Monday, December 31, 2018

The Best (and Worst) Movie Posters of 2018

One of the more frequently asked questions about my annual compilation of this list centers around how many of the posters I actually end up purchasing and/or displaying. And it's sort of a complicated question. While the short answer would be maybe only a couple or more per year, a longer explanation draws a line in the sand firmly separating what constitutes the "best" and a "favorite." Those two don't have to be mutually exclusive, and often aren't, as successfully selling a film to audiences doesn't mean it looks great hanging up. Similarly, strong runners-up that didn't crack the top ten have sometimes prove to have a longer shelf life, undergoing renewed appreciation as a result. Good posters have sat sat around while bad ones have gone up and vice versa, sometimes tricking me into believing there's often no direct correlation between this list and personal taste. Only...there is. My choice for the Best Movie Poster of 2018 will join the ranks of Funny Games, The Master and Men, Women and Children in that it not only occupies that top spot, but also a place on the wall. But more importantly, the best ones will always make you more interested in seeing the actual film. Or if you saw the film, remind you why you liked it so much to begin with.

That this remains a somewhat exclusive club should serve as a reminder just how hard it is to stand out when it seems every other poster these days seems to look the same or employ similar concepts. If there's a theme for this year, it's "HOMAGE." For better or worse, everything seems to be taking its inspiration from pre-existing ideas. When done poorly, "copy" is too generous a criticism, as all that remains is the shallow shell of whatever the initial intention may have been. Just refer to the year's worst below to find out just how clever or funny that can be. But when done well, an original concept can be expanded upon and even improved with some creative ingenuity, to the point that it feels wholly original and more than merely a visual shout-out.

In that spirit, I tried to sort out a crowded field of one-sheets by asking what jumps out as different, and as the list will reflect, 2018 was once again a disappointment for anyone hoping the biggest mainstream blockbusters would have creatively inspired posters. We knew the day was coming, and for the first time, they've been completely shut out. Yet again, most of the choices below were from films few have seen, with an especially strong showing for documentary posters. It's also the first time the number one film appears on both lists for two entirely different designs, and deservedly so. Despite recent blog inactivity during what's been an unusually lean year for movies, you knew I wasn't missing this for anything. Remember that only official posters released in 2018 (including those for 2019 films) qualify. Runners-up and the year's worst also listed below alphabetically As usual, all images provided by

The Best...

10. Mandy

I know what you're thinking. This must be some kind of mistake. Nicolas Cage making an appearance on the "Best" list. What's so magnificent about this appropriately crazy design for Panos Cosmatos' Mandy is that at first glance you realize it does contain all the insanity accompanying the decade-plus stretch  Cage's paycheck collecting phase of his career.  But an even closer look reveals just how artfully done it is, lacking the cheapo photoshopping that's made his posters as ugly as some of his choices.  Mandy, described by imdb as focusing on a couple being brutally attacked by a "nightmarish hippie cult," could still easily be one of those disasters, but at least it hit this out of the park.

From the vibrant pink and purple color palette to ethereal image of Andrea Riseborough presiding over a perfect hallucinatory pyamid of otherworldly evilness, it sure isn't easy to shake. At its center is Cage, looking as determined and ridiculous as ever. Has he finally made a good film, or at least an intriguingly bad one? This one-sheet sells it as the ultimate head trip, piquing my curiosity to find out. It looks and feels like his best shot. And any poster that can even trick us into thinking that's possible must really be doing something right. 

9. The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot

While opinions may vary on the merit of these campy B-movie tributes that seemed cribbed from the Tarantino grindhouse playbook, lost amidst speculation about the zany title's possible implications, is this one-sheet, which is a sight to behold. If you were to attempt to visually capture on paper the spirit of a film titled The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot, this surpasses whatever that effort could have been (and no, I don't undertand that second "the" either). While floating heads on a poster never seem to work, something about these nicely illustrated ones just do. The whole concept is perfectly laid out in such a way that the supporting players provide just that: Support for the poster's central figure and the title character, played by the legendary Sam Elliott, who's never popped on a poster quite like this. Combine that with an unusual brown/amber color scheme, details like the Sasquatch footprint over the swastika and the flames and helicopter in the background, and we have a keeper.

What pulls this all together is that giant Sam Elliott head that's just simply an amazing depiction, capturing all the intricacies of the actor's appearance and presence. There's so much going on here and yet it doesn't seem overcrowded in the slightest. While I couldn't find what agency or artist designed this, it's safe to assume they weren't paid nearly enough, especially given how much this creatively overdelivers in relation to the film's cost. And if anyone's capable of killing BOTH Hitler and Bigfoot, Elliot's your man.

8. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

2018 wasn't just a watershed year for documentaries, but for their posters, as four made this Top 10. With all the big studio one-sheets looking exactly the same and even the indie ones attempting to rip each other off or being too clever by half, the poster for Matangi, Maya, M.I.A. seems especially bold in its simplicity. There's nothing flashy here, as what looks to be almost a publicity phot of M.I.A. staring straight through us shares vertical space with a helicopter, airplane and (of course) a paper plane, symetrically placed between each word of the title.

Aside from how efficiently laid out this is, what really sells it is the color scheme. How many posters have you seen that use THIS shade of green as prominently, or even at all? The contrast between that, the black and the white title and paper plane make this unforgettable. Considering the doc's focused on an artist known for going over-the-top, showing restraint by resisting the urge to have the poster resemble one of her crazy album covers, feels like the perfect choice. And the message that this a movie and performer meant to be taken dead seriously is expertly conveyed in an understated image even her biggest fans couldn't have seen coming.

7. (Tie)

The Old Man And The Gun

In the list's first example of a wildly successful homage, this Robert Redford centered one-sheet for David Lowery's The Old Man and The Gun harkens back a few decades to find inspiration from his visually similar 1972 poster for Jeremiah Johnson. Considering this laid back caper was heavily promoted as the legendary actor's final on screen role, it's only fitting it be bookended with this image, which finds him giving a literal tip of the hat to his career while cleverly calling back to one of his earliest cinematic accomplishments. Just like the poster that inspired it, this one is about as stark and as simple as it gets. Cast credits on the upper right, bold red titling on the bottom left and the Sundance Kid himself strolling in an off-white landscape of negative space. In most cases, obscuring a a major star's face would seem to be PR suicide, it's pulled off succesfully here because of the ubiquity of the performer. No introduction necessary, as we somehow know exactly who this is, and are given a subtle peek as what to expect from the film.

The prolific Midnight Marauder's one-sheet for the documentary, Hal (focusing on the career of legendary director Hal Ashby) accomplishes a similar feat with its use of negative space and layout of credits. Where it wonderfully veers is in its vibrant splash of orange sun behind the black and white photo of a lounging Ashby. Besides there not possibly being a better pose that captures his attitude and philosophy toward filmmaking and life, it just pops against that grayish-white background. And while I'm not usually a huge fan of shadows, this actually works in that it seems so off-putting and unexpected. Love that corner placement of the "BELIEVE IN CINEMA" tagline. But the topper is the title being the subject's own signature, a clever choice that isn't used often enough in poster design.

6. BlacKkKlansman

Often, a single powerful image can convey better than any tagline, logline, synopsis or review what a movie's truly about. Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman forces viewers to take a hard look at our country's shameful legacy of racism, so its only fair its poster be equally confrontational and controversial. And there's really nothing else that could more accurately convey its plot of a black police detective going undercover to bring down the KKK. Of course, we know Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) doesn't physically infiltrate the Klan as is depicted here, but that only makes seeing the manifestation of his efforts in this image that much more powerful.

The badge, the comb, the hood and the fist tell us everything we need to know and then some. Not to mention the effect of the burned, torn sides of the poster.  And now might also be the time to praise Spike Lee for his masterful play on the film title's spelling, done in a retro 70's blaxploitation font. I can't prove the movie wouldn't have done as well without the marketing campaign behind it, but there's no denying it helped tremdendously in properly positioning what could have otherwise been a really tough sell.

5. You Were Never Really Here (Three Versions)

Lynne Ramsay's largely unseen indie drama, You Were Never Really Here is described in its logline as being about an "embattled veteran named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) tracking down the kidnapped pre-teen daughter of a state senator." Many have yet to catch up with the film, but it's strikingly original series of theatrical posters are much harder to evade. The inclusion of all three in this spot would seem to suggest they're each covering equal ground in terms of quality, which that wouldn't be far off. But that doesn't preclude the fact that the last one is simply astounding, as Phoenix literally breaks through the ocean surface title and plumetts underwater toward the credits below. It's hard not to just stare in awe at that design choice, as few recent one-sheets have used its title or spacing in as compelling a way. The first one is a real throwback in the best possible sense, with Phoenix's pensive-looking character carrying the girl through the darkness, her bloodied hands dangling next to the title. That motif is revisted in the Saul Bass-inspired minimalist design of Version B, that sees him immersed in the hand's bloody trail, as if the image itself is also leading us along with a unique overhead viewpoint.

