Greatest opening moments ever filmed

It's hard—perhaps impossible—to have a great movie without a great opening sequence. Whether it's just one shot or a whole little story, there has to be something right at the beginning of a film to grab the viewer's attention and convince them that this is worth spending a couple of hours on. Some openings are built around dialogue, or even monologue. Some are about action. Some use music to set the mood, and some are unsettlingly quiet. It wouldn't be hard to put together a list of 100 great opening scenes, but here we've assembled ten that represent a variety of approaches and show just how incredible a movie's first few minutes can be.

The Godfather (1972)

Starting a movie with a monologue is a common device, but The Godfather does it better than any other. The movie opens in a dark room, with the unforgettable line, "I believe in America." The man speaking is Bonasera, played by Salvatore Corsitto, not even a major character in the movie. But the story he tells places the viewer perfectly with in the world of the movie. 

Bonasera is an Italian immigrant, and his story is about the immigrant experience. He came to America, found work, started a family. But America betrayed him, valuing the lives of its all-American sons more than that of his Italian daughter. As he's telling this story, the shot expands to include not only his sad face, but the man he's speaking to—the man he is begging to make things right now that the American legal system has failed. That man, of course, is Don Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. 

The first time we watch this scene, we know that Don Corleone is a powerful criminal, but one who people in his community look to for justice when they have no one else. That dichotomy is the key to The Godfather, and it's right here from moment one.

Trainspotting (1996)

Once you've seen Trainspotting, you'll never again hear Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life" without thinking of this opening sequence. It's a masterpiece of quick editing that owes something to MTV without making you feel like you're watching a music video as opposed to a film. 

While a few other things happen, there are three main parts to the montage: Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) run through the streets after a theft, they shoot up heroin in a run down apartment, and they play soccer. The film's other characters are introduced along the way: Swan and Allison, who also do heroin; Tommy and Begbie, who also play soccer; and Spud, who joins them for both. 

And over all of this, McGregor gives a monologue about choosing life (or rather, choosing heroin instead) that was so popular the monologue itself was printed up as a poster. It's a unique opening for a unique movie, and it puts you in exactly the right mood.

Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween cemented the tropes of the slasher genre of horror that went on to dominate the 1980s. From its opening moments, the film wastes no time in not just scaring viewers, but disturbing them as well. 

The first scene is shot from the point of view of a killer, spying some amorous teens and then stalking and murdering one in her bedroom. Even through the eyeholes of a mask, which the unseen killer dons before the murder, we see the knife stabbing again and again as the victim cries out. We hear the killer's breathing. And then, at the end of the sequence, the mask is pulled off and the perspective changes, revealing the killer's face. It's only then that viewers learn the murder was committed by a six-year-old boy. 

Fifteen years later, the adult Michael Myers will break out of an institution to become the killer around whom the Halloween franchise was built, but this prologue is his origin: a disturbed little boy who snapped one Halloween night.

Rear Window (1954)

This is one of those that's better the bigger a screen you watch it, with an actual cinema being the best. Hitchcock's Rear Window opens with a camera push through a large open window, and then offers a tour of the entire urban neighborhood as viewed through that window, letting us peak through the windows of other apartments and see people moving about on a normal morning during a heatwave. 

We get a sense of who each neighbor is, while staying at a distance from them. We also see the sleeping man whose window this is, none other than Jimmy Stewart. And at the end of the sequence the camera moves back into his apartment to give us his story. He has a broken leg, a broken camera, and a wall full of high-risk photographs. And thus Hitchcock weaves the world or Rear Window: a world outside and a man inside who's starved for adventure and has a nose for danger.

Black Sunday (1960)

Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Satan, is an Italian film directed by Mario Bava and starring the British actress Barbara Steele. The movie can't seem to decide if it's about witches or vampires, often directly conflating the two even in this opening sequence. But even as the word "vampire" gets thrown around, it's clear that what's happening here is a witch burning. And even though Steele is quickly revealed to be an actual Satan-worshiping witch (and possibly also a vampire), she's the sympathetic one in this opening, as she's tortured and killed by brutal men. 

