The 15 Best-Ever Movie Opening Scenes

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.

9. Gattaca(1997)

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.

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Labor Day Watchlist! Forgotten Comedies for Lazy Days

I just found out that not only can you not wear white after Labor Day…you also cannot wear seersucker. SEERSUCKER. I mean, what kind of country is this?? Who are you to tell me I can’t let the September leaves fall upon a perfectly tailored, pastel suit that’s delightfully textured to the touch?

Labor Day can be a tough weekend because it supposedly symbolizes the end of sweet summer. Some people have “plans,” but most of us just want to lounge around for an extra day and watch movies. I’m here to help you make the most of the last lazy weekend. Time to take on the fun project of expanding your comedy horizons.

Here’s a list of my favorite funny films you may not have seen or heard of. Take a gamble!

On the record, I do not advocate illegal downloading. Off the record…I dunno. It’s yo thang, do what ya wanna do.

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Scotland, P.A.
2002

Nutshell: Macbeth, set in a 1970s diner, with a darkly comedic tone and a scorching-cool Bad Company soundtrack.
Why it’s a treat: The three fates are played by stoners who hang out on a Ferris wheel (including Andy Dick!). James LeGros (who would later play a chunky creepy dad on Girls) is a sensitive and tasty Macbeth. King Duncan is murdered by hot french fry oil (SPOILER!) Also, Christopher Walken.

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Empire Records
1995

Nutshell: A bunch of high school seniors sort out their emotions, love lives, and indie-rock persuasions over one summer day in their place of work, a hip but failing record store.
Why it’s a treat: It’s an alternative spin on teenage movie fun at its finest. Liv Taylor is simply SMOKIN’ as a Harvard-bound girl next door, and Renee Zellweger is a punky slut who sings a riot-grrl musical number titled “Sugar High.” It’s so endearingly 90s. There are also pot brownies and a hilarious subplot involving a British pop star.

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Girls Will Be Girls
2003

Nutshell: A searingly inappropriate spoof of All About Eve, with every female part (including the extras) played by drag queens. Need I say more.
Why it’s a treat: First, re-read the above. If you can handle abortion humor and general line-crossing, take the plunge. The script is a work of dry, bitchy genius. “My mother always said, ‘Feelings are like treasures, so bury them.'”

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It Happened One Night
1934

Nutshell: Prissy heiress runs away from home and is abetted by a dashing reporter. He starts out just looking for a scoop, but they end up falling in love. D’AWWWWW.
Why it’s a treat: You’d never know this film was made in the ’30s. It’s a clever and fast-paced script, and the chemistry between Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable is both adorable and comedically electric. An absolute classic. If you love a good rom-com, watch this movie; it defined the genre.

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Stripes
1981

Nutshell: After he loses his job, girlfriend, and apartment, a depressed city schlub convinces his best friend to join the army with him. Their penchant for sarcasm and hijinks get them both way in over their heads in matters of national security.
Why it’s a treat: I firmly defend this movie as the funniest thing Bill Murray has ever made. He is NOTE-PERFECT here, all skeptical eyes and deadpan mumbles. Also, Harold Ramis is a national treasure, one of the most gifted comedic writers and directors you’ve never heard of, and this film proves that he is a flawless foil. The basic training dance routine is timeless gold. Watch for John Candy and Judge Reinhold, too!

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Bullets Over Broadway
1994

Nutshell: An arrogant young playwright, forced to cast a mobster’s girlfriend in his new play, discovers to his chagrin that the mobster has better ideas than his own. He struggles with theater politics while trying to pass off the plagiarized work.
Why it’s a treat: One of Woody Allen’s forgotten gems. It’s such a unique and rich concept, mined to perfection by a stellar cast: John Cusack! Dianne Wiest! Chazz Palmintieri! Jennifer Tilly! The list goes on. It’s lightning-fast, a heady mix of highbrow and lowbrow jokes, with some of the most committed physical comedy I’ve ever seen. A period film that never, ever gets old, with so many innuendos it’s almost impossible to watch once.

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Let me know if you explore any of these obscure delights! And if you have some of your own, let me know. Always willing to take some chances. Especially when it’s mimosa-o-clock for 3 days straight. Happy long weekend, everyone!

Throwing 50 Shades

Lately I’ve been thinking that I really should read Fifty Shades of Grey. WAIT. DON’T GO. It’s not because I have any great love for syrupy sexist fanfiction (because I don’t [I do]). It’s just that I really don’t want to miss the boat. The film’s cast is going to be announced at this year’s Comic-Con, and hysteria is going to ensue, and when that movie comes out I need to be part of the zeitgeist. Zeitgeist FOMO is worse than any other FOMO. When 50 Shades shade is being thrown on my newsfeed, I need to be able to holla like a schola, or else what am I worth on the internet, really?

