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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Coming-attraction attractions: 24 movie trailers that function as standalone works of art

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1. The Social Network (2010)
Movies have always had trouble conveying the drama, suspense, and excitement of the online universe, because there’s nothing less compelling than people clicking away on their keyboards, or virtual figures interacting in cyberspace à la Disclosure. But the trailer for David Fincher’s Facebook movie The Social Network—set to an eerie cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” performed by an all-girl Belgian choir—gets across the site’s extraordinary breadth in a rush of familiar images (photos, status updates, the “Add As Friend” button, et al.). For millions of users, the site has become so woven into the fabric of everyday life that its power is taken for granted, but the Social Network trailer is a bracing reminder of how Facebook has grown into a vast repository of personal thoughts and photos, and the central hub for a very modern concept of “connectedness.” And it all rests ironically on the rotten, contentious foundation of Ivy League whiz kids—chiefly Mark Zuckerberg, the “creep” in question—whose relationships dissolve as swiftly as users’ relationships are forged.

2. Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
After seeing some of Pablo Ferro’s commercials in England—ads the Cuban-born animator built on stop-motion technology, quick-cut editing, and vivid typography—Stanley Kubrick contracted Ferro to employ similar techniques on the trailer for 1964’s Dr. Strangelove. As single-word title cards and more than 125 images (including subliminal photos of Kubrick himself) flash in stroboscopic succession to a soundtrack built on atonal xylophone accents and ominous explosions, Ferro creates a Cold War tension akin to Lyndon Johnson’s infamous “Daisy” ad from the same year. But Ferro subversively undercuts that anxiety with ironic snippets of out-of-context dialogue, hinting at Dr. Strangelove’s underlying themes of war as a symptom of the male libido. Then he has the title read in three different styles—as if the film were, respectively, a science-fiction B-movie, a lighthearted comedy, and a naughty sex romp—which masterfully encapsulates its satirical tone with just a few subtle shifts in inflection. Kubrick so liked the finished result that he hired Ferro to create the film’s opening sequence, which featured Ferro’s hand-drawn lettering over a slyly sexualized shot of B-52s refueling to the tune of “Try A Little Tenderness.” That absurdist sequence perfectly embodied Dr. Strangelove in the same way the preview did.

3. Psycho (1960)
A lot of major changes in cinema get attributed to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It signified crime dramas’ shift from noir-style fatalistic realism to modern psycho-killer narratives, it was the last of the great black-and-white thrillers, and it was the end of Hitchcock’s most fertile creative period. But it was also a master-stroke of marketing, mostly cooked up by Hitchcock himself: He suggested the “no one admitted after the start of the movie” policy, he kept a tight lid on his cast so they didn’t drop any spoilers, he refused to allow critics’ screenings, and he directed the movie’s now-famed trailer, in which he takes us on an uncharacteristically jolly tour of Bates Manor. In his distinctive dolorous voice, he gloats over little teasers for his murderous new effort, and eventually leads us to the bathroom of the motel, pulling back the shower curtain to reveal a screaming Janet Leigh. (Well, technically, Vera Miles, but everyone was too keyed up to notice.) His instincts paid off: The marketing campaign was a coup, and Psycho became a huge hit, largely because audiences got so excited about the wall of secrecy and the sinister hints in the lengthy trailer.

4. Real Life (1979)
Before making his brilliant debut feature, Real Life, a riff on PBS’ groundbreaking series An American Family that predicted (and savaged) the unreality of reality television, Albert Brooks made his name on ingenious meta-comedy and a series of satirical short films produced for Saturday Night Live. True to form, Brooks scrapped the idea of cutting a conventional trailer for Real Life, and did an irreverent send-up of William Castle-style hucksterism to rope people into theaters. The hook? 3-D. Appearing behind a desk, Brooks addresses the camera directly to talk about his new movie, which is so exciting that he’s presenting the trailer in 3-D, so they can “literally feel the excitement.” (Should the special glasses not be under the theater seats, Brooks advises viewers simply to turn to the person next to them and ask to borrow pieces of red and blue cellophane, then put one over each eye.) From there, Brooks playfully mocks the gimmick, even including an appearance from world-champion paddleballer Randy Brown, who just happened to be stopping by—while underlining the showbiz hucksterism at the heart of Real Life.

5. Citizen Kane (1941)
With typical gall, Orson Welles set out to defy as many filmmaking conventions as he could with his directorial debut, Citizen Kane, looking to bring the storytelling techniques of theater, radio, comics, and novels into cinema’s sound era. He was equally playful with the movie’s trailer, offering a “casual” (albeit plainly rehearsed) behind-the-scenes look at the film’s cast, many of whom were making their motion-picture debuts after years on the radio in Welles’ Mercury Theater troupe. Then he has various cast members, in character, give their opinion about the movie’s hero, Charles Foster Kane, revealing almost nothing about the plot of Citizen Kane while revealing plenty about the tone and ambition. A nifty bit of showmanship, Mr. Welles.

