10 inspired opening credits sequences of the 21st century

Proof that the art of a great movie title sequence is alive and well in modern cinema.

28 June 2017

By Lou Thomas

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Edgar Wright curated an accompanying season of film influences at BFI Southbank in June 2017.

A film’s opening credits can be as exciting as any part that follows. There’s a time and a place for the simple Woody Allen approach of white Windsor Light Condensed font on black background, but credits sequences can also be a chance to flex the creative muscles and kick off the movie with a bang.

While golden age films tended towards static if beautifully designed credit sequences, filmmakers increasingly found dynamic and inspired ways to get across the essential cast and crew information – see vintage gems such as My Man Godfrey (1936) or “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945) for fine examples.

In the hands of legendary 1950s and 60s designers such as Saul Bass and Maurice Binder (who designed the famous James Bond title sequences), the opening credits became almost an artform in their own right – a tradition that continues to evolve, providing bold and brilliant examples into the 21st century.

Baby Driver is the latest film to inspire and delight with its credit sequence. Edgar Wright’s musical chase-heist spectacular inventively follows its music-obsessed protagonist (Ansel Elgort) as he grabs coffee for his accomplices with a spring in his step. We see him deftly avoiding passers-by in balletic fashion as song lyrics and film credits appear on walls and shop windows.

To celebrate Baby Driver’s release, we rounded up 10 more essential credit sequences from this century.

Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Steven Spielberg briefed Parisian artists Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas to create a Saul Bass-inspired title sequence for his underrated conman chase movie. The pair achieved a fitting homage to the master graphic designer using bold, bright blocks of colour and silhouettes. The mid-century aesthetic recalls Bass’s work on Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Ocean’s 11 (1960), yet is distinctive and in keeping with the witty film that follows.

John Williams’ accompanying theme music is typically evocative and a perfect match for the elegant movement on screen. The sequence is all the more remarkable when you consider that Kuntzel and Deygas hadn’t seen the film first, relying solely on Frank W. Abagnale’s source book.

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

The six and a half pre-credit minutes of vivid zombie destruction at the beginning of Dawn of the Dead remain the zenith of Zack Snyder’s career so far. They’re followed with an apocalyptic credit sequence of exquisite fierceness.

An ominous press conference that yields no answers, news reports that get interrupted, close-up zombie attacks – all these are spliced together with real-life news footage of prayer, rioting and dystopian fury, edited with sharp, ragged cuts akin to the rush of a zombie horde chewing on flesh. It’s scored with Johnny Cash’s ‘The Man Comes Around’, a song that’s as eschatological as the Book of Revelations – a part of the bible it even quotes from. Dark, disturbing and utterly essential.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Introducing the eponymous gawky teenager with close-ups of objects and food from his life is a simple, effective idea, even if the hands that are supposedly Napoleon’s placing items in shot belong to three different people.

After early credit-free screenings baffled some viewers wondering when the film was set, distributors Fox asked director Jared Hess to make one. Aaron Ruell, who plays Napoleon’s brother Kip in the film, came up with the sequence, and it was shot in cinematographer Munn Powell’s basement. Hess then wrote a letter to The White Stripes asking permission to use ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’, and the duo agreed – the first time their music had been used in a film.

Lord of War (2005)

Perhaps the best Nic Cage film of the 21st century, Lord of War includes a title sequence that follows a bullet’s journey from the factory to the forehead of a child soldier. As the arms-dealing protagonist, Cage is a weary, cynical sort but never less than relentless in his profession. The credits pre-empt this relentlessness, as we get a bullet’s eye view of the projectile’s inexorable travel around the world.

Buffalo Springfield’s deathless protest song ‘For What It’s Worth’ seems bitterly ironic in this context, but its steady, chiming melody works well.

Enter the Void (2009)

One of world cinema’s most inventive provocateurs, Gaspar Noé is known for his often savage, boundary-testing films. Irréversible (2002) is told backwards, beginning with its end credits, yet this is the easiest part of the rape-revenge film to stomach. Enter the Void, a story about a drug addict/dealer and his prostitute sister, is even more vividly shot but less uncompromising.

The credits are striking. Designer Tom Kan’s titles are a synapse-blitzing bombardment of French, English and Japanese typefaces that perfectly set the mood for the Tokyo neon nightmare that follows. For the sparking effect on the titles, German artist Thorsten Fleisch shot 30,000 volts through aluminium-covered cardboard cutouts of the title. LFO’s ‘Freak’, a squelchy blast of tech-noise, is a fitting aural accompaniment.

Watchmen (2009)

South Londoner Neil Huxley created the superb animated credits for Watchmen. Superheroes and villains from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ eponymous graphic novel are seen playing pivotal parts in the events of an alternate 20th century, like a crew of elaborately costumed, crime-fighting Forrest Gumps.

The Second World War, Vietnam and JFK’s assassination figure prominently, while Bob Dylan’s anthemic ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ plays atop Huxley’s slow-motion montage. As per his Dawn of the Dead remake, this is another occasion when Zack Snyder toploads the start of his film with its finest few minutes.

Zombieland (2009)

The second zombie apocalypse credit sequence in this list is played more for laughs than scares. It’s a tasty two-parter that kicks off with Jesse Eisenberg intoning his survival rules over bloody sequences of cannibalism and carnage in a US that’s become over-run with the undead. Then Eisenberg’s smug college geek shuts up and the real meat arrives.

Smartly framed slow-motion zombie attacks provide the visual sustenance, while aural heft is brought by Metallica’s early thrash classic ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. Such a ferocious soundtrack could make paint drying compelling, but here it sets viewers up for a delightfully grisly comedy.

Spring Breakers (2012)

Spring Breakers (2012)

Critics remain divided over whether Harmony Korine’s deliriously silly film is a radical and empowering feminist touchstone or hideously sexist trash. Its effervescent blast of bikinis, booze and drugs focuses on four female college students who meet a Florida drug dealer and descend into a world of crime and violence.

LA multimedia studio Gentleman Scholar provided the sparkling neon typography, which temptingly suggests the exhilaration to follow. Then Skrillex’s EDM behemoth ‘Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites’ explodes on the soundtrack and a semi-clad beach rave leaves viewers in no doubt as to what to expect from the rest of the film.

The Forbidden Room (2015)

The Forbidden Room (2015)

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s oddball experimental romantic mystery is a bizarre sensory experience. It loosely concerns a submarine that’s been trapped deep underwater for months with an unstable cargo. However, that’s really a framing device for Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson to delve into a variety of bizarre vignettes and immaculately designed sets.

Production designer Galen Johnson created the stunning titles in which typefaces and film stocks blur and change and flicker in hypnotic, nostalgic fashion. Bill Morrison’s found footage films, obscure silents and a poor quality YouTube version of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) were key inspirations.

Deadpool (2016)

Deadpool’s titles are meta and hilarious. A raucous freeway gunfight between the eponymous anti-superhero and a Cadillac Escalade minivan full of thugs ends with their violent deaths. As the credits begin, this moment is frozen as a detailed, animated tableau of flying debris and brutalised bodies.

Smart visual in-jokes abound, such as star Ryan Reynolds appearing on the front of People magazine, while the regrettable Juice Newton cover of ‘Angel of the Morning’ on the soundtrack has a saccharine sickliness that’s a great counterpoint to the on-screen carnage. Even better are the fake credits in which no real names appear. Instead, we watch “Some Douchebag’s Film,” starring “a British Villain” and including “A Gratuitous Cameo”.

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