The 20 Best Documentary Trailers of the Last 20 Years

comedian trailer

Earlier this month, IndieWire posted a list called The 20 Best Trailers of the Last 20 Years. Sadly, and surprisingly, there wasn’t a single documentary on it. So, I felt it my duty to offer a supplement to their otherwise great selections. Documentary trailers are a very big deal, because documentaries are harder to sell than most fiction releases. It’s hard enough just to get eyes on the trailers themselves, so they have to be extra special.

Most are not special, and that’s fine because a lot of docs also just need to play it straight. They can’t be too flashy with something that has to be viewed as serious. Most of the trailers below, however, are different. They’re primarily for films that have appeal outside of the regular doc audience, and these spots did well to market to those extra moviegoers. In many cases, it worked and the docs did decent box office.

The Act of Killing (2012)

A story as serious as that of The Act of Killing probably shouldn’t be sold with a clever gimmick, but the way this trailer begins, faking us out with the expectation that we’re meeting a typical documentary hero and then throwing everything into the fire, is just too perfect to pass up. Besides, this is a film that is playful about the idea of genocide, so whether you appreciate what the doc does, this trailer fits that. The song and the fantastical footage surely made viewers wonder what this thing is all about. And considering how important the film is, that’s essentially effective.

Catfish (2010)

First it seems like a nice modern romance and then it looks like a haunting mystery for all time. It’s difficult for this film to be introduced to anyone with much intrigue today, but the trailer still does make it look like something you need to watch and be surprised by. If you’ve seen the doc, this might make you want to go back to the time before the twist unfolded or was spoiled for you.

Comedian (2002)

This gimmick has been done since, but at the time this was one of the most clever meta movie trailers ever. And it suits a doc about comedy. It’s too bad the actual film isn’t funny nor as memorable in any other way.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Capturing the mischievousness of Banksy and his film, this trailer gets us to laugh with its minor spoofing of serious film trailer accolade selling points, but it’s the madcap footage and overall whimsical tone that does the best job of making this out to be one enjoyable movie.

General Orders №9 (2009)

I don’t love the film it’s selling, but I still love the trailer. Robert Persons’s work of poetic geography might just be better as a short, or just watched in spurts, not unlike some of the Terrence Malick films it’s been regularly compared to. It’s superficially as calming and interesting and visually striking as it looks in the spot above, but the actual film is more and less.

Grizzly Man (2005)

Can you imagine a Werner Herzog doc being marketed without the filmmaker’s voice? He would have read the narration at the start of this trailer, but the one here is more appropriate, more normal. And then it gives way to Timothy Treadwell, one of the most fascinating and tragic nonfiction film characters, being eccentric and passionate. Finishing with “Coyotes” gives the trailer a folky feeling that combined with the rest gives you goosebumps. You’re curious and comforted and compelled, wanting to see more but not anxious, not in a manner where you’re expecting a sensational film.

The Imposter (2012)

You watch this trailer and you know something is off about the story and you can’t wait to find out what. Documentaries with twists are the most easily sold, but this one is done better than most, building up to that music cue at the end, promising something that isn’t just another chilling true crime story. There’s a captivating character to be found here, too.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

How do you get millions of people to see a film of a stiff politician’s doom and gloom PowerPoint presentation? You really emphasize the imperativeness of them watching it to save their lives. This is one trailer that scares you into feeling the obligation and also seems to promise a disaster epic, just one that’s real and ongoing.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

“In the Hall of the Mountain King” is overplayed in trailers now, especially for documentaries, but a decade ago it still worked to attract audiences who don’t normally go to see docs. It makes for an exciting tone, as does the rock guitar in the front end of this spot, as does the flashy graphics and freeze frames on the two characters set up as rivals. This movie looks fun, and the trailer also tells us all we need to know so we’re already interested and pumped before we even buy our ticket.

Man on Wire (2008)

Funky upbeat music undercuts what seems to be one of the most fascinating nonfiction stories ever put to screen. This is actually difficult to judge in retrospect because the film itself is one of the best of all time. But this trailer’s tone does also just make you want for that to be the case.

March of the Penguins (2005)

Now, this trailer isn’t that distinct from most nature doc ads, especially those from Disney and any that also are narrated by Morgan Freeman, such as Island of Lemurs: Madagascar 3D. Eleven years ago, however, this re-worked French film about Emperor penguins was uniquely sold as a nonfiction family film. It’s no wonder this movie was an enormous box office hit.

Only the Young (2012)

Maybe I’m biased because this is one of the rare trailers with a quote from yours truly in it (via Movies.com), but it also just make you feel warm and fuzzy in a way you don’t expect nonfiction cinema to make you feel. That’s mostly the strength of the doc and the genuine heart and soul it captures but sometimes a great trailer is just one that knows what to spotlight. Also, every doc trailer should end with a song as great as “A World Without You” by Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr (and every doc should have a soundtrack as good as Only the Young).

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

The marketing for this doc didn’t necessarily lie but the trailer does make it seem a little more like a funny reality TV series than a serious nonfiction film. There’s nothing misleading there, as much of it does still play that way. The doc just has more depth than that. The marketing strategy likely worked on a lot of people who wouldn’t normally see a film like this. It might not have worked on more serious doc fans.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)

I’ll be honest and say that I was a little disappointed with this film when I saw it — ironically I’m still quoted in the trailer, as I do indeed like it. It has a promise that it doesn’t ultimately live up to, but its synopsis and its tone and here its trailer are really good at making you think it’s going to keep being astonishing through to the end. Again, it’s still a decent film. But this trailer is really good at selling something mysterious and fascinating, and that is what you get for the most part.

Room 237 (2012)

Especially if you’d seen Rodney Ascher’s creepy short film The S from Hell, this trailer was all you needed to be on board with a strange doc about theories about The Shining. You can’t really use clips from Kubrick’s movie in the ad for a film that’s mostly made up of unlicensed clips from Kubrick’s movie. What you can do is present its acclaim for the highbrow appeal and brilliantly spoof an iconic blood gushing scene from The Shining to get everyone else.

Spellbound (2002)

Its subject matter doesn’t sound that thrilling on paper. And the doc doesn’t really look that visually appealing, especially by today’s standards, but all it took was some clever typeface and a trailer edited to sell us on the tension and humor and just a bunch of endearing kids you want to go in and root for. The spot is a little dated, but it really worked great for its time.

Tabloid (2010)

This film from Errol Morris sort of has a similar effect to the one for The Queen of Versailles, but it has the added benefit of being by Errol Morris. His name alone catches the eyes of the more serious doc fans, while the rest sells the sex scandal supermarket tabloid stuff to those tantalized by such salaciousness. The sad thing is that Tabloid doesn’t have the depth that Versailles does.

Tarnation (2003)

On the one hand, Jonathan Caouette’s debut film looks like something ahead of its time, and on the other hand it looks difficult to appreciate in the era of YouTube and Vine celebrities. But the trailer for this autobiographical feature still makes it look like a challenging and heartbreaking piece of art. You look at this and yearn that we could get an exciting new truly independent voice like this again.

Touching the Void (2003)

It’s not just the snow and icy font that makes this one of the most chilling documentary trailers of all time. It promises a suspenseful and thrilling nonfiction film unlike we’re used to, especially at that time.

Unmade Beds (1997)

It’s bold without informing us what it is, exactly, but it intrigues us. It looks like a trailer for a lot of fiction indies of the 1990s, but it doesn’t necessarily try to hide that it’s a documentary, either. I guess there may be people out there who don’t qualify it as a documentary anyway.

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(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.