The first moments of a film are meant to amuse your bouche. Maybe you’re thrust into a time or a place, or you meet your hero, or maybe you’re completely mystified at what you’re looking at. But you get a feeling. You’re a helpless baby animal when the lights go dark and a movie begins. You will imprint on the first thing you see. The opening sequence is your mom.
Because we’re knee-deep in the doldrums of summer, it seemed like a great time for a Top Something List. So I’d like to throw my #1 Opening Sequences Of All Time out there. Many of these I wouldn’t even call my favorite movies. But in my opinion, they have the best Act 1, Scene 1s ever. Comment if I missed your faves. Except if it’s 2001:A Space Odyssey, because that’s très played out, friend.
1. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Tim Burton’s directing debut is so oft overlooked. This Rube-Goldberg-esque opener sets the tone for a seriously odd and delightful movie full of indelible imagery. The carrot-sniffing slippers…the taped-up face…the giant bowl of Mr. T cereal. It is the morning routine of champions, before Pee Wee has even left the comfort of his tricked-out pop-culture subsconscious-trauma carnival of a home.
2. Do the Right Thing (1989)
I love this sequence, because its simplicity belies the deep tensions that Spike Lee’s masterpiece is about to explore. Rosie Perez’ furious dance moves + Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” bring exuberant life to a cityscape lit in blood red. There’s such anger and joy in these shots. It’s fun and hypnotic and powerful and real, like the rest of this devastating movie.
3. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Gorgeous animation with a touch of Bond film and film noir. It’s so perfectly paired with the score, and sets a stage of light and shadow for a whimsical movie with surprising emotional heft at its center. I also think this sequence is an important precedent for the badass opener in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). Hard to choose between the two, because KKBB is one of my top films ever, but CMIYC came first.
4. Being John Malkovich (1999)
This movie is really fucked up and sad, especially during its high points of existential hilarity. When it’s not any of those things, it’s just insanely confusing. A Charlie Kaufman trademark. This first scene is appropriately emotionally detached. A puppet (molded in the image of its master, John Cusack) has an existential crisis and spins out of control. You will not feel okay when you watch it.
5. Amelie (2001)
Not my taste as a movie in its entirety, but these first carefully-shot, tender scenes give me the well-ups every time. There is a prosaic and muted beauty in every small life; everything is connected by the endless human capacity for love. You can feel it in the simple narration, saturated color, and whimsical cuts between city streets and wiggling sperm cells. Don’t get me started on that adorable sad old man and his address book.
6. The Prince of Egypt (1998)
YEAH I DID. From the first plaintive ancient wailings of a horn, to the rising choral plea of ten thousand slaves, PoE‘s first minutes astound with audacious artistry. “Deliver Us” pulls no punches and leaves you breathless with the power of animated storytelling, enhanced especially by Ofra Haza’s soaring vocal. Extra points for covering, like, hundreds of Torah pages in 7 minutes.
7. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Hesitated between the genius opening credits and the actual first scene. So take both. This is probably the best use of subtitles in the history of the visual medium and I have never gotten through them without chortling. Then of course, there’s the iconic discussion of tropical birds and their migratory patterns. “A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut.”
8. Blue Velvet (1986)
Whenever I talk about David Lynch I get those fangirl claw hands, because he’s a master at blending two of my favorite aesthetics, Americana and the abject. Suburbia, affluence, cultural conditioning, women bearing apple pies and men mowing lawns – he shows you how intoxicating our own artifice can be. And then suddenly…horrible death. The camera dives underneath the fresh-cut grass and assaults your eyes and ears with a mass of snakes. It’s all about the nasty, beautiful, sensual things that lie beneath.
It’s almost a ballet. You watch strange jagged forms falling through space as Michael Nyman’s score swells nobly…and eventually you realize you’re seeing hairs and skin. The building blocks of our bodies are so specific, so precious but so easily discarded. Plus, a cool easter egg – the letters of the genome sequence, A C T G, are specially highlighted in the credits.
10. The Shining (1980)
Goddamn it, Stanley. This is probably the least frightening part of the movie and it’s still terribly disquieting. Kubie’s camera swoops in and out of a beautiful but deserted mountainscape, following the slow path of a tiny car filled with tiny doomed people. It’s like National Geographic gone wrong. The off-putting bright blue titles move counter to our visual expectation (they drift to the top of the screen, too fast), and the shrieky violins frazzle your nerves from the get-go. Highway to hell.
11. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
And then there’s the most joyful opening ever, beginning with one iconic chord. My Beatles fandom notwithstanding, this is a perfectly paced two-and-a-half minutes of youth serum. The cacophany of a thousand young girls, four sweet faces and four black suits, slapstick visual gags (Paul in that phone booth gets me every time) and a madcap chase. Just yay.
12. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Christoph Waltz’s playful Nazi, Hans Landa, is the soul of Inglourious Basterds. This first scene gives you all the colors of this character, from his official “law and order” persona, to his childlike mischief, to his cold dead heart. The iconic final line, “Au revoir, Shoshanna!” is bone-chilling. Waltz hooks you into the entire film with this performance.
13. Monsters Inc (2001)
In my opinion, this is Pixar’s best film to date. It’s not only built on a fucking inspired idea, but it’s built soundly – the storytelling is solid from start to finish. I love this first scene, the “scare simulation” – the surprise of the robot child is just genius, and the entire monster world is set up for the benefit of the audience in a smooth, funny flow. I also had to include the opening titles themselves, because they are gorgeous and so stunningly animated. This was made in 2001! It’s boggling!
14. Dazed and Confused (1993)
I can never listen to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” without seeing that burnt orange 1970 Pontiac GTO rounding the parking lot. The short cuts of high school life in the ’70s are quite beautifully shot as we meet our cast, weird-looking and young and cool. Just hanging out. Just being. But it’s the car that sticks with me, turning in slow motion like some hazy mirage. It looks like a memory your dad probably had. So righteous.
15. Contact (1997)
This is how to kick off a film about humans, aliens, and the basic EVERYTHING of existence. There’s a great moment when you see this opening, when it clicks that the audio is moving backwards in time, and the sound starts to grow softer as our majestic planet withdraws into blackness. This is the detritus of all our lives – an invisible coccoon of words and music and lives. An epic beginning to one of the true great sci-fi epic films.