Ten years ago, not long after I had started writing about movie posters for MUBI (back when it was called The Auteurs), I was called upon to come up with my favorite movie posters of the decade. It was a daunting task since I hadn’t been keeping track quite as carefully as I have these past ten years, but it was also somewhat of a novelty since there weren’t a lot of people talking about movie posters either in print or online back then. Looking back at that list of ten years ago, there are a couple of posters I might not choose today and I’d definitely bump Neil Kellerhouse’s poster for The Girlfriend Experience up to #2. And while I personally had no doubts about my favorite movie poster of the decade—which was the U.S. one sheet for Michael Haneke’s remake of Funny Games—it felt like a left-field choice and I wasn’t sure that anyone would agree with me. I knew nothing about the designer, and I couldn’t even tell if the image was a photograph or an illustration (which I realize was part of its allure) but it was a poster I loved from the moment I first set eyes on it and I never tired of looking at. Not long after the list was published I was contacted by one Akiko Stehrenberger after a friend of hers had seen my article and let her know that her poster was being called the best poster of the decade. So I interviewed Akiko for Movie Poster of the Week and in the ten years since she has consistently been one of the most talented and inventive and now sought after movie poster designers and illustrators in the world. So I felt vindicated in at least my first choice even if none other than Roger Ebert had called my selection “bleh” on Twitter and had taken me to task for including the inappropriately jolly so-bad-its-good Romanian poster for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu at #10. (He later changed his mind and said that my selection was “fine.”)
Ten years and nearly 400 Movie Poster of the Week posts later and the task of selecting the best movie posters of the decade has not got any easier. Granted, I have been looking at movie posters assiduously in the interim and I have a better sense of what I like, but ten years of writing about movie posters new and old as well selecting posters for Movie Poster of the Day on Tumblr (since 2011) and now Instagram (since 2018), means that I have seen, and written about, an awful lot of good movie posters, and that paring those down to just ten seems a fool’s errand. That said, since I’ve been selecting my Top Ten posters of each year every year since, I could just have selected my favorite poster of each year, but, as with The Girlfriend Experience, some posters get better with age while others lose their initial bloom. To make my life easier I decided not to include any repertory posters, so no Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (my favorite poster of last year) and no fan art or Mondo posters, since those exist in their own universe of graphic excellence. Instead I’m just considering commercial posters made in this decade for new films produced or released in this decade, and that’s more than enough to be getting on with I can tell you.
So as you scroll down bear in mind that this is just the glorious tip of the iceberg and there are hundreds of posters created this past decade that I love and admire and would gladly hang on my wall (though only one of the posters in this list actually does hang on my wall right now). And bear in mind also that this is a very personal selection: though the headline says “The Best Posters of the 2010s,” I can’t lay claim to them being anything more than my favorites. And so without further ado, here below are my ten favorite posters of the 2010s presented in reverse order.
10. Shoplifters (2018)
There have been a number of stunning illustrated posters coming out of China in the last couple of years, including some lovely new designs for the belated Chinese release of Miyazaki’s films. But I am especially fond of this painted poster for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s slow-burning family drama Shoplifters, winner of last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes. The artist is one Huang Hai and in last year’s Top Ten I paired it with another Huang design for the same film, saying “I can’t choose between them so I’m rating them together.” But a year later I’ve decided I can choose after all. I really love the canvas texture on this poster and the way it channels Hokusai with its stylized swirling blue waves and tufts of surf. Magnolia Pictures, the U.S. distributor, promoted the film with a more conventional photographic version of this now iconic beach scene, but to their credit they did also print an alternative poster using Huang Hai’s design.
9. The Airstrip (2013)
The one poster in this list that has never been in any of my annual Top Ten lists and the aforementioned one poster in the list that I do have hanging on my wall. I came across this luminous and enigmatic poster for Heinz Emigholz’s 2013 documentary The Airstrip just a few years ago, and I included it in my article on Emighlolz’s work last year. The designer is Stefan Kanter of the Berlin graphic design agency Moniteurs and it is just a thing of beauty.
