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 and editors now able and willing to take more chances, safe in the knowledge people will be able to 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 millennium 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 originals works of art in their own right. These are the 50 greatest movie trailers.
20. ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
Sandwiched between serene movements of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” Marvin Hamlisch’s intense piano work and Alvin Sargent’s pointed dialogue perfectly paint the underlying turbulence of a family that looks ordinary enough on the surface, yet’s actually anything but.
19. DISTRICT 9 (2009)
Not only does the first half trick you into thinking it’s a trailer for an Apartheid documentary, but the unnerving final scene, of a frightening- and frightened-looking alien who claims to mean no harm, leaves you knowing neither what to expect from District 9 nor whom to be rooting for.
18. THE BIG SLEEP (1946)
Playing off of audience’s awareness of Humphrey Bogart as an iconic gumshoe in movies like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep’s trailer lets a librarian sell the story to Bogie (and audiences), with the added perk of the film noir being a Bogart-Bacall reunion.
17. AUSTIN POWERS:
THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (1999)
In 1999, audiences were desperate for any footage from The Phantom Menace, and Mike Myers used that to lure in people with an implied reveal of Darth Vader, only to comically reveal the return of Dr. Evil.
16. SIN CITY (2005)
“Official Trailer #1”
Director Robert Rodriguez perfectly brought the visual looks of Frank Miller’s graphic novel series to the screen, and the first glimpse of movie’s colourful grit was aided by the rolling music of The Servant’s “Cells,” perfectly defining the unique style of Sin City while leaving viewers starved for more.
15. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2009)
Utilizing the well-known tenet that what you imagine will always be scarier than what you see, Paranormal Activity’s trailer opted to show less footage than you’d expect of its horror scenes in lieu of audience’s filmed reactions. Bonus points for its “Demand It” ending, which briefly changed the way film distribution would work.
14. STAR TREK (2009)
“Official Trailer 1”
While Star Trek’s teaser is effective in its own right, there is an almost-flawless coherence to the arrangement and editing of its first full-length trailer, channeling the excitement J.J. Abrams was known to bring to his projects and enticing the world to not pre-judge the reboot of a then-dying franchise.
13. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
“Official Main Trailer”
Because of the mapcap insanity that populates Mad Max: Fury Road, using the choicest cuts and most stunning moments in a breathless montage of visual mania brilliantly promoted a movie that lured in skeptical fans of George Miller’s original trilogy whiling whetting new fans’ appetites for post-apocalyptic spectacle.
12. GOLDENEYE (1995)
After the longest break since any previous Bond movie, GoldenEye’s first trailer brilliantly reintroduced the music and the icon, before slyly revealing the new man in the tux and using its latter half to prove Ian Fleming’s secret agent still had an important place in post-Cold War cinema.
11. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Before the days when anything could be verified online, audiences accepted what they saw. So, when The Blair Witch Project’s trailer danced so skilfully over the line between truth and fiction, it effectively tricked the world into thinking the horror film was a true case of three missing teens and their paranormal disappearance.