Sometimes a great opening sequence can set the tone for the entire movie. In today’s Phenomenal 5 we are going to look at some of the very best of them. Narrowing it down to just five is brutal but those are my self-inflicted rules. While I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, there is no denying that these five opening scenes are nothing short of phenomenal.
#5 – “Saving Private Ryan”
Of all the films on this list this is probably the most heralded movie opening of the bunch. Steven Spielberg ratchets locks in on battlefield realism in giving us what many have called the most authentic depiction of combat ever put on screen. From the very first frame we understand Spielberg wants to immerse us in the tension and horror of D-Day. The result is a gripping and visceral cinematic account unlike anything we’ve seen.
#4 – “The Dark Knight”
There are many things I love about Christopher Nolan’s unforgettable opening to “The Dark Knight”. First and foremost it serves as our first introduction to Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker. It begins with an eerie opening shot of him holding a mask on a street corner. From there Nolan takes us through a bank heist that’s deftly shot and edited, has such sharp pacing, and features some of the best moments from Hans Zimmer’s score. It’s a superb scene.
#3 – “Touch of Evil”
There are many examples you can point to that shows off Orson Welles’ brilliance as a filmmaker. One is found in the opening scene of his 1958 gem “Touch of Evil”. The movie opens with one of cinema’s great uninterrupted tracking shots. For over three minutes the camera weaves back and forth between two newlyweds walking and a second couple slowly navigating their convertible down a crowded street. Talking about it doesn’t do it justice. It is truly a must-see sequence for any movie fan.
#2 – Inglourious Basterds”
While I may not have been blown away by every aspect of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”, the opening of his alternate-reality World War 2 film may be his very best work. It features Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) questioning a French farmer (Denis Ménochet) about the whereabouts of missing Jewish families. The white-knuckled interrogation ratchets up the intensity unlike anything I’ve seen on screen.
#1 – “Once Upon A Time in the West”
An absolute masterclass on the use of image and sound to build atmosphere and tension. This Sergio Leone classic is my favorite western for a host a reasons, one being Leone’s unmatched technique. The opening train station scene encapsulates Leone’s breathtaking artistry. From the first look into Jack Elam’s eyes to the echo of Charles Bronson’s revolver. It’s pure cinematic brilliance and the perfect way to open Leone’s masterpiece.
There were several big ones I hated to leave off so I’m counting on the comments section to help me out. C’mon readers, don’t let me down.
You missed There Will Be Blood 😉
That’s a good one. The introduction to Daniel Plainview. That DDL performance is still one of my favorites of ALL TIME.
Not much beats the opening of San Andreas!
Is that the one with the Rock and the rescue attempt?
Yes I think so (though all his movies are rescue attempts!! – he’s saved the world 4 times now -line from his current movie 🙂 ) anyways I digress, its the one that starts with a pretty blonde driving a jeep, an earthquake happens and she is toppled off the road, the soundtrack to it is AM AY ZING! even though its a Rock saves the world movie 🙂
That’s right. The world needs the Rock! 😉
Very strong shouts. I really love Magnolia. If you were going purely on words, I’d add A Civil Action. That opening dialogue is really powerful.
A Civil Action? Remind me of that one. For some reason I can’t place it.
It’s not that famous believe me, despite a really strong cast. It’s opening monologue lists how people are ranked in terms of the law. A legal version of We are all equal but some are more equal than others. I’m really not doing it justice.
Interesting. Sounds like I should look that one up.
Oh that’s strong. Good stuff.
I have seen most of these films and you’re right; they do have great openings. The opening for Saving Private Ryan in particular really grabs the audience’s attention while telling them exactly what is at stake. Kind of makes me wish Spielberg would challenge himself more these days.
I still remember the first time I saw the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Literally speechless.
All really good choices. I would personally add the following:
The opening to the original Star Wars film is an absolute classic with that Star Destroyer flying overhead. I would also go for the opening in Jaws, which was absolutely terrifying.
Ooooh good picks! You won’t hear me argue with either. That Jaws opening especially….terrifying indeed.
When I saw the title my first thought was “The Dark Knight better be here” and I was not disappointed lol. Great list!
That opening…so freaking good. From that killer opening image to Zimmer’s fantastic score. Such a perfect intro to the Joker.
Saving Private Ryan!! I’d say that’s a movie opener that has had the biggest impact on me. That being said, I’m glad the Dark Knight was on there too! 🙂 (And Touch of Evil! Yes, Touch of Evil)
So you’ve seen Touch of Evil? That sequence blows my mind every time I watch it. It is such a technical marvel and so well pulled off.
