wizard of Oz handed us all a useful metaphor for the banality of true power, and for that we ought to thank it. —Alison Herman
Where Do You Think We Are?
Despite what this particular list says, the best, most natural, and most powerful plot twist that has ever happened on television happened on Scrubs, a show that (clearly) has never received the critical praise it’s owed. I’m, of course, referring to the “Where do you think we are?” moment, when Dr. Cox thinks he’s walking into a birthday party for his son but is really walking into a funeral for his best friend.
They spend three seasons setting it up (Ben gets diagnosed with leukemia in Season 1) and then they spend a whole episode dropping clues and hints right in front of your stupid face that (a) he’s died, and (b) he’s begun to exist as only a figment of Dr. Cox’s imagination because Dr. Cox is too overwhelmed with guilt. It’s as smart as it gets, and as clever as it gets, and as impactful as it gets (the foot sweep that happens when J.D. reveals they’re at Ben’s funeral is a real kick in the throat). It’s just too bad that nobody else here at The Ringer can see that yet. —Serrano
43. American Psycho
Was It All in His Head?
The most fascinating part of American Psycho’s twist is that 20 years later, there’s still debate about which parts really happened in the world of the movie and which occurred only in Patrick Bateman’s head. We know a few things: The ATM almost certainly did not ask Bateman to feed him a stray kitten, and his subsequent murderous rampage—which included a farcically explosive shootout with police—would’ve been all over the news had it taken place. He also probably didn’t drop a chain saw on someone in a stairwell. But beyond that, it’s unclear where the line between Bateman’s fantasies and reality sits. Sure, he likely didn’t murder Paul Allen and turn his Central Park–adjacent pad into a condo of horrors, but did he kill the homeless man and his dog? Did he really mutilate the sex workers he brought home? What were the red stains on the sheets he brought to the dry cleaners? And, given that he’s frequently referred to by names like Davis and Marcus, are we sure he’s truly Patrick Bateman? Even when our unreliable narrator peels off the layers, the confessions ultimately mean nothing. —Justin Sayles
42. The Bachelor
The Split-Screen Split
A good twist takes years of convention and gives it the middle finger … or dumps it after DMing another woman on New Year’s Eve. By Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s season of The Bachelor, we’d seen the same scenario play out nearly 20 times: man picks woman, they get happily engaged, show ends. And yes, while most of those happy endings turned sour, they did so off air, in the pages of People rather than on ABC. Which is what made the end of Arie’s season so earth-shattering. We saw the scenario play out—he picked Becca Kufrin and they got engaged—but instead of the show ending, it kept going. Instead of an off-screen breakup, Arie let cameras follow him to the site of the breakup, a home in the Hollywood Hills that Becca thought was the site of a romantic getaway. And once there, he revealed that he’d been in touch with the season’s runner-up, Lauren Bushnell, and that he’d made the wrong choice. Almost two decades worth of setup so that one mediocre race car driver could tear it all down on prime-time television. The Bachelor’s revolutionary use of split screen to capture both the jerk and the woman who couldn’t believe what was happening was just the cherry on top. —Gruttadaro
41. Mulholland Drive
It Was All a Dream?
It’s almost an insult to David Lynch’s all-universe talent for alluring surrealism to suggest that any story he’s ever told is linear and plainspoken enough to contain a “twist”—his best work is entirely twists and misdirection and outright bafflement. (The Straight Story is a notable exception.) But his gorgeously unsettling 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive, while vague enough in its particulars to inspire countless YouTube explainers and interpretations and whatnot, still hinges on one dazzling and devastating reveal, a narrative cliché (it was all a dream!) reborn as a horrifying new classic (the plucky alive girl is really a despairing dead girl!). Rare is the nightmare that keeps you coming back to revel in and unravel it. And as a cautionary tale about the perils of Hollywood, it puts the likes of “Hotel California” and “Welcome to the Jungle” to shame. —Rob Harvilla
The Past Is N0t Just the Past
“If you want science,” she tells her doomed, inquisitive daughter in the 2016 movie Arrival, “call your father.” In hindsight, there were other, earlier hints in the film that things may not be unfolding the way they initially seemed, but that was the first one that made me start to consider the plot in reverse while still in the process of watching in real time. Like Interstellar and Inception and so many other time-warping, dimension-shifting projects of its ilk, the 2016 movie Arrival is best viewed while you’re already plotting a second watch. That’s because its plot twist is more like a Möbius strip, in all its twisting, existential splendor.
Faced with a series of alien dispatches that resemble the rings a cold drink leaves on a coaster, Amy Adams, playing Louise the linguist, finally learns the reward for deciphering them. She gets to (“gets to”) experience life not as a linear march forward, but as a tragic, soulful, ethically suspect continuum that winds back around on and in itself. Arrival ultimately asks: Is the ability to communicate a weapon, or a gift? And like so many movie twists themselves throughout history, including this one, the answer can definitely be both. —Katie Baker
Cecilia and Robbie
The romantic period drama is hardly a genre associated with twists, which is what makes Atonement’s twist so breathtaking. The finale of Joe Wright’s 2007 drama, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, enhances the aching tragedy of a thwarted love story between Keira Knightley’s upper-class lady and James McAvoy’s working-class laborer turned soldier. It’s also a way of having its cake and eating it, too: Viewers get the rush of seeing Cecilia and Robbie reunited for a happily ever after, but also the righteous pang of knowing they were unjustly torn apart, an intoxicating mix of Romeo and Juliet with upstairs-downstairs dynamics.
