I hate to admit this, but I love movie trailers. I love them so much that I turn into Woody Allen in Annie Hall if I’m even a minute late arriving at the theater to see a movie – I simply won’t go in to see it. The most basic function of a movie trailer is to excite viewers about an upcoming motion picture so much that they pay money to see it, even if their better instincts (and Rotten Tomatoes) inform them otherwise. But to me, the best movie trailers are so much more than that. They offer a brief, fleeting glimpse into the essence of a movie, which sounds a lot easier than it actually is. This is because essence is something that goes beyond a simple snapshot of a film’s plot and genre and major actors; it is an intangible quality that most closely resembles a person’s soul. And how do you tell a group of strangers about your soul? The same group of strangers, no less, who have paid money to bear witness to another movie’s soul?
To demonstrate a film’s essence in three minutes or less, while not spoiling any major features of plot and dialogue and while also avoiding gratuitous sex, language, and violence, all while maintaining the major M.O. of advertising to consumers and receiving virtually no public accolades for the craftsmanship involved, is an arduous task to say the least. This is why I am of the firm belief that many of the best trailers regularly exceed the quality of the films they advertise. I don’t think anyone who saw the trailer for Interstellar would disagree.
Below is a list of my favorite ten trailers. Most of these were made for films released in the last couple of decades, which is no accident – seeing these trailers in the darkness and majesty of a movie theater (many of which without any prior knowledge of the movie they advertised) provided for awesome, unforgettable experiences. And eventually seeing the movies sometimes lived up to that experience, and sometimes did not. That’s OK. Of course, it’s difficult to come up with strict criteria for what makes these trailers so great. Without a doubt, all of them gave me great excitement and anticipation to go back to the theater and spend money. But I think capturing a movie’s essence is what makes a trailer truly exceptional. The following top ten trailers were so outstanding that, in my mind, they transcended their status as what scholar Jonathan Gray postulates as paratexts, but became great short films in their own right.
Manon of the Spring (1986)
Kill Bill (2003)
INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
10. In The Line of Fire (1993)
In some ways, this trailer is the most conventional and old-fashioned entry on this list: A corny and woefully outdated “voice-of-god” narrator and the all-American hero, Clint Eastwood, pulling out his handgun and letting the audience know that any chance of the bad guy winning “is not going to happen.” But visually, this trailer is bold and unforgettable – so much so that it spawned controversy from morally uptight audiences who first saw it in spring of 1993. Using the hands of a clock as a circular target for a firearm is creative enough; spinning the 6 from “November 22, 1963” upside down to create “1993” is straight-up ingenious. Meanwhile, the best part of the actual movie is kept firmly intact but without even showing us a face: John Malkovich’s menacing, maniacal would-be assassin Mitch Leary, one of the great movie villains of the last 25 years. But who needs Malkovich’s face when you have dialogue like this: “I see you, Frank. I see you standing over the grave of another dead president.” Subtlety, this preview may lack, but it makes up for it in the area of gripping psychological dread and excitement. I love the comment under the YouTube clip by hungwilliam, who observes: “i remember seeing this trailer in san jose and the theater went apeshit.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
David Fincher must know some talented people in advertising because his films always boast strong trailers (see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and #5 on this list). I was one of the initial skeptics of Fincher’s plans to remake what had already been an adequate and well-distributed Swedish film, but seeing this trailer made me an immediate convert. The music entirely creates the atmosphere, and unlike some of Fincher’s other trailers, and the song used here (Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”) is included in the actual film. The trailer uses nonstop rapid-fire imagery to tell us that the movie involves Daniel Craig, an unsolved murder of some kind, and cold weather. That’s about it; the precise details are left conspicuously vague, which only boosts our desire to understand how all these disparate pieces are connected (I’m not sure Fincher’s movie answers that for us either, but that’s another story). The only recurring series of shots comes from the front windshield of (presumably) a car moving along a snowy dirt driveway toward an ominous mansion. Then, in absurdly oversized capital letters coinciding with the song’s abrasive downbeat: “THE FEEL-BAD MOVIE OF CHRISTMAS.” Perfect. The trailer has no beef with telling audiences that most of them will probably not want to see this movie, but for those few souls with the audacity to go back and see it – well, the trailer did warn you.
