I am currently suffering the usual post-Christmas depression - by which I mean that there are far too many great films in theaters, all of them being released at once in anticipation of Oscar campaigns, and all I read in the papers and blogs are Top 10 lists populated with films I haven't seen because they haven't hit Madison, Wisconsin yet. So while I make frequent trips to the movie theater to catch up, here's an easier list to compile, because you don't need to see the film to make a judgment.
A list of the best movie posters of the year is not equivalent to a list of the best films of the year, as is proven by the attractive designs at left and right. But browsing through the IMDB's (approximately) 9,000 films released or produced in 2007, and then clicking on the links to the small percentage that I had actually heard of, I was pleasantly surprised by some really beautiful designs. The following images are antidotes to the Photoshop-nightmare posters that plague most major Hollywood releases, where the only criteria is to cram as many recognizable celebrity faces into the image as possible. (It's also unfortunate that we live in a decade in which poster artists are discouraged from painting original images, instead being prodded toward the less time-consuming task of scanning the actor's faces into a computer.) My preference here was toward simplicity and imagination.
The original Grindhouse poster--before it was divided in two for the individual "Death Proof" and "Planet Terror" DVD releases--was the perfect distillation of a drive-in exploitation double feature bill. It also pits the films against each other like opponents in a prize fight. To the left: Robert Rodriguez's extended John Carpenter homage, placing its key attraction, go-go dancer Rose McGowan with a machine-gun leg, front and center. (Just like in any exploitation art, the most sensationalist element--even if it's a major "spoiler"--must be prominent.) For Quentin Tarantino's slasher film, Stuntman Mike's lethal weapon, his "death proof" stunt car, heads for the viewer at high speed while the eight female leads pose in silhouette against a setting sun. "These 8 women are about to meet 1 diabolical man!" In a typical grindhouse poster, the art would promise more than the actual film delivered. But this double feature actually aimed to live up to its promises--yes, McGowan really does have a machine-gun leg (albeit only in the final act), and she even hurtles through the air while firing rockets from it. Indeed, "two great movies for the price of one!"
From Nimród Antal, the director of the cult hit Kontroll (2003), comes this extended homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. OK, I haven't seen it. But this poster makes me want to: a gorgeous painted image of the prototypical sleazy roadside motel, with the title worked into the only neon which is lit. The stars and credits are worked very naturally into the design, but the eyes are drawn to the gray sky and the ominous-looking letters "M-O-T-E-L." This teaser poster is a much more effective advertisement than the release poster, which simply shows Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale peering around the edge of a latched door--a bland image indistinguishable from any other thriller.
David Fincher's critically acclaimed mystery--and genuinely one of the best films of the year, whether or not it's granted an Oscar campaign--has a poster design which, like Vacancy's, prefers to focus on signature architecture instead of attractive actors. As with the eerie motel of Vacancy, this fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge suggests the film's theme: in this case, mystery and obfuscation. As Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr., pursue the Zodiac killer, they descend into obsession as the truth seems ever out of reach; they're virtually driving into the dense fog which dominates the center of this image. Of course, the stylized logo also calls to mind the one for Fincher's "Se7en" (although it's decidedly less annoying), almost subliminally letting fans of the earlier film know that this is something they'd like.
4. Michael Clayton
This poster actually looks like the cover of a contemporary novel called "The Truth Can Be Adjusted" written by one Michael Clayton, which tells you a couple things: (1) novels these days have first-rate design, and (2) the poster means to sell the film as a classy piece of literature. I like that they've got the confidence to trust that we'll recognize George Clooney's features, even out of focus and hidden behind a giant tagline. I like that the slogan is bigger than the title. I like that the tagline is so Orwellian. I like the strong reds against the indistinct, washed-out background colors. The poster actually tells you very little about what the film's about, but you understand that it's a political thriller starring Clooney, and that sells itself.
5. Youth Without Youth
The rose-themed poster for Love in the Time of the Cholera almost made this cut, but I ultimately found it a little too boring. Then I saw this poster for Francis Ford Coppola's new film, which tops Cholera's in typical Coppola fashion: by piling on more. More roses! More luscious red offset by deep blacks! It's a beautiful design, with the lovers almost like ghosts--appropriate enough for a story about immortality--and the upside-down, mirror-image letters suggesting Cyrillic writing, subconsciously evoking the story's Eastern European setting. I even love that the credits are at an angle in the upper-right corner, somehow complementing the image instead of distracting from it. It's like a Soviet propaganda poster for puppy love.
