Why should we care about credits? Aren’t they just a boring formality so producers can pat themselves on the back?
This is certainly how they began. Movies used to simply use a few title cards so everyone got credited quickly and we could all move on. Then something happened. Someone out there realized that during a credit sequence they could convey certain things to the audience that the narrative couldn’t strictly do. Quentin Tarantino, himself a proponent of great title sequences said that the opening credits sequence “is usually the only mood time that movies give themselves.” Credit sequences are now normally expected to set up the whole tone of the film you are about to watch. But as I hope you’ll see here they can do even more than that. My rule was simple. Every one had to be a credit sequence, not simply an opening sequence. That’s it. Here we go!
10. Shaun Of The Dead (2004)
Sorry for the video. Start at 3:08. I certainly wouldn’t call Edgar Wright’s Shaun Of The Dead a “message” movie. It’s a sweet romantic comedy…with zombies. However the opening sequence seems (still humourously) to meditate on a few larger ideas than we are presented within the story. What differentiates us from a zombie anyway? If it is just an organism with basic motor functions trying to satisfy a few biological urges (eat, sleep, listen to iPod) “zombie” can be seen as a pretty broad term. A brilliant little piece of social satire tucked into one the best comedies in recent memory.
9. Ed Wood (1994)
Much of the soul of Tim Burton’s biopic about the so called ‘Worst Director Of All Time’ Ed Wood is that Burton is not in the least cynical about his subject material. Edward D. Wood Jr. may have been a horrible writer and director, but Burton seems to see Wood as an true underdog willing to fight for his art. Terrible as they are by normal standards Wood saw value in his films and it’s that heart which Burton captures gut-wrenchingly well in Ed Wood. The opening title sequence then is a love letter to the late auteur using the language he was famous for. Tim Burton’s films are full of beautiful crafted effects but here he employs the tacky gimmicks of early low-budget sci-fi and horror films including cardboard gravestones and flying saucers on which you can clearly see the strings. Funny enough it’s these “strings” that you will eventually fall in love with by the end of this masterful work.
8. American Psycho (2000)
Elegant typeface against pristine white (later echoed in the infamous business card scene) is interrupted by sinister red droplets we can only assume to be blood. The fact that it is revealed only to be raspberry sauce strangely only serves to enhance the disturbing veneer director Mary Harron exposes in American Psycho. This balletic sequence is genius in the way it effortlessly intertwines the brutality and facile decadence of the world inhabited by the thing called “Patrick Batman Bateman”. This credit sequence is beautiful in the way it can directly and wordlessly address the themes of the movie, a trait of a good opening sequence, as the characters will rarely be given the perspective ever to make such affecting observations. An obvious inspiration for the also-great Dexter opening credits.
7. Vertigo (1958)
I couldn’t in good conscience leave Saul Bass off this list, a designer known for some of the most iconic title sequences ever made. Vertigo struck me as the most interesting of his sequences not so much for its great stylistic tendencies, but its undeniable hypnotic effect and how I believe it speaks to the very personal nature of Hitchcock’s unforgettable thriller. People have written at length about feminism in Hitchcock’s films and Vertigo is no different, centering around the obsessive search for female identity. The opening titles, aided in no small part by Bernard Herrmann’s precarious score illustrate this almost fetishistic objectification of the female form as the titles appear and disappear around the woman’s face until we look into her eye and see Vertigo and the swirling hypnotic forms that follow.
6. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Credit here goes very much to the fluid animation of Kuntzel and Deygas who, along with John Williams’ light idiosyncratic score convey so much of the fun mystery of Spielberg’s 1960s-style adventure. And stylistically this piece is a marvel, combining the pink panther-like chase of old detective movies with the beautiful aesthetic tropes of 1960s decor and advertising. If I was Don Draper I would approve. And then I would sexually harass something.
