Cutting a movie trailer may be primarily an act of salesmanship, as mercenary in its goals as a fast food commercial or a pop-up ad, but there is an art to it. The best “coming attractions” manage to stoke anticipation while either capturing the spirit of the film in question or—and this is rare, admittedly—carving out their own fascinating identity. Below, we’ve selected the 10 trailers that impressed us the most these past 12 months. These are not, it should be noted, the most popular trailers of the year (though one of them is). Rather, they’re the ones that worked best as shrewdly effective advertising, artful montage, or, ideally, both. Did we forget a crucial choice? Tell us about it in the comments below. And check back tomorrow when, at long last, we unveil our favorite films of the year.
10. Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens
On first watch, it seems to put the tease in teaser, “rewarding” the salivating faithful with a measly 11 shots, none featuring characters anyone has ever seen before. But with the Force not awakening for another full year, perhaps it’s best that the marketing whizzes of The Empire (sorry, Disney) seem committed to preserving the mystery of this return engagement to a galaxy far, far away. Anyway, there’s still plenty to obsess over in the 90-second spot, whose artfully arranged excerpts—a panicked John Boyega rising dramatically into frame, a presumed Sith lord unsheathing his impractical lightsaber—at least suggest that the Padawan at the helm (some guy named J.J.) can orchestrate a little mythic imagery. In an age when trailers tend to reveal too much, there’s value to one that leaves audiences wanting more. And let’s face it: It could have been a minute and a half of dancing Ewoks and we all would have still helped it become the most watched trailer ever.
9. American Sniper
Cherry-picking a single enticing scene from a movie and allowing it to function as the full theatrical trailer isn’t a new trick, but it remains a rare one. The preview for American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s biopic about the deadliest sharpshooter in U.S. military history, repurposes and slightly modifies a tense early scene of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) agonizing over whether to take out a civilian child with an explosive device in his arms. There’s something a little queasy about using this moral dilemma to sell tickets, but damn if it isn’t an effective strategy: Eastwood’s clean, muscular direction sells itself, and one leaves itching to see the resolution of the cliffhanger—even if getting hooked by the possibility that a little kid will be shot dead is kind of sick.
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Documentaries are rarely granted unique or extraordinary trailers, possibly because their distributors assume that trying to “trick” audiences into seeing a non-fiction film is a lost cause. (And the people already inclined to shell out cash for a bunch of talking heads don’t need to be sweet-talked into it—or so the argument might go.) But Citizenfour isn’t an ordinary documentary, and that’s nicely reflected in this short and evocative clip, which marries audio of director Laura Poitras reading a clandestine correspondence to images of ordinary locations rendered unsettling through context. A powerful sense of surveillance and paranoia is quickly and simply conveyed. And then comes the climactic appearance of Edward Snowden, which the trailer treats like that moment in a blockbuster preview when a famous character or franchise element is finally revealed. Masterful stuff.
7. Nighcrawler (first teaser)
Everything terrific about Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut—its nocturnal vision of Los Angeles, its midnight-black humor, Jake Gyllenhaal’s ghoulish embodiment of self-actualization gone wrong—is crammed into a fleet 94 seconds. Incorporating footage not actually seen in the finished film, and repeating one of Lou Bloom’s self-help mantras until it sounds like the ravings of a lunatic (which it essentially is), the teaser captures the twisted allure of Nightcrawler much better than the subsequent (and too plot-heavy) full trailer. Again, less can be more.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (first trailer)
It must be both exhilarating and a little maddening to assemble the trailer for a new Wes Anderson movie. When every given minute of running time features countless striking images and/or gut-busting gags, how does one possibly settle on what to include? There are several spots for The Grand Budapest Hotel, including a randomly profane Red Band trailer and one that hints at the film’s stories-within-stories architecture. But the best of the bunch is still the original international trailer, which handpicks some of the funniest lines (“I’ve had older”) and slapstick bits (the succession of face punches). Whoever cut the thing also seems to understand the pacing of an Anderson comedy, as they sometimes slow the madcap montage to a halt for a few seconds of deadpan stasis—as when, for example, Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori are caught stashing the stolen painting. The trailer is almost as delightful as the movie it’s advertising, which is really saying something.
5. Guardians Of The Galaxy (second trailer)
Faced with the challenge of selling audiences on a team of second-string superheroes they’ve probably never heard of, the Marvel team rose to the occasion by treating the characters like instant stars. The gamble clearly paid off, given all the Guardians fan art that flooded the web before the movie had even opened. The trailers—the second one, posted above, gets the slight edge—also smartly played up the sardonic spirit of the movie, positioning it as a comic alternative to more poker-faced superhero offerings. But let’s be real: The enormous success of these trailers—and, subsequently, the film, which remains 2014’s highest grosser—can probably be attributed to four little words: “Hooked On A Feeling.” Just try to think of Guardians Of The Galaxy without hearing the joyful chorus of that Blue Swede song. It’s impossible!
4. Birdman (first teaser)
Here’s another example of an initial teaser that’s much better than the longer, more informative trailer that followed it. Scored to the moody strains of a slow-jam version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” the first Birdman clip shrouds the film in intrigue. Will it be a psychological thriller? An absurdist comedy? An arty superhero movie? Those who didn’t immediately rush to Google for plot details could get lost in the mystery the teaser cultivates—not to mention the gloriousness of Emmanuel Lubezki’s gliding camerawork. Also: Did any 2014 trailer end on a funnier note?
3. Godzilla (first full trailer)
Who needs more than a passing glimpse of the titular monster when you have Bryan Cranston bellowing about the end of the world? Building off the vague unease of the original teaser, Godzilla’s first full trailer offers several tantalizing glimpses of urban devastation, including an opening aerial view of a downed aircraft and that shot of jets plummeting into San Francisco bay. Still, for all the wanton destruction being hinted at, it’s Cranston’s hysterical monologue that gives this spot its true gravity. It makes very clear that the terminal goofiness of that last American Godzilla movie is a thing of the past. Smart move.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Comic-Con preview)
Look at this insanity. Just look at it! The Mad Max team has stuffed more stylish, kinetic, awe-inspiring mayhem into two and half minutes than most action movies manage to fit into their entire running times. It’s the type of trailer that rewards compulsive replays, each subsequent look uncovering some incredible detail you missed on the first, second, or 10th time around. There are, technically, two versions of the spot, and while we prefer the one that premiered at Comic-Con—it has that cool calm-before-the-storm opening—you can’t go wrong with either. If the actual movie is half as exciting as the feverish montage of violence they’re using to advertise it, look the fuck out.
1. Inherent Vice
A miniature masterpiece of anticipation, distilling one of the year’s most bewildering films into a self-contained unit of screwball brilliance. This writer won’t go as far as claiming that it’s better than Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie. But it is infinitely more fun—and the rare trailer that’s still worth watching after you’ve seen the film it’s advertising, if for no other reason than it helps explain some of the truly confusing plot. Also, watching Joaquin Phoenix freak out over that picture never, ever gets old.