Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2016

Just as if you've seen enough movies that you can start identifying patterns and trends and weeding out the good from the bad, the same can apply to their posters. After the tenth year of this, my favorite annual post hands down, I've started to realize that finding truly great theatrical posters is getting harder not only since the one-sheet's role in selling a film has changed (lessened?) so much within the industry, but because we now have easily identifiable types and styles that seem to crib from each other. Sometimes they work. Other times they don't. But what it really means is that originality, a key component to a successful poster, is now a bit harder to come by. But it's out there. You just have to look.

For all the repetitive superhero character posters and bad 80's horror homages, I'll still come across enough that knocks my socks off each year. And it may even be something like those, executed well enough or with just enough of a visual twist that I'm forced to sit up and take notice. If it doesn't make me want to desperately see the film then it hasn't done it's job and probably doesn't belong on the Top 10 list below.  And if I can't see it on my wall then it usually isn't the top pick. There's usually a correlation between the quality of a film and its poster because if a studio can't effectively sell their movie, chances are that's only the only the tip of the iceberg as far as its problems.

Being last out of the gate with this list every year has its advantage and disadvantages, and while I always make it a point to browse other lists of this sort when we head toward December, it's tough to recall a single instance where it directly influenced my decision-making process, as it should be. Where it helps (as it did again this year) is in exposing me to a few more obscure posters for consideration I wouldn't have otherwise seen. As for my top choice this year, you can imagine my surprise in discovering that one of my most anticipated movies of the year also had the best, most creative poster of 2016, designed by an artist whose work I'm a big fan of. It's been a while since I've been as excited about a top choice and believe it to be one of the strongest visual concepts to make its way onto a one-sheet in years. Even putting my anticipation of the actual film (which should probably be reviewed on here soon) and the artist's previous work aside, when this poster was released, it was clear nothing could possibly beat it. And it's in pretty good company, as you can see below with my previous "Movie Poster of the Year" honorees:

2006: V for Vendetta
2007: Premonition
2008: Funny Games
2009: Moon
2010: The American
2011: The Ides of March
2012: The Master
2013: Spring Breakers
2014: Men,Women and Children
2015: Queen of Earth
2016:   ?

So, what is it? We're about to find out, along with the rest of the Top Ten, the Runners-Up, and of course, the highly anticipated "Worst of the Year." As usual, all poster images are provided by and only official theatrical posters (not Mondo or alternative designs) released in 2016 are up for consideration. Let's do it.

The Best...

10. Jackie

Full disclosure: I'm not the slightest bit excited to see Natalie Portman play Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larrain's widely praised biopic. On paper, I think she's completely wrong for the part, but look forward to the possibility of her proving me wrong. She's done it before. There's even something about her slouching posture in this poster that bothers me and feeds into all my doubts she won't be able to pull this off. Having expressed those misgivings while still very much rooting for her, I absolutely love the poster. The concept behind it. The whole execution of it, with Jackie kind of lost, blending and disappearing into the blood red background just as she seemed to lose part of her identity following her husband's assassination. More importantly, it's such a direct, uncomplicated image. Clean and simple, topped off by the iconic "JACKIE" signature that seems to wrap around the actress and really stands out in stark white. I'll still need more to sell me on Portman, but this one-sheet teaser is surely strong enough to sway other skeptics on the fence about how this will turn out. While some would accuse the poster of being too dry or boring, I'd prefer to appreciate it as simplicity at its finest. They made the right call.

9. La La Land (Two Versions)

I'm still not sure how this artist, known simply as LA, has manged to design three-quarters of all the movie posters that seem to come out of Hollywood each year, but it must be a pretty cushy gig. While his work has been wildly mixed, sometimes showing flashes of genius amidst jaw-dropping failures, he hardly ever repeats himself, which is to be respected considering the sheer quantity of output. These two posters for La La Land represent some of his strongest work, handily topping his colorful, crazy piano keys poster for that made the runners-up list below. That one's definitely inventive, but there's just a little too much going on for my taste. These, on the other hand, represent understated excellence and that bottom IMAX one (made to resemble a great lost French movie poster) probably would have had this spot all to itself had it not only seen the light of day in the past week or so. Love what was done with the title and colors and has Emma Stone ever been drawn to look this captivating on a poster?

The teaser is kind of magnificent in how it channels those classic Blue Note vinyl record covers, right down to the type and layout. It's okay to copy something if it fits, and this is done really well. Not only does this approach perfectly dovetail with the musical's old school style, but it actually looks cool and contemporary as well. Ideal for the Best Picture frontrunner that's been labeled both an out of time throwback and timeless all at once. The couldn't have picked a better shot of Emma and Ryan either, with the blueish-green popping off the page against that beige background. Well done. It's mind-boggling to think the same person designed both of these, which couldn't be more different, yet accomplish their goal just the same.

