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The 20 Greatest Movie Opening Scenes In Film History

05 November 2014 | Features, Other Lists | by David Williams

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Opening a film in a great way isn’t always the toughest thing to do in filmmaking, you can even argue that it’s not even the most important thing, many directors like their story to unfold slowly.

It’s not always necessary to grab audiences’ throats from the very beginning, what an opening scene should do is giving the viewer a sense of the film, both aesthetics-wise and story-wise. The 20 openings we selected are not the most intense or breathtaking openings of all time, but they definitely succeeded in setting the tone for the rest of the film in a cinematic way. We will try to explain why these 20 openings are the greatest in terms of filmmaking.

Our criteria for an “opening scene” are as follows:

1. We did not include pure opening credits scenes, like all the fancy James Bond openings, but opening scenes with credits pop up on the screen are allowed here.

2. We did not include scenes that take place very early but do not open the film, like the Omaha beach scene in Saving Private Ryan or the opening chase scene in Raiders of the Ark.

3. Sometimes the opening is so long, they are not necessarily “scenes” anymore, you can also call them “opening sequences”. These are two different terms, but they are interchangeable here.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at our selections of the 20 greatest opening scenes of all time.

 

20. Halloween

Probably one of the most underrated opening long takes in cinema history. This amazing scene opens from the killer’s point-of-view, we know it from the very beginning that someone in the house will be killed very soon. We follow the killer into the house, upstairs, to the girl’s bedroom, then it’s the killing. What will surprise us is when the killer walks out of the house and  is unmasked by his father, it’s just a kid!

Halloween remains one of the greatest horror films of all time. The brilliant direction by John Carpenter is what sets this apart from most of the other horror movies. This opening scene is both imaginative and well-crafted in terms of filmmaking, it sends the chills to our spines without even showing the killer. It’s not a showy opening of long take technique, it sets the narrative foundation for the rest of the film very well.

Three years after, another great horror director Tobe Hoopper paid direct homage to this classic opening in his carnival horror movie The Funhouse, seek that out and you will not be regretted.

 

19. Star Wars IV: A New Hope

Remember the first time you (especially for those who watched it on the big screen) ever watched this sci-fi classic? A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Then bang, cues the wonderful and exciting space music composed by John Williams, the yellow texts starts to crawl backwards.

But this is not the opening scene yet, what follows to that opening scrawl is a spacecraft chased by a looong spaceship, it’s so long that our jaws nearly drop. Then the camera cuts to the inside of the spaceship, it’s a laser gun fight, then comes the iconic entrance of Darth Vader, one of the greatest villains in movie history.

Star Wars was the big thing that year. It became the most grossing movie in the box office and won several Oscars, it’s even nominated for the Best Picture. As a sci-fi film, that is a big achievement. Sci-fi films before this are quite profound, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Star Wars is a different thing. It excites us from the get-go, and whenever we watch this classic again, the opening crawl with John Williams’ score, or the chase still makes us jump up from the seat.

 

18. Aguirre: Wrath of God

There is no plot in the opening scene of this Werner Herzog’s masterpiece. First it’s a bird’s eye view shot of mysterious mountains, then we see a long line of ant-sized people climbing steep steps. The camera pulls closer, we see there are soldiers, princesses, a priest and the animals they carry for food. They shot this from different angles, sometime it makes you wonder how they took these shots since there’s not enough room even for the actors.

The spectacular opening scene just shows the beginning of this crazy expedition into the Peruvian rainforest. It drew a big question mark in the audiences’ heads, what are those people? Why are they in the middle of this vast and dangerous place? What are they searching for? If the sole purpose of a movie opening is to pave the way for the narrative story and evoke people’s curiosity to find out what will happen next, then this opening scene of Aguirre clearly did exactly that.

 

17. A Clockwork Orange

The music comes in first, it’s quite unsettling. Then it’s the close-up of a twenty-something staring at the camera with evil looks. The camera zooms back, we see Alex and his other three droogs drinking milk with their feet on naked women models. The camera keeps zooming back, enabling us to see the whole look of the Korova Milk Bar.

This opening scene perfectly sets the tone for the film, it’s a typical metaphor of innocents being consumed by evil. The music is an electronic version of the Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary by Wendy Carlos. It’s brilliantly used here as it brings a kind of spooky feeling that foreshadows the evil crimes Alex and his droogs are going to commit in the rest of the film.

Malcolm McDowell caught our attention at the very beginning of this film, the image becomes the most iconic name card of the 1970s cinema. The set design is amazing, all the nude women models with wigs, the light bulbs, and the wicked words on the walls give us a sense of decadent future scope. This is how a master of cinema opens one of his most famous films.

