Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: Inspired by Baby Groot’s “Mr. Blue Sky” dance sequence at the beginning of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” what movie has the best opening credits sequence?
Hands down, it’s R.W. Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun.” I watch the opening sequence at least three times a year and show it to every filmmaker I can. I love any film that begins with a bang, and this one does quite literally: We open up on an explosion that rips out a hunk of brick wall, exposing a German couple in the middle of a rushed marriage ceremony. Bombs drop everywhere — it’s WWII — yet the couple’s so determined to tie the knot, presumably because the soldier’s getting shipped off to war, that they wrestle the priest to the ground and force him to sign their marriage certificate amidst carnage and chaos. It’s hilariously off-kilter and tells me everything I need to know about the tenacity of Maria Braun, all during a credits sequence. I’m a Fassbinderhead, so I could have easily included a few of his other opening sequences here… Maybe just watch them all.
I love the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can.” The graphics are so cool, sleek and retro, it really sets the tone for the vibe and the era of that film. I also like the use of food and condiments in the title sequence for “Napoleon Dynamite.” It’s very clever.
“Catch Me If You Can”‘s title sequence is the first to come to mind — that Saul Bass aesthetic doesn’t feel like a rip off, but a great throwback to the movie’s setting. The way the Tom Hanks and Leo DiCaprio stick figures chase one another around corners and down hallways in those opening credits serve as an excellent prologue to the movie. Those opening credits were just fun to watch, especially with John Williams’ teetering, tip-toeing score.
No way in hell I’m whittling this down to a single all-around best, so take your pick from my top five: “Enter the Void,” for its sensory assault of stroboscopics, flashy fonts, and Daft Punk; “Dr. Strangelove,” for the randy innuendo it mines from military stock footage; “Raging Bull,” for sheer poetry in motion; “The Graduate,” for the heady pairing of Simon & Garfunkel with insecurity; and “Do the Right Thing,” for the marvel of the modern world that is Rosie Perez.
Hype Williams’ “Belly.”
Now, I know. The rest of the movie is not as good. It’s not even good, at all, now that I think of it. But the master of the ’90s music video made arguably best music video in the first 3 minutes of this movie. “However Do You Want Me” blaring on the soundtrack. Slow-motion actors walking into a club. The lighting in total blacklight. Then, things speed up and it’s a robbery. What is going on? The best opening credits ever, that’s what. Now turn the movie off, you’re good.
With opening credits, a director has two options: either making them almost invisible so as not to disturb the images behind and get on with the action, or on the contrary, turning them into their own attraction. Although Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini may be better known for his challenging and sombre depictions of human nature, religion and power structures such as “Theorem” (1968) or “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975), even those films occasionally betray a sharp sense of humor that he fully employs in his 1966 comedy “Hawks & Sparrows.” And that intent is clearly and hilariously signalled from the film’s opening credits: over a long take on a cloudy moonlight, the titles appear in white… and are SUNG. A tenor voice dramatically reads out the names of the cast and crew, as Ennio Morricone’s energetic orchestra makes sure you’re paying attention. The narrator occasionally bifurcates from the text on screen to explain the filmmaking process with Pasolini’s poetic and unsettling words: most of the actors “were found on the streets of the world, in the sad merry-go-round, in the delightful merry-go-round.”
As if that weren’t tongue-in-cheek enough, the narration states that with this film, the producer Alfredo Bini “put his reputation at risk.” And to make matters better/worse, that melody is incredibly catchy.
The James Bond franchise is always a go-to for me, with Maurice Binder’s magnificent work on “Dr. No” and “Diamonds Are Forever” sticking out to me. (When I was a kid, I had all the Bond movies on DVD and I used to spend whole days just watching the title sequences.) Daniel Kleinman took over after Binder retired, and his approach to Bond titles was modern, haunting, able to bring Binder’s more salacious elements and elevate them to a level where they have a political edge, as in “GoldenEye,” where you have iconography of the Soviet Union being handled by nude women. I was also quite fond of his title treatment for “The World is Not Enough.” But my favorite is absolutely his work on “Casino Royale,” where James Bond is stripped to his most basic elements: a man as a silhouette trying to do what’s in his blood. It’s where you get to see Bond try to be 007. (Runners up are Saul Bass’s “Something Wild,” David Bow’es “Young Americans” in the credits of “Dogville,” “I Can’t Give You Anything (But Love)” in Ira Sachs’s “Married Life,” and Rosie Perez dancing to “Fight the Power” in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”).
READ MORE: “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” Review: A Fun Space Opera That You’ve Seen Before
Godard’s “Contempt,” the opening credits of which don’t just provide a cheeky thrill, but also perfectly set the stage for the knotted meta-drama that follows.
The head credits that Sacha Guitry did for “The Story of a Cheat,” from 1936, are a short film in itself, starting with the appearance of the writer and director himself, signing himself onto the screen and then off of it (with a deliciously simple effect) before filming his cast and crew in giddily false casual stances and actions on the set as he introduces and apostrophizes them in an archly whimsical voice-over. But, more than any other director, Jean-Luc Godard has made credits a part of his art—special mention for the tracking shot featuring Raoul Coutard on-screen in “Contempt”; the antic rapid-fire montage of the trio of stars and the mournful industrial-outskirts documentary shots at the start of “Band of Outsiders,” signed Jean-Luc Cinema Godard (though actually “cinema” is the job that he credits himself with); and the absolute conceptual purity of the alphabetization at the start of “Pierrot le Fou.” And to forestall any question about end credits, none that I know have beaten the ones sung by Harry Nilsson at the end of Otto Preminger’s “Skidoo.”
Even though it was released in 1952, without fancy graphics, I am a big fan of the opening of “High Noon.” Dimitri Tiomkin’s “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling” plays hauntingly on the soundtrack as the three bad men who will soon ride into town gather. It sets the tone for the entire film. Simple, yet brilliant. Also love the work of Saul Bass, and his most evocative title sequence is in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 “Vertigo.” For more modern films, I love the work of Kyle Cooper, who has titles on movies such as “Se7en,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Iron Man,” “Moneyball,” “World War Z,” “Rogue One” and “A Cure for Wellness.” For sheer recent nuttiness, I love the opening of “Deadpool,” done by Blur Studio.
I don’t know about best, but the first one to pop in my head as a favorite is the jogging opening of “Birth,” which sets up the tone of the movie perfectly, aided by Alexandre Desplat’s score. I also just keep thinking of other great single-shot openings, namely “Touch of Evil” and “The Player.” For my obligatory documentary picks, some of the best I can think of are “Salesman,” “Streetwise,” and “Don’t Look Back” with its iconic “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video.
I’ve thought it was “Pierrot le fou” ever since I saw it in undergrad, and I see no reason to change it now.
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