It’s been a funny old year. Scratch that... it’s been a terrible year, but as far as movie posters are concerned it’s been an odd, disruptive one. For one thing there have been far fewer films released this year: after the normalcy of the first 10 weeks things suddenly ground to a halt and many major releases were shelved. Movie theaters were closed for months (and have still not reopened in New York) and so there was no real need for movie posters per se, but as virtual cinema flourished online we still continued to make them, even if far fewer were actually printed. This year movie posters mostly existed as online keyart thumbnails but we designers continued to design them as if they were to be printed at 27" x 40", even sticking to the convention of leaving an inch and a half of safety on all sides so that none of the text or image would be cut off when displayed in a lightbox.
A lightbox would however be the ideal place for a poster for a film about Nikola Tesla. Brandon Schaefer designed the official poster for Michael Almeyreyda’s eccentric biopic of the Serbian-American electrical engineer/inventor—a strikingly colorful image of a mustachioed Ethan Hawke paired with a luminous title treatment—but it was his alternate poster that I loved above all others this year. It’s a simple, witty, almost silly, idea—an electrical socket anthropomorphized into Tesla’s face—rendered with great economy and style and adorned with some perfectly chosen typography (see how the diagonal crossbars and the ends of the serifs mirror the diagonal lines in the socket). And Brandon was lucky enough to have a pull quote to match his conceit. It’s been a funny old year so it feels only right to celebrate it with a funny old poster that is more serious than it might at first appear.
2. The Velvet Underground
A poster that premiