20. Back to the Future
A shockingly confident and supremely lived-in slice of life for such a big, daffy entertainment, nothing better conveys how honest, human, and small Robert Zemeckis’ first big break actually is. Nothing but a single tracking shot around Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd, in an eminently loopy and full-bodied performance) apartment, it shows shows us a life in a minute just by floating around little details of Brown’s apartment in a decidedly non-narrative fashion.
It’s lovingly constructed, perfectly felt, and meaningful, rigorous, and nuanced in a way popcorn entertainment never is these days. It’s also perfect for a film that, if light and airy, also wears it’s heart on it’s sleeves and captures a perceptive, insightful, even existential understanding of human relations and character heretofore unexplored by film critics.
When one talks “opening title sequences”, if any name comes up (Bond films excepted), it’s Kyle Cooper, who, insofar as a graphic artist can become famous for a movie title sequence, did with his gloriously depraved work for Seven.
Like many of the films that find value in an opening credits sequence, this one is no attempt at realism (since the idea of a credits sequence itself breaks the fourth well, revealing “film” as “film” rather than “film” as reality it is thus best fit for genre works invested in their own non-reality).
The sequence itself, all angular, jutting noises and spliced-in frames of process and machinations that do not render themselves so much consciously as subliminally, is wonderfully dreary and blackhearted noirish Expressionism as it goes right for our souls.
18. 101 Dalmatians
Calling the title sequence to 101 Dalmatians post-modernist would be wistful thining, but it gives it a game try. All deliberately sketchy, modernist lines and pencil etchings that fill in over time, the opening credits of the film self-consciously announce it as a new, more modern era for Disney, one less interested in pristine mythic-ness or magisterial stuffiness and more ready for a night on the town.
The opening credits not only complement the film; they are the film, showcasing the sketchy animation being produced right before our eyes and having a time doing it. It’s Disney’s greatest statement to it’s own power, too, proudly telling us that what we are about to watch is Disney at it’s rock ‘n’ roll best, and proclaiming in a manner at once grandstanding and low-key that it is the animators at Disney, more than anyone else, who deserve credit.
17. 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Big Daddy of all opening credits, and perhaps the most excessive, egotistic introduction to a film’s universe ever. It’s fitting then that it boasts to explore that universe more than any film ever released, and more fitting that it can’t but be the cinema’s most excessive, egotistic director at the helm: Stanley Kubrick, in his ultimate operatic statement of human insight and clinically detached grandiosity.
This sequence has been written about and debated over more than maybe any other, and thus it seems unnecessary to do so much more.
At the least, however, it is cinema at it’s most ready-to-wow, a perfect melding of sound and image, and entirely fitting for a film that trounces all over the narrative-fetish of Old Hollywood with the delirious non-narrative image-and-sound focus of 60’s European cinema, and what would become the foundation of the New Hollywood in it’s infancy even as Kubrick unleashed his grand opus onto the world.
16. Dr. Strangelove
This opening sees Stanley Kubrick mocking himself in the womb, presaging his future grandiosity and having fun using it for light playfulness rather than heaving opera.
Of course, if it seems warm upon initial viewing, check again; it’s nearly the most caustic moment in the whole film, deliciously mocking war film tropes with every breath. Specifically, the cheery classical music (a future pet theme of Kubrick) mixed with the detached, almost observational images of planes floating in the clouds, pokes around at the light, frothy entertainment American war films were wont to have with war – how they would literally “play” with war like children in the sand.
What initially appears poetic and jaunty, the planes as birds dancing about in a ballet, soon unearths preparations for war, Kubrick’s war. If the world was making war at the time, Kubrick wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to join in and raise a ruckus.
15. Life of Brian
The loosest, most mocking entry on this list, Life of Brian’s opening credits doesn’t capture the aloof, full-on anarchic spirit of Terry Gilliam’s best Flying Circus stuff (then again, neither does the film, even if it is their smartest, most acidic, and all-around greatest achievement), but it’s still a wonderfully sudsy, dripping pastiche of grandiose Biblical epics that take their self-importance and go on forever with it.
It is also one of the finest critiques of the de facto norm of 70’s movie title songs – dripping braggadocio and sweaty individualism, with lyrics entirely about the main character and his or her (usually his) ability to do whatever he wants, however he wants it. It mashes the Bible up with Blaxploitation/ Bond to delirious effect.
