The first few minutes of a film are largely considered the most important. These days, the opening scene can mean the difference between an audience watching the film with their eyes and watching the film with their ears while they play on their phone. Throughout history, filmmakers have tried to perfect the opening sequence but it’s unlikely that anyone has done it yet. We have yet to see it, though the films on this list come pretty damn close. An opening scene needs to set the mood or the setting, giving the audience something to build on moving forward or look back to later on from the end. Some opening scenes blow us away right off the bat, whereas some simply layout the boundaries of the film, displaying the core themes and the environment that will frame the film to follow. A powerful opening scene is difficult to do well and almost impossible to do brilliantly, but all of the films of this list somehow managed the latter.
The best opening scenes play out like a mini movie. As short films, each of these openings would be some of the best we’ve ever seen. But they are not standalone shorts. They are each contained within great overall movies which make them even better, if that’s possible. We can talk about some of the notable omissions here, a sad fact which is bound to happen on any list. Citizen Kane is probably the most striking opening scene not noted within the list, but it was simply a numbers game. In an effort to spread the love around, we’ve had to ignore some greats. So many could not be included, Lord of the Rings, Children of Men, Vertigo, There Will Be Blood, Funny Games, Rear Window, and many more. But let’s not cry about what’s missing; let’s celebrate what we do have. Here are the 15 best opening sequences in film.
15. Star Wars: A New Hope
The opening scene to Star Wars: A New Hope still gives chills to movie fans. The blaring score, the opening scrawl setting the scene, and then the music shifts. Immediately we’re thrown into a space battle. We see a small ship being shot at. Suddenly overhead is the tip of a large ship, a ship that continues to stretch, dwarfing the vessel it’s chasing and then the entire screen. Special effects and sound quality aside, the chaotic action we start with is enough to captivate any audience. We get a little bit more information about the plot and the dramatic entrance of the stormtroopers and Darth Vader. It sets the stage for the entire trilogy and really is a masterpiece.
14. A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick is known for his unbelievable opening scenes, but A Clockwork Orange stands out as truly fantastic. It starts with bright colours and loud, thumping music, then we’re staring at Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell‘s) crazed semi-smile. He’s got one set of fake eyelashes on and his bowler hat. This image has since become one of the most iconic in cinematic history. It seems like it’s a photograph because of how still McDowell is, but then the camera pulls back slowly and he brings a glass of milk to his lips. We see his droogs beside him and each of them have some blood spatter on them. As the camera pulls out even further, we see that they’re in a milk bar, with tables and art in the shape of naked women. Anarchy sitting calmly amongst misogynistic art. Weird and that’s the point.
13. 8 ½
The opening sequence for the Federico Fellini’s monster of a film, 8 ½, is all about setting the mood and displaying the director’s knack for surrealism. It begins with a man in a car, trapped in gridlock traffic. The traffic seems to close in around him, suffocating him, at first figuratively and then literally as he starts to panic and struggles to breathe. Unable to open his car windows, the man claws and bangs at the glass, but the people in the surrounding cars simply look at him as disinterested zombielike shells. Next he’s out of the car and begins to float away. Then we’re on a beach and a man pulls in a rope, like a kite, and we see that he’s pulling in the floating man. This is significant to show the character’s passiveness and unable to control his surroundings; he’s being grounded. While he’s in a dream here, it’s also representative of his life. It sets the stage beautifully for the film and the material within, and we instantly know we’re in for a wild adventure.
Goodfellas starts off like any number of films, a car driving down the road, a place and a date: New York, 1970. In the car is Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. We hear some thumps, which the men wonder about. Is it a flat tire? No. They pull over to deal with it. Outside, the three men stand looking down at the closed trunk. De Niro has a bat, Pesci pulls out a massive knife and Liotta takes out the car keys. As he opens the trunk, we see a bloody man, still alive. Pesci stabs him numerous times and then De Niro shoots him a few times for good measure. Then we hear Liotta’s iconic line, “As far back as I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” This scene is perfect simplicity. We see an extreme lifestyle made mundane. Even though the confusion about the banging leaves the viewer in some suspense when they stand outside beside the trunk, the real beauty in the scene is that it juxtaposes the underbelly of the gangster life, the messiness, with the desire to be a gangster, a life we envision as glorious and lavish. This is what the movie is about—the pairing of these two worlds, the reality and the fantasy.
11. Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone is known for his extended shots and slow and deliberate camera pans, qualities he uses to perfection in the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone builds a great amount of tension by having three near-silent gunslingers enter a train station. They enter at different doorways, surrounding the sweet old train stationmaster who sweetly tries to sell them train tickets. The three men quietly intimidate the old man, guiding him into a closet in order to ambush their target, Charles Bronson. The scene uses silence and the sounds of the environment to populate it intermittently. Door creaks, a bird of some sort, cowboy boots, chalk writing on a blackboard, it all stands out against the silence of the three gunslingers. The use of camera pans and drawn-out shots sets the mood so effectively that you fear the men without ever really knowing why.
10. Saving Private Ryan
The film starts off with an old man walking through Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France, followed closely behind by his family. As he walks between the countless crosses, he is consumed with grief and drops to his knees. As he cries and the camera zooms in on his eyes, we hear waves crashing and the scene shifts to Omaha Beach, 1944. The white crosses have become black anti-landing barriers and ships are approaching the shore. One of the ships, containing our main cast, is about to land and the tension builds to an insane level. As they land, the doors open to absolute carnage. It’s blood, bullets, explosions, water and craziness. It’s such an extended scene that it becomes almost overwhelming for the viewer. It feels impossible and sensationalized, but we know deep down that it can never really show us what it was like and what it felt like for the actual soldiers.
Scream may not be on everyone’s list of greatest horror movies ever, but it definitely should. We open with a phone ringing and Drew Barrymore answers. She was already a star at this point, so we’re expecting she might stick around, then again, this is a horror movie. The call takes a weird turn when he insists on calling back every time Barrymore hangs up. The topic of conversation turns to scary movies, mini horror trivia, a treat for horror aficionados. They throw in a little Wes Craven joke and then the great line, “tell me your name… because I want to know who I’m looking at.” Right away, we’re reminded of the urban legend of the killer calling from inside the house. When Barrymore tries to hang up again, the caller turns to the temperamental Ghostface that we’ll come to love. The exchange and the struggle that follows, eventually ending in Barrymore’s death, is a perfect way to introduce the audience to this meta-horror film classic.
8. The Dark Knight
Even though there’s a growing trend of contrarianism toward The Dark Knight in recent years, it still remains one of the best, if not the best, comic book movies ever made. The opening scene stands out as one of the best sequences in the film and one of the best of all time because we get to witness an incredibly well-choreographed and fast-tracked heist, plus it sets up the Joker as the no-holds-barred trickster in a chaotic world where even the bank manager is a crazed mobster. The scene and the heist brilliantly advances by switching through the masked criminals as they perform their duties and decrease in number. The setup also situates Batman as the law and the Joker as the insane madman all in a matter of minutes. The sequence ends with the realization that the heist, which required several men to complete, ended with one, the Joker and his killer line, “I believe whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stranger.”
Jaws starts off with a camera traveling through the water, the credits role and a John Williams score builds up. Next is a campfire. A bunch of young people are drinking and laughing as two of them separate from the group. The young woman runs away along the beach, stripping down and running into the water. We hear the guy yelling to her and then she tells him to come in the water. She starts swimming way out into the water like a crazy person, but she’s treading water comfortably. Then comes the beautiful underwater shot, that incredible view of her swimming body from below, signalling that something lurks down below. The score turns a bit more ominous as suddenly something tugs her down a bit. A couple of quick tugs later and she’s pulled right under. The girl is then dragged around as she flails above the water, screaming for help, silenced only when she’s finally pulled under water for good.
