In 2016, Hollywood movies had nothing on what got made outside of Hollywood; the year after Fury Road and Inside Out and The Martian, it’s hard to think of a single truly transcendent studio blockbuster that hit multiplexes. But in the world of movie trailers, those pocket-sized montages of pure enticement, Tinseltown drew more of a draw against its independent competition. In other words, the 10 previews listed below run the gamut, advertising everything from one of the year’s surest fire hits to what’s shaped up to be the most acclaimed indie (and probably film, period) of 2016. All of them are works of art in their own right, even if their main purpose is to open our wallets, not our hearts or minds.
Taking its cues from Ralph Fiennes’ attention-hog character, the trailer for A Bigger Splash is all showboating style—a whirligig of activity, built around choice lines (“Everyone’s obscene—that’s the whole point”), choice shots (the shadow of the plane flying over), and the charisma of its four stars. Also, the accompanying song (“I Know What I Want” by Thee Attacks) sets a perfect tone: a little joyous, a little dangerous. Its arguably more entertaining than the movie it’s selling—in part because the plot development that derails the film proper is only hinted at here, occupying a few frames instead of a full, buzz-killing half-hour.
Foreign-language films are difficult to advertise in the States, because the subtitles are guaranteed to automatically scare off a portion of the prospective audience. One misleading (but effective!) solution to this problem is to just excise all lines of dialogue from the trailer, relying entirely on the imagery and cultivating a sense of mystery instead of hooking people with plot details. That’s the marketing strategy adopted by The Handmaiden, whose official trailer forgoes any exchanges—in either Japanese or Korean, the film’s two languages—in favor of sex, violence, spectacular imagery, and lines from director Park Chan-wook’s resume (all written out in a blocky, cosmetically appealing font). The whole thing is assembled to an urgent, snake-charming melody, cutting to a new bit of tantalizing salaciousness with each percussive beat. “A Bold New Vision,” the trailer promises, while delivering just that in miniature form. (Bonus points for concealing every one of the movie’s multitude of clever twists.)
Sometimes a strong song selection is all you need. That’s certainly the case with the first trailer for the upcoming third-and-supposedly-final installment in Fox’s solo X-Men franchise, which sets images of an aged, remorseful Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to Johnny Cash’s devastating acoustic cover of “Hurt.” Is it an easy lay-up? Absolutely. But that doesn’t diminish the power of seeing this iconic character cast in such a melancholic light, the ache in Cash’s voice harmonizing with the grizzled laments of the title character and the delicate encouragement of Patrick Stewart’s (somehow still alive) Professor Xavier. Logan could turn out to be just another X-Men movie; the generic-looking action and villain certainly supports that possibility. But damn if the trailer doesn’t make it at least sound more like some beautiful hybrid of Unforgiven and The Last Of Us. (Oh, and the red band trailer is identical to the green band one, with one awesome exception: the late shot of Wolverine popping his claws up through some enemy’s neck and out the top of his head. Good to know that the guy won’t spend all of the movie licking his wounds and looking bummed out.)
In an ingenious ruse, the team entrusted with selling Adam Wingard’s secret Blair Witch Project reboot opted to preserve the secret for a little while longer, slapping the first teaser with a fake title. The Woods hypes itself hard, slapping effusive pull quotes (“A new beginning for horror films”) over ominous shots of the forest and—in a familiar horror-trailer trick that still works like gangbusters here—setting its mere minute-and-a-half of suggestively terrifying imagery to a slowed-down cover of “Every Breath You Take.” The sneaky genius of the spot is that it lingered even after the jig was up: We could all view the full trailer for Blair Witch through the scrim of its imaginary doppelgänger, remembering the gauntlet of terror the teaser implied instead of anticipating the cash-grab retread we ended up getting instead. (You can’t even totally tell, in the first ad, that it’s found-footage!) The sad part is that The Woods still looks like an awesome movie, even if Blair Witch wasn’t.
The slow-jam-version-of-a-popular-song tactic also got trotted out in the final trailer for Lights Out, which cues up a lullaby take on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” But the film’s less plot-driven (and vastly superior) first trailer goes the opposite route, refusing to set its shocks to ironically gentle accompaniment. It’s all the primo scare tactics of the film—including that brilliant opening light-switch gag, allowed to play out more or less in its entirety—with little of the troublesome mental-illness subtext. And when the karaoke portion of the trailer arrives, the editors opt instead for an unnerving alternation of silence and throat-shredding screams, while setting the tempo to the on/off flicker of various light sources. Equally impressive, incidentally, is the film’s stark poster, which depicts a light switch protectively encased in duct tape.