Mostly, though, the final reveal is an argument for the power of storytelling. The eponymous act of Atonement, it turns out, is not anything so simple as the character of Briony Tallis apologizing to her sister and would-be brother-in-law in person. It’s an adult Briony scripting a reunion for Cecilia and Robbie in her fiction, thereby ensuring they’ll get the satisfaction in readers’ memories they never got in real life. Is this a cop-out on Briony’s part, in effect forgiving herself for the unforgivable? Or is it ultimate proof that legacy and narrative are what ultimately matters? It’s a cerebral sort of quandary, a “Did the top fall down?” for the MFA set. —Herman
Life’s Just a Video Game
I saw Serenity at a weekday matinee at a tiny theater on the edge of the woods. If it had not been the cinematic desert of midwinter, I would have seen something else. Like everyone else in the audience, I was alone, and in a specifically grouchy state—cold, tired, and bored enough to see a bad movie when most people were at work; a mood that would find attractive the idea of dropping out of society to run fishing tours in the Caribbean.
For about two-thirds of the film, Serenity was what it was. The pursuit of a magical tuna named Justice—along with the barefoot Jeremy Strong—portended some magical element to be revealed, but for the most part it was a film where great actors (Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane, Djimon Hounsou) delivered tedious dialogue with tremendous gravity. Like a 1940s noir inside a lesser Hemingway novel inside a Lincoln commercial.
Then, we learned that it was all a video game. Not a dream. Not a hallucination. Not a manifestation of the afterlife. A video game, designed by a teenager who wants his dead dad to kill his stepfather, and along the way have aggressive maritime sex with his mom. My fellow audience members and I each reacted in our own way—scoffing; laughing; letting out a flabbergasted, subvocalized “what the fuck …”—but this revelation swept us off our feet, like the world’s silliest wave. Serenity was an incredibly bad movie, but its plot twist is so singularly bonkers it will remain in my thoughts long after many other, better films fade into the sea. —Baumann
The Curious Case of Mr. Glass
Unbreakable’s big reveal is destined to be the second-most-famous twist from an M. Night Shyamalan movie that featured Bruce Willis. But even though it’s been overshadowed by The Sixth Sense, we’ve got to give Unbreakable its due. In the climactic scene, Willis’s superhero security guard David Dunn (and the viewers) learn that Elijah, the comic book art dealer who suffers from brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair, caused the train crash that killed 130 passengers and led to David discovering his true nature. Elijah sacrificed countless innocents in a series of crimes in search of a hero whose unbreakable body would balance out his own frame’s fragility. The movie’s take on the comic book origin story is so poignant not only because the mentor turns out to be the villain, but because of what Elijah’s unspeakable scheme exposes about his tortured psyche: He created a grandiose identity for himself after seeking out comics as a refuge from the cruel kids who called him “Mr. Glass,” and their taunts begat much greater damage down the road. —Ben Lindbergh
It Doesn’t Look Like Anything to Me
Westworld was never the same after those words. Bernard, the top tech executive at the titular murder theme park, was actually a host. That information alone was enough to send our cerebellums spinning. But then Anthony Hopkins (playing Dr. Robert Ford) descends from a dusty staircase and delivers the best monologue in the series. “I read a theory once that the human intellect was like peacock feathers,” Ford says. “Just an extravagant display intended to attract a mate.” Westworld is also an extravagant display for attention, and this scene is the show’s feathers at their brightest. —Danny Heifetz
35. The Others
A Family of Ghosts
The Others feels like a—no pun intended—spiritual cousin to The Sixth Sense, both concerning characters who have been dead throughout the whole movie. (The films were also released within a two-year span of one another.) But whereas “Bruce Willis was dead the entire time” penetrated the zeitgeist, The Others doesn’t have nearly the same level of fanfare. It’s a shame: The reveal that Nicole Kidman’s spooky English manor is of her own doing—that she and her children are dead, that she was responsible for killing them, and that they’re the ones haunting the new homeowners—is downright shocking, in part because The Others absolutely sells you on the ghosts’ warped perspective. On first viewing, the movie’s climactic séance, and the slow realization that we’ve been observing a haunted house in the inverse, hits like a ton of bricks.
The Others was a ghost story unlike any other, and if we’re being honest and a bit spicy, it has an even more effective twist than M. Night Shyamalan could’ve ever hoped to conceive. —Miles Surrey
What Really Happened to Leonard?
The structure of Christopher Nolan’s 2001 neo-noir is set up for dozens of twists. Told through two time lines—one that moves backward—Memento is the story of Leonard Shelby, a man with a condition that prevents him from making any new memories who wants to avenge his wife, who he thinks has been brutally raped and murdered. The film opens with him getting that revenge, or so he believes. But quickly, the viewer realizes that’s not exactly what happened. Everyone in this world is taking advantage of Leonard, realizing they can use his condition and emotional pain to their advantage. Sometimes, the lies they tell him are small, like the motel clerk who charges him for two rooms because he won’t remember. Other times, they’re bigger—several people around Leonard have figured out the man with no memory is really good at making people disappear. But no lie is greater than the one Leonard has told himself. And when we discover that the core of his mission isn’t quite what it seems—that his wife is dead, but maybe because of the attack—it alters how we view everything that preceded it. Leonard, however, will continue unchanged, unable to process the dramatic twists that govern his life. —Sayles
33. Inside Man
The “Bank Robbery”
After a wondrous cacophony of Denzel Washington verbal tics, Jodie Foster being kind of the worst person ever, and Christopher Plummer somehow one-upping her, Clive Owen’s Dalton Russell does it. He’s “robbed” a bank, gotten all of his coconspirators out safely, and is waiting patiently in between the plaster walls of said establishment with a set of stolen jewels. This is the twist in Inside Man; the bank robber gets out by hiding inside the bank. It is an inventive twist. It is a righteous twist.
