Is it just me, or was 2011 an especially weak year for movie trailers? Or am I just becoming harder to please? Several people have told me how amazing they think the latest trailer for John Carter is, and as much as I’d love for the movie to be great, the trailer struck me as, at best, decent. Looking over last year’s list of trailers, I think it’s pretty clear that 2011 doesn’t come close. This also wasn’t what I’d call a very good year for movies (although certain critics think it’s the best in over a decade, which I have to attribute to the fact that they’ve had opportunities to see a lot of movies I haven’t, the jerks), which probably has a lot to do with this.
Anyway, on with the list. As with last year, this is the only list that I’m calling a “best of,” rather than just “my favorites,” since trailers were the one area I was thoroughly educated in.
Special Trailer Awards
Most Shamelessly Derivative Trailer – The Hangover Part II
It’s kind of amazing how blatantly this trailer copies the one for the first movie. The dialogue, the jokes, even the use of a Wolfmother song during the final montage mimic that of the trailer that made the previous movie such a hit. You’ve got to give the studio credit for so carefully sticking with what worked the first time.
Best Deer Kick – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
This trailer is just all-around pretty kick-ass, but it deserves special attention for being the only trailer I’ve ever seen to prominently feature a deer being kung-fu kicked in the head.
Best Trailer for a Short Film – Fight for Your Right – Revisited
So gloriously silly. So many bizarre, wonderful casting choices (Elijah Wood as Ad-Rock might be my favorite). I love the sudden shift into a dark, surreal tone near the end, or at least as dark as you can get with Will Arnett’s $6,000 suit getting beer splattered all over it (come on!). Also, this is the first of two trailers featured here to include “Make Some Noise” from the new Beastie Boys album.
The 20 Best Movie Trailers of 2011
Runner Up – Wrong
This would be #21 if I didn’t require myself to stick to round numbers. I have no idea what’s going on here, but it makes me very happy. Also, the funniest title reveal of any trailer from 2011.
20. 21 Jump Street (red band)
Cutting a good comedy trailers is hard. Selling Channing Tatum as a compelling comedic lead? Also hard. This pulls off both. The comedy works, the action works, and Ice Cube finally gets to say “fuck” again.
19. Footloose (trailer 2)
I have not seen Craig Brewer’s Footloose remake, but I want to (and not ironically either). As curious as I was about Brewer making this movie, I wasn’t convinced until this trailer (the first one really isn’t very good). This is a beautiful example of editing around a single piece of music, with a constant rhythm that builds through the whole thing that’s pretty hard to resist.
This is a hard movie to advertise in an all-ages-appropriate trailer, but whoever edited this pretty much pulled it off, communicating the shift from awkward comedy to pitch-black ultra-violence surprisingly well. Plus, best bleeping of the year.
My feelings about the latest from Lars Von Trier are pretty mixed, but I wholeheartedly love the opening and closing scenes (more apocalypse, please). The trailer uses mostly footage and music from those parts of the movie, and the result is spectacular.
16. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
As much as people like to complain about how Michael Bay’s Transformers movies represent all that is wrong with modern cinema (I don’t agree, by the way), it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness of the trailer. Of course it’s well-edited and all that, but what makes it work is the pure overload of jaw-dropping imagery. This is a massive, insanely expensive movie, and all that money is on display.
15. Martha Marcy May Marlene
All the trailers Fox Searchlight released were good, but the first is my favorite. As it crescendos into horror movie territory, the sound suddenly cuts out and John Hawkes starts to sing. It’s a beautiful, unsettling shift, and it’s right where I knew I wanted to see the movie.
14. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 (trailer 2)
I hate to add to the annoying overuse of the word “epic,” but I’m having trouble finding a more fitting way of describing this one. The final trailer of the Harry Potter franchise promises as much of a slam-bang, emotionally fulfilling conclusion as anyone could ask for. It looks like an event.
13. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
I didn’t watch the G.I. Joe cartoon growing up, I didn’t play with the toys, and I didn’t see the previous live action movie. I’ve never had the slightest interest in the franchise until I saw this trailer. The moment where the Cobra flag is raised over the White House is one of the most gloriously silly things I’ve seen in ages. Everything about this works. And Bruce Willis’ appearance at the very end? Perfect.
12. The Raid
In terms of pure balls-to-the-wall ass-kicking, nothing comes close to this.