For the third year in a row, a Star Wars trailer makes this list. The advertising for the relaunched franchise has become its own phantom franchise, an ongoing series of one-to-two minute epics, released every few months to stoke our anticipatory fervor. The Rogue One teaser boasts the same winning mixture of nostalgia and shiny newness that helped propel The Force Awakens to box-office glory: There are striking single shots of the new characters, quick glimpses of familiar elements (an AT-AT!), quotable lines (“This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.”), and a few bars from that famous John Williams score. (If Rogue One is a little less protective of its plot than Force Awakens was, it’s because “a Star Wars heist movie” is too shamelessly appealing to conceal.) The spot’s secret weapon: that deafening siren that propels its second half, stylishly enhancing the urgency. See you next year, when we’ll surely be singing the praises of Episode VIII’s assumedly amazing marketing blitz.
Speaking of The Force Awakens: Its director, J.J. Abrams, is a decent filmmaker but an expert marketer. He proved that again with the out-of-nowhere teaser for 10 Cloverfield Lane, the second in a loosely connected series of thrillers he’s produced but not directed. Like the Blair Witch trailer, this one served as an official announcement of a project made in secret, and pivots around a kind of mislead: Set to a jaunty Tommy James And The Shondells hit, the opening stretch is an inviting montage, depicting stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. playing board games, making sandwiches, and crowding around a vintage jukebox. It looks so cozy and domestic—right up until the point that the camera rises to reveal the ceiling of the bunker, the song slows to an ominous warp, and the faint sitcom humor starts to give way to a series of less mundane and more menacing actions. That the trailer ends with a twist (that title!), immediately creating a whole series of new questions, is in keeping with the film it advertises: 10 Cloverfield Lane’s motivational mystery begins here.
Jackie is a boldly disorienting viewing experience, but there’s no reason its advertisements had to reflect that; Fox Searchlight probably could have made the movie look like the exact middlebrow awards bait we all feared it would be when we heard that Natalie Portman was going to be playing Jackie Kennedy. Instead, whoever cut both the trailer and the teaser actually captured the unnerving atmosphere, the spirit, of the movie itself—a bold decision in its own right. Both of the official spots are mesmerizing, but while the teaser pulls the nifty trick of beginning with a song from Camelot, only to drown its jolliness in sinister strings, the full trailer gets the edge for highlighting more dimensions of Portman’s multi-faceted performance and giving a fuller sense of the film’s emotional complexity. Here’s to some rare (and refreshing) truth in advertising.
The first teaser for Damien Chazelle’s throwback Hollywood musical arrived like a dream, promising everything and nothing. Opening with an iris-in on its titular city, the minute-and-a-half clip cobbles together some of the film’s most striking images, sets them to standout ballad “City Of Stars,” and puts its two attractive, mega-watt headliners front and center. Subsequent trailers would provide a better sense of the film’s artists-in-love plotline—and a larger sample of its delightful tunes—but none would quite possess the ineffable pull of the initial glimpse, a fleeting flush of romance that plays up the movie’s sneaky melancholy as much as its crowd-pleasing showmanship. A nice parting touch: the retro title card, copyright info included.
It’s almost unfair to select the Moonlight trailer as the best of the year. After all, one could practically pick shots from the film at random and still stitch together something enticing, given the sheer volume of beautiful, hypnotic imagery writer-director Barry Jenkins packs into his celebrated sophomore feature. But the trailer has its own blissful internal logic: It splices the movie’s three independent chapters into a collage of powerful moments out of time, match-cutting across the eras to create visual relationships between them, the same way the three actors cast as Chiron create a continuity of performance. Framed on both sides by a question (“Who is you?”), it echoes the poetic feeling of Moonlight without making you feel like you’ve seen too much in advance. Watch it after you’ve seen the film and be blown away anew—by its standalone merits, and by how it sends the emotional beats of the story rushing back to you, like the crashing of blue waves on a Miami beach.