The Player (1992)

Robert Altman’s career was not at its strongest before The Player; films like Nashville and M*A*S*H were well behind him. The Player brought him back into the mainstream, gaining a further critical appreciation up to his passing in 2006. The film, based on screenwriter Michael Tolkan’s novel, is a savage satire of Hollywood, focusing on an industry executive attempting to avoid being murdered by a mysterious and vengeful screenwriter he wronged in the past. The 8-minute opening happens in a single take, establishing a number of characters (including Tim Robbins’ protagonist) and the shallow world of the studio lot. The stunt is even more impressive because of how Altman calls attention to it; listen to co-star Fred Ward blithely extol the virtues of the opening of Touch of Evil to a cohort. The Player is generally one of Altman’s stronger pictures, starting at a high point with a typically dry take on the industry.

Get Shorty (1995)

Get Shorty is best known as an inside-baseball satire of Hollywood, depicted through a film-loving loan shark, a sleazy B-movie producer, an A-lister, and his old flame. But the lead, Chili Palmer, has to get to Hollywood first, and the pre-title sequence establishes how that happens. What happens in the opening sequence, so instantly slick and clever, is calmly laid out, with detail-laden dialogue (via Scott Frank’s script) that feels cool and deadpan in the right ways. (When Chili discovers his nemesis Ray Barboni stole his leather jacket, he demands the price of the jacket, and specifies that it was a Christmas present from his ex-wife, without feeling exposition-heavy.) A large part of why the opening works so well, aside from its efficient pacing, is Travolta, who’s in rare form as Chili. From the first, he fits perfectly as a cinephile working for an old-school gangster – at least, until that gangster dies and his future isn’t so safe.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Outside of Fantasia, Disney’s most ambitious animated film is this dark, tragicomic tale. A decade before, Disney was struggling after the failure of The Black Cauldron; now, they were adapting a novel by the writer of Les Miserables, from the directors of the studio’s Best Picture nominee, Beauty and the Beast. On the whole, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is flawed; one minute, we get a great, complex villain song in “Hellfire”, and the next, Quasimodo gets advice from a farting gargoyle. But its opening scene sets a magnificent, operatic tone, set to “The Bells of Notre Dame.” Here, we see how Quasimodo, as a baby, was saved because the Archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral stopped the evil Judge Frollo from drowning him. Though many Disney Renaissance-era films have great opening sequences – The Lion King being the obvious choice – this film’s mix of striking animation, harrowing story, and swelling music makes it stand above the others.

Scream (1996)

There are memorable opening scenes in horror films – think of the POV shot in Halloween – and then there’s this. Scream is a fine horror movie, but it never gets better than the extended opening sequence where a killer wearing a mask inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” attacks and brutally murders a pretty blonde girl (Drew Barrymore) after quizzing her about her favorite scary movies. Scream’s sequels have notable opening scenes as well, like in the second film where Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps are separately attacked by the Ghostface killer or in the fourth film, which has a Russian-nesting-doll style to its opening with a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie reveal tied to Ghostface piling up more murders. But the mix of wry humor in the outset of the first film’s opening, along with the grimness that director Wes Craven adds once the killer gets serious and cruel, is what will always make it the franchise’s most iconic element.

Magnolia (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson is arguably the best filmmaker under 50, and Magnolia is his most sprawling film. In many ways, the film is also his messiest (in a good way). Nowhere is it clearer than in the 13-minute opening sequence, bridged by the title card appearing over Aimee Mann’s cover of “One”. The first part, narrated by Ricky Jay, describes three coincidences: a man murdered by vagrants whose names match the location of the murder, a blackjack dealer (Patton Oswalt) dying in a freak accident caused by the alcoholic pilot who assaulted him at a casino, and a young man inadvertently being killed by his mother as he attempts to commit suicide. The second part introduces us to the film’s massive cast, from a misogynistic motivational speaker to his dying father to a genius child, and so on. Magnolia is clearly massive; the opening sequence is as sharp, breathlessly paced, and emotionally direct as what follows. Anderson’s films all open strong, but Magnolia goes wonderfully big with its time-jumping opening.

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