Most horrifically, a mask with spikes on its interior is placed on her face and then hammered down with a gigantic mallet. The viewer sees from her point of view as the horrific spikes come toward her face. Blood spurts out around the mask as it's driven into her flesh by the hammer. So when she returns from the dead to take her revenge, blood oozing from many small holes in her face, it's still hard not to feel sympathetic for this evil vampiric witch.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

 

The opening of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused is a perfect mood-setter. An orange 1970 Pontiac GTO circles the parking lot of a high school, perfectly timed to the opening of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." As the song continues, we cut to the lower half of Milla Jovovich's face as she licks the paper to finish rolling a joint. From here on the sequence introduces many of the film's characters, who are at school but paying attention to anything but school. So when the sequence ends with a title that reveals this is the last day of school in 1976, it all makes sense and we're fully within the world of the movie. But then, we already were from the moment we saw that GTO and heard the Aerosmith song.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

You already know this opening by heart, but try to imagine seeing it in 1977, when there was so much less to compare it to. After the opening text crawl, the camera pans down through space to reveal a planet with multiple moons. Then, a ship entires the frame from above. It's moving fast, faster than the Enterprise ever seemed to, and certainly faster than anything in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But this ship has 11 engines on its back, so it's obviously built for speed. It's also exchanging lasers blasts with something behind it, so it's obviously on the run. 

Then the pursuing ship comes into the frame. And then it just keeps coming. The first ship, the Blockade Runner, provides a sense of scale, and then the second ship, the Star Destroyer, immediately shatters that scale. It's unfathomably huge, which is immediately obvious based only on the ship it's chasing. And with that kind of mismatch in size, the first ship becomes the underdog, which makes viewers root for it, even before we know that it contains C-3P0, R2-D2, and Princess Leia. But we'll learn about them soon enough.

Saturday Night Fever​ (1977)

Saturday Night Fever opens with shots of the NYC skyline, and then the camera follows a train into Brooklyn as the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" begins to play. When we first see John Travolta as Tony Manero, he's a perfect illustration of the opening lines of the song: "Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk/I'm a woman's man, no time to talk." 

Travolta struts down the street, carrying a can of paint but looking stylish as can be. He stops to admire some shoes, to put a shirt on layaway, to buy pizza, to hit on a girl. And then he arrives at his destination, and it becomes clear that he's a paint store employee who's been sent out to pick up a can of paint for a customer, who's angrily waiting for it. The moments of joy he found in those first few minutes turn out to be stolen and fleeting, a distraction from his mundane blue collar life. And thus we come to understand who Tony is, and what this movie will be about.

Hustle & Flow (2005)

"See, man ain't like a dog," says Terrence Howard in a thick Memphis accent, as Hustle & Flow begins with the best movie-opening monologue since The Godfather. As Howard explains how mankind's knowledge of death makes it impossible to be as carefree as an animal, the shot widens to give a fuller view of the scene. 

What starts as an extreme closeup of his mouth soon reveals his entire face, his treated curls waiting to be combed out, and that he's sitting in a car talking to someone in the passenger seat. When we finally see that he's talking to Taryn Manning, it becomes clear that she's a sex worker, he's her pimp, and his entire philosophical speech was an effort to convince her to keep sleeping with men for money. Everything changes in that moment, and the table is set for the rest of the film.

​The Dark Knight (2008)

The opening of The Dark Knight stands on its own as an exciting five-minute short film about a gang of faceless men in creepy clown masks pulling a bank heist. The most memorable shot, if not quite the first, is of a man a street corner, shot from behind, holding his mask in his hand as he waits to get picked up by the gang. As they execute the meticulously planned robbery, they discuss the man who planned it. 

None of them seem to know him, but he's called the Joker, and he's making a name for himself in the Gotham City underworld. As each masked man finishes his part of the plan, he's killed by the next man, until there's only one left. And as the mobbed-up bank manager shouts threats, the final man takes off his clown mask to reveal an even creepier clown face beneath it: the face of the Joker. Five minutes into the movie and you've already had an amazing action sequence, an exciting twist, and a perfect introduction to a new take on Batman's greatest enemy.