The opening sequence of Up isn’t necessarily the greatest ever, but it is the most unexpected opening sequence ever. This is Disney/Pixar we’re talking about and this scene is crushingly sad. It walks the viewer through Carl and Ellie’s entire life, start to finish, ending with their unfinished dreams and Ellie’s death. The scene is a crash course with mortality and it’s terrifying. It’s also sweet and shows the viewer everything they need to know without using voiceovers or really any dialogue at all. If you only remember one thing about the entire movie, it will almost certainly be the opening sequence because it shocks you and demands your attention. Call it overrated all you want, but to dismiss it completely is to deny reality.
5. Touch of Evil
Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil begins with a man setting a ticking time bomb for three minutes. The score starts up with a ticking in the background and the man puts the bomb in a car. As two people jump in the car, the camera follows them, tracking over to the next street. Then the camera pulls back as the car manoeuvres through the busy street. Next we see a couple walking as the car passes them, allowing the camera to fixate on them instead. These are our stars. Still tracking, the camera continues now to follow both the car and the walking couple as they approach customs and the border. We hear the ticking still in the music and the woman in the car mentions a ticking sound, if only to remind us that this is the car with the bomb in it, in case you lost track. We end with an explosion and a perfectly executed three minutes.
4. Inglourious Basterds
Chapter one of Inglourious Basterds begins in Nazi occupied France in 1941. A man chops wood as a car drives toward them down the road. The man tells the women who come out to see what’s going on to go inside, so we know something bad is going to happen. The man calmly washes up and Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) walks up to the house and is invited in. The conversation that follows is full of tension and anxiety. Landa gets under your skin with his coolness. His questions are uncomfortably vague or pointed. We know that he is looking for something, we just don’t know what. The sequence is enough to make you sick. It builds slowly but you’re on the edge of your seat the entire time. The reveal at the end is welcomed with open arms, if only to release you from your trance.
John Carpenter‘s Halloween opens with a shot of a house. We realize quickly that were in the POV of a prowler outside lurking, looking in the windows at the couple inside. As they go upstairs, the prowler enters the house. The accompanying synth score lingers as the piano starts up. The prowler, obviously wearing a mask, grabs a knife from the kitchen and waits for the guy to leave the house before he goes upstairs. Naked woman brushing her hair, check. Before he starts stabbing her, she yells Michael. They’re familiar. Now we’ve seen POV killing before this film in Peeping Tom and Psycho, but this is still somewhat of a new phenomenon at this time. It immediately leaves us wondering who this madman is. Who is Michael? The killer leaves and walks outside as a car pulls up. The man who comes out of the car pulls off the mask. As he does, the camera immediately cuts to show us the killer, revealing him to be a young boy in a clown suit holding a bloody knife. This is Halloween.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
Yes, this is the third Spielberg film on the list, but how do you keep any of these three off? Spielberg just deserves to be recognized as the director who constantly gives us amazing opening sequences. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we open in South America. A group of men walk down a path through the forest. Up walks Indiana Jones, we know he’s a badass right away because he’s not scared. He almost gets assassinated but knocks the assailant’s gun out of his hand with his whip. They approach the temple entrance. Indy enters. He smartly and carefully avoids the booby traps and steps up to the golden idol. He takes it and replaces it with a bag of sand. Everything is good, right? Wrong. Things just got real. A big ol’ boulder comes down and Indy starts to run, leading into one of the most recognizable chase scenes in cinematic history. All within the first few minutes.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
They call the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, “The Dawn of Man.” It begins with Richard Strauss’ tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” and opens on a bunch of man-apes doing ape things. They bicker and fight over territory; they are set up as animals, predatory and primitive. After a quick nap, a tone starts to build, like a buzzing of many voices. The apes begin to go crazy and it’s revealed that a large black monolith has appeared in their territory. They approach it slowly and hesitantly. The scene is stretched out. The closer and more comfortable the apes get to the monolith, the louder the music. It’s beautiful and poignant and it starts the journey of humankind about as perfectly as you could ever ask for.