The best film posters of 2016

Art director Adrian Curry selects his favourite film posters from 2016, including an intricate design for erotic thriller The Handmaiden and a clever use of Photoshop for acclaimed drama Moonlight

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1. Cosmos

Cosmos film poster, featuring artwork by Adam Maida. The black-and-white artwork is reminiscent of Maida's photomontages for the New York Times
Cosmos film poster, featuring artwork by Adam Maida

Adam Maida’s silent scream for Andrzej Zulawski’s swansong Cosmos is a poster that cries out to be noticed. Channelling 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 billing block (nice if you can get away with it). 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.

2. The Handmaiden

US teaser poster for The Handmaiden. Designed by John Calvert of Empire Design, with illustrations by Rob Cheetham
US teaser poster for The Handmaiden. Designed by John Calvert of Empire Design, with illustrations by Rob Cheetham

Trees and a hanging also feature in my second favourite poster of the year: an exquisite piece of work for Park Chan-wook’s erotic costume romp The Handmaiden. Designed by John Calvert of Empire Design, with illustrations by Rob Cheetham, it was used as a teaser poster in South Korea and the US.

Korean and US teaser posters for The Handmaiden. Designed by John Calvert of Empire Design with illustrations by Rob Cheetham
Korean and US teaser posters for The Handmaiden. Designed by John Calvert of Empire Design with illustrations by Rob Cheetham

Most theatres displayed a poster featuring a more conventional photographic portrait of the film’s main actors for the theatrical release, which is a shame, because this detailed illustration works even better seen large and up close. 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. Most intriguing to me are the subtle differences between the Korean and American versions: the hanging/hanged woman, the vanishing cherry blossoms, and that one character substitution (look for it) especially for the American market.

3. Moonlight

Moonlight film poster, designed by Los Angeles studio InSync. The film combines three photographs of the film's protagonist in a single image
Moonlight film poster, designed by Los Angeles studio InSync Plus

A poster as luminous and as haunting as the film it represents. Designed by Los Angeles film marketing studio InSync Plus, the one sheet for Barry Jenkins’ justly lauded coming-of-age story conjures up one face out of the three ages of Moonlight’s beleaguered protagonist, Chiron: a Photoshop task that was no doubt much more difficult to pull off than it looks. With its eccentric and electric palette of purples and blues, it feels as if this poster is staring into your soul.

4. Paterson

German poster for Jim Jarmusch's Paterson. Designer unknown
German poster for Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Designer unknown

I’m not crazy about the American poster for Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, about a bus driver who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, but I adore the German poster (above). I have no idea who designed it, but its pastiche of WPA-era National Parks posters for a film that is most specific about location—albeit not one that the WPA would have commissioned a poster for—is perfect.

5. De Palma

De Palma poster, designed by BLT Communications with artwork by Steven Chorney
De Palma poster, designed by BLT Communications with artwork by Steven Chorney

The poster for Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s loving portrait of director Brian De Palma was illustrated by 1980s movie poster artist Steven Chorney, perhaps best known for his artwork for Labyrinth. (He has recently found himself in demand once again, creating the retro-looking campaigns for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and Hot Tub Time Machine 2). The film reflects on De Palma’s career as a master of voyeurism, so it is fitting that Chorney has him peering through venetian blinds at glimpses of his greatest hits.

6. Dekalog

Dekalog poster with artwork by Anthony Gerace
Dekalog poster with artwork by Anthony Gerace

Given how rich and expansive Krzysztof Kieslowski’s legendary 10-hour, 10-part Polish TV epic Dekalog (about the 10 Commandments) is, the stark-as-bones poster for its re-release on Janus Films might seem like an odd aesthetic choice. Take a look at the earlier work of its designer Anthony Gerace, however, and it starts to make perfect sense. Gerace works with collage and found images, but is much enamoured with grid systems. Any of his recent series There Must Be More to Life Than This would have been a good jumping off point for illustrating the Dekalog, but the choice to pare down his ornate and colourful style to ten black squares in a shape reminiscent of a crucifix was genius.

7. Obit

Obit poster designed by Kristin Bye
Obit poster designed by Kristin Bye

Another rather elemental black-and-white design, the poster for this as-yet-unreleased documentary about The New York Times’ obituary writers has the best use of empty space I’ve seen since last year’s poster for The Lobster. Again, it is one of those posters where every element feels right, from the oversized half-tone dots of the face at the top, to the unusual layout of the billing block, to that definitive period after the title. It was designed by the film’s editor Kristin Bye, who is also a graphic designer.

8. Christine

Posters for the film Christine, designed by Brandon Schaefer
Brandon Schaefer’s posters for Christine, directed by Antonio Campos

Brandon Schaefer may be the hardest working man in movie poster design. On top of co-hosting excellent movie poster podcast The Poster Boys, he designed some 50 new posters this year. My personal favourite would have to be his Saul Bass-esque poster for Theo Who Lived. But since I art directed that poster with Brandon for Zeitgeist Films, propriety propels me to go with my second choice, Christine.

Schaefer produced not one but two finished posters for the film: one for Sundance and the other for its theatrical release. The second is slightly more conventional, but those colour bars either side of the bank of monitors are quite lovely.

9. The Ornithologist

Japanese poster for The Ornithologist
Japanese poster for The Ornithologist, with artwork by Philippe Morin

Scroll through this page and you’ll notice the importance of eyes in movie posters—not least in this stunning Japanese one sheet for what the New York Film Festival called João Pedro Rodrigues’s “bracing exercise in queer hagiography”. Given the film’s title, this poster—designed by Igor Ramos and painted by Philippe Morin—might be considered a little too literal (unlike the Portuguese version), but who could resist that owl?

10. Dearest Sister

Poster for Dearest Sister, designed by Jay Shaw
Dearest Sister poster, designed by Jay Shaw

Now that Jay Shaw is the creative director at Mondo  he has less time to design movie posters—but that didn’t stop him whipping up this ethereal masterpiece for Mattie Do’s Laotian horror movie Dearest Sister this year. He also art directed and lettered Rory Kurtz’s incredible Mondo poster for The Graduate which is probably my favourite art poster (or call them what you will) of 2016.

And finally…

2016 may have been a bad year in so, so many ways, but it was a pretty good one for movie poster design—particularly posters made for smaller, independent films. Of course, smaller films—indie, foreign-language and documentaries—not only need the extra attention that a great poster can provide, but can also take more creative risks with marketing.

Hollywood has paid attention to the Mondo/fan-art phenomenon, which has led to a noticeable appreciation for illustration and design—at least to the extent of occasionally commissioning alternative posters or teasers for their major releases (check out the slew of brilliant alternative posters recently created for Nocturnal Animals). But often, the main theatrical one sheet for big budget movies seems to have been designed by committee. That is not to say that those posters don’t do their job in selling the film—and often do it with a modicum of elegance and wit—but the final poster rarely stands alone as a work of art, as I believe many of these do so well.

Adrian Curry is design director at Zeitgeist Films. He writes about movie posters for subscription service MUBI and Film Comment magazine. You can see Curry’s Movie Poster of the Week series for MUBI here and see his runners-up for the best movie posters of 2016 here. You can also follow him on Twitter and Tumblr.

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