So, the lady or the tiger? 28 stories that make the audience choose the ending

So, the lady or the tiger? 28 stories that make the audience choose the ending

Warning: Every one of the entries below contains spoilers, generally including ending spoilers. In fact, even putting a book, film, or TV show on this list constitutes a spoiler. Proceed with due caution.

1. Limbo (1999)
All art reflects its creators, but experiencing it is still a collaborative process between the creator and the recipient. Granted, the amount of room creators leave for interpretation varies greatly. In some extreme cases, they spell out every metaphor and message in detail; at the other end of the spectrum, they leave the story wide open, asking their readers or viewers to make the big decisions. Plenty of stores end on a wide-open “Where will the characters go from here?” note à la The Graduate or Lost In Translation, but the most fiendish set up clear-cut choices, provide ample evidence that both choices are valid, then leave the audience to make the call. For instance, John Sayles’ 1999 film Limbo focuses on three people trapped on an island—fisherman David Straithairn, his lounge-singer love interest (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and her moody teenage daughter (Vanessa Martinez). After Straithairn’s criminal brother gets in trouble with drug dealers and is murdered on their boat, Straithairn and the two women hide from the killers and wait for rescue. The film’s real focus is how they act when they’re in limbo, waiting to find out whether they live or die; Sayles is more interested in that process than the outcome. In fact, the film ends with them watching an approaching plane piloted by someone they know is a dubious ally at best, and who is either coming to rescue them, or bringing their murderers straight to them. It’s up to the viewers to decide which: The film’s title explains exactly where it plans to leave the story.

2. “The Discourager Of Hesitancy” (1885)
Frank Stockton’s 1882 short story “The Lady, Or The Tiger?” is the kind of classic that’s taught in schools and frequently referenced in popular culture. Less widely known, though, is his sequel story, “The Discourager Of Hesitancy,” which presents a similar conundrum. In the second story, visitors come to the kingdom from the first story and explain that they heard about the lady-or-tiger challenge from someone of their country, who fled the arena in horror before the protagonist’s door opened, and thus never found out whether the protagonist was married or devoured. The visitors are brought to a “high officer of the court,” who tells a story about the same king challenging a foreign prince by blindfolding him and marrying him to a beautiful lady of the court. Then he removes the blindfold and demands the man he correctly identify his new wife in a crowd of 40 women, on pain of immediate death via the sword of the court’s “discourager of hesitancy.” As he walks before the 40 women, one smiles and one frowns, leading him to wonder whether the smiling one approves of him as her husband, or the frowning one is upset at not being immediately identified. Which leads to another lady-or-the-tiger choice: Which does he pick? The court official promises that if the visitors choose correctly, he’ll answer the lady-or-the-tiger question, but the conundrum he’s given them proves just as baffling. For readers, though, the second story presents essentially the same question as the first, just less colorfully: “Exactly how positive are your personal feelings about women?”

3. Martin (1978)
Is he a vampire, or isn’t he? That’s the central question in George Romero’s thoughtful, ultra-low-budget twist on the vampire subgenre. The title character (John Amplas) is a young man with a taste for blood who’s consumed by visions of himself as an Old World vampire. He believes he’s 84 years old, and can only survive by drinking human blood. Yet he doesn’t fit the profile: He’s impervious to the garlic bulbs and crucifixes his granduncle attempts to use to repel him, and he doesn’t have teeth sharp enough to pierce his victims’ skin. Instead, he sedates them with a syringe and uses a razor blade to cut open their veins. Romero “resolves” the mystery through one of the great ironic endings, with Martin’s granduncle jamming a stake through his heart. He’s dead either way—but a dead what, exactly?

