"I did not see that coming!" It's the ultimate sign that a plot twist was indeed clever and well-executed, and it's the golden reaction that every plot-driven storyteller strives for.
Sadly, most plot twists in movies are just plain bad. At best, they're predictable and lack oomph; at worst, they cheapen everything that came before and detract from the entire experience. (You can read more about that in our article on the worst movie plot twists.)
The best plot twists have the opposite effect: they leave you with a sense of wonder, excitement, and surprise. When it reframes the entire story, when you berate yourself for not seeing the signs earlier, when you're still thinking about it days later? That's a great plot twist.
Good plot twists are vastly outnumbered by bad ones, but there are still plenty of solid contenders. Here are the best movie plot twists in cinema history that are exemplary and unique.
Obvious warning: Spoilers ahead! Every section has the movie title as its heading. If you haven't seen a particular movie, simply skip ahead to the next one—unless you're fine with spoilers.
7. Primal Fear (1996)
Primal Fear is the film that catapulted Edward Norton into cinematic stardom, in which he plays Aaron Stampler, the mild-mannered altar boy who's suspected of brutally murdering a priest.
When it comes out that the priest is guilty of molesting and sexually abusing children, we're provided with his motive.
However, it's not as simple as that. Why? Because Aaron Stampler has a bad case of multiple personality disorder. There's an aggressively hostile version of himself named "Roy" who comes out when he feels threatened.
His lawyer gets a mistrial after it's revealed that Aaron is psychologically unstable. It seems like victory is secured for the good guys.
But then Aaron starts smiling. Then he starts clapping his hands. Something is obviously very wrong—and it all comes crashing down when the truth is revealed: there is no Aaron, only Roy.
Roy was never an evil alter-ego, but always his own persona. The kind, sweet Aaron was the fake persona all along. And just like Martin Vail, we were duped from the very start.
6. Psycho (1960)
The plot twist in Psycho is the oldest twist on this list, and yet it still beats out so many other twists that came after it. Alfred Hitchcock was truly the master of suspense and he did it like no one else. In the process, he revolutionized what people considered as great plot twists.
Norman Bates, the caretaker of a dilapidated motel, is unsettling—but his mother is even worse. In fact, she's so bad that she goes around stabbing people in the shower. It's not an ideal situation for Norman.
However, in the film's grand finale, the goosebump-raising reveal is that Norman Bates's mother has been dead all along, a mere skeleton slumped in a swivel chair. The killer was Norman himself the entire time.
No one foresaw this plot twist back then, and it still catches people off guard today. For the shock value alone, it has to go on this list.
5. The Prestige (2006)
When people watch The Prestige, they all experience the same bouts of stupefied amazement when the plot twist comes. Not only is it a jaw-dropping reveal, but it's so painfully obvious in hindsight!
The Prestige follows two rival magicians—Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale)—who are always trying to outdo each other. Angier becomes obsessed when Borden performs the most amazing magic trick he's ever seen: teleportation.
Angier is told the trick is done using a double, but he knows otherwise. He spends his entire life searching for the truth behind the trick. The eventual reveal shows us that, yeah, it's a double. But not just any double!
Angier spends the entire film lurking in the shadows, hoping to uncover the secret to Borden's trick, only to find that Borden's assistant is actually Borden's identical twin—and they've been switching places throughout the majority of the film. And like Angier, we never saw it coming.
4. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Nowadays, The Usual Suspects has been soured a bit due to the controversies surrounding the film's star, Kevin Spacey. However, the plot twist execution in The Usual Suspects is still one of the greatest in cinema.
Verbal Kint, a career criminal with a physical disability that causes him to limp, is arrested for his participation in a crime gone wrong. The entire film centers on his interrogation by police chief Dave Kujan.
Dave's sole goal is to identify and locate the criminal mastermind, Keyser Söze. And yet, despite an entire film's worth of interrogation, Dave gets nothing—so he releases Verbal, satisfied with his answers.
Verbal leaves the police precinct, limping out the door and down the street. But as he walks, his limp gradually... disappears.
Then, the coffee mug drops. As Dave turns to his pin board, he realizes that he was caught up in a web of lies—that Verbal was Keyser Söze all along. The man he spent ages looking for was sitting in his office, and he just let him go.
3. Fight Club (1999)
If you haven't seen the masterpiece that is Fight Club, you probably know that there's a huge plot twist in it. In fact, you probably know what the twist is. It's such a well-known twist that's often referenced.
As it turns out, Tyler Durden and The Narrator are revealed to be the same person. But what's so impressive about the plot twist in Fight Club is the speed of the reveal—it's done slowly over several scenes.
Even after we're given the super obvious first clue that leads to the revelation, we're put in such a state of panic that we feel as though there's been a misunderstanding. Surely this is just another manifestation of Tyler Durden's grand plan?
But we eventually accept the truth: The Narrator was psychologically troubled for the entirety of the film—and we totally missed the signs.
The best part is that director David Fincher gave us so many clues as to the identity of Tyler Durden. If you rewatch Fight Club, you'll see that the big twist is divulged several times, but easy to miss every time.
2. The Sixth Sense (1999)
When Dr. Malcolm Crowe's new patient says that he can see dead people, he's intrigued. They go on walks together, talk things through, they work out where this supernatural phenomenon comes from.
However, when you discover at the end that Crowe is himself a ghost, you can't help but be stunned by the mind-bending revelation. It's exceptionally clever and very well done.
No one did a plot twist like M. Night Shyamalan back in his heyday. And while it may have become a bit of a stale party trick after the fourth time in a row, the twist in The Sixth Sense remains special.
1. The Conversation (1974)
So few people talk about The Conversation. It was underappreciated when it came out, and it remains so today. There are a few reasons for this.
Firstly, it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who released The Godfather Part II the very same year, so most of the attention he received went to that magnum opus of his. Secondly, The Conversation is a slow-moving film that's far removed from blockbuster material.
And yet, The Conversation features the best movie plot twist of all time.
Harry Caul, a private investigator and surveillance expert, fears that the man who hired him is planning to murder his wife and her lover. As he often does, he attempts to get to the bottom of it.
Along the way, Harry's paranoia increases. The burden of saving their lives weighs heavier and heavier. He's sure he can help, if only he can act.
But as it turns out, Harry had it all wrong. They were planning to kill the husband, and Harry had misinterpreted all of the signs leading up to it.
The Conversation is a paralyzing watch that makes you feel exceptionally paranoid when it's over. That alone makes it a great movie worth watching, but the phenomenal plot twist is the cherry on top.