It’s not fair to call movies trailers works of art. Nor is it fair to call movie trailers only marketing material. The truth is that most trailers exist somewhere in the middle. The people who create them want to craft a narrative around a particular movie, and whatever format seems most likely to move the needle is the one they’ll use to market the film. Sometimes this means drilling down into the heart of the film in just a few minutes; other times, as this list will reveal, it means shooting brand new material just for the trailer.
Regardless of how you analyze them, movie trailers remain some of my favorite things about this industry, and I’m glad to once again be picking the ones that did their job best. Remember, this isn’t a list of the movie trailers with the best new footage or the ones that were discussed the most; these are the trailers that made me most want to see their films in 2018. And if I’ve picked my titles accurately, you’ll find this a pretty difficult list to disagree with.
18. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
The latest chronological entry on this list is also one of the film’s most intriguing. One of the easiest ways to differentiate your trailer from the pack is change the visual language we’ve come to expect; instead of closeups and action-oriented framing, the first trailer for Standoff at Sparrow Creek is midrange shot after midrange shot, giving us a visual language that’s different from most other trailers we’ll see in theaters. Given that this is the first film from Henry Dunham, this early glimpse at the cinematography is key; is the director willing to take stylistic risks? Will this film be more than just an interrogation room thriller? Those medium- and wide-shots tell me there’s more to Standoff at Sparrow Creek than just some double-edged dialogue.
In a perfect world, you’d probably have to do more to end up on a Best-Of list than throw together some footage from your film and set the entire thing against a ’70s pop song, but this is no ordinary filmmaker and no ordinary song. Roma may be the ultimate passion project for director Alfonso Cuarón — ensuring that audiences will examine the trailer with a bit more scrutiny than they may otherwise — but it also features the absolute best musical track for its footage. Pink Floyd has yet to really be leveraged by studios in the same way that, say, Led Zeppelin has been used over the last few years, but ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of track, the sort of trailer song that only an auteur at the height of his power could deem necessary to promote his film in the proper context.
Playing the audience against the audience is a time-honored tradition in movie marketing, dating at least as far back as the fake medical warnings in the trailers for William Castle’s horror films. With that in mind, one could probably make an argument that there’s nothing surprising or unique about Shudder’s decision to include audience quotes in their web trailer for this French horror film. But these aren’t exactly generic quotes, are they? By leveraging audience feedback that has very little to do with the movie itself — and everything to do with masculine outrange and anger at another female-directed movie that veers bravely into genre fans’ lanes — Revenge captures the imaginations of audiences with how far the film might be willing to go.
15. The Favourite
The first full trailer for Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite does an excellent job of playing with conventions. First it plays at being a light-hearted Victorian comedy of courtesy before pivoting into darker territory. After all, this is a film about two women playing at politics to satisfy their own darker urges; the full stakes at risk here are never more evident than in the trailer’s quick change of musical cues, as Weisz’s character explains her acts of violence with an almost cruel indifference. If we’re being honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the decision to end the trailer on Stone’s snort of derision, but it certainly leaves an impression. It’s better to get one person really excited for a movie than leave the majority with a kind of neutral impression.
14. Sorry to Bother You
We were only just barely ready for a movie as absurdist and, well, angry as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You in 2018, but we can probably blame some of that on the trailer. It’s not that the trailer does a bad job of representing the movie; it’s that the trailer does an incredible job of representing the movie, and that did not help clear things up for any of us. From the sound of David Cross’s voice coming out of Lakeith Stanfield’s mouth to the glimpses of performance artist played by Tessa Thompson, Sorry To Bother You promised to be quite the ride before we even had a chance to experience it firsthand. If only they’d included that third act reveal in the trailer; that really would’ve separated the wheat from the chaff, metaphorically speaking.
13. A Star Is Born
It’s the trailer that launched a million memes! Here audiences got their first listen to future Oscar-nominated songs and their first look at the moment that would capture the popular zeitgeist (“I just wanted to take another look at you.”). More importantly, the trailer answered a few important questions about one of the most-anticipated movies of the year. Could Bradley Cooper pull off the look and sound of a fading country star? Can anything stop Gaga on her way to EGOT glory? Was there enough here to justify yet-another adaptation of the seminal movie classic? Your mileage may vary on the last point, but the trailer for A Star Is Born offered a resounding “Yes!” and “No!” to the first two questions. There’s no denying Gaga; her first few notes of ‘Shallow’ in the trailer are more battle cry than ballad.
12. Bad Times at the El Royale
Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale is more style than substance, but that’s not exactly a bad thing when you have this much style to spare. As such, the trailer for the film does an excellent job of showing off why you’d want to buy a ticket. It begins with the incredible production design —the fabled bi-state hotel in all its rundown Vegas glory—and continues as characters explore the secrets of hidden rooms. Cynthia Erivo’s a capella rendition of ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ is so raw and haunting that a familiar Motown classic becomes almost entirely recognizable; in an era where every studio trailer features a stripped-down version of a classic song, not only did this one stand out, it became the glue that held the whole thing together. Throw in a little belly dancing from a shirtless Chris Hemsworth and you had one of the most memorable trailers of the summer. Isn’t it fun when the trailer doesn’t give away all of a movie’s story beats?
11. Mission: Impossible — Fallout
How good is the first Mission: Impossible — Fallout trailer? So good that it got countless moviegoers to admit that there was at least one Imagine Dragons song they liked. That’s right: a year after entire essays were written about the hilariously inappropriate use of ‘Believer’ during the trailer(s) for Murder on the Orient Express, Tom Cruise and company single-handedly rehabilitated the band’s image in the ears of cinephiles. Of course, there was more than just that for audiences to latch onto — it took the internet multiple weeks to calm down from the sight of Henry Cavill flexing his shirt guns, for example — but it’s hard to think of higher praise for a trailer than what I’ve already shared. Like the band said: get down with the victim, because we both know you need them.
I hold these truths to be self-evident: when A24 releases a horror film, the process will begin with a best-in-class trailer and end with a soul-sucking conversation about the boundaries of the horror genre. Like Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes At Night and The Witch before that, the trailer for Hereditary is a dynamite work of tension. Each trailer builds on an abstract series of musical cues and fragmented images of death and paranoia; Hereditary benefits from closeup shots of the dollhouses that Toni Collette’s character works on throughout the movie, giving the trailer a much-welcome pinch of the uncanny. The trailer even prepares audiences for one character’s signature tongue click, giving us a repeated — if not slightly off-pitch — version of that sound throughout. Even if Hereditary didn’t end up scaring you, you have to admit that the trailer made you want to be afraid of this movie, and that’s often half the battle.