4. Take Shelter (2011)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols and star Michael Shannon first teamed up in 2007 for Nichols’ debut, Shotgun Stories. Their reunion project, Take Shelter, is another dark, disquieting movie on a personal scale, but this time with bigger effects and bigger questions. Shannon’s protagonist is haunted by dreams of a coming storm; the visions lead him to throw all his resources, including ones he and his family can’t afford to lose, into building a storm shelter. For him, the primary question is whether he’s seeing a real danger, or he’s inherited his mother’s mental illness, but for viewers, it’s possible that both are true, that the physical storm he sees as threatening his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter just represents the emotional one he’s enduring, and his fears of how it will affect them. Nichols briefly seems to resolve the question in a powerful, tender scene where Shannon and Chastain face and overcome his fears together. But in the final scene, as they’re vacationing together far from home, as part of his therapy, the supernatural storm starts up again—and this time, his family can see it. Was he forecasting the future all along, and has Chastain’s lack of faith doomed them to die far from the protection he threw his life into? Or has he infected them with his madness? Or—in one of the few positive interpretations—has their belief in him enabled them to understand what he’s going through, such that they can face the future united, whatever it brings?

5. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
When MGM turned Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale into a film five years after it was published, screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Volker Schlöndorff largely respected the sensitive, painful material. In Atwood’s near-future, a new regime in a society much like modern America gradually devalues women’s rights, subjugating them and eventually turning the country’s few remaining fertile women into brood mares for barren members of the upper class. Schlöndorff handles the story vividly but not exploitatively, with beautiful visuals representing the polish and pomp used to disguise the griminess of a society that is, at heart, about institutionalized slavery, rape, and child-theft. But the filmmakers made one major change: Atwood’s book is full of political intrigue that ends with the protagonist being hustled away by guards who may or may not belong to a secret resistance organization, and may be whisking her to safety, or to execution. The film definitively picks one of these options, but the book, having stirred up so much raw emotion, rage, and desperation, declines to settle it back down with catharsis and a pat “Things will be okay.” Atwood is a gentle agitator, and here, she prefers to walk away with her readers still agitated.

6. The Turn Of The Screw (1898)
The best known of Henry James’ ghost stories has inspired theatrical, radio, TV, operatic, and film adaptations. (The most notable of the latter is the 1961 film The Innocents). The central character is a governess responsible for two young children, Miles and his sister Flora, at a remote country estate. Her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and the estate owner’s valet, Quint, who shared a nasty-sounding sexual relationship, died mysteriously, and the governess begins to pick up signs that their ghosts are haunting the property and exerting a corrupting influence on the children. At the end, the governess, who is alone in the house with Miles, believes that she sees Quint’s ghost, and tries to exorcise the spirit by confronting him while shielding Miles in her embrace. After the specter vanishes, she assures Miles that he will be safe from him now, but discovers the boy is dead. Interpretations of what happened to him tend to become arguments over whether the ghosts are real or the governess, perhaps having come unstrung due to her own sexual repression, is unhinged and is the true corrupting influence on the children. The bulk of the story is narrated by the governess itself, and her revulsion over the kinky details of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship have made it a great conversation-starter in discussions of Freud and the uses of the unreliable narrator.

7. Terriers (2011)
When FX put down its shaggy-dog detective series Terriers, it left its main characters at a literal crossroads. Sitting at a stoplight, the duo ponder two possible directions to their future: Head straight, and let reformed thief Britt continue his path to redemption by accepting a two-year prison sentence for assault, proving to his former fiancée that he’s matured enough to be a father to her unborn baby. Or turn left and head to Mexico, at which point he’ll go back to being a criminal on the lam, while his partner Hank undoes his own hard-won progress by falling off the wagon in glorious fashion. The episode fades to black over the sound of a revving engine, leaving the question of which road they chose up to fans. Then again, in postmortem interviews, co-creator Ted Griffin has avowed that anyone who doesn’t know which way they went simply doesn’t know the characters.