 

16. Memento

Christopher Nolan is the master of non-linear storytelling. In his career breakout film, Nolan shot this opening scene in reverse order, but we didn’t realize this in the first shots of the photo. We couldn’t identify what is on the photo, it starts to fade, making the plotline more obscure.  It only makes sense when we realize the photo is taken by the man and all shots before are taken backwards.

But then there is the shooting, now we have the second clue of the photo, what’s on it is the scene of crime. More questions come, why does the man shoot the guy? Why taking photos? The opening of Memento is a game of revealing the truth and asking more questions about truth, Nolan knows exactly how to manipulate the audiences with his well-designed narratives. It’s only the beginning, the story follows is only more puzzling than this.

 

15. Reservoir Dogs

We see a bunch of guys sitting around a dinner table talking about the actual meaning of Madonna’s hit song “Like a Virgin”, and the obligations of tipping a restaurant waitress. They are dressed in white shirt and black ties, unlike the silent gangsters in the Jean Pierre Melville films, they talk, and talk a lot. The topics are totally irrelevant to their business or heist plans, but we enjoy them and expect more.

Welcome to the cinematic world of Quentin Tarantino. From this very beginning of his early career, we can spot his talent in screenplay writings and filmmaking. The dialogues are interesting, the pop culture reference is cool, the characterization is built by how they talk and behave. The camera rotates 360 degrees around the table, putting us right in the middle of the conversation. We already feel kind of liking these guys and can’t wait to see what will happen next.

 

 

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  • Gijs Schep

    I miss Lord of War. Not the best movie (at all), but an impressive opening of the journey of a bullit from fabrication until its deadly final, all taken in one shot.

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  • Sebastien Ebacher

    Wow, I am surprise that 2001 a Space Odyssey is not in that list. For me, by far one of the most epic opening scene for a movie. 🙂 Thanks for this list.

    • Brian Lussier

      I guess it’s because the ending tops the opening.

    • Rich G

      Ditto

  • Sidharth J Dev

    Pulp Fiction deserves a place, don’t you think?

  • Carecalho

    What about “Turin Horse”? Amazing..

  • Carecalho

    Lost Highway

  • Matthew Haughton

    Where’s Lion King?? Lol. You know nothing.

    • ScooterGirl

      Damned straight. “The Lion King” has one of the best opening sequences of all time and that resonating beat that vibrates through you when they finally flash the title card? Brilliant.

  • Jacob Olsen

    The Big Chill. Master class.

  • Brian Lussier

    My favorite opening to a film is the prologue to The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. One of my favorite pieces of filmmaking ever committed to film.

  • Ellen Lira

    The rocky horror picture show?

  • Cinema270

    The opening of Loius Malle’s Le Fou Follet (The Fire Within) has the greatest opening scene I’ve ever seen. Absorbing and heart-wrenching.

  • Christian Felipe

    What about Ghost in the Shell? That opening is amazing and never reproduced in film.

    • Robert J West Thompson

      Gladiator…or The Rock! Hans Zimmer’s music has a lot to do with my choices !

  • Klaus Dannick

    Two entries from Tarantino? Please… I’ll let Fellini’s double-entry slide (well, because he’s Fellini), but Welles is more deserving for both “Touch of Evil” and the iconic “Citizen Kane” opening. It’s great to see Mario Bava and Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss” on such a list. Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” has a brilliant opening scene, and I’d rate the opening of DiPalma’s “Carrie” over Carpenter’s “Halloween”. Finally, Bergman’s “Persona”, Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (or “MULHOLLAND DR.” or “INLAND EMPIRE”), Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”, Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly”, and especially Roeg s nd Cammell’s “Performance” merit recognition here.

    • Andres Abad

      i agree with you. I love Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds but as opening scenes there is not that much of GREAT to show comparing to the whole movie list you named. I personally disagree with this site list awarding “The Social Network” opening a position here. That was a well written dialogue.. thats all. Persona and maybe the most stressfull but awesome opening ive seen “Irreversible” would match and elevate this list even higher.

  • zeb

    2001: A Space Odyssey?

    • szore88

      Has its moments and was a big hit when it came out but I think its overrated. The ending is too abstract for me and flaws the film.

  • Bogdan Colpacci

    may I sugest “Dom Hemingway”?:)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2A5LbpUBoA

  • Alex Becerra

    My favorite would be “Persona”, by Ingmar Bergman — but, damn! Memento’s intro is so clever.

  • Pete Howell

    Nice list. Blue Velvet, maybe?

  • John Robertshaw

    I would have to include Boogie Nights first shot which introduces every major character in the film….. It might be a tribute to Welles but it is extraordinary in itself.

    • Andres Abad

      Indeed. PTA said on a Radio Q/A he is all about rendering tribute to Welles and Fellini. BTW boogie Nights is awesome.

