What makes a great opening sequence? Modern Hollywood thinks an opener needs to be grabby and startling, lest the audience lose interest. Critics tend to like openers that show off the director's prowess, though not every movie with a flashy opening can live up to the promise of the first few minutes. (Case in point: Brian De Palma's "Snake Eyes" and "Bonfire of the Vanities," both of which are all downhill after their brilliant tracking-shot first scenes.)
So let's agree that an opening should be memorable, should give a sense or at least a hint of what's to come, and should effectively tell a satisfying shorter story while leaving viewers wanting more. In other words, it should work quickly to immerse us in the world of the movie.
It's a measure of the "Up" opener's effectiveness that we placed it high on the list below of the 40 greatest movie opening sequences of all time. Read on and see if you agree with our choices, or if there are some missing that you would have included.
So much for the prologue. Here, now, comes the main event.
Gallery | The 40 Best Opening Sequences in Movie History
- 40. 'The Naked Kiss' (1964)
In Samuel Fuller's pulpy thriller, Constance Tower flips out in a mental hospital and flips her wig -- literally. Bizarre? Yes. Exploitative? Sure. Still shocking? You bet.
- 39. 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure' (1985)
Tim Burton's first movie opens with a delightful montage of the man-child hero starting his day, complete with ingenious Rube Goldberg devices making his breakfast in a house strewn with weird retro-kitsch artifacts that, in retrospect, seem as much Burton's doing as Paul Reubens's. "Good morning, Mr. Breakfast."
- 38. 'Vertigo' (1958)
At the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, cop James Stewart and his partner chase a perp across the rooftops of San Francisco, but the partner falls to his death. In a few brief strokes, we learn all we need to know about the now-ex-cop's acrophobia, guilt, obsessiveness, and need for redemption.
- 37. 'The Social Network' (2010)
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's brilliant ping-pong match of a conversation between Mark Zuckerberg and the co-ed who's about to dump him ... that's the seed of resentment, status envy, nerdiness, betrayal, and voyeurism that led Zuckerberg to invent Facebook. OK, not in real life, though this segment did launch Rooney Mara's career.
- 36. 'Beetlejuice' (1988).
In Tim Burton's second feature, an overhead pan through a quiet New England village sneakily transforms into a pan over a model of that village (the one in the main characters' attic), ending with the shocking sight of what looks like a giant spider crawling over the town. The trick sets the tone with a crafty mix of creepiness and cleverness.
- 35. 'Wings of Desire' (1988)
Wim Wenders gives us a truly omniscient view of Berlin. We're shown the city from hundreds of feet above, and we plunge down low enough not just to see random locals but to hear their thoughts. Only after 11 minutes of this do we realize that we really are getting an angel's eye view of the city, as we meet the celestial beings who watch over the city with detached compassion but no real empathy for the emotions and sensations, the joys and pains, of mortal lives.
- 34. 'Repo Man' (1984)
Alex Cox's weird, brilliant sci-fi satire begins with a desert highway, a motorcycle cop, a driver wearing shades with one missing lens, a traffic stop gone wrong, an alien force in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu, and the car pulling away as the officer's smoking remains (nothing is left but his boots) smolder on the asphalt. One of the great WTF? openings ever.
- 33. 'Bananas' (1971)
Woody Allen's political farce begins with a bang. ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell plays himself, but he's doing color commentary not on a Muhammad Ali fight but an unfolding assassination of a Central American president. Very funny, and it ties nicely into Cosell's reappearance at the end of the film, calling the consummation of the Allen character's marriage.
- 32. 'Eat Drink Man Woman' (1994)
Ang Lee's family dramedy is also a classic work of food porn, as is evident from the opening sequence, in which a Taiwanese master chef lovingly prepares a lavish dim-sum banquet for his family's Sunday brunch.
- 31. 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World' (2003)
Peter Weir's underrated maritime epic opens with a ship mired in a quiet fog and quickly escalates to a nail-biting naval battle in which our heroes are forced to flee with their tails between their legs. It's like a 19th-century "Star Trek" episode, and yes, that's a compliment.
- 30. 'Stripes' (1981)
In one morning, a brilliantly sad-sack Bill Murray loses his job (well, abandons it on a bridge, along with his taxi and an irate passenger), his car, his girlfriend, and his pizza. No wonder joining the army and putting himself in harm's way seems like a step up.
- 29. 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994)
Mike Newell begins this now-classic romanticcomedy with a montage of the characters waking up in London and getting ready for a mutual friend's country wedding, though the best man, Charles (Hugh Grant), has overslept. His efforts to make up for lost time, as he delivers a symphony of profanity, make for a wry introduction to his character.
- 28. 'Scrooged' (1988)
The film begins with elves chattering away in Santa's workshop, only to be interrupted by the machine-gun fire from a band of terrorists, who are then thwarted by Lee Majors. Turns out it's all just a promo for "The Night the Reindeer Died," a wickedly funny and typically crass exploitation of the holiday from TV mogul Bill Murray. No wonder he's in need of Dickensian redemption.