8. Little Children (2006)
I probably watched this trailer a good 50 times in 2006. The first 10-20 times were because I was so excited about the project (Todd Field’s follow-up to In the Bedroom and an adaptation of a terrific novel by Tom Perrotta), but the more I watched it, the more I realized how brilliantly crafted the trailer really was. It is sprinkled with ingenious graphic match cuts (such as 0:23 and 0:49) as well fantastic images from the film which admittedly gives away much of the story’s thrust, but still manages to maintain eroticism and sensuality. Then there’s the motif of the oncoming locomotive arriving head-on at a crossing section – an image which the trailer wisely never feels the need to show, but still captures as a perfect metaphor for the emotional head-on collisions depicted in Little Children. Even better is the fact that the trailer completely ignores all the Jackie Earle Haley scenes, which I thought were by far the worst thing about the film. At any given moment, there are tens of hundreds of films being released about adulterous affairs or cheating or some component of sexual passion. Little Children’s trailer could have been a banal retread of those same stories told in a wholly conventional fashion, but by emphasizing the characters’ vulnerabilities and desperations within the trap of suburbia, the trailer feels remarkably fresh and powerful.
7. Schindler’s List (1993)
This is obviously a stunning trailer to watch today, but I’ve always wondered about its reception among movie audiences in (the internet-less) 1993. Did the first audiences of this trailer think this was for a documentary about the Holocaust? Did they believe this was a movie from the 1940s that was getting rereleased for some reason? How could they watch this trailer and proceed to enjoy watching dinosaurs chasing Jeff Goldblum for two hours? The trailer tells us at the end that Schindler’s List is a film by Steven Spielberg; even for those at the time who knew of Spielberg’s involvement with the project, seeing this trailer must have taken them aback. Watching it today, it still leaves you speechless due to the unfettered and grim realism of the Holocaust it vividly depicts. Screw the morally righteous critics of In the Line of Fire’s trailer; this is the 1993 movie preview that would have left me emotionally traumatized. Another fascinating and more subtle aspect of this trailer is how Liam Neeson’s portrayal Oskar Schindler is depicted: The trailer doesn’t tell us outright who he is or even what the title list refers to – only that “the list is life.” This makes the trailer succeed in showing audiences two sides of the Holocaust which have never been explored before in film – the visceral reality of Schindler’s List’s visual style, as well as the significant story it tells.
6. Breaking Bad – The Final Episodes (2013)
OK, OK, I had to cheat a little here. Technically, Breaking Bad is not a film and technically this trailer was not shown in movie theaters but instead during reruns of the show’s first four-and-a-half seasons airing on AMC during the summer of 2013. But if you were a fan of the show at the time, you could not contain your total and complete giddiness after seeing this trailer. Like many of the entries on this list, the concept of the trailer is simple: Walter White’s voice reciting an ominous poem alongside revolving images of Albuquerque that the show’s fans may recognize from earlier seasons. In trailers like this, simplicity is an asset since it is unnecessary to rehash all of the undue details of what has transpired to bring the story to this point (redundancy and reductionism which fans would understandably rebel against). And spoiling the upcoming episodes is obviously out of the question. What’s great about this trailer is how the poem’s recitation implies that Walter White, like King Ozymandias, has all the land under his thumb and controls everything and everybody – particularly since every image we see in some ways connects closely with his ascent to the top. And yet, we see no characters from the show and the only physical manifestation of Walter White is his hat -- the same hat he put on to transform himself into Heisenberg. This leaves the viewer with incredible hunger to see what happens next. We know that Walter White is gone, the authorities believe that Heisenberg is untraceable, and all that is left a “colossal wreck, boundless and bare.”
5. The Social Network (2010)
4. The Shining (1980)
By far, the most terrifying trailer ever made, anywhere or any time. Even replaying it in my head as I write about it freaks me out. According to IMDb, the MPAA did not allow blood to be depicted in trailers, so in order to get around this, Stanley Kubrick somehow convinced the ratings board that this trailer didn’t show blood gushing out of the elevators, but actually rusty water. Right. I suppose we can thank the ratings board for their stupidity and gullibility or else this iconic trailer might have never seen the light of day. First and foremost, the trailer does a tremendous job of building up suspense right away, as the bizarre synth soundtrack grows louder and more grating to hear and we know that something has to happen to those elevator doors at some point, right? The composition of the shot is rigidly symmetrical and balanced, which only adds to abhorrent horror of streams of blood dismantling the equal proportions inside the frame. The blood then blurs over the camera lens, generating the effect of the viewer drowning in it. It’s just so . . . wrong. It doesn’t make any rational sense how blood could pour out of an elevator shaft like that and actually flood the entire surface of a building’s lobby. But that is precisely what The Shining does so well – create surreal distortions that profoundly disturb our rational sensibilities. Worse yet: The trailer gives us no indication as to the exact insidious ways all that blood was collected, stored, and eventually overrun. Its spoof was pretty blood-curdling too.
