Skip page navigation

Film.com Staff

· website | e-mail | twitter

Film.com became sentient in 2006 ... and now it is very hungry for popcorn and Junior Mints.

The 50 Best Opening Scenes of All Time

marcello

Creating the right opening scene may not always be the most difficult part of making a movie, but it’s invariably the most perverse.  Every film ever made begins with the same sense of endless possibility, the infinite canvas of the universe at its disposal, and then — in a flash — limits it all to just. One. Thing.

In our current cinematic climate, opening scenes are more important than ever before. The theatrical experience has remained largely unchanged over the years, but since the advent of home video — be it Betamax or Blu-ray — most movies come with a built-in escape route. Whereas the dark confines of a theater inherently provides an immersive experience by blocking out the rest of the world, nowadays, most people have to actively deny the intrusions of the outside world in order to really get into a film — the onus is no longer on us to surrender ourselves to a movie so much as it is on the movie to actively keep everything else in our lives at bay.

Be that as it may, the mark of a great opening sequence is the same as it ever was: It has to grab you by the throat and insist that you don’t look away. So far as great beginnings are concerned, even the most seemingly benign examples are imbued with a certain violence, stealing you away down the rabbit hole with such force that you’re powerless to resist. The best opening scenes will seduce you into the world you see on screen, regardless of its kind or size. And so, inspired by the tone-setting orgy of adolescent hedonism with which  “Spring Breakers” explodes into life, Film.com presents our list of the 50 Best Opening Scenes ever made.

50.) “Snake Eyes” (Brian De Palma) 1998

Lest we kick things off on the wrong foot, let’s be clear that this isn’t a list of the greatest opening shots of all time (and if it were, “Snake Eyes” would sure rank a hell of a lot higher). Be that as it may, for Brian De Palma there may not be much of a difference. “Snake Eyes” isn’t a great movie. If you want to be a stickler for details, “Snake Eyes” isn’t really even a good movie, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t know how to get your attention. Kicking off with an absurdly complex 12.5-minute tracking shot that combines De Palma’s dual loves of seediness and nested images as it follows Nicolas Cage (at his sleaziest) as he works all the angles in the lead up to a title fight in Atlantic City. Leisure suits, lizard-men (Gary Sinise), snipers and intrigue … it’s such a delicious set-up, you’ll never believe the taste the film eventually leaves in your mouth. – David Ehrlich

49.) “The Lion King” (Rob Minkoff) 1994

The opening scene of “The Lion King” offers up the only African chant that’s immediately recognizable to most Americans this side of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album. The sun rises, the song continues, and all the animals herald a new dawn. This was the last golden era of Disney animation, and this opening scene goes a long way toward explaining why they held the pole position for decades, mixing beautiful animation with a profoundly positive worldview. – Laremy Legel

48.) “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Stanley Kubrick) 1968

The opening scene to “2001: A Space Odyssey” is probably the most recognizable movie music in the world. Stanley Kubrick clues you in to the type of film experience you’re about to have, full of weighty themes and incredible visuals. The amount of confidence in this type of opening is also incredible, you don’t tell an audience “Hey, watch this scene without any dialogue for two minutes” if you don’t have the utmost confidence that you’re going to deliver throughout. – LL

47. “Scream” (Wes Craven) 1996

“What’s your favorite scary movie?”

Ok, so in some ways this has been parodied and mocked to death, including (and especially) in its own sequels. Yet it’s persistent for a reason. Wes Craven’s self-aware sense of pitch-black humor is complimented only by his ability to engineer a freaky horror set piece, in this case one of the best of all time. – Daniel Walber

46.) “Reservoir Dogs” (Quentin Tarantino) 1992

“Excuse me for not being the world’s biggest Madonna fan.” Welcome to the pantheon, Mr. Tarantino. You know the scene. A bunch of gangsters sit around a diner table as the one with the biggest chin offers an alternative reading of a famous pop song. That’s it, really. I don’t even mean for this blurb to factor in the iconic slow-mo title shot that follows. And yeah, the pre-credit rap in “Pup Fiction” — also featuring Tim Roth — might be more exciting. But this right here is the portrait of an artist revealing the essence of his approach to the medium, taking an established iota of culture and making it his own, with such mania and tense sincerity that it feels like we’re, um, encountering it for the very first time. – DE

