The first scene of a film is an integral part of its storytelling. It establishes the tone, the setting or sometimes introduces the central characters. It gives the viewers motivation to keep watching. We all know that a bad ending can ruin a movie, but what about the openings?
Think about your favorite film of all time. Do you remember the exact moment it hooked you? Chances are if it’s your all time favorite, you’re a sucker for every minute of it. That’s what a great beginning does. It gets you in the mood and builds from there. It’s no coincidence that the films on this list are also generally considered good. The writers knew what they were doing when they started their ideas. By putting their pens to paper, they crafted that perfect moment that put a smile or your face or left you at a loss for words.
Not every great scene can be represented in our forty entries, but we’ve gathered the very best in hopes that if you haven’t seen them already, you’ll go out and watch them — and the stories that follow. They’re all truly worthy of the acclaim we’ve given them, even if the entire movie may not always exceed the quality of the intro. We’ve avoided including any scenes which weren’t the very first things shown on the screen. We’re sad to say, that means the Omaha Beach landing from Saving Private Ryan didn’t make the cut. Sorry everyone, but that’s actually the second scene of the movie.
So it’s with thanks to the directors, writers and everyone else involved that we take the time to truly appreciate those great starts to some of our favorite films. Without further hesitation, we present to you the 40 Greatest Opening Movie Scenes of All Time. Links to each scene are included in the entries. You’re welcome.
40. Dazed and Confused – Sweet Emotion
Sweeet emoootioon. Never has a song flowed so smoothly with the introduction of a motion picture. If there is a director who so perfectly encapsulated what it meant to be alive and a teenager during the 1970s, it’s Richard Linklater. This year, it was his ’80s themed picture Everybody Wants Some!! that set audiences ablaze, but back in 1993, Dazed and Confused made the Austin native the hottest man on the block. The story of the small town Texas high schoolers on the last day of class in May 1976 was a coming-of-age tale about hazing rituals and the passing of the torch between upperclassmen and incoming freshmen. It introduced us to the southern charm of Matthew McConaughey and showed us what it would be like if Ben Affleck was a dumb jock, but most importantly it resonated with people outside of any specific generation by capturing the essence of what it was like to be young and free. That moment of nostalgia, dating back to the age when you were still experimenting with sex and drugs, was captured with the first scene as we hear Aerosmith’s hit song begin to play.
In the first shot, an orange 1970 Pontiac GTO cruises in a circle around the parking lot of a high school as the song plays in the background. In the front seat, a young woman can be seen getting stoned, an indication that the film is true to its title. In the front of the school, the name is visibly revealed to be Lee High, home of the Fighting Rebels. The students can be seen walking in and out of the building with the longer hair of the era on full display. On a locker, the words “Seniors 1976” are spray painted in white, a noticeable sign that it’s the last day of school and the hazing is about to commence. As stoners are shown smoking on the side of the building, other teens are hanging out by their cars waiting for the first bell to ring. Meanwhile, the nerdier students are playing cards while one kid is shown in shop not wearing his protective goggles despite a sign telling him to do so. As the bell finally rings, the song fades away and everyone rushes to class. The time is 1:05 PM, and the day has only just gotten started.
39. Mad Max: Fury Road – A World of Fire and Blood
To call the post-apocalyptic wastelands of George Miller’s Mad Max franchise the place where road trip movies go to die would be an accurate description. In Miller’s vision of the future, water is a scarcity and human bodies can be used as blood banks. If you want to pay your dues, you go out in an epic, fiery collision and maybe you’ll get to meet your maker in Valhalla. It’s a world of ceaseless torment, plagued by depravity and constantly on the cusp of becoming extinct. Survival is the only way, so if you don’t want to be killed by a dictator like Immortan Joe, then you need to learn a thing or two about the world you’re living in. Fury Road gets right into the teeth-grinding grit of its two hour joy ride by showing everything you need to know.
Mad Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) introduces you to his world of chaos through narration before stepping on a lizard and eating it whole. This is a world of fire and blood, and the only means of staying awake is by being faster than everyone else. With the fanatical War Boys of Immortan Joe’s citadel fast approaching, the chase is on. Max hops into his car and drives off into the dry desert plain before crashing his car and eating the dirt. Chained to a wall, where he is subsequently surrounded and tattooed by his captures, he runs for his life while being haunted by the victims of his past. He jolts for the exit but finds only a cliff, hundreds of feet about the waste below. He is pulled back into the confines of his new prison, where his path will cross with Immortan Joe and his war leader Furiosa when the latter plots to steal the cult leader’s many wives.
38. There Will Be Blood – The Price of Oil
In the deserted mountains of New Mexico, a lone prospector frantically drudges over a pit mine hole from inside the bowels of the earth. Covered in grime and without a word spoken, he grinds away with a pickaxe as he hacks at the interior walls. He’s mining a potentially lucrative ore vein and from his hermit-like appearance, we know he hasn’t a dime to his name. All that will soon change though, and when it does, this man will rise from the earth renewed and with all the wealth he could ever want. His name is Daniel Plainview, and he’s about to become one of the most powerful oil tycoons the world has ever known.
Paul Thomas Anderson opens There Will Be Blood with a depiction of the risks it takes to earn power in the vanishing American frontier. In the nine minutes it takes him to set up his early 20th century story about the Southern California oil boom, we see a man’s desire to strike it rich. He’s put everything on the line. He dynamites a lode before falling from the tunnel ladder at the top of the hole in the ground and breaking his leg on the floor below. With little but the pedantic breathing and ominous score to illustrate the obscenity of one’s man obsession, we’re introduced to one of film’s most intense performances. Daniel Day-Lewis is at the top of his game from the beginning, and the resulting character study that comes afterward only cements his take on capitalist power as one of the best we’ve ever witnessed.
37. Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Migrating Coconuts
For years, the Monty Python sketch comedy group reigned supreme over the British comedy empire. The members of the group (John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Michael Palin) all impressed with their signature satire focused on the everyday absurdities of life. Their crème de la crème, however, was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a tale of King Arthur and his knights of the round table and their quest to find the often sought and highly coveted holy grail. The satire and quick-witted banter gets a head start before the movie even begins with a wacky credits sequence translated into Pidgin-English-Swedish before deviating into a story about a woman carving her initials into a moose with an interspace toothbrush. The titles’ translator is fired on the spot and the digression is looked over as the movie gets underway.
A horse’s gallop from the distance is recreated using the sounds of two coconuts banging together as Chapman enters the scene as King Arthur on an imaginary horse. The seemingly non-existent budget for the film provides ample reason to laugh, as neither Arthur nor his squire Patsy actually have a horse; thus, Patsy is left creating the noise as they arrive at a castle in hopes of adding members to their round table. Instead, they spot only an inquisitive guard, who immediately questions Patsy banging the coconuts together. He wonders where they would get a tropical fruit in England. The ceaseless, irrelevant banter makes for a dizzying open to a movie that only becomes more maddening as it goes on. Right off the bat, viewers are asked to give in to the madness and accept the aimlessness of it all. The result is among the best written comedy moments in film history.
36. Goodfellas – Noise in the Trunk
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
Those are the first words narrated by Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in the opening scene of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Driving down a back road at night, this wiseguy picture begins with little more than an image of a car’s tail lights. Everything seems innocuous enough until we get the first look at Liotta, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci in their clean-cut suits inside the car. They’re gangsters with a secret. As they sit in silence with the intentions of finishing off a job they have tucked away from the audience, a thump comes from the rear, and our suspicions about the nature of the characters are confirmed.
