Often the most important shots in a film include the first and last ones. The above video, edited by Jacob T. Swinney, underlines this point. Swinney places the first and last shots of several famous films next to each other, for viewers to see how directors used these moments.
The first shot allows a director to make a statement of purpose for the film the audience is about to see. The last shot allows for a quick summation of all that's come before. The two can provide circularity by mirroring each other exactly, or they can suggest a film's journey by being jarring counterpoints.
Sometimes, the two images will seem to act as two halves of some whole. Consider, for instance ...
Raging Bull (dir. Martin Scorsese)
The character on the left is much younger than the one on the right, but we're still watching him prepare for a big night, whether warming up in the boxing ring or psyching himself up in a dressing room. The younger version is in eerie slow motion, while the older version seems amped up. It's counter to what we might expect. Yet both move with an odd synchronicity.
This image suggests the film's portrayal of the endless river of life, carrying all of us from birth toward death. Just when one baby starts to fall out of the frame, the second baby pops back into it. Babies! Forever!
Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
I actually wrote about this pair of shots a fair amount here. But note the subtle differences in what seems to be the same image. Amy (Rosamund Pike) is positioned slightly higher in the frame on the right, indicating greater power, and her offscreen husband's hand comes to rest against her head, instead of hovering just away from it. There's also a brighter lighting scheme on the right. All of this nods toward how much Amy takes control over the course of the film.
GEE, MR. SPIELBERG, WHAT DID YOU INTEND THE MESSAGE OF THIS FILM TO BE?
The Searchers (dir. John Ford)
Sometimes, the similarities are much more subtle. One of the most famous opening and closing shot pairings in film history is from The Searchers.
The first takes us from inside a house out into the great wide West, while the closing shot has us staying inside a house as John Wayne's character ambles away from all it represents. He's never going to be a part of civilization, and Ford lets you know that visually.
Sometimes, the two shots mirror each other in unexpected ways. I'm no fan of this film, but I have to admit that the pairing of the meteor's descent with Emma Stone looking up into the sky is pretty clever. The fall is married to an ascent, even if we only see said ascent reflected on Stone's awed face.
No Country for Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Sometimes, the two shots seemingly have nothing to do with each other. Here, we start with the promise of a new day, of a sunrise on the horizon. We end with the face of an old man, closer to the end than the beginning. That's the story of this grim little crime story in a nutshell. Everybody gets in over their heads, and all of that promise is snuffed out. Pretty much everyone winds up dead.
Check out Swinney's video above. There are 48 other examples to examine. See which ones you like best.