Trailers are a huge part of the fabric of movies. They play before every film shown in theaters, and on every movie website around the world. They’re commercials, obviously, but they’re also more than that; miniature works of art that utilize the core elements of cinema—image, sound, music, action, editing—at their most pure and refined. And today at ScreenCrush we’re celebrating movie trailers by saluting the best sneak previews of 2014.
The rules: If a trailer was released in the calendar year of 2014, it was eligible. Trailers for 2014 movies that debuted in 2013 were disqualified (otherwise the first ‘Godzilla’ teaser would have definitely made the cut), but trailers for as-yet-unreleased 2015 movies were considered (a few, as you’ll see, even made our list). The reasoning here was simple: We’re grading the trailers, not the movies.
And so, without further ado, coming soon to a computer near you (like as soon as you scroll past this intro), here are the top ten movie trailers of 2014 (along with ten more honorable mentions).
When it comes right down to it, a trailer is a sales pitch. And while we can admire a trailer for its beauty or ingenuity, what’s ultimately most important is the pitch. Does this trailer make you want to see the movie? And there were few 2014 trailers more persuasive than ‘The Final Member.’ It succinctly summarizes this outrageous true story—including the world’s first penis museum in Iceland, and a man’s quest to become the first person to donate a human specimen to it—with surreal wit and clarity. How can you watch these colorful characters and their world and not want to learn more about them?
Distilling 12 years of work (and 165 minutes of movie) into 105 seconds sounds like a work of savage cruelty, a bastardization of everything that is special and wonderful about ‘Boyhood.’ But somehow, the trailer for Richard Linklater’s epic tale of childhood effectively strips down this masterpiece in a way that remains elegant and even beautiful. The quick shots of star Ellar Coltrane growing from a first-grader into a college freshmen conveys the central conceit brilliantly, and Family of the Year’s ‘Hero’ (taken from the film’s soundtrack) is the ideal musical accompaniment for this journey.
At feature length, ‘The Raid 2’ was too much of a good thing; 150 relentless, punishing minutes of bone-crunching fight scenes and crime story. In smaller doses, though, this stuff is great. The domestic trailer for the film is just about perfect in the way it compresses all of Gareth Evans’ insane camerawork and choreography into 90 seconds of frenetic chaos. Set free of the film’s turgid, endless undercover cop plot, it just looks like the best and craziest action movie of all time.
Trailers place particular emphasis on editing, not just in the way they cram an entire movie into two-and-a-half minutes, but also in how they build tension and mood by combining images and sounds (sometimes from totally different parts of the movie; sometimes from scenes that aren’t in the finished film at all) to create meaning. ‘The Double’ trailer does that particularly well. Watch the use of sound effects (like the typewriter ding) to provide punchlines for jokes, or to underscore shocks (the jarring cut to silence just as Jesse Eisenberg lays eyes on his double for the first time). It’s a good clip right down to the final title card, which plays over a hallway shot looking down at a mirrored grate that looks like a cell in the midst of dividing itself.
This spot creates such an ominous, terrifying mood. It starts with Scarlett Johansson pronouncing strange words and sounds, then throws in naked men slipping into strange black goo, and helmeted motorcyclists perched on the edge of cliffs as manic string music pulses through it all. Just what the heck is going on here? The specifics are left open to interpretation—just like in Jonathan Glazer’s film. Without spoiling the details, the trailer evokes a haunting atmosphere that’s simultaneously alluring and unsettling. “You don’t really want to wake up, do you?” Johansson’s character asks just before the title appears. No, we don’t. Can we just watch the rest of the movie right now?
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’
The editors of the first ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ teaser were handed one of the toughest marketing assignments of 2014: Introduce the world to some of the strangest (and most obscure) superheroes in movie history—including a talking tree and a space raccoon that wears people clothes—and simultaneously sell the idea that this is both a balls-to-the-wall sci-fi action blockbuster and a genuinely funny movie. The idea of a police lineup in space is a brilliant way to concisely do the former, and the montage in the second half of the trailer, set to the tune of Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked On a Feeling,’ takes care of the latter. (Also, I might be wrong, but I think this is the first trailer in history to refer to its protagonists as “a bunch of a-holes”—or to even use the word “a-holes” at all.) The proof that they really did get audiences hooked on the ‘Guardians’ feeling is in the film’s box office, the biggest domestic haul of the year.
This is a great trailer right off the bat, but it looks even more impressive after you see the film, which is a detective mystery so dense and impregnable that it makes ‘The Big Sleep’ look like ‘Goodnight Moon.’ Somehow the folks who cut this trailer managed to capture the essence of that story—which arguably makes more sense in this 120-second trailer than it does in the 150-minute movie—without losing its scruffy, pot-headed logic.
My personal theory of trailers: A good trailer asks a question so compelling that the viewer has no choice but to pay their $12 to get the answer. That’s certainly what this ‘American Sniper’ trailer does. It focuses almost entirely on a single scene about Bradley Cooper’s Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, as he protects a convoy of soldiers and eventually spots a threat in the form of a woman handing a grenade to a young boy. “They fry you if you’re wrong,” his partner says as Kyle aims at the child. The music escalates, as do the cuts to Kyle’s home life, suggesting his frenzied thought process in this all-important moment. Will he shoot a kid to protect his men? You have to see the movie to find out.
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
Nothing in the movie world is more fiercely anticipated right now than next year’s ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ That level of anticipation comes with an ungodly amount of expectations, not just for the film itself but also for its trailers. The film’s first teaser is an exercise in simplicity; 88 seconds long, and maybe only half of that contains actual footage from the film. But everything that’s in there counts: The intro of John Boyega’s character; the cruciform lightsaber; the grand return of the Millennium Falcon set to John Williams’ classic ‘Star Wars’ fanfare. Even the mysterious voiceover (performed by Andy Serkis) introduces the idea of an “awakening”—which gets your brain working to decipher that strange subtitle. It’s not as good as the first trailer for ‘The Phantom Menace,’ but there’s no shame in that; the first trailer for ‘The Phantom Menace’ is one of the best of all time.
It’s been a long road back for the ‘Mad Max’ franchise; 30 years since the last entry in the series, and nearly that many working on this particular sequel (including almost five in production). After all that time in development hell, it can be hard to counteract the perception that something is a doomed project—but this blast of action, aggression, stunning imagery, and shocking violence dispelled that notion instantly, and rightfully made ‘Fury Road’ a lot of people’s most anticipated movie of next year.
A lot of the credit goes to director George Miller for crafting these incredible visuals (and these jaw-dropping physical effects and stunts and the other-worldly production design) in the first place, but the trailer puts them together so effectively, and adds touches like the music made out of engine sounds and the title cards that look like rusted, rotted metal, to create this monstrous world of road warriors. 2015 belongs to the mad, but the award for the single best trailer of 2014 belongs to them as well.