45.) “Daisies” (Věra Chytilová) 1966

Marie I and Marie II sit against a wall, bored out of their minds. And then a realization: “When everything is being spoiled, we’ll be spoiled too!” The scene is simply shot, with a single cinematic flourish in the girls’ creaking limbs – they’re like dolls, come to life to make mischief on a society that objectifies them. Then with a playful slap we’re off, led by director Vera Chytilova on an anarchic romp as hilarious as it is biting. – DW

44.) “Magnolia” (Paul Thomas Anderson) 1999

To be sure, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” is at times a strange film. Often brilliant, occasionally confounding, and always massively intense, the film starts with a voiceover that expertly sets the vibe. To wit:

“And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just ‘Something That Happened.’ This cannot be ‘One of Those Things… ‘ This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance. Ohhhh. These strange things happen all the time.”

Then you’re hit with Aimee Mann’s “One”. Magnifico. (The video below contains only the last third of the pre-credits sequence) – LL

43.) “Girl on the Bridge” (Patrice Leconte) 1999

And this is where you fall in love with Vanessa Paradis. Patrice Leconte’s woozily romantic and criminally under-seen fable kicks off with a beautiful woman named Adele testifying about her splintered love life in front of a faceless jury. An unseen interrogator insists that Adele detail her every sexual encounter, the gap-toothed girl lamenting how — for all of her lovers — she’s never found love. “Some people are born to be happy, but I get conned every day of my life.” Slowly, over the course of nearly eight minutes, her breezy c’est la vie attitude slowly blooms into wistful despair. She’s waiting for something. Waiting for what? Waiting for a man who will stab her in the front. – DE

42.) “Brazil” (Terry Gilliam) 1995

Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” can accurately be described as “bonkers” – but in the best possible way. Start your film off with an unexplained explosion and you’re likely to grab an audience’s attention. The introduction of two villains, terrorism and a totalitarian state, indicate we’re in for a topsy-turvy ride. We have nothing to hang on to, we are completely at Gilliam’s mercy, and his plan is to warp our world forevermore. He succeeds. – LL

41.) “Cabaret” (Bob Fosse) 1972

Joel Grey, in full MC make-up, has one of the most memorable faces in film history. In “Cabaret” he’s the personification of wryness, mockingly suggestive and gleefully profane. And he’s only the centerpiece of Bob Fosse’s expertly choreographed opening number. There’s plenty of actual dancing, the girls introducing the joyfully lewd and vaguely sinister spirit of the Kit Kat Club. Yet this is about more than just the nightlife of Berlin. The editing is equally deft, careful to keep us mindful of German daylight society lurking on the edges as young and naïve Brian arrives by train. Other movie musicals have used the theater as a crutch – this masterful opening sequence shows that Fosse knows exactly what he’s doing. Don’t take my word for it. Go ahead, ask Helga. – DW

40.) “Brief Encounter” (David Lean) 1945

At first glance, it doesn’t appear as though the opening scene of “Brief Encounter” amounts to all that much. Trains rush along platforms to the lingering notes of Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2″, but the film quickly turns to the mundane goings-on of the haunted station’s café. The barmaid flirts brusquely with a regular customer. A young couple in the back corner is interrupted by a gossip, an annoying acquaintance. The scene is almost meaningless the first time around. Yet after you’ve seen David Lean’s romantic classic once, the tears begin to well up from the establishing shot of the café’s interior. It’s a masterpiece of longing, tissues necessary. (Below, you can watch the entire film). – DW

39.) “Goodfellas” (Martin Scorsese) 1990

A film for which Martin Scorsese was robbed of Best Director glory, “Goodfellas” opens with a freeze frame and boozy music. We see Ray Liota, a voiceover, a crime syndicate’s methods portrayed as simple yet entirely effective. This type of opening is now commonplace, see “Blow,” but Ray Liota and Joe Pesci make this version special for the anti-heroes they set up with speed. – LL