But it’s hard because I know it’s shit and I’m going to get angry about genders. I like to get my id tickled, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer it when the tickling says something powerful about sex and relationships, something that leaves me with a “take charge” glow rather than the terrible guilt that comes with complacency. What I mean is, it’s alright if a female character feels weakness, or submits to a male. That’s what I and many of my peers were raised to believe is normal. I don’t mind if those roles (however insane and unfair) are acknowledged and performed. But it’s not alright if that subordination is connected neatly and squarely with desire. Like, it’s sexy because it’s an extreme form of the status quo. Fanfic Girl loves to be tortured and dominated and silenced because it’s the only way to please Christian Grey, who is sewwwww manly and complex. So lazy, so boldly condescending. I mean, did you read it? Am I wrong? I don’t know if I’m pissed because it’s offensive to my vagina, or pissed because my vagina is so fucking bored.

I watched Secretary a few days ago. In many ways, it’s everything 50 Shades could have been, should have been, and by virtue of its popularity, will never be. It centers on a very complicated relationship between a lawyer (James Spader) and his secretary (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who eventually create an S&M dynamic that teaches them both more about human connection than any of their “normal” relationships. Coincidentally, Spader’s character is also named “Mr. Grey.” But he’s not just a thinly drawn fantasy; he’s a person of many contradictions, struggling to just be a man. And Gyllenhaal just wants to be a girl. Neither of them can get it quite right, and the film kinda implies that none of us can, because “normal” is dull and counter-intuitive.

This here is a dominant/submissive situation that is pointedly feminist; both characters find power in their own non-gendered weirdness. Spader is anguished in his own skin, ashamed by the fact that he craves control and inflicting pain. He actually seems to blame his penis for his propensity for sexual dominance, and as a result, he withdraws into himself and plays the soft-spoken gentleman. He doesn’t know how to love and be sexual at the same time, because the line is too tricky to walk and the rejection hurts so bad. When his lovers see what turns him on, they not only dump him, they imply that he’s sick and irreparable.

And Gyllenhaal is another ball of contradictions and neuroses. She’s painfully shy, sensitive, wishes for only simple pleasures and comforting routine. She cuts herself because the pain is an outlet, one of the only things that make her feel alive and engaged with the earth. She needs praise. She needs to feel safe. When she and Spader begin to build a trust, each of them sees that their strange needs (both emotional and sexual) can finally be met. And the fact that such happiness and synchronicity can exist OUTSIDE the realm of the normal scares the shit out of both of them. They take a long time to fall into their routine, not because it feels wrong, but because it feels too right.

Most people have seen the famous scene where Spader loses himself in the utter joy of spankery as Gyllenhaal sweetly shouts, “I’m your SECRETARY!” I do love when they finally reach an understanding; it’s nice to see the devotion and strength she cultivates even with a ball-gag in her mouth. And Spader gets so cute as his defenses fall. But this scene is one of the best, I think; it’s one of their first meetings and says volumes about how such a relationship can begin.

Check Spader out around the 1-minute mark. I love the way he observes that Gyllenhaal is “closed tight. A wall.” He starts out the conversation weary and cold because he’s used to keeping his bizarre brand of masculinity a secret. He’s tired of restraining himself, and this girl seems like an innocent rube who’s going to quit in her first week. But Gyllenhaal has secrets. Secrets of her own. She’s hesitant but curious. She hates herself almost as much as he hates himself. Who the fuck is this girl, and can I save her? That’s what Spader is thinking. And maybe he’s never felt that kind of spontaneous affection before for a normal girl. She’s a woman with sexual needs so specific and aberrant that maybe she could be the one.

Both of their performances are masterful. Gyllenhaal plays the perfect mixture of shy and straightforward, and her sexual evolution in this movie is a delight to watch. Spader is so alluring, so awkward and so wounded. This scene is great because you can watch his breath catch as he realizes how helpless this girl makes him feel. That push-and-pull of power and weakness between them makes for one of the most insightful heterosexual romances you’ll ever ever watch unfold.

So I’m going to read 50 Shades, but just know I’m going to hate every minute of it. Having experienced a story like Secretary, how can I dumb myself down again and go back to feeling such manufactured normalized pleasure? I dunno, you tell me. Did you get through 50 Shades? Does it have merits that I’ve missed in my scathing pre-judgment? Is it even possible to reach feminist conclusions in a work of fiction that fetishizes female submissiveness? Comments please.