As the car pulls off to the side of the road, the noise from the trunk grows louder. Hill prepares to open the back of the car while his partners in crime hold a knife and gun. The trunk swings open and after a brief hesitation from the three criminals, a bloodied and gagged man on the hinges of death is shown lying down in a panic before being repeatedly stabbed and shot until death. With the situation now handled, Hill finally speaks as he begins narrating the story. As a moment beginning in media res, Scorsese wastes no time imposing the violent crimes of these three men onto the viewers. Lunging headfirst into the world of organized crime, Goodfellas proves to an unpredictable look at one man’s journey into the criminal underworld. Nothing shows how far that world goes more than a murder in the first few minutes of your movie.
35. The Player – Movie Pitches
Hollywood is a world all its own, overrun by treachery and paranoia. If ever there was a motivation for a suspense film, it’s the heart of where the industry lies. To become a bigwig studio executive, you’ve got to step on a few heads. That’s just how the game works. Unfortunately for Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), he’s angered too many people to walk away clean. It should be no surprise then that he received an anonymous postcard from a ticked off screenwriter looking to cut him down, but with the death threat now permanently on his mind, his paranoia proves to be the start of his breakdown. When Mill incorrectly identifies a disgruntled writer as the one sending the threats, a fight breaks out, and he finds himself murdering the man in a fearful rage. When the postcards continue to show up, Mill realizes the mistake he’s made and must now deal with the impending threat of the anonymous figure, whose knowledge of the accident now gives him leverage.
The opening tracking shot of The Player lasts nearly eight minutes without a cut before delving into Mill’s story. Director Robert Altman reportedly took fifteen takes before finally settling on the best version of the scene. As the sequence begins, an off-screen director shouts out for the film to begin. Over the next few minutes, the camera follows various characters as they appear on and off. A secretary runs an errand. Mill arrives at his office where he’s pestered by a screenwriter. Two men in formal dress talk about the deteriorating quality of motion pictures. A mail man is hit by a cart, dropping letters on the ground and giving us the first shot of the threatening postcard. All the while, the camera returns to view Mill, who is sitting in his office and listening to awful movie pitches from other writers. As the camera continues to circle the lot, the postcard arrives for Mill. He receives the threat just as he’s listening to another idea about a political thriller starring Bruce Willis. As the camera focuses in on the card, the true story begins, and the audience is informed for the first time on the subject of the film.
34. Rear Window – Welcome to the Neighborhood
We all know Alfred Hitchcock by his moniker “The Master of Suspense,” but with Rear Window, the odds were stacked against him to pull off another edge-of-your-seat thriller. What was the challenge? He would have to do it all from the comfort of one man’s home as he sat motionless and confined to a wheelchair for the majority of the picture. With the story revolving around a man’s voyeuristic pleasures as he spies on his neighbors and suspects one of them of being a murderer, the first scene would have to establish the setting that viewers would get to know for the rest of the movie. Hitchcock does exactly that as he unveils the peculiarities lurking just outside your window.
We open with a curtain raising as the camera cuts to the courtyard just outside L.B. Jeffries’ (James Stewart) home. Everything within the frame appears as it would in a stage play, all presented before the viewer, but nothing ever going beyond the space we see in front of us. Windows lie open for us to see inside as people go about their daily activities. We can see a cat walking up the alleyway, a woman changing in her bedroom, and pigeons on top of the roof. Nothing out of the ordinary seems to be occurring, but as we know, the mundanity is a front for a much larger mystery at play. Among the friendly faces of the area we will come to know from afar, there is one face who has committed an unfathomable crime. Is he really a killer, or have we spent too much time watching these people without knowing anything about them? Our questions all begin when we’re first welcomed to the neighborhood.
33. Saturday Night Fever – Stayin’ Alive
If we compare the characters of Saturday Night Fever to the movies of today, it could be hard to look past the disco camp to relate to the stagnant lives of the young Brooklynites stuck in menial jobs. The role that made a star of John Travolta was also a commentary on youth culture amid the phase of the dance craze featured in the story. And while Travolta was hot stuff on the dance floor, rocking the all white suit and hitting on any woman who passed by, it’s his character, Tony Manero, an Italian-American still living with his parents, that truly resonates with audiences. As he leaves all his ambitions behind with his moves, Tony meets another dancer, whom he asks to enter a local dance competition. It’s not until he begins thinking beyond Brooklyn and what it has to offer that he strikes up a relationship with his new partner and wonders what else could be in store for him.
All character analysis aside, Saturday Night Fever still remains one of the greatest dance flicks of all time, made even better by its ’70s disco soundtrack by the Bee Gees. Chief among their hits of the time was “Stayin’ Alive” and the opening scene features the song prominently. As Tony struts down the busy streets of New York, a pair of platform shoes in a shop window gets his attention. As the songs rings out the lyrics “I’m a woman’s man,” his eyes follow an attractive brunette down the sidewalk. He stops for a couple slices of pizza and carries a can of paint to the hardware shop where he works, revealing an angry customer lying in wait for him to arrive. The opening sets up the kitsch of the disco phenomenon while playing up the more comic elements of Travolta’s character. It’s a perfect example of music and film coming together to establish a mood, and whether the movie or the songs remain more memorable, the opening has always been a pleasurable start to an often misunderstood story.
32. Fight Club – A Gun Barrel Between Your Teeth
Do you know about Tyler Durden? Once you do, the context of this beginning changes. David Fincher is a sly director. He isn’t shy when it comes to cluing the audience in on everything they should know. Fight Club is Fincher’s second film on this list and perhaps his most memorable, but it’s not just the complete and satisfying ending that had people talking. It was everything from the editing to the smallest of hints that had people going back and rewatching to try to make sense of the movie’s big revelation at the end. But none of those hints were bigger than the opening credits, which take you into the mind of the central character, known only as The Narrator (Edward Norton). The synapses are firing on all cylinders as we literally travel from one electric signal to another in the protagonist’s brain, indicating that the mind is one of a focused individual with more going on than meets the eye. As audiences would later find out, nothing could be truer.
As the camera exits the mind of The Narrator, we find him confined to a chair, beaten and bruised, with the tip of a gun barrel in his mouth. As he describes the scene in detail, he makes mention that he can only speak in vowels with the barrel blocking his words. We learn that he is seated in an office high-rise with bombs ready to explode all over the city. The man with the gun is Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a known acquaintance and seemingly a friend to The Narrator. In this moment, Tyler has full control over the situation. People are always asking the man in the chair if he knows about Tyler and with how closely the two have become in this moment, we can guess that their story goes back a long time. Still, we can’t help wondering how their current predicament ever came to be. How did they end up in a building with bombs surrounding them? Where did their friendship go wrong? And exactly who is Tyler Durden?
31. Lord of War – Life of a Bullet
Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War may not be an immediate classic like some of the other films on this list, but its introduction will have viewers thinking about gun laws and questioning the effects of mass produced weapons across nations. The story of Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), an arms dealer who immigrated to the U.S., begins with the death of two assassins in a restaurant in Brighton Beach. From that point on, Yuri begins selling guns to the local gangsters of the neighborhood, eventually leading to a partnership with African dictator Andre Baptiste Sr. after the dissolution of the Soviet Union opens up new doors for his business. When Yuri is pursued by an Interpol agent, he begins thinking about the morality of his line of work and eventually realizes it takes only a single bullet to devastate the lives of many.