4. The King

Eugene Jarecki's critically acclaimed bio-documentary, The King retraces Elvis' roots in his 1963 Rolls-Royce Phantom V, the Trump Presidency, race relations and many more important issues facing the country sandwiched in between that somehow all comes back to the legendary entertainer. It features a truckload of celebrity cameos and is supposedly very, very good. I'll confess to only knowing about any of this due to its eye-catching poster, designed by the aforementioned Midnight Marauder. And that should ultimately be any movie poster's goal: To shine a spotlight on and attract attention to films that otherwise wouldn't have been given a second look by most mainstream audiences. All eyes are immediately drawn to The King's giant shadowy visage, doubling as hills the car travels above a landscape featuring iconic American landmarks like Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty and the Hollywood sign. But what's most impressive about this is the use of black and gold, creating a kind of nightmarish photographic dark room effect. Everything seems off-kilter, much like the film, which definitely doesn't look like your ordinary Elvis doc, whatever that's supposed to look like these days.

3. Shirkers

Here's one where it really does help to have seen the film before the poster, which is full of little details and Easter eggs that can only be fully appreciated after watching Sandi Tan's jaw-dropping documentary, Shirkers. Now that it's streaming on Netflix, more people have thankfully discovered her autobiographical love letter to adolescence, moviemaking and Singapore in the early 90's. Centering around the quirky little movie of the same title she made with her childhood friends that was stolen by a mysterious, charismatic figure with questionable motives, Tan tries to piece together the puzzle of its 20-year disappearance, opening up some old wounds in the process. And this one-sheet, designed by the great New Yorker illustrator and cartoonist, Tomer Hanuka, somehow manages to capture all of it and more in a multi-colored representation of the movie's many pleasures.

It's a single sheet "Where's Waldo?" as you pick up on all the little details he squeezes in there, like the crossing guard, the kid on the bike, the dancing dog and the man with the suitcase. But it's that central image of Tan, camera in hand and reels of film tied to the back of the mystery man's scooter that resonates most. With a face that's appropriately blacked out, he's literally driving her destiny, highlighting the central question at the film's center.

At a time when it seems everyone's been overdoing it with the illustrated posters to wildly mixed mixed results, this is a reminder of how special they can be when an artist gets it right. Even the Netflix logo, usually a cheap-looking eyesore, blends in well for a change. My knee jerk reaction was almost that's it's too busy, but that's the movie: Bursting at the seams with life and creative energy. This makes me want to escape back into that world and rewatch it right now.And he even fits in the movie within a movie's tag line: "There are Movers. There are Shakers. And there are Shirkers." Love it.

2. Her Smell

Before the film (which hit Toronto earlier in the year) arrives in U.S. theaters in early-2019, there's still time to decide whether Her Smell is one of the best or worst titles for a movie in recent memory. As you could have probably guessed, I'm going with the former, but even those who disagree have to admit it leaves the desired impact. You'll remember it, much like this one-sheet teaser brilliantly paying tribute to all those vintage faded, rainbow-colored rock concert posters of the 60's and 70's.

Starring Elisabeth Moss as a Courtney Love-like grunge rock frontwoman in the throes of a self-destructive downward spiral, this promises an experience every bit as aggressive and confrontational as its protagonist (antagonist?) But just look what they did, formatting the title and credits to PERFECTLY match the layout of those vintage posters, like the Toronto and New York film festival dates taking the place of what would otherwise be the concert date and venue. And the bottom credits serving as kind of an "opening act."

If this concept has a flaw, it's that it's too good, virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. If you put it side by side with the designs that inspired it, good luck telling the difference. Someone really did their homework. And if ther is a legitimate connection between a film's quality and its poster, Moss and her adventurous choices just might be the connective tissue, as she seems to have become a permanent fixture on this list for her critically acclaimed, risk-taking indie projects. With a design that feels like the perfect marriage of concept and execution, it was surprisingly difficult not to award this the top spot.      

1. The Front Runner

Jason Reitman's The Front Runner, which depicts Presidential candidate Gary Hart's doomed 1988 campaign, was fittingly released into theaters on Election Day, 2018. No one went. Few have even heard about it. Despite some decent reviews and praise for Jackman, no one's really discussed it since. Having not seen the film, I couldn't tell you whether that's fair or not, or even draw any clever parallells between the movie's fade into obscurity and that of its protagonist. Its commercial failure can most likely be blamed on everyone getting more than their fair share of politics in the news and deciding they couldn't bare to take any more at the movies. And it's tough to blame them. But what's less disputable is that this teaser poster by Manheim is a masterpiece, setting the film up for expectations it couldn't possibly deliver on, regardless of quality.

Unlike the one-sheet for Her Smell, which mimics a design that nearly everyone recognizes and is familiar with, this shout-out is subtler, but no less brilliant. And perhaps more so, since it works on a few different levels, the first of which is as a successful recreation of 70's and 80's campaign posters, right down to the exact font, colors and, of course, that glorious red and blue border. This is as solid an example as we're going to get of how much a border can enhance the overall look of a poster if properly incorporated into the design. This one not only does that, but manages to be thematically tied to the movie's subject as well.

