The 30 Most Brilliant Movie Opening Title Sequences In Film History
In one of the safest ages of film in celluloid history, a time where movies are rigidly committed to maintaining cohesion and keeping that dreaded fourth wall right up, in tact, and galvanized in steel, nothing feels as alive and alert as something that displays the gall to look at us, the audience, and say “I know you are there, for I am not reality, I am a film, and I want to have fun being a film and being watched by an audience”.
And few things convey that sort of proud-to-be-film non-continuity style like a title sequence. Loosely defined as “a sequence within which a film displays its title and principal production staff via text at or near its beginning”, little truly captures the spirit of “film as film” like a titles sequence.
Most obviously, these sequences openly break the fourth wall by letting us know that they signal not reality, but a product that has been produced for us; by definition, they do so, for they impose non-diegetic elements onto the diegectic film world, breaking the world and rendering it a falsity.
Beyond this, it has traditionally been a means for filmmakers to explore the directly filmic mechanisms of movie-making, image and sound, by eschewing dialogue and written diegetic text for a raw, more direct display of the visual and aural often distanced from “narrative” as it is traditionally understood.
However, at a basic level, the rough boundaries of the “title sequence” also leaves a country mile within which filmmakers can impress their own ideas. They can explicitly separate the sequence from the film through edits and make no mind of defining the scene as “part of the film’s reality” (such as a Bond title sequence, for instance), or superimpose the text over a typically non-narrative bit of the diegetic film (such as moving the camera around a main character or her apartment, or across the film’s world, while superimposing the credits on screen).
They can capture mood, tone, atmosphere, character, narrative, or just about anything for a film, and be used for any purpose, but they are uniquely exciting for doing so through “filmic” means, such as the raw geometry of framed images, color distanced from the “real world”, and sounds or song which capture the spirit or mood of the feature production.
Whatever they do, they shout “Look at me!” at the top of their longs and favor neither style nor substance, but style-as-substance, making us think about film as a mechanism of visual storytelling, and letting us know that, just because the characters and events of the film’s world aren’t currently being depicted, the film’s “story” is still being told through it’s visual element.
The opening credits sequence is at an all-time lull in Hollywood right now – too many films are taken to “serious” narrative and dialogue as though they were repropositioned books and not works of visual storytelling. The experience of watching a “movie” as a unique entity serperate from written texts is too often forgotten. As a meek gesture of respect for film as film, or a small, if hopeful, attempt at rememberance, here are 30 of the finest opening credits/ title sequences found in the film world.
2007’s surprisingly touching and aware teen sex comedy works because it understands something of human insides. Elegant and minimalist, the opening credits work because they understand something of human outsides, and the simple pleasure of watching flattened, bright-colored silhouettes of people dancing on screen over flat color backgrounds, abstracted so that it’s less about people and dancing than shape, color, and motion.
It’s a simple thing, and perfect for the lackadaisical, meandering free-spirit of this low and slow charmer. Sometimes the simple things are the best ones.
29. Lord of War
This opening credits sequence, tracking a pov perspective on the life of a bullet from creation to deadly use, is slightly over-rated (in the way modern films for a time-challenged audience tend to be), but it gets points for sheer commitment and audacity. The song selection (Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”) is a little too fussy and obvious; it works only if we distance that particular song from how over-used it is.
What really does work however, are the little caring moments added in for personality like the bullet rolling on the ground for a while before it gets picked up for use. A nice, “grand” opening credits that, while not masterful in anyway, is certainly the best part of a middling film.
The opening credits for Grease are kind of a disaster, but they’re a fascinating disaster to say the least. The film came at the tail-end of a decade of 1950’s fervor and plays around with the whole idea of nostalgia by presenting a loopy, imagined 1950’s more than an honest one; it’s the 70’s imagining the 50’s, and the film’s songs cheerily hop-scotch between disco pop and the airier, lighter material more honestly home to the time period the film says it takes place in.
It’s often hard to tell, though, whether this is all clever and intentional or merely lazy. Case in point, the opening credits, which don’t in any way recall the 50’s in the slightest. Instead, we have a quintessential Barry Gibb number in the title tune (admittedly sung by 50’s icon Frankie Valli, if in a voice that could not have existed in the 1950’s) that is wholly of the late 1970’s.
The animation however, even as it provides nice little fully realized backgrounds for the characters of the film and some cheery, chaotic pop-culture splashes that play out almost subliminally, are obviously pastiches of the herky-jerky pop animation of the 60’s (and the bastardized, grotesque version of the same form more common in comic books during the early 1970’s, attempting to be all “adult” and lurid while 60’s pop art was fun-loving and genial).
It doesn’t make a lick of sense, and signals a problem for the coming film, but it’s a feverish hoot and burst of energy while it lasts.