3. Talk to Her (2002)
When first thinking about constructing this list, I speculated that many of the most imaginative and powerful trailers would be foreign-language films. Since most trailers avoid using subtitles (because Hollywood studios assume most audiences have an IQ of 20), the trailers for international films would have to rely more on evocative visual imagery and sounds. In theory this is true, but unfortunately, the vast majority of trailers for foreign films I found simply used a Don LaFontaine-like voiceover, along with corny and artificial sound cues, to pander a vastly oversimplified version of the otherwise striking film to stupid American audiences. The one major example for which this was not the case was Talk to Her. This is a trailer that strips away any rote adherence to standardized form, content, and flow of modern-day movie trailers. There are no character introductions, no voiceovers, and no linkages between the bewilderingly disparate images depicted. Watching this trailer, there is zero percent chance you could glean anything meaningful regarding what the film is about. In fact, the trailer is so esoteric that the effect is comical: How could a single film coherently contain a female bullfighter, a dance troupe, comatose bodies, blood transfusions, and most aberrant of all, a 1920s-style black-and-white film about a 6-inch man talking to a full-grown woman lying in bed? It verges on farce. Obviously if you’ve seen the film, you know the bizarre ways these images intersect, but if you’re watching the trailer “cold,” you’re completely lost. But lost in the best possible way a movie trailer can make you feel.
2. The Tree of Life (2011)
For anyone that still doubts the artistic validity and integrity of trailers, this one (along with my choice for #1) should be exhibits 1a and 1b for the argument that trailers can be beautiful and timeless works of art, just like the films they represent. What’s additionally impressive about the trailer for The Tree of Life is that it stays true to the surreal and oft-discussed perplexity of Terrence Malick’s mode of storytelling. There’s some sense of linear cohesion here – we know who the characters are and that the boy in the narration presumably grows up to be Sean Penn – but the trailer doesn’t shy away from Malick’s dreamlike imagery and relentless camera movements. The trailer makes us feel like the newborn child shown at the opening in the way that shapes, objects, and movements are transformed into beautiful and puzzling new things uncovered for the first time. The narration deemphasizes straightforward coherence and instead offers bewildering aphorisms which somehow match the startling beauty of the images shown. There’s also the ethereal music which, as is typical for Malick’s films, is classical and profound: Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau” plays for the trailer’s first half and eventually morphs into a ravishing chorus from “Funeral March” by Patrick Cassidy. Unlike most of the trailers on this list, the trailer for The Tree of Life does not refrain from boldly displaying the film’s most beautiful and important moments, which enables it to be mercifully free of any impulse for commerciality or artistic compromise. It is such a good trailer that it makes you forget that it is advertising anything.
1. Far From Heaven (2002)
Back in 2002, I saw this trailer at a screening of Moonlight Mile, a film I was excited to see and hoped to be moved by. I did indeed exit the theater emotionally stunned and devastated, but not by Moonlight Mile – instead by the trailer for Far From Heaven. When I saw that movie a few weeks later, I was not disappointed in the least, but was nonetheless a little surprised how different the trailer was from the actual film. Far From Heaven attempts to recreate the sights, sounds, and feelings of a Douglas Sirk film without any sort of parody or reflexivity – stylistically, it’s identical to a movie which would have been made in 1957. I suspect the studio overseeing the trailer thought it risky to follow suit by advertising the film in the excessively theatrical way movies were advertised in 1957; as a result, in one of the smarter moves made by Hollywood PR people, the trailer for Far From Heaven was made in a sleek, modern, subtle, and extremely elegant style. Expertly using the ravishing and mostly forgotten John Barry theme from Indecent Proposal, the trailer depicts suburban life in the 1950s which is shown as idyllic in many ways, while repressed and deeply sad in others. The melodious strings of the Barry score reinforce that Far From Heaven firmly belongs to the well-worn genre of “woman’s picture,” but does not paint the film as outdated, corny, or archaic. Instead, the vibrant colors of the leaves on the trees and the walls and the costumes paint an extremely vivid universe, but also a world where, as the titles inform us, the colors may only be used to mask unhappiness. The spoken lines from the film – the observations that sometimes it’s the people outside our world that we confide in best, and that we mostly fail in the kind of ideal love that tells us to abandon all our plans – ring beautifully observant and quietly tell us everything we need to know about the film. It’s also a short trailer, running only a scant 69 seconds, but that abruptness leaves us with an indomitable impression that the trailer has only hinted at the powerful emotional punches that this film carries. Perhaps the trailer for Far From Heaven is an unconventional choice for best ever – it’s not really the kind of trailer that makes audiences stand up in the theater and holler and cheer – but it communicates Far From Heaven’s essence more effectively and enticingly than any other trailer I’ve ever seen.