  • Jasmin Jandric

    The Godfather…

  • beli

    ” the bus looks like full of zombies”hmmm I’ve always thought of the bus as being so overcrowded you couldn’t even see their heads. not so much as zombies.

  • szore88

    No Jaws? Or Indiana Jones even.

  • Jeremy Stewart

    Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. I get chills just thinking about it.

  • Alex Huet

    I love Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia’s opening.
    The first 8 mn of Michael Mann’s Ali are fantastic also.

  • Steppenwolf

    Se7en has by far the best opening scene ever. Nothing comes close to that, although its style is still copied a lot. Unforgetable, perfectly matching Nine Inch Nails music, too.
    (but I fear you dismissed that opening scene for defining it as opening credits)

  • Johann S.

    How could you say these are the 20 best ones, when you clearly haven’t seen every movie ever?

    • thecolonel1

      And you have?

  • Manuel Lopes

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8AXd1ayxrg A Touch of Evil by Orson Welles

  • Debraj Bhattacharya

    Trainspotting…

    • Ahmed

      Hell yeah! The choose life opening scene is legendary.

    • Rich G

      I concur

  • Rui Martins

    2001: A Space Odyssey
    Goodfellas

    • Jeffrey

      agree with both of them.

  • Angel de la Torre

    Luis Buñuel: un chien andalou (1928)

  • sugar_man

    for me Harold and Maude is number one

  • Ted Wolf

    citizen kane? I pointed out the window staying in the same spot to my youngest and it blew her mind.The Last Laugh is also a great opening sequence.

  • Andy Kubica

    Boogie Nights and Superman

    • ScooterGirl

      Crikey, I forgot about Superman. That WAS a great opening sequence!

  • Andres Abad

    I personally disagree with this site list awarding “The Social Network” opening a position here. That was a well written dialogue.. thats all. Persona and maybe the most stressfull but awesome opening ive seen “Irreversible” would match and elevate this list even higher.
    I know is overrated maybe but.. i personally believe that Taxi Driver`s opening is a work of art. If you saw the movie two times in a row you`ll understand.
    And plz… kick Reservoir dogs out of here and put The Godfather I opening in this list. That scene is just so powerful

  • simonpjlduckett

    Apocaplypse Now? “Saigon…….shit!”

    • Amyth Dutta

      Amen !
      Apocalypse Now has the best starting scene in the history of cinema making period !

  • softeyes

    The Dark Knight’s opening was great!

  • Andreea

    what about the intro to Enter the void? The visuals are incredible

  • Sushant

    Pulp fiction, godfather

  • Ahmed

    Basically any Tarantino movie deserves to be on the list.

  • Rich G

    Bladerunner

  • Marcello Paffetti

    miss, miss, miss Mulholland Drive (David Lynch) – Opening scene music

    by ANGELO BADALAMENTI !!

  • Zapatilla Loca

    what about Leaving Arizona??…longest intro in any movie Ive ever seen!

  • Amyth Dutta

    Are you guys kidding me ? No tell me you guys are ! Apocalypse Now has the best film opening scene in the history of

    • ScooterGirl

      “1).Get high !”

      If you need to get high to enjoy the brilliance of an opening sequence that it’s not that great of an opening sequence.

      I like listening to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” stoned but it’s just as good straight because, well, it’s freaking brilliant.

  • Turling
  • wow all source is good but i am watch movies Zoolander 2

  • Paesito Paez

    Scream´s opening? Like seriously Reservoir Dogs gets in but not Scream! That´s pure blasphemy

  • Frankie

    Apocalypse Now (” This is the End” ). Best opening scene and
    25th Hour the best ending scene.

  • Sucio Anacoreta

    the social network?? you must be joking.
    no doubt the best is GOZU. and of course disney’s the lion’s king and the hunchback of notre dame

  • Sara Oh

    The cook the thief his wife and her lover ?

  • Jeffrey

    No room for The Mechanic? Or is that because the first 5 minutes are more like 15.

  • LunaMorgan85

    Amadeus had an excellent opening too.

  • Joe Montoto

    1931 Frankenstein: Opening funeral scene culminating with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and Fritz (Dwight Frye) digging with shovels to rob the fresh grave, and Henry tossing a shovelful of dirt onto the face of the grim reaper statue in the background.

  • Joe Montoto

    THERE WILL BE BLOOD sets the mood for the whole film with no dialogue. Great!

  • Rokurota

    How about children of men?

  • warrenzoell

    Contact had a great opening.

  • ScooterGirl

    Any list of top 20 opening sequences that doesn’t include the jaw dropping opening sequence from “The Lion King” isn’t a list worth looking at.

  • Kyle Highquality Scott

    i suppose no one has seen the movie Belly

  • Bob Jennings

    Is the only criteria to write this blog being a tarantino fan boy?

    .