Folks, I'm here to save you a lot of time. The following nine films, in my opinion, must be watched – however, they need not be watched past the first scene, because it's all downhill from there. Obviously this is a subjective list: some of these films are considered classics. Others, not so much. In any event, if you're curious, most of these opening scenes can easily be found on YouTube.
- Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg's brutal reenactment of D-Day is arguably the greatest battle sequence ever put on film. It's an exhausting 27 minutes that truly gives you a sense of what those soldiers went through. There's no way the rest of Saving Private Ryan, which seesaws between shootouts with Germans and amblin' around the French countryside, could live up to it. Though I certainly wouldn't call the remaining two acts "bad".
- Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson went from a twitchy Gen X'er making talky, self-conscious ensemble pieces to an amiable fortysomething crafting inscrutable meditations on human relationships. He hit his sweet spot in his thirties, releasing two features that were like nothing else out there: the delightfully daft Punch-Drunk Love and the stark but highly rewatchable (thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis) There Will Be Blood. I found Magnolia, from Anderson's twitchy days, mostly a melange of pompous ideas and scenes stolen from other movies. Its surreal climax is so absurd that I kind of dug it, but it's far surpassed by the film's beginning, a medley of urban legends narrated by the late great Ricky Jay.
- The Brothers Bloom. Although its tone is different, there's something about the prologue of Rian Johnson's con artist comedy that reminds me of Magnolia's. Oh, I know what it is: Ricky Jay narrates this one too! Johnson one-ups Anderson by writing this entire sequence, about the childhood of the film's title characters, in rhyming couplets. Some may find it precious, but I think it's neat. Beyond that, there's some charm in The Brothers Bloom, courtesy of Rachel Weisz, but mostly it's just confusingly-plotted nonsense.
- Cube. I have a confession to make: While my fear of jump scares keeps me away from most horror flicks, I have a weird fondness for gore. The Canadian sci fi cheapie Cube isn't horror, per se, but its intro, in which some poor sap caught in a booby-trapped labyrinth walks into a grid of razor-sharp piano wire, is expertly done. The rest of the film is sunk by bad writing and bad acting. But those first four minutes? Good gross stuff. Similarly disappointing gorefests with nicely twisted first scenes: Ghost Ship and Suicide Club.
- The Naked Kiss. There's a lot of fun to be had with Samuel Fuller's oeuvre, but 1964's The Naked Kiss is a bit of a letdown, especially coming after the fantastic Shock Corridor. It's still lurid – the story concerns a reformed prostitute who discovers that her rich new boyfriend is a pedophile – but only its first two minutes, in which the prostitute beats her pimp with a shoe until her wig falls off, revealing her bald head(!), has the wildness you'd expect from a Fuller film.
- Up. As beloved as it is, Up really is only beloved for its first ten minutes, which wordlessly document the entire relationship between its protagonist Carl and his late wife Ellie. The rest of the movie is fun but forgettable stuff, with a cute kid, a talking dog, a bad guy, a funny bird, etc. There are some poignant moments which harken back to that opening montage, but there's no contest.
- Scream. Back to the horror realm we go for Wes Craven's 1996 comeback. Scaredy-pants that I am, I didn't catch Scream when it first came out, but a year later I saw it on a TV monitor at the Virgin Megastore (R.I.P.). Even with the sound off, I stood there absolutely gripped by its Drew Barrymore-centered opener. Years later, I finally sat down to watch the whole film, with sound. That sequence still holds up. What follows is a surprisingly unscary mid-'90s time capsule.
- Melancholia. Lars von Trier's split personality film, which uses the end of the world as a metaphor for depression (or is it vice-versa?), has a stunning finale, but anyone can agree that its first scene, a series of surreal tableaux filmed in ultra-slow-motion and set to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, is the draw. Honorable mention: the gorgeous if pornographic prologue, also in ultra-slow-mo, to Trier's Antichrist.
- Watchmen. Also employing ultra-slow-mo, this is the sole title sequence on my list. Condensing decades of backstory about its superhero milieu, this montage is a little too on-the-nose – Zack Snyder films are not known for their subtlety – but boy, does it look awesome. The movie itself has its ups and downs.