Yuri narrates his story in flashback as he stands in a sea of spent shell casings in a war torn region. As the destruction lies around him, he informs the viewers of the 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation, enough for one out of every twelve people on the planet. He then questions how to get guns into the hands of the other eleven as the scene transitions to a factory of an ammunition manufacturer while Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” plays overhead. We follow a single bullet as it is pressed and sculpted before being inspected and tossed into a box to be shipped out. It makes its way across the ocean on a freighter and into the hands of guerilla soldiers in Africa. The bullet is finally loaded into a gun where it is fired, killing a young boy in the process. It’s a shocking commentary on the horrors of war and gun violence in a movie centered on a professional who sells firearms. The gripping reality of the situation sheds light on the story, giving some much needed insight into the internal conflict Yuri struggles with by the film’s end.
30. Goldfinger – Drug Lab Explosion
For over five decades, James Bond has opened his movies in the thick of the action with all the suave demeanor only a man of his caliber could exhibit. It’s no coincidence then that at least one 007 flick would appear on this list. The only question was, “Which one?” The debate included the opening ski scene from The Spy Who Loved Me featuring Roger Moore, the 750 foot bungee jump from GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan and the train fight at the beginning of Daniel Craig’s Skyfall. In the end, we settled on the first Bond in perhaps the most iconic 007 film, Goldfinger. The opening perfectly encapsulates the Bond character, managing to fit everything you want to see from the top MI6 agent into just the first few minutes.
In the scene, James Bond, played here by Sean Connery, sneaks onto a dock in Latin America while wearing a wetsuit. He knocks out a guard watching over a large drug facility. He then opens a door where he proceeds to rig a timer and bomb to some nitroglycerin tanks. As he makes his way out the door into the night air, he takes off his wetsuit to reveal a perfectly dry and fashionable white tuxedo underneath. He walks into a nearby party and lights a cigarette, shortly before the drug lab explodes. He then leaves the room as everyone panics, traveling to a house where he visits a seductive woman in a bathtub for some unfinished business. As he catches the reflection of a man with a knife in the eyes of the mistress, he turns around a fights the assassin, throwing him in the tub where he’s electrocuted by a lamp. The scene precedes the opening credits and serves as a miniature adventure before jumping into the main story, showing once more that Bond is a man of many talents who is called upon to deliver in the most critical of situations. This is about as 007 as it gets, folks.
29. Patton – Speech to the Third Army
In 1944, General George S. Patton began rallying the troops of the United States Third Army to deliver speeches of motivation for the battles to come. Patton had taken command of the fighters shortly before the Allied invasion of France, and it was through his hard-nosed, vulgar way of communicating that he gained respect during his time in World War II. In the 1970 biopic which chronicles his life, we’re given the same image of Patton that we’ve read about in the history books. From his trials in the Tunisia campaign where he led the Battle of Kasserine Pass to the German operational failure at the Battle of the Bulge, we see the general as an exemplary wartime strategist. Lead actor George C. Scott encompasses the tactically attuned, politically inept folk hero with all the profanity necessary to pull off his arrogant persona. It’s a performance which gained Scott recognition across the board, but it was his patriotic address which got things into gear early on.
The actual speech to the United States Third Army wasn’t actually one speech, but several given over months,having been gradually built upon each time. The speech given in the opening scene is a condensed version of the real addresses, with much of the foul language cut from the film. In the first shot, a large vibrant American flag sits behind a stage. Patton walks up the stairs and into the center of the frame. He salutes the imaginary audience in attendance and speaks as if the viewers were soldiers. Before walking off stage, his words transition into a warm sentiment, expressing his pride in leading such brave men into battle. It is with these last few words that Patton begins, and the battle cry of a decorated career rings out.
28. Watchmen – A Comedian Died in New York
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s graphic novel is a postmodern illustration of superheroes depicted in a world where social injustices cannot be corrected by superhuman powers alone. In an alternate timeline where superheroes first came into being in the 1940s and 1960s, they aid in the U.S. victory of the Vietnam War; however, humans later learn to resent those who can hold power over them, and the masked good guys quickly fall out of favor. It isn’t until the death of the government-sanctioned hero, The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), that things go awry and many of the masked protagonists are thrust headfirst into an investigation of his murder. Along the way, the group of misunderstood heroes uncovers a plot that could mean their extinction. In order to stop the plan and prevent millions of innocent lives from being lost, they must solve the mystery of who murdered The Comedian.
The permeating pessimism of Watchmen gets an early start in Snyder’s opening sequence. An aged and noticeably withered Eddie Blake smokes a cigar in his bathrobe when a mysterious shadow figure kicks down the door of his New York penthouse. A battle of brawn ensues between The Comedian and his adversary, resulting in some meticulously choreographed fight moves that end in the apartment being demolished with every forceful blow — and Blake is left a bloodied shell of the man he once was. A single drop of blood runs from his chin and onto the smiley face pendant hanging on his robe, a symbol in close relationship with The Comedian’s persona. He is then tossed out of the window, where he free falls to his death below with his pendant following suit. It is his death which kicks off his former teammate Rorschach’s investigation into the evil plot of his killer. It’s a gritty way to start a story, but it shows that darkness is always lurking around the corner, even when you least expect it.
27. Manhattan – Chapter One…
There is no city in the world that has been commemorated more than New York. It goes by many names — The Big Apple, The City that Never Sleeps, Gotham — the list goes on, but for those who live there, it’s home. It’s a place where dreams can be made or broken. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Perhaps that why Frank Sinatra was so high on the place to sing its praises. For the same reasons, directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen continue to set their movies there. In Manhattan, Allen is so taken by the city that he named his film after its most popular borough. The story of a middle-aged screenwriter, played by Allen, takes center stage as he copes with his divorce from his second wife and the doomed relationship he has with an inexperienced high school girl. As he debates whether he’d be better for his best friend’s mistress, the city plays a supporting role to the comedic romanticism that ensues.
Manhattan opens predictably with the picturesque view of the New York skyline, but the opening montage that follows isn’t the typical b-roll you’d see in a rom-com. The shots are decadent displays of black and white cinematography first depicting the quiet architectural landscape before moving to the harried streets. Overhead can be heard the tune of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as Allen’s character narrates the scene with drafts from the introduction of his book about a man who loves the city. As he scrupulously chooses his words of idolization, he continually starts the first chapter over again. The problem is, he can’t seem to find a way to describe the adoration he has for all his town has to offer. The glitz and glamour, the cultural diversity and the desensitization that comes with living in NYC is too much to compress into a few sentences. Still, he settles for the best he can come up with as the montage continues to fill the screen. The opening caps off with a firework display as the audience celebrates the grandeur of the locale, and the story marks its beginning in the grandest city imaginable.
26. The Social Network – The Breakup
An unorthodox beginning set in a bar, Aaron Sorkin’s writing is in full swing in The Social Network. From the get-go, the banter between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) is quick on its feet. The viewers are forced to keep up with Zuckerberg’s rant as he talks at a record rate while juggling multiple thoughts a minute. He’s directing the attention toward himself as he worries about getting into a final club at Harvard. Every utterance out of his mouth is another distraction in a seemingly long-winded tangent, only to come back to his dilemma. He doesn’t think he will make it into a final club and it’s weighing heavily on his mind.
Rather than listening to Erica, the sole focus of the conversation is on all of Zuckerberg’s strengths and weaknesses. As the conversation continues, he retreats into his own self-absorbed infatuation with becoming an elite member of a final club and promises Erica she too will join his newfound status if he is accepted. Under the realization that he hasn’t acknowledged her opinion on the matter, Erica proceeds to break up with Mark, which he doesn’t take lying down. Shots are fired and he accuses her of sleeping with the door guy. Within five minutes we’ve already grown weary of Mark’s selfishness, and with close to two hours left in the story, the audience realizes just what kind of ride they’re in for.
