' ' Cinema Romantico: My Christmas List (Part 1)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

My Christmas List (Part 1)

In this season of lists – specifically Christmas lists – I have decided to get in on all the list-making. During the month of December I will provide three of my own lists concerning the wonderful world of cinema. We will start today with my All Time Top 5 Favorite Movie Openings, and follow up in the coming weeks with my All Time Top 5 Favorite Movie Cameos and All Time Top 10 Favorite Movie Characters (because you can’t limit that category to a mere 5). So pour a cup of celebratory eggnog – spiking it with whatever you wish, though I would, of course, recommend rum – and enjoy. Here are the best movie openings………

1. “Manhattan”. A beginning as close to poetry as the movies have ever produced. It’s a black-and-white ode to Woody Allen’s favorite city, complete with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a killer voice-over. For anyone who may desire learning how to properly write voice-over, this is your lesson plan. It’s done in the form of Allen as a novelist attempting to come up with a beginning of his new book about the greatest city in the world, except he keeps starting and stopping – not satisfied with what he has written ("Let's face it, I want to sell some books here.") But at last he hits it (just in time to coordinate with the most powerful part of the chosen Gershwin tune) with, “It was his city, and it always would be.”

2. “Boogie Nights”. The precedent for this opening was set by Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” – an extended tracking shot that seems to last forever. But the shot in “Touch of Evil” is to movies as Bill Haley and the Comets were to rock ‘n roll. The opening to “Boogie Nights” is Elvis. The camera starts sideways, showing the marquee of a club that bears the same name as the film, and then tracks around to the car carrying Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore. It then follows them inside – never cutting – as we are introduced to every major character we will be spending time with over the next two and a half hours. And “Best of My Love” is the perfect song to accompany this journey of the camera, though I still don’t know how writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson knew it would work so well.

3. “Heavenly Creatures”. Peter Jackson’s greatest film starts as what appears to be a documentary concerning the cozy town of Christ Church, New Zealand. It’s filmed on that horrible ‘70’s film stock with quaint narration – almost like something you would’ve watched in Driver’s Ed or perhaps Home Ec class. But then the sound starts to frazzle, it gets louder, the narrator fades out, and boom! We cut to a shot of two teenage girls, blood streaking their faces, running and screaming. A freaked-out woman races out of her home to meet their cries – “It’s mother!” the girls yell. “She’s terribly hurt!” Cut to black. Who?! WHAT?! WHERE?! WHEN?!Why?! I hope they show this opening in film school (but they probably don’t).

4. “Bananas”. Woody Allen, again? You better believe it, though this time the opening passage is much more comedic in the form of the first play-by-play assassination in film history. We open with the late sportscaster Howard Cosell announcing he is in the capital city of the island country San Marcos where the President is “about to be assassinated”. Then we get Cosell’s aforementioned play-by-play. And once the predictable melee has broken out after the shooting, Cosell fights his way through the crowd to garner a one-on-one interview with the dying President shouting, “Let us through! This is American television, damn it!”

5. “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. As Mr. Wilhelm once said of Cosmo Kramer at the New York Yankee ball, “Wow! What an entrance!” From the inventive transition shot of the Paramount logo to the real mountain peak we follow this figure in the Fedora – only seeing his back. But finally, he steps out of the dark and into the light – revealing our hero (say it with me!) Indiana Jones. Then he goes into the cave, encountering one spectacular action-movie set-piece after another. The open cavern he has to first swing over and then jump over minutes later. The rolling ball. The booby-trapped room. On and on, all to recover a single precious statue. And after all that – after nearly dying numerous times – what happens? He loses the statue to his French rival. Indy goes from invincible to vulnerable in a matter of moments. Brilliant.

1 comment:

Wretched Genius said...

It is obvious that in your mad rush to come up with 5, you overlooked many. Thus, I'll help you out by added my Top 5, which in no way resembles yours, save for a P.T. Anderson film.

1. "Magnolia"
The opening is linked to the rest of the film only in theme, and serves to set the stage for the events that will follow. And what a stage it sets. Narrator extrordinare Ricky Jay tells 3 tales of amazing coincidence. A muder in the town of Greenberry Hill, a scuba diver found dead at the top of a tall tree during a forest fire, and the boy who tried to commit suicide by jumping off a roof but was accidently shot by his parents as he plumeted towards the ground. I sometimes put in the DVD just to watch the opening. It is that good.

2. "Pulp Fiction"
Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer share a wonderful conversation at a diner that could only come from the mind of Quentin Tarantino. Everyone has seen this, so I don't need to elaborate. But when they stand up and shout to the rest of the diners that they are robbing the place, and the absolute right music kicks in at the absolute perfect time, it is a cinematic moment of glory.

3. "Kill Bill, vol. 1"
Uma Thurman, in black & white, lays bloodied and broken on a dirty wood floor, wearing her wedding dress. We hear heavy footsteps appraoch, and by the look in her eyes we know that there is little hope for her. David Carradine speaks from offscreen, and his words give us the idea of a wise, elequant man capable of horrible things. He speaks to her of sadism and heartbreak. We hear him loading a gun, we hear the click of the hammer. And all the while, we stare at Uma Thurman as she struggles for breath. When at last she tries to speak, to tell the man that her baby is his, he shoots her in the head before she can finish the sentence. Amazing.

4. "Sin City"
This short scene between Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton was shot long before the rest of the movie, as a screen test by Robert Rodriguez to lure Frank Miller into giving his consent for a feature film. Based on one of his short stories, the opening has Josh Hartnett approach Marley Shelton on the terrace of a high-rise penthouse. He lights her cigarette, and the two flirt a little. Hartnett seems to know who she is, and while she is aware who he is, she is meeting him for the first time. He tells her the ways in while she is beautiful and scared, he comforts her with soft, loving words. They embrace, and he says he loves her. Then he shoots her and lays her gently on the ground, holding onto her until long after she has faded. Through his voice-over, we learn that she has paid him to kill her, so she could escape her life. The camera pulls up and away, quickly zooming out as the whole city reveals itself to be the opening title. A stylish entrance for a film that set a new highmark for style.

5. "Dawn of the Dead (2004)"
Yes, it's a popcorn horror movie that urinates on the grave of its predeccesor. But the first 10 minutes are phenominal. The zombie outbreak is seen in wide shots of an entire neighborhood under siege. Sarah Polley drives her suburban sedan through scene after scene of confusion, panic and disaster. When she finally loses control of her car, crashing into a tree, the screen goes black. The credits are written in blood. And while video clips of News coverage flash on and off the screen, Johnny Cash sings the audience into the movie. It doesn't seem like this movie should be on anybody's list of anything good, but watch those first 10 minutes again. It's earned it slot here.