Here’s a quick list to explain why these lists often take a bit of time, in order of difficulty:

4. Choosing the subject matter

3. Choosing the films

2. Choosing the order

1. Finding the pictures

Which, unfortunately, explains why my next major list (surprise, surprise: Top 10 Endings of 2009) may take a while (or will just include fewer pictures, which would be sad).

Now, any great film teaches you how to watch it within the first few moments. That’s what makes the opening of a film so critical: it can set a tone that will determine the rest of the proceedings, or it can establish expectations with the express intention of breaking them. They can hit the ground running or start a slow burn.

Certain posts will be spoiler-tastic, so proceed with caution.

So, without further ado, the best of the best:


The Hangover (Director: Todd Phillips)

The perfect bait-and-switch. The run-of-the-mill romantic comedy tone and color palette is demolished in one sharp cut by a sunburned blast of reality. You can almost feel the oppressive heat of the Nevada sun. The seemingly endless expanse of desert, set to Danzig’s “Thirteen” prepares the audience for a very dark comedy, where every move is a matter of life and death.


Bright Star (Director: Jane Campion)

These extreme close-ups of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) sewing revel in the missed details of an activity we might take for granted. The way the thread twists, almost dancing through each hole. Director Jane Campion and DP Greig Fraser want the audience to experience the film like a poem; to luxuriate in the experience, to take a sensory ride. And lest you think the beauty of such poetry is all flowers and undying love, Campion never lets us forget that it can be a sensual, almost erotic, experience.


Avatar (Director: James Cameron)

Avatar is ultimately a film that shows its whole hand a bit early, but what a hand it is. The first frames of Avatar can’t help but grip you. At that moment, all the hype had faded away, and I was utterly entranced by Jim Cameron’s bold and enchanting vision of the future. The two-and-a-half hours that followed may have been utter tripe, but nothing can diminish the power of those opening moments.


Zombieland (Director: Ruben Fleischer)

Starting off with a bang, we are dropped head first into the middle of the zombie apocalypse. And while the charming narration from Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) helps establish Zombieland‘s unique gallows humor, it’s the opening credits sequence that steals the show with the intensity of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” playing along with the dark wit of the images. A stripper zombie clad only in pasties may be the single funniest image put to film all year.


Antichrist (Director: Lars von Trier)

The prologue to Antichrist stands out in large part due to how different it is to the rest of the film. What looks like a pornographic perfume ad transforms into a stark meditation on loss in short order. The inevitable ties between pleasure and suffering that will define the film to come are put on full display in painfully beautiful detail.


World’s Greatest Dad (Director: Bobcat Goldthwait)

Bobcat Goldthwait shocks his audience to attention not two minutes into World’s Greatest Dad, 2009’s funniest film. On his commentary for the DVD, Goldthwait reveals that he assumed people would get wind of the film’s central plot twist (the accidental death of Lance’s son by autoerotic asphyxiation) before seeing the film. To mess with them a bit, he created this brilliant opening, tricking the audience into thinking the film kicks off with the death of Kyle (the criminally funny Daryl Sabara), in another classic bait-and-switch, resulting in one of the funniest and most breathtaking moments of the year.


Star Trek (Director: JJ Abrams)

The attack on the USS Kelvin that kicks off JJ Abrams’ franchise reboot of Star Trek was one of the most exhilarating action sequences of the year. The sequence perfectly sets the galloping pace that keeps the movie rolling along, shows off its impeccable sonic landscape (arguably the year’s best), and adds the necessary emotional punch to really get the audience invested in the story. Blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.


Inglourious Basterds (Director: Quentin Tarantino)

I could have easily counted the entire “Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France” chapter as the opening of Inglourious Basterds, but it almost seemed unfair. Still, trimming the sequence down to just after the first appearance of SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the opening moments boldly announce Tarantino’s rebirth as a visual storyteller. We’ve always known he’s a good writer (and, unfortunately, Death Proof showed just how much Tarantino loves his own writing), but Tarantino really came into his own as a visual artist here. If Pulp Fiction introduced a brave new voice to cinema, the opening moments of Inglourious Basterds proved he was here to stay and just getting better with age.


A Serious Man (Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen)

Was there a bigger surprise all year? I’m sure I’m not the first person who was thrown for a total loop by the period sets and the full-frame presentation that kicked off the Coen Brothers’ finest work since The Big Lebowski. In fact, I probably wasn’t the only person who wondered for a moment if I had somehow stumbled into the wrong theatre or that the reels had been screwed up. The Coens went against expectations, and the payoff is tremendous. This beautifully realized prologue sets up the rest of the film as a fable, bringing the whole thing to vivid life.


Up (Directors: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

Oh, don’t act surprised. What else could it have been? Through a series of dialogue-free images and the light-as-air “Married Life” theme that weaves throughout the film, Up managed to create the most human and heart wrenching moments put to film all year. We never hear the characters speak, but we feel as if we’ve known them all their lives. It makes the turns for the worse that their paths take that much more devastating. And I can tell you, if you think the revelation of Ellie’s miscarriage is less of a punch to the gut the second time around, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, knowing it’s coming makes the tears come that much sooner. But you don’t want to hear me talk about it; you just want to watch it one more time. Don’t let me hold you up. For your viewing pleasure, the best five minutes Pixar has ever produced, and the best opening sequence of 2009: