Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Greatest Opening Scenes in Film History

So many of the great albums immediately hit you with their best shot. Classic songs like “Brown Sugar,” “Thunder Road,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Respect,” “Purple Haze,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Seven Nation Army” were chosen to open their albums with a bang instead of slowly draw the audience in and build to a climax. Movies traditionally haven’t operated the same way; the classic Hollywood films typically began with by-the-numbers exposition and set-up—and even that was after three or four minutes of boring title cards.

Luckily, times have changed. The Film School Generation of the 1970s began to successfully switch things up a bit, showing willing audiences that there’s no reason exposition and set-up has to be unengaging. Today, thanks to the ever-present ADD experienced by modern audiences, there’s basically a written-in-stone rule that movies have to be exciting from the first moment (and over the last few years, this practice has even led to the near-extinction of opening credit sequences; many films are starting to delay all credits and titles until the end).

So these are the facts, and they are indisputable: a movie’s beginning is now almost as important as its ending. But what are the opening scenes to which all others should forever be judged against? Well, that’s what I’m here for.

First, a few words on some notable omissions:

Up and Saving Private Ryan often appear on lists like this, but I don’t think they qualify, because the early sequences for which they are justly famous (the marriage montage and D-Day invasion, respectively) are actually the film’s second scenes. Jaws and 2001 also get a lot of credit for the way they open, and while it’s mostly deserved, I don’t think either opening stands up well today. I gave good consideration to The Departed for this list, but it’s a bit difficult to distinguish exactly where the opening scene even ends (the title screen doesn’t appear until more than twenty minutes into the film, in what is probably the third or fourth scene). A Clockwork Orange has one of the greatest-ever opening images, but the entire opening scene isn’t as impressive. And lastly, I remember the opening of Mission: Impossible III being particularly great, but I don’t own the DVD and couldn’t find the clip online to save my life, so without a fresh viewing, I opted not to include it.

Let’s get to the list! (Click on the title of each film to see the clip.)

25. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

24. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

A lot of films open with what can fairly be called a teaser. The audience is shown an event that isn’t really meant to make sense, but is intriguing enough to make us stick around for the explanation. In a sense, a teaser intro is a way of saying “we’re going to spend the next two hours explaining how we got here,” so for an audience to accept that inevitability, the teaser better be pretty damn enticing. Goodfellas probably has the all-time best teaser intro (“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”), but Citizen Kane, with its single word (“Rosebud”), is inarguably the most famous—and influential. Two other great examples are The Hangover (“Things got out of hand, and we lost Doug.”) and Fight Club (Brad Pitt holding a gun in Edward Norton’s mouth).

23. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

22. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

For some movies, the perfect way to open things is by setting the ground rules. We’re given a scene in which the specific events don’t have a lot of bearing on the plot, but the mentality and attitude established is crucially important. In both Scream and The Dark Knight, we see the villains performing crimes that prove to be unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but the way in which they’re carried out serves as a perfectly ominous message for what’s to come. With Scream’s Ghostface, we learn two simple rules: 1) don’t answer the phone, and 2) at least know your horror movies if you do answer it. And with the Joker, we learn that there simply are no rules. (No Country For Old Men also did this well, with Javier Bardem's villainous Anton Chigurgh memorably killing someone with a cattle stun gun shot to the forehead just a few minutes into the film.)

21. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

At the end of The Social Network’s first scene, the main character is called an “asshole” in a pretty definitive way. But this serves as the film’s way of issuing a challenge to the viewer: This movie is about an asshole, but we DARE you not to find him fascinating. Written by the great Aaron Sorkin, the opening sequence is a hyper-speed conversation that results in a break-up which feels both spontaneous and yet totally justified. But the verbal rhythms of this scene also introduce us to a key element of the characters—their inner rhetoric operates with the speed and efficiency of a microprocessor, and they say what they think. There’s no clip because The Social Network is still in theaters, but anyone that hasn’t seen it yet really should do so. I dare you not to find it fascinating.

20. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

The clip actually omits the first five minutes of the movie, but it still gets the point across: nobody has ever been able to squeeze more drama out of delayed action than Sergio Leone. An incredible amount of time is spent in Leone’s classic Spaghetti Westerns on characters waiting for one another to make the first move. In doing so, Leone draws us into the drama the characters face. As character A waits for character B to draw, and vice versa, the audience starts to experience the same sweat on their brow as the characters, because we’re forced into playing the same waiting game. It’s a daring psychological ploy, because people generally prefer instant gratification, but Leone’s darting camera and extreme close-ups pull it off. It’s not quite fair to say Quentin Tarantino learned everything he knows from Leone, but there’s at least an entire semester’s worth of curriculum in this scene.

19. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

18. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

Not just two of the most famous opening sequences ever, but, in many ways, the two opening sequences that started to draw attention to the art of a great first scene. What both films do so well is subtly draw you into their worlds so thoroughly that you feel like you’ve always been there. This is important to do in films like these, where the backlog of mythology and relationships is incredibly complex. But the great directors are able to reveal detailed sets of information in effortless ways, and that’s never been on display better than in these two films. And if you were to make a list of the greatest opening lines in film history, Star Wars (“A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…”) and The Godfather (“I believe in America”) might very well rank #s 2 and 3 behind Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud."

17. Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)

Tim Burton’s original Batman films are inferior to Christopher Nolan’s contemporary versions in almost every single way, but Burton wins out in one key area—his Gotham City is far better realized. In fact, an argument could be made that the original Batman is one of the greatest works of art/set direction in film history, on par with classics of the field like Metropolis, Frankenstein, and Blade Runner. Using a bizarre combination of 1930s era Manhattan, 1970s CBGB’s punk, and Blade Runner-like future gothic, Burton and his collaborators created one of the most unique visions of urban horror that’s ever been unleashed, and it is introduced marvelously in Batman’s opening scene. The clip unfortunately picks up after an initial 20 seconds or so of Gotham images, but you can check them out at the end of this video.

16. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)

The intro of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had an unenviable task, because it required success on two levels. On the more obvious front, the Fellowship of the Ring intro had to cover an enormous back-story and mythology in a way that was brief, compelling, interesting, and exciting. But that’s actually the easy part of the equation; the difficult part was pleasing the devoted fans of the novels and meeting the expectations that come along with creating one of the most anticipated and ambitious movies ever attempted. Jackson had taken a gargantuan cast to New Zealand for over a year and spent more than 100 million dollars to film what amounted to a twelve-hour film based on a book trilogy that had an impossible-to-please fan base. The financial well being of an entire studio was riding on these films, and Jackson literally could not afford for the intro to be anything but perfect. Luckily, it was perfect. Using a new style of epic filmmaking that was to be endlessly copied in the years to come, a haunting score from Howard Shore, and regal narration by the great Cate Blanchett, The opening of The Lord of the Rings will give you goose bumps. Mission Accomplished.

15. Lord of War (Andrew Niccol, 2005)

Lord of War has an intro that I like to refer to as “Important Unimportance.” As we watch the journey of a single bullet from being manufactured all the way to blowing a nameless kid’s brains out, we don’t learn anything about the film’s characters, plot, style, or really even the theme (the opener is weighty and topical drama, while the film is more like unsuccessful black comedy). And yet… the movie is inconceivable, as well as a hell of a lot worse, without the intro. While it seems easy to conclude that the opener doesn’t add anything to the film besides a memorable credits sequence, the real reality is that the film doesn’t add anything to the opener. The opener was simply too good, and the movie it introduced had no hope of living up. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) also had an a great intro in the Important Unimportance vein, as the theme of coincidence was memorably introduced through three entirely unrelated, yet unforgettable anecdotes.

14. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)

What City of God’s opening sequence does so well is something nearly unique in film up to that point: it establishes not so much a style of storytelling, but a rhythm. The speed of the cuts intertwined with the music makes the film feel like a carefully choreographed salsa dance—keep up or keep to the sidelines. The entire film operates on this propulsive beat that chugs along so relentlessly the characters end up in a constant reactionary status with their own lives, much like the chicken in this scene. Ending the scene with the 360-degree spin as the main character reverts to his childhood self was an effortless way of establishing where the film is going. In that sense, this intro operates like a teaser that does so much more than tease. In terms of establishing a visual rhythm, the opening sequence of West Side Story (1961) also does a good job, but it’s not in the same league as City of God.

13. Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

12. The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

Occasionally, a movie’s opening sequence will simply dazzle us with its craft, and that’s the case with these two. Both films open with an unbroken tracking shot that looks simply impossible to pull off, and yet there we are watching it. For decades, Touch of Evil had the reputation of having the tracking shot to end all tracking shots, and it was the first shot of the movie! Lately though, as technology and the ambition of great directors continues to exponentially increase, Touch of Evil’s supremacy is constantly being challenged. Just in the last few years, movies like Atonement, Children of Men, and The Secret in Their Eyes have given us shots we never would have thought were possible. But while those films all used their crowning technical achievement as the centerpiece of the movie, The player had the audacity to open with an 8 minute long unbroken shot. The entire film uses meta-fiction quite well, but the theme is introduced in this opening scene. As one character says to another that the opening shot of Touch of Evil could never be topped, that’s exactly what we’re seeing happen. Robert Altman had the balls to not just beat Touch of Evil at its own game, but to tell us while he was doing it. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) also opens with a tracking shot of similar audacity, but it doesn’t manage to be compelling in the same way.

11. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Really, this should have been a mortal lock for the top ten, but I’m not totally sure it qualifies because it’s so long. (The opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds is over 20 minutes, while all but four other entries in this top 25 were under 8 minutes.) I finally opted to include it under the following corollary: my blog, my rules. It could be argued that Basterds has the most ambitious opening of any film on this list, precisely because it doesn’t follow any of the most basic assumptions regarding how to open a movie. It jumps right into an important scene, but proceeds along very slowly; none of the title characters or name actors in the film are featured in a scene that lasts for an extremely long time by today’s standards; and the opening scene may well leave you crying—not exactly something a summer movie is supposed to do twenty minutes into its runtime. And as if that all weren’t enough, Tarantino had the audacity to combine Leone style drama with Hitchcock style suspense… and make us fully aware he was doing it. The result was a scene so memorable and powerful, that it effectively won Christoph Waltz an Oscar. (Sadly there's no clip of the complete scene online, but if you've never seen it before, just rent the movie. It's one of the best films of the last several years.)

10. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Herzog’s films have always been about the grey area where extreme dedication collides with pure insanity, and how the lines between the two can easily become blurred. As a result of this undercurrent, Herzog often ends up making movies about the dangerous quests men embark on, and how they turn out. Aguirre, Herzog’s masterpiece, desires to show us that the quest of the Spanish conquistadors to locate the fabled El Dorado in the 16th century was borne out of less than pure rationality, and the film does this rather quickly. Using an ethereal score that seems to be floating out of the mist, and an incredibly orchestrated shot of hundreds of people descending a mountain jungle to the depths of madness in a single file line, Herzog accomplishes a singular cinematic rarity: he achieves the entire goal of a film in its first two minutes. Now that’s an opening scene!

9. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

8. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009)

Since 2005’s Batman Begins, the franchise reboot has become one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers. While the advantage of hindsight enables filmmakers to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, a great reboot is still difficult to pull off. A careful balance has to be found between honoring what has gone before and forging a new identity. While neither of these things is easy, you might have been fooled into thinking so after seeing Casino Royale or Star Trek. Both films open with the never-before-seen origin of their classic characters; we watch James Bond get his first two kills and earn double O status, while we see Captain Kirk’s birth during a catastrophic space battle. James Bond films have long been famous for their pre-credit sequences, but while always entertaining, they are almost never of any consequence. Casino Royale dared to be different. Not only do we watch Bond effectively become Bond, but also the stylish black & white and brutal fistfight clearly signal that the tongue-in-cheek era of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan is gone for good. The sequence serves as a bold statement of purpose for what the new franchise will be, but still has the good sense to end with a nod and a wink to those of us that have been around the block with Bond before, as the classic gunshot framed by the eye is given a dramatic re-creation. Unlike Casino Royale, the opening sequence for Star Trek doesn’t serve as a departure from the norm or homage to it, but it is one of the greatest film-opening action sequences ever created. That may seem less ambitious, but if the ultimate goal of a great opening sequence is to make people salivate for the rest of the film, then Star Trek earns top marks. (Sadly, the only clip of it I could find changes a few crucial parts of the score. Just know that the music is far more dramatic in the real version.)

7. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

The most economical way to use a movie’s intro is to quickly dispense as much background information as possible, so the film can get to the key plot points without wasting a big chunk of running time. Often times, this strategy manifests itself in long text openers (i.e. Star Wars, Gladiator), but isn’t that just the easy way out? The greatest example of the alternative is The Royal Tenenbaums, which we’ll refer to as the “Text Intro After a Cocktail of Speed and LSD” (or TIACSAL, for short). Basically, TIACSAL is a text intro read by a narrator, while the screen imagery dramatizes the text as fast as possible in a medley of bizarrely juxtaposed scenes and events. This had been done before, notably with Jules & Jim (1963) and Raising Arizona (1987), but never this well. The Tenenbaums intro combines the great narrative voice of Alec Baldwin, the strangest family history you’ll ever see outside of a Jerry Springer taping, and the most intricately detailed and idiosyncratic domestic art direction ever captured on film. But the more you watch it, the instrumental version of “Hey Jude” playing in the background becomes the emotional core of the scene; a song about a child in the spotlight needing comforting after his parents’ separation, it provides realistic grounding to the film’s themes… and that timeless “na na na” coda to frame the sequence.

6. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

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5. The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)

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4. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)

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3. Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)

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2. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

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1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

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1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this post.

    About "The Royal Tennenbaums" opening, I love Alec Baldwin's voice over work - his voice commands attention. It's lovely.