The top box-office film of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy, has a sequel planned for release on May 5, 2017. The number two film of the year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1, has its Part 2 set for November 20, 2015. Number three? Captain America: The Winter Soldier, whose follow-up, Captain America: Civil War, is set to premiere on May 6, 2016. It goes on down the line. In fact, the only film in the domestic box-office top 10 this year that isn’t explicitly calling for a sequel is Disney’s Maleficent. (And even that one isn’t a guarantee.)
Grantland’s Mark Harris got much attention for his recent essay decrying Hollywood’s blockbuster culture, and whether or not you fully agree with Harris's doomsaying, his charts displaying the 32 comic book movies and 70-odd other sequels due over the next several years certainly paint a striking picture. The rise of comic-book-influenced franchise storytelling and so-called cinematic universes doesn’t mean that the sequel is a new phenomenon, though it’s hard to argue that franchise planning hasn’t gotten exponentially more intricate in the age of Marvel.
This trend is not necessarily bad. It’s not necessarily good, either. What it does mean, however, is that true endings in Hollywood are getting rarer and rarer. So many doors are being left open for sequels or spinoffs—even prequels tend to dull the finality of even something that ends as definitively as Breaking Bad, to use one example. Sometimes we can’t even decide on where a movie’s end should come (is that one post-credits scene or two?).
With all this in mind, it's worth taking a moment to recognize the true endings we got to experience in 2014’s film and television. No cliffhangers. No open doors. Endings.
In alphabetical order…
It’s a testament to the fullness of director Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making film that it can leave things off on what, for many stories, would be merely the precipice. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is 18 years old and heading out into the world, all of his possibilities in front of him. But Linklater has told the story he’s set out to tell, following Mason from age six, through schools and experiences and his mother’s divorces. Even though there are still stories to be told about the life that awaits Mason, the film ends perfectly and definitively, with our college-aged boy out hiking with a girl, adulthood (but not Adulthood) on the horizon.
The Colbert Report
Stephen Colbert’s extended experiment in staying in character came to a brilliant, fanciful end, with the character “Stephen Colbert” riding Santa’s sleigh out into oblivion (and immortality). Appropriately, Colbert’s send-off kept tongue in cheek to the very last, even while thanking all the people who made his show possible. The final show cemented the Report as America’s foremost funhouse for politics and culture, especially in its extended “We’ll Meet Again” singalong. With Colbert riding off to CBS to succeed David Letterman, it was a nice reminder that this is a man who can bring together Tom Brokaw, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Cyndi Lauper, and Smaug under the same big tent.
Just under the wire, one of 2014’s best endings—for HBO's Lisa Kudrow comedy, resurrected nine years after its cancellation—is probably the one with the brightest glimmer of hope that it won’t be an ending after all. Honestly, who would object to Valerie Cherish returning every few years or so to let us gawk at the messy inhumanity of the fame chase once again? But … this should be the end, shouldn’t it? The moment Valerie broke the documentary format and walked out of the Emmys on film packed more finality in it than if Jane had murder-suicided the whole cast in a final-act twist. HBO saw a great many sunsets this year, some (Boardwalk Empire) more successfully executed than others (True Blood). Even their big ongoing hit True Detective put a definitive cap on its season-one story, though whether or not you were satisfied by Rust Cohle's philosophical breakthroughs is a matter for debate. But after cutting The Comeback short the first time, this ending feels right. Complete.
While we’re on the subject of networks cutting TV series short, however, let’s talk about Fox. Every time you think they’ve shed their old (and debatably well earned) reputation for fiddling with good shows and then mercilessly axing them, they go ahead and pull an Enlisted. One of the funniest, warmest, unique shows on television, Enlisted had its episode order mixed up, sputtered in the ratings, and was put out to pasture. There’s only so much you can do if people aren’t watching the show, sure, but it’s hard not to imagine (or hope?) that audiences might have found the show before a second season via streaming. Still, with its final episode, “Alive Day,” Enlisted went out on top, creatively speaking at least, with an episode that showcased its humor and heart in equal measure.
It should be noted that not everybody liked the Gone Girl ending. Not everybody liked it in Gillian Flynn’s novel either. It arguably fits even better in the film, though, with David Fincher’s chilly visuals and arch tone preparing the audience for anything but a traditional conclusion. That Nick and Amy finish the film locked in grim mortal combat is only right. Not just logistically (though kudos to Flynn for devising one hell of a narrative straight jacket for those two to crawl into) but also emotionally. There’s almost no sense in even imagining where the story might go on from here since their stalemate is so correct. Now that they’ve finally seen each other for real, why would either of them budge?
I don’t like the ending of Whiplash. I don’t love Whiplash as a whole, but I recognize its merits, which are mostly in the super-stressful pace of the thing. The final sequence is where it falls apart for me, though; where its intentions to be all balls and no brain ultimately proves too much to bear. To put it simply: I stopped believing it. I stopped being able to buy the story that writer/director Damian Chazelle was selling. Under what possible logic does JK Simmons’s character risk career and reputation to essentially tank a public performance in order to teach this kid a lesson? (And if you’re about to counter that Simmons knows all along that pushing Teller this hard will lead him to success, then we’re truly in the realm of fantasy.) I can’t love a movie that purports to be a character drama, only to ultimately leave me at the doorstep with “Well, I guess that guy’s just insane.”
All that aside, I’m putting Whiplash on my list of the year’s best endings anyway. Why? Because I have eyes and ears, and I saw the way my New York Film Festival audience practically leapt at the conclusion of the film. And that is purely a credit to the way Chazelle builds his film’s final scenes to a spectacular crescendo. Do I buy it even for a second? No. Did I still feel a surge within my body at those final drumbeats when that screen hits black and Miles Teller gets his “It was perfect” moment? Sure did.