But somebody’s gotta ask it, so I’ll be the one: Where does he go to the bathroom? Maybe Dalton could pack enough food to make his in-wall staycation doable. Maybe he’s not claustrophobic and can go weeks without making any loud noises. But he’s in what is essentially a closet and I simply refuse to believe that my guy is all good with just using the bathroom inches away from where he sleeps and eats, and just leaving it there for a couple of weeks. Anyway, yeah, Inside Man, hell of a twist. —Lex Pryor
32. Breaking Bad
Lily of the Valley
By the Season 4 finale of Breaking Bad, Walter White’s ruthlessness had already been well-documented. Yet somehow in that episode, which the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, wrote and directed, he gets unfathomably worse. In the closing minutes, we learn that Jesse’s girlfriend’s son Brock—who’s been in the hospital with a mysterious illness—will be OK. He ingested lily of the valley, a toxic household plant.
The matter seems settled until the gutting last scene. Just minutes after the gruesome, Heisenberg-orchestrated killing of Gustavo Fring, the camera slowly zooms in on a potted plant in Walt’s backyard. The placard in it reads “lily of the valley,” revealing that it was Walt, not Gus, who poisoned Brock, confirming that the aspiring drug lord has absolutely no humanity left. Slyly, the series foreshadowed the twist earlier in the season when Walt was seen fixating on a then-unidentified white flower. —Siegel
31. Shutter Island
There’s an asphyxiating kind of terror in stories in which the protagonist is wrongfully committed to a mental institution—as much from the visceral chill of a padded room as the implicit threat of traditional authority. Even our main characters, clever as they are, could have their sanity questioned on the order of some powerful villain or some stray bit of paperwork. Shutter Island inverts that idea brilliantly: What if our cunning U.S. marshal, played by one of the world’s most celebrated actors, was genuinely insane and committed with just cause? How far would we go to convince ourselves of his delusion—to anticipate the twist after the twist that never comes? Dr. Cawley tells us that the central deception of the movie is “the most radical, cutting-edge role-play ever conducted in psychiatry.” By anchoring the story through the perspective of Andrew Laeddis—ahem, Teddy Daniels—that role-play turns the audience into its subject, indulging us until we begin to see the edges of the fantasy peel away for ourselves. —Rob Mahoney
30. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
The Alternate History of August 8, 1969
Anyone familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s work is well aware that he’s taken artistic liberties with rewriting history. In Inglourious Basterds, Hitler and the high command meet their well-deserved end in a gory rage fantasy in which they are bombed, riddled with machine gun bullets, and ultimately reduced to ashes. In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Tarantino applies that same history-altering rigor to the night when actress Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and four friends were brutally murdered by members of Charles Manson’s “family,” who broke into Roman Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive to do his evil bidding. In this vision, things go … differently. One of the four would-be murderers chickens out and speeds away in the group’s car; the remaining three proceed with the plan, which ends badly for them. One dies when stuntman Cliff Booth bashes her head in; another dies, in part, from a brutal ass-kicking administered by Cliff’s otherwise sweetheart dog, Brandy; and another is french-fried to a crisp with a blowtorch by longtime Hollywood actor Rick Dalton. After the corpses are hauled away and Cliff heads to the hospital, Rick finally gets to meet his new neighbor—Sharon Tate, who unlike the Manson family members, is still very much alive. —John Gonzalez
29. Mr. Robot
Elliot’s Alter Ego
What’s amazing about the end of Mr. Robot’s first season is that it’s just an onslaught of reveals. First, Elliot kisses Darlene—who revolts, because guess what, she’s his sister. Then she asks whether he “had forgotten again,” and it really unravels. Piece by piece, Elliot comes to realize that not only is Christian Slater’s character his father, but that he’s long dead, and just a figment of Elliot’s imagination. And from there it’s not far to the final revelation: Elliot is Mr. Robot. There are two reasons the multiple-personalities twist works here: the first is the rapidity of the reveals, which leave you gasping for air as a viewer; the second is that Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail is humble enough to acknowledge that he’s not the first one to do this well. The stripped-down piano cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind”—the song that plays at the end of Fight Club, which places even higher on this list—is just a beautiful touch. —Gruttadaro
28. Avengers: Infinity War
“The Snap” to quote Thanos, was always “inevitable.” Jim Starlin’s 1991 hit The Infinity Gauntlet—the source material for Avengers: Infinity War—cemented Thanos’s reality-alternating finger snap into the minds of comic book readers. So when the final Avengers movie was split into two parts, the question wasn’t whether Thanos would wipe our favorite MCU protagonists from existence, but how those three iconic panels would be brought to life.