25. Apocalypse Now – The End
The smell of napalm in the morning may not be as enticing to some as it is to Francis Ford Coppola, but in 1979, the director’s loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness introduced a darker side of a war gone mad. It was a long and troubled production that finally brought Apocalypse Now to the screen, and by the time the release came, the film felt like more of a myth than any sort of reality. Still, the perilous journey of Captain Benjamin Willard and his crew heading upriver to terminate the crazed Colonel Walter Kurtz is a look at the depravity of mankind during the Vietnam War. As Willard makes his way to neutral Cambodia to meet with Kurtz, who has become an idol among the locals, he meets unusual characters afflicted by the trials of battle. Among the chaotic happenings of the film are sinister acts of violence as lives and minds are lost to the outcome. A story so unrelenting deserves an equally hypnotic start, and that’s what viewers got when they sat down to watch this masterfully-crafted epic.
The movie opens to the befitting sound of Jim Morrison and The Doors as a forest is set ablaze with napalm and “The End” drowns out the noise. Helicopters ride over the ruins as the fires run wild. Images of Captain Willard lying in his room staring at a ceiling fan are superimposed over the burning trees. Willard narrates the scene, taking notice that he’s still in Saigon. The scene was shot while actor Martin Sheen was actually inebriated, giving it an authenticity that feels close to how a war-affected mind would project itself. The beginning is an hallucinatory trip that’s almost too unreal to be a true depiction of how a war could work, but as the movie progresses, so does the darkness of the story. We delve deeper into the heart of the war-torn regions, never able to come back once the journey has begun.
24. Children of Men – Cafe Explosion
The year is 2027. Amid the death of an 18 year old, the world is without any more children, and its youngest person is now gone. Fraught with the fear of their own extinction, the citizens of a dystopian London are divided by nationalistic sects. A former activist named Theo Faron (Clive Owen) finds himself called upon to find a solution to the infertility defect when a young woman suddenly becomes pregnant with the last known child on the planet. With a miracle child that anyone would risk it all to get their hands on, Theon is asked to protect the young woman and ensure her safety — and the birth of the baby.
A world in ruins would have anyone frantic and on the cusp of desperation, so Alfonso Cuarón was on the hunt for a seriously despondent tone to open up Children of Men. He succeeded by depicting a noisy, crowded cafe at the beginning of his sci-fi take on the future. As Theo pushes his way through the crowded shop and up to the front register, he takes notice of the television which has everyone distracted. News of the death of the youngest person alive, Diego Ricardo, has shocked the world after the teenage boy was found stabbed outside a bar for refusing to sign an autograph. Unpleasantness fills the faces of the shop as Theon makes his way make onto Fleet Street. Moments later, the cafe explodes in an act of terrorism, triggering a quick reaction from the protagonist and setting the scene for the survivalist story to come.
23. Boogie Nights – San Fernando Valley, 1977
In the 1970s, the entertainment industry stumbled upon a lucrative idea. It was the age of porn, and California became a hot spot for sexually explicit adult films. With the release of Deep Throat in 1972, filmmakers were looking to make sex an art form, and while it never reached the status of regular motion pictures, it did become a craze that would sweep the country. When Paul Thomas Anderson brought the story of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) to the screen, he told a story about fame and egotism, a story about how one man’s asset may him a star beyond his wildest dreams. He became Dirk Diggler, the world famous male pornstar, but as his name soon showed, complications came with a new adopted lifestyle.
The opening sequence of Boogie Nights sets the tone of seduction in the 1970s as we’re taken on a tour through a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley. The year is 1977, and the party is just getting started. The scene is filmed with a Steadicam as the entire thing takes place in one consecutive tracking movement. As pornographic film producer Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) rolls up to the Hot Traxx disco with his biggest star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), he’s greeted by the owner Maurice (Luis Guzmán). As they walk in, the dance floor is already on fire. The two take a seat at their usual table while Maurice talks to adult actors Reed (John C. Reilly) and Buck (Don Cheadle), already in full motion with their dance moves. The skate-wearing starlet Rollergirl (Heather Graham) makes her way through the crowd and talks briefly with Amanda before skating off. The camera finally focuses in on Eddie, a waiter for the club, as Horner takes notice of him bussing a table. The introduction fits many of the major cast members into one winding scene as we get to know them momentarily before moving on to Eddie’s story and diving into the life of a professional pornstar.
22. The Matrix – Trinity Escapes
Enter the matrix. That’s exactly what the Wachowski siblings did in 1999 when they started their trilogy off in style. The infamous computer hacker Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) can be heard having a conversation about an unknown man referred to only as “the one.” We hear the first mention of Morpheus’ name and just like that, we’re diving straight into the action. A squad of police officers kick down the door of the abandoned hotel where Trinity is staying. Still sitting in the pitch black room at her computer, she raises her hands in surrender — but nothing is as it seems. As she places her hands behind her head, her black leather suit and calm demeanor indicates she’s been here before. This threat will not pose a challenge, and it is in fact the police who should be worried.
The villainous Agent Smith drives onto the scene outside the building as he questions if they have Trinity is custody. The cops aren’t concerned with the situation, as they believe they can handle a woman on their own. Smith knows better. What ensues is a beat down of the officers as Trinity flees the room, running up walls, dodging shots and giving us our first look at “bullet time,” the slow motion effect the Wachowskis perfected to display the characters’ perceptions of time in critical situations. Trinity jumps across from the top of the hotel’s building, leaping from one roof to another, eventually answering a ringing phone and disappearing. The scene was a first look into the world The Matrix would create, only the viewers weren’t fully aware of what they had witnessed. It’s in retrospect that the scene became paramount, establishing the rules early on for what was real and what was all just an illusion.
21. Vertigo – Rooftop Chase
One man’s burdening obsession spirals out of control as a tale of reincarnation, a murder plot, and a fear of heights come together in a maddening conclusion that viewers still debate today. Among the finest films of Alfred Hitchcock’s illustrious career, Vertigo follows San Francisco detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) shortly after his retirement over the death of a fellow officer. When an old college friend reaches out for help in a case involving his wife, Scottie investigates. He’s surprised to find a woman who believes she’s being overcome by the spirit of her great-grandmother who committed suicide years earlier. As the plot unravels, Scottie falls for the seductive blonde and discovers the whole thing was an elaborate set-up so his former friend could murder his ex-wife. When Scottie later crosses paths again with the mysterious woman who tricked him, his obsession with the woman he thought he knew begins to consume him.
Hitchcock’s story about one man’s perception of his ideal woman takes the suspense genre to dizzying heights. The first scene ignites the story as Scottie can be seen leaping on top of roofs in pursuit of a criminal. As shots are fired with the backdrop of San Francisco visible from afar, the breathing of the men grows heavier. When Scottie unsuccessfully attempts to jump onto the roof of a neighboring house, he’s left hanging onto the gutter, where a fellow law enforcement officer returns to give him a hand. Instead, the man slips and falls between the space of the two buildings, succumbing to his injuries in the alleyway below. Scottie looks on in terror as his fears are realized, leading to his eventual retirement. His new fear of heights becomes yet another obstacle to overcome as he sets forth on his new investigation and obsession with the blonde woman of his dreams. What follows is a story of one man and his attraction to near death situations as his fears continue to manifest themselves in fetishistic ways.
