There are those who prefer not to see movie trailers and I totally get it since they’re basically sycophantic commercials and there is a sense of surprise they spoil, however little the percentage. I am not one of those people. Since I’ve gone to the movies, they felt like a fundamental part of my moviegoing experience: getting to see what’s happening in the dark rooms around mine and especially when I get to see them attached to an old 35mm presentation, they feel like a lovely time capsule of what the state of cinema was back then, the trends and whatnot.
I have no idea if any of the trailers I curate below will play as a time capsule for the 2010s hundreds of years from now but I do feel like this past decade was absolutely the time period where I recognized the capability of trailers to act as pop art pieces in and of themselves, catching up with how posters have done thing well enough back (I have no idea if it’s just trailers began fixing their act – we do have Citizen Kane‘s trailer as an all-timer but I don’t know if that was the trend). There was an undergrad friend of mine (D-M-, if you ever read this, here’s to you!) that was pretty excited about discussing how he would arrange material from a film into an effective trailer communicating its own beginning, middle, and end and it really opened my mind to those capabilities.
In any case, there is a lot of material to go through here – 20 movies each because I suck like that – so let’s dive into the best and the worst of the trailers of the 2010s.
THE WORST TRAILERS OF THE 2010s
20. Zootopia – Official US Sloth trailer
If I never see another gif of that insufferable sloth sequence, it will be too soon. Just because it’s meant to feel slow doesn’t mean I enjoy how slow it is. Was this really the only trailer every theater I had to go to between Late 2015 and Spring 2016 had to play?
19. The Boss Baby
Dreamworks Animation is such a hotbed of terrible trailers that I was between this, Sherman & Mr. Peabody, The Penguins of Madagascar, Trolls, and Home. I went with this because that “Cookies are for closers” is such a weird choice of ending joke lacking any awareness of this movie’s audience.
18. Cars 3 – Teaser
You’re gonna catch a lot of trailers here going by the grittier “end of the road” route and this was the weirdest one to encounter. It’s literally a movie about cartoon talking cars, why are we meant to invoke the sense of someone’s death?
17. Dark Waters
I could listen to Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo talk about a hunderd un ninedy cooowws (?!?) ‘til the cows come home but what a really weird marketing campaign for a Todd Haynes movie. Feels more like a Michael Mann picture.
16. Despicable Me trailers
Such a confused hodge podge of trailers that end up giving no real identifiable or consistent character towards the movie itself, which basically explains all of Illumination Animation’s work for the entirety of their run.
15. The Lion King – Teaser
I literally felt my soul die watching it the opening scene of The Lion King be coldly reproduced with no emotion and even less lighting.
I should have already been warned by this trailer that I was meeting up with my least favorite Soderbergh film and somehow I had convinced myself that definition and coloring this poor would possibly be good with Soderbergh behind the wheels. I’ve still been too broken by this to see High Flying Bird yet.
13. Sing – Trailer 1
Returning once again to Illumination, this one actually does a much better job of accurately representing the movie it was promoting than Despicable Me, except that the honest amount of autotuned pop and visual lack of texture and the pretty straightforward desire to appeal to young folks by assuming that American Idol and talking animals still have cache with them altogether felt like witnessing yourself approaching a car wreck that you die in, Final Destination-style.
12. Knives Out – Trailer 2
Not that the first trailer was all that promising but “I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you” fully communicated to me that Rian Johnson’s sense of humor and my sense of humor have reached a parting of the ways. Far are we from The Brothers Bloom.
Quoting my friend’s response (E-B-, here’s to you!) to this frustratingly generic looking biopic trailer for a biopic that was absolutely not “You’re gonna have to give her a moment, son. Harriet Tubman has to think about her whole life before she ends slavery.”
10. God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness
Yet another “dark and gritty” entry for this list, particularly the “this time it’s personal” treatment of arson and death and the feeling of “final showdown” build-up for literally the two comic relief characters from the first two. Or I mean… one of them, spoiling very early on which one is going to die…
9. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Trailer 1
Counting on way too much emotional currency on any of these characters for us to be brought in on “Chris Pratt must save the velociraptor”, except maybe in the manner that Blue is a significantly more appealing character than any humans in this franchise. Pratt and Howard have some of the most lukewarm chemistry around and that adds extra flopsweat to this trailer well before a very confused-looking Jeff Goldblum betrays the fact that he was asked to sit on a chair for a few minutes and bring nothing else.
8. Tangled – Trailer 1
In a list of trailers where a lot of good movies ended up looking really bad, this is the one that looked the worst with that Flynn-centric smolder setpiece.
7. John Carter – teaser
Peter Gabriel went and made Arcade Fire sound like a funeral dirge and then it was used to threaten the sleepiest space opera in existence. What evil!
6. Overcomer – Teaser Trailer
Feels like less a trailer and more a powerpoint pitch, given how much of this is slideshow level titles and clips from previous Kendrick brothers productions.
