The criteria for these decisions is hazy in my own mind, but it usually just comes down to how much the trailer made me want to see the movie it was promoting. I had different reasons for choosing each of these previews, and the videos vary in quality and are so wide in some cases that they mess up the rest of this page. I did my best. Also, this ranking has nothing to do with the quality of the final film: I'm only judging the trailers. Allow me to explain each:
20. Finding Forrester
Throughout high school, my friends and I went to the same movie theater every Friday. For about six months, the trailers before every screening were the Pearl Harbor teaser (a great trailer in its own right) and Finding Forrester. This is a pretty standard trailer, but it is responsible for the Sean Connery lines "Punch the keys," "Bolt the door...if you're coming in," and "You're the man now, dog." I have ruined friendships by over-quoting those lines. Hell, they inspired an entire website. Which is just silly. Who names a website after an innocuous line from the trailer of a forgettable mainstream movie?
19. Kill Bill, Vol. 1
With the Kill Bill diptych, Quentin Tarantino sought to prove that he could direct action, and the trailer for the first installment promises nothing but that. In fact, there's barely any dialogue, which was a pretty daring way to promote a Tarantino film. You can't beat that song either.
18. (500) Days of Summer
Bouncy music, quirky narration, cool clothes, pretty people. Teasing of some artsy, innovative visuals. Works for me.
I didn't like the final product, but the powerful, atmospheric, otherworldly visuals of this trailer definitely made it a hit.
16. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (teaser)
Hauntingly spare and quiet, this trailer nails down the premise of the film without giving too much away. Fincher's trailers are always top-notch, and this one is no exception.
15. The Dark Knight
I watched this so many times that I was able to time it so that I clapped my hands at the same time the Joker does. It's hard for an ad to hint at the complex themes of a movie without ruining the plot, but this one does that while also showing off some great visuals. Furthermore, it's rare that a score is completed in time to match with the trailer, but this trailer gets a lot of extra mileage from the main theme of the movie. Extra points for the "Jokerized" version of the trailer that was only sent out to a handful of theaters.
14. Marie Antoinette (teaser)
Honestly, you could put "Age of Consent" over anything, and it would get me excited. This trailer presents a daring, sumptuous final product that was never really delivered to us.
13. The Hangover
This is another case of a movie's success being inextricably tied to the strength of its promotional materials. Not since There's Something about Mary had I been able to sit with an audience and guarantee from their reactions that a movie would be a hit in four or five months.
12. Little Children
As a promotional tool for the film, this trailer is kind of unsuccessful. As an art object unto itself, it's pretty beautiful. Seeking to capture the tone of the film rather than summarize any of its content, this is one of a kind.
11. Femme Fatale
Speaking of one of a kind, this Brian De Palma vehicle shows us the entire movie in super fast forward, stopping it to give us the sexier parts out-of-context. Then it kind of dares us to see it in the end. The entire movie is not as good as this trailer.
10. Red Eye
This ended up being a pretty solid movie, and what's remarkable about the trailer is how long they wait to tell us what it's actually about. This is a classic rope-a-dope. I'm sure there are a lot of first drafts of trailers like this that get focus-grouped to death. This one actually follows through.
9. The Man Who Wasn't There
The smoky, contrast-heavy cinematography of this movie is its greatest strength, so it's the focus of an elegant, assured trailer that takes advantage of heady dialogue and smooth editing.
8. Cast Away (teaser)
The full-length version of this trailer would be on my worst trailers of the decade list for giving everything away. (No really. Everything. The last shot of the trailer is the last shot of the movie.) But this one is a perfect setup, giving us everything we need to know and then leaving us at the exact spot when things get intriguing.
7. Borat (full-length)
Probably the funniest trailer I've ever seen. Again, where would this movie be without this preview?
6. Watchmen (trailer 1)
This is another one I watched over and over again. With a portentous Smashing Pumpkins song, it delivered exactly what anyone wanted from the film. It's expository enough for newcomers, but it also teases all of the things fans were wondering about. It builds and builds until it can't anymore. This is a splashy, mature trailer for a film that wasn't nearly as successful.
It features absolutely no footage from the film, but this sardonic, inventive trailer still manages to get us excited about it. I wish I could go back and see an audience's reaction to this.
4. Cloverfield (teaser)
Talk about mysterious. While we're on the subject of how much or little is revealed in a trailer, this one doesn't even give you the title. Beat that. It does, however, establish the look that guides the entire film, and it ends with as provocative an image as possible. I've never been as intrigued by a trailer as I have been by this masterpiece.
Great trailers can promise a subtext and thoughtfulness and thematic heaviness that the actual film does not necessarily have, and that's the case with Jarhead. By featuring the unimpeachable stars, revealing dreamy, ironic shot selection, and using a contemporary song for once, this trailer stresses that this is not your father's war film. It gathers a whole lot of momentum in just over two minutes.
2. Garden State
There's no dialogue or explanation of a plot here. Everything about the tone is communicated through ironic, eye-popping visuals and the hipper-than-thou Frou Frou song. Unlike something like Jarhead though, this trailer actually does approximate the viewing of the film. Sometimes it's too clever for its own good, but you enjoy spending time with it and sharing in its exuberance.
1. Where the Wild Things Are (teaser)
Considering that writing online about your reaction to this trailer is now seen as a cliche, I'd say this is a pretty powerful piece of work. Spike Jonze and the Arcade Fire can make you cry in...two minutes. The word "melancholgia" was invented for this.
Let me know what I forgot in the comments.