That’s why the twist of Infinity War isn’t the snap’s brutality, but the emotional devastation engineered by Anthony and Joe Russo. If the directors had decided to let the heroes flash from existence, the experience would’ve rung hollow. It’s the dust that sells the tragedy. Captain America has to watch Bucky Barnes, the friend he’s spent two movies trying to redeem, waste away into nothing. The audience that saw Black Panther grow from cult comic book hero into a cultural icon is as helpless as Okoye watching her king get swept away by the breeze. But it’s Tom Holland’s turn as Peter Parker that truly sells the moment. A terrified Parker frantically turns to his mentor and says, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good.” As Stark helplessly watches his surrogate son slip through his fingers, we realize that the twist was never about the physicality of the snap, but the people left behind by it. —Holmes
27. The Good Wife
The Death of Will Gardner
The Good Wife’s Julianna Margulies had been portraying lawyer Alicia Florrick for long enough that she knew how to make a case in real life. Before Season 5 of the CBS series, Margulies learned that her costar Josh Charles—who played her boss, rival, and doomed love interest Will Gardner—had decided not to renew his contract. Seeking to convince him to at least stay for another half-season, she called up Charles and cut to the core. “Do you know how expensive it is to have a baby in New York City?” Margulies recalled asking him. “I went right to the kid thing, and it was disgusting, honestly.” The tactic worked: Margulies convinced Charles to sign on (and get those sweet, sweet paychecks) for 15 more episodes. And in one of them, which aired in 2014, Will Gardner was abruptly shot and killed while arguing a case.
It was a death that genuinely shocked viewers. (I fondly remember social media that night; just tweet after tweet that said “OMG NO! WILL!!!!!!!!”) It also altered the series’ foundational, gravitational force: that crackling what-if energy between Will and Alicia. The Good Wife would run for two more seasons, but it would never be the same. “If someone you care about dies suddenly and violently, it isn’t just going to impact you for a week,” the series creators said in 2014. “It will probably reverberate the rest of your life.” They were talking about Alicia Florrick’s feelings, but anyone who loved The Good Wife can relate. —Baker
26. Citizen Kane
Rosebud Is Just a …
Tomes have been written about Orson Welles’s 1941 classic and how its storytelling and editing revolutionized the industry. But I’m here to praise it for something else it helped introduce to the world: the movie spoiler. The central question of Citizen Kane is one you’re aware of whether you’ve seen the film or not—what is “Rosebud,” the final word uttered by dying publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane? And even if you haven’t seen it, you likely know the answer: It was his childhood sled. I feel comfortable sharing that with readers who aren’t planning to watch the film to prep for Mank because culture at large has never shied away from ruining the ending for first-timers. Journalists and critics have used the plot twist as shorthand for spoilers for years, and Family Guy revealed it in a throwaway gag. (Side note: would love to see a Venn diagram of Family Guy viewers who were waiting to watch Citizen Kane.) But the roots of the spoiler extend back decades: In 1973, Charles Schulz had Lucy ruin the movie for Linus (and likely many readers) in a Peanuts strip. Linus is devastated. But while no one likes to be spoiled, focusing on the ending ignores the reality of the film: It’s still a rewarding watch, even if you know the end is coming. (Also, perhaps Linus should’ve brushed up on spoiler statutes of limitation—the film was 32 years old at that point!) —Sayles
Nina Kills Teri
Kids these days will never understand what it was like to go to the local video store in post-9/11 America and put your name on the wait list for the sold-out wall of DVDs of Season 1 of 24 so you could spend the next couple of days in complete thrall to the urgent whispers of Jack Bauer and the scowls of Chloe O’Brian. We binge-watch everything now without a second thought, but it was a genuinely revelatory (and gluttonous) feeling to not only skip all those pesky commercials but also to be able to turn to the person next to you once every 52 minutes or so, smile, and say: “OK, one more episode?”
For those who turned and said those words 23 loopy times, a brutal and emotional surprise was waiting at the end of the 24 finale. Even as I watched Jack’s trusty partner who wasn’t—that mercenary mole Nina Myers—kill a guard and speak German and decide to hold Jack’s pregnant wife Teri hostage at gunpoint, I didn’t think things would wind up the way they did, having generally been conditioned to expect happy endings in a pre–Ned Stark world. “I thought she was here with you,” Jack tells Kim of Teri, not nervous yet, after their family has ostensibly been reunited after quite the day. “I’ll go find her.” When he does, and she’s dead, a truly stunned audience (me) was left there on the sofa with no more one-more-episode to even flip to. —Baker
Jigsaw’s in the Room
The sheen of Saw’s shock has dimmed—seven sequels (and counting) can have that effect. But you likely remember where you were when you saw Tobin Bell’s masterminded villain, Jigsaw, stand up in that gross room, peel off his gunshot-wound cosmetics, and reveal that the man running the game has been doing so from the inside. It’s the Keyser Söze of horror movies, and it’s impact can’t be denied. I repeat: There have been seven sequels. —Gruttadaro
23. Fast & Furious 6
Who Killed Han?
The very end of Fast & Furious 6 leaves Dom Toretto and his family reeling. Han is in Tokyo doing some mighty fine drifting when another car T-bones him; seconds later the car explodes, ostensibly killing him. But here’s the twist: For years, we knew this wreck would be Han’s fate, yet were confounded by his ongoing presence in spite of it—after all, the crash and death are first covered in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but Han is very much alive in the fourth, fifth, and sixth films. The post-credits scene, then, accomplishes two things: It explains the canonical order of the Fast story line (i.e., that the events of Tokyo Drift take place between the sixth and seventh films) but also reveals that Han’s death was no accident. His assailant is Deckard Shaw, brother of vanquished Fast & Furious 6 foe Owen Shaw; and Deckard Shaw is played by JASON STATHAM.