27. The Graduate
By The Graduate’s opening credits sequence, of course, one means the famously long unbroken take of Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) carried forth by machines and machinations on a life despite taking no agency of his own to walk forward. One also refers to the film’s clearest and most devastating critique of his glazed over boredom and hopeless early-onset decayed suburbanite self-inflicted under-competence.
The lack of a cut works to construct his life as one un-ending bender of boredom, a formless void of vapid tepidness. If nothing else, it is perhaps the clearest and most perceptive use of an opening-scene to fully capture the essence of a film’s main-character ever put to celluloid. It doesn’t just capture his essence though, it subtly mocks him, refusing to relent and train it’s focus away form him even when he lets it have it’s way with him.
The Graduate is not a perfect film, nor necessarily a great one, but the opening is haunting and brittle in a way that would presage the New Hollywood birthed just this very year with Bonnie and Clyde.
26. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
One would have hoped David Fincher might have made a goth metal album of a movie for his 2011 adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s dreary beach read. He didn’t; he channeled all of his energy into the album cover, a wonderfully spirited bit of pitch-black fury as demented as it is deliciously expressive.
All oil-coated human flesh and metallic angles, the physical proportions of what is being depicted themselves become abstracted as the material plays out like a ballet of color. Or rather, a lack thereof.
25. Enter the Void
Here’s that fever dream opening credits sequence you’ve been looking for, perhaps the most “proper” title sequence on this list, for it is quite literally just the credits of the film displayed in two-or-three-per-second cuts and nothing else. But what the film does with those credits, that’s another story altogether.
Done up in some of the finest feverish regalia to be found in the font world, it plays like a rave of text ready to absolutely pummel us to death. It’s frenzied, alert cinema that sucks up all the energy in the room and forces it right back out, sparing none in the process.
24. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
The retro look has been in for a good while now. The only difference for the 2000’s is no one really knows which decade we’re looking back to anymore, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is well aware of this. It’s title sequence, like the film it begins, mixes 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and the post-modern post-Tarantino slick of the 2000’s and cooks to near perfection.
It seems to know it can’t really ever exist in the past; instead it exists in a present confused about the past, mixing artist’s depictions of different time periods together and self-reflexively showcasing how confused the finished product can’t but be. The film is what it critiques, sure, but the end result is messily fascinating more than depressingly messy. It is entirely aware of it’s own limits, entirely aware that it exists in a fantasy movie-land and not a reality of any time period, and it revels in it.
23. Reservoir Dogs
After the first of many pointedly, excessively talky Tarantino dialogue-overloads (the man directs dialogue like bulletfire), a rock n’ roll explosion of pure untamed cool is a tall, icy glass of water in the parched sunlight.
The credits are simple, excessively so; just a bunch of guys walking toward the screen in slow motion, but the jittery, stop-start nature of the particular slow-motion, which is not fluid at all, openly reveals the frames for us and gives the film a twitchy, un-contained energy that sets a breathless gasp of a film rolling along. It never stops.
22. To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird is not a particularly great film, nor necessarily a good one – it’s stodgy, stilted, preachy, and somewhat twee in it’s melodramatic waxworks show. But the intro, where we learn more about the characters in a few minutes than throughout the whole rest of the film combined, is a real keeper.
Esssentially a top-down view of Scout laying out the contents of a bag, it’s the simplest thing in the world, perfectly fitting for a childlike impression of innocence and naivete. To the extent that the film can be saved for it’s naivete and simplicity, it is because it is “supposed” to be told from the perspective of a child; this opening is the only part where the film truly captures that wistful spirit, putting us into the mind of a child while still understanding the clinical distance of the material and how we, nor Scout, nor anyone can ever truly understand racism to the fullest.
The pseudo-creepiness of the opening, even if unintentional, also adds a layer of lived-in human honesty to the film – and perhaps a layer of self-critique – elsewhere sorely lacking in a film far too tepid and composed for it’s own good.
21. From Russia with Love
No Bond opening credits sequence matches the film it is paired with to quite the same extent; terse, sultry, sensual without being grandiose, exotic, and lascivious but in a slightly anxious, even dreary way, it’s a perfect intro for one of the most hard-hitting Bonds, and probably still the best.
Essentially quavering shots over a belly dancer bathed in a golden hue, it’s a decidedly physical bit of cinema, the most low-to-the-ground a Bond credits sequence has ever been, and wonderfully low-stakes. Yet at the same time the film manages the task of mostly divorcing the whole scene from the human form; soon enough, it becomes like watching queasy, gyrating physical geometry interacting with color, negative space, text, and of course music.
Anything that can achieve that feat, while still maintaining a swaggering intensity and concrete physicality, is worth quite a bit indeed.