Warning: Some spoilers below.
1. Friday Night Lights (2004)
Adapted from the Buzz Bissinger book, Friday Night Lights follows a single season of Texas high-school football juggernaut Permian High from preseason through its appearance in the state title game. But the single season is merely a moment in a continuing cycle that stretches across years, even decades. There’s nothing more tenuous than high-school football: The lineups change every year as players graduate, and younger players move in to fill their spots on the roster. In the film’s final scene, after the team has fallen short of that title, Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) removes names from the team’s depth chart board while quarterback Matt Winchell and his teammates depart the stadium for the last time as players. Winchell (Lucas Black) spots a group of boys playing a pickup game nearby, and throws a ball to them. It isn’t the subtlest example of passing the torch, but it proves effective, as the film closes with Gaines walking away from a board that’s already filled with a new slate of names.
2. Poison, “Fallen Angel” video (1988)
The gears of Hollywood are greased by the blood of innocent small-town girls looking for fame, or at least that seems to be the moral of the video for “Fallen Angel,” from Poison’s second album, Open Up And Say… Ahh! It begins with a pretty girl (model Susie Hatton, who was dating frontman Bret Michaels at the time) telling her family she’s moving to California at the end of the week. Soon, she’s stepping off a bus in Hollywood, and before she knows it, she’s working and dating a skeevy modeling agent, who helps her find success—but at what cost? “Now she found herself in the fast lane livin’ day to day / turned her back on her best friends, yeah / and let her family slip away.” Michaels sings, “You know you got to stick to your guns when it all comes down.” That’s just what Hatton does when she sees her boyfriend/agent/exploiter flirting with other ladies. One kick in the balls later, she’s storming out of a club and on her way to redemption. Back in her good-girl clothes, she passes a sign that says, “There’s no place like home,” just in case anyone missed the video’s subtle message. Then she hops on the back of Michaels’ motorcycle. (That’s a relationship that can’t fail!) As they drive off, they pass a bus that has just pulled up, and off steps another “small-town girl with her whole life packed in a suitcase by her feet.”
3. Taxi Driver (1976)
Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver ends on notes of catharsis and irony, both subtly deceptive. Throughout the film, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a ticking time bomb, fueled by loneliness and alienation, an inability to relate to or even comprehend women, and a myopic understanding of humanity as “sick, venal” scum that needs to be washed off the street. He initially tries to assassinate a politician, but after the Secret Service thwarts his efforts, De Niro instead kills a pimp and assorted lowlifes in a great spasm of violence, all ostensibly to free an underage prostitute. The rampage is a catharsis of sorts, at least in the sense that De Niro has found a temporary release for his rage and psychosis. And it’s certainly ironic, because while there’s no difference to De Niro between killing a politician and killing a pimp, society sees a difference that makes him a hero instead of a villain. The denouement finds De Niro back at his old job, and he even shares a nice moment with the woman (Cybill Shepherd) who was once the source of an all-consuming romantic obsession. But in one startling shift of the rearview mirror—accompanied by a dark, recurring theme in Bernard Herrmann’s score—Scorsese suggests that De Niro isn’t a man reformed, but merely back at the beginning of a dangerous loop.
4. Species (1995)
So many horror films make a point of ending with a short, sharp shock that it’s about as surprising as when the protagonists get together at the end of a romantic comedy. Fairly often, those shocks are about letting the audience know that any gains are temporary, and that whatever the surviving characters just did to make it to the end of the film alive and seemingly victorious is about to be undone as the whole sordid business starts up again. Just one example: Species, in which a seemingly helpful series of messages from space lead the government to create a hybrid between alien and human DNA. The super-fast, super-strong test subject (Natasha Henstridge) matures with startling speed, breaks out of her hermetically sealed lab, and goes on a rampage, trying to find a suitable human subject she can mate with to start producing the crossbreeds that are meant to eliminate the human race. (In the process, she pretty much typifies slasher movies’ simultaneous pubescent fascination with and fear of female sexuality, but that’s another story.) A great deal of effort goes into finding Henstridge and putting her down, but even once the world is seemingly again safe for pureblooded humans, the camera wanders off to find a rat gnawing on one of her severed tentacles and mutating into some sort of alien-hybrid super-rat, making it clear that the hunt is about to begin again. Even so, it’s no particular surprise that Species II brings Henstridge back and returns to the massive threat posed by sexy people having sex, instead of delving into the hybrid-rat problem.
