Friday, June 20, 2008

Mutt's Top Ten Movie Openings

Note: If you're seeing before seeing Duke Altum's post preceding this one, GO BACK AND READ DUKE'S FIRST.

Inspired by Duke Altum's outstanding list, below are my all-time movie openings. I had fun assembling this list - note several differences with Duke's!!

Raiders of the Lost Ark. Dir. Steven Spielberg. To agree with Duke’s excellent observation, this opening sequence is not only one of the most exciting introductory set pieces in cinema history, and a brilliant evocation of the old-time Saturday morning matinee pictures from before my time, but it is also the perfect tone-setter for the entire remainder of the Indiana Jones films. This iconic opener is fun and exciting every single time you see it.

Chariots of Fire. Dir. Hugh Hudson. The moving eulogy speech in the beginning of the film dissolving into the youthful feet running bare through the surf with the overlap of Vangelis’ memorable score is absolutely unforgettable and justly famous around the world. Even better is that the film delivers on the promise of this opening all the way through which you can’t say for every film on this list.

8½. Dir. Federico Fellini. Again to borrow from Duke’s list. A man sits in the middle of a horrific traffic jam. He’s literally suffocating in the claustrophobic space of his own boxy metal car. Suddenly he rises straight up out of the vehicle, floating on the air, and floats forward over the top of all the hapless cretins stuck in their vehicles into the blazing sunlight. The surrealistic beauty and the extraordinary realism of this amazing scene makes this opening to a truly unique and memorable film a classic.

The Boxer. Dir. Jim Sheridan. This may be where my list diverges from everyone else’s, but since it is my list, this happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies, and the opening is also one of my all-time favorites (obviously). A black screen opens the film, over which we hear audio snippets of famous politicians giving speeches after brokering a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. “The sun is shining,” says former President Bill Clinton, “and I hope it’s an omen for peace in Northern Ireland.” There is a crescendo of soft, somber strings, the title of the film appears, and an ominous bell rings. Cut immediately to a striking shot from a distance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Danny Flynn, who is seen shadow-boxing through the iron fence of a prison yard. The backdrop is stark and the technical brilliance of Day-Lewis’ acting is immediately obvious, but what makes it is Gavin Friday’s haunting, pulsing drum track-and-ringing bell music. It is eerily modern and portentious. Day-Lewis is brought in to the prison to be released for good, and his outprocessing is intercut with the striking visual images of a bride in white entering the prison to marry an Irish political prisoner. The historical context of the film is established along with Danny Flynn’s sober, scarred grit, in one beautifully executed opening.

Dreams. Dir. Akira Kurosawa. This entire film is so memorable in so many different ways. Just the fact that it is a kind of film version of a book of short stories is incredible in itself. It is a series of unrelated sequences based on the great Japanese director’s actual dreams. I love many of the different segments, but the opening ‘dream’, called “Sunshine Through the Rain”, is a cinematic experience I will never forget. In the beginning of the short segment, a boy wanders into the woods and spies on a wedding procession of “foxes”, mythically-costumed people whose powers are unexplained, but who have forbid “humans” to observe their ceremonies. The scene where the little boy watches their procession coming through a veil of white mist in a glittering forest after a rainstorm is one of the most beautifully crafted – and yet suspenseful – film sequences I have ever seen.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Another of my personal favorites, this film is famous for being visually stunning all the way through. There are many very memorable aspects of this cult science-fiction classic, from the dark color palette to the bombed-out atmosphere of post-nuclear fallout to the dated but effective score from Vangelis, but for me it’s the first moment in which these all come together – the very first shot of the film – in which the camera cruises in behind flashing spacecraft over a traumatized version of futuristic Los Angeles, with fireballs blazing into the air, that really establishes the entire film’s tone. Then the camera zooms through the window of an Orwellian police building, where the opening ‘interrogation’ scene takes place, as a hopelessly out-matched detective tries to determine if the man across from him is human or ‘replicant’…..

Saving Private Ryan. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Duke is right. The opening sequence of this World War II film, which brilliantly depicts the terrifying “fog of war” experienced by the American soldiers who invaded Normandy beach on D-Day in 1994, is shocking and unforgettable. The incredible achievement of this set piece is that I had heard about this day, this invasion all of my life, and had never thought about it ever in the way I did after I saw this film. It is horrible to watch, shatteringly realistic, and technically flawless. It forces you to consider the bravery of these men in a totally new light, and that is a true tribute to what they did, for it was this bravery that helped save Europe and change the course of history. You feel the filmmaker’s intense commitment to these soldiers and to getting it ‘right’ in this sequence. An incredible achievement by Steven Spielberg.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Dir. Peter Weir. Australian Peter Weir in my opinion is one of the finest directors in the world; unfortunately, he makes films sparingly. But when he makes them he has made some brilliant ones: Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show, and this film, Master and Commander. This is one of my favorite opening scenes of all time without a doubt; everything in it is brilliantly executed. Russell Crowe stars as Captain Jack Aubrey, who commands a British naval vessel in Her Majesty’s service in 1805, and engages himself in a sea-borne tug-of-war with a French battleship. In the incredibly suspensful and explosive (literally) opening, all is quiet until a member of the crew is unsure if he is seeing the shadowy outlines of an enemy ship tracing their own through the low-hanging mists. Aubrey is called on board, and peers at length through a spyglass but sees nothing. Then, suddenly, a blazing flash of orange is seen through the vapor, under a cloack of silence due to the great distance, and there is a but a few seconds before the cannonball that has just been discharged will come slamming into the hull of the ship – enough time for Aubrey to scream a warning to the terrified crew……a brilliant, thrilling opening “salvo”.

The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Coen. A little bit different choice here, but not every selection needs to be an epic or a drama. This consistently hilarious movie opens with a combination of a slow-roasted voiceover from Sam Elliot as “The Stranger” – who introduces us to the iconic character known as The Dude, played with bumbling perfection by Jeff Bridges – and a zany scene in which The Dude arrives home at his apartment only to be jacked by a couple of incompetent hired thugs who have confused him for someone else. The monologue introduces the Coen’s quirky but intelligent writing style, neatly places the story in the context of world events (around the time of the first Gulf War), and then caps off with the hysterical mistaken-identity rough stuff, when The Dude finally explains, having already had his head stuffed into a toilet repeatedly, that he’s the wrong man. The final shot of this opening with The Dude sitting on the crapper with scraggly wet hair, a soaked bathrobe, and Blues Brothers sunglasses says it all about this very, very funny character in a howlingly funny and unique film.

The Sound of Music. Dir. Robert Wise. A VERY different choice here, but not every selection….wait, I said that already. This isn’t even one of my personal favorite films, but I really tried to think far and wide for this list. And because I have two little girls, I have certainly had occasion to revisit some old-time musical movies, particularly ones with Julie Andrews. I came to realize that in this movie and in Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews gives two of the most iconic female performances in all of cinema. They are incredible performances, with her beautiful singing, flawless diction and overall likeability, and I will always be impressed with her for this work. She has always had grace and class. But it is the beginning of this film in particular that I have been thinking about recently again, and I don’t know a single person who isn’t familiar with or has some kind of affection for the opening camera shot of Andrews on the Austrian hilltop, spinning around and singing ‘The hills are alive…..’. It is one of the most recognizable opening shots in all of cinema history. It’s a gorgeous opening to a wonderful family film.

Mutt's Honorable Mentions: Pan's Labyrinth; Once Upon a Time in the West; Star Wars; Casino Royale; Schindler's List; Ikiru.

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