6. Eat My Dust! (1976)
B-movie magnate Roger Corman gave a lot of major directors their start in the ’60s and ’70s, but in terms of the actual work produced by Corman’s New World Pictures, the real art was coming out of the trailer department, where a team of young editors that included Joe Dante and Allan Arkush worked pithy ad copy and stock footage of crashes and explosions around whatever middling material they were getting back from the New World film crews in the Philippines. Those crashes were often taken straight from Eat My Dust!, a 1976 Ron Howard vehicle in which Howard starred in exchange for the chance to direct his first film, 1977’s Grand Theft Auto (which has a pretty terrific trailer itself). The Eat My Dust! trailer is classic Corman, full of innuendo, metal crunching against metal, and an announcer promising action, action, action! It also has one of ’70s exploitation’s most memorable taglines: “Ron Howard pops the clutch and tells the world to ‘Eat my dust!’”

7. It’s Alive (1974)
It doesn’t take much to tantalize a potential audience—or to freak them the hell out. Just ask any innocent kid who happened to be watching TV in the mid-’70s, when the commercial for Larry Cohen’s 1974 mutant-baby movie It’s Alive aired. In just 30 seconds, with little more than a haunting lullaby, a rotating bassinet, and one gnarled claw, the people behind It’s Alive gave an entire generation nightmares—even those who never actually saw the film.

8-9. Buffalo ’66 (1998) / The Brown Bunny (2003)
Writer/director/star/what-have-you Vincent Gallo constructed the trailers for his first two features, Buffalo ’66 and The Brown Bunny, around a key piece of music, which evokes the tone of each film perfectly while giving the trailers their own unique rhythm. Composed entirely of still shots from the film, often cleverly sequenced to suggest movement, the Buffalo ’66 trailer is edited in time to Yes’ prog-rock epic “The Heart Of The Sunrise,” a song that figures into the climactic scene where Gallo’s character confronts his bête noire at a strip club. Each of the cast members are introduced in freeze-frames that are less about profile than essence—Ben Gazzara’s fury, Christina Ricci’s cleavage—and in retro-fonts that suggest the film’s debt to another era. At the same time, it tells the story in fragments: the kidnapping, the dysfunctional family reunion, the bowling-alley romance, the showdown at the club. And all to a song that has a cinematic arc, accumulating in intensity to the climax and easing off into a satisfying denouement.

The Brown Bunny has a simpler but no less ingenious design that does the hard work of calibrating viewers’ expectations for a notoriously deliberate, provocative road movie. Set to Jackson C. Frank’s beautiful folk song “Milk And Honey,” the trailer unfolds in split-screen: On the right side, we see the highway through the bug-spattered windshield of Gallo’s character as he drives across the country; on the left, we see past images of his former lover (Chloë Sevigny) as men at a party assault her. Both sides of the screen reflect his haunted conscience on this long road trip, where he drives a lonely road from sunrise to sunset and lives with his inaction in protecting his ex from harm.


10. Comedian (2002)
A documentary about Jerry Seinfeld, newcomer Orny Adams, and the world of stand-up comedy is a tough sell, since audiences would likely prefer to see Seinfeld and company perform than watch the sausage get made. So rather than stringing together behind-the-scenes clips, the makers of the Comedian trailer took a meta approach that plays with the form while hopefully suggesting that the movie itself will have the same level of wit. The action is set in a recording studio, where “Jack,” a deep-toned voiceover guy in the mold of the late, legendary Don LaFontaine, sits down to narrate the Comedian trailer. But he can’t get past the first phrase without spouting trailer clichés: “In a world where…” “In a land that…” “In a time…” and so on. In a world where people are keenly aware of such clichés, the producer finally gets so exasperated, he has to fire him.

11. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The trailer for Tobe Hooper’s debut feature plays out like clips from a snuff film shot in hell. A flashbulb pops between shots of a lumbering beast wrecking havoc on screaming young people; a deep voice describes the unpleasantness. The format has been recycled for countless horror trailers before and since, but what makes Chain Saw Massacre so singular is how much the trailer manages to imply in the dark spaces between each clip. It’s the sort of preview that threatens as much as it promises. In its entirety, Massacre isn’t nearly as bloody as this few minutes (or the movie’s title) suggest, and the trailer manages to provide glimpses of some of the movie’s most shocking scenes without robbing any of them of their dread.