5. All About Eve (1950)
Most of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic film All About Eve is spent in flashback, as sarcastic narrator Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, in the role he was born to play) recounts the meteoric rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a shameless young climber who insinuates herself into the New York theater scene, only to usurp mentor Bette Davis and exploit the people who helped her. At the end of the film, Harrington cynically accepts an acting award and skulks off to her hotel room, where she finds an eager young fan named “Phoebe.” In spite of Harrington’s annoyance, Phoebe quickly tends to her like an assistant. She answers the door to find DeWitt (holding the award Harrington left in a cab), looking typically nonplussed. “Tell me Phoebe, do you want someday to have an award like that of your own?” he asks. With disconcerting ardor, she responds, “More than anything else in the world.” “Then you must ask Ms. Harrington how to get one,” he says. But Phoebe won’t need any guidance. She sneaks over and tries on Harrington’s clothes, then stands in a tri-fold mirror holding the award and bowing graciously. The message: Harrington’s conniving rise to the top will be emulated by a relentless army of climbers just like her—or worse.
6. Funny Games (1997)
Michael Haneke’s experiment in cinematic dread is circular by nature, beginning and ending with a pair of psychopathic young men (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering) using false pretenses to gain entry into people’s lake houses in the bucolic German countryside. (Word to the wise: Never let someone in if they want to borrow eggs.) After terrorizing a small family over the course of a night, the duo moves on to the neighbors. Frisch encountered the woman who answers the door the day before, while her neighbors were under siege. “Don’t you remember me?” he asks, before adding that he was sent over to borrow some eggs. Once he’s inside, Frisch flashes one of his now-signature glances over at the camera, just barely suppressing a mischievous smile. Things won’t go well for this woman and her family, either.
7. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is an unconventional love story from the get-go: Former lovers Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey decide to have the memories of their tumultuous relationship erased from their minds via a company that specializes in the service. Circumstance eventually reconnects them, and as they try to piece together their erased relationship, they’re faced with two options: go their separate ways, or, knowing what they know now about each other (or what they’ve known and forgotten), give it another try. While some read the film’s ending as happy—giving the two lovers another chance—it feels doomed, as if the pair is heading toward an inevitable, ruinous end to this new version of their already-wrecked relationship. Carrey tells Winslet, “I can’t see anything that I don’t like about you,” to which she replies, “But you will. You will think of things. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped, because that’s what happens with me.” Yet in the face of this, Carrey simply says, happily, “Okay.”
8. Celine And Julie Go Boating (1974)
Jacques Rivette’s playfully mystifying classic follows the titular two young women through three hours of identity-swapping mischief. Their first meeting comes when Julie begins dropping her possessions while walking past Celine’s park bench; it ends with their positions switched, as Celine drops her book, leaving Julie in hot pursuit from the same bench. In between, the friends keep switching places, sabotaging each other’s job auditions and dates. The place-swapping and supernatural elements—the two girls get involved with film’s most unusual haunted house—suggest an earlier, much sunnier version of Mulholland Dr., but the ending suggests an endless story destined to repeat itself for the fun of it, rather than just a despairing dream-escape from reality.
9. Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
Stephen Chow’s martial-arts comedy could have made it into this Inventory based solely on the fact that his character’s name is Sing—just as it is in several of his other films, including his U.S. breakthrough, Shaolin Soccer (2001). But there’s a more direct line, too. As a kid, Chow learns kung fu from a useless pamphlet he buys from a scraggly bum (“I was saving to be a doctor or lawyer,” he explains to a friend, “but this was world peace”), which he unsuccessfully uses in an attempt to save a mute girl, Fong (Shengyi Huang), from a bunch of bullies who want her all-day sucker. At the film’s end, the adult Chow and Huang meet again—this time at the candy store where he works, where the awning features a giant all-day sucker. Out front, a beggar sells some kung-fu pamphlets to a little boy licking an all-day sucker. “World peace is in your hands,” he says.
10. Little Shop Of Horrors (1986)
In the second cinematic version of the Alan Menken and Howard Ashman botanic horror musical, nerd Rick Moranis discovers an otherworldly venus flytrap and nourishes it with human blood, in hopes of fame, fortune, and the love of his crush, Ellen Greene. Moranis’ fame grows as the plant, Audrey II, grows, but so does her bloodlust. Once the plant’s plan to take over the world becomes clear, Moranis manages to destroy Audrey II with an electrical shock… or does he? After they seem to defeat their enemy, Moranis and Greene run off together to a suburban Valhalla, but just before the credits roll, a tiny Audrey III gives a knowing smile from the lawn.