That series of events has serious ripple effects, first pitting Shaw against the grieving gang—before, shockingly, they all unite for various common causes. That unexpected and indefensible disloyalty has been a sore point for Fast enthusiasts (hello. hi.) who think Dom and the gang did Han dirty by giving Shaw a pass on the whole murder ordeal, which leads us to yet another twist: the reveal in the trailer for the pandemic-delayed F9 that Han is actually still breathing. The sheer volume of zigging and zagging here ought to put this one much higher on the list. Justice for Han! —Gonzalez
22. Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks’ biggest gut punch arrives at the worst possible moment: at the very end of what sure seemed like it would be the show’s final season, when David Lynch and Mark Frost’s fever dream at last proved too weird for TV. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper was a paragon of decency and good sense, embodied by Kyle Maclachlan’s eager-beaver Boy Scout energy. In our last glimpse of him, his face is contorted into a sneer, and he’s using his bloody face to smash a mirror that reveals the ugly, grinning face of the demon Bob. (Never say the guy who made Blue Velvet didn’t have a firm handle on the perversity of the mundane.)
The original Twin Peaks never had to sort through the implications of this horrifying switcheroo. After a glancing allusion in the prequel Fire Walk With Me, 2017’s The Return spent most of its 18 hours dwelling on the dread of Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge for nearly two decades while his doppelgänger wreaked havoc in the real world. But The Return also catered to the sense of loss many of us were feeling at that strange juncture in history—the sense that some fundamental light had gone out in a world where evil was allowed to run amok. Leave it to David Lynch to set up the perfect story line for the late 2010s in the early 1990s. No wonder nobody knew what to make of it. —Herman
21. Friday the 13th
What a Mother Will Do for Her Son
Jason Voorhees and his iconic hockey mask are so synonymous with the Friday the 13th franchise that it’s easy to forget he doesn’t really show up until the sequel. (A jump scare on the lake notwithstanding.) In his stead in that first film is Mrs. Voorhees, determined to avenge her son’s drowning by killing all the counselors trying to reopen Camp Crystal Lake. As played by the late Betsy Palmer—who openly acknowledged that she thought the movie would suck and took the role in order to buy a Volkswagen Scirocco for her daughter (!)—Mrs. Voorhees makes a startling pivot from sweet old lady coming to the rescue of the Final Girl to maniacal killer talking to her dead son.
More campy than flat-out scary, Friday the 13th still deserves plaudits for its pulpy execution and overall standing in the slasher genre. Besides, after Psycho’s infamous Norma Bates fake-out, it’s oddly refreshing to have all those fears of a murderous maternal figure realized. —Surrey
20. Game of Thrones
Off With His Head
One of the best videos on the internet is a 2019 Vanity Fair clip in which Alan Taylor, a director of numerous Game of Thrones episodes, explains how he went about killing a TV show’s main character. His approach was to “cover it like it was nothing,” he says. “We made a very conscious choice not to amp it up, not to do sensational shots, but just to shoot it as though we were covering dialogue, and the most horrible thing in the world happens.”
Taylor focused much of the scene on Ned Stark’s two daughters, Sansa and Arya. This was also out of necessity—back in Season 1, Thrones didn’t have the budget for anything more elaborate. Taylor explains how one shot of this scene should have included the Sept of Baelor. He repeatedly points out the lack of extras. At one point, Ned gets hit with a rock—in real life, it was a piece of foam. If they’d had the budget, it would have been CGI. And if you look closely, you can see the lighting on Sean Bean’s face change as scenes shot in Malta and Belfast were grafted together to produce the beheading.
Due to the filming constraints, Ned appears to be beheaded in a dusty alley in front of a few dozen people—hardly the dramatic affair in front of the Sept of Baelor as described in the books. Yet despite those obstacles, this is arguably the most iconic moment in Thrones. And it’s one of the greatest twists ever, thanks to it being played so straightforwardly. His beheading set the tone—high stakes, brutally unfair, completely unpredictable—that turned Thrones into a megahit. —Riley McAtee
She’s His Daughter
Even for the twisted mind of Park Chan-wook, Oldboy is all-time levels of fucked up. The film begins with Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) spending 15 years in drugged-out solitary confinement—framed for his wife’s murder while his daughter is placed in a foster home. Dae-su spends that time plotting revenge against whoever wronged him, and hoping to reunite with his daughter. Dae-su’s journey is frequently violent—see: Oldboy’s superlative hallway fight scene—but the answers he seeks only cause more suffering.
In the film’s climax, he discovers that the young sushi chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), who’s been helping Dae-su on his bloody odyssey, is in fact his daughter. That’s shocking, because before finding out who one another is, the duo consummates their relationship. (It’s not a coincidence that Oh Dae-su and Oedipus are phonetically similar.) Somehow, Oldboy arrived at a place so messed up that when Dae-su cuts out his own tongue as penance—presented in all its stomach-turning viscera—it feels comparatively tame to everything that preceded it. —Surrey
The Last Act of the Trinity Killer
I never really liked Dexter. I made it through the first season but stalled out early in Season 2 and moved on to more thoughtful dramas, like True Blood. Then I went to see John Lithgow speak at some event, and all the audience could do was ask him about that Dexter twist. By the time we got to the third or fourth question about that thing—shudder—you know … I had committed to going back and watching it all.
The kindest thing I can say for Lithgow’s performance as rival serial killer Arthur Mitchell in Season 4 of Dexter—and specifically for the conclusion of Mitchell’s arc in the season finale, when Dexter Morgan kills him, only to discover in the episode’s closing moments that Mitchell has already killed Dexter’s wife, Rita—is that it makes the absolute slog of seasons 2 and 3 worth it. It would be a Hall of Fame twist simply by virtue of how absolutely shocking Rita’s death was, both in terms of the magnitude of her loss and the pacing of the show. The episode—and season—are plainly over: bad guy disposed of, Rita safe and sound, and Dexter’s murderous secrets intact for another season. Only then Dexter stops by his house, where he finds her body.
