A ton of movie sites have posted stories about their all-time favorite opening sequences over the last several years, and a lot of their choices are bullshit. The “authors” of these pieces don’t seem very thoughtful or perceptive — they mainly want you to click on 10 or 25 or 50 pages. There are two kinds of opening sequences that can be called great or highly memorable — one, the kind that put the primal hook in by whatever means and prompt you to say “Wow, I want to see the rest of this!” but don’t necessarily tell you much about the story to come, and two, the kind that do deliver key information about the story to come and/or the character who will be at the center of things.
A fine example of the first kind (“No clue what this is about but the footage and the vibe feel cool!”) is the George Gershwin-scored opening of Woody Allen‘s Manhattan (’79). It tells you two things about Allen’s lead character, Isaac Davis, which is (a) he’s head-over-heels in love with Manhattan (i.e., the film was shot before way, way before Brooklyn existed as a hipster habitat), and (b) that he’s a writer working on a book. That’s all it tells you, but it so wins you over that it’s like “forget it, I’m watching this movie to the end.”
A great example of the second kind is the music-free opening credit sequence in Sidney Lumet‘s The Verdict (’82). (Which I can’t find a clip for.) It’s basically a long, slow dolly-in of a gray-haired Paul Newman playing pinball in a low-lit bar somewhere, sipping whiskey from a shot glass, daylight outside. Right away you know he’s a guy with a problem or two and that difficult trials await. Another sterling example is the opening scene in The Godfather — tells you everything about who Don Corleone is, what the Corleone family is about, how it works, what the terms are plus the old-time gangster milieu. You’re fully informed by the time the scene ends, and totally hooked.
An example of a beginning of a film that accomplishes both tasks (vital information plus seat-of-the-pants sexiness) is the opening five or six minutes of Apocalypse Now.