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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 08/ 7/2009

Clip Show: Breaking Down the Best (and Worst) Movie Trailers

By Jen Chaney

"Marie Antoinette": Fab trailer, so-so movie. (Columbia Pictures)

"In a world where Liz Kelly is taking a well-deserved vacation, Jen Chaney dared to write a Friday post. But before she could find a pop culture-related topic to riff on, she had to find herself."

Did you read that in your best Don LaFontaine voice? Excellent. Because today we're talking movie trailers.

Earlier this summer, IFC posted a list of the 50 Greatest Trailers of All Time, one of those massive, time-sucking rundowns sure to invite debate (and pageviews) on the Web. Most of the selections were strong because the smarties at IFC chose coming attractions that dared to be different, didn't reveal their films' entire plots in two minutes and were wise enough to avoid most of the usual trailer tropes. (Translation: I don't think one of these sets an uplifting montage to the tune of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill.")

Interestingly, many of the clips happen to focus on horror movies; in fact, half of the top 10 entries -- "Alien," "Psycho," "Cloverfield," and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Shining" -- all land decisively in the scary column. The reason? Great horror movies and well-made trailers both operate on the same core principle: they aim to ratchet up suspense but maintain mystery, to show you just enough to guarantee your eyes won't leave the screen.

But before you weigh in on everything that IFC got right, or wrong, on that list -- and you will, won't you, in the comments? -- I thought I'd "honor" a few trailers that stand out in a few very specific categories.

Trailer That Should Have Stayed a Trailer Instead of Becoming a Movie: "Marie Antoinette"

I was so enchanted by this clip's anachronistic pairing of New Order's "Age of Consent" with images of 18th-century France that I was certain Sofia Coppola's full-length film would be equally gorgeous and exciting. Gorgeous? Yes. Exciting? Eh, not really.

I sincerely hope this same fate doesn't befall Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are," which comes out in October and has spawned perhaps the most sublime trailer of 2009 (it's No. 33 on IFC's list). What can I say? I can't resist Arcade Fire. (A second trailer also debuted this week.)

Incredibly Clever Teaser for an Incredibly Awful Movie: "The Stepford Wives"

Based on this clip, a Golden Trailer Award-winner, you might have thought the "Stepford Wives" remake would be a razor-sharp, bitingly satirical look at suburban America. You would have been wrong.

A Trailer That Plays It Incredibly Smart: "Snakes on a Plane"

In the beginning of the summer of 2006, "Snakes on a Plane" had one thing working in its favor: buzz that had built to a deafening level wildly disproportionate to the movie's actual quality. So what does the trailer do? It uses text to shore up its position as a cinematic experience completely different from everything else in theaters that season (ahem, not *exactly* a lie) and it shows very little footage from the flick: just some snakes and a little Sam Jackson. Good move. Too bad the movie, well, bit.

Trailer That Embraces Its Own Ridiculousness: "Eight Legged Freaks"

Another entry in the deliberately schlocky genre, this trailer works beautifully because it understand its own place in the universe: "I am a trailer for a goofy, gross midnight movie starring David Arquette, but dammit, I am going to be the BEST trailer EVER for a goofy, gross midnight movie starring David Arquette!" Mission accomplished. For the record, this one landed on an Empire magazine list of all-time greatest trailers a few years ago.

Crappy Trailer for One of the Most Successful, Beloved Movies of All Time: "E.T."

Here's the thing: movie trailers weren't always as sophisticated as they are today. In the '80s and earlier, they often featured excessive narration that touted all the big Hollywood names involved in a production, then proceeded to break down the plot in condescendingly simple terms, instead of just letting snippets of the story reveal themselves. Prime example: this trailer for "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," which should have been soaring and beautiful, but instead plays like an overwrought PSA for Steven Spielberg's genius.

Trailer That Proves Fans Have Skills: "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"

Last of all, because I am still grappling with the loss of John Hughes, I present this very special homemade trailer for the movie that many people consider to be one of the filmmaker's finest: It wasn't put together by Universal Studios, but by people who love this movie (and, also, apparently really know how to synch up a Pink Floyd song with a speeding, airborne Ferrari.) It was clearly made out of love, and stands as a sign that perhaps we, the moviegoers, actually know what it takes to make a great, dynamic trailer.

Jen Chaney is's movies editor, Liz Kelly's partner in all things "Lost" and a firm believer in getting a good cineplex seat well before the coming attractions start.

By Jen Chaney  | August 7, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Pop Culture  
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A Clockwork Orange

Posted by: molsonmich | August 7, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Best. Parody. Movie. Trailer. Ever.

Posted by: charley42 | August 7, 2009 7:18 PM | Report abuse

hoosiers had a great, great trailer. i actually cried watching it. went to the movie and was not disappointed w/one second of it.

Posted by: frieda406 | August 8, 2009 2:12 AM | Report abuse

I love trailers because in a lot of cases I don't have to see the movie. I am staying far away from All About Steve (despite being gay for Bradley Cooper) because the trailer telegraphs the entire story and it is soooo bad.

Posted by: yellojkt | August 8, 2009 9:29 AM | Report abuse

Here's some more bad trailers. The trailer for "The Sixth Sense" gave away a mystery that's supposed to last for HALF the movie. Also, the "About Schmidt" trailer stupidly turned it into a comedy.

Posted by: charodon | August 9, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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