- 27. 'Memento' (2001)
Christopher Nolan has done some celebrated openers (especially in the "Dark Knight" movies), but it's hard to beat this one for ingenuity. It takes a while, but the viewer eventually realizes that the film is running backwards (the disappearing image on the Polaroid snapshot is a clue), climaxing with a murder. That sets up the ground rules for the reverse-order narrative.
- 26. 'Boogie Nights' (1997)
Trying to one-up his idol, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Andersonopens his porn-industry epic with an epic-length tracking shot that introduces us to all the major characters and their lurid, colorful milieu.
- 25. 'Magnolia' (1999)
How was Paul Thomas Anderson to top his "Boogie Nights" tracking shot? With an even more ambitious sequence, one that introduces a couple dozen major characters and their unhappy situations, all to the tune of Aimee Mann's tense "One."
- 24. 'Do the Right Thing' (1989)
Spike Lee brings pure energy, fury, and heat during the opening credit sequence, set to Public Enemy's stirring "Fight the Power," and featuring then-unknown Rosie Perez jabbing and punching at the screen, hinting at the street explosion yet to come.
- 23. 'Despicable Me' (2010)
The opening is a great trick worthy of one of the film's supervillains, The fat tourists (stand-ins for us) are astonished and horrified to realize that the Great Pyramid is a fake, with the real one having mysteriously been stolen. Nice job.
- 22. 'Manhattan' (1979)
Woody Allen's ode to his favorite island opens with cinematographer Gordon Willis's gorgeous black-and-white tone poem of shots of the iconic New York skyline, to the tune of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." It's a rhapsodic opening, all right.
- 21. 'Sunset Blvd.' (1950)
Even the credits are novel -- projected on the asphalt of the title roadway. Cut to William Holden, floating dead in a pool at a mansion, who begins to narrate the movie in voiceover. And so Billy Wilder sets the tone of gothic weirdness and mordant humor that mark his bleak evisceration of Hollywood.
- 20. 'Apocalypse Now' (1979)
To the tune of the Doors' apocalyptic "The End," Francis Coppola begins with an idyllic landscape suddenly exploding in a blast of napalm. Chopper blades segue (via Walter Murch's brilliant sound editing) into a ceiling fan as Martin Sheen has his hotel room freakout. And thus does the most nightmarish of all Vietnam War movies get underway.
- 19. 'Patton' (1970)
George C. Scott's pep talk in front of an screen-filling American flag is both an extreme example of a rousing martial morale-raiser and an ironic commentary on same. So it goes with the rest of the movie, in its approach to the war movie and biopic genres.
- 18. 'Pulp Fiction' (1994)
Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer's casual, theoretical conversation about what a good idea it would be to rob a restaurant turns brutally empirical in a heartbeat. Cue Dick Dale's propulsive "Misirlou," and we're off and running for the next two and a half hours.
- 17. 'Saturday Night Fever' (1977)
There was a time, kids, when John Travolta was so unfathomably cool and charismatic that he could hold your interest just by strutting down a Brooklyn street in time to the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive." Music, rhythm, Brooklyn, and self-assured footwork -- that's the whole movie in just three minutes.
- 16. 'GoldenEye' (1995)
The 007 movies typically have great opening action set-pieces, but the best may be this one, which had a lot to live up to; it was the first James Bond film in six years, the first after the Cold War, and the first with Pierce Brosnan. It lived up to the hype, first with that bungee jump off the dam, and then with the leap from a motorcycle driven off a cliff into the cockpit of a plummeting plane. Now, that's an entrance.
- 15. 'There Will Be Blood' (2007)
After aping Robert Altman with the openings of his early epics, Paul Thomas Anderson went another direction entirely here, introducing the character of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as if he were some elemental creature, hewn like silver or oil from the bowels of the Earth. For several wordless minutes, he's like a wild animal, burrowing into the earth for sustenance, finding riches, and dragging his broken body to civilization, all through sheer dogged will power. When he finally speaks, it's something of a surprise, since the opening has so thoroughly established him as less a man than a golem of rock, mud, and crude oil.
- 14. 'Citizen Kane' (1941)
Orson Welles's first movie established right away the 25-year-old filmmaker's mastery of visual storytelling. It's economical -- there's the locked gate, the ruined mansion, the dying old man, the mouth uttering, "Rosebud," and the shattered snowglobe. Like the rest of the film, the sequence says everything that needs to be said while hinting at a great mystery that can never be solved.
- 13. 'Inglourious Basterds' (2009)
Quentin Tarantino's World War II epic begins not with a battle but with a 20-minute conversation between a French dairy farmer and Jew-hunting Nazi officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). It's still one of the most tense sequences ever filmed, since both parties know that a Jewish family is hiding beneath the floorboards, and that anyone on the premises could be killed at any moment. In this segment, Waltz establishes the moral stakes of the film and walks off with an Oscar.
