1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
No surprises here if you’ve seen my Best of the Decade list, in which this design came in at #4. To be honest, I could almost have filled an entire top ten with Akiko Stehrenberger’s 2019 posters. In the last few weeks alone she has released a stunning alternative art print for Breathless, superb new posters for Honey Boy, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, and, most notably, a gorgeous minimalist optical illusion for Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But my favorite of the year still remains this miracle. As I said in my decade poll, “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...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.” If you want to see more of Akiko’s work, she has a brand new book coming out this month.
2 & 3. Hotel By the River and Asako I & II
Also from my decade’s top ten so forgive me if I repeat myself: “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.”
If this had been the only poster Vasilis Marmatakis had designed this decade it might well have made my best of decade list but of course his poster for The Lobster was already among my favorites. Marmatakis is to Yorgos Lanthimos what Saul Bass was to Otto Preminger, and I was happy to see that he had designed a poster for even this 12-minute Lanthimos short which premiered at Locarno last summer. As with the best of Marmatakis’s work it is simple, unsettling, and unlike anything else you’ve seen before.
5. La Flor
From a 12-minute film to an 808-minute one. How do you solve a problem like La Flor? How do you encapsulate a film that took ten years to make and runs nearly fourteen hours, that uses the same four actresses in six intertwining episodes that play out in a variety of genres; a film that, I’ve heard said, “contains everything.” Scott Meola’s lush yet concise solution may not be the only answer (the original festival poster was even more gnomic) but it is a statement poster if ever there was one. It tells you nothing about the film except that it is maybe something special, which that Justin Chang quote reinforces. Kudos to Grasshopper Film for releasing this behemoth into the world, but for me their greatest leap of faith was allowing Meola to break up the title the way he did to give it its graphically satisfying shape. The casual viewer may read it as Laf Lor but this is not a film for the casual viewer.
The original Korean poster for Bong Joon-ho’s international barnstormer was really the first glimpse any of us got of this soon-to-be sensation back in April. Its placid yet ominous domestic scene, rendered undeniably creepy by the censor bars across the protagonists’ eyes—reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, mAAd City—featured half the major players (not least that boxy, modernist home, the ultimate star of the film) and a number of significant objects (the teepee, that ornamental rock, those legs...) without giving much of the game away. A Screen Daily case study entitled “How Parasite became the highest-grossing foreign-language Palme d’Or winner in the US” says of the poster that “the art revealed a grand imagination and promised intrigue, while giving away nothing more,” which is a winning strategy that one could claim for a number of the posters in this list. Though the article attributes the poster to Neon, they were simply smart to adapt the Korean design. They have released a number of alternative art posters since (some of which have been given away at screenings) but none can quite compare to this.
Update: Many thanks to Jahan Bakshi for alerting me to the fact that the designer of the Parasite poster is renowned film director and poster designer Kim Sang-man.
7. A Bigger Splash
The original 1974 poster for A Bigger Splash also featured a photographic cut-out against a background of David Hockney’s 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). In the original it’s a shirtless young man with slicked back hair, in Midnight Marauder’s elegant 2019 re-imagining for Metrograph Pictures’ re-release, it’s Hockney himself examining his own work. The image of Hockney is taken from a scene in the film in which the artist is crouching in front of an unfinished version of the same painting in which the pink-jacketed figure is nowhere to be seen. I love how Midnight Marauder has adapted that image and created a series of frames within frames. And his type choices are on point, giving the rounded sans serif of the original poster a more sophisticated update. Fun footnote: in November 2018, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) became the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold at auction, selling for $90.3 million.
Another re-release poster and another behemoth. While Mariano Llinás’s 13-hour La Flor is twisty and playful, Béla Tarr’s 7-hour 1994 masterpiece Sátántangó is monumental and elemental, a film of drear landscapes and bleak houses. The top half of Dylan Haley’s poster for Arbelos’s 2019 restoration gives us an empty swathe of black rain that seems to be crying out for a series of pull quotes proclaiming the film’s greatness, but Arbelos have resisted the temptation, letting this haunting image, and the film’s reputation, speak for themselves. At the bottom of the poster, almost as if he couldn’t help but drag in the mud from outdoors, Haley seems to be nodding to Hans Hillmann’s leaf-strewn poster for The Fire Within.
9 & 10: Birds of Prey and The Isle of Birds
From the subdued to the multi-hued. I couldn’t resist pairing these two bobby dazzlers together either. Despite their avian-related titles these films couldn’t be further apart: one a big-budget franchise spin-off, the other a small Swiss documentary. The Birds of Prey poster, designed by Hollywood power agency BOND, is part of a vibrantly colorful onslaught of key art in service of one Harley Quinn. As Bond’s website says “with a multitude of eccentric pieces, including payoff and character art, we went all out to give Harley explosions of color and style, showing her off as the delightfully dangerous beauty she is.” It’s unusual to see any blockbuster key art that really stands out from the crowd these days so hats off to BOND for taking the harlequin out of Harley Quinn and running with it. The equally colorful Isle of Birds poster was illustrated by the wonderful Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens for the design firm Les Bandits. In a year in which beige was the in vogue color for movie poster design, these multi-colored wonders stand out like a sight for sore eyes.
18 Runners-up (in no particular order beyond an aesthetic one)
Runner-up posters above designed or illustrated, where known, by Brandon Schaefer (The Sharks and Shooting the Mafia), Akiko Stehrenberger (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Midnight Marauder (Black Mother and Dreamland), Works ADV (Ad Astra), Matt Taylor (The Gospel of Eureka), Mika Kimoto (What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?), Scott Meola (The Wild Pear Tree), Dylan Haley (Anne at 13,000 Ft.), Ivo Francisco (Diamantino), Propaganda B (I Was at Home But...), Tony Stella with Midnight Marauder (A Hidden Life), June Bhongjan (The Secret Life of Pets 2), Kyuyoung Hwang (Rams) and The Dream Factory (The Silent Revolution).
Note: I recused myself from including any posters I art directed at Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films but I made an exception for The Gospel of Eureka and Diamantino as those came to me more or less fully formed.