8. 100 Bullets (2009)
Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s comic-book crime epic puts a lot of faith in readers, asking them to fill in the blanks throughout the series. That’s most apparent in the blood-soaked conclusion. When the book’s warring factions finally meet, there are a few definitive deaths, but Azzarello leaves the fates of many characters open to interpretation, including central figure Agent Graves. After finally gaining his own house in the Trust and naming Dizzy Cordova as leader of the Minutemen, Graves makes the mistake of turning on another house, bringing the hammer down on himself. As Dizzy prepares to make Graves answer for his betrayal with his own unmarked bullet, an explosion knocks her off the balcony, potentially paralyzing her. As Graves, surrounded by flames, holds her body Pieta-style, Dizzy has the gun pointed his way, but whether she pulls the trigger is left up to readers.

9. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Some audiences reportedly howled in despair over the ending to Sean Durkin’s directorial debut, which generated extraordinary tension and suspense, only to cut it short abruptly in the final shot. But the ending is entirely in keeping with the film’s overall conceit, which reflects the disorientation and paranoia haunting a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who has escaped from a backwoods cult. Cutting back and forth between her time with the cult and her tenuous recovery at her sister and brother-in-law’s lakehouse, Durkin suggests a wavering consciousness. She’s traumatized by the terrors of the past, but equally unsettled by the “normalcy” offered by her family’s bourgeois existence. In the film’s final minutes, she goes out for a swim and spots a man watching her from the opposite shore. This same man then reappears as her sister and brother-in-law drive her to a treatment facility. The last shot has this mysterious stranger in the car tailing them as she looks through the back window of the car, nervously, before Durkin cuts to black. The sequence could be taken literally or metaphorically: Either the cult has tracked her down and come to get her, or she’s just reached a point where she will never believe they aren’t lurking just behind her. Either way, it underlines Durkin’s point that you can take the girl out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of the girl.

10. Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
The stakes are life-or-death in Kelly Reichardt’s exquisite period piece Meek’s Cutoff, which follows the agonizing journey of a small band of settlers as they attempt to cross the Oregon Trail in 1845. Though it wouldn’t be classified as a thriller per se, the film gains enormous tension from just how slim their margin of error is—a broken wagon wheel, a lost barrel of water, or a wrong turn in the Oregon desert could cost all of them their lives, and their guide (Bruce Greenwood) doesn’t inspire much confidence. When the group captures a Native American, they debate whether to kill him straight off or use him as a guide to a water source and a passageway through the desert. Michelle Williams pushes them to accept the latter option, and after an arduous journey with dwindling supplies, the end puts them in front of a half-dead tree, where they finally cut their guide loose. The film doesn’t directly answer the question of whether they survive, or whether Greenwood has been playing them all along, as they suspect. But the film’s final lines (“We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.”) aren’t terribly optimistic.

11. The Crying Of Lot 49 (1966)
Thomas Pynchon turns paranoia into art. When Oedipa Mass’ old lover, the fabulously wealthy Pierce Inverarity, dies, she’s surprised and dismayed to find herself named his executor. Saying goodbye to her husband, the morbidly emotional “Mucho” Maas, Oedipa hooks up with a lawyer named Metzger and attempts to unravel Inverarity’s complicated, somehow menacing, estate. The deeper in she gets, the more confusing life becomes, until Oedipa winds up on the trail of a secret cabal that uses its own underground postal service, with its own special sort of stamp. It’s all absurdly complicated, and that’s entirely intentional; the deeper the heroine gets, the further the cabal reaches, and yet the more she’s driven to question whether it exists at all. Take paranoia to its farthest reaches, and it circles back around and turns into black despair. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than having someone control the world is having no one in control at all. In the novel’s finale, Oedipa finds what she thinks could be absolute proof of the conspiracy’s existence, and attends an auction to bid for it. The story ends before the “crying of lot 49” is complete, but the cabal’s existence or nonexistence isn’t the point, nor is whether Oedipa wins the auction. She’s lost either way.