11. The Wire, “-30-” (2008)
David Simon’s signature TV series was never going to have an unambiguously happy ending. The Wire trafficked in the despair of clogged bureaucracy and the tragedies that a failed system creates, and having everyone suddenly turn a corner to find themselves in some in drug-and-crime-free paradise would’ve been a cheat. As the fifth and final season came to a close, speculation was rampant on who would die and how, and when the end finally did come, the biggest surprise was how much kindness was built into all that darkness. In a final montage set to the show’s theme song, “Way Down In The Hole,” new characters fell into old traps, and the show’s long-running theme of how the social engine distorts and defines lives came into perfect focus—maybe a little too perfect. One drug addict finally kicks his habit, but another takes his place; a vigilante gets the violent death long coming for him, but another takes his place; the rogue cop who just can’t help bucking the system finally quits, but another officer is already waiting in line to fill his shoes. And so on. It’s a grim view of a future built on the repetition of localized tragedies, but there’s a certain amount of hope as well. If these characters are bound to re-enact old tragedies over and over, that may just represent more opportunities for some of them to analyze and break the cycle.
12. American Me (1992)
The early ’90s were awash in films offering cautionary tales about urban life—New Jack City, Boyz In The Hood, Juice, Menace II Society, etc. Where those films focused on the black experience, Edward James Olmos’ American Me delved into three generations of Mexican gang life in Los Angeles, with exceedingly disturbing results. (Some of its IMDB keywords: anal sex, sodomy, anal violation, homosexual rape, prison rape, shot in groin, zoot suit.) Like similar films, American Me makes explicit the endless cycle of violence besieging American cities. In the film’s final scene, the much younger brother of Olmos’ mafia boss heads out for a drive-by shooting. The worst part: He isn’t even the shooter—a little boy is. After they huff some inhalants for good measure, the car approaches a group of people. Picking up the revolver, the little boy says, “Which one, ese?” “Don’t matter,” says Olmos’ brother. Not only is the next generation following in Olmos’ violent footsteps, it’s even more callous.
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13. Elvis Presley, “In The Ghetto” (1969)
Today, it’s the very definition of wet liberal well-meaning, but “In The Ghetto,” written by Mac Davis and sung first and best by Elvis Presley, was the kind of socially conscious record that hit the charts regularly in the post-Dylan ’60s. In Elvis’ case, the song operated as a kind of less-hopeful sequel to “If I Can Dream,” the song that closed his career-remaking 1968 TV special. Originally titled “In The Ghetto (The Vicious Circle),” it opens with “As the snow flies on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’ / another little baby child is born in the ghetto / and his mama cries.” The child’s story unfolds as he grows up on the streets, which leads him to crime, and eventually, an untimely death. Davis drives home the meaning of the song’s original title in the closing lines, “As her young man dies / on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’ / another little baby child is born / in the ghetto.”
14. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower book series, (1982-2004)
The notion of a repeating cycle can be loose, metaphorical, or symbolic, but Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series is far more direct. The series ends with an exact reboot—a completely closed circuit with only minor variations. The first book begins with the ominous phrase, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Over the six ensuing books, King chronicles the gunslinger Roland in his pursuit of that man, digging into Roland’s history and the stories of his fellow travelers. Hell, King himself becomes a character at one point. Then, when Roland finally enters the tower at the end of book seven, King throws up a warning, advising readers not to continue into the epilogue. Those who ignore King learn that Roland discovers a door with his name on it, is sucked in, and winds up back in the desert pursuing the man in black, with no memory of what just transpired. The presence of the cycle infuses new meaning into Roland’s plight; he isn’t just a man trying to capture an enemy, but in many ways, he’s running from himself. Readers are left to wonder just how much will be the same this time around, and what has changed from the countless other times Roland made the same journey. And they’re left only with this simple phrase to end the book: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
15. Election (1999)
Like bullies, burnouts, dorks, and jocks, goody-goodies are a part of the fabric of scholastic life, and they may be the most insufferable of all. Who hasn’t encountered a person like Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in school? Witherspoon is a go-getter whose perky facade masks vengeful ruthlessness—she acts like she’s above it all, but she will step on anyone as long as she gets what she wants. In the film, Matthew Broderick, as one of Witherspoon’s teachers, tries to foment her comeuppance, only to be foiled by Little Miss Perfect. At the close of the film, we see Broderick leading a class trip around a museum as part of his new job as a docent. He asks the kids a question from the exhibit, but only one prim, eager little girl raises her hand—just like Witherspoon in a scene from the beginning of the film.
16. Mean Girls (2004)
The high school Lindsay Lohan is thrust into at the beginning of Mean Girls is a social monarchy, ruled by queen bee Rachel McAdams and her coterie of well-dressed advisors, known colloquially as “The Plastics.” Throughout the course of a school year, Lohan—at the insistence of friends Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Franzese—infiltrates The Plastics’ ranks, only to exaggerate, then eventually alleviate, the clique’s stranglehold over the school. Or so it would seem. In an All About Eve-style twist, the film’s final seconds reveal that lunchroom hierarchy never dies—it’s merely reborn with every incoming freshman class. Hence the trio of “junior Plastics” parading across the quad. Lohan suggests that she knows how to dispose of them—the same type of bus accident that ultimately toppled McAdams—before dropping a “Just kidding.” That’s a job for Lohan’s successor.