8. Captain Fantastic

Power To The People. Stick it to The Man. Here's a poster that could have easily been grouped in with other "types" or "styles" that are so frequently imitated. We'll call it the Shepard Fairey rip-off, except for the fact that Fairey did actually draw this (with a design assist from Studio Number One). For all the acclaim he received for that famous Obama "Hope" design, he's never primarily known as movie poster artist and has actually done very few of them. Most of have been spoofs or variations on that very image, but there's something about this that seems completely different in both tone and execution. You can still tell it's a Fairey piece, but the idea of Viggo Mortensen's hippie warrior title character looking pensive and Presidential enough to be found on a coin or dollar bill speaks directly to the film's theme of him ruling over a society of his own making. The drawing of Viggo is amazing as is the detail went into the illustrations of the six kids his character controversially raises "off the grid." You have to love the idea of a political propaganda style design for the most politically charged movie of 2016. And now with this poster, it feels as if Matt Ross' film now has its very own freak flag to proudly fly.

7. The Divergent Series: Allegiant

For the past couple of years I've strangely had to set aside a spot in the Top 10 for a teaser poster for the latest installment of the Divergent YA franchise. This year it's Allegiant, designed by the aforementioned LA. While this doesn't even come close to approaching the visual grandeur and complexity he delivered with his Escher's Staircase-inspired Insurgent design from last year, it's still formidable enough to earn a slot. It's another visual trick of sorts with Shailene Woodley's Tris running within an endless loop that seems to swallow her up, and whoever happens to stare at it long enough. I really like what they did with the bright red, slanted title in the top right corner and the tagline ("Escape The World You Know") couldn't more appropriate to the visual being conveyed here. Say what you want about the series (I haven't seen a single film in it), but nearly all the posters have gotten the job done, especially the teasers. Even the numerous character posters, the most dreaded promotional tool in any studio's ad campaign, have been impressive throughout. I never thought I'd be bemoaning the conclusion of any YA franchise, but just might if it means the end of these posters. Just imagine if an eighth the creativity and visual ingenuity present in these designs translated to the actual films. This is at least one property we can be certain didn't fail because of its marketing.

6. The Invitation

Shockingly, while browsing all the year-end lists of best posters, this creepy, beautifully subtle one-sheet for Karyn Kusama's suspense thriller, The Invitation was no where to be found. How it that even possible? Just look at this. In fact, you could argue that no 2016 poster better or more honestly conveys in a visual sense exactly what their movie is, at its core, than this. This is how it looks. This is how it feels. It's this dark and disorienting. No false advertising here. The decision to have all the key players framed at the bottom the page, huddled seance-style and bathed in glowing orange light against a pitch-black background is ingenious. Of course, it's an actual dinner scene from the film but it looks entirely more dangerous and sinister the way it's presented here. Love how they made Logan Marshall-Green's Will's the centerpiece, spotlighted, just as he is in the movie, as the one person entirely uncomfortable with the very strange dinner invitation they've all received. And look what's been done with the placement of the credit type (even the SXSW laurel wreath), further emphasizing the negative space, and of course, that infamous lantern that factors into the plot in such a memorable way. My only wish is that I knew who the design company or artist was so proper credit could be given. There's another teaser for the movie featuring the protagonist in a wine glass, and while it isn't bad, the concept is too goofy looking to properly convey the film's sinister tone like this does. It's perfect.   

5. Weirdos

Thisone-sheet, designed by the prolific Midnight Marauder, kind of came out of nowhere toward the end of the year, and for good reason. No one's really heard of this low-budget, black and white indie set in 1970's Nova Scotia about a teen running away from home with his girlfriend. And I suspect this poster, as great as it is, still won't move the needle much on that. But it sure does look nice and anyone who lays their eyes on it won't soon forget what they've seen. Again, it's very much a stylistic "type" of one-sheet that's quite recognizable. We've seen it successfully executed with Nebraska a few of years ago, but it was really Woody Allen who got there first with this idea (or maybe second). Either way, there's something aesthetically pleasing about applying a poster design format popularized over thirty years ago to contemporary film set in that period. In a way, this is one of the better examples of it and if I didn't know any better I'd think someone pulled it out of an old theater bin.  From the bold type to the strong border and just how perfectly symmetrical everything looks on the page, with the couple pre-kiss on the bottom. And if we're talking about negative space, this is just about the best possible use of it there is. Clean, simple and unfussy, Of everything on this list, this might be the one that would look the best on someone's wall.