- 12. 'The Lion King' (1994)
The introduction of lion cub Simba to his future subjects spread out across the savanna, to the tune of Elton John's soaring "The Circle of Life," is unbeatable pageantry.
- 11. 'The Matrix' (1999)
The initial action sequence, in which Carrie-Anne Moss's Trinity introduces us to that famous time-suspending kung fu kick, gives notice that the rules of physics -- and action movies -- would be forever changed.
- 10. 'Trainspotting' (1996)
The propulsive Motown-style beat of Iggy Pop's proto-punk anthem "Lust for Life" carries this sequence, famous for Ewan McGregor's sarcastic "Choose life" monologue. Director Danny Boyle introduces us to the five major characters as they perpetrate a shoplifting heist and then run for cover. It's a terrifically dissonant sequence, with McGregor's heroin addict rejecting life and structure and forward motion, even while Boyle's filmmaking celebrates all those things.
- 9. 'The Player' (1992)
Robert Altman proves he can top Orson Welles's opening tracking shot for "Touch of Evil" by offering an eight-minute tracking shot that gives a tour of a Hollywood studio, introduces the major characters, eavesdrops on some hilariously awful movie pitches, introduces the blackmail-postcard plot, and establishes the film's self-awareness of its own movie-ness. "He set up the whole picture with one tracking shot," says Fred Ward's character, referring to Welles and "Touch of Evil." So did Altman.
- 8. 'Jaws' (1975)
Few do opening sequences as proficiently as Steven Spielberg. Here, we get a few snippets of John Williams's absurdly economical-yet-perfectly ominous two-note theme music, a shark's-eye view of a woman's wriggling legs, and poor Susan Backlinie screaming her head off as an unseen creature eats her alive. Still scary as hell all these years later.
- 7. 'Goodfellas' (1990)
Martin Scorsese throws us headlong into the rush of Mob life, not with the beginning of Henry Hill's story, but with its least glamorous, most gruesome incident. Only after Joe Pesci kills the not-quite-dead captive in the trunk of the car does Ray Liotta's voiceover proclaim his lifelong dream of being a gangster. It's an opening that set the template for countless imitators, including Scorsese's own "Wolf of Wall Street."
- 6. 'Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope' (1977)
You've seen it spoofed a zillion times, but imagine being a kid in the theater and seeing it for the first time: the words "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away," the blast of John Williams regal fanfare, the three-paragraph crawl of backstory, scrolling and disappearing into deep space, and then the overwhelming sight of the imperial cruiser filling the screen from overhead. That was enough to suck most of us into George Lucas's universe for life.
- 5. 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981)
With Bogart-like aplomb, Harrison Ford is put to the test in what is surely the best opening action sequence ever, from the booby traps to the idol to Alfred Molina's betrayal to his poetic justice to the recovery of the fedora to that iconic rolling boulder and then... to sudden defeat at the hands of Indy's longtime adversary. It's a perfect popcorn sequence, and it leaves you both happily sated and hungry for more.
- 4. 'The Godfather' (1972)
"I believe in America" are the first words heard in the classic Mob saga, but the monologue that follows, as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the undertaker Buonasera, suggests that belief in the American dream goes only so far, and then a desire for vengeance according to the old-world rules of feudal power kicks in. In one majestic shot, Francis Ford Coppola introduces us to the major themes of the movie (and to Gordon Willis's chiaroscuro cinematography) before we even get the reverse shot that shows us Marlon Brando's Godfather, seated in power, yet still hungry for respect and friendship.
- 3. 'Up' (2009)
Instead of that complicated test at the beginning of "Blade Runner," they should just show the opening sequence to "Up." If the viewer doesn't cry at the two lifetimes of love, sorrow, and thwarted dreams encapsulated into those few minutes, he or she is definitely an android or a replicant, not a human.
- 2. 'Touch of Evil' (1958)
On its own, the three-and-a-half minute tracking shot that opens Orson Welles's grimy crime thriller is a masterpiece of suspense (it begins with an unseen assassin placing a bomb in a car trunk, then meanders through a town on the Mexican border until the car explodes). But the mini-movie also serves as a signal to the Hollywood that was about to reject him forever that Welles was still in command of his formidable gifts. To movie lovers, it was perhaps the first time that movie openings became objects of study and admiration, with this one serving as the standard to be copied or challenged.The famous crane shot from Orson Welles' 1958 film, 'Touch of Evil.'
- 1. 'Gravity' (2013)
Alfonso Cuaron gives us not the greatest opening tracking shot ever, but the greatest opening ever, by spending 17 minutes establishing the universe inhabited by our astronaut heroine (and, if you're watching in a 3D theater, getting yourself used to the feeling of tumbling through space), then suddenly ripping it to shreds. Someday, this will replace "Touch of Evil" in the canon, but we're ready to give "Gravity" the decision now.