12. Dogtooth (2009)
Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth is a little like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village without the final twist: It’s an isolationist allegory about parents who are so protective of their three grown children (and so sadistic, too) that they keep them penned up in a walled estate and feed them a completely distorted view of the world. This includes made-up bits of language (“sea” is a chair, for example), a stray garden cat that’s touted as a vicious monster, and an empty promise that they can leave the compound once their dogteeth fall out. (Which is to say, never.) But leaks of information from the outside world—including videotapes of movies like Rocky, Jaws, and Flashdance—create chaos where there once was order, and the parents’ grip over their children’s lives begins to loosen, with disturbing results. When the eldest daughter manages to hide away in the trunk of her father’s car, Lanthimos doesn’t make it clear whether she ever actually escapes. The father simply drives to work the next morning, and viewers are left staring at the trunk. Is she dead or alive in there? And if the latter, where could she possibly go from there?

13. Prince Of Darkness (1987)
For the past 30 years or more, horror movies have resisted proper endings. Monsters are vanquished, but their defeat is never permanent; there’s often some catch, some final twist that, unintentionally or not, speaks to the genre’s potential for nihilism. Why bother trying to escape Freddy, Jason, Michael, and the rest if every victory is just a temporary reprieve from the knife? John Carpenter isn’t above leaving things open-ended, but where many directors mistake vacillation for ambiguity, Carpenter fails to close a door in the loudest possible fashion. Take the last five minutes of his 1987 Nigel Kneale homage, Prince Of Darkness. Hero Jameson Parker has seen his one-night stand give her life to save humanity from the Evil One, who lives in the universe on the other side of the mirror. (It plays better in context.) All seems well, but the next time Parker goes to bed, he has a horrible nightmare that suggests the threat isn’t as finished as everyone would like to believe. The final shot of the movie has Parker reaching for his mirror—which now looks suspiciously like the portal to another, much darker timeline. Where in other movies, this would seem like a cheap attempt to go out with one last scare, in PoD, the unclear ending suits the story. For all their science and technology and tools, the film’s heroes are facing a threat so vast and beyond their comprehension that it can never be truly stopped. It’s an evil that has waited millions of years to achieve its ends. It isn’t going anywhere, no matter how many redheads give their lives.

14. Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949)
In stories, criminals are supposed to be punished, especially multiple murderers. By the end of Kind Hearts And Coronets, Denis Price has slaughtered an entire family to get what he wants, and the only body that falls on his doorstep is the only one he had no hand in killing. Robert Hamer’s acrid satire of social climbing and aristocratic obstinacy has Price going after the members of the D’Ascoyne house, to get revenge for their coldness to his mother, and to put himself in a position to inherit the family dukedom. Most of the movie follows Price as he works his way through his butcher’s list of targets, all of whom (even the women) are played by Alec Guinness. Through ruthlessness and luck, Price achieves his goals, only to end up charged for a murder someone else committed. He’s eventually acquitted, but after spending time in jail where he writes his memoirs. The original final scene has Price trying to decide to stay with the woman he married, or pursue the woman he loves—going with one means death to the other—but before he can make his choice, a reporter approaches him and makes an offer to buy his life story, reminding Price of the written confession he left in his cell. The audience is left to decide for itself who Price chooses, and whether someone else finds his memoirs before he can recover them, but whatever happens, it’s hard to believe the schemer wouldn’t find some way to come out on top. (When Kind Hearts was released in the US, distributors objected to the ambiguous ending, and demanded a shot be included of a hand reaching into frame and picking up Price’s book.)