Perhaps, in doing so, it also captures the similar pomposity of the two, reading the stodgy and the sweaty as one in the same and thus exploring how false and silly the Bible epic is at its core, or how self-important Bond has always been, both being rooted in the lie of individualist “saviors” ready to do our dirty work for us.
Maybe it states that the swagger and cool of a Shaft or a Bond was the new harder-edged Bible of the cynical, individualist 70’s life. Or maybe it has no idea what it’s doing, and it’s just flying sky high on it’s own imagination and caring not one ounce about substance. It’s probably the latter, but no matter what, it’s a positively delectable bit of pop-anarchism.
14. Eyes without a Face
Perhaps not conventionally a credits sequence, but the moments that open Eyes Without a Face are among the most haunting ever to appear on screen. A melancholic carnival of music pokes through the screen coaxing a camera across a desolate French country side beset by nightfall, credits our only respite from being subsumed by the elegiac hell of the sheer alien place we’re experiencing.
It is eternally lonely, a perfect construction of space and place. Then we meet a woman even lonelier than we are, and the film becomes one of the finest tone poems of achingly human horror ever made.
The only Hitchcock title sequence to seriously rival Psycho, Vertigo’sis just plain diabolical. Equal parts hypnotic and psychotic, the opener transposes the deeply human with the clinically abstracted, all couched in the socio-spatial reality of cinema filtered through the chief mechanism by which humans relate to cinema: the eye.
It’s a deeply intellectual opening, yet it’s never didactic; it’s very much a direct audio-visual experience, utilizing a perfectly cheeky Bernard Herrmann score to match it’s playing around with shape and, in fact, how the human body connects to geometry and the society around us. It’s absolutely perfect for the film’s analysis of vertigo as both a physical dizziness and psycho-social one predicated on the human quest for power and the never-ending insatiable need for more.
12. Taxi Driver
Like most great opening credits sequences, Scorsese’s work for the intro of Taxi Driver captures the essence of his film in just under two minutes: seedy, urban, anxious, spectral, chaotic, nihilistic, and at once indebted to and a critique of Old Hollywood.
The opening fog threatens as much as it obscures, like a darkened, demented version of so many noirish openings from years long past. The taxi cab whispering it’s way through provides an introduction to our chauffeur throughout the film, Travis Bickle (De Niro), and we soon see things from his eyes.
But the vision we get is not what we might expect: a world out of time, slowed down and almost abstractly seedy, with people turned into amorphous, dehumanized colors as the city lights invade their presences and render them translucent ghosts, perhaps shells of human beings with nothing left inside.
Or perhaps, as the deranged close-ups of Bickle’s piercing eyes threaten, they are merely the figments of hell Bickle creates for himself to justify his madman quest for vengeance on a city that haunts him. The opening gives us everything we need to know while also keeping things wholly ambiguous, creating a mystery of perspective and voice that asks us whether we accept Bickle’s vision as truth or reel from it’s fiction. Or both.
11. The Pink Panther
It’s a decided curiosity how fitting The Pink Panther’s opening credits are when placed directly in front of the movie that comes afterwards. The film is a low-key farce in a quintessential 60’s mold that centers the smarmy David Niven more than the bumbling, lackadaisical Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers), who here serves more as a punching bag for Niven’s low-key wit and generally smug hyper-competence.
In the film, as in the later ones, The Pink Panther is a diamond known for two peculiar details, in addition to the whole “you can see a pink panther in it if you want to” thing: the frequency with which it is stolen, and the energy with which the tenacious Inspector Clouseau cannot be separated from it.
Here, though, Niven is really the Panther, the slithering, self-aware figure so pleased with himself at his ability to elude Clouseau at every turn he can’t get enough of himself. But in the end, neither Clouseau nor Niven’s gentleman thief get their man – the pure chaos of the film get the better of them, the thief failing to run away with the jewel and Clouseau never even coming within a country mile of a conviction.
And this film’s famous opening credits, all abstract colors and wonderfully popping, jazzy wordage, is unlike the later ones in the series in that it does not depict the Panther having his way with Clouseau – it starts that way, yes, but in the end it is the color scheme and the wordage themselves that get the better of both figures, the world of the 60’s itself, the pop-anarchy that defines the film (even if in a diluted way) having fun with everyone involved and letting no one come away the victor.
Matched to the slithering, sultry, deliciously, playfully naughty Henry Mancini music now known to almost all, it’s a perfect title sequence to a series of films that never-bettered their title sequences.