The Chemical Brothers’ score for Hanna is pretty much the year’s best, so it’s hard to go wrong when cutting a trailer around it. While I have a slight problem with the color of the opening text (although the text itself is great), I love everything else about this trailer. It communicates exactly the kind of offbeat action movie this is, choosing just the right shots to hint at the significant fairy tale overtones.
10. The Dark Knight Rises
Some people have issues with how unclear the story is based on this trailer, but that’s what I like about it. Rather than telling us who Bane is or what Selina Kyle’s relationship to all this is we’re instead given broad strokes that communicate one primary idea: bad things are going to happen to Batman. If you want an idea of its effectiveness, consider this: it’s the most downloaded trailer in internet history, despite being a relentlessly bleak ad for a superhero movie that shows the title character in costume for all of two seconds.
Note: I’m at a loss as to why so many people think the teaser from July is so incredible. Just because you’re excited about a movie doesn’t make a decent-at-best trailer great.
9. The Devil’s Double
Sometimes the key to making a great trailer is picking the right song. I’m sure “Personal Jesus” has been used plenty of times elsewhere, but I’ve never heard it used this well. With every ultra-slick, perfectly timed edit, the trailer exudes exactly the sense of decadence and underlying terror that the story is about. Strangely, I’m not especially compelled to see the movie itself, since I’m doubtful that it could match the pop perfection of this trailer.
8. The Hobbit
Do I even need to say anything for this one? We all knew this would be good, but what I like about it is that while it would have been so easy to simply play off of the audience’s affection for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, this commits to being a trailer for The Hobbit, which is very much its own thing. It even makes the risky of move of building much of the trailer around dwarves singing. While the songs were mostly, and wisely, excised from the Rings trilogy, I love that Jackson and the studio are confident enough to put them right out front here. For a trailer released a full year before the movie itself, this is far more than I could have asked for.
7. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Personally, this trailer could have just been the text “Brad Bird is making a spy movie” and I’d be sold, but for most of the world, a new Mission: Impossible movie starring Tom Cruise was something they had to be convinced to see. Judging by the money it’s been making, I’d say this trailer worked. It smartly waits until a minute in to reveal Cruise, building a compelling spy story first. When Tom Wilkinson utters the words, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” it’s hard not to grin. From there we have a barrage of incredible-looking action, cut to an Eminem/Pink song that shouldn’t work but somehow does. Then we get the arrival of the classic theme music. And then we get a look at the already-legendary Burj Khalifa scene (seeing that part of the trailer in Imax was stunning). It just keeps throwing so much cool stuff at you that it’s almost (wait for it) impossible to resist.
6. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
And now for a totally different kind of spy movie. This is all icy precision, with music that causes you to inadvertently start gripping the armrest of your seat. What really makes this work is the footage from the movie itself (which I’ll hopefully finally have a chance to see in the coming week). Tomas Alfredson has a way with immaculate, unnerving compositions that create more than enough tension on their own. My two favorite shots come right at the end, with the reveal of Benedict Cumberbatch behind the garage doors, followed by the haunting closeup of Gary Oldman’s eyes through an optical refractor. This is a master class in how to cut a trailer for a low-key thriller.
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin
What I love about this is the slow shift in tone over the first thirty seconds from happy and romantic to, as far as I’m concerned, the scariest trailer of the year. As Buddy Holly sings the poppy, upbeat words to “Everyday,” more and more unsettling images and sounds creep in until a tone of unrelenting dread takes over. From there, the trailer takes the popular route of a pounding rhythm made up of diagetic sounds (a basketball bouncing, a toy arrow hitting window). I love that almost no details about the plot are revealed. For the second half, almost the only dialogue is the repetition of John C. Reilly saying, “He’s just a sweet little boy,” as the images grow more and more, well, the opposite of sweet. To cap it off is the return of the melody to “Everyday” at the end, sounding positively eerie.
Remember that story about the woman who sued the studio because she expected this to be something like a Fast and the Furious movie? I’ve talked to people who told me they had gotten the same impression from the trailer, and I can’t understand how that’s possible. Maybe from the first half (although I think the cast, music, and general style is enough to say otherwise), but that final minute, when the Italian classical music kicks in as we’re treated to slow motion scenes of Ryan Gosling stomping on a guy’s head? That’s not like any Fast and the Furious movie I’ve ever seen (and I have seen them all). The mix of styles present in the trailer perfectly communicate the kind of art house action movie Drive is. Judging by the box office numbers, it’s a shame more people didn’t find that more appealing.
