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Sometimes, the difference between a good and great movie can be determined right before the credits roll.
Good movies can have unforgettable characters, classic dialogue and groundbreaking ideas, but often they'll fizz out with a predictable ending ("Sleepless in Seattle"), too many false endings ("The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King") or no real ending at all ("Monty Python and the Holy Grail").
Great movies, like great athletes, know how to finish. A great story and a great third act will stick with viewers long after they leave the theater or eject the DVD.
So as we get ready to put the final touches on 2010, let's take a look at a few films that deliver when it counts.
Set amid the turmoil of World War II, this romantic drama seems to turn up on everyone's "best movies" list, no matter what the specific theme. But in spite of all the classic lines and immortal characters, the bittersweet ending at the airport is what makes "Casablanca" such a classic.
"The Graduate" (1967)
Dustin Hoffman's leading man debut is the perfect vehicle for anyone who has just realized that adulthood isn't quite what it was supposed to be. The quiet moment he shares with Katharine Ross, only seconds after what would have otherwise been interpreted as a cliched happily-ever-after ending, is one of the most truthful shots in movie history.
"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969)
The first film to team up longtime screen icons Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (Sundance), this 1969 film was considered a drastic change of course as far as westerns were concerned. But even if Newman's bicycle antics (set to "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head") don't match your vision of the Old West, there's no debating the impact of this film's final dramatic freeze frame.
"American Graffiti" (1973)
Before going on to make the first "Star Wars," George Lucas directed this film as a tribute to the hot-rod culture of his Modesto, Calif., hometown. Set on the last night of summer in 1962, "American Graffiti" follows an ensemble cast of teens (including Ron Howard and Harrison Ford) as the various dramas of their lives move toward a chilling final drag race.
This story of a bum fighter who gets a shot at the big time set the precedent for just about every sports film that hits the screen today. But while so many of those films end with a predictable come-from-behind victory for the underdog, most forget the key point of "Rocky" — winning or losing often has little to do with true victory.
"E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL" (1982)
Even with heavyweights like "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" on his resume, Steven Spielberg's buddy movie about an abandoned alien and the young child of a divorce carves out a special niche of its own. Spielberg went back to update the special effects with a 20th anniversary edition, but the emotional climax of the film's third act didn't need CGI to pull any heartstrings.
While most of the films on this list are here because their endings sent messages that transcended their stories, "Tootsie" earns a spot on the sheer power of its comic writing. When unemployed stage actor Dustin Hoffman disguises himself as a woman to get a role on a New York soap opera, he triggers a chain of events that can only end badly. And when it does, it ends in unforgettable fashion.
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