6. The Hottest State
I love this poster so much that I have it hanging in my basement. It's a good movie, but the poster is better. Here the actors seem lost at the bottom of the image, with the credits and logo pressing them down from above. The emphasis, then, is on the ruddy-red wall, suggesting a cheap apartment or hotel room baking in the heat. While Mark Webber still hasn't gotten dressed, and lounges with a beer (or some stronger drink) and a newspaper, Catalina Sandino Moreno gazes out an unseen window, guitar in hand, either daydreaming, writing a song, or focusing on her goals and dreams. As with the characters in the film, Webber is virtually oblivious to the desires of the woman sitting beside him; although a more representative image might have had him standing outside her window, gazing up with flowers in his hand while she ignores him, this poster is more evocative and interesting.
7. Ocean's Thirteen
Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" films have always been style over substance, which is precisely the point. They have the best cast, the best trailers, and the best posters in the business--who cares about the films themselves? Here's another ultra-stylish poster, this one cleverly finding a way to squeeze twelve--not thirteen--of its cast members into the picture by taking a bird's-eye-view. All are grinning up at you, ready to deal cards like the perfect con artists they are. The length of the table even gives the designer a chance to fit in the most prominent names in the film's cast, and the remainder of the credits are (almost illegibly) moved to the edges, framing the image. That just leaves the topper: adding a logo of the fictional 13 of spades, turning the entire image into a playing card.
8. Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Critics dismissed it has high camp, but the poster to Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) sequel has an effective simplicity. It's also a sharp turn away from the poster to that film, which emphasized grandeur and sinister red hues; this is just the radiant Cate Blanchett, the only hint of royalty being the slight tuft of a white lace collar peeking out from under her shimmering armor. The only background is a tattered flag, suggesting a giant, ravaged battlefield. Doing a lot with very little: apparently not representative of the actual film.
9. The Hills Have Eyes 2
Whatever you might think of the so-called "torture porn" movement in modern horror, they have consistently inspired some of the most striking and original movie posters of the last couple of years. This reviled B-movie--as the sequel to a remake, it's many steps removed from the 1970's Wes Craven classic--may have pluses that only a gorehound can love, but the poster deserves a closer look. The image shows one of the backwater cannibals dragging his prey--tied up in a sack--through the desert. Grid-like lines suggest a much-used map that's been unfolded and spread across a table; or, perhaps, a well-travelled 70's grindhouse movie poster. The center of interest is the battered, naked feet of that poor fellow in the bag, as well as the path left in the sand. Lovely grime, this.
10. I'm Not There
Cate Blanchett dominates another great poster, only this time you wouldn't know it, because in silhouette, with sunglasses and a cigarette, she's a dead ringer for Bob Dylan. And in the middle of that silhouette is the gimmick of the film: a run-down of the eclectic cast with the winking tagline: "...are all Bob Dylan." The only colors are white, gray, and a platinum color which suggests the legend's record sales. Incidentally, since smoking is now enough of a taboo to make it onto MPAA warnings ("rated PG-13 for a scene of smoking," etc.), is this poster suitable for all audiences?
Brian DePalma's drama is taken from all sorts of media--soldier's home videos, cable news reports--so it's fitting that the poster is a palimpsest with the various media images hidden underneath a text document. That document is a censored report, the title and director of Redacted highlighted in yellow, and the blacked-out letters becoming the background images, suggesting that the pictures are pieces of what the government doesn't want you to see. There's even another layer, in the foreground: the silhouettes of barbed wire and a gun turret. The design might be a little busy, but the effect is almost psychedelic, particularly with the mix of colors. Beneath it all is a less-effective tagline, "Truth is the First Casualty of War," which ham-handedly refers the viewer to De Palma's other film about wartime rape. But it will take a while before your eyes even reach those words.