20. Halloween – Michael’s First Kill
When it comes to setting up a famous horror movie icon, it’s best to avoid over analyzing where things went wrong. The less we know about the movie monster the better, lest you risk rationalizing the character’s insanity. With Michael Myers, there is no ink blot test that’s going to explain some deeper, psychological truth about what happened to the masked murderer. As Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) would put it, he’s evil incarnate, and nothing more can be said. So when John Carpenter’s Halloween opens with Michael murdering his older sister, it’s expected that audiences will search for context clues to rationalize everything. The genius is that there’s no concrete evidence that anything traumatic ever happened to him. Michael is just as confused about the occurrence as the viewers. We’re given a face to the crime, but the source of the evil remains without a true identity.
The continuous long take begins on a shot of the Myers house in suburban middle America before closing in on the porch where Michael spies on his sister and her boyfriend on the couch. As they make their way upstairs, the POV shot enters through the back door, where Michael grabs a kitchen knife and waits for his sister’s lover to leave. As the serial killer to be makes his way to the second floor, he grabs a clown mask from the ground that the boyfriend left behind. Putting it on his face, he walks into the room and stabs his sister to death in a shot reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Making his way back outside, his parents arrive home and his mask is removed, revealing the perplexed young murderer. In this moment, the boogeyman is given a face, and we’re left with the quiet knowledge that the worst is yet to come.
19. Trainspotting – Choose Life
When it comes to following life advice, it’s probably not the best idea to listen to a drug addict. Danny Boyle’s 1996 picture about one man trying to kick his heroin addiction among the lowly lives of Edinburgh opened up many people’s perceptions about the furthest reaches of drugs and their effects on the minds of those who’ve fallen victim. Trainspotting is most notable for its glamorization of drugs through the eyes of its characters. Through its use of hypnotic colors and pop music, each doping scene is depicted as the place you want to be if you’re part of the in-crowd of users. It’s characters like Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Tommy and Begbie who transfix audiences through their amoral cluelessness and habit-forming personalities, but remain inherently hard to relate to for viewers who have never struggled with the same situations. That’s why the opening monologue from Renton (Ewan McGregor) appears void of any rational form of thinking. It’s a scene spoken by a man consumed with something outside of himself, something he can’t control. He talks about choosing life, but as we find out, his life is nothing more than the drugs that continue to destroy him.
The monologue opens as Renton narrates the scene. He’s on the run from some officers for an unspecified crime. He talks of all the ways the normal person chooses their lives. Every one of Renton’s friends is shown playing soccer, showing off their aggressive natures and tendency to act out. Meanwhile, Renton can be seen in a ramshackle home with holes in the wall, falling flat on his back after a fix. He questions who would ever choose life over heroin. He then rationalizes his decisions before ending his lecture by insisting everyone who’s ever protested the use of drugs simply hasn’t used them. Boyle’s black comedy isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s depiction of the crumbling lives of users captures the look of drugs from the other side, proving in the first six minutes that Renton has to make sense of why he never chose life.
18. Sunset Boulevard – A Body in the Pool
The last voice you’d expect to hear would be from the body of a dead man as he recounts his story, but that’s how Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir began. The picture is told through flashback as a struggling screenwriter attempts and fails to pitch his latest effort to Paramount. Down on his luck and running out of options, Joe Gillis (William Holden) retreats to a broken down mansion to avoid repo men looking to take his car. What he finds instead is the aging, former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who has built a fortress of solitude in her dilapidated home and wrapped herself in delusions of grandeur in hopes of someday regaining her status as a highly sought-after actress. When she discovers that Joe is a writer, she hires him as a script doctor to rework a story she’s written for herself. As she continues to be swept up in the past, she falls for Joe and things come to a head when she finds he has feelings for someone else.
Three shots fired. That’s how Joe’s story ends before the police crowd the scene and Norma delivers her last line to the cameras of the reporters, but before the final result, we’re already aware of the outcome. The film opens on the titular street at five o’clock in the morning as the sun is rising. Police cars rush to the scene of the crime as the narrator informs the audience that the cars are headed to a mansion in the ten thousand block where a murder has been committed. As the officers arrive at the scene, we’re told the man is no one important, just a writer with a couple of B movies to his name. It isn’t until after he calls the man a “poor dope” and an underwater view of the floating body is shown that the narrator switches to the subjective use of “I” to describe the dead person. By casually directing the topic to himself, we’re introduced to Joe for the first time. He isn’t angered upon his reflection of the story, but looks to explain through remorse how it came to be. While the outcome remains unaltered, there is a general sense of calm about the ordeal as everything is accepted and one man’s death becomes another scandal in the City of Angels.
17. Guardians of the Galaxy – Peter Quill Says Goodbye
Marvel really knows how to make an impact and establish a tone in the first few minutes of a story, so you had to believe the studio would make an appearance somewhere on this list. We had our choice between films like Iron Man with it’s “Back in Black” convoy ambush scene or The Avengers where Loki steals the Tesseract, but we opted for one of Marvel’s lesser known properties for their best first scene. Sure, the story of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), better known as Star-Lord, and his rag-tag team of heroes may be well known now, but when this sci-fi adventure hit theaters in 2014, it was a huge surprise exactly how good it was.
An eclectic mix of the greatest sounds from the ’70s to fire up your Walkman isn’t the only thing Guardians of the Galaxy has going for it. James Gunn’s blockbuster can punch you right in the feels when it wants. And while we will all remember holding back tears during the “we are Groot” scene, the opening had our emotions all whacky as well. In 1988, the young Peter is asked into his mother’s hospital room, as she is dying of terminal cancer. Before her passing, she hands him a gift, which he can never bring himself to open. As she slips away, she asks Peter for his hand. Unable to accept the reality of the situation, he turns away in tears and runs off. As he runs out of the building, devastated by the loss, a large spacecraft abducts the crying boy. It’s a sad start to Star-Lord’s story, but a worthy beginning to one of Marvel’s best films.
16. A Clockwork Orange – Korova Milk Bar
This ultraviolent depiction of a dystopian future overrun by tainted youth and gang violence was controversial during its release for its perceived glorification of sexual assault and physical beatings. While Stanley Kubrick’s restructuring of Anthony Burgess’s novel has since grown an audience, the film remains as haunting as ever for scenes like the opening. The ominous notes of Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” are synthesized and introduce the audience to the teenage sociopath Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). In an extreme closeup, the now iconic image of Alex staring at the camera is a sinister peak into the demented mind of a rapist and sadist intent on inflicting pain on others.
With his signature eyeliner and long right eyelash, Alex already appears unusually otherworldly before ever speaking a word in A Clockwork Orange. As the camera zooms out, he’s seen sitting in the middle of his other droogs, all of which appear dazed in comparison to their focused leader. There are evil intentions whirling around in Alex’s head, and he’s preparing for a night of unspeakable, directionless acts. As the camera leaves the room, the place is revealed to be a bar serving milk to minors. As we learn through Alex’s narration, the milk is laced with drugs to sharpen the youths’ minds for their criminal activities. The space is decorated with eerily disturbing statues of naked women, all of which are posed in sexually explicit positions. As Alex ponders what to do next, we know whatever the plans happen to be, they will not bode well for whoever is on the receiving end.
15. Once Upon a Time in the West – Two Horses Too Many
If you’re watching a Sergio Leone western, you can be certain you’ll see some of the foulest, fastest and most accurate gunslingers the great frontier has ever had. As is standard in a Leone western, we are given at least one mystery man without a name. The man known only as Harmonica (Charles Bronson), named after the instrument he constantly plays, seeks out revenge for a past injustice done to his family by a rough and tumble hired gun named Frank (Henry Fonda). As Frank arrives in the town of Flagstone, he kills a local man to obtain the only piece of land containing water in the region. As a plot involving plans for a new railroad in the small town are unveiled, Harmonica and Frank both become mixed up with a bandit and a prostitute. While the film’s climax between Harmonica and Frank is shot with all the grit typically found in a Leone film, it’s the quiet opening showdown that numerous viewers reference when talking about Once Upon a Time in the West.
In the opening, three men sit in wait at a train station for the arrival of the man with no name. None of the men say a word. Nothing but the sounds of crickets and a wind turbine can be heard in the deserted, rustic town. The noises of the area grows increasingly more irksome to the three armed criminals, crafting the tension for their impending shootout with Harmonica. As the train finally makes its way to the platform, the men stand at attention with their fingers on the triggers of their pistols. They’re greeted by the sound of a lone harmonica played by the mystery man. After a long stare down, Harmonica asks whether the guys brought him a horse of his own with which they reply by saying they’re shy a horse. With a one-liner to end all one-liners, Harmonica tells them they in fact brought two too many before drawing his gun and killing them. Later in the film, it would be revealed that the three gunfighters were sent by Frank, further intensifying the hatred for the two lead characters and making the final showdown even more dramatic.
14. Reservoir Dogs – Mr. Pink Doesn’t Tip
Quentin Tarantino is a master of dialogue, a fact which is only further proven by the round table discussion which opens Reservoir Dogs. The first taste we get of the writing comes from Tarantino himself. Without any visual but the opening credits, his voiceover explains the reasoning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. As we finally get our first glimpse of the cast, the camera drifts around a table in a diner as the black-suited customers all chime in on the topic. As the conversation drifts along with each frame, the frivolities of each character are on display. It’s only when the talk turns to splitting up the waitress’s tip that one disinterested party stirs up the rest of the crew.
Everyone at the table is given a color-coded nickname to help conceal their identities from the other criminal partners eating breakfast. We learn that the man refusing to tip is known only as Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), a name which later makes for a humorous outburst when he expresses displeasure over his assigned color. The biggest reveal about the mystery man, however, is that he doesn’t tip. In his own words, tipping your waitress is considered necessary only because society makes it so. No matter the weekly earnings of the worker, she should have to earn that little extra. The scene does well to set up a discord between Mr. Pink and another member of the table, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel). It’s only in the violent conclusion of the film that we are able to decipher exactly how much distrust was present at the table all along, making this opening all the more worth revisiting.
13. Citizen Kane – Rosebud
It was the word that set off what has been called the greatest American motion picture of all time. Whether you agree with the general consensus from the critics or not, there’s no denying Orson Welles knew his way around a camera, and he proved that with Citizen Kane. The story of the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles) and his meteoric rise to fame through a life of scandal and ruthlessness was years ahead of its time. The film proved to be a look into the lingering effects of power and greed over individual freedom as the American dream fades from Kane’s sights and drifts into nothing more than a selfish passion that consumes him. But down deep inside of Kane lingered other thoughts that only he knew and those thoughts weren’t revealed until the film’s famous ending, an ending which couldn’t have happened without one of the most beautifully shot openings of all time.
The shot opens on a fence outside of the Xanadu estate where Kane lives. On the fence is a lone “no trespassing” sign signaling the resident’s single life inside the home. As the shot dissolves we get a glimpse of the house that’s clearly seen better days. A single light can be seen in the distance, a sign that Kane is still awake. When we finally enter the house, Kane is lying in bed, and a closeup of the snow globe in his hand signifies his strange attachment to the object. Kane whispers his famous last word as the globe rolls from his hand, crashing and shattering on the floor below. Through the reflection of the curved class on the globe we can see his motionless body on the bed as his nurse walks in and reacts to the scene. The opening is at times disorienting, but it is equally mesmerizing as snow is superimposed on the screen and washes viewers with a calm. As we wonder about the last words of the dying man, we’re assured the end of his life will not be the end of his story, and through flashbacks, we get a true sense of who Charles Foster Kane truly was.
12. Inglorious Basterds – Underneath the Floorboards
Of all the movie villains to pop up over the last several years, perhaps none of them are more memorable than Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Nicknamed The Jew Hunter, the Austrian SS Officer is the main antagonist of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Working for the Nazi Party to locate Jewish residents in Occupied France, Landa serves only his own interests. When he comes face to face with Allied officer Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his group of renegade soldiers, Landa begins to break away from his Nazi ideology to reveal his own egotistical nature. Fortunately, his own ambitions get in his way, and Aldo’s scalping party manages to deliver a sufficient punishment to fit the evil-doer’s crimes.
Inglorious Basterds begins on the property of Perrier LaPadite in the pastoral countryside of France. While Perrier, a known Jew supporter and sympathizer, is chopping fire wood, Landa rolls into the driveway. He’s seated at the dining table where he interrogates the homeowner about his known association with Jews from the area. While Perrier smokes on a pipe, the camera reveals a Jewish family hidden under the house. After promising no further harm will come to Perrier’s family if he chooses to cooperate, he points to the location of the family, allowing Landa’s men to execute them. One near-victim, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), manages to sneak out from underneath the house, where she runs away through a nearby field. Landa follows with a gun pointed to her back, intending to shoot. But rather than murdering Shosanna, he lets her go, only to meet her later in the film when she plots her revenge for the injustice done to her family. It’s a cold beginning to a tale that comes full circle and can only end in bloodshed.
11. The Godfather – I Believe in America
Often revered as a crowning achievement in storytelling, Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a family saga about respect and the heights of prosperity built upon a life of corruption. The revelation that is Marlon Brando’s performance as Vito Corleone has set a precedent for every actor who has followed. The story unravels as Vito’s youngest son returns from World War II and is immediately swept up in the family business. The depiction of the Italian-American mafia as a feudal organization ruled through crime has since come to be reflected in the media by such depictions as Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and David Chase’s The Sopranos, but it was the story of Michael (Al Pacino) and his family that kickstarted it all. Every story has a beginning, and The Godfather starts like no other, with the introduction to one of cinema’s most iconic characters.
The first words of the film echo the sentiments of the Corleone family as Amerigo Bonasera, an Italian-American undertaker, speaks of his belief in America before asking the shadowy figure of Vito to enact vengeance against the men who hurt his daughter. The Don of the Corleone family responds to Bonasera’s request by suggesting the man had never asked for his friendship, which he sees as a sign of disrespect. When the undertaker offers to become a friend of the Corleone family, Vito takes it on good faith that Bonasera can be trusted, and on the day of his daughter’s wedding, he strikes a new partnership. It’s a gratuitous offer and a calming demeanor that makes Vito such a remarkable character. Despite his wealth and powerful status over his guest, he asks only for loyalty from the man. He too believes in America, and because he has made a place for his family, he is willing to offer the same to anyone who chooses to befriend him. It’s his traditional values that stand out above his criminal actions, as he’s willing to do anything to protect those closest to him.
10. Jaws – Something in the Water
In 1975, Steven Spielberg took terror to a new level when he made everybody afraid to go in the water. He sparked the phenomenon that would become killer shark movies and created a blockbuster in the process, but the fear went beyond just the depths of the ocean. People grew suspicious of swimming pools or lakes, any nearby body of water that could have something lurking beneath. The fear was instilled by some simple underwater camera trickery and a reveal that Spielberg waited for the perfect moment to deliver. It all began with a teenage girl named Chrissie, who drunkenly decides to go skinny dipping. It would be Chrissie’s last swim, and for many of the people who watched the film in the summer of ‘75, it would be their last for a while too.
