Entertainment Weekly's online edition has a list of 22 movies with the best twist endings entitled, "You Got Swerved." There are some memorable films on the list such as Fight Club, The Usual Suspects and Psycho. But what struck me after looking over the 22 was the ones I didn't remember.
Imagine a movie with a surprise ending and you've forgotten all about it. What does that tell you? It tells me that a twist at the end is not enough to save a bad or mediocre film. A film resonates if, taken as a whole, it's a good or excellent viewing experience.
From EW's list there were several that for me but were hazy memories. For example, I'd forgotten everything about The Others save that there were ghosts in it and it starred Nicole Kidman. Little did I recall about The Phone Booth other than Colin Ferrell played a slimy character who was trapped in a phone booth (remember those pre-cell phone structures?) by a sniper, and all I remembered about The Prestige was that I was totally disappointed by it and another magician movie from 2006, The Illusionist.
Admittedly there are some movies that I didn't enjoy that stay in the mind such as Bad Lieutenant which I remember well because Harvey Keitel's character was so repellent. And there are some movies that I like while watching but forget about once the final credits are done, such as the latest Indiana Jones movie. It was diverting entertainment while on the screen but nothing to ponder afterwards.
A twist ending cannot save a movie that is otherwise lacking. Indeed, while it can enhance a good movie, the twist is never what makes it good in the first place. Psycho and Fight Club in particular were outstanding films evens sans twist. The Usual Suspects may have relied more on the twist for its overall impact but the whole movie built up to it – it was not an add on.
It's crucial that the twist not be tacked on for effect as a gimmick but be an integral part of the story. Like nudity or violence, the twist should not be gratuitous.