“Beginnings are always difficult.” So says Herbert Marshall in the first scene of Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932). Endings can be extremely difficult to do well, but they’re easier to envision since they build off everything that precedes them. With movie openings, the possibilities are endless. This very freedom can be paralyzing, or encourage failed experiments. A good opening will hook the audience by setting up the story and the world of the film in an original way. Even within these boundaries, there is much room for invention. The introductory images can unfurl with a long tracking shot or fast cutting. They can descend on the story from as far as outer space, or launch outward from an extreme close-up. As for establishing the narrative, the most common techniques are voice-over, dialogue, and songs, but spoken words aren’t always necessary or welcome. No matter the technique, the act of beginning a work of art means going out on a limb and hoping it will support you.
To complement last year’s list of movie endings, I now present my 25 favorite movie openings of all time. Six movies appear on both lists; they are some of my all-time favorites, of course. Fantasia, which made each of my previous three top 25s, didn’t make the cut, although its opening was a contender. My thought process in constructing the list was slightly different this time. Credit sequences were a factor, although my main focus was on opening scenes. More importantly, I knew I wanted to include a few more “canonical” picks this time around after revisiting Chaplin’s City Lights way back in May 2015. The ending of that film hadn’t made my list a couple months prior. I almost certainly overlooked it because it seemed too obvious. But the emotional power of that scene is so dear to my heart that not only should it have made the list, it should have been #1 by a mile. So I’m trying not to commit a similar oversight this time, though I’m bound to miss something. Some obvious choices, from Citizen Kane to Apocalypse Now to Raiders of the Lost Ark, just didn’t feel right. Trouble in Paradise didn’t make it either, unfortunately. For the films on the list that do feel like no-brainers, I will try to provide a fresh perspective. As with my other lists, the rankings partially reflect my personal history — movie openings that introduced the power of filmmaking to me and made me fall in love with the medium.
25. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
The conciliatory note that opens the film meant a lot to me as an eleven-year-old raised in a conservative Christian home. The ensuing sequence, with Ofra Haza’s song setting the tone, presents a kid-friendly but still palpable introduction to the reality of Israel’s bondage, as well as a vividly imagined origin story for the title character.
24. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
It’s no mean feat, composing my favorite theme music in any of the Star Trek movies or shows. But James Horner did it. The credit sequence takes place over a starfield, naturally. The scene that follows it is part of series lore, an ethical conundrum that introduces a crucial new character and the specter of death.
23. One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)
The opening credits to this film are jazzy and creative, pointing out the various processes involved in animation. Then the first scene has Pongo playing matchmaker for his pet, Roger. Looking out the window, he sees a series of dog-human pairs, all well-suited to each other but not to him. The scene encourages “soul mate” thinking, but it’s very amusing.
22. Persona (1966)
This is one of the most primal movie openings ever created. The camera awakens to capture subliminal flashes, moments of shocking biblical violence, and the mundane problem of not being able to get the covers over your feet and head at the same time. Ferocious in its commitment to gnomic confrontation, Bergman’s opening is also gorgeous to look at.
21. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Combining John Ford and Sergio Leone, Tarantino starts his World War II film, as he did some of his previous films, in an unexpected place. The tense scenario, spaghetti western music, and ominous dialogue would make the scene a classic even if Christoph Waltz didn’t turn in a paradigm-shifting performance as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa.
20. Superman (1978)
The first shot is of a curtain pulling back to show a newsreel of a hand turning the pages of a comic book. The illustration dissolves into reality, and John Williams’s fantastic theme starts up. Judging purely by the way the words look and sound, this credits sequence is my favorite. No technological developments in the intervening years have diminished it.
19. Melancholia (2011)
There’s hardly an image in the first eight minutes of this film that doesn’t burn itself into the memory. Slow-motion digital imagery captures the response of the rich and the sickened to the end of the world. There’s something distancing about the visual slickness, but something darkly inviting about the Wagner.
18. Touch of Evil (1958)
I can’t say I care too much whether the version of this film I find myself watching sticks Henry Mancini music and credits over the opening scene. The three-and-a-half minute continuous shot is great regardless, following the time bomb with a giddy sense of humor and observing the lively border town atmosphere.
17. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Alan Menken’s sorrowful piano ushers in a forest scene with a towering castle in the background. The stained-glass windows of that castle tell the story of how its occupant was punished for his fixation on appearances. Then the same castle, blanketed in fog, becomes the foreground for a lifeless mountain range.
16. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Somber truth-telling married to carefully stage-managed horror movie shocks. The first proper shot of the film has to be considered one of the most brain-melting fusions of ugliness and beauty ever devised. The radio broadcast on the soundtrack sets the stage for the arrival of a bunch of kids in an American wasteland they can’t navigate.
15. The Letter (1940)
Tony Gaudio’s camera tracks over the Malayan rubber plantation on a moonlit night. The scenes of rest and relaxation are suddenly interrupted by a gunshot. Bette Davis emerges onto the front steps and, without a hint of passion, finishes off the man who ran out ahead of her. Clouds cover the moon.