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15. Watchmen (1986-87)
There’s a lot going on in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comics series Watchmen: Superhero deconstruction, a philosophical breakdown of moral perspectives, an exploration of how comics uniquely communicate transitions in time and space, and much more. But on a sheer plot level, it breaks down to a murder mystery whose resolution leads to a much bigger, world-changing conspiracy. When that plot comes to fruition, millions of people are simultaneously killed in a crazed gambit to force a war-torn planet to work together against a bigger threat. And most of the heroes who know the true story agree to stay silent about that mass murder, lest they risk undoing the situation’s positive outcome. The one holdout is the sociopath Rorschach, whose moral inflexibility permits no compromise. He, too, is murdered to protect the secret—but as with Kind Hearts And Coronets, the story ends with a look at his memoir, and the question of who finds it and what comes of that. Before heading off to his final confrontation, Rorschach mailed his journal to an extremist magazine. It contains all the information needed to bring the whole sordid plot to light, but it rests in the hands of a browbeaten, dull-witted assistant at a crappy outlet, and it represents the rantings of a crazy man who was widely feared and hated. The assistant may not select it for publication, possibly no one will read it if it is published, and even then, possibly no one will believe it. But Moore said in a 1988 interview that part of the point of Watchmen was presenting multiple moral perspectives on the world and making each reader choose which one was best. That includes choosing for themselves whether, in the end, the truth trumps all obstacles, and evil—whether well-intentioned or not—is revealed and punished.

16. Blow-Up (1966)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s biggest international hit is a time capsule from a brief moment when ambiguity was a marketable quality in a movie, especially if it came packaged with frisky decadence in a fashionable setting. The hero, played by David Hemmings, is a fashion photographer in the Swinging London of the mid-’60s. Out one day taking photos in the park, he snaps some shots of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her lover. The woman makes such a fuss over this that Hemmings becomes curious enough to enlarge the photos, until he discovers he may have unknowingly captured evidence of a murder on film. A subsequent trip to the park confirms that there’s a corpse hidden in the brush, but he isn’t inclined to let his amateur detective work get in the way of his regular schedule of shagging birds and attending crazy parties, and by the time he returns with his camera, the body has disappeared. In the meantime, someone has broken into his studio and destroyed most of the photographic evidence. What happened? Who was involved? Rather than knocking himself out trying to find out, he concedes the point that the universe is hopelessly absurd by watching a tennis game between a couple of mimes playing with a nonexistent but seemingly audible ball.

17. Cruising (1980)
Big Hollywood movies are notorious for taking a reductionist approach to complicated subjects and spelling everything out clearly in block letters, but sometimes, when a project begins to smell of controversy, the material may become more ambiguous (or just more confusing) as an indirect result of changes meant to render it safer and less inflammatory. That apparently happened with William Friedkin’s notorious thriller about the search for a psychopath preying on gay men in New York’s West Village area during the steamy post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era of sexual abandon. Al Pacino plays a young, straight cop assigned to go deep undercover in the Village and serve as bait, because he’s the killer’s preferred physical type. At the end, Pacino captures a man who may be the killer, and he certainly looks good for it, since he charged Pacino with a knife and has been seen having conversations with his dead father. But after Pacino goes back to his regular life, his boss, Paul Sorvino, reports to a murder scene at his old stomping grounds: a nice young gay man Pacino befriended has been cut to ribbons. Maybe the victim’s violently abusive boyfriend (James Remar) did it; that’s what most of the cops seem to think. But Sorvino treats the carnage with a shock that implies recognition or sudden awareness, and Friedkin cuts back to Pacino’s apartment, where his girlfriend (Karen Allen) is trying on his new leather S&M duds while he shaves, staring at his own reflection in a way that also seems significant. Did Pacino get the wrong guy? Did the first killer spark a wave of copycat violence? Or did the undercover work send Pacino so far off the deep end that he’s picking up where the murderer left off? In 1980, when Friedkin was defending the movie against charges of homophobia, he insisted that he himself didn’t have the foggiest idea what the ending meant. But after the movie was resurrected on DVD, he said the original version implied even more strongly that Pacino’s character had become a killer, but the studio insisted on cuts that muddied his vision.

