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10 Best Opening Scenes in Movies

January 5, 2017
7 min read

Your opening is everything. Set the tone, mood, score and visual language. Establish characters, themes, ideas and relationships. Most importantly of all: Bridge the gap across the silver screen to your audience and immediately draw them into the world you wish to craft. Movie openers can range from patiently paced monologues like ‘No Country for Old Men’ to exhilarating action sequences like ‘The Dark Knight’, whose first moments remain the blistering highlight of Chris Nolan’s hero-centric tale.

Indeed opening so strong can in some cases hinder your film as a whole: Build up the audience’s expectation with an incredible first scene and then shatter their hopes as the rest of the flick fails to live up to its promise. That’s why, whilst writing this list, I tried to take into account movies whose openings served them well in the long run, rather than facilitated them fizzling out by the half-way point. With that said, here is the list of top movie opening scenes ever.

10. Le Samouraï (1967)

A close contender with ‘Army of Shadows’ and its own engrossing static long-take opener, Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic tale of a lonely assassin in the mood for love with the police hot on his heels begins with a beautiful tableau: The sparse apartment room of said killer; complete with minimal furnishings, a total lack of personality and only a caged bird to keep him company. The pet is a succinct and tragic visual metaphor for the events destined to entrap Jef Costello, his blank expression in the face of its hopeful chirps perhaps a subtle nod to the man’s acceptance that however long he lies on that bed in peace… fate is forever waiting for him on the other side of the door.

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9. The Big Chill (1983)

Lawrence Kasdan’s finest work, eclipsing the scope of ‘Indiana Jones’ and even the moving drama of ‘Empire Strikes Back’ with its quiet story of middle-aged friends grieving the death of their buddy Alex, ‘The Big Chill’ remains one of the greatest examples of film-making as it relates to its time: The epitome of 1980s cinematic Hollywood convention except refined to a shining standard all proceeding works should take heed from. No-where is this skill better exemplified than in the fantastic opening sequence, in which we are introduced to each member of the group as they hear the news of Alex’s passing; seamlessly edited and set to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard it Through the Grape-Vine’.

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8. Shame (2011)

Steve McQueen’s sublime 2011 character-piece on a man struggling with sex addiction is interesting in that its opening moments are both an explosion and a whisper. In parallel, McQueen develops scenarios of the protagonist Brandon pursuing a woman through a busy train station and waking up in his deathly white apartment- devoid of any life. The inter-cutting here is improved on even further when Brandon heads out for a final binge near the end of the film but even so this sequence is simply remarkable: Crossing streams of consciousness and narrative to engineer a truly profound sense of emptiness, despair and at the same time criticism of Brandon’s actions by the end. Fantastic stuff.

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7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

In the opening scene of his 1974 masterpiece, Tobe Hooper gives us nothing but sound. Digging. Scraping. Panting. It builds an uneasy picture in our minds of whatever nightmarish act might be taking place in the darkness and then suddenly a flash as the man cuts in fading frames of decomposed body parts. Limbs. Vacant eye sockets. Skeletal fingers that seem to claw their way towards the screen. It’s such a chilling cinematic moment: Viscerally snatching away our main means of engaging with cinema, sight, and forcing the audience to unearth the maniacal mystery that lurks beneath the abyss he has left on the screen. A prickling prelude to the absolute massacre of established horror conventions (and terrified teens) that would follow.

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6. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Béla Tarr’s own ‘Satantango’ very nearly took this spot for its extended 7 and a half minute shot of cows whose dingy sights and haunting sounds evoke a feeling of inescapable dread which establishes the rest of the journey wonderfully- and yet instead we are graced with the wonder of ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’, a film which begins simply with a young man directing a bar full of drunken patrons to act out the movement of the sun, moon, earth and planets. With the camera drifting around and a mystical sliver of cinema on the air- its a really remarkable piece of film-making: Immediately enticing us to enter Tarr’s world and tour the sights he so masterfully and naturally sets out to show us.

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5. Stalker (1979)

A classic Tarkovsky long-take, gradually engrossing us more and more into the utterly unique world of ‘Stalker, perfectly married to Eduard Artemyev’s almost hallucinogenic score. Its eerie, otherworldly and yet completely compelling: A superlative example of patient world-building.

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4. Mean Streets (1973)

Don’t get me wrong: The effects of Martin Scorsese’s work can often be fleeing especially considering the surface over substance a few of his lesser pictures highlight. That being said works like ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The King of Comedy’ really exemplify his grasp on character-based storytelling and how often feeling and theme can drive his stories, instead of dialogue. This visual storytelling hit its peak way way back in 1973 with ‘Mean Streets’- Scorsese presenting a wonderfully warm stream of images shot in choppy, faded celluloid that emulate the family footage we take all the time and adds a crucial personal context to the story that is about to unfold. Despite the fact that ‘Mean Streets’ simply cannot live up to its legendary credits for me- at the same time the movie would be nothing without them. Crucial and the mark of a truly special vision waiting to be released.

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3. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Sergio Leone spends over 10 minutes building up the confrontation between Harmonica and the three un-named killers sent by the terrifying Frank to assassinate him. When they finally meet the gorgeous visual geometry, cinematic use of movement and Leone finding the suspenseful action in the in-action of these four men waiting to draw their guns- topped off with Ennio Morricone’s piercing score makes for one of the Greatest shoot-outs ever mounted. Sends shivers down my spine every time.

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2. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s inspired opening to ‘Apocalypse Now’ very nearly topped this list, yet thinking about its place as the finest moment the film has to offer and how the picture can for some very quickly derail itself thereafter I decided to relegate it to the second spot. Nonetheless there are few finer uses of multiple exposure and musical synchronicity, a psychedelically maelström of napalm and stone-faced soldiers set to the Doors, than those set at the start of this warped odyssey through the Vietnam war. Terrence Malick’s haunting opener to ‘The Thin Red Line’ very nearly made the list but despite its far more sophisticated sense of dread nothing can quite top Coppola’s helicopter-infused cinematic wrecking ball. Well, that is except…

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1. Persona (1966)

Is there any sequence quite as electrifying and dynamic as the first few minutes of Ingmar Bergman’s divine ‘Persona’? Its fantastic flurry of images and sounds crackle and pop through the air like bullets through the theater, taking the audience on a cinematic ride which takes the general idea about “art films” and their generally “stagnant” and “dull” progression and takes frame after frame of vibrant image smashing that belief into dust. A masterpiece in itself held within what might be Ingmar Bergman’s very finest work.

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