The 50 Greatest Opening Title Sequences of All Time
Giving some credit to the finest opening credits ever made.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Opening titles do more than simply tell you who edited a film or designed its production. At their best, opening title sequences operate on the level of pure cinema, translating a movie’s ideas into pure poetic imagery. A movie about the search for a missing girl opens with a title sequence about exposing secrets obstructed from view. A story about a troubled war veteran turned taxi driver begins with titles that mirror its protagonists warped perception through the use of warped visuals of New York City. We learn about the harsh realities of international arms dealing by following the path of a single bullet from factory to innocent victim’s brain.
What makes an opening title sequence particularly outstanding? Bold graphic design and impressive cinematography are important, but how the design and cinematography is used is more important. These fifty films have style and substance. While they dazzle our eyes they’re also busy engaging our brains and our hearts, establishing mood, presenting characters, and introducing themes.
Picking just fifty greatest title sequences was not easy; our short list of worthy contenders ran over 150 possibilities and a lot of great films missed the final cut. I’m frustrated we couldn’t find room for the elegant black and white imagery of “The Fall,” or the clever comic book inspired visuals of “American Splendor,” or the incredible helicopter-to-crane-to-Steadicam shot that starts “The Birdcage.” Great title designers like Saul Bass and Pablo Ferro are represented, but we still couldn’t find room for many of their best efforts — you won’t see “Anatomy of a Murder” or “The Thomas Crown Affair” on our list, and both of those films have fantastic opening titles. There’s a great history of animation in opening credits and I worry that by leaving out films like “The Pink Panther,” “Grease,” and “Ruthless People” we haven’t done enough to honor that tradition. Clearly, we could have easily done a second fifty. Maybe we still should.
Of course, the current fashion in big blockbusters is to skip the opening credits entirely: a studio name, the film’s title, and that’s it. That decision says a lot about these big blockbusters’ priorities: screw mood and tone! Who cares about characters and themes? Let’s get to the action! The creators of the fifty films on this list understood that there’s more to movies than that. And now let’s get to the action. –MS
50. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
Directed by Jim Sharman
They were the lips that launched a midnight movie phenomenon. Giant, ruby red, and filled with pearly white teeth, those lips were the perfect introduction to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” which, like the lips, is a strange, garish, and larger-the-life spectacle. To create that memorable image, director Jim Sharman — who drew his inspiration from the famous Man Ray painting “A l’Heure de l’Observatoire, les Amoureux” — covered actress Patricia Quinn’s face in black paint and put her head in clamps to hold it perfectly still. She sings “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” though the actual vocals we hear come courtesy “Rocky Horror” creator Richard O’Brien. The song is an ode to the pleasures of hanging out at the “late night picture show.” Given “Rocky Horror” cultists’ near-religious fervor for the film, the song essentially acts as a sort of call to prayer, which is fitting since the sequence ends with the lips dissolving into the image of a cross. –MS
49. “Fahrenheit 451″ (1966)
DIrected by Francois Truffaut
A couple of films tried all-spoken titles before Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” most notably Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt.” But text-free titles were especially fitting for “Fahrenheit,” since the film is about a world in which all books are banned and a “fireman” who finds and burns hidden literature. So what would opening titles look like in a world where reading is illegal? In Truffaut’s vision, they’re read by a proper English voice over a series of zooms of monochromatic stills of television antennae. The titles are cold, sad, and unnerving; the use of antennae suggests the ever-present threat of surveillance, detection, and arrest. My one big gripe: the Universal logo still contains the word “Universal.” The iconic image of the Earth encircled by those milky blue rings without the printed text, would have enhanced the atmosphere even further. My one big question: in a world without books, what’s a movie script look like? –MS
48. “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010)
Directed by Banksy
If we actually witnessed any of the acts of vandalism committed in the “Exit Through the Gift Shop” opening titles, we’d be outraged. But those opening titles open our eyes to the beauty of vandalism. Richard Hawley’s inspirational ballad “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” sets the appropriate mood for a series of taggings, sprayings, splashings, and evasions (from the cops, of course). Hawley’s romantic sound works with the footage, but his lyrics — “what you see sets you apart” and “these lights in our hearts they tell no lies” — are even more fitting for a film about a misunderstood subculture. Suddenly this generic love song is an ode to those who find the hidden beauty in our drab world. Maybe “Exit Through the Gift Shop”‘s titles don’t completely convince us to buy in. But they set the stage for the rest of the movie to explain why we should. Eventually we realize graffiti isn’t vandalism; it’s street art. –MS
47. “Do the Right Thing” (1989)
Directed by Spike Lee
The title of the film appears against a black background, accompanied by a brief, broody saxophone run, and then Rosie Perez and Public Enemy take over. For three and a half minutes, the former busts furious moves to the latter, churning up the energy that will power Spike Lee’s sweat-drenched story of Brooklyn in territorial heat. “Fight the Power” was first released on the soundtrack for “Do The Right Thing” and its association with the film, as both a motif and a plot point, has endured even as it’s gone on to become one of the most iconic songs in hip hop history. Lee had Perez (a choreographer making her film debut) dance to the song on several different sets and in several different outfits. There’s club Rosie, boxer Rosie, aerobic Rosie — each one thrashing and grinding to camera and occasionally in profile, as though the song were passing through her in all its awesome turbulence. Lee — who went on to direct a music video for the song — switches up angles and framing to build intensity rather than fragment Perez’s movements, which are choreographed and continuous across the different set-ups. –Michelle Orange
46. “Run Lola Run” (1998)
Directed by Tom Tykwer
Prefaced by quotes from T.S. Eliot and German soccer coach Sepp Herberger, “Run Lola Run”‘s intro is as eclectic and electric as its trifurcated tale. Staged with blistering ferocity by director Tom Tykwer, it’s a mélange of disparate yet interconnected sights: a gargoyle-faced medallion on a swinging pendulum; a scene of fuzzy human crowds and philosophical questions; a vertiginous soccer ball stunt that gives way to a cartoon Lola running, running, running through a clock’s sharp-toothed mouth and spiderwebs; and, finally, mug shots of the cast with jail cell-style sound effects. That this montage then segues naturally into massive zooms from outer space into Lola’s apartment, and then into a phone conversation filled with black-and-white flashbacks, simply furthers the seamlessness of Tykwer’s paroxysmal aesthetics, in which every spastic gesture ultimately speaks to his material’s concerns about time, fate and human agency. –Nick Schager
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