Some movies slowly develop into a profound conclusion. Others have a premise that is consistent from start to finish. Then you have those that hit the ground running from the initial frame. A great introductory sequence can set the tone right out of the gate. Theses are my Top 10 Opening Movie Scenes. As always, not a list of best movies overall. This is about being floored from the starting mark.
10. Ending is the beginning (“Memento”):
Director Christopher Nolan had his breakout hit with the low-budget 2000 thriller “Memento”. If you have not seen the film and want to be surprised with the ingenious plot as it unravels, stop reading this now. “Memento” opens with Guy Pierce playing a man on a mission in Leonard. Due to a home invasion incident years ago, Leonard has short term memory loss every twenty or so minutes. The final memory in his head is the robbers killing his wife. Over the time trying to hunt the perpetrators down he has covered his body with tattoos that are clues so that he doesn’t forget when he wakes up confused. But the catch is the opening credits are showing the ending moments as Leonard is killing yet another man who he believes is his wife’s killer. This is the best example of an opening that seems banal but has such impact unseen once you get to the end.
9. Buddy Christ (“Dogma”):
Going to church can be a drag for many people, especially the younger generation. Non-believers have grown statistically over the last 30-plus years. Director Kevin Smith satirized that disconnection perfectly with his 1999 farce “Dogma”. Two angels, played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, have been shunned and cast out of heaven. A loop hole to get back to paradise comes in the opening scene. Famous divisive comedian George Carlin opens the movie up as a Catholic priest doing a news conference to introduce a more ‘Fun’ version of Jesus. With his church offering all sinners access to heaven by walking through its doors, the loophole the angels were looking for, Carlin wants to make Jesus more likable. Instead of the typical look of a man dying on the cross, ‘Buddy Christ’ is revealed. A thumbs up says come on in to non-believers. From there this satire is off to the races.
8. Stayin’ Alive (“Saturday Night Fever”):
While it was short lived, disco was poppin’ in the 70’s. The height was when John Travolta walked down the street with an all-time classic swagger in “Saturday Night Fever”. While going to his day job at a local paint shop, Travolta walks like he’s worth a million bucks to the tune of the classic Bee-Gees jam ‘Stayin’ Alive’. He is perfectly put together from head to toe. While Travolta and his young group of buddies go out to the disco club at night, the future star actor refuses to go out in public if he does not look like the slickest guy on the block. After all, “YOU CAN’T TELL BY THE WAY I USE MY WALK, I’M A WOMAN’S MAN, NO TIME TO TALK.”
7. 12 minutes towards an explosion (“Touch of Evil”)
Director Orson Wells was already a made man in Hollywood after making one of the most classic movies ever in “Citizen Kane”. While the 1958 film noir Charleston Heston starring vehicle “Touch of Evil” is not anywhere near the caliber of “Kane” (let us not forget how racist casting Heston as a Mexican police detective), the opening shot is absolutely unbelievable. Beginning with a bomb being placed underneath the car of an American building constructor, the twelve-plus minute non-stop shot goes from the Mexican side of the border onto U.S. soil as the tension rises. We as an audience have to wonder if and when that bomb is going to blow. For the time, 1958, moviemakers were still figuring it out and Welles came out with this wonder that holds up against any one-off in the modern film world.
6. Do You Like Scary Movies? (“Scream”):
Teenage slashers movies are a dime a dozen. Director Wes Craven made plenty of them. While his 1996 horror-fest “Scream” looked to be standard fare, horror fans had the rug pulled out from under them from the start. The brand new franchise had teenagers lining up for a night of girls curling into the boyfriends arms. What they did not expect is that “Scream” flipped expectations right out of the gate. Advertised as the film’s star, Drew Barrymore does not last long after she answers the phone while home alone. The blade wielding villain ‘Ghostface’ terrorizes her over the phone before taking her out before the plot has even started to unfold. Wes Craven is obviously poking fun at his long history of bad teenage slashers throughout “Scream”. However, the opening phone call will give even the most cynical person the creeps.
5. Robbing the mafia (“The Dark Knight”):
While of course the iconic villain The Joker was going to enter into director Christopher Nolan’s reinventing of the Batman franchise, “The Dark Knight” catapulted comic book movies into serious stuff. What was unexpected is the portrayal of the arch-nemesis from the start. Through various methods that slowly unfold over the opening 10 minutes, The Joker has enacted a plan with multiple goons that do not know each other in order to rob the biggest mafia bank in Gotham. As each one kills the other, The Joker walks away Scott-free. This instant onslaught of a heist gone right despite looking wrong, set the tone for the newest iteration of the Batman franchise. Nolan and the rest of the crew were not messing around.
4. Hans Landa Interrogation (“Inglorious Basterds”):
While not the best overall movie director Quentin Tarantino has made in my opinion (“Pulp Fiction” is tops), the opening of his 2009 WWII epic “Inglorious Basterds” is the best individual scene the maestro has ever committed to celluloid. A humble French farmer is hiding multiple Jews underneath his floor-boards. One fateful day Colonel Hans Landa (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) shows up with a crew of Nazi soldiers hunting down those ‘LESSER’ people that do not deserve to live. It becomes a chess match over a glass of milk that Colonel Landa knew he won before walking through the front door. Does the farmer give up the neighboring Jewish family that hides to make sure his children are safe? A question that is dramatized in an impossible scenario to wrap ones head around.
3. You’ve Got Five Minutes (“Drive”):
Plenty of amazing chase scenes in Hollywood history. None of them come from the opening beat and pop you in the face such as the calculated opening of “Drive”. Instead of big car wrecks or explosions, director Nicolas Winding-Refn chose to go with the sleekest of approaches. Ryan Gosling stars as a getaway driver with the film opening as he tells his latest client “I give you a five minute window. A minute beyond that I’m gone. But for that five minutes I’m yours.” The whole time he is watching the Los Angeles downtown area with the Clippers basketball game playing in the background. Once the driver arrives in the most inconspicuous car in L.A., the crooks get to robbing. With the police hot on their tail, the driver uses the local streets to evade the police, eventually escaping after parking in the garage of the basketball game. The tension mounts from the second Gosling puts his watch on the steering wheel as this opening displays how cars simply driving fast does not make for the best chase scene.
2. Remembering the Journey (“Up”):
Pixar struck gold once again with the story of a grumpy old man who uses balloons to float his house away in “Up”. A multitude of adventures ensue, including an unsuspecting Boy Scout and talking dog along the way. But the tone is set from the start as a five plus minute segment, with little dialogue, shows how the main character became so bitter. It chronicles a life and love lost through snippets. What “Up” teaches both children as well as adults is the great journey is life with those one loves. That tone is set from the beginning.
1. Running From a Rolling Stone (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”):
It took a simple five-minute heist in a mysterious ancient cave to set the standard when it comes to pure adventure. Director Steven Spielberg wasted no time in showcasing the crazy situations Indiana Jones gets into with the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Before star Harrison Ford even has the chance to start whipping people he is whipping his way over booby traps as he escapes the multiple things meant to kill him. Few movie scenes have been replicated such as Indy running for his life during a speedy getaway against a giant boulder. Pop in Jones’s hatred of snakes in the getaway plane and you have yourself a classic from the start.