In the past 12 months, the number of movie trailers you've seen is probably greater than the number of actual movies you've seen. Now that the Internet means you don't have to show up to a theater to watch them, previews are more widely available—and widely discussed—than ever. Which means the good ones really deserve to be appreciated.
Like the movies themselves, trailers can be exceedingly formulaic. The best ones either break from that format in one way or another (which is why movies with multiple-trailer campaigns often feel free to get creative with their early clips) or embody that formula so well that you gain a newfound appreciation for why that formula works.
I've put together this list of the year's best trailers as an act of appreciation. Yes, they're crass. Yes, they're advertising at their core. Yes, it's outrageous that you have to watch other advertising on YouTube before you can even watch one. But when they're good, they're good.
Best Multi-Spot Teaser Campaign
Some fans found the final trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 underwhelming, but part of that reaction may have been due to the fact that the earlier teasers were just so good. In a one-two punch of unnerving creativity, we got propaganda messages from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) warning the population of Panem against rebellion. In the first clip, the camera pulls back to reveal a stoic, almost complicit Peeta standing at Snow's right hand. Honestly, the look on Peeta's face in that clip (the loyal clenched jaw, the trapped haunted eyes) shows up any of the acting Josh Hutcherson does in the actual film.
The second clip sees Peeta again on Snow's right, this time joined by Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), and much like Hutcherson's best work in the previous clip, Malone's quietly defiant hand-on-hip was quadruple what she was asked to do in Mockingjay Part 1. At the end of this second clip, the narrative advances, with Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) breaking into the communication and sending out a message from District 13. And with those two clips, the story and tone of the film were put on display in an attention-grab that didn't even have to play the Jennifer Lawrence card.
Best Single Element of a Multi-Spot Campaign
Foxcatcher's trailers appeared to hopscotch around, chasing the pre-release buzz emanating from festivals. First there was an initial trailer that laid out the basics of the movie, or at least the general unsettling themes of the movie. After some of the Cannes reviews singled out Channing Tatum, a Tatum-specific trailer was cut. And then, with the studio perhaps worried about muddying the waters of a Best Actor Oscar campaign for Steve Carell, a third trailer put the spotlight back on Carell's spooky transformation into the eccentric John DuPont. But it was just that second, Tatum-heavy clip that impressed. It didn't manage to say very much about the plot of the film, but the dark, grunting intensity Tatum exhibited in those scenes inspired tidal waves of curiosity.
Best Single Image from a Trailer
This clip doubles as the best single sequence of Godzilla itself: an artful, eerie, gorgeous moment of skydivers, free-falling into the middle of Godzilla-ravaged San Francisco, trailing red streaks of smoke flares behind them. The clip cuts between POV shots of the skydivers and extra-wide shots with the red streaks descending from the clouds. It's utterly gorgeous and sells Godzilla as a cut above your normal brainless blockbuster, though the patented Godzilla shriek promises tried-and-true thrills as well.
Best Single-Scene Trailer
Because the movie-trailer formula usually entails pulling together clips from all across the film and shaking them up into a propulsive montage, one of the best ways to snap the audience to attention is to reject that format altogether and just deliver one scene from the film. It doesn't have to be a scene that spells out the plot. It doesn't have to be a scene that includes all the major characters. It just needs to make the audience want to see what comes next. We've seen this work effectively for movies like The Devil Wears Prada or even early contender for 2015's best trailer, Tomorrowland. This year, the trailer that did this best was for Big Hero 6, Disney and Marvel's fun kiddie superhero flick. What the scene at the heart of this teaser smartly accomplished was to step out of the way of its best selling point: huggable puffy robot Baymax.
Best Red-Band Trailer
Neighbors has an unfair advantage in this category, perhaps, as it had two red-band trailers. But its first one was especially impressive. Most red-band trailers feel almost duty-bound to cram in every bit of R-rated raunch and nudity and bad language in order to make the best of their opportunity. Sure, Neighbors announces its presence with McLovin sexing a coed up against the porch. But neither that moment, nor any of the partying frat boys or overcompensating Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, feels like it's straining to meet some standard of look-at-me raunch.
Best Use of Dumb Ol' Pop Music to Sell a Fancy Art Film
Xavier Dolan's Mommy is already full to bursting with delightfully odd pop songs like Oasis's "Wonderwall" and Counting Crows' "Colorblind," so it ends up being completely perfect that this French-Canadian mother-son drama is being sold to American audiences via some equally odd pop selections. One Republic's "Counting Stars" could be found on about half the TV ads and network promos in 2014, and Ellie Goulding's "Anything Could Happen" was notably used in the trailers for Girls season 2. The impression given was that Mommy was an incredibly familiar, commercial, sellable movie. Now if someone would just up and release it in the United States already.
Best Use of Actually Old Pop Music to Sell a Giant Superhero Film
You have only one place to put the blame for the reason you've had "Spirit in the Sky" and "Hooked on a Feeling" in your head for the better part of the year. Instantly, Guardians of the Galaxy went from an anonymous cog in the Marvel machine, full of characters you've never heard of even a little bit, to the clearly defined oddball cousin to The Avengers that it was always meant to be.
Best Trailer for a 2015 Movie
This list is restricted to trailers for movies that came out in 2014. We have to abide by the calendar or else all is lost and chaos reigns and other things that have to do with Robert Redford and Lars Von Trier movies come to pass. That said ... there was a new Star Wars trailer this year, and it'd be foolish not to mention how much pull that franchise still has. Even after disastrous prequels and countless jokes about midichlorians, that one shot of the Millennium Falcon streaking across the (Tatooine?) skyline still has the power to wrap mass audiences around the little finger of, in this case, J.J. Abrams. Celebrate, America! You now have a capacity for disappointment again!
Best Trailer of 2014, Second Runner Up
It took four tries to get it right, but the final trailer for Interstellar finally hit all the right buttons, balancing the script's more yearning, poetic tendencies with the space footage fans had been waiting to see. And all wrapped was up in "Final Frontier," composer Thomas Bergersen's trailer-ready piece of music that has a huge impact here.
Best Trailer of 2014, First Runner-Up
Attempting to explain Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's dreamscape-like, sci-fi body thriller in the span of an entire film proves difficult. In the span of two minutes? Impossible. So rather than try to lay out the particulars of Scarlett Johansson's extraterrestrial walking tour of chilly Scotland, the trailer instead lay out a rapid-fire collection of some of the most provocative images put to screen in 2014. The eye! The goo! That fur coat!
The Best Trailer of 2014
It might actually turn out that Birdman will win the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, and if so, you can say it started with a trailer that demanded attention from its very first second, with the single-continuous-take aesthetic, saturated backstage colors, and deranged Michael Keaton all adding up to something that looked quite novel. Then kicked in the perfectly off-kilter music choice, with Cee-Lo Green's slow-burn version of "Crazy" guiding us through a series of quick clips that feature comets, drumlines, and Michael Keaton in his underwear, striding through Times Square like a maniac. It's an unforgettable first impression.
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