Oh yes, I watched it in one of my film classes in college. We allll marveled about that sequence! 🙂
You can’t go wrong with any of these choices. And here’s something that I’m sure not many know about the opening scene in Once Upon a Time in the West. The three men waiting for Charles Bronson to arrive were supposed to be played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach but Eastwood had fallen out with Leone during the production of The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly while Van Cleef and Wallach were unavailable.
Really? I have watched that movie so many times over the years and had no idea about that fun fact. Wow!
Magnificent list. Makes me think of starting one, but I wouldn’t know where to start…
Nice to see Inglourious Basterds get a mention. The first 20 minutes of that film still remains as Tarantino’s best directorial work. To go from an epic western to a historical war drama to a claustrophobic horror-thriller all in one scene, amazing.
100% agree with it being QT’s very best work. His ability to ratchet up tension in that scene reminds me of some of the true greats of cinema history. It’s such an incredible mix of performance, dialogue, and pacing.
Touch of Evil’s intro really is quite something, isn’t it? It really does show Welles at his top form, I’m not sure any other director could have pulled that off that effortlessly.
Also second Magnolia’s intro, though some of my other favorites include Apocalypse Now, 2001 (though pretty much any Kubrick opening would do), La Dolce Vita, Taxi Driver, The Searchers, and The Wall.
It’s just so good. Great mention of La Dolce Vita. Huge fan of that one. Taxi Driver too.
The opening of Jaws is so gut-wrenching , that as a 10 year old sitting in the theater it messed me up really good for the whole movie going forward . Still a gripping start to an amazing movie . The 1st Star Wars , that space scene of the destroyer coming into the scene and the whole sequence was awesome . Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indys amazing escape and run was cool .The original Night of the Living Dead , was so creepy and terrifying . Goldeneye was a great relaunch with a new Bond . Opening sequence set the tone for the movie .
Looooove that someone finally mentioned “Raiders”. That’s one I REALLY struggled with leaving off the list. And what a great memory of “Jaws”! Of course that’s probably a hard first impression to forget, right?
Its funny because every time I watch that movie again , at least once a year , I can recall that theater experience lol Still one of the most unique nights I ever had at a movie. Great memories though .
For sure. That’s awesome. Never was able to see it in theaters.
All great choices!! Cannot fault them! While they are obviously very generic I always look forward to a Bond film opening sequence.
Oh I can see why. Maybe they’re a little generic but always fun.
IB’s opening is SO GOOD. I loved the way that film was told, that chapter structure really worked well in this one and Hateful Eight
I rewatched it a few months back when I put this together and was literally glued to every word, every look, every pause…sooo good.
Well, I’d have included the opening title sequence of 2001 A Space Odyssey personally, but all those above deserve and warrant inclusion in such a list. The opening shots of the original Star Wars could probably have snuck in, whilst I’m absolutely in awe of EVERYTHING Sergio Leone did as a filmmaker, you could make a list solely with his films alone. OUATITW is astonishingly well shot, a masterpiece of cinematography and framing.
It might also pay to check out the opening sequence to The Villainess (a recent flick) and revisit Casino Royale and The Matrix before locking things away.
Kudos for including Saving Private Ryan – easily my pick for #1.
I need to check out the Villainess. And you’re so right on Leone. I was introduced to him at a very early age because he was a favorite of my dad. Anytime one of his films would hit television you can guarantee we were going to watch it.
Excellent choices there. There are so many options, but I’m going with Dunkirk. 🙂
Oh that Dunkirk opening is brilliant! Running through the village dodging gunfire before making it to that dead end, wide open beach. Sooo good.
I don’t know if it’s up there with some of these fine choices, but I friggin love the way Casino Royale opens, in black and white, some business to be handled before he gets his little 007 status. That was a CLASSIC Bond cold open.
Awesome mention. I absolutely love Casino Royale!
Great list! I love all these opening sequences, and I frequently re-watched those of The dark knight and Inglorious basterds even when I didn’t have time to re-watch the whole movie!
Thank you. Every one of these has left and unmistakable mark on me. Such great filmmaking
End of Watch! Such an intense movie,
Nice! It has been a while since I’ve seen it.
Agh – too many to choose from! Still, there’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “The Peacemaker”, “Jurassic Park”, etc.
That opening to “Raiders” is so much fun. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that. And I still remember seeing it in the theater during its release.
Agreed. (Although my Mum was 10 when the movie was released, so it was a few decades before I saw it 🙂 )
Absolutely excellent picks!
Thank you. It was a lot harder to narrow down than I thought it would be.