Spring is upon us, and what better way to celebrate the beginning of brighter days than to celebrate the best film beginnings of all time! Check back all month long as we look at the films with the best beginnings.
Check out the previous entries into this series here:
It can be argued that a character’s lines can move a film forward and have more of an impact on the audience than any amount of action or breathtaking filmmaking. Lines, including narrations provide a source of information often more direct than an image. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but not in movies. In movies, a single line from a character can create a new meaning or context that could not otherwise be conveyed on film. It can allow the audience to relate to a character or their struggle if they themselves have not shared the experience. It could fill in missing information or a back story that would otherwise take a significant amount of runtime to depict.
As such, opening lines can be monumentally important. They are often used to establish a setting, either with a designated narrator or a character narrating their story. Opening lines can be a doorway into the way a character things, and thus goes a long way towards making the audience understand who they are or what their motivation is. Opening lines may also be non sequitur, pushing the audience directly into an action or event that is already underway.
Our list picks the best opening lines yet heard in film. Some filmmakers have several films that could have ended up on this list, but we chose the best one in order to try provide as much variety as possible. Also, we are technically just looking at the first spoken sentence. Although I’ve included complete monologues and dialogues below for context, we’re only really considering the words spoken before the first instance of punctuation.
First, let’s look at some great opening lines that just missed out on being in the top ten:
“With the coming of the Second World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned hopefully or desperately toward the freedom of the Americas. Lisbon became the great embarkation point. But not everybody could get to Lisbon directly, and so a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up – Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train, or auto, or foot across the rim of Africa, to Casablanca in French Morocco. Here, the fortunate ones through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon; and from Lisbon, to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca… and wait… and wait… and wait.” – Casablanca (1942)
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” – The Godfather (1972)
“3 billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgement Day.”– Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
“I had the craziest dream last night I was dancing the white swan.” – Black Swan (2010)
“What came first, the music or the misery?” – High Fidelity (2000)
“Oh, f**k! F**k!” – Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
“Saigon…shit; I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle…When I was home after my first tour it was worse..I’d wake up and there’d be nothing…I hardly said a word to my wife until I said “yes” to a divorce…When I was here I wanted to be there. And when I was there all I could think about was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now…Waiting for a mission…Getting softer…Every minutes I stay in this room I get weaker and every minute Charlie squats in the bush he gets stronger…Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.” – Apocalypse Now (1979)
“The key to faking out the parents is the clammy hands. It’s a good non-specific symptom; I’m a big believer in it.” – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
AND NOW THE TOP TEN!
10. “Please sir, I want some more.”- Oliver! (1968)
Why is it in the top ten? Sure, we know the line well now, but that’s because it is such a great line. It introduces a character and a setting simultaneously. As the audience, we also feel sorry for the titular character, and therefore, we have interest in his story.
9. “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family, Choose a f**king big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchased in a range of f**king fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the f**k you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sittin’ on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing f**king junk food into your mouth. Choose rottin’ away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f**ked-up brats that you’ve spawned to replace yourself. Choose a future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?” – Trainspotting (1996)
Why is it in the top ten? It’s a narration, but perhaps the most pointed, hard-core, and distrubing narration ever heard in a film. It sets the setting, the tone, and the main character immediately. More important, it creates an attitude which allows the rest of the film to be so successful.
8. “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like…’I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe you should drive.'” – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Why is it in the top ten? A crazy film gets off to a crazy start thanks to inserting the audience directly into the action. This opening line grabs their attention and thrusts them head-first into the chaos, which is simultaneously exciting and overwhelming. Without such a memorable and inviting line, the film would never be as much of an adventure.
7.“People are always asking if I know Tyler Durden.” – Fight Club (1999)
Why is it in the top ten? Well….spoiler alert. But seriously, for a film that takes place entirely in a flashback, what better way to link the beginning to the end of the film? It’s genius.
6. ““I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being.” – Stand by Me (1986)
Why is it in the top ten? This is a beloved coming-of-age tale, and what better way to start it off than have the main character narrate his life. But this isn’t just any ordinary narration, this is a thought that sticks in your mind and makes you uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that you never forget.
5. “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” – Patton (1970)
Why is it in the top ten? This is one of those films where the opening scene is so great that it overshadows just about everything else the film has to offer. As such, it better have an excellent, meaningful, and ear-catching opening line. Sure enough, it does.
4. “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.” – Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Why is it in the top ten? The brilliant narration at the beginning of Peter Jackson’s brilliant adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s most famous book trilogy starts off equally as brilliantly. Right at the start of the film, this line hits you emotionally. It shows that Lord of the Rings isn’t just pure fantasy entertainment, and you should take it very seriously.
3. “ Are you watching closely?”- The Prestige (2006)
Why is it in the top ten? It works in the context of the film and as a warning to the audience. Nolan is speaking on multiple levels and is setting the stage perfectly for his film about magicians.
2. “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…To me, being a gangster was better than being the president of the United States.” – Goodfellas (1990)
Why is it in the top ten? This is a very strong opening. In one line, the character introduces himself, makes us understand what drives them in life, and more importantly, sets the tone for the entire film. Very interesting.
1. “Rosebud…” – Citizen Kane (1941)
Why is it the best over? It’s a mystery. An opening to create intrigue and with which to drive the plot. This one word is the final word of Charles Foster Kane, but it’s the audience’s first introduction to the man. We don’t know what to think. We have no idea where to start. This opens the door for Orson Welles to softly take our hand and lead us on the journey to find the answers we seek.