The brilliance of the first scene in Jaws is that we never actually see the shark. We know it’s there from the name of the film, the numerous posters advertising the creature and the POV shot of Chrissie’s legs wading in the water from underneath, but it isn’t shown. Instead, Chrissie is pulled down forcefully by the monster below. While her drunk male friend falls asleep on the beach, she cries out futilely for help. She makes it to a buoy and for a moment, serenity feels close enough to wash away the fear of the viewers, but the second is gone without much hesitation, and Chrissie is soon lost, never to be seen again. It’s a nightmare-inducing thought that you could be left by yourself without anyone to hear your screams. In the ocean, there’s nowhere to go, no shelter to be found. Jaws conjured those kinds of fears in its viewers and left them forever wondering what could happen the next time they visit the beach.
9. The Lion King – The Circle of Life
Shakespeare’s Hamlet as told through the eyes of a young lion, The Lion King came out during a peak phase in Disney’s creative period. At the time, films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin had already cemented their legacy among the studio’s other animated films, but Simba’s story still managed to stand chief among them as the most tragic. While cheerful moments managed to shine through the more teary-eyed, sentimental parts, we couldn’t help but become attached to the cub who had lost his father to his scheming uncle Scar. The Pride Lands were left without a role model to rule over the animals of the region and with Simba driven out, it was his destiny to return to his home to take his rightful place among the rest of the kingdom. Before Mufasa’s death, however, there was a time when peace washed over the African plains. Simba had only just been born, but already he presented a hopeful future, an heir that could take the place of his strong-willed father, and, much like the circle of life, he would come to move us all.
The opening scene of this timeless classic begins with a Noah’s Ark-like herd of animals as they each move toward a cliff in the distance. Simba has been born and will be presented to the public as the new prince of the Pride Lands. The renowned Zulu chant begins, introducing Mufasa’s arrival as he prepares the ritual to present his newborn son into the world. As Rafiki walks through the crowd, he climbs his way to the grand stage where he conducts the ceremony, raising Simba up to the spectators below. The lands cheer for their new heir and light casts down from the sky above. The spectacle is powerfully hypnotic as we learn of the baby lion and his family. Already, we find ourselves hoping for a happily ever after. Sadly, the results aren’t what we have in mind, but the beginning perfectly builds up the journey of heartbreak and the more upbeat resolution that follows.
8. Pulp Fiction – Diner Robbery
With the appearance of two other Tarantino films on this list, perhaps it was obvious that Pulp Fiction would crack our top ten. By far his most praised picture to date, this nonlinear narrative following the stories of mob contract killer Vincent Vega (John Travolta), his partner Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and a prizefighter named Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) comes together over the events of a single day. It’s the first scene, however, that grabs the audience’s attention before abruptly being put on pause to begin the three main characters’ stories. It isn’t until the end of the film that we get our resolution, but by then, we’ve learned enough about the other characters to know things might not end so well.
Tarantino kicks things off in his film with a prologue set in an L.A. diner during the middle of a robbery. A couple sit at their booth drinking coffee and talking about the risks of being a professional robber. As the man, referred to as Pumpkin (Tim Roth), believes he is a sensible human begin, he no longer wants to continue their ways of petty thievery. The woman, known as Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), doesn’t trust his words and believes he’ll never quit. The two have made their living by knocking off liquor stores, and both see a future where they’ll have to eventually kill someone someday if they continue the way they’re going. Instead, they talk about a safer way of robbing people, looking at the diner and the customers as potential targets. The two agree to the new plan and proceed to hold up the unsuspecting victims of the restaurant. In the movie’s final moments, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s sporadic plan would not pan out, as they would run into Vincent and Jules, but the scene sets up the final confrontation that only comes into being after the long winding roads from the film’s multitude of characters finally converge.
7. Touch of Evil – A Bomb in the Car
Nowadays, it’s common practice for the cinephile to accept Orson Welles among the elite when referring to movie directors who mastered their craft. Many of the techniques he innovated may seem like standard tricks of the trade today, but during his time, everything was still exploratory. Simple ideas such as using multiple narrators, distorting a character’s size with low camera angles or framing a shot in deep focus made a movie like Citizen Kane one of the most provocative pieces of storytelling of the 20th century. Of all the tantalizing shots Welles ever created, however, few have ever held a candle to the opening sequence in Touch of Evil. In the scene, we track a bomb, which only the audience knows exists, as it is placed in a car and driven across the American-Mexican border. The tension of the opening is intensified only by the viewers’ knowledge of the bomb and the sense of urgency that follows as the protagonists are continually threatened by the looming presence of the explosion.
The films opens in an unkempt small town along the border where a shadowy figure winds a clock mechanism. As the camera backs out of the close-up of the bomb, we see a overhead crane shot of the car as the bomb is placed in the trunk. A couple then enter the vehicle and proceed to customs. As the car is followed, the focus shifts to the two protagonists, Mike and Susan Vargas (played by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh). As we listen in to their conversation, we’re repeatedly interrupted by the ticking of the clock in the nearby car. With every stop the Vargas couple make along their path, the car seems to be right behind, always in sight with the threat of exploding. The couple are finally stopped by a customs official who holds them up while the car passes through. As the couple stop for a kiss, the vehicle blows up off-screen in the distance, narrowly missing the film’s leads. Every frame along the way starkly contrasts the wealthier appearance of the lead characters with the dilapidated town around them, juxtaposing the two in such a way as to comment on the social situations of two countries divided by nothing more than a line. Despite their differences, the shadowy dark light engulfs both sides of the border, making everything that will happen to the Vargas couple inescapable. Although they managed to avoid the car, this bit of film noir is not about to let them get away so easily.
6. Up – Carl and Ellie’s Story
Time and again, Pixar has broken the mood for what audiences have believed about animation. Cartoons are no longer just for children. They’ve transcended well beyond that by resonating with audiences in such a way as to stir up emotions we never knew we had. How could we ever feel so bad for characters that couldn’t really exist? When Up hit theaters, we knew better than to bet against another Pixar film, even if it was about a floating house and features a talking dog. We weren’t wrong, and quite possibly the saddest movie opening of all time proves that.
From the moment Carl and Ellie’s life together is shown, the 78 year old can do no wrong. He’s first shown as a quiet kid with a dream of adventure and aviation. When he meets the loud and talkative Ellie, she shares her idea of someday moving to Paradise Falls, but has no means of getting there. Carl promises to one day take her there, but in the more than sixty years that follow, the two are shown in a montage getting married and buying a house. Decades pass as begin saving for a move to their dream location, but can never raise enough money. Then one day, without any indication, Ellie falls ill and passes away. With no words, an entire love story flashes before our eyes. A couple who we’ve only just met already have our sympathies, and the real story hasn’t even begun. We’re left wanting more of the story and despite the greatness of the rest of the film, it never quite lives up to the adventure given to us at the start.
5. Scream – Do You Like Scary Movies?
If you’re a horror fan, then you know about the hardships of the genre. Quality isn’t something that always meets expectations, especially when the genre in question is prone to falling victim to certain movie tropes. When the car refuses to start or the dumb teen insists on walking toward the creepy noise coming from the basement, we can only continue to watch while internally releasing a collective sigh with the rest of the viewers who’ve had enough. It was a genuine surprise then that Wes Craven put together a movie that managed to reinvent viewer expectations in only a few short minutes. With a stellar cast of celebrities mixed with a few relatively unknown actors at the time, everyone figured they knew who would be offed by the time the credits started rolling. Instead, the opening scene introduced a new horror movie icon, and the most shocking death in a horror flick since Janet Leigh got hers in Psycho.
