Bold type: 13 opening-credits sequences better than the movies that follow

Bold type: 13 opening-credits sequences better than the movies that follow

1. Enter The Void (2009)
French provocateur Gaspar Noé is an aggressive stylist who likes to use titles to unsettle an audience, weakening their defenses before going in for the kill. His first feature, 1998’s I Stand Alone, pauses before the climatic sequence for a title-card “warning” that gives sensitive viewers 30 seconds to vacate the theaters, and his 2002 follow-up, Irréversible, a rape-revenge story told in reverse, opens with the closing credits scrolling backwards and sideways in a nauseating swirl. For Enter The Void, a vapid yet mesmerizing headtrip about a dead American drug dealer floating around Tokyo, Noé offers credits that anticipate the dreamlike, neon-soaked environs of the city at night. To that end, Noé enlisted title designer Tom Kan to create a thrilling fusillade of pulsating typefaces, all set to thumping techno rhythms. The credits appear in wild fonts and flourishes, many done in Kanji and Japanese calligraphy, and the overall effect is as inviting as a great nightclub while simultaneously disturbing in its aggression. Hype Williams would rip it off wholesale pay homage to it in his video for Kanye West’s “All Of The Lights.” 

2. Watchmen (2009)
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel contains more than a few on-the-nose song cues, none more egregious than a laughably rapturous sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” over the opening credits isn’t much less obvious, setting familiar historical scenes from the second half of the 20th century to a song that’s become a cliché signifier of post-war social upheaval. But the way Snyder slows down the action to a crawl, letting viewers’ eyes dwell on the way characters from the Watchmen universe have nudged the course of history into unfamiliar byways subverts that cliché enough to make it feel fresh. The rest of the film struggles to offer as distinctive a take on the material.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Only a serious curmudgeon would call the 1962 perennial To Kill A Mockingbird a bad film. It has that great Gregory Peck performance, for one, and it does a solid job translating the novel’s sense of children grappling with moral issues they can’t yet understand. But the film’s opening credits sequence does an even better job of situating the audience in the point of view of a child. The wordless sequence, in which a child’s hand digs through a box of weird treasures that obviously have personal meaning (marbles, a watch, dolls), gives viewers a perfect sense of who young heroine Scout is before the film has even begun. (The film is much more Atticus Finch’s story than that of his children.) Giving the sequence added resonance, the objects in the box will play major roles in the film to come, subtly suggesting this whole story is one long flashback—just as the book is told from the point of view of a narrator looking back on her childhood.

4. Lord Of War (2005)
“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?” So begins Nicolas Cage’s narration in The Lord Of War, Andrew Niccol’s underappreciated dark comedy about a rogue international arms dealer (Cage) who flees from Interpol as he partners with a genocidal African warlord. From there, the credits follow the life of a single bullet: Down the line at a spark-filled foundry, where it’s created, inspected, and crated, and then to some unnamed, war-torn African nation, where it arrives on a freight ship, gets transported to the middle of a street battle, and is placed inside the chamber of a semi-automatic. And as the director’s credit is about to appear, the bullet leaves the barrel and sails right into the skull of a child soldier. It’s not a particularly subtle plight—Niccol’s decision to stage the sequence to Buffalo Springfield’s go-to Vietnam programmer “For What It’s Worth” makes it all the more blunt—but it establishes a network of human destruction with appropriate efficiency. 

5. Cape Fear (1991) 
Martin Scorsese’s remake of an excellent 1962 thriller with Robert Mitchum makes a few key changes, most notably updating the family dynamic from a stable and supportive one to a more modern clan made vulnerable by betrayal and dysfunction. But Scorsese looks to the past, too, taking the opportunity to reuse Bernard Herrmann’s dramatic score and tap the legendary Saul Bass for the credits sequence—a pairing that proved memorable on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Psycho, and gives the new Cape Fear one of its most indelible sequences. With the strings and horns from Hermann’s score booming, Bass conjures shadows on the rippling water, suggesting the danger that lurks under the placid surface. He starts with a bird of prey reflected on the water before revealing pieces of a menacing figure: a restless eye darting around, an open mouth and teeth, and finally a full, featureless face and a stalker’s body, which the audience only sees in shimmering silhouette. Then there’s the director credit: One drop of blood turns the water from blue to red, and now it’s Scorsese’s turn to do the conjuring. 

6. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
The flirty opening titles to My Best Friend’s Wedding are a charming throwback to the colorful, musical opening credits of romantic classics like Pillow Talk. Four innocent-looking women in pastel bridal garb and white gloves twirl around to Ani Difranco’s sweet cover of Dusty Springfield’s “Wishin’ And Hopin’” in a retro sequence that suggests just the tiniest hint of irony, giving the impression that the movie to follow might be a clever parody of the idyllic rom-com, a cutting commentary on love, marriage, and male-female relationships. While the movie—in which Julia Roberts conveniently decides that she is in love with her best friend Dermot Mulroney the second he becomes unavailable—is indeed a twist on the traditional rom-com in that the heroine is also the villain, it’s also shrieky, broad, and occasionally unpleasant, unlike its first few minutes.