12. Spider-Man (2002)
In the wake of 9/11, Hollywood went to great lengths to avoid rubbing salt in America’s wounds. Movies were held back from release if they had references to terrorists, bombs on airplanes, or most damning of all, shots of the Twin Towers. Spider-Man didn’t come out till May 2002, more than enough time for the fervor to die down, but its first trailer, a teaser about bank robbery gone awry, fell victim to the purge because of its visual punchline. The teaser lacks the dynamism of Sam Raimi’s direction—the visuals are competent but flat, and the effects are unpolished—but as a short film to whet appetites, it’s tough to beat. Guys in suits slip inside a downtown bank, strip the place clean, and then, as they’re flying off in a helicopter, an unseen force catches them and pulls them back into a spiderweb formed between the buildings of the World Trade Center. It’s a clever, bright piece of work that’s mostly remembered for the wrong reasons.


13. Toys (1992)
How best to disguise the contents of a painfully whimsical, heavy-handed movie about the pernicious effect of war toys? Don’t show any actual footage from the film; just put star Robin Williams in a rolling wheat field and let him free-associate about trailer-hype, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Oscar-winning Rain Man, also from Toys director Barry Levinson. It’s Williams at his most Williams-y, tossing out pop-culture references and imitations for their own sake, not to make any larger point. And though his Toys character is exactly the kind of overgrown man-child that Williams specialized in back in the early ’90s, he isn’t as freewheeling as the trailer version of the character. So this is a clever bit of bait-and-switch, with a setting so striking that The Simpsons parodied it a couple of years later in the episode “Burns’ Heir.”

14. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
Steve Martin and Carl Reiner paid homage to film noir in their 1982 comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, in which Martin plays a private investigator who interacts with scenes from old movies while he’s on his own crazy case. The trailer does likewise, mimicking the brash, breathless style of classic Hollywood movie trailers, but with a Martin/Reiner twist. “He’ll laugh in the face of danger!” Martin promises, then adds, “He’ll dace in the fange of laughter!” It’s silly, and yet the tone is exactly right—just like the movie it’s advertising.

15. A Serious Man (2009)
Though the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man is plenty strange and inventive, the movie itself has nothing on its trailer, which turns the sound of star Michael Stuhlbarg getting smashed against a blackboard into a beat that the trailer accentuates with more rhythmic sounds and phrases from the movie. It’s a funny little introduction to A Serious Man’s world of Minnesota academia and Judaism, but it also puts across the idea that the protagonist is trapped in an intensifying, repetitive pattern of strife and collision.

16. Alien (1979)
There are no explanations in the original trailer for Ridley Scott’s Alien, no voiceover to provide reassuring context, and no words beyond the title and the famous tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” But that’s all that’s needed. Great trailers are often visual tone poems that seek to capture the feel of the film they advertise in a small fraction of that film’s running time, and the trailer for Alien manages that without ever showing audiences the titular monster, or even establishing the plot. It’s more like a free-association nightmare: first the stars rushing past, than the bizarre gray landscape and a single, looming egg. When the movie clips start, it’s almost a relief, but they’re a jumble of unconnected moments, full of terrified people and flashing lights. That tagline at the end just confirms what audiences already know—there is an evil thing sleeping in the darkness out there, and some fools went and woke it up.

17. Magnolia (1999)
Magnolia is a sprawling, awkward, almost brutally sincere film; its trailer loses the awkwardness, but keeps the sincerity, providing a quick introduction to all the film’s leads as each actor in turn faces the camera directly and says, “I’m [character name].” The follow-up clips show characters triumphant, begging for help, sobbing, desperate, joyful, confused; the movie’s basically a Robert Altman picture that went off its meds, and the trailer captures the feeling just enough to make viewers want more. Throw in some Ricky Jay narration (including the wonderful promise that everything shown will somehow make sense in the end) and an Aimee Mann song, and it’s a perfect vision of imperfect art.

18. The Minus Man (1999)
The vox pop is a venerable movie-trailer tradition, from the obviously staged footage of audiences howling in laughter and delight during Hollywood’s Golden Age to the enthusiastic-moron-in-front-of-a-poster style of the ’90s. But the clever Hampton Fancher thriller The Minus Man gave the idea a twist in much the same way it did the movie’s own serial-killer plot. We follow an attractive young couple leaving the movie, and tag along with them as they discuss it—in terms specific enough to tease, but vague enough to keep us guessing—well into the night. Suddenly, the man points out that they’ve been talking all night, and the woman, in a sudden panic, runs across town, strips, and… well, just watch. It’s one of the few trailers that could itself be spoiled in discussion, and one of the few previews where the vox pop isn’t used to avoid showing any footage from a rotten movie.

19. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick didn’t do anything fancy with the trailer for The Shining. He eschewed the tendency to cram previews with multiple scenes from the movie being advertised, but he also didn’t get too clever and dream up an elaborate meta-narrative. Instead, he focused on one unforgettable image and trusted that it would be enough to draw audiences in. As the credits slowly crawl up the screen to the accompaniment of an impossibly tense piece of avant-garde music, audiences see what appears to be a still photograph of the elevator doors of the Overlook Hotel—until ghastly, impossible amounts of blood finally spill out in slow motion, engulfing the furniture in the hall and covering the camera eye. It was a simple but stunningly effective choice, and one that allegedly got him in trouble with the censors: All-audiences trailers weren’t supposed to show blood, so Kubrick reportedly sold them on the absurd notion it was really rusty water.

20. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
As anyone who’s read the fascinating, informative Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking knows, Lee’s first major release was financed on all the money he could beg, steal, borrow, or hustle, from maxed-out credit cards to selling junk on the sidewalk. Spike Lee as fast-talking smoothie is one of Lee’s most memorable creations, and it’s the one he uses to sell audiences on his debut. In the trailer, Lee, playing a character that’s an amalgam of his street-hustler persona, his Mars Blackmon character, and his real self (whoever that is), shills tube socks on a Manhattan sidewalk and shows clips from the movie, begging viewers to go see it so he doesn’t have to do this for a living anymore. It’s charming, audacious, and annoying all at once, and a near-perfect introduction to not only the movie, but to the man, or force of nature, who created it. Fi’dollas! Gimme fi’dollas!

21. Femme Fatale (2002)
Love him or hate him, you have to give Brian De Palma credit: He rarely does the safe, easy, or predictable thing. That’s true in spades of the trailer for his vastly underrated thriller Femme Fatale, which begins with a clip from the legendary noir classic Double Indemnity, and then proceeds to show audiences the entire movie. That’s right: The trailer for Femme Fatale contains every single minute of the movie Femme Fatale, sped up to hyper-speed. (Of course, De Palma is a risk-taker, but he’s no fool: he slows down the action a few times, especially when Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is scantily clad or making out with another woman in a bathroom stall.) Since Femme Fatale has a prominent twist, this is even bolder than it seems, but De Palma really isn’t taking many chances. There’s a lot to unpack in the movie, and a lot of the clues to what’s really going on are hard enough to pick up on watching it at normal speed; it’s pretty unlikely that anyone figured it out after seeing it condensed into two and a half minutes. Still, it makes for an unforgettable trailer, especially when the director essentially ends it with a taunt.

22. Superman Returns (2006)
Bryan Singer’s pseudo-continuation/fan-fiction adaptation of the Richard Donner Superman films met a mostly muted reaction from the general public upon its release, and was angrily besieged by fanboys who wanted more punching and less Superman-as-Christ mythological parallels. Really, though, they should have seen it coming from the striking trailer, which lays out everything Singer is trying to do in just over a minute and a half. Narration Marlon Brando recorded for the 1978 Superman sonorously intones over a selection from John Williams’ score from the same film, and a handful of short, fleeting glimpses of iconic imagery from the character’s past—glimpses that fade in and out, rather than quickly cutting together. It’s all there: the reverence for Donner, the hyper-earnest tone, the love for a largely moribund character. And then Brando says “my only son,” and it all snaps into place.

23. Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)
Otto Preminger was a veteran stage and screen actor—his turn in Stalag 17 did as much to increase his public profile as any of his battles with the censors—but you’d never know it from his stiff turn in the Anatomy Of A Murder trailer, which finds him in full faux-Hitchcock hosting mode. The court is full and the cast is ready for Otto to swear them in, but author Robert Traver is confused. What’s going on, he asks, and who’s the jury? “The audience,” Preminger intones with impressive silliness, before cutting to a relatively conventional three-minute assemblage of clips. But in spite of the amateur-hour acting, there’s a real kick in seeing the firepower cast (minus the then relatively unknown George C. Scott) getting sworn in and promising to do good work in the movie, not to mention seeing sternly Teutonic Preminger, about as naturally amiable as his Stalag 17 character, handing things off to cheery Duke Ellington.

24. Where The Wild Things Are (2009)
The standard line about Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s kid-lit classic—“How do you turn a 338-word story into a feature-length film?”—can hardly be applied to the film’s anthemic trailer. The spliced-together footage ditches Dave Eggers’ dialogue almost completely, while exploding with the colors of a half-acoustic/half-plugged-in version of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” getting at Where The Wild Things Are’s conflicted, childlike emotional core—gleeful uplift tempered with fearful despair—more efficiently than any of its interminable scenes of crying monsters. In line with Jonze’s background in music video, it’s an impressionistic, expertly edited piece that moves in time with its soundtrack, right to its howling climax.