5. The Big Lebowski/Fargo (1998/1996)
I’m a horrible cheat. I couldn’t choose between these two amazing Coen Brothers sequences. The Big Lebowski‘s I love for it’s outright aesthetic beauty and how it’s use of slow motion turns the act of bowling into what it is, a very bizarre and tacky spectacle. It makes you think: who the hell are these characters we are about to meet? Well…sometimes…there’s a man…
As for Fargo the opening text at the very beginning serves a wholly different purpose than the others on the list. It outright lies to the audience. I was watching this with a friend and I told her “You know the ‘THIS IS A TRUE STORY”‘ thing they have at the beginning of this movie? It’s not true. It never happened.” To which she replied “But they’re not allowed to do that!” Well…I guess they did it anyway. From this clever little joke we are immediately thrown into a world of dark blue, a miasma we cannot even make sense of until we finally see the harsh landscape illuminated by headlights and the swell of Carter Burwell’s haunting score. This movie is an American masterpiece and you can tell from the first minute.
4. Ghost World (2001)
This is immediately the sequence I think of any time I try to think of a great opening sequence. As we slowly pan along and look through the windows of this apartment building we are literally dropped into the sad existences that populated Daniel Clowes’ poignant graphic novel the film is based on. These images are juxtaposed with the exuberant “Jaan Pehechaan Ho” and moments from a Bollywood film called Gumnaam. The music and images of course belong to our heroine, Enid, who we find living amidst this fun house mirror of sad American archetypes. Enid’s status as an outsider in this place and her love for smaller idiosyncratic joys are set up beautifully in this short collection of shots and already we can feel like we know her. I love this film.
3. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
These credits actually employ a fairly normal and recognizable technique of introducing the cast and crew. It’s only after having watched the film through once that the darkness and silliness of this sequence becomes evident. In fact, knowing nothing about the film’s content I’m sure the credits seem downright heavenly. The planes are basically holding hands! What a nice thought! Never mind these planes could instigate nuclear holocaust, it’s just nice. This nice-ness sets up the light comic tone used through the whole movie to show some of the darkest aspects of humanity and how evil can thrive through bureaucracy. Beautifully shot and effortlessly employed, Kubrick again shows his genius. So stop worrying and love this sequence.
2. Run Lola Run (1998)
Easily the weirdest opening credit sequence here. For the only time in this film we are put face to face with the antagonist: time. Time here personified by the most evil looking clock you will ever see. Stylistic, expressive, funny, frenetic, this sequence has everything and is one of the most overtly philosophical I have ever seen. The brilliance of this movie to me is not simply it’s deranged hyper-MTV style, but how it meshes so easily with the philosophy and emotions offered to us throughout.
“The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. That’s a fact. Everything else is pure theory. Here we go!”
1. Mean Streets (1973)
After Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore Martin Scorsese seemed to formally announce his budding genius to the world with the rapturous Mean Streets. There is a lot of experimentation in this film, not least of which is in the unforgettable opening sequence. After the first scene where we gain a glimpse into Charlie (Harvey Keitel)’s psyche we see a movie projector light up to show Charlie’s home movies. These can be read either as films taken by friends and family which we are now privy to or maybe they are in fact Charlie’s idyllic fantasy of the image he wishes his life resembled. As we soon find out Charlie’s daily routine is hardly the noble and charmed life we seem to be witnessing in theses home movies. Scorsese too seems aware of this fantasy as he positions the fictional images at half their size. Another revolutionary technique famously employed by Scorsese is on display here too. In 1973 films were scored by professional composers. Scorsese chose to make his films more personal and more gritty by sampling rock and pop tracks from his own record collection. His film relationship with the Rolling Stones alone is legendary. But for me the most expressive song in the film is the Ronette’s Be My Baby we hear over the opening titles, making a relationship between music and image that are very different from each other and yet forever linked in my mind when the chorus bursts in and the hard red “Mean Streets” introduces us to the world of Charlie, Johnny Boy and (of course) Marty.
Honourable mentions: Fight Club, Do The Right Thing, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Jaws, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and L.A. Confidential
I would love to hear some of your favourites!