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.
10. GARDEN STATE (2004)
Devoid of any dialogue or indication of plot, the first trailer for Zach Braff’s directorial debut relies on atmosphere alone, pairing visual gags, bold cinematography, and the occasional effusive blurb against Frou Frou’s hypnotic “Let Go.” For a movie still strongly associated with its soundtrack, Garden State’s teaser sells itself without speaking a word.
9. CLOUD ATLAS (2012)
How do you advertise a 3-hour epic that spans 700 years, featuring reincarnated souls and a sprawling cast of movie stars playing a half-dozen roles apiece? In Cloud Atlas’ case, you completely ignore the unspoken time limit for trailers of 2:30 and spend nearly six minutes selling the movie properly. More than any other, Cloud Atlas’ “Extended Trailer” functions as a fully functional piece of cinematic art, complete with its own three acts.
8. THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947)
RKO Pictures wanted to keep Cary Grant’s role in this romantic comedy starring David Niven and Loretta Young a secret, but his character is central enough to the plot that any set-up given would spoil the surprise. How did they get around it? Why, by having the three actors play themselves, drawing attention to the very fact their movie had no trailer.
7. FEMME FATALE (2002)
Brian De Palma was well-aware of people’s complaints that trailers give away the whole movie — and used Femme Fatale’s trailer to take the idea to its sublime extreme. The two-hour mystery is shown scene-for-scene, from start to finish, sped up to fit into two minutes. The garbled mess gives quick glances of a plot, but suggests that if you couldn’t follow the story, you go to the theatre and watch it in full.
6. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Some trailers show you what their movie is and some trailers tell you, but Kubrick’s cutting-edge trailer for A Clockwork Orange did both. Hyperkinetically crosscutting between descriptors (and “Beethoven,” as an ingenious inside joke) and random shots from his dystopian allegory, Kubrick makes you want to watch the movie to comprehend the trailer.
5. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)
Sure, you can blame The Social Network for the current trend of trailers scoring themselves with slowed-down versions of well-known songs, but when it’s done as brilliantly as it is here, it’s awfully hard to blame the originator for the imitators’ sins. Everything from the editing to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is top-notch, but it’s the cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” and its perfect usage that stays with you.
4. CLOVERFIELD (2008)
Like Red Eye’s teaser before it, Cloverfield’s first reveal to the world built itself on the surprise of switching from a light-hearted dramedy to an intense thriller. What took it even further was the eye-opening shock of the final shot’s revelation and the sheer gall of J.J. Abrams’ marketing team to actually withhold the movie’s title to keep get the world talking about it even more.
3. THE SHINING (1980)
If there’s ever been proof of the power of simplicity, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s trailer for The Shining. At first seeming to be a still image, the teaser shows all its trump cards from the start, with scrolling text listing all the reasons to see the horror film. Just when the disquieting music becomes a discordant din, the “still” image comes to life, in the bloodiest way possible.
2. COMEDIAN (2002)
The pinnacle of trailers that don’t use any footage from their advertised film, the trailer for Jerry Seinfeld’s documentary on the life of a stand-up comedian aims to do nothing more than make you laugh. With legendary voiceover artist Hal Douglas poking fun at the cliché narration of trailers, Comedian is high art at the most meta any trailer’s attempted. Perhaps more crucially, it also never stops being funny.
1. ALIEN (1979)
The modern movie trailer was born in 1979. Everything changed upon the release of the celluloid tension encapsulated in the mounting horror of Alien’s trailer. Beginning with a slow, unnerving first half that slowly reveals the picture’s title, the jumbled cut of shots from Ridley Scott’s space thriller keep up frantic pace with the siren alarms of the soundtrack, exploding in a terrifying cacophony of screams, and then — even more terrifyingly — dead silence.