Movie trailers have evolved a great deal over the years, from the 6-minute packages shown after moving pictures in the 1910s (hence the term “trailer”) to boundary-pushing previews preceding movies in the 1970s to the heavily promoted online launches of trailers today. Recently, the worldwide launches for the debut trailers of movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation have actually been preceded in the days prior by trailers for their trailers.
The YouTube era has led to a surge in creativity in trailers, with studios now willing to take more chances, safe in the knowledge people can watch a trailer again immediately, if they don’t “get” it at first. (A little over half of the trailers on this list are from this century alone, largely because of that creative boom.)
There have been many bad trailers over the years, and many, many more adequate ones, but truly great trailers are a real treat. The best ones are innovative and original works of art in their own right. These are the 50 greatest movie trailers.
50. AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)
American Sniper’s first trailer powerfully lingers almost entire on one, palpably intense scene in Clint Eastwood’s war movie, to such a powerful extent that the full movie couldn’t live up to the trailer’s tension.
49. THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001)
Rather than advertising the first film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-book The Lord of the Rings, New Line went ahead and promised an entire trilogy of movies with one trailer, delivered once a year in December installments.
48. LITTLE CHILDREN (2006)
The symbolism that felt blatant and obvious in Todd Field’s Little Children was perfectly suited to its trailer, brilliantly juxtaposing adultery in quiet suburbia against the crescendoing sound of an oncoming train.
47. SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
With no voiceover, no plot description, and simply the text “Whoever saves one life… saves the world entire,” Schindler’s List’s trailer lets you slowly grasp its the Holocaust setting and Spielberg’s mature directorial tone, without explaining the story of Oskar Schindler to those who don’t yet know it.
46. 500 DAYS OF SUMMER (2009)
“Official Full-Length Trailer”
Set against Regina Spektor’s heart-breaking “Us,” the two unspoken stars of this trailer are the narration and the editing. Stating, “You should know upfront, this is not a love story,” the clever writing is matched by the smart juggling of scenes to communicate 500 Days of Summer’s chronological time-jumping.
45. FACE/OFF (1997)
A kinetic montage of bullets and explosions may have ended Face/Off‘s teaser, but what stays with you is the first half of it, with the magic trick of the camera slowly rotating around John Travolta’s head only to find it swapped with Nicolas Cage’s during one seemingly unbroken shot.
44. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
Considered one of the best teasers of its time, audiences didn’t know what they were watching at first, as a menacing score followed a slowly recognizable metal skeleton being assembled. The appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the final shot was all that was needed to seal the deal in promoting The Terminator’s even-bigger sequel.
43. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE (2001)
Few trailers 15 years ago arrived with as high expectations from audiences as the first Harry Potter movie and even fewer arrive with as much iconic content delivered in a mere two minutes of footage as the world’s first glimpse of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, and The Boy Who Lived did.
42. STRANGE DAYS (1995)
Opting for a less-is-more approach, the trailer for Strange Days presents itself not as an advertisement for the film itself but as a commercial for the in-movie company that sells simulated experiences through futuristic technology.
41. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)
“Theatrical Trailer #3”
Very fittingly for a movie about music, the third trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis is edited with a maestro’s rhythm and set against a gorgeously sung backdrop. “Dink’s Song” perfectly conveys the tone of the melancholy period picture, while several laugh-out-loud one-liners lure in curious Coen Brothers fans.