The opening of a film is arguably the most important part, yes? In just a few short minutes, it can be the aspect that keeps you watching, hooking you in, or it can be so awful that you turn the bitch off. The James Bond franchise has always been great about setting up the ridiculousness ahead with some incredible action scene to start off the film. From this, you know what to expect in the next 90-120 minutes. John Ford‘s iconic shot at the beginning of The Searchers sets the tone for the entire film in about 18 seconds. I’m sure plenty of folks would rank it amongst the best ever opening scenes. That it is bookended with one of the most iconic endings, doesn’t hurt its stature I’m sure. Conversely, when a film opens as shittily as, say, Joel Schumacher‘s Batman & Robin, you know you’re in for something really terrible. Have a look:
While I’m sure many thought having George Clooney‘s Batman-costumed ass start the film was a good idea, it ends up only conveying what many people already know – Joel Schumacher has no business making movies and that this movie is a giant turdball.
Here’s a list of my ten favorite film opening scenes. All but two hail from the last 26 years. I wish I could explain this, but these are the ones that have stuck with me over time.
10) The Way of the Gun (2000)
Now, I will admit that this is the most lowbrow of the entries on this list. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed as hard to start a movie than I did when I watched this the first time. I will also state that I am not a Ryan Phillippe fan. I think he is subpar when it comes to the job he gets paid to do – everything from his voice to his gestures annoy the shit out of me. However, this scene is perfect. That it is Sarah Silverman that is the obnoxious loudmouth is all the better. I had never heard of her when I saw this, but it all makes sense now. I will also say this film falls completely flat after this scene. That this film was written and directed by the same man wrote The Usual Suspects (Christopher McQuarrie) is perplexing. Talk about going from complete hit to total miss in one film. Nonetheless, this scene has forever been etched into my mind. I love that the Stones’ “Rip This Joint” is playing. Great fight music and a solid choice.
BTW – the laugh after Phillippe tells Silverman he’s going to “fuckstart her head” (whatever that means) is beyond priceless and may be the best part of the entire scene. Also, I do not condone punching women. Just want that to be stated.
9) Barfly (1987)
(watch the first 4:42)
I think it’s important to watch the title sequence as well as the opening scene. Director Barbet Schroeder was smart to include quick shots of lots of dive bars where main character Henry Chinaski, the alter ego of writer Charles Bukowski (played fabulously by a less worn Mickey Rourke), would possibly hang out, drinking his days and nights away. When we come upon Henry in a fight with bartender Eddie (Frank Stallone, Sylvester‘s brother), we automatically can see what we’re in for – an incorrigible drunk, a showboat, who has really hit bottom. Sit back and enjoy the booze-filled ride.
8) Melancholia (2011)
If you have seen much of director Lars Von Trier‘s work, you’ll know that he’s quite the provocateur. So it was no surprise when I saw Melancholia, that the opening sequence was stunning and memorable (its ending is just as stunning). This was very reminiscent of the opening of Don DeLillo‘s novel Players, and really resonated with me. While this sequence isn’t quite so on the nose as many in giving us information about what we are to see after, it does give us a heads up that what we are about to watch is depressing, brutal, confusing and overwhelming. I was fortunate enough to see this one on the big screen and it was gorgeous.
7) Gangs of New York (2002)
The precursor to the epic battle at the beginning of Gangs of New York, I love this scene. It’s the only time we see Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) who is referred to so many times in the film. Watching as the Irish immigrants prepare for war against the Nativists led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his most haunting roles) with “Shimmy She Wobble” playing over the scene is the perfect way to get the blood up for the battle, the fife and drum signalling the call to arms. Scorsese was very wise to open the film this way. You can see he channels the aforementioned opening scene from The Searchers when Monk (Brendan Gleeson) kicks the door open.
6) Magnolia (1999)
The prologue before this scene is just as good, but I can’t find a damn clip of it anywhere. This is a classic example of how to set up all of your characters in one scene. Paul Thomas Anderson‘s usage of Aimee Mann‘s cover of Three Dog Night’s “One Is the Loneliest Number” is a stroke of genius. As we find out, every character, even the beloved Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), is a miserable mess alone in the world even if they have plenty of people around them. As I’ve stated before, I believe Magnolia to be the best film of the first decade of the 2000s. This scene is one of the many reasons why I think so.
5) Rushmore (1998)
Rushmore is a top-ten favorite film of all-time for me. It is Wes Anderson‘s finest contribution to film (as I have stated here). It has the beauty of not only having a great opening but my favorite ending of any film I’ve ever seen. The opening of Rushmore adds to the delusional qualities of its main character Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), dreaming of how he wishes he was perceived, which is quite opposite from reality. Coupled with Mark Mothersbaugh‘s tinkly music, the opening sets the tone so well.
4) American Psycho (2000)
“I live in the America Gardens building on West 81st Street on the 11th floor. My name is Patrick Bateman. I’m 27 years old.” Delivered coolly and calmly, you might never know what this character is capable of if you were to turn off the film after he (Christian Bale in what I feel is his finest role) speaks these first two sentences. Of course that changes quickly as the monologue continues. This clip is so perfect in giving us an idea what a socio/psychopath he is, which is only confirmed by events later in the film. While mostly expository, this scene is essential for us to learn about Bateman. But in the end, is what he says and does real? Or is it all in his mind?
3) The Player (1992)
One of the more clever film openings, The Player was director Robert Altman‘s return to form after the critical and box office success he enjoyed in the 1970s dried up in the 1980s. From its opening line of “Action!”, we as viewers have to figure out what’s going on. Is what we are watching a film within a film? That Altman chose to shoot this scene in one continuous shot is all the more impressive. By doing this, he was able to establish the main characters in the film, their roles and what space they occupy. He also put us as the viewers in an even more voyeuristic point of view, a key notion in the film, as we look through windows from the outside or across a parking lot to see the inner-happenings of a movie studio lot, something which people want to see but few ever do. This is one of the most wicked films I’ve ever seen and a perfect representation of Hollywood as a kill-or-be-killed environment. This scene is also a reference to #1 on this list.
2) Slap Shot (1977)
Best. Movie. Ever. Great opening scene as Charlestown Chiefs’ goalie Denis Lemieux (Yvon Barrette) and announcer Jim Carr (Andrew Duncan) discuss the finer points of hockey. Lemieux is a good representation in this film is captured in this short 90 second clip. It also foreshadows the shift in the Chiefs’ strategy later in the film from old time hockey to the goonery that the Hanson Brothers bring with them from the Iron League. They go to the penalty box for their two minutes, but most of them do not feel shame. I can’t imagine this film opening any other way.
1) Touch of Evil (1958)
Without a doubt, this is the best opening to a film I’ve ever seen. Here Orson Welles shows why he is one of the finest filmmakers ever. The suspense it creates is unreal. Watching as Mike (Charlton Heston) and Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) pass and are passed by the car with the bomb in its trunk keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering when it will blow. Couple that with all of the other information you receive from the goings on around them, it is obviously put together by a master at the top of his game. Most will say that Touch of Evil was the death knell of film noir in its original incarnation. If that is the case, it’s one hell of a way to go out.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked some scenes that could easily make this list. Lists like these are always dynamic, changing on a whim or what you fancy on a particular day. These are mostly great examples of how opening your film with a memorable scene hooks viewers and begs them to sit through the rest of it. What’s more, it’s pretty obvious that music plays a pretty key role in most of these scenes. These scenes would play drastically different with no music or other choices. I have no doubt that what was chosen was carefully selected to match the intent or theme of the scene.
Damn. Movies are pretty fucking awesome.