Lord of War (2005)

Lord of War is arguably the weakest film on this list. However, its opening credits sequence is an eye-popping, show-offy bit of technical flair from writer/director Andrew Niccol. The concept is simple: we watch the life and death of a bullet, from its “birth” in a factory to the moment it winds up in the center of the forehead of a boy in the middle of war-torn Africa. What makes the scene stand out, aside from the moral and social implications, is that it’s all done in one take. Of course, there’s a fair (and obvious) amount of special-effects wizardry making this happen, whether in showing how a soldier picks up a bullet to put it back into a box or when the bullet comes sailing out of an assault rifle before landing in its target’s brain. The scene is scored to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” a ubiquitous protest-era song, underscoring the casual cruelty of the gun trade that forms the backbone of the film.

Casino Royale (2006)

The James Bond franchise has always offered memorable – or hopefully memorable – opening pre-title sequences. The Daniel Craig-era Bond films are no different: Skyfall opens with a propulsive action sequence climaxing in 007 being shot and falling off the top of a train in Istanbul, and Spectre opens with a single-take action scene set amidst Dia de Los Muertos celebrations in Mexico. But for Craig’s first go-round as Bond, the opening was as stripped-down as the new, back-to-basics Bond was. The short scene doesn’t feature any wild pyrotechnics, outrageous stunts, or the like: it’s shot in black-and-white and shows us how Bond acquired his 00 status, by killing a treacherous MI6 agent and his contact, the latter of whom puts up a nasty fight in a bleached-white bathroom. Martin Campbell, who also directed GoldenEye, isn’t as stylish a filmmaker as Sam Mendes, but the unflinching, genuinely gritty style of this opening helps it stand out among modern Bond entries.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Each Mission: Impossible film starts memorably, from Tom Cruise climbing a massive cliff face to escaping from a prison to hanging onto an airplane wing. But the opening scene of the third film, J.J. Abrams’ directing debut, is the best because of its quickly escalating suspense. Starting in medias res, the movie opens with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt waking up strapped into a chair by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s baddie, and staring at his newlywed, bound-and-gagged wife (Michelle Monaghan). The stakes are simple: Hunt has to deliver something called the Rabbit’s Foot, or Hoffman’s character will kill his wife after he counts to ten. Hunt tries his best to dissuade his captor, especially since he believes he already delivered the Rabbit’s Foot. But he’s apparently wrong, Hoffman counts to ten, the gun fires, and we cut to credits. The movie that follows is only a solid action film, but it starts incredibly well.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The best film of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight has many great setpieces, from the Joker and Batman’s first face-off at a swanky party in the Wayne penthouse to the extended sequence that begins with the Joker attacking a SWAT truck holding Harvey Dent, includes a semi-truck flipping end over end, and culminates in Batman viciously interrogating the Joker in the Gotham City PD. The opening sequence is a fantastic statement of purpose, and a clear homage to Michael Mann’s classic crime drama Heat. In the IMAX-filmed sequence, the Joker (hiding behind a clown mask) and a group of thugs rob a bank and fend off an attack from the mobbed-up bank manager. The hallmarks of the series are all present in the five-minute setpiece: Hans Zimmer’s blaring soundtrack; gunfire without gore; simmering suspense; and an authenticity rooted more in crime dramas than comic books. It signals the brilliance to come, even if it’s not the high point.

The Social Network (2010)

The marriage of visionary director David Fincher, idealistic writer Aaron Sorkin, and the story of Facebook may seem destined to fail. But from the pre-title sequence of The Social Network, it’s clear that these disparate elements will come together beautifully. It’s hard to believe the first scene, a date gone sour between Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), lasts only five minutes. Mark and Erica spend that time talking – arguing, really – at a ridiculous speed. Erica only appears briefly after the opening, but within the structure of Sorkin’s adaptation, her decision to break up with Mark is pivotal. He treats her callously, suggesting that they’re in a bar because she slept with the bouncer or that the caliber of person she’d meet through him is better than anyone she could meet on her own. But in context of that breathless opening – punctuated by bar-crowd noise on the soundtrack and Fincher’s choice of a muted brown color palette – it makes sense that Zuckerberg holds onto the memory of Erica all the way to the end of the film.

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