It’s not just the shock of Rita’s sudden demise. It’s that Mitchell left her and Morgan’s infant son to wait in a pool of her blood, the exact traumatic scenario that Dexter endured as a boy when his own mother died—which he believes made him into a serial killer. —Claire McNear
17. The Prestige
Some surprise endings are for the casual moviegoer to dissect with their family over Thanksgiving dinner. The mindfuck ending of The Prestige, however, is made for us nerds. When you’ve seen enough movies, it’s not all that complicated to guess where they might go, and how they might turn. Most of modern Hollywood just riffs on Joseph Campbell anyway, or pulls from one of a few books on screenwriting that get passed around town. The Prestige swerves around that idea by hiding its truth in a character so central we take him for granted. Most stories with a secret can be unlocked through Roger Ebert’s “law of the economy of characters”: an understanding that the run time and budget of a movie means that every character introduced usually has some importance to the plot. We’re trained as moviegoers to look for answers in the loose ends, just as Alfred Borden does in Robert Angier’s trick—only to be shown, in the end, that there was never a trapdoor or trick of the light. The explanation was right in the center of the frame the whole time, the only magic in death. —Mahoney
Billy and Stu
Director Wes Craven’s ultraviolent, hilarious 1996 slasher completely reinvented (and revitalized) a long-dead genre. What pushed it over the top was Kevin Williamson’s meta script and its spectacular ending. You see, the brutal murders in Scream aren’t committed by one killer but two. Skeet Ulrich’s vengeance-seeking Billy and Matthew Lillard’s nihilistic bro Stu are a destructive dyad; they provide cover for each other while wreaking havoc.
The movie’s climax manages to be scary, gory, and funny all at once. Scream was such a smash hit that it inspired a slew of teen whodunnits, most of which were cheap rip-offs. It also spawned three sequels, none of which came close to matching the original perfect twist. But that hasn’t stopped the franchise: Scream 5 is in the works. —Siegel
15. Twin Peaks: The Return
What Year Is This?
Less an actual twist and more an existential nightmare, the final moments of Twin Peaks: The Return will linger in your head long after Laura Palmer’s primal screaming begins to fade. Trying to explain the journey that led Agent Dale Cooper and Laura to an alternate dimension— where their names are Richard and Carrie—would require a novel’s worth of explanation, so in the spirit of expediency, let’s just say they’re heading to where David Lynch and Mark Frost’s terrifying vision all started.
Laura, after Cooper appears to save her from a fate of being dead and wrapped in plastic, is going to be reunited with her mother at their home in Twin Peaks. But instead of Sarah Palmer opening the door, it’s a stranger, who claims she bought the home from Mrs. Chalfont—a name with some Black Lodge significance. In that state of confusion, Cooper asks the immortal question—what year is this?—as all of Laura’s adolescent trauma comes rushing back to her. The Return invites more questions than answers: Good luck if you’re the type of viewer who wants to “solve” the mystery. What makes The Return’s finale so captivating isn’t trying to piece together narrative breadcrumbs that aren’t actually there, but the bone-deep feeling of dread that Laura and Cooper are trapped in a Möbius strip of inescapable suffering by powerful forces beyond comprehension.
As with Lynch’s finest work, The Return haunts and echoes—like a dimension-piercing shriek of terror. —Surrey
14. Gone Girl
She Set It All Up
Look: Ben Affleck—er, sorry, Nick—obviously did it. You’re watching (or reading) Gone Girl, and yes, you know it’s a mystery, and yes, the first obvious suspect in a mystery is never actually the killer, but you, just like all the Dunnes’ neighbors, know in your heart that this is the one story in a hundred when the guy wearing the GUILTY sign around his neck in scene no. 1 really did the deed.
But poor, lost, murdered-by-Nick Amy is not just alive—she’s the villain of her own story. Amazing. Watching the scale of her deception slowly escalate from nefarious to outright evil? Priceless. —McNear
What’s in the Box?