5. The Happytime Murders
I’ve never had a trailer disabuse me of my hopes for a movie quicker. There are a million directions that a Muppet Noir could have gone and they made very clear that they went with the post-Apatow bland comedy approach with this trailer warning me thankfully that while the movie wasn’t as bad as this trailer made me brace for, I wasn’t going to receive any time well-spent.
4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – Trailer 2
To begin with, that whole opening reads like a slashfic of Batman and Superman negging each other in public, interrupted by us receiving Jesse Eisenberg’s best impression of Tobias Funke in the least intimidating manner. And then follow that up with the fact that practically every dramatic beat of this movie is delivered in sloppy overspill throughout the entirety of the trailer and then the worst part is that you probably still wouldn’t have been able to summarize the plot in a single sentence based on this trailer. The absolute worst trailer a Zack Snyder film received, sadly for his second-best film.
Imagine getting to bring together the can’t-miss pairing of Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree and deciding to focus on somebody else for your marketing. Imagine also deciding to use your trailer to already soapbox on woke culture before letting us get trapped in the movie theater to suffer that.
I swear part of why I was shocked at how pleasant and enjoyable this movie turned out to be is because of how mindless the US trailer for this movie looked as though it wanted to fit in with the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Hop, particularly with that horrifying appeal to gross-out humor in the bathroom. The single trailer on this list that is least emblematic of the final product, retaining none of the warmth and heart of Paddington itself.
- Frozen – Teaser
Ground zero for the tyrannical reign of Olaf. Weird how overlong this feels for a glorified slapstick short.
THE BEST TRAILERS OF THE 2010s
20. Spies in Disguise – Trailer 1
OK, I will wholly admit that this is here because of how well it disguised its premise until the second half of the trailer. It’s not a great trailer, per se, but it is certainly one that amused me by blindsiding me with that plot twist.
19. Logan – Trailer 1
I’m pretty sure we still live at the point where discussing how this movie ends constitutes a spoiler, but nevertheless I can’t imagine how somebody goes into Logan not knowing how it’s going to land. And Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” ends up being the perfect song to accompany this long and weary walk down, delivering both the Western and the end of the line mood-setting that this movie wants to let us down with.
18. Richard Jewell
I don’t know who is responsible for Clint Eastwood’s movie trailers, but I expect they’re the same people as Richard Jewell takes the same approach as the trailers for American Sniper and The Mule (both of which were almost on this list) by taking one central scene of tension and letting a whole life full of missteps and frustrations spill out as though they are asphyxiating the mind of one very trapped figure. This one accomplishes that best of all by having as its motor Paul Walter Hauser’s repeated delivery of “there’s a bomb in Centennial Park, you have 30 minutes” cracking more and more under the pressure, building up anxiety underneath the rapid montage of fear.
17. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – “Chewie, We’re Home”
I am not made of stone. The Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailers are almost single-handedly responsible for making me turn around on my stubborn “independence for LucasFilm” stance and getting me into a seat in the theater the midnight it dropped, playing very easily with our nostalgic heartstrings. This one did it the best by drawing out every stressed note of John Williams’ yearning “Binary Sunset” anthem and ending on a clear-eyed shot of Han declaring “Chewie, we’re home…”. Nicely done.
16. Joker campaign
Does it absolutely appeal to the most facsimile of post-Scorsese pre-Giuliani New York City portrayals? Yes. Is it being remotely subtle about its cynical usage of two of the most beloved songs in pop culture with the words “smile” and “clowns” in them? Yes. Does it make Joker look like it has any surprises up its sleeve whether from Phoenix’s performance or any choice in Phillips’ aesthetic? Absolutely not. But there is a real confidence to it taking the alchemy of all these overly familiar things and bringing it together to something resembling gravitas up until the moment the Joker as a character announces himself. An easy trailer to laugh at while also admitting this looks way more watchable than the SNL parody I expected it to look like.
15. Prometheus – Final Trailer
Almost the best usage of post-Inception BWAAAHHHHMS to establish a dreadful cosmic gloominess within the world of Prometheus. The first trailer leaned way too hard on the Alien connection with its usage of titles, but here we get to have the surprise that the movie can hold up as terrifying horror beyond that or any of the expected horror trailer jump scares.
14. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Imagine Dragons is certainly one of the most annoying pop artists we have to deal with, but if we must use them, may we use them to take the greatest hits of some of the finest collection of action cinema setpieces with one of the most recognizable music cues teasing out some extra propulsion. Plus I mean… Henry Cavill cocking his arms is just instant cinematic beauty.
13. Thor: Ragnarok – Teaser
The very last time I was ever excited for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, based not only on Taika Waititi’s involvement, but also in how this trailer just functions as a delivery system for prog metal album cover imagery with the appropriate power of “Immigrant Song”. It made me think that for once the Marvel universe had an actual visual style, hiding how flat the movie itself turned out to be.
12. “Green with Envy”
Listen, it got me. It got me really good and there’s a real excitement towards the trailer halfway realizing it was interrupted with… A MUPPETS MOVIE! Would that my life is interrupted by a Muppets movie.
11. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Teaser
Return of the “Immigrant Song”! Prior to this teaser’s existence, I would have sworn there was no possible way to make sure material – visual and otherwise – so appealing, given how it reflects the complete rot of its characters souls and feels very close to a parody of its own brooding nature. And suddenly Trent Reznor came about to remind me how he was the king of make dark brooding atmosphere appealing and it gives this teaser rolling through the cold darkness, both real attitude and real momentum.
10. Inception – trailers 2 & 3
When I said Prometheus‘ trailer had the second best usage of post-Inception klaxons, I said that knowing full well Inception itself was going to show up. There is just a very clear reason that those klaxons became a mainstay at the turn of the decade with how propulsive and enervating they were in the middle of a trailer that had already taken control of the associative nature of its editing to feel more like a waking twisting nightmare than the actual feature it was advertising.
9. Suicide Squad – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
If I had to pick out the trailer that definitely establishes the late trend in popcorn marketing to try to turn themselves in makeshift music videos, it has to be the Suicide Squad trailer. I mean, it took one of the most overplayed songs in the history of pop culture and used it to give these characters more rebellious edge and the action more rhythm than the movie itself was able to accomplish… AND that’s with knowing that Warner Bros. tried to shanghai the trailer’s editors into re-arranging the movie (and ending up with the most grievous Frankensteinian product they had in a franchise full of those). It’s the shot of the Deadshot’s shells hitting the ground to the rhythm of May and Taylor’s breakdown. That’s the moment that truly told me how much fun this trailer was having with itself.
8. The Tree of Life
Remember when I called Inception‘s trailer editing associative? Obviously, Terrence Malick’s features have that editing style down pat (particularly during the last ten years) but there’s also this thing about his images that any given arrangement of them is going to feel profound and spiritually engaging, even in bite-sized form. This trailer only made me ready for the big boy version of the movie it was presenting.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road – Entire Campaign
I cannot pick just one. Both trailers for Mad Max: Fury Road did an excellent job of delivering high impact in 2 minutes and illustrating for us in as few dried-out colors as it could the sort of operatic circus maximus that it was going to be for its runtime.
6. Man of Steel – Trailer 3
For all that Man of Steel was disgraced as an uncharacteristically moody and resentful portrayal of Superman, we got to have this trailer – a piece of inspirational “you can be the best of yourself” weepiness with the right amount of building potential by using one of the few great Hans Zimmer scores. And it’s made out of literally the same material that sits in the movie, just knows exactly how to put them together so that when the titular superman finally takes flight in this trailer, we’re going “Woah!” instead of “Why?”
5. Atomic Blonde – Trailer 2
In a decade where we got to finally watch trailers use pop music rhythm to provide pop art pleasure (I trust I’ve illustrated many examples in this thread), Atomic Blonde accomplishes this most of all by adding bodies in motion and color to continue that momentum beyond the cut. Unfairly better than the movie, I’d claim, and the movie also happens to have some of the best editing of the 2010s.
4. Victoria – International trailer
We don’t think as much about the usage of titles in our trailers, which is a shame because the title cards in this movie (which I shamefully haven’t seen despite seeing pretty much every other long-take movie to exist this decade apparently) really do a great job of giving the images it’s pulling from the movie further shape and color. And there’s how the cutting, which obviously can’t maintain the central gimmick of the film, still helps keep a sense of dizzying displacement.
Like Atomic Blonde, this trailer might be better than the movie? And I certainly loved Us a lot – it is possibly the best theatrical horror movie experiences I ever had – but this trailer is already more high-impact on its delivery of scares without diluting any of the feature’s terrifying effect in the slightest. Plus it’s just so much more satisfying to hear the detereoration of “I Got 5 on It” into the excellent Michael Abels’ music cue “Pas de Deux” in one compact presentation.
2. The Lighthouse
I absolutely cannot sum it up better than that one YouTube comment who basically looked at this opaque inky object of a marketing tool and said “this looks like the Spongebob episode where they try to bury the health inspector”.
- Knight of Cups
Yet another Terrence Malick trailer so that should show you how I feel about the cutting here, but in addition to that element (with so much more thrilling kinetics than the Tree of Life trailer, don’t you think?), we also get imagery that I’ve never seen before or since and only the tip of the iceberg for what Lubezki’s cinematography had in store for this film: the upside-down decadence that feels like a self-loathing version of luxury porn, the entirely surface-obsessed treatment of urbanism, the devotion to facing every source of lighting directly. It’s all so arresting to me, delivered rapidly, and defying a lack of human feeling – it’s malaise stuffed towards us til we have to go outside to take a breath.
And most of all, probably the thing that got it the number one seat: I had been living and working on the Las Vegas Strip for about a year some time ago and felt like after enough walks outside, I was more than familiar with it as a place. And then I rewatched this trailer – just ’cause! – while anticipating A Hidden Life and suddenly Lubezki and Malick went and told me “No! there is an entirely new angle to this street of lights that you have never seen!” Vegas looked entirely different to me, through this trailer’s images.
HONORABLE MENTION: Dark Waters – Yes, I get ironic pleasure from it too. Like I said, I can listen to “a hunderd n ninedy coooows?” ‘til the cows come home.