7. Super (2010)
The lonely, possibly deranged protagonist of James Gunn’s black comedy Super is inspired as much by outsider artists as the works of Stan Lee and company. Before taking on the guise of the wrench-baring vigilante Crimson Bolt, down-on-his-luck Rainn Wilson immortalizes the two “good” memories in his life (his wedding and the foiling of a purse-snatching) in childlike crayon renderings. Those drawings expand into the film’s gory title sequence, a jittery animated piece by Minneapolis-based design firm PUNY. Scored to Tsar’s chant-along pop-punk anthem “Calling All Destroyers,” the cartoon adventures of the Crimson Bolt and his teenaged sidekick, Boltie, provide ironic counterpoint to the grim-and-gritty film that follows—but they also express a level of giddy, Troma-esque mayhem that the rest of Super struggles to balance with its deeper psychological concerns. (Also, the credits set expectations for a giant, fire-breathing Michael Rooker that Super just can’t meet.)

8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Casting Liev Schreiber as the hulking, feral Sabretooth (previously played by wrestler Tyler Mane) seemed like a strange choice, but it’s one of the few artistic decisions in director Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine that pays off. Schreiber’s brooding, offbeat intensity gives the previously one-note character unexpected depth, and his chemistry with Hugh Jackman hints at the more complicated, exciting movie that Wolverine might have been. The only time those hints ever pay off, though, is in the opening credits, a montage of Jackman and Schreiber fighting in various armed conflicts through history. Because both characters are functionally immortal, shrugging off injuries that would kill a normal human, the two take part in the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and finally the Vietnam War, where Schreiber’s infatuation with violence finally crosses a line. The sequence is visually kinetic, imaginative, and conveys in just a few minutes decades of a relationship in which one man gives in to savagery, while another starts to doubt his way. Pity about the rest of the movie, which wastes its strong lead performances with a lot of convoluted plotting, unnecessary cameos, and turgid moping. 

9. Hostage (2005)
Put simply, the opening credits to Hostage have no business looking as good as they do. Much care and time has obviously been put into them, but the Bruce Willis-starring hostage-negotiator drama that follows is strictly by the numbers. The red-and-black animated opening pans through a city, and then a specific building being staked out by a SWAT team, with the cast and crew names growing out of power lines, guns, and the like, all to the accompaniment of a terrific score by Alexandre Desplat (who was just on the cusp of becoming the prestige composer he is today). The sequence is full of atmospheric visual panache, raising a high bar that the next hour and 50 minutes can’t come close to reaching. 

10. The Pink Panther (1963)
When hearing the words “Pink Panther,” what immediately comes to mind? Those of a certain age probably think of the classic Blake Edwards-directed series of movies starring the brilliant Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. A few may think of the modern movie series starring Steve Martin (though please don’t). But the majority probably remember the cartoon panther who’s currently the spokes-toon for Owens Corning and has hawked the company’s pink insulation for decades. That impression stems the credits of the original 1963 movie, which introduced adults and impressionable kids to a mischievous, animated Pink Panther (created by David DePatie and the great Friz Freleng). The next year, the panther started appearing in animated theatrical shorts, and by 1969, Pink and the Inspector were both featured in an animated series on NBC. The character has endured for five decades, causing many to forget the “Pink Panther” of the original movie was a prized bauble David Niven’s jewel-thief character was after, not a trouble-prone pink jungle cat.

11. Panic Room (2002)
Panic Room is director David Fincher’s most straightforward genre effort, but its opening credits, with the titles in huge, shimmering, three-dimensional letters projected across Manhattan buildings, are wonderfully portentous. Howard Shore’s score does its best to suck in the audience, but after the credits are over, the film can’t quite live up to its skyscraper-high expectations.

12. Flash Gordon (1980)
Mike Hodges’ version of Flash Gordon never hides that it’s shooting for high camp. Inspired by the comics and film serials from the ’30s, but also by the Adam West Batman, the credits intercut shots of Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) wreaking havoc on Earth with a screeching Queen soundtrack and flashing images of the old comic strip, plus generally bonkers flashing-light effects that promise the wildest, silliest film imaginable. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of its crazy cast (which includes Timothy Dalton and Topol), the film can’t quite nail the same manic energy.

13. Infamous (2006)
Of the two Truman Capote biopics released in 2006, Infamous is both the less notable and the less impressive—with one crucial exception. Its
opening credits appear over a live performance of “What Is This Thing
Called Love?” by Gwyneth Paltrow, who appears only in this one sequence. Since Paltrow has only a mildly pleasant singing voice, this choice seems bewildering—until she suddenly falters for no apparent reason. The band grinds to a halt, and she sings the next verse a cappella, in a mournful whisper, as if each syllable is causing her tremendous pain. Then she takes a breath, snaps her fingers, and the band launches back into the song at the original jazzy pace, as if nothing ever happened. This credit sequence is essentially the entire movie in miniature, as it’s not clear whether the audience just witnessed a genuine breakdown—the singer unexpectedly overcome by the emotion of the song—or merely the canny simulation of a breakdown, à la one of James Brown’s famous fake walk-offs (complete with cape). There’s no way to know whether this woman is feeling something or simply manipulating her audience into feeling something, which speaks more to the queasy relationship between Capote and Perry Smith than anything in the film proper.