18. Point Blank (1967)
John Boorman’s near-abstract action film stars Lee Marvin as a hood who helps out a buddy (John Vernon) who needs cash and has a plan to take it from some gangsters who are using the deserted prison at Alcatraz as a drop site. Things go badly: Vernon unexpectedly shoots the gangsters, then shoots Marvin and leaves him for dead, then claims the whole boodle—and Marvin’s wife. Marvin somehow makes it to the shoreline, swims to shore, and recuperates, then lays waste to Vernon and the entire criminal operation he works for. When Marvin finally confronts Mr. Big (Carroll O’Connor), who demands to know why he’s doing all this, Marvin insists he just wants the $93,000 he’s owed for his part in the Alcatraz job. At the end, everyone ends up back at the abandoned prison, where Marvin’s shadowy benefactor, Keenan Wynn, calls for him to emerge from the shadows and get his money. He doesn’t, and Wynn shrugs and departs, leaving the money behind. Is Marvin a ghost? Is he turning up his nose at the money because he’s realized that it’s not really the point of his existential mission? Has he been left so paranoid that he’ll remain in the shadows forever, watching that money rot? Or did he ever really get off the island at all? It’s entirely possible that the whole movie is a revenge fantasy that a dying man entertains during his final, lonely moments.

19. A Serious Man (2009)
Joel and Ethan Coen’s black comedy spends most of its 106 minutes playing whack-a-mole with its hero, a Jewish physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose kids are a mess, whose brother is a poster boy for suicide, whose wife has been cheating on him and wants a divorce, and whose workplace has turned into a minefield of backstabbing attacks and vicious threats. His only recourse is to seek advice from rabbis, who are no help at all, and to contemplate a moral compromise that seems small compared to the shenanigans the rest of the world is up to. In the final moments, things mercifully seem to be turning around: His problems at work seem to be clearing up, his son somehow makes it through his bar mitzvah ceremony, and his choice to do the morally wrong thing has gone unnoticed. But then, in the final final moments, his doctor calls to grimly suggest they go over the chest X-ray he’d all but forgotten about. Meanwhile, his son watches what looks like a tornado of apocalyptic proportions bearing down on his school. Is Stuhlbarg being punished for his sin, or is he like the characters in the fables seen at the beginning and middle of the movie, dealing with questions that will never be answered? The Coens hint at their thoughts on the matter via an earlier scene in the movie, in which Stuhlbarg uses Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to explain to his students that nobody ever really knows what’s going on.

20. Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
One of the most sophisticated and emotionally complex Hollywood comedies ever made, Preston SturgesUnfaithfully Yours stars Rex Harrison as a swaggering superstar conductor and Linda Darnell as the young wife who gives every indication of adoring him. But when Harrison returns from an overseas trip, his idiot brother-in-law (Rudy Vallee) reveals that he hired a private detective to shadow Harrison’s wife, and it turns out she spent much of one night in the room of Harrison’s personal assistant. After indulging himself in a wild fantasy of murdering them both, Harrison confronts his wife, who spins out the kind of explanation that will seem perfectly logical to anyone who desperately wanted to believe it. He embraces her, and Sturges shows her face in close-up as she assures her husband that she forgives him for his weird behavior, which she accepts as the price of being with “a great man.” It’s a happy ending, and no doubt she does love him. But Darnell’s expression might well suggest that she’s thinking, “I can’t believe he’s buying this!” Whether viewers buy it as well depends on their personal feelings as much as on anything the film actually reveals.

21. “In A Grove” (1922)
The Japanese short story that Akira Kurosawa eventually adapted into the film Rashōmon illustrates the complexity of human viewpoints. A corpse is found, and his murder is investigated. Seven witnesses testify—one of them, the spirit of a dead man, channeled by a medium—but all of them present contradictory information. Some of that information is minor, like the color of the central figures’ clothing, but the three main figures—the dead man, his wife, and a rapist—present stories that differ wildly from each other, and are utterly incompatible. The rapist says he killed the woman’s husband in combat, at her instigation, since she didn’t want witnesses to her shame. The woman claims she murdered her husband herself so they could die together, but her subsequent suicide attempt failed. The husband’s spirit says he committed suicide after his wife betrayed him by demanding the rapist kill him, at which point the rapist spurned her and she fled. The most interesting conundrum in the story is that none of the participants are lying to avoid punishment or hide a crime; they all claim their own guilt. So who did actually commit the murder, and why? It’s up to readers to decide, though it may be impossible to determine. The answer seems to be that truth is elusive and everyone lives in his or her own reality, in ways that can be slight or extreme.