3 (TIE). Shame
A great example of a trailer that conveys so much about tone and character without having to give away plot details or even show more than quick glimpses of actual scenes. Like the trailer in the #1 spot on this list, it keeps coming back to a repeated image, in this case Michael Fassbender running through the streets of New York City. The images and sounds provided here paint a picture of a character we want to know more about, which is all the trailer needs to do.
Note: The #3 spot is a tie because, for some reason, I wrote this whole post with two movies at #3, and didn’t want to delete a paragraph. I apparently managed to graduate from college without learning to count properly.
3 (TIE). Prometheus
This is, in a sense, the perfect trailer. It’s gives you enticing images, hints of a huge, amazing experience, and tells absolutely nothing about the story. Every moment of the trailer looks incredible, like the kind of massive, dark sci-fi movie we almost never see anymore. Watching it, I confirmed that it is indeed a prequel to Alien (despite what those involved in the production have been saying), but beyond that I have no idea what it’s about. The only thing that prevents this trailer from being an all-time classic is the title reveal, which, while great, is a specific reference to the trailer to Alien, which might be the best trailer ever made.
2. I Saw the Devil (red-band)
I devoted an entire entry to this earlier in the year, back when I was planning on writing more about trailers. It’s refreshing to see a trailer take full advantage of what the red band allows. Here, instead of using music in the traditional non-diagetic sense, the trailer creates a score out of violence, with rhythmic percussive beats made up of stabs, gunshots, and kicks. The one time some normal music does creep in (with the film’s villain playing the opening strains of “House of the Rising Sun”), it is cut off briefly by the same guy being smashed in the head with a fire extinguisher. a riveting piece of marketing that it’s hard to watch without cringing once or twice.
1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (teaser)
What else was going to be #1? Just like last year, a David Fincher movie has produced far and away the year’s best trailer. This doesn’t reach the heights of The Social Network, but that’s because the movie it’s advertising doesn’t, either. As amazing as this is, there isn’t a lot to dissect. It’s a take on the “edit to a well-chosen piece of music” tactic of trailer editing (as seen with Footloose earlier on the list) that just happens to do it better than almost anything ever. What sets this apart from other, similar trailers is that the music is original to the trailer (it’s also the opening credits music to the movie itself, but this was the first time it was heard). Yes, it’s a cover of a Led Zeppelin song, but it sounds tailor-made for this movie. Karen O’s shrieking vocals sound like the theme music for Lisbeth Salander, while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s chilly, distorted synths immediately mirror both the frigid Swedish landscape and the grisly acts that take place there. The edits take place on every snare drum hit, giving it a mismirizing momentum and energy. This is enhanced by the frequent returns to the same long shot, as the camera glides up a long, icy driveway to the foreboding mansion around which much of the story revolves.
Then there’s the tagline. How do you not love a trailer that slams the words “THE FEEL BAD MOVIE OF CHRISTMAS” at you in as aggressively huge and grimy a font as you could ask for? The whole trailer is supremely confident. It skips any indications of dialogue or plot, and just aims to beat you into submission (artfully). It’s a shame the movie itself isn’t as fierce and energetic as this trailer, but then, I don’t know how this could be sustained for two-and-a-half hours.
Nicely done, Fincher and team. You’ve done it again.
Special Jury Prize – The Muppets
The trailers for this movie could easily occupied several spots on the list, but for the sake of fairness, I thought it best to give the entire marketing campaign its own special award. In total I think there were five or six trailers released for The Muppets, with only one that would actually be considered a “normal” trailer. The campaign began with the brilliant teaser, which looked like a bland romantic comedy featuring Jason Segel and Amy Adams, until, much to the surprise of the narrator, the cast was revealed to include Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Few movie trailer moments in 2011 made me as happy as Jason Segel’s elated delivery of, “Wait a minute. Are there Muppets in this movie?”
From there, the irreverence that’s such a part of the characters continued, with a series of trailers parodying The Hangover Part II, Green Lantern, and, most brilliantly, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
I would have loved to see a parody trailer released every week of the summer movie season, but that’s almost impossible (it would also probably result in showing way too much of the actual movie by the end). Still, this was one of the best marketing campaigns I’ve seen in years, and part of the reason I’m hoping for a sequel is to see what kind of trailers Disney and the Muppets team will come up with next time.
Okay, that’s it for the trailers of 2011!
UP NEXT: MUSIC