With a design and style that also recalls classic paranoid political thrillers such as The Parallax View or The Manchurian Candidate, it's the illustration of Gary Hart's campaign bus literally careening off a cliff into negative space as reporters trail behind (through the poster's border!), that becomes the ideal visual representation of how his failed run forever changed the relationship between politics and the media, the reverberations of which can still be felt today. The tag line says as much, making the rare case for telling us exactly what the movie is really about, while managing to get every last detail down, including the title being presented in quotes. An embarrassment of riches, that all this is achieved in such a clean, stark, minimalistic image is what makes it so astonishing and destined for a shelf life far longer than both the story and film that inspired it.                

Runners-Up (Alphabetical)...


...And The Worst

Realizing I'm in the minority naming this one of the worst posters of the year (while also recognizing there are still far worse), it's difficult naming a major release with one as bland and nondescript as the one-sheet for the Coen Brothers' highly praised anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It's clear what they were going for in having the six stories branch off from the title, but it couldn't be any less interesting, serving as a great example why we don't see white titles against light grey backgrounds. You'd almost rather they aim for something excitingly awful and fail, than this washed-out design. But given it's the Coens, at least the movie has to be good...right? This alternate version is so, so much better. It's amazing what a little color can do.

Bohemian Rhapsody is beloved by audiences all around the world, most of whom have outright dismissed most critics' complaints about its accuracy, which is fine. But these posters look to have been printed the night before it opened in a studio executive's basement. They're paint-by--numbers photoshop, doing nothing to inspire confidence that the movie's anything other than a slick corporate product meant to cash-in on Mercury's life and legacy. And given the movie's pre-production problems, wasn't that everyone's worst fear going in? Hopefully that's unfounded and this is just another case of false advertising.    

If only for comparison's sake, this has to be included. The polar opposite of its teaser counterpart you saw in the number one spot above. While that was admittedly tough to follow, this is especially awful by even the worst straight-to-DVD cover standards. A befuddled Hugh Jackman in what looks like a bad wig photoshopped into a scene with flash-happy papparazzi. I understand the need to release an alternate theatrical poster heavily featuring the film's star, but if they're going this route, is that really such a great idea? And the bottom credits may as well be invisible.

Less a complaint against this particular poster for Lynn Shelton's Netflix indie, Outside In, than the tiresome design method they chose to go with. You may recognize it, as it's been used in what seems like every other poster for the past decade. A person's image is superimposed over another person's image that appears over a landscape shot. But I don't think I realized just how tiresome it was until seeing this one, which takes its title quite literally, not missing an opportunity to hammer home the point that "Things are Never the Same Outside." Because he just got released from jail. Get it? Ugh.  

While it's not really fair to be "offended" by Ready Player One's poster campaign centering around paying tribute to pop culture's most iconic movie posters when that worship is at the heart of the film itself, But I just can't help it because they're awful. They butchered all of them and I can't stand looking at that face on poor photoshopped recreations of what was originally great poster art. And shame on them for making me resort to calling the original Matrix poster great art. There are many more not even listed, but if I was forced to pick the only tolerable one of the bunch it would probably be this Risky Business parody if only for the clever detail of having the girl pose on the hood of a DeLorean. That least it seems like a more fitting tribute than that abomination you see above.    

Without quite being as spectacular a misfire as Ready Player One's collection above, the studio didn't do Skyscraper or Dwayne Johnson any favors by poorly aping posters for Die Hard and The Towering Inferno in its ad campaign. And in the case of latter, they didn't even bother to aim for accuracy, opting instead for a bizarre image of its perplexed-looking star. And that's coming from someone who really liked Skyscraper and thought it got a lot of things right in avoiding potential allegations they were poor man's versions of those films. As bad as some other posters were this year, these two just might have them all beat for the laziest.

Now this is more like it. Finally, an over-the-top, hilariously terrible poster sure to make even Nic Cage blush. In the subtly titled SPEED KILLS, "Travolta plays speedboat racing champion and millionaire, Ben Aronoff, who leads a double life that gets him in trouble with the law and drug lords." That's via imdb. And while it's supposed to loosely be based on a true story, whatever interest existed in that has apparently deteriorated into what you see above. In other words, a John Travolta movie. But this looks excessive even by his standards. Where's Warren Zevon when you need him? You know you've got it made when you're more concerned with buttoning your sports jacket than the cash flying out of...who knows where. That first one-sheet should be considered worse, if not for the promise (threat?) of a "Cinematic Virtual Reality Experience" in the second. For those who always wondered how Travolta's hair would hold up in VR, your wait is over.

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