Most trailers are fairly standardized efforts to communicate to viewers genre, franchise, stars, and plot outline in two to three minutes. There are some that go beyond that, though, and manage to encapsulate the essence of the film they’re advertising in more subtle or clever ways—through great music choices, clever editing, and even sometimes through using material that doesn’t appear in the film. A great trailer can be a great work of art in itself, and all the entries below qualify.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
Jacques Demy’s uber-romantic film gets an uber-romantic trailer. The stunning young Catherine Deneuve wanders through a world in which all outfits are coordinated with the wallpaper and even the fire-hydrants are bathed in primary colors. Everything is longing looks, desperate embraces, elegant veils, even more elegant overcoats, and that final train pulling away from the station as Danielle Lacari quavers and breathes her way through Michel Legrand’s pop opera confection “I Will Wait for You.”
This Criterion Channel trailer from 2014 has a gorgeous sound and dispenses with promotional blurbs, so there is nothing to interfere with the purity of the bittersweet sugar rush.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
This may be the trailer that best captures Sergio Leone’s classic bigger-than-life and then bigger-than-that Spaghetti Western style. Extreme up-the-nose close-ups of leering evil Henry Fonda, impassive Charles Bronson, and sultry Claudia Cardinale; Ennio Morricone’s giant score stalking you like bad men in long, dusty coats, and clever quick cuts (the long pistol to the long train coming in) punctuated by pistol shots and the occasional slap to the face.
“The railroad! The boom towns! The land-grabber! The gunmen!” the narrator intones because the scenario is so mythic you don’t need anything but labels, grit, some dramatic split screens, and that haunting harmonica.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)
The trailer starts off with an audition for the trailer voiceover. The camera slowly panning across mountains as various silly voices take turns bellowing that this is a motion picture that will change the history of motion pictures. Finally, a man speaking in Mandarin gets the job, and explains (via subtitle) that this movie isn’t as good as films like “Seven Samurai” but is maybe okay.
This opening nonsense goes on for a full minute before you get some scenes of the actual movie—interrupted by a skit with the Python gang parodying Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” with black-and-white pies to the face. In the end, it turns into an ad for a Chinese restaurant. If you’ve seen the film but not the trailer, you’ve missed one of the Python’s greatest gags.
Ridley Scott’s beautiful original teaser is virtually an experimental short film in itself. There’s no dialogue, and the “music” (perhaps influenced by Eraserhead) is just pounding industrial ambient shriek and clatter. The images are more evocative than narrative; an egg splitting, people crawling through a cave and running through passageways, bodies thrashing, faces in sweaty close-ups, snarling cat.
There’s one pristine, beautiful image in the middle of the runtime which shows the suspended animation chambers opening all at once; the white clarity of it is so out of place it’s almost scarier than all the rest. And, of course, it ends on that wonderful tagline, written not spoken: “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Airplane is just one gloriously dunder-headed gag after the other with barely any concession to plot, characterization, or sense. That is a format that translates very well to trailers.
All you have to do is string together the gratuitous puns (“I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley!”), gratuitous gags (like the hard case who whips off his sunglasses to reveal another pair of sunglasses underneath) and the gratuitous genre parodies (Saturday Night Fever!) and you're rolling down the runway for take-off into the side of a large building. Sometimes great trailers are artful. And sometimes they are just an honest, studious recording of a series of pratfalls.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Jonathan Demme’s concert film of the Talking Heads famously focuses on the stage with minimal frills. The trailer does the same. The music is “Once In a Lifetime,” and the song’s transcendent hurky jerk fits perfectly into a music video-style collage of band members dancing. Tina Weymouth squats and hops with her bass; lead singer David Byrne slaps himself and slapping himself or flails about in a giant boxy business suit.
Instead of superimposing text, the trailer flashes one word at a time on-screen creating half-broken questions: “Why stop making sense? Why a movie?” The whole is oddly graceful, gracefully odd, and exhilarating, just like the Talking Heads’ music itself.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1994)
Usually, trailers use footage from the film they’re advertising. Director James Cameron just revved up his filmmaking machine and built a whole new one-minute fourteen. Instead of telling you anything about the plot or characters, all the trailer gives you is a pounding industrial soundtrack while you watch anonymous someones or somethings assembles the robot assassin Terminator from the future.
First, it’s a head. Then it’s a metal chassis. Then it’s Schwarzenegger flesh and muscle. Those who have seen the film know that this Terminator is a good Terminator. But to viewers at the time, it would have looked like Arnold was playing evil once again. Thus the menace when he intones at the end, “I’ll be back!”
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Twenty years and untold numbers of found footage films later, The Blair Witch Project remains one of the most innovative horror films ever—and its trailer is one of the most innovative in its form as well. The legendary marketing campaign was canny about whether the film was fiction or documentary, and the trailer provides the bare minimum information needed to confuse.
The “filmmaker” describes her project, takes some shots of her crew, and then suddenly we’re following the jerking hand-held camera around the woods with screaming in the background. The final image, of Heather panting terrified into the lens and making her last apologies remains iconic. Few films, or trailers, managed to make telling so little a terror in itself.
Edgar Wright’s trailer has no movie; it’s a spoof he directed for the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double-feature Grindhouse. It’s also sheer genius, tossing in every single possible horror trope in a gleefully haphazard fashion; there are evil dolls and messages in blood and cleavers and gore and nooses and various recognizable British actors gone before you can register they were even there.
Not having to actually sell anything or communicate a plot of any sort frees Wright up to leap from one goofily shocking image to the next, all while the narrator chants, “Don’t Don’t Don’t!” Maybe Edgar Wright should just make all the trailers and we should watch those instead of movies.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Goth Cate Blanchett! Thor doing the “I bet you’re wondering how I got here” meme! “The Immigrant Song”! Goth Cate Blanchett! Chris Hemsworth strolls confidently through the pounding Zep, only to get repeatedly symbolically castrated by multiple female adversaries.
It’s all heroic build-up and deflation, until that last brilliant ad-lib where the Hulk appears and Thor joyfully shouts to the confused gladiatorial crowd, “We’re friends from work!” as the music cuts out—and then shifts in again for that final cathartic anti-anti-climax. Even the little details, like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki flipping those knives, are brilliant. And did I mention goth Cate Blanchett? Thor: Ragnarok was good; the Thor: Ragnarok trailer is a two-minute masterpiece.
I was hoping to get at least a few more foreign trailers in here. It proved tricky to do, though, because the effort to market to an English-language audience tends to involve lots of clunky exposition. Older trailers were also heavier on making sure you knew who the stars were, which makes them in many cases look more dated than the films they’re promoting.
Movies are bound by trends and commerce, but trailers are even more so. Which is why there are more great movies than great trailers…though hopefully, this list has convinced you that there are at least some of the latter.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.