Movie trailers have always been fascinating things: perched at the intersection of art and advertising, rearranging hints and fragments of what they’re selling into attractive new forms. But it wasn’t until you could play them at a click of a mouse that they became the objects of obsession they are today. The first look at a heavily anticipated blockbuster now inspires article-length analysis, with eagle-eyed writers going through them line by line, shot by shot, sometimes frame by frame, searching for pertinent plot details with the kind of intensity of attention once reserved for the Zapruder film. Hunger for what multiplexes still call “coming attractions” is high enough that studios have even begun cutting previews for previews, teasing the arrival of a trailer the day before it drops. If trailers are designed to stoke anticipation, they’ve become heavily anticipated events themselves. Just ask those who waited on bated breath all year long for their first glimpse of a Porg in action.
The Last Jedi, speaking of which, is not among the 10 movies singled out below. Neither its full-length trailer nor the earlier teaser quite replicated the mystery and allure that the last two Star Wars films so successfully nourished in advance of release. With one major exception, this year’s greatest trailers weren’t advertising the biggest hits. Thor: Ragnarok gave away a little too much. Despicable Me 3 didn’t have enough good gags to highlight. Dunkirk dropped its strongest spot last year. We didn’t select 2017’s best based on the number of people who watched them—even if our top choice did smash some records in that respect. What the 10 ads on our list have in common is finding smart, exciting, seductive, or just really cool ways to sell a movie. Because even if we’ve reached peak trailer mania, there’s still a real art to assembling these two-minute siren calls.
Love or loathe last year’s Deadpool, it’s hard to deny the ingenuity of the sequel’s first teaser, a self-contained gag that amusingly sidesteps prevailing trends in quick-cut movie marketing. Whereas most trailers linger a few seconds at most on any one image, this extended spot—attached to screenings of Logan back in the spring—blows almost a minute and a half on an unbroken shot of Ryan Reynolds’ irreverent crime-fighter laboriously changing into his costume in a phone booth, underscored by the iconic John Williams Superman score, as well as the sound of the bystander he’s taking way too long to rescue being violently murdered off camera. It’s a longish teaser, but one packed with fairly inspired jokes, like the opening fake-out, which plays it straight before blowing its cover with a zany, intentionally mood-killing whip-pan. More superhero trailers could stand to generate some original content, and to play out a single episode rather than offering the usual speedy highlight reel of spectacle.
Michał Marczak’s quasi-nonfiction experiment isn’t a normal documentary; it’s at least partially scripted and staged, with its three young Polish subjects essentially “playing” themselves, bounding from one late-night shindig to the next. That may bug doc purists, but it’s clearly a boon to whoever edited the film’s trailer; without the need to gussy up or hide some of the drier conventions of the medium—talking heads, archival footage, charts or graphs—they just string together the film’s numerous bacchanals into a pulsing, celebratory montage. Rhythmically cut to Caribou’s “Can’t Do Without You,” with some thematically relevant (and subtitled) dialogue as bookends, the trailer dances from location to location, from one blissful image to the next, constantly following bodies in motion. In doing so, it offers a condensed approximation of the movie itself: not quite fiction, not quite nonfiction, just a nonstop party. This one just happens to run a couple minutes instead of 100.
It’s not surprising that the trailer for Columbus plays up its most conventional elements, the scenes (and dialogue exchanges) that make it seem like an ordinary indie melodrama about two strangers whose lives intersect during a confusing time for both of them. But the thing about Columbus is that it’s so carefully, strikingly shot—in elegantly framed wide angles, often with interesting buildings at center—that it could never really look conventional or ordinary. The trailer ends up capturing the movie’s mood rather beautifully, thanks to a well-selected handful of its best images, a snippet of its lovely ambient-rock soundtrack, and glimmers of its terrific lead performances. In a nice touch that suggests director Kogonada may have cut the spot himself (or at least had input), the placement of pull quotes and credits suggests a relevantly architectural sensibility, creating symmetries and filling empty space.
7. It Comes At Night (teaser)
Wait, what comes at night? There are no answers, just bone-deep dread, in the first teaser for Trey Edward Shults’ claustrophobic thriller. Beginning, forebodingly, with a close-up on Pieter Bruegel’s oil-paint massacre “The Triumph Of Death,” before the camera drifts to the right and begins creeping down a long corridor to a bright red door, this vague premonition drips with mystery, hooking us not through plot details, but tense faces, tenser conversation, a barking dog, an eye peering through a hole, the ominously urgent hum of music, and a looped expression of comfort (“It’s okay”) that gets less comforting every time it’s repeated. It’s not okay, the sounds and images warn. That we have no idea what these characters fear, or what might be on the other side of that much-debated door, is instrumental to the effect. This is the first A24 movie on this list. It won’t be the last.