A plot that constantly refers to the conventions of the horror genre was exactly the kind of self-referential commentary Craven sought to present to his fans. He begins that commentary by first establishing unpredictability in the opening scene. Casey, a blonde teen played by Drew Barrymore, opens the film in her home as she talks to a friend over the phone. After hanging up, she gets a call from an unidentifiable voice she incorrectly suspects is a friend playing a prank. Instead, she is taunted by the voice, which repeatedly refers to his deep knowledge of horror movie culture. While keeping the tensions at an all time high, the killer insists he is inside the house. In a chase for her life, Casey makes a run for it, only to be fatally stabbed in her front yard while her parents arrive from a night out. It’s a gut-wrenching start to a franchise that would later fall victim to some of its own rules, but it killed a major Hollywood actress in an unprecedentedly gory fashion, which is still enough to keep us up at night to this day.
4. The Dark Knight – Bank Heist
Before we ever set eyes on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the tone of the movie is already set. Audiences are greeted with the Warner Bros logo and the blue tint that will engulf the film. We have entered an alternate version of the world we know. Gotham has come under a sinister influence, a shift away from the rustic brown color of Batman Begins. In the first few shots, a window is busted out of a high-rise building while the unsuspecting people on the streets below go on with their everyday lives. Meanwhile, among those people of the streets, a lone figure waits with a clown mask in hand to be picked up by a car. A plan is being set in motion. The city has become a part of clown country. We know the villain we’ve been waiting for is somewhere in the midst, pulling all the strings. His grand reveal will only solidify his legacy as Batman’s greatest rival, as he puts his knack for mind games on full display. The Joker has arrived, and he’s starting out with a bang.
A zip line down from the broken glass window to the adjacent building below gives the Joker’s clown-masked cronies a way into one of Gotham’s high security banks. As the masked figures talk of rumors surrounding the mysterious figure that concocted the idea for the robbery, they all make their way into the building with guns blazing. One by one, each masked criminal offs the other under the behest of their unseen boss. The Joker’s sidekicks make their way into the vault with a duffle bag, but as each member continues to shoot each other under the boss’s orders, only the masked Joker and one other criminal remain. Then, in an entrance that can only be described as darkly comic and perfectly timed, a school bus drives through the bank’s wall, instantly removing the last of the hired hands. In perhaps the best reveal in cinematic history, the Joker takes off his mask for the injured bank teller lying on the floor, revealing Heath Ledger’s green-haired psychopath in all his deranged glory. In an instant, the city of Gotham becomes a whole lot stranger.
3. Star Wars – A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…
If this list were based on icons alone, we would place Star Wars at the top. No opening scene has set up a greater world than George Lucas’ first intro into the sci-fi franchise. Apart from the now famous bright yellow text in the opening crawl, an intro which must have left audiences scratching their heads in 1977, we’re also treated to a first shot of a Rebel ship hurrying along with a an ominous and grandiose Star Destroyer following in hot pursuit. As the first spacecraft passes and disappears from sight relatively quickly, the Imperial ship lingers in the frame, an indicator of the looming fate that hangs over the Rebel Alliance. At this point, we haven’t even met a single character, and already we know the kind of danger lying in wait.
As John Williams’ score intensifies and shots continue between the two crafts, we enter the small Rebel ship and its all white interior. It’s here that we first see an unstable and pessimistic C-3PO trying to maintain his balance as he worries about his fate with R2-D2. Within seconds, Rebel soldiers line the hallway with their guns pointed to the door. In blasts the storm troopers, clearing the hall and leaving a smokey haze behind them. Movie history’s greatest heavy breathing villain walks behind as he inquires only about Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) whereabouts. In the moment of Darth Vader’s interrogation, the princess records a message onto R2-D2’s memory system before shipping the droid and his companion off to safety in an escape pod and setting in motion the entirety of the series. Not a moment is wasted in Lucas’ opening with meandering conversations. Every second establishes important character development for each person and gives the audiences clues about who will be a vital part of the story moving forward. We couldn’t ask for a better beginning, but it comes just shy of the very best.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark – Boulder Chase
When you’re the leading pioneer in archaeological findings and ancient civilizations, you open yourself up to a world of exploration and riches beyond your wildest dreams. What makes you a hero is keeping your ego in check, never letting the wealthy opportunities get to your head; always choosing wisdom over irrationally quick decisions. With all those chances to become rich are equal opportunities to die from booby traps and conniving backstabbers looking to cash in on your misfortunes. That’s exactly what Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) faces at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when he comes across a golden idol that several others seem to want just as badly as him.
Steven Spielberg opens his classic adventure film in South America and from the poisonous darts found along the path, it’s clear to see the indigenous people of the area aren’t welcoming to newcomers. When Indy’s tour guide/translator pulls a gun out on the hero, we get a first look at the face of our protagonist and his signature bullwhip skills. As he makes his way to a close-by cave with his remaining guide, he takes notice of some carefully placed traps triggered by stepping in the wrong place. Navigating his way through the deadly setup, he makes it safely to the idol, where he incorrectly measures a bag of sand to replace the statue’s weight. The removal of the idol sets off a series of dangers, most notably a giant boulder, which chases Indy through the cave and out the other end. Despite narrowly escaping, he still comes up shorthanded as his nemesis Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman), a known associate of the Nazi party, steals the fertility idol and takes credit for the work. Among action-packed openings, none can lay claim to the top spot more than Raiders of the Lost Ark, landing it firmly at number two on our list.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey – The Dawn of Man
The beginning of mankind. The first murder. The metaphor to end all metaphors. The year in the title may have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the events of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey never happened. Sure, none of us have turned into floating babies or faced off against the sentient HAL 9000, but the story has come to life in other ways. Machines dictate the lives of everyone around us. Murder consumes every major news outlet. We continue to make the same mistakes, doomed to repeat ourselves and be reborn under the same defects. Human beings have a natural predilection to create the very things that could result in our demise. Our very creation could be considered paradoxical according to Kubrick’s film. We find our reason for living but never grow to be fully appreciative. In the end, we seek out ways to live beyond a definition of a simple life, in turn, forgetting our humble beginnings and living second-hand through our own creations.
Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi epic begins with the most difficult of questions, “How did mankind come to be?” The answer isn’t the important part. Mankind is shown through the evolution of apes, not just by gradual development, but by unexplained intervention. Kubrick interprets our true creation, however, with the gift of understanding and reason. A blank monolith, symbolically representing any one person’s interpretation of how the human mind developed, appears at random to gift the apes with the ability to learn. It is through this ability, that they come to create the first tool for murder. Picking the bones from a decaying animal carcass, one ape repeatedly smashes the ground with the instrument before fighting and murdering one of his brethren. As the scene transitions into the future of space exploration by the human race, we witness a reiteration of mankind’s unwavering desire to falter by seeking out the monolith and looking for answers the world isn’t ready to comprehend. It is through our own intelligence that we find the wisdom in the world, but journey too far, and you risk ending everything you set out to build. The beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey goes far and beyond to answer what drives humankind to fail in all its successes, delving into issues we still don’t have the resources to answer. No other film has successfully duplicated it, and none likely ever will.
Did we miss your favorite cinematic opening? Disagree with our rankings? Let us know in the comments.