With five of the seven deadly sins already committed in a string of grotesque, connected murders, it looks increasingly unlikely that Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) will crack the case before the serial killer they’re hunting completes his twisted plot. And then, suddenly, there he is. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) walks into their police precinct covered in blood and surrenders himself to the very cops who had been looking for him. Of course, there’s a catch: Doe agrees to lead the police to his latest victim, provided Somerset and Mills—and only Somerset and Mills—accompany him. On the car ride out to a deserted area blanketed by power lines that prevent police helicopters from landing, Mills tries to get in Doe’s head—only for Doe to serve Mills his wife’s instead. When a delivery driver arrives with a package, Doe lays out the end game, leading to Mills’s tortured cries of “What’s in the box?” By then, Mills knows the answer, and he’s helpless to prevent himself from doing precisely what Doe wants: shooting Doe (who represents envy) dead, thereby making Mills “vengeance” and completing the deranged plan. —Gonzalez
12. Planet of the Apes
Welcome to Earth
The twist that gave Planet of the Apes one of the most enduring endings of its era didn’t appear in the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle on which the film was loosely based. Screenwriter Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) added the ruined remnants of the Statue of Liberty to the movie’s last scene, and in doing so turned a kind of campy sci-fi flick that might have been forgotten into a timeless social commentary. Serling was politically conscious and confrontational, and by situating the story on Earth rather than on an alien planet, he made the film’s critiques of race relations and warnings about Cold War–era nuclear danger inseparable from its story. Yet because the reveal is reserved for the final minute, the movie’s message isn’t heavy-handed enough to impede the audience’s enjoyment of its action-oriented trappings. Yes, the ending’s Hestonian overacting and the repurposing of its imagery in many memes has robbed the reveal of some of its original impact. But thanks to its twist, Planet of the Apes remains a model for how to make science fiction that reflects reality in a thought-provoking way. —Lindbergh
11. Get Out
The Armitages—All of Them
I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a movie where more people were simultaneously swearing at the screen. It’s not that the audience didn’t see the whole “white girlfriend is actually in on the racialized abduction” twist coming. It was the safe bet, especially as the movie progressed. Maybe it was the way Allison Williams’s Rose bobbled the keys in front of Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris that really set folks off. Even for someone who would later eat milk and cereal separately, the key bobble was an unconscionably evil move. What kind of a maniac is that invested in toying with their prey that they’ll stay in character for just long enough to give their victim hope? I guess the type of maniac who steals people’s consciousness but still … bit of a dick move. —Pryor
We Have to Go Back
For exactly 69 episodes (nice/I’m sorry), Lost had established a quite soothing pattern: Whenever you heard that eerie droning whoosh, it was time to flash back to some beloved character’s semi-charmed life before he or she wound up on a creepy deserted island full of polar bears and secret hatches and other beautiful people and nebulous religious imagery. So the Season 3 finale, in which the Whoosh leads us to scenes of Jack the tortured-hero doctor drinking heavily, downing pills, contemplating suicide, and rocking out to Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice,” doesn’t immediately raise any red flags. Except at the end when he meets up with Kate, his semi-girlfriend from the island, and yells “We have to go back!” and oh wow this is a flash-forward reveal. The final three seasons of Lost would get increasingly nebulous and chaotic and polarizing—let’s not even address the whole flash-sideways business—but this one narrative thunderbolt was straight and true and brilliantly illuminating. Blast In Utero in its honor today. —Harvilla
Is That You, Mrs. Bates?
It took an all-timer of a twist to compete for attention with Psycho’s earlier twist, in which ostensible star Janet Leigh was murdered roughly a third of the way through the film in one of the most memorable movie scenes ever. But the morbid reveal that Mrs. Bates was dead all along—and that the shadowy figure from the shower scene was Norman in his “Mother” alter ego—was unsettling enough not to seem anticlimactic by comparison. Sixty years later, the basement scene is too famous to truly be shocking, and the elements that made it seem so unnerving in the moment—the mummified corpse, the bloodcurdling scream, the screeching string instruments, the swinging lightbulb—seem somewhat melodramatic. But Psycho will always occupy a privileged place on lists of twists, not only for the cleverness of its storytelling, but for its influence on future twist-filled films. By taking great pains to prevent spoilers and then building the movie’s marketing campaign around secrecy and the promise of surprise, Alfred Hitchcock perfected the playbook that many mystery-box blockbusters still employ. —Lindbergh
She’s My Sister. She’s My Daughter.
What makes the neo-noir Chinatown so memorable? Maybe it’s the labyrinthine plot of corruption, romance, and evil that unravels in sun-drenched Southern California across trips to orchards, ranches, and mansions with salt-water pools. Maybe it’s the acting, from Jack Nicholson’s peevish charisma to Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of a damaged femme fatale to John Huston’s terrifying and domineering presence. Maybe it’s the horror of the truth, that Noah Cross raped his own daughter when she was just 15 years old. Maybe it’s the mechanics and brutality of the scene in which everything is revealed. Or maybe it’s the conclusion that none of it matters. Cross is going to get away with it. After all, it’s Chinatown. —Gruttadaro
Parasite is about many things—late-stage capitalism, love, allergies, jjapaguri—but mostly, it’s about basements. The film starts in the Kim family’s claustrophobic and dank basement apartment and tragically ends there. Every decision Ki-taek, Chung-sook, Ki-jung, and Ki-woo make is propelled by their desire to escape this all-consuming symbol of their never-ending poverty. By the time the Kims embed themselves in every part of the wealthy Park family’s life, it feels like they’re on the precipice of escape. They’ve pulled off the biggest heist of their lives by convincing the Parks to hire them all and are basking in that glory.
So when a series of misfortunes forces the Kims to discover and ultimately hide in a bunker underneath the Parks’ basement, the shock is overwhelming. So much of Parasite is about making the viewer believe there’s no way the Kims could physically sink lower. Maybe that’s why the darkly comedic punch line of Parasite hurts that much more. Bong Joon-ho knows that for the poor, there is always a deeper hole (or bunker) just around the corner. —Holmes
6. The Good Place
This Is the Bad Place
Initially, we are led to believe that it is all a cosmic clerical error—that four flawed characters arrive in the Good Place by accident and will set about on a tidy network TV narrative aimed at posthumous personality reform. After all, there is plenty to fix. There’s Eleanor, the selfish, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking shrimp-lover from Arizona; Jianyu, a Buddhist monk who is actually a Jacksonville DJ named Jason whose love of Blake Bortles goes hand in hand with his affection for Molotov cocktails; Tahani, the navel-gazing socialite me-monster whose sibling jealousy leads to her undoing; and Chidi, the philosophy professor whose crippling indecision causes chronic stomach aches and, ultimately, his death. But in retrospect, there are plenty of early clues that not everything is on the level in creator Michael Schur’s latest Hall of Fame comedy—not the least of which are the weird and hilarious array of food options, including a clam chowder fountain and a never-ending supply of frozen yogurt in lieu of ice cream. As Michael, the Good Place architect who is later revealed to be a demon, puts it: “You humans take something wonderful and ruin it just a little bit so you can have more.” But it isn’t until the first-season finale that Eleanor finally figures out the ruse: that they’re actually in the Bad Place, where they’re all being tortured by Michael. Holy motherforking shirtballs. —Gonzalez
5. Fight Club
Who Is Tyler Durden?