22. A Separation (2011)
The “separation” of this film’s title is only an inciting incident, the event that kicks off the rest of the story. And because so many more things over the course of the film, it’s tempting to see the title as just a way to obscure some of the more intriguing plot twists that follow from a wife leaving her husband, partly because she no longer wants to care for his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, and partly because she just wants him to fight for her, to prove how he feels about her and their daughter. But after the separation, the husband hires a maid to care for his household and father, and that drives the rest of the story, creating a series of questions about Iranian society, gender relations, religious beliefs, and social standing. Still, the opening scene asks a question that’s never answered: Which of the original couple is more to blame for their marriage ending? They’re both inflexible, and while the wife may seem overly dramatic in her solutions to problems (though the film asks if she has any other recourse left), the husband reveals his unwillingness to compromise or even admit his wrongs. And so the film’s ending—which asks their daughter to choose between them, but never reveals her choice—brings the who’s-more-at-fault? issue back to the audience for resolution.

23. Michael (2011)
Markus Schleinzer’s film Michael observes its subject, Austrian office worker Michael Fuith, with a dispassionate, deadpan gaze, which is a feat, considering that he’s a pedophile who kidnapped a 10-year-old boy (David Rauchenberger) and is keeping him in his soundproofed basement. Schleinzer elaborates on Fuith’s queasily paternal but sexual relationship with his victim between scenes that confirm his relative normality in the eyes of those around him. He goes to work, makes small talk with his colleagues, takes a ski vacation, lies to his mother about having a German girlfriend, and comes home, lowers his blinds and lets his unwilling charge out of his locked, hidden prison. The dread that builds up over the course of the film comes from the constant, low-key peril faced by the boy, who doesn’t seem in direct danger from his captor, but is utterly dependent on him—when Rauchenberger gets sick, Fuith frets over him, but also prepares a grave in the woods rather than risk taking him to a hospital. A tricky ski slope, a traffic injury—these mundane misfortunes for the protagonist are also matters of life and death for his hostage. Michael escalates into a final act in which Fuith dies and Rauchenberger is left alone throughout the funeral and an indeterminate period of mourning. By the time Fuith’s family arrives to sort out his house, viewers have no idea if the boy’s still alive in his room, and the film not only neglects to tell us, it teases, with Fuith’s mother exploring the basement, walking away, then finally returning to the locked door. It’s a final, maddening provocation in a feature full of them.

24. After.Life (2009)
It’s hard to say whether Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo’s horror film After.Life should be commended or mocked for its refusal ever firmly to say whether its maybe-villain Liam Neeson is a delusional serial killer, or a man who can speak to the dead and help them move on. The film provides enough hints to make either determination arguable: His victim/subject Anna, played by Christina Ricci, was in a terrible car accident and was declared dead on the scene by the coroner; she looks like a corpse; when she makes a phone call, the person on the other end can’t hear her; and Neeson says, with the certainty of long experience, that she’s caught in an in-between state. Then again, her breath still mists a mirror, Neeson feels the need to lock her in, he isn’t the only one who can see her moving and talking, and he injects her with paralytic chemicals that seem unnecessary for restraining an actual cadaver. Whether Neeson is a murderer with the world’s most improbably elaborate M.O. is, in the film, secondary to the consideration of how little Ricci’s remote, unengaged character was actually living before the accident. In Neeson’s eyes, the world is filled with walking corpses with “no life left inside them” who are only waiting to end up on the slab at his morgue.