4. The Founder

One of these days, this film will actually be released so I can shift my focus toward that and stop talking about the brilliance of this one-sheet teaser for John Lee Hancock's The Founder, a biopic charting the journey of controversial McDonald's founder, Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton!), who basically swiped the company out from under the McDonald brothers to build the first multi-million dollar fast-food empire. The rest, as they say, is history. This one-sheet takes a page from some of my favorite biopic teasers like last year's Steve Jobs and the Lance Armstrong-focused The Program in presenting its subject in the light with which we're most familiar with them: Their brand. Where it was the clean white for Jobs and the bright, Livestrong yellow associated with Armstrong, we know instantly when we see the red and yellow golden arches who and what this will be about. And that posed, photographic silouette of Keaton is just recognizable enough, in case his name above the stylistically distressed title didn't give it away. This is one of those rare cases when you can use a universally known brand and logo to sell your movie and no one has any right to complain. Really clever tag line as well.

3. Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle's Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, received decent enough notices upon its release, but just seemed to fly under the radar. It happens. But there's absolutely no excuse as to why this poster (which frustratingly lacks a credited artist) wasn't singled out for its creativity because it looks like no other piece of film advertising, print or otherwise, that's come out over the past year. I'm a sucker for quote posters and feel it's a lost art that's unfortunately fallen by the wayside as we've become more and more obsessed with visuals. Quotes, whether it be review blurbs, lines from the film, or a list of awards, can be a valuable tool if incorporated creatively enough that it doesn't feel like you're reading blocks of text.

This is one of the best uses of that approach I've seen since not only are they actual quotes about Davis from other well-known musicians, they come together to form an unforgettably colorful image of the man himself, blowing away as two figures (Miles and someone else?) make a run for it across his trumpet. And I love that title design with the small silhouette of Davis playing the "S", which is a strong enough logo to be its own poster. But what really makes this pop is the positioning of the image and the colors. The whole thing is just a treat to take in and, again, I'm not sure how this got lost in the discussion of the year's best posters. Few were better. Actually, only two.

2. The Birth of a Nation

The movie that just can't seem to catch a break. At about the midway point of the year, Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation was already pegged the Best Picture frontrunner before anyone had even laid eyes it. Then they did, but scandal and controversy hit and it was pretty much never spoken about in those glowing terms again. Things like that happen fast. And amidst all that, this poster was released and boy is it a beauty. The film, which literally takes its title away from D.W. Griffith's 1915 racist propaganda picture of the same name, tells of enslaved preacher Nat Turner's leading of a slave rebellion in 1830's Virginia.

This event is quite viscerally depicted on the one-sheet as the rebelling slaves are not only painted in and dripping blood red, but collectively making up the stripes of a worn American flag. It's a really powerful and thematically significant image, to the point that you could easily be caught staring at it for a while, transfixed by both the depth and skill necessary to pull this off. It's that bleeding paint effect along with the bold, cursive, constitutional-style typeface that makes this stand out as something that far transcends what we usually expect from a pre-release poster, much less one for a project that's managed to stir up as much controversy as this. Say what you want about the film's staying power, but we won't soon be forgetting this iconic piece of movie art. 

1. Christine

Last year, artist Brandon Schaefer just missed grabbing the top spot on this list with his memorably creative poster for the indie, James White. And now this year he gets it with his even more conceptually brilliant festival teaser for Antonio Campos' biopic, Christine, one of two films released in the past year (the other being the quasi-fictional documentary thriller, Kate Plays Christine, for which Schaefer also designed the poster) exploring the 1974 on-air suicide of Florida news anchor Christine Chubbuck. The later theatrical version appears below in the Runners-Up and it's worth mentioning that I love that "official" poster nearly as much (in fact it's hanging on my wall) and its absence in the Top 10 is only due to the fact I felt this deserved the spotlight all to itself for obvious reasons.

Juxtaposing two wildly different concepts for the same film makes for an intriguing case study in the ongoing battle between art and commerce in poster design. And hopefully proof that there doesn't necessarily have to be a battle, as sometimes a satisfying middle ground can be reached. The poster you see above is so visually outside the box (no pun intended) of what the moviegoing public is used to that there's just no way any studio could justify releasing something this weird into the world as their "official" poster, even taking into account how mesmerizing and thematically relevant to the film it is. So considering the mainstream concessions that needed to be made to sell this to the public, Schaefer did a great job designing that more commercial, but no less impressive Mary Tyler Moore-inspired poster below (love the TV test pattern bars across the sides). It's far different from this, but understandably so and has a throwback quality that makes it a worthy, if noticeably safer, companion piece.

Thankfully, no poster will be "too weird" to top this list. Uniqueness should be rewarded and I can't honestly say I've ever seen a teaser that's looked like this, or so effectively portrayed what the film is about in a single, unforgettable image. Yes, her head's stuck in a TV. And yet it makes perfect sense considering the tragic story of a woman who was trapped in a prison of her own depression, while also being caught in the stranglehold of an increasingly sensationalistic media that had little regard for female newscasters at that time. I love how everything about the poster is so period-specific, from the television showing Rebecca Hall's pensive expression, to the colors, background and border. Borders aren't used nearly enough, and this shows just how much they can add to the central image under the best of circumstances  And without it, we wouldn't have that awesome effect of the TV antenna protruding out from inside the frame. The credit placement is perfect and whatever font that is being used for the title was a great, understated choice. From where I sit, it's the best of the year but you're probably better off listening to Schaefer himself explain his process in designing it here.       

