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The 20 Best Trailers of the Last 20 Years

Trailers for blockbusters, trailers for modern American epics, trailers that even showed the whole film in two minutes.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

From the haunting teaser for “The Social Network” to the quietly disturbing first look at “Gone Girl,” David Fincher’s top-notch trailers tend toward the mysterious, often set to an ironically fitting song. None thrive better in this mold than the first teaser for “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” which pairs Karen O’s cover of “The Immigrant Song” with a dizzying series of nonstop, rhythmic cuts. The shots, which change every 12 frames, provide lightning-fast glimpses of key scenes and characters — just enough to entice new viewers and reassure fans of the book. News of an American adaptation of the popular Swedish novel was met with reluctance, but when the electric first trailer leaked online, faith in Fincher was restored. The trailer was instantly iconic, and let’s not forget its greatest legacy: this amazing Muppets parody trailer. — Kate Halliwell

The Tree of Life

With a haunting score and a dizzying array of gorgeous imagery, Terrence Malick’s signature style is on display and at its best in the trailer for “The Tree of Life.” Only Malick could nonchalantly cut from a family dinner table to shots of cosmic events, and it’s this dichotomy of impressionistic images and small-town family life that defines this trailer as one of the 21st century’s best. Like most iconic trailers, it doesn’t dwell on plot, choosing instead to linger on a series of enchanting visuals. Those visuals, however, portray the themes of faith, conflict, nature, and familial love that define “The Tree of Life.” In that sense, this trailer tells you everything you need to know. — KH

The Master

It’s hard to ignore the ferocity of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams in the trailer for “The Master,” but the utter brilliance of this preview belongs first and foremost to composer Jonny Greenwood. Listen to how he manifests Phoenix’s internal storm through discordant percussions, or the hypnotic lull of a cult through a dreamy xylophone, or the dangers of a disillusioned leader through menacing strings. The music charts the emotional evolution that exists at the very core of the feature, topped off by the uneasy juxtaposition of mounting tension and the sweet voice of Jo Stafford on “No Other Love.” — ZS

Guardians of the Galaxy

When Marvel announced in 2012 that “Guardians of the Galaxy” was in the works, superhero fans were skeptical. A little-known comic about a team of alien outlaws, “Guardians of the Galaxy” makes “The Avengers” look like the Brady Bunch. A tree person? A talking raccoon? That chubby guy from “Parks and Recreation?” Marvel effectively and permanently silenced skeptics with the release of the first trailer, which cleverly introduced the ragtag gang with a concise rundown of their arrest records and a healthy dose of self-parody. (“What a bunch of a-holes.”) Set to Blue Swede’s “Hooked On A Feeling,” the trailer cuts quickly through glimpses of space battles, aliens in varying shades of blue, and Chris Pratt’s newly discovered abs. The movie that followed is arguably Marvel’s best, proving that a little comedy and a great soundtrack can take a strange premise from bomb to blockbuster. Captain Ameriwho? — KH

Mad Max: Fury Road

“My world is fire and blood.” With just six words, George Miller’s long-anticipated Mad Max followup announced its tone, aim and worldview. A 2:30 masterclass on how to make a trailer, this heart-pounding trip down Fury Road introduces stakes (the Water Wars), characters (from warboys to Furiosa, Immortan Joe to his pack of wives) and gob-smacking action scenes without giving away the entire narrative or its best bits. It’s a teaser for spectacle that stands on its own, gleefully theatrical, mercilessly wild and utterly original merits. What a lovely day. — KE

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