12. Brand Upon the Brain!
The latest Guy Maddin fever dream evokes a silent film, and indeed played in select cities as one, accompanied by a live orchestra, sound effects, and narration. The official release poster--with the young "Guy Maddin" character hiding in shame behind a door while his sultry sister lounges in lingerie--is very good, but its main purpose is to cram as many critical raves as possible into the image. The promotional art at left, however--printed as a postcard for theaters to give away--may or may not have appeared in full-sized "poster" form, but does a more thorough job of suggesting the hysteria, sexual repression, and humor of the film, as well as its style and methods. It's also more in line with the sensationalist poster art of an earlier era (long before grindhouses). Who in their right mind would turn down a film promising these: "Guy Trysts with Phantom Wendy!", "Strange Holes...in the Orphans' Heads!", "Dead or Alive, It's Back to Work!", and "What's a Suicide Attempt Without a Wedding?!"
13. Across the Universe
It would seem that when creating a promotional image for Julie Taymor's Beatles musical, the temptation would be to cram as many Beatles references and in-jokes into the poster as possible. This designer got it down to three: the "All You Need is Love" tagline, the image of its two lovers contained within a giant strawberry, and the cosmic background which illustrates the title song, Across the Universe. Wisely, the emphasis here is on the love story, and given the film's reported rising popularity among young college females, that's one effective way to get the film to its audience.
Oh, and the font in the title is the Beatles' official font. There's a reference too...
14. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Given a lengthy title like that, I would think the temptation here would be to present it as a newspaper headline, or at least a wanted poster. Instead, the font of the title evokes a 19th-century newspaper, but emphasis is placed on a giant blue sky--just a little dark, with stormclouds on the border. While Brad Pitt's Jesse James looks out at the horizon, his future assassin stands behind him, brooding in a tall black hat that makes him look just a wee bit mysterious. The colors are slightly bleached, but still seem to shimmer and glow. It would be a crime if the poster didn't advertise this film's breathtaking landscapes, and it does, but with dollops of menace.
15. King Corn
A classy 1950's silkscreened print that just happens to be a custom-made movie poster. To sell this documentary on the corn industry, naturally a critical rave is given prominence, plus a catchy tagline, but I dig that all the art is hand-drawn, and that the stalk of corn in the background looms like some atom-age monster about to crush those poor bastards on the truck. Also a good use of fluorescent green, a color that doesn't appear in advertising very much, perhaps because it evokes nuclear fallout. This designer embraces all of its toxic connotations.
16. Hostel: Part II
Whether you love or hate Eli Roth, the satirical-minded horror director often credited for launching the new "torture porn" movement, his poster for the first Hostel--the single image of an inexplicable claw-like tool intended for the use of God-knows-what--quickly became iconographic. There were a few posters created for his follow-up, but the one at left is the best: a ponytailed girl suspended naked and upside-down, with--water? snot?--about to drop from her nose. Sure, by now he's just flaunting those accusations of misogyny, but those accusations matter little to the teenage girls and guys who love these films. This poster is a coded message to that audience: your parents will hate this, and you will love it.
17. Margot at the Wedding
Noah Baumbach's latest domestic satire has a poster which is almost bleached white with its bright sky and diffuse colors, but Margot (Nicole Kidman) proudly proclaims that she's the title character by wearing a striking pink hat, color-coded to match her name several inches above. She's also looking determinedly in the opposite direction of everyone else, asserting her individuality. Again: simple, elegant design.
18. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
A smart evoking of some logo-driven posters of the 50's and 60's, including Anatomy of a Murder and The Man with the Golden Arm. Of course, the film could be about anything--a sequel to The Devil Wears Prada, perhaps, or a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick--but it's so confident and cool that you'll be drawn into the theater anyway.
19. The Golden Compass
For a big-budget franchise picture like The Golden Compass, you can imagine that plenty of promotional art and posters were created and used. This is the best of them, which manages to depict the spectacular while keeping the image uncluttered and easy on the eyes. What I find appealing is not necessarily that there's a big armored polar bear growling at something outside the frame, but that his bulk and ferocity are contrasted with the young girl, virtually nestled in his paw, who is calmly looking upward (just slightly awe-struck) while holding the glowing compass in her hand. Everything that a fantasy movie poster should be.
20. My Kid Could Paint That
The poster reads, "She's four years old. Her paintings sell for $25,000." The girl holds the paint brush as though it were a broom, looking at the camera with perfect innocence--despite the fact that the line below the title is: "American dream or art world scheme?" The conundrum of the documentary is functionally stated, but the design is still very attractive, with the girl's painting as the bulk of the poster, and she standing before it, essentially becoming part and parcel of the subject--an abstract made into a portrait.