Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Duke Altum's Top 10 Movie Openings of All Time

A few weeks ago Mutt had an idea embedded into one of his posts that I thought would make for a fun little diversion here on the blog, and maybe even get a conversation going… the question he posed went something like this: what would you list as your most memorable movie opening scenes/sequences of all time??

Well like a lot of people I enjoy making and reading “top 10 lists” like this, so I thought why not, let’s answer the call for Mutt’s challenge… and of course, creating such a list never comes completely free of frustration and agonizing decision-making in the eleventh hour. However, I think I have come up a with a solid list that, if nothing else, is a good personal survey of films that have made a deep impact on me in some way and are worth celebrating for their creative vision and execution. There are so many movies that open in striking and interesting ways, but these are openings that I am fairly confident I will never forget. Some hearken back nostalgically to memorable movie-viewing experiences had as a child, some I’ve only seen recently… but all have left their mark upon an already scuffed-up brain!

Needless to say, this is not nor does it claim to be an exhaustive list surveying all of movie history… it’s a personal list. No doubt there are countless perfect opening scenes that deserve to be included on a list like this, but I can only talk about what I remember from what I’ve seen…

Some ground rules: for my list, I decided to cast a broad net. I chose not to limit myself to single opening scenes/shots or credit sequences. For me, it’s about the experience and the impression, not the exact length or sequence. So, it could be a single shot at or near the opening, or it could be a sequence of shots… and may be an entire opening chapter of a film, such as my first selection…

But without any further ado, here is my list (not in order), along with some honorable mentions that I had so much trouble not including that I had to get them in somehow… what would make the cut for you??


The Empire Strikes Back – Doesn’t get any more indelible and classic than this one, for me. I will never forget sitting in the darkened theater (with my brothers and old man), the screen going black, the camera zooming over the ice and the Imperial probe droid rising from the snow… the greatest opening to the greatest film in one of the greatest franchises of all time.

2001: A Space Odyssey – All of human history in one 15-20 minute opening sequence?? The mysterious black obelisk, the electronic drone, the murderous proto-humans, and of course, one of cinema’s most famous transitional shots (from flying bone to space ship)… it all adds up to one word: GENIUS.

Chariots of Fire – Everyone knows the music of course, but the transition from the funeral of Harold Abrahams to the naked feet running on the beach, as the voice-over wistfully recalls a time when they ran “with hope in their hearts, and wings on their heels” is, to me, the most exhilarating (and spiritually uplifting) opening scene in movie history.

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Without a doubt, this is one of the most exciting movie openings of all time – and can anyone think of an opening sequence that sets the tone of an entire franchise more effectively than this one?? Hardly anyone remembers now that the greedy dude who swiped the idol and then took a spike through the face was a young Alfred Molina!?!

Citizen Kane – This innovative and justly famous opening to what many still refer to as the greatest film of all time introduces us to a mystery that won’t be resolved until the very last shot of the movie… who or what is “Rosebud??” A child’s snow globe falling from a dying man’s hand… such a simple image, but it carries so much power and meaning.

8 ½ - The beginning of the movie has to be recognized as one of the greatest, and possibly THE greatest, dream sequence of all time… it’s impossible to be sitting stuck in traffic and not imagine oneself escaping from the car and floating into the ether… the influence of this scene, and this movie, on subsequent films is beyond all calculation.

Children of Men – A very recent one here, but the opening tracking shot and explosion that introduces Children of Men is one of the most realistic and jarring catastrophes I’ve ever seen on film – you feel like you’re watching it from a few buildings over, because, well, you are. Incredibly, the intensity and realism of this scene is matched by an ambush sequence in a moving car only a few scenes after this one, in the same film. Stunning and shattering (quite literally!) filmmaking by Alfonso Cuaron.

Once Upon a Time in the West – To date, this Sergio Leone classic is my all-time favorite Western, and the opening scene is a HUGE part of that… the mysterious, unnamed Man with a Harmonica steps off the train and confronts three killers sent to do him in. They have three horses with them and when he asks if there’s one for him, they say they’re one short. His response? “You brought two too many.” Half a second later, three men lay dead on the ground…

Blue Velvet – I love this opening because not only is it totally unforgettable and a perfect summation of the entire film in a few shots, but it could also serve as a visual synopsis of David Lynch’s entire career… beautiful happy suburbia gleams in the sun, a string-soaked lush 50’s ballad plays, a man waters his immaculate lawn in front of a white picket fence, and then… wait, what’s this? Man clutches chest and falls to the ground, in obvious agony? Camera descends below the surface and shows menacing bugs crawling through the dirt to the tune of a metallic drone… all is not exactly right in Shangri-la (nor in Lynch’s head)!!

Saving Private Ryan – The beach-storming scene at the beginning of this film is not only one of the most harrowing, realistic portrayals of combat I’ve ever seen, it actually made me completely re-think what actually happened on D-Day and the scope of the sacrifice that was made there by kids considerably younger than I was when I saw it… absolutely astonishing sequence. It made you feel like you were right there amidst the “storm of steel”…

Honorable mention:
Jaws, Terminator 2, Dawn of the Dead (both versions!), Jurassic Park, Magnolia, In the Name of the Father

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

This is a great list and reveals a lot of Duke's know-how on film. I was very impressed with the selections, particularly '8 1/2', 'Raiders', 'Once Upon a Time' and 'Children of Men' - all of these are outstanding choices for a list like this. I am inspired to try my own list - there will probably be several overlaps though! But I promise there will be enough differences to intrigue...