38.) “The Social Network” (David Fincher) 2010

For all that David Fincher brought to the table, “The Social Network” is ultimately Aaron Sorkin’s movie more than anyone else’s. Even if you disagree with that, it’s hard to argue that this is his scene. Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg are both excellent in their delivery, of course – without their groundwork-laying performances in these few minutes the whole movie might have seemed unframed and somehow off. Yet what shines here is the structure of the dialog, the way Sorkin’s impulses weave through each other and into the inevitable break-up that will set Zuckerberg down the road of greatness, anxiety, and assholery. Also, that “Dating you is like dating a Stairmaster” line still stings. (The video below is only an excerpt of the scene in question). – DW

37.) “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” (Werner Herzog) 1972

Werner Herzog loves to self-mythologize, and he needs you to know that he’s not f**king around. “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” is arguably the best film of an oeuvre full of legitimate contenders, and its opening scene is a perfect summation of the ethos that guides his work. The tale of a doomed 16th century expedition for the storied city of El Dorado, “Aguirre” kicks off by foreshadowing its hero’s descent into madness with a literal descent of its own, as a parade of extras walk down the world’s most terrifying mountain path. Some of them are in palanquins, others in chains, but all of them are obviously there for real, forcing you to buy the stakes before you have a clue how much it’s ultimately going to cost. – DE

36.) “Sullivan’s Travels” (Preston Sturges) 1941

“Sullivan’s Travels” opens with the best fight on a moving train in the history of movies that don’t really have anything to do with fights on moving trains. Preston Sturgers offers us a diversion before anything else, choosing to begin with the final scene of a film by his fictional lead character. The title “The End” hits the screen before we even get to meet Joel McCrea, cleverly confusing us and setting up the frisky spirit of cinema’s greatest love letter to comedy and upended expectations. The first joke, a producer insisting that this high-minded art is made “with a little sex,” is pretty excellent, too. (The clip below unfortunately begins just after the movie within the movie ends). – DW

35.) “Children of Men” (Alfonso Cuarón) 2006

Science fiction requires immediate establishment, because it’s a world somewhat foreign to us. “Children of Men” provides a movie’s worth of context in the first 90 seconds. There are no more children, but Clive Owen has coffee and alcohol to drink, even as London in 2027 explodes all around. Gritty camerawork and one-shots are the calling cards of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men,” and they are immediately on display to great effect. – LL

34.) “Europa” (Lars von Trier) 1991

Movies are (too) often described as “hypnotic,” but Lars von Trier’s dazzling hyper-formalist freakout is one of the only films to ever legitimately earn the description, in that it begins by literally hypnotizing you. “You will now listen to my voice,” Max von Sydow commands over the monochrome image of a train slowly rolling into oblivion, and resistance is futile. One does not simply walk to “Europa,” you must be lulled into it. Before you know it, you’ve been seduced into a wild dream noir, primed to receive the hallucinatory images with which von Trier tells the story of an American railway worker who falls in love with the wrong femme in a bizarro US-occupied Germany.

Be there at ten, or you’ll miss the last train. – DE

33.) “Kiss Me Deadly” (Robert Aldrich) 1955

A woman, out of breath, needs help. Are we in a thriller? Are we in a romance? Neither and both, we’re deep into one of the most important genres, film-noir, and we can expect huge amounts of moody entertainment to follow. Then director Robert Aldrich hits us with it, all the way back in 1955 he was delivering a backward title sequence, at this point just showing off how far ahead of the field he was. – LL

32.) “Contempt” (Jean-Luc Godard) 1963

“Contempt” isn’t the only film in which the opening credits are narrated to the audience rather than presented as text, but Godard’s formalist drama of film, image, and infidelity is certainly the most aggressive (almost hostile) example. As Raoul Coutard’s camera twirls around and tilts down at us, the machinations of the cinema are draped over the entire experience like an dull desire that’s easier to name than it is to feel. I’d say more, but this sequence really speak for itself.