6. Baby Driver (first trailer)
Honestly, none of the Baby Driver trailers actually set action to music as thrillingly as the film itself does, and one could argue that none of them quite capture the movie’s tone, either. But there’s enough fun stuff in Edgar Wright’s combination crime caper and jukebox musical to fuel several pretty enticing previews. Some seem to prefer the funkier, looser international trailer, but we’ll give the edge to the first U.S. one, which puts a greater emphasis on the fancy wheelwork, has a more rat-a-tat rhythm (and better music), and also climaxes with that hilarious exchange about the Mike Myers masks. The whole thing makes Baby Driver look cool, and even if it doesn’t approximate the precise shade of cool Wright really offers, there’s still plenty of truth in its advertising.
It’s become a tired cliché to sell a thriller with a slowed-down, creeped-up version of a popular song. But the trailer for Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest lunatic parable gets plenty of unnerving mileage out of an a capella rendition of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn.” The rest of the piece’s power comes from its out-of-context content: eagle-eyed glimpses of collapsing bodies, children dragging themselves down flights of stairs, a teenage boy issuing ominous threats. In general strategy, A24's doom-drenched spot for The Killing Of A Sacred Deer isn’t radically different from the one it commissioned for It Comes At Night. Both keep plot largely under wraps, rely heavily on their haunting imagery, and bet the farm on nightmarish atmosphere. But guess what? It works like gangbusters here, too.
4. Atomic Blonde (Red Band trailer)
Three minutes of violence, sex, fashion, profanity, comedy, and swaggering movie-star attitude. The “restricted” preview for Atomic Blonde may be a little longer than the average attraction, but it makes those extra seconds count, beginning with a protracted sample of the film’s single-take, face-bashing stairway set-piece. The whole trailer is a pressurized delight, feeding off the respectively moody and kicky energy of “Blue Monday” and “Killer Queen,” creating a (literally) snappy rhythm, and providing just enough plot detail to communicate its distaff-John Wick premise. Mostly, it just delivers the goods, making a case for the so-called “Red Band” trailer as the only smart way to advertise a movie like Atomic Blonde. When you’re offering nothing but stylish excess, why censor it?
3. Blade Runner 2049 (first trailer)
The first trailer for Blade Runner 2049 was a satisfying sequel in its own right. Just hearing a few beefed-up, remixed notes from that iconic Vangelis score was enough to send chills dancing down the spine of any dyed-in-the-wool Deckard fan. There are callbacks peppered throughout the whole preview, from the early appearance of a towering Atari billboard to the tense ambiguity created by having Ryan Gosling tell Harrison Ford that he’s come to ask him some questions. Like the initial trailers for Ford’s other relaunched sci-fi franchise, this preview felt both old and new, playing on fond memories of a classic without looking like a retread, all while preserving its plot secrets. The problem, of course, is that Blade Runner, unlike Star Wars, was always a cult property—which is to say, stoking nostalgia for a 35-year-old studio misfire wasn’t some recipe for surefire box-office success. Still, if audiences weren’t drawn in mass to the weird, arty, impossible sequel this trailer truthfully promised, you still have to wonder how its gallery of awe-inspiring imagery didn’t put more butts in seats. Don’t Blade Runner agnostics have eyes, too?
If the movie-trailer business has a reigning visionary, a true artist of the medium, it’s Mark Woollen. For years, Woollen has established his agency as the premier artisanal choice in arthouse film marketing, assembling some of the last decade’s most innovative and memorable trailers: that Social Network spot with the choral “Creep” cover; the Little Children teaser scored to the approaching of a train; the Serious Man ad built around the repeated sound and image of Michael Stuhlbarg being slammed into a chalkboard. Last year, Woollen’s work occupied the top three spots of our list (accidentally, at least in the sense that we didn’t realize beforehand that his team cut all three). This year, his grand achievement is the trailer for The Florida Project, which begins with a wonderfully illustrative standalone moment, before gracefully mimicking the film’s structure of carefree mischief intersected by harsh reality. In just a couple minutes, it perfectly captures the warm, boisterous, humanistic spirit of Sean Baker’s movie—and we promise we’re not just saying that because The A.V. Club shows up among the glowing pull-quote raves scattered throughout. Woollen, incidentally, had a pretty grand year otherwise, too; besides The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (see No. 5), his team also cut terrific spots for Good Time, The Meyerowitz Stories, and several others.
1. It (first teaser)
It only took a few weeks for the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It to become the highest grossing horror movie of all time. Allow us to (ahem) float a pretty simple theory as to why: The film’s first teaser was a miniature masterpiece of fright. Like the movie itself, the inaugural preview plays like a set-piece machine, anchored by three giant scares: the appearance of Pennywise in the sewer; the maniacally malfunctioning slide projector; and Bill’s blood-curdling reunion with his brother in the flooded basement. But the trailer itself is also an expert piece of storytelling with a beginning, middle, and end—one that takes its time to set a mood, introduces both its world and its cast of characters, and highlights imagery that gets lodged immediately in the audience’s nightmare-generating subconscious. The It teaser smashed viewing records, and for good reason: It crackled with funhouse terror, then dared everyone watching to pony up for the whole thing. Whether the nearly two-and-a-half hours it teased could live up to these superbly selected two-and-a-half minutes is another question entirely.