25-26. Caché (2005)/The White Ribbon (2009)
Michael Haneke is known for provoking—and frequently confounding—his audiences. Two of his best-known films, White Ribbon and Caché, leave the viewer to answer essentially the same question: Did the kids do it? In Caché, Daniel Auteuil plays a French intellectual whose bourgeois lifestyle is thrown into chaos when disturbing videos and drawings begin to show up on his doorstep. Auteuil suspects the culprit might be Maurice Bénichou, an Algerian man who once lived with Auteuil’s family. Even after a harrowing confrontation with Bénichou, Auteuil still doesn’t have a definitive answer. The film almost ends without an answer, but under the closing credits is an image of Auteuil’s adolescent son talking to Bénichou’s son outside of school. Their conversation is inaudible, so viewers are left to interpret the meeting: Is it merely a chance interaction, or did the younger generation conspire against their elders? Shot in stark black and white, The White Ribbon is a visual departure from Caché, but its thematic concerns are strikingly similar. In the days before World War I, a series of troubling, seemingly motiveless events take place in an austere, Protestant German village. The schoolteacher suspects some of the local children—who wear white ribbons to remind them of their purity—may have been involved in the disturbances, but the allegation is dismissed as heretical. The creeping sense of malevolence steadily builds, and then, suddenly, the film ends, just moments after the outbreak of World War I. The only clue we’re left with is history: Could these young German children, who would come of age just before Hitler’s rise, have perpetrated such odious acts of cruelty on their neighbors? Maybe the answer isn’t so elusive after all.

27. Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall is a loose adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick story about the nature of memory and identity. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by Paul Verhoeven, Recall nests these headier themes in blockbuster action. Schwarzenegger plays a burly construction worker on a near-future Earth who dreams of traveling to the colonies on Mars. So he visits Rekall Incorporated, a company that implants memories of vacations, and orders a tailor-made super-spy package. During his synthetic implant, something appears to go awry, and Schwarzenegger ends up getting his ass to Mars to command a Martian rebellion. But along the way, it’s hinted at that these escapades are the result of the memory implant playing itself out, and that he may be imagining it due to a “schizoid embolism.” Beyond all the hints that this is the case (like the foreshadowed “blue sky on Mars” happy ending, and the presence of every element Schwarzenegger requested as part of his fake memory package), Total Recall is a lampoonish explosion of action-movie clichés, which further suggests it’s a live-action daydream. And having Verhoeven—a master satirist, from The Fourth Man through Showgirls—at the helm seems like further proof that there’s more to the film’s arch silliness than meets the eye. Still, it’s ultimately up to viewers: Accept Verhoeven’s impish indulgence of hackneyed Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasies at face value, or interpret Total Recall as the paid-for dream of a jaded middle-class househusband strapped into an operating chair? (When making your choice, remember that the latter image could be Verhoeven’s cynical representation of popcorn-munching American audiences.)

28. Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s puzzlebox of a movie ends with a moment that started enough arguments to keep the Internet well-stocked with rage for a couple of solid months in summer 2010. Protagonist Leonardo DiCaprio specializes in entering people’s dreams to steal corporate secrets, and throughout the complicated plot, he enters deeper and deeper into a target’s mind, and into his own mental baggage. By the time he finally emerges from many levels of dream at the end, he’s unsure whether he can trust anything he sees around him, and his disorientation and disbelief alerts viewers that something might be wrong. And when he takes out a top and spins it—which earlier scenes have set up as a test of reality, depending on whether the top spins eternally or falls over—it’s clear enough that he’s questioning whether the world around him is real. As many pundits have pointed out, the movie does offer a definitive ending for his character, in that he walks away without watching to see whether the top falls, choosing to accept the world he’s in regardless of its reality. But Nolan keeps the question alive for the viewers by panning back to the spinning top, then cutting just as it starts to wobble slightly. Does it fall? Is DiCaprio in the real world, or a dream? Many viewers were so invested in their interpretation that they angrily swore online that the top never once wobbled, or that they actually saw it fall over. The actual film falls between those extremes, and lets viewers bring their own desires and hopes to the decision, just as DiCaprio brings his into his dream world. As with so many of these stories, the ending viewers pick for themselves says more about them than about the film.