Note, the following video may not be safe for work if you work somewhere that is staunchly anti-butt. – DE

31.) “Apocalypse Now” (Francis Ford Coppola) 1979

A helicopter, yellow smoke, and the haunting voice of Jim Morrison, so begins “Apocalypse Now”. This was the end of American innocence, the end of the illusion that war was always noble, the fire and smoke of Coppola’s masterpiece washing away all hope of clarity. We see Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) eyes and his cigarette. The trees burn, choppers cross the screen in a dance of death, a revolver shares Willard’s bed. Isn’t it hard to tell what game is being played the children are insane? – LL

30.) “Mamma Roma” (Pier Paolo Pasolini) 1961

Very, very few actresses have the screen presence of Anna Magnani. And no one, with perhaps the exception of Roberto Rossellini, knew how to best capture her essence on film than Pier Paolo Pasolini. “Mamma Roma” begins at a wedding banquet, with the volcanic actress driving some pigs into the banquet hall with a broom, as a joke for the newlyweds and their assembled guests (a quintessentially Pasolini moment). Yet things really fire up when the toasting begins, sung rhyming couplets in an Italian tradition. Magnani absolutely owns the screen, belting and laughing with such spirit that we have no problem at all assigning her Mamma Roma the profane and spiritual motherhood of an entire nation. – DW

29.) “Melancholia” (Lars von Trier) 2011

Some movies have opening scenes, some movies have prologues. “Melancholia” has an overture, and not in the way that “Gone with the Wind” or “Dr. Zhivago” have overtures, the way a house might have a welcome mat. Lars von Trier took Wagner’s “Prelude to Tristan and Isolde” and — with an explicit nod to Andrei Tarkovsky — built it into a cinematic introduction to a film as bulky and audacious as any grand opera. The images become like ghosts or the memories of a bad dream, haunting the spectator as we watch Kirsten Dunst’s character unravel en route to a final apocalypse. (The video below is a look at the special effects that made the prologue sequence possible. Not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got). – DW

28.) “Seven Samurai” (Akira Kurosawa) 1954

You don’t need me to tell you that Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece is, um, an epic masterpiece, but for a movie that’s definitive edition clocks in at nearly four hours, “Seven Samurai” is a model of narrative economy. The film’s opening sequence isn’t particularly flashy; bandits ride up to the bluff overlooking a small village, ultimately deciding to return a few months later and get their pillage on. One of the villagers overhears the chatter, and we cut to a gaggle of peasants gathering in the center of town, asking “Why has God forsaken us?” to the heavens. In less than two minutes, Kurosawa has provided the foundation for the 206 minutes that follow. We hear the despair, but we remember the apathy. (Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a clip of the opening scene, but you’ve seen it, right? RIGHT?) – DE

27.) “Up” (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson) 2009

You can use the opening from “Up” as a litmus test. If you take a prospective friend or mate to see it, and they don’t cry, then they are a heartless monster. There is no middle ground to this argument! The scene is also critical because it sets up Carl as a sympathetic, and yet clearly wounded, main character. It’s amazing that the joy and sorrow of love was captured expertly within an animation, but that’s the genius of “Up” and its opening scene. – LL

26.) “Three Colors: Blue” (Krzysztof Kieślowski) 1993

“Three Colors: Blue” is about music, authorship and memory. Yet before all of that, it’s about loss (and the color blue, natch). This film full of orchestra flourishes begins in near silence, until that quiet is interrupted by the brutal car crash that suddenly destroys a family. Among the most beautifully photographed scenes on this (or any other) list, the opening of Kieslowski’s renowned trilogy is in some ways enigmatic – Juliette Binoche, the protagonist and star, does not even appear on screen. It is more about the tragedy itself, framed in the gorgeous and gloomy blues of early morning in the countryside. There’s music to it, even if it’s hard to hear. – DW

25.) “Lost in Translation” (Sofia Coppola) 2003

Yes, I’m talking about the shot of Scarlett Johansson’s ass. In fact, I’m only talking about the shot of Scarlett Johansson’s ass. The stationary shot with which Sofia Coppola begins her best film is so substantive and dense with information that it functions as an immensely effective opening sequence in and of itself. I don’t mean to sound lecherous or flippant — I certainly wasn’t trying to be when I wrote 2,000 words about the color of underwear that Johansson wears in the scene. You had my curiosity, Sofia Coppola, now you have my attention. – DE


Categories: Lists, Top 50

Tags: 8 1/2, Cabaret, Girl on the Bridge, Goodfellas, List, Lost in translation, Manhattan, Mario Bava, Opening Scenes, Scream, Sergio leone, Snake Eyes, Spring Breakers, The godfather, Top 50, Up, West Side Story, Woody allen