By Darren Franich
December 22, 2011 at 10:21 PM EST
Merrick Morton

The recipe for making a movie trailer used to be so simple. You’d just edit together the 10 or 11 most exciting parts of the film — gunshots for an action movie, kisses for a romance, pratfalls for a comedy — and then let the voice-of-god narrator loudly assure the audience that the movie on display was sure to be the best movie… ever.

Like all advertising, though, movie trailers have evolved madly in the last few decades. Heck, movie trailers have become genuine pop culture events. (We live in an era that has previews for previews.) Some trailers tease us with an intriguing new story line; some reintroduce us to franchises we’d long since forgotten about. The very best function as a primal delivery system for pure cinematic bliss. So let’s follow Lisbeth Salander’s lead (see above), break out our laptops, and count down our favorite movie trailers of 2011, starting with…

25. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

You can pick out the precise moment when the Apes preboot stopped being a punchline and started being a must-see at 1:34 in this trailer, when Caesar/Serkis flashes the camera his best Spartacus grimace. Demerits for focusing so prominently on the final ape-attack sequence, but hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

24. The Debt

The perfect slow burn of tension, the trailer for the underrated Nazi-hunting potboiler conveys lots of tantalizing information without giving the whole game away.

23. Battle: Los Angeles

Mixing together an idiosyncratic soundtrack choice and eye-popping shots, this trailer made Battle: Los Angeles look incredible. Spoiler alert: It was terrible. But that only makes the trailer an even greater blood-from-a-stone achievement.

22. X-Men: First Class

And the award for Best Original Trailer Music goes to this spot for this year’s X prequel, which launched a million “First Class trailer music” Google searches. (The track was apparently composed by Methodic Doubt, a premiere trailer-music outfit.)

21. Captain America: The First Avenger

The rare superhero-movie trailer that doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, this trailer stood out in a summer crowded with dudes wearing colorful outfits.

20. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

We know this is a bad idea. It has to be a bad idea. And yet, there is something oddly appealing about the bananagrams insanity of this spot, concluding with the immortal vision of Nicolas Cage urinating flames.

19. Rock of Ages

In the immortal words of Kenny Loggins: It’s called the ’80s. And it’s gonna be around forever.

18. American Reunion

This is why God invented the red-band trailer.

17. Super 8

J.J. Abrams’ ode to late-’70s Spielbergia perfectly captures the thrills (and chills) of the film’s kids-on-a-mission adventure plot.

16. Transformers 37: Dark Side of the Blue Moon Over Memphis

Early in 2011, the moviegoing public shared a dream, a beautiful fantasy about the possibility of a good Transformers movie. The dream did not come true. But we’ll always have this trailer. Further proof that Michael Bay is one of the finest short-film directors in Hollywood.

15. The Expendables 2

The “cast-list-as-marketing-pitch” has become popular in our cameo-happy era — see also New Year’s Eve — but you have to admire next year’s Expendables sequel for coralling  basically every beefcake action star of the ’80s. (But where’s Seagal?)

14. Snow White and the Huntsman

This could be the proof-of-concept moment for the whole action-remake-of-fairy-tales trend in Hollywood. Start the debate: Is the decision to feature zero dialogue from Kristen Stewart an intriguing artistic choice, or an indication that her reportedly British-y accent might be off-putting?

13. The Muppets

Tough to choose from all the brilliant parody-trailers for The Muppets, but we’ll go with this Green Lantern spoof. Green Lantern, children, was a real movie that came out in summer 2011. I think it was a documentary about manufacturing lamps.

12. Shame

Come to Fassbender.

11. The Hunger Games

This kinetic first look at the hotly anticipated teen-dystopia adaptation left us breathless. Even better: They somehow made an entire trailer that barely shows anything from the second half of the movie. Twilight who?

10. The Avengers

This smart spot carefully introduces the super-team-up structure of next year’s Marvel mega-sequel, teasing some Iron Man/Captain America squabbling but focusing quite a bit on Tom Hiddleston’s breakout villain Loki.

9. The Hobbit

I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves the same question: Can Peter Jackson’s Hobbit duology possible be better than the 1977 animated Hobbit? According to this trailer, the answer is: Well, yes, probably. Is it next December yet?

8. Drive

This trailer actually became the subject of the year’s most ridiculous lawsuit, when a woman claimed that the preview misled her. Apparently, she thought Drive was going to be lame, but it turned out to be awesome. There’s just no truth in advertising anymore.

7. Arena

Nothing about this trailer for the direct-to-DVD, let’s-call-it-an-homage of The Running Man makes any sense, starting from the notion of Twilight bench player Kellan Lutz as a family-man action star. But Samuel L. Jackson pushes the trailer out of the pit of mediocrity into the stratosphere of camp bliss.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2

The last Harry Potter trailer didn’t need to do more than flash a title. Instead, they opted for the “senses-shattering compilation of awesomeness” approach.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

When you have a cast featuring several of the finest British performers in movies today, sometimes all you need to do is let them throw brilliant acting in each others’ faces. A great, quietly menacing trailer.

4. The Dark Knight Rises

[Head explosion.]

3. Prometheus

So it is an Alien prequel, or an Alien remake, or an alternate-universe-prequel-reboot? Who cares? This late-breaking addition to our Best Trailers list looks utterly wondrous, frame by frame.

2. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Buddy Holly has never seemed more existentially threatening. Kids are scary.

1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Filmmaker David Fincher has a history of fantastic movie previews — the promo for last year’s Social Network is a basically a stand-alone short film — and he topped himself with the jagged trailer for his adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Swedish noir. Set to a recording of “Immigrant Song” by by Trent Reznor and Karen O, the spot basically shows the entire movie, but the effect is tantalizing. And was there a better tagline this year than “The Feel-Bad Movie of Christmas”?

Honorable Mention: Single Best Line of Trailer Dialogue

“Snow way!!!

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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