Runners-Up (Alphabetical)...


And the Worst...

Really? We're gonna do THIS? No shame. Just poorly lift a poster design from a Best Picture winner, add some floating heads and photoshop it within an inch of its life and you have Burn Country, which if the credits on the bottom are to be believed, is a highly decorated entry into numerous film festivals. Why does James Franco look like David Foster Wallace? Is Dominic Rains the guy in the middle? So many questions. And look at that title actually burning, because, well, you get it. The only aspect of this I like is the the classic Orion Pictures logo on the lower right. Though after seeing this, the studio might want to reconsider and have it removed.

Now I'm just piling on. It's almost too easy and to be fair there have been other summer blockbuster posters more atrocious to look at, even if few are as insulting . There's just something about this that looks so wrong. And yes, I'm talking about the poster and not the fact that they remade Ghostbusters with an all female cast (my bigger problem was actually that they chose THIS cast). Other than that, the shiny new logo is an eyesore, taking a previously iconic symbol and "updating" it is the most generic, uninspired style possible. And maybe aside from McKinnon, their poses are goofy and everyone looks as airbrushed as the side of boat. With audiences already irate at the mere idea of their universally beloved comedy being remade, they released this poster, confirming everyone's worst fears it would be an uninspired cash grab. 

I'm not sure if we should be relieved or not that it's difficult to tell if this is the second sequel to the Da Vinci Code and not a rare direct to V.O.D. Tom Hanks release. Hanks and an unrecognizably altered Felicity Jones look like they're appearing in two different posters and movies and what they did with the title was a terrible choice, rendering it somewhere in between unreadable and invisible, despite it being in a bold red. The upside-down cityscape effect done at the bottom is the most tolerable aspect here but it's so incongruous with the rest of the design that it hardly registers. Enjoy, since I have a feeling this is the last we'll be seeing of this franchise in any form.

There's something that seems just so self-conciously artsy about this one-sheet that I just had to include it, perhaps forsaking even more deserving entries onto the year's worst list. This overlapping effect they're going for here makes little sense visually and is delivered so poorly that it actually makes me yearn for one of those generic, floating heads action movie posters which would at least likely be more concise and easier to look at. The credits are a jumbled mess and just enough to distract from the fact that Bruce Willis is facing off against...Mark-Paul Gosselaar? Ironically enough, the man of the hour, LA, also designed this, further proving that you just never know which of the side of the creative bed he'll wake up on each morning.

Rules most definitely don't apply to this design, which I don't know quite what to make of. Make no mistake that I'm absolutely thrilled Warren Beatty is back and bringing his long gestating Howard Hughes project to the screen, even as I hear it how little it actually has to do with the reclusive, eccentric billionaire. At least this poster is somewhat honest about this, as ill-conceived as that credit dagger going down the middle is. With the focus is so clearly on Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich as star-crossed lovers, I guess they had to find a way to squeeze Beatty in there somehow. But that still doesn't explain what's going on with that block of credits. I don't actually despise this as much as some of the others since I can at least appreciate what they were going for. There's a goofy, old school appeal to it that just went woefully wrong along the way, as it also did with its other (slightly superior) poster.

What's going on with all these acclaimed directors getting the shaft with thrown together posters for passion projects they've been working a quarter of their lives on?  This is so bad I don't even know where to begin other than to point out I used to roll my eyes when posters were criticized as being "fan-made." This actually earns that label by being just so visually unappealing in every sense. Nothing works. The colors are bland. I think that's Liam Neeson but won't be putting any money on it. The placement of the image of Garfield and Driver looks MS Paint amateurish and awful titling even manages to bury the lead: That this was directed by Martin Scorsese. 

He's back. I look forward to the day that no Nicolas Cage film (or his hair) make the Worst Posters list, meaning he's escaped movie purgatory and all his debts are paid. Unfortunately, today's not that day. On the bright side, he released a fairly well-received movie this year that was accompanied by a pair of posters not quite bad enough to make this list. So there's that. These two were. From what I've heard, The Trust is actually decent so it's a shame there's a safe opening within his body and he's sporting that goofy mustache.  
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage is the worse offender and not only because it more closely resembles a an insane Navy recruitment ad than a theatrical poster. And between his pained facial expression and photoshopped uniform it's hard to recognize that man as Cage. Luckily, they help us out with "NICOLAS CAGE," really bringing new meaning to the term, "top billing." Is it wrong I'm kind of curious to see this?

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