The best movie trailers of 2020

A.A. Dowd
·9 min read

We all needed something to look forward to in 2020. That’s what movie trailers provide, isn’t it? They’re a glimpse at the fun you’ll have down the road, a save-the-date card, a circle to draw on your calendar. In a year almost entirely devoid of blockbusters, we had to make do with trailers: They offered scraps of spectacle to tide everyone over, and maybe to remind us all that the big movies (and the theaters showing them) would be back eventually. Which is not to say that all of the best trailers of this long, dark year were for the giant Hollywood extravaganzas yanked off the calendar when the pandemic made communal entertainment a thing of the past and (hopefully) future. Nor did every great trailer that dropped in 2020 advertise a movie we’ll now have wait until 2021 to see. But no matter the size or ultimate release date of the films themselves, the little pressurized marketing montages designed to get us excited about them felt, for once, like more than just sales pitches. They were like glimmers of a brighter future. And the 10 that follow shined brightly indeed.

The Batman

10. The Batman

Maybe it’s the withdrawal talking (who knew we’d miss superheroes, the most overrepresented of Hollywood attractions?), but the first teaser for the new Batman movie is an alluring sliver of pop-noir ambience. In terms of strategy, it’s fairly boilerplate, down to that most mocked of trailer clichés, the moody needle drop. (At least they picked a song that’s already moody, instead of commissioning a depressively slowed-down cover.) All the same, this first look at Robert Pattinson’s debut in the cape and cowl strikes a savvy balance between giving us the goods (plenty of action; some quick glimpses of our new Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler) and creating an aura of mystery around what director Matt Reeves insists will be the first movie to really draw on the detective part of Detective Comics. It’s more stylish than groundbreaking, but any trailer that can leave us intrigued about yet another trip to Gotham City is definitely doing its job well.

The Green Knight

9. The Green Knight

Another teaser that skillfully withholds. David Lowery’s reimagining of the Arthur legends, with Dev Patel as the mythic king’s nephew Sir Gawain, was one of the many projects that saw its release plans disrupted by COVID-19. Months later, there’s still no word on when exactly it will come out… which is especially frustrating in light of how well this minute-and-a-half fever dream whets the appetite and leaves you starved for more. Though the film’s been described as a “fantasy epic,” A24 sells it more in the style of one of its elevated-horror acquisitions, cranking up the ominous atmosphere (that queasy warble of a score) and carefully selecting a series of evocative shots that convey more of an uneasy tone than anything in the way of plot. The coolest touch: a slow zoom into the spinning backdrop of a grisly puppet show—a visual motif that implies turning screws or a jack-in-the-box you wish you hadn’t wound.

The King Of Staten Island

8. The King Of Staten Island

Judd Apatow’s reluctance to self-edit has been well-documented (and perhaps overstated) by now. But his latest comedy, The King Of Staten Island, does go on a bit. It’s hard not to wish it had more of the snap of its trailer, which balances the punchlines and emotional beats better than the film itself. Like The Batman teaser, this is more a lesson in modern advertising fundamentals than a reinvention of the same, but it’s full of great lines and grace notes, like repurposing the movie’s faintly suicidal opening scene—in which Pete Davidson’s Scott tightly closes his eyes while driving—into a climactic tension-and-release crescendo. What takes the whole thing over the top is the music, as we move from the sublime sway of a choice Kid Cudi cut to a drunken, weirdly affecting Wallflowers singalong. Maybe trailer editors aren’t so different than DJs; the best ones know just when to change the record.

Boys State

7. Boys State

Boys State is among the most popular documentaries of the year, and one big reason for that is its subjects. The titular boys, all teenagers gathered for a one-week “politics camp” in Austin, Texas, are magnetic and funny and not just comfortable with the camera but also innately gifted at playing to it, as perhaps anyone who’s grown up in the age of YouTube and Instagram might be. They’re a boon for the film, but also for those who assembled its trailer; granted access to a treasure trove of big personalities and sound bytes (including a final talking-head remark so delectable it could have been pulled from The Office), the editors make Boys State look as entertaining as any fictional drama about a political race. Documentaries don’t usually trailer this well. Most of them, after all, don’t focus on a group of aspiring politicians, blurting out an ad-friendly line every time the camera finds them.