8. Tie: Hotel By the River (2019) and Asako I & II (2019)
A bit of a cheat here I guess, but these two posters go together as well as the pairs of figures that are their subject matter. Both these films were in the 2018 New York Film Festival and when I did my annual wrap-up of the posters for that festival a year ago, neither of them had a particularly compelling country-of-origin or festival poster. But when both films were released in the U.S. earlier this year, their forward-thinking boutique distributors had commissioned these two indelible designs. Hotel by the River is by Brian Hung, Cinema Guild’s in-house designer, and Asako I & II is by Sam Smith for Grasshopper Films. I have written about both designers’ work before: in an article about another of Hung’s posters for a film by Hong Sang-soo (he’s designed five to date) I called his Hotel by the River “a monochrome minimalist masterpiece with exquisite bespoke lettering.” And when I premiered Sam Smith’s poster back in April I described it as being “as elegant and restrained and endearingly odd as the film itself.” Anyone who knows me knows that I love minimalism and graphic restraint in movie posters, I love well-used negative space and I love perfectly chosen (or hand-written) lettering. And both of these posters have all of that in spades.
7. Borgman (2014)
Another poster that has only got better with age. Designed by Brandon Schaefer, who just happens to be Sam Smith’s partner-in-crime on the excellent Poster Boys podcast as well as, for my money, one of the best practitioners of photomontage (which is not the same as Photoshop, although he’s pretty good at that too) in the business (see also his poster for Escapes at the top of the page). Back in 2014 I wrote this: “Borgman had such a wide variety of international posters it was hard to tell what kind of film it was at all (and the title didn’t help). I don’t know if Brandon Schaefer’s gothic daguerrotype of a poster gives me a much better idea either, but it is something sinister for sure. There is so much going on in this design—stuff that seems somehow ancient and arcane—that the white Helvetica title is a refreshing and startling and necessary contrast.” And in a blog post about his process which I only recently came across Brandon wrote of the Borgman poster that “a one-sheet should get your attention, but should be an honest extension of the film it’s championing. Otherwise it’s either marketing without a soul, or art for art’s sake. Design should be about hitting that spot in between.” Hopefully all the posters in this list hit that sweet spot as well as this one.
6. Frank (2014)
Back in 2014 when I selected this as my favorite poster of the year I asked, “if whoever designed this would like to come out from behind the mask and take a bow I’d love to hear from you,” and, as with Akiko five years earlier, I ended up interviewing the designer Nicolette Vilar, who, it turned out, was also the on-again off-again lead singer of an all-female punk pop group, Go Betty Go, and thus the perfect person to design a poster for a film about a fractured rock band. Of course, as I hope is obvious from the poster, the film is much more than that. As I wrote in 2014: “Those of us who care about movie posters often complain about ‘big head’ posters from Hollywood studios, but the design for Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is the ne plus ultra of big head posters: a poster for a film about a big head. The head in question is the papier-mâché noggin worn by Michael Fassbender’s title character, which was inspired by the nearly identical prop worn by Chris Sievey, a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom, the nasal-voiced troubadour from Timperley, Manchester, who famously covered the Sex Pistols (‘Anarchy in Timperley’) and had his moment of cult fame in the 80s. The poster for Frank, designed by an as-yet uncredited designer at P+A studio (the anonymity seems apt) subverts the chief function of the big head poster by not showing us the film’s star. To me it’s a thing of beauty (my affection for Frank Sidebottom and for the film itself only increasing my appreciation of the design) both simple and striking and beautifully lettered: a poster that was arresting both in theater lobbies and one inch tall in online film listings.”
5. Cosmos (2016)
As the design director at Kino Lorber, I had to think twice about including Adam Maida’s stunning poster for Kino’s release of Andrzej Zulawski’s swansong Cosmos in this list, except that this poster was created the year before I started working there. Maida was in the news this week for his excellent new Mondo/Black Dragon Press posters for Stalker, but for me nothing compares to what in 2016 I called: “Maida’s silent scream.” I went on to say that: “Channeling the starkest of Polish poster design—think Mieczyslaw Wasilewski or Andrzej Pagowski—Maida’s design is as deceptively crude as it is beautifully executed. I love everything about this poster, down to its hand-lettering, that tiny hanged bird and the even tinier—nice if you can get away with it—billing block. Maida’s witty, diagrammatic work has already graced Criterion covers for Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, and Costa-Gavras’s The Confession and State of Siege, but it is his eye-catching black-and-white editorial illustration/montages for the New York Times that this most reminds me of.”
4. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
I guess it will now be no secret what my favorite movie poster of 2019 will be when I compile that list next month. Designed and illustrated by the aforementioned Akiko Stehrenberger (who has a brand new book of her work coming out this month) this was the second poster by Akiko that A24 released for The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The first was masterful and striking and beautifully painted, but the second one was next level. I say “designed and illustrated” because there are many great illustrators that are not graphic designers and you can often tell when lettering has been added awkwardly to an otherwise perfect illustration, but Akiko is a master of both worlds and designs her posters with both image and lettering in mind. But in this case it is her illustration itself that is designed: a conceptual piece that conveys both place (the impossibly steep streets of the titular city) and theme (the uphill struggle of the title character) in one concise, brilliantly witty, disorientating, makes-you-look-twice design.
3. The Handmaiden (2016)
I realize looking at these best posters of the decade that it is clear that I veer between the starkly simple and the lushly baroque in my tastes. This tapestry-like poster, for Park Chan-wook’s erotic costumed romp The Handmaiden, designed by John Calvert at Empire Design with illustrations by Rob Cheetham, is perhaps the best example of the latter and one of the most exquisitely beautiful posters of the decade. As I wrote back in 2016, “It was used, in slightly varied forms, in both South Korea and in the US as a teaser poster, with most theaters displaying the more conventional photographic portrait of the main players for the theatrical release. Which is a shame because this detailed illustration works even better seen large and up close (see it large here). With its delicate and arcane illustrations painted on what looks like a background of gold leaf, the poster perfectly mirrors the opulence and intrigue of the film itself.” You can read my interview with the designer John Calvert here.
2. The Lobster (2015)
Back in 2015, this was only my third favorite poster of the year, placed below two gorgeous, colorful posters by Erik Buckham, for The Assassin, and Sam Smith, for Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. But in the years since Vasilis Marmatakis’ design for The Lobster has, in my mind at least, assumed classic status. Created for Cannes and only marginally altered with a pull quote and some billing adjustments by A24 for the American release, it is what I would call a near-perfect poster. What I wrote back then: “Designed by Vasilis Marmatakis, who previously created equally outré designs for Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Alps, this poster is my favorite of the pair that made quite a splash around Cannes-time with their witty use of absence. In an interview on the UK design blog Creative Review, Marmatakis explained that ‘the main aim on all the posters was to graphically visualise ‘solitude’ in opposition with the need to be ‘with’ someone, and the implications that such notions convey. On the two posters, Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz embrace someone. The other person might not even be there. During that action of embrace, they might be disappearing, too. I tried to visually imply ‘incompleteness’; the feeling of void and the resulting agony.’ That said, I always liked the idea that Colin Farrell might actually be clutching a giant invisible lobster.”
1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011)
In my mind it doesn’t get any better than this. When I selected this poster as my favorite of 2011 I wrote: “Back in February I called Chris Ware’s poster ‘definitely an early contender for the best of 2011’ and eight months later nothing has come close in terms of ingenuity, beauty and sheer graphic skill.” And, guess what, eight years later that still holds true. Ware’s poster for The Savages was my second favorite poster of the 2000s and that pales in comparison to his masterpiece for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or-winner (I realize I started and ended this list with Palme d’Or-winners). Obviously I am a fan of Ware’s work and I was in awe of the fact that Strand Releasing pulled off the coup of getting him to design this, especially given the amount of work and level of detail here. Ware has, to my knowledge, only made one movie poster since this: for Savages director Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, which is more in the Savages style. But his poster for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is unlike anything else, even among his own body of work. As I said in 2011: “Despite the fact that the lengthy title of the film has a certain graphic novel quality similar to that of Ware’s most famous work, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, it didn’t seem an obvious fit. Ware is a very precise and deliberate artist, known for his grids and geometry and hard edges, while Uncle Boonmee is a film of great softness and fluidity, with few straight lines beyond the uprights of Apichatpong’s trademark stilt houses. Ware also strikes me as a particularly urban artist (his drawings of buildings are exquisite) while Boonmee plays out in fields and jungles, waterfalls and caves. I also wondered if Ware would be tempted to render Boonmee’s story and its many transfigurations as a series of comic panels, but he did no such thing. Instead he has encapsulated the mysteries of this most unusual film into a dazzling cartoon mandala whose symmetries and symbolism radiate from its pink heart.”