17. The Planet Of The Apes series (1968-1973)
Everybody knows the Planet Of The Apes was Earth all along, but since the series’ most popular film was always its first, not as many know that the films form an endless loop, a structure that should be theoretically impossible, where objects in the past only exist because they existed in the future. At the end of the second Apes film, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, Charlton Heston blows up the whole planet with a nuclear bomb. This would seem to preclude further sequels, but in the second sequel, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, apes Cornelius and Zira somehow fix a busted spaceship and travel back to 1970s Earth to have all sorts of politically symbolic adventures. They’re the first talking apes ever to appear on Earth, even though they’re technically from some sort of reverse-evolution future. The third sequel, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, tries to have humanity plant its own doom by forcing apes into slave-labor positions, but teaching them the things that will allow them to rebel and rule. But the ape leading things is Caesar… Cornelius and Zira’s child. And so the series heads on, inexplicably, back toward where it began.
18. Battlestar Galactica, “Daybreak, Part 3” (2009)
Considering how often Battlestar Galactica characters mouthed some variation on “All this has happened before, and will happen again,” fans probably should have been better prepared for a series ending that suggested the Galactica’s valiant crew had merely turned back the clock, not permanently vanquished the threat of technological annihilation. But the coda, with the phantoms of Baltar and Six disapprovingly examining our current age, enraged many of the show’s loyal viewers, perhaps because it reduced a five-year struggle to the evolutionary equivalent of treading water. “All of this has happened before—” Six says. Baltar cuts her off. “But the question remains: Does all of this have to happen again?” Maybe it was the fact that the series chose to represent the looming threat in the form of a goofy-looking toy robot that seemed about as threatening as a cymbal-clapping monkey. Although it lacked catharsis, the ending was the perfect realization of the show’s major theme: Cylons were not an external threat so much as a manifestation of human nature’s darker side. That never changes, and the battle rages ever on.
19. Mystery Science Theater 3000, “Diabolik” (1999)
The “host segments” that framed each episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are no one’s favorite part of the cult TV series—as sketch comedy, they’re too uneven; as vehicles for character and plot development, they’re too sparse—but they at least provided the cowtown puppet show with a satisfyingly circular conclusion. After an accidentally triggered re-entry protocol sends the Satellite Of Love careening to Earth, we catch up with Mike Nelson and his robot friends in their dingy new surroundings: a garden-level apartment in Milwaukee. In spite of their newfound freedom, Nelson, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo have come down with a bad case of B-movie-induced Stockholm Syndrome, and are sitting down to take the piss out of the 1958 creature feature The Crawling Eye. “This movie looks kinda familiar, doesn’t it?” Crow asks. The film choice is a nod toward the series’ basic-cable première, but the message of the scene is emblematic of MST3K as a whole: a bad movie can be great entertainment, given the proper company.
20. Star Wars: Episode II—Attack Of The Clones (2002)
Inserted quickly at the end of the arena battle scene in the second Star Wars prequel is the genesis of one of the series’ most beloved characters, Boba Fett. Bounty hunter Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) is the prototype for the secret clone army being assembled on planet Kamino. When Obi-Wan meets Fett, he learns that Fett has been raising one of the clones as a son, Boba. Jango perishes later in the arena battle scene, but it’s clear that Boba will carry on his bounty-hunter ways when he finds his father’s helmet.
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21-22. Macbeth (1971) / Beowulf (2007)
Roman Polanski’s rendition of one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays was made after the Manson Family murdered his wife, Sharon Tate, lending the film an unnerving air of violent fury that’s hard to shake. Taking advantage of the time-honored rule that scenes without dialogue can be added to Shakespeare, Polanski managed to add three extra onscreen killings (the murder of MacDuff’s wife and children) and a new ending. Just as the opening showed Macbeth lured into the witches’ coven to begin his campaign to usurp King Duncan, the ending has Donalbain, brother of the new king, Malcolm, returning to Scotland, but drawn to the same witches. It’s entirely possible that Neil Gaiman or Roger Avary had that in mind when writing the ending for 2007’s CGI feature Beowulf, where—after Beowulf, seduced by Grendel’s mother, slays their dragon child and dies—the new king, Wiglaf, stands on the same shore where Beowulf stood, as Grendel’s mother waits for him to similarly succumb to sexual temptation, even if it compromises the safety of his kingdom.