14. Magnolia (1999)
Ricky Jay narrates three increasingly bizarre stories of coincidence and tragedy. None of the stories has anything to do with the film’s main ensemble. The opening is really more of a thesis statement than the prologue to a story. But it’s a fascinating puzzle, a bit of grim entertainment that paves the way for the strange events to follow.
13. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
The two 80s movies on this list both set up scenarios before revealing them to have been staged. Here, though, “staged” doesn’t mean fake, it means real. A single tracking shot follows Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit off the set of their newest short and lands on hard-drinking private eye Eddie Valiant. The cartoon itself remains hilarious, as well.
12. Pulp Fiction (1994)
In perfectly casual, logical fashion, a man and a woman work through the challenges of keeping up their crime spree, eventually abandoning more common targets in favor of the very coffee shop in which they sit. It’s the perfect introduction to the threshold of L.A.’s underworld, punctuated with guns drawn and Dick Dale exploding onto the soundtrack.
11. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
The credit sequence is crucial, with Depression era photographs flashing on the screen between names spelled out in a typeface that bleeds. Quick biographical sketches fade into a close-up of Faye Dunaway’s lips as Bonnie Parker moves about aimlessly in her bedroom. Clyde Barrow, as per destiny, is waiting outside.
10. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Powell and Pressburger, way back in ’46, poke fun at the ubiquitous disclaimer attached to all fiction films. Thus begins a supernatural story as told by skeptics. An outer space sequence dissolves into the aftermath of an air raid in World War II. David Niven faces love and death with charm and poetry. It’s beatific.
9. 8½ (1963)
I was still mostly unfamiliar with world cinema when I first saw this film. The opening dream sequence introduced me to the possibilities of visual metaphor, with eloquent cinematic ideas that make intuitive if not literal sense. As an empathetic first look at the main character’s state of mind, it couldn’t be bettered.
8. Don’t Look Now (1973)
A little girl in a red coat plays with a pull-string action figure by a pond. In the adjacent house, her parents concentrate on studies that are obliquely related to her. A drink spilled onto a photograph signals tragedy. The sharp focus on each detail in this scene is amplified by Graeme Clifford’s associative editing, making the shock and anguish visceral.
7. Up (2009)
The first two portions of this film’s prologue –the plot-introducing newsreel, the scenes of Carl and Ellie as children — are characterized by verbal wit. They have their charms, to be sure. But the moments that make everyone cry happen when the dialogue stops. A quiet montage traces all the love, happiness, disappointment, and sorrow of a long relationship.
6. Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter’s theme music plays over a shot of a jack-o’-lantern in the dark during the credits sequence. The film’s first scene is a four-minute continuous take from young Michael Myers’ point of view. The kid just needs to get back into his house to find the mask that goes with his Halloween costume. It’s like a nightmare even before the blood flows.
5. Vertigo (1958)
Hitchcock. Bass. Herrmann. A case could be made that no other trio of artists ever produced credit sequences as great as theirs. The eyes, the spirals, and the music all give equal weight to the romance and the madness of the story. Then there’s the scene of the chase across the rooftops, ending with James Stewart suspended over an abyss he may never escape.
4. The Social Network (2010)
There’s nothing eye-popping about starting a film with a conversation between two people. The dialogue has to do the work without making it seem like work. Aaron Sorkin’s script obliges — a rapid-fire exchange of ideas that slowly curdles into a breakup. Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara are at their best playing off each other.
3. The Lion King (1994)
I’m pretty sure I remember seeing the “Circle of Life” sequence when it was shown as a trailer for the movie back in 1993, but I could be mistaken. In any case, the majestic spectacle gripped me from the beginning. The arrival of a new prince calls for every kind of animal to gather for a ceremony that immediately became one of Disney animation’s defining moments.
2. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
I’m just as capable of getting bored as the next man, but there are exceptional filmmakers who can pull me into their unconventional rhythms. Sergio Leone is foremost among them. The long, mostly wordless opening sequence of this film is a masterclass of concentrated cool, a highly ritualized waiting game. I’ve written extensively about it before, so I’ll only add that Charles Bronson ends up being entirely worth the wait.
1. Batman Returns (1992)
Last year I wrote about the cinematic images that first kicked off my interest in film. Each of those experiences took place in a theater, where movies have the advantage of being larger than life. Batman Returns begins with another such shot that stuck with me despite my never seeing it in a theater: Cobblepot Senior (Paul Reubens), cigarette holder in mouth, looking out the window of his mansion as his wife gives birth in the next room. The child is deformed and feral, so the pale aristocrats toss him down the river. It’s Christmas in Gotham City. The credits sequence follows the bassinet into the sewer to the tune of Danny Elfman’s great theme. This is as terse and brilliant an origin story as the flashback to Bruce Wayne’s parents’ death in the first Burton film. The deadpan humor, rich atmosphere, and nearly mythological sweep make it the perfect opening to one of my favorite films.
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