There were plenty of clues along the way: Tyler appears on screen before the narrator ever meets him; the two share the same briefcase; the incoming call to a pay phone that doesn’t accept calls; and, perhaps most obviously, the narrator recalls Tyler as he beats himself up in his boss’s office. But despite the foreshadowing, Fight Club’s big twist—that Tyler Durden was just a figment of the imagination of a sleepless, deflated office drone—was like a punch to the ear. Few saw the meek peon played by Edward Norton as a leader capable of starting an anarchistic revolution—and he wasn’t, at least not until his subconscious manifested a ripped, rebellious, leather-jacket-sporting Brad Pitt who looked like he wanted to look, fucked like he wanted to fuck, and was free in all the ways he was not. That the reveal was a surprise is a testament to the deft work of author Chuck Palahniuk and director David Fincher, who tipped their hands but still left viewers feeling like they had sodium hydroxide poured on them.
More so than any turns on this list, the influence of Fight Club’s big surprise has been felt like skyscrapers falling throughout the past two decades. Mr. Robot did little to hide the debt it owed the 1999 film, while one of Joker’s twists—that Arthur Fleck had imagined a relationship with his neighbor—reveals itself in a similar manner as Fight Club connects the dots for viewers. But nothing is as effective as the first time you see something, even if it was telegraphed the whole time. I am Jack’s complete and utter shock. —Sayles
4. The Usual Suspects
Verbal Kint Is Keyser Soze
If you know one movie twist from cultural osmosis, totally disconnected from whether you’ve actually seen the movie—well, OK, it’s Darth Vader. But if you know two? Probably you’ve heard that Kevin Spacey’s poor, weaselly, hangdog Verbal Kint, who spends most of The Usual Suspects anxiously shifting around an interrogation room, is actually the mysterious, maybe Turkish supervillain Keyser Söze—the “spook story that criminals tell their kids at night.”
“Oh gee, thanks Dave, bang-up job so far,” Kint tells an investigator who knows something is off, but just can’t quite place it. “Extortion, coercion; you’ll pardon me if I ask you to kiss my pucker.”
Spacey gradually shakes off the limp he’d been faking as he walks out of the police station—and straight back into the shadowy criminal underworld, as the cops he’s left behind slowly realize that Kint was indeed full of shit. It’s one of the most iconic sequences in cinema. —McNear
3. The Sixth Sense
Reminder: He Sees Dead People
If we define “spoiler” as “you can ruin the whole damn movie for someone walking into the theater by yelling just two words,” then there’s no beating “Bruce dead!” just as there’s no exaggerating the genuine shock of experiencing M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout movie in the theater for the first time, blissfully unspoiled. As a ghost story, and a creepy thriller, and a bravura showcase for a haunted young Haley Joel Osment and a far less steak-headed Bruce Willis vehicle than his usual, 1999’s outta-nowhere blockbuster was already a huge success even before the big reveal, which finds Bruce stumbling up a staircase, face half in shadow, dead as all hell, as indeed he’d been the whole time. Holy shit. Shyamalan’s subsequent movies range in quality from nearly as rad to nearly unwatchable, but after The Sixth Sense, the shrewd viewer was always braced for some gargantuan destabilizing twist. He got exactly one chance to drop a true bombshell, and he nailed it, and us. —Harvilla
2. Game of Thrones
The Red Wedding
The Red Wedding did not come out of nowhere. From the books to the execution of Ned Stark to Tywin Lannister’s letters to the musical selections moments beforehand, there were plenty of clues for the massacre on the horizon.
And yet, no one was prepared for it until it happened. The blood and gore of this conspicuously bloody, gory scene almost went unnoticed due to the shock that it was happening at all. These were not characters we expected to die, certainly not at this moment and in this fashion. In minutes, the stakes and trajectory of the show changed, as did our relationship with television. The roller-coaster plot twists of Game of Thrones made it the last TV show that had to be watched live, and set forth an undead army of pale imitators to try to match the emotional hammer blow of the Red Wedding. To this day, none have succeeded. —Baumann
1. Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back
I Am Your Father
Sources differ on whether the best movie twist of all time was planned from the start of the Star Wars saga. Even George Lucas has offered conflicting accounts. It definitely didn’t appear in the original draft of The Empire Strikes Back, and it seems certain that it wasn’t frozen in carbonite until the sequel’s script was revised after original writer Leigh Brackett’s death. Perhaps the improvised nature of the Vader reveal was the secret to its success; if it had been orchestrated from the get-go, Lucas might have dropped bread crumbs that led to the truth, and the dramatic moment might not have hit as hard as it did. When Luke screeched “That’s impossible,” the idea that the Dark Lord was the good guy’s not-actually-dead dad really did seem inconceivable—so much so that fans’ stomachs sank as quickly as Luke’s severed hand. The truth about Luke’s origins added a more personal dimension to the battle between good and evil at the center of Star Wars. But Luke’s Maury Povich–style surprise parentage plot—coupled with the subsequent disclosure that the princess he’d smooched was his sister—was so potent that it arguably sabotaged the Star Wars sequel trilogy. J.J. Abrams’s attempt to mimic the moment with Rey fell flat, because a twist this iconic can work only once. —Lindbergh