It was hard to whittle down my favorite movie posters to a straight top ten this year. There was no absolute stand-out like Chris Ware’s Uncle Boonmee last year, and the majority of film posters continue to be depressingly rote and uninspired, even though the explosion of DIY illustration has started to make inroads into the world of commercial film promotion. As a symptom of my indecision I have tended to group posters together more than usual; laid out like this the year doesn’t look half bad.
1. WRECK-IT RALPH (with THE LORAX and LIFE OF PI)
On its own the Wreck-It Ralph teaser would still have been one of the best posters of the year—a wittily simple 8-bit pixellated key-stroke of genius that compresses a blockbuster 3D extravaganza into a flat, three-color arrangement of squares and tells everyone walking by exactly what they need to know (except the title)—while those for The Lorax and Life of Pi would have been honorable mentions. But I simply love how this trio of redheads look side-by-side: those eyes, those eyebrows! It was only after I placed them together that I realized that these are all 3D movies and while the latter two do play somewhat with depth of field, they also have a spareness that belies their CGI more-is-more origin. Usually I favor posters on the arthouse/indie end of the distribution spectrum; together these three have grossed $467 million in the US alone.
2. THE CAPSULE
To quickly jump to the other end of that spectrum, this half-hour short by Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) has probably grossed less than zero and breaks my sort-of rule for only including posters for the year’s theatrical releases in this list. The poster was designed by Ania Goszczynska using artwork by a young Polish artist named Aleksandra Waliszewska. In fact the film—an avant-garde fashion-centric performance, or, as IndieWire called it, “a lesbian vampire dance piece about bodily urges”—was inspired by Waliszewska’s paintings and co-written by the artist. The poster pays hommage to two of my all-time favorite film posters—Franciszek Starowieyski’s Therese Desqueyroux and Olga Poláčková-Vyleťalová’s Une femme douce—but it wouldn’t quite be the poster it is without that too-cool-for-school title treatment. Only the badly integrated billing block and production logos mar the design.
3. HOLY MOTORS
In case you think I only care for minimalism, third place goes to not one but four posters for a film for which minimalism just would not do. All the designs—clockwise from top are the UK, Australian, US and Brazilian posters—highlight that glorious neon title (playing off the department store signage seen in the film), but only the UK quad even tries to feature what is central to Leos Carax’s limodyssey, namely the shape-shifting tour-de-force performance of Denis Lavant, and even there he’s under the coattails of the more photogenic Eva Mendes. (Shockingly, the Brazilian poster bills Mendes and Kylie Minogue as its stars while reducing Lavant to a supporting role.) But all of them convey the grandeur and mystery, if not the madness, of a film that defies encapsulation.
In my annual round-ups I usually avoid the world of fan poster art and Mondo screen prints, partly because it’s just too vast a field and because it plays by its own set of rules. But the series of gorgeous Mondo teaser posters for ParaNorman qualify because they were part of the actual campaign (scroll to the second half of this article for photos of their unconventional wildposting). There are six posters in all, and my three favorites, above, were illustrated by Dave Perillo, Little Friends of Printmaking and Graham Erwin. (Click on the image to see them in detail). When I showed these to my nephew who had just seen the film he said “Why do they make it look old?” which is a perfect testament to their retro stylization.
5. MOONRISE KINGDOM
If Wes Anderson’s latest hadn’t had a great poster his fans would have made him one, and in fact they did. Moonrise Kingdom inspired more fan art than any film since the invention of fan art; just search on Moonrise Kingdom on Pinterest to see the outpouring of creativity that Anderson’s special brand of nostalgic whimsy has untapped. But though I joked that it borrowed heavily from Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, the film did have a great poster from the get go: a realist painting in egg tempera by British artist Michael Gaskell, with lettering (“lightly referencing titles from a Chabrol film”) by the very talented Jessica Hische.
So as not to take too much credit for my own art direction (and believe me I take very little), I’m including two very different posters for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Russian noir. I wrote about Sam Smith’s silhouette design and my involvement in it back in May, but I am also fond of the Australian poster with its restrained use of the ubiquitous Helvetica Neue and its evocation of the film’s crisp, gleaming cinematography. Sam Smith meanwhile has had a banner year and his poster for How to Survive a Plague is among my honorable mentions.
7. THE TURIN HORSE
While some films seem to have limitless photographic resources for art directors to choose from (Holy Motors being a case in point), Bela Tarr’s stark masterpiece seemed to have had only one. But that single image of a bedraggled girl and her bucket has inspired three very fine designs: Scott Meola’s US poster with his typically exquisite use of type, some dramatic Photoshopping for the Mexican release, and Sam Ashby’s inspired use of the film’s written prologue for the UK quad.
8. AI WEIWEI NEVER SORRY
Sometimes all you need is a great photograph and some perfectly chosen type. The photograph in question, by the great iconcolastic Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, is priceless and tells you all you need to know about his unapologetic attitude, but look at the difference between the original festival poster and the final theatrical design by frequent Movie Poster of the Year star Kellerhouse to see how to turn something good into something great.
9. EL BULLI: COOKING IN PROGRESS
A film about food as art needs a poster that is a work of art in itself. While the original festival poster for this documentary about the titular Michelin-starred Spanish restaurant cleverly channeled Picasso, it was the British quad designed by Lee Basford for Fluid, based on a photograph by El Bulli’s star photographer Francesc Guillamet, that conveyed the invention and joie de vivre (or joie of cooking) of Ferran Adrià’s creations. A poster in which the pull quotes, always an annoyance for poster designers, become an essential ingredient.
10. SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
I haven’t seen Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and, despite my admiration for Emily Blunt, I have little desire to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but I do love the Japanese version of the film’s poster, if only for the color palette of its title treatment paired with those line drawings of fish, and that Aladdin’s lamp below the pull-quote and a perfectly placed exclamation mark.
Below, some honorary mentions in no particular order beyond an aesthetically pleasing one.
Artists/designers, where known, are Akiko Stehrenberger/AllCity for The Sessions, Michael Gillette for Francine, Anna Bak-Kvapil for The Color Wheel, Sam Smith for How To Survive a Plague, AllCity for Oslo August 31, Jay Shaw for Kill List, Sam Ashby for Two Years at Sea, Dodo Dayao for Century of Birthing, Scott Meola for The Day He Arrives, Matt Frost for Marina Abramovic and Lucien Yang for Neighboring Sounds. If anyone knows any of the others please let me know.