A Quiet Place Part II

6. A Quiet Place Part II

The excellent trailer for John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place elegantly (if perhaps out of necessity) highlighted its spooky stretches of silence and generally wordless storytelling. There’s more action, more dialogue, and more characters in the preview for the sequel, presumably as a reflection of the uptick in all three we can expect from the film itself. Paramount doesn’t reiterate the premise, counting on audiences to remember the dire consequences of, say, setting off a noise trap of dangling glass bottles. The Aliens-to-the-first-film’s-Alien vibe extends to the most inspired choice here: the nearly minute-long excerpt of a Children Of Men-style oner shot from the inside of a car—a flashback sequence the trailer wisely, thrillingly sticks up front. The clip’s as tense and exciting as you hope the movie might be, once it finally makes it to theaters next year.

The French Dispatch

5. The French Dispatch

It’s almost unfair to cite the trailer for a Wes Anderson movie as among the year’s best. The director’s style is so visually appealing—and so simpatico, in its symmetry and bright colors, with the principles of advertising— that you could practically put images from one of his movies in random order and it would still be enticing. Truthfully, this first look at The French Dispatch might be more organized than strictly necessary; it probably didn’t need as much exposition as it offers. Still, like most trailers for the guy’s work, it’s a giddy, nonstop blast of capering movie stars, striking compositions, and priceless sight gags—a Wes Anderson movie in miniature. And credit whoever put it together for preserving his comic timing, particularly during an absolutely perfect closing joke. Sometimes letting something sell itself is the smartest way to sell it.

Da 5 Bloods

4. Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee is another filmmaker with a style so electrifying and one-of-a-kind that you don’t really need to gild the lily to get asses in seats. But the trailer for his summer Netflix joint Da 5 Bloods almost works as its own self-contained blast of agitprop entertainment: less a summary of the movie’s pleasures than a companion piece assembled from its parts. Set to the psychedelic soul of The Chambers Brothers—in one of the more eccentric touches, shots of the band performing “Time Has Come” have been spliced throughout—it’s a propulsive montage of jungle warfare, spelled-out lyrics, still images, archival footage, and one incredible change in aspect ratio. At nearly three minutes, this may be a little long for a trailer. But hey, it’s for a Spike Lee joint. Including everything but the kitchen sink is sort of in the spirit of the work.

Time

3. Time

Editing is crucial to Garrett Bradley’s black-and-white documentary Time. The team that cut the trailer for the film recognizes that and mirrors it beautifully, taking cues from the director’s elliptical approach, how she juxtaposes past with present. As in the movie, the focus is on the emotional toll Fox Rich’s decades-long crusade to free her husband from a draconian prison sentence has taken on her and the family. In one echo of Bradley’s structural strategy, the trailer breaks up the flood of poetic achronological footage (and the voiceover that sometimes guides it) with the periodic ring of a telephone and the conversations an increasingly weary Rich has with the courthouse representative on the other end of the line. This is a preview in the truest sense—you don’t just get an idea of what Time’s about but also, in Roger Ebert’s parlance, how it’s about. And it’s as elegant and nonlinear and lovely as the movie it’s marketing.

Tenet (trailer 1)

2. Tenet (trailer 1)

Speaking of nonlinear… The relentlessly studied first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s knotty time-travel thriller actually dropped last December. But given that we usually publish this feature before the end of the year, anything from late 2019 seems like fair game. Besides, no list of 2020’s finest movie campaigns would be complete without this perfect object of obsession, a tantalizing microcosm of jaw-dropping imagery, teased sci-fi mythology, and very Nolan cosmetic concerns. One might even argue that it’s the ideal version of Tenet—all sleek style and no headaches, and humming with all the possibilities of where the film could have gone, like a mystery box designed by Schrödinger.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things

1. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things

There was no way to make Charlie Kaufman’s unclassifiable mind-bender about identity and the nightmare of meeting the parents seem like a “normal” movie. Thankfully, the reliably brilliant editors at Mark Woollen & Associates (who also cut the spots at No. 3, No. 4, and No. 7 on this very list) don’t aim for misleading accessibility. Instead, they key into the unusual rhythms and tonal/genre shifts of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, borrowing some of Kaufman’s own tricks (like the way people keep stepping on star Jessie Buckley’s voiceover) while deploying some of their own (like a soundscape that grows more chaotic with the addition of noises put on loop—a dog endlessly shaking, Toni Collette cackle-crying, etc.) The result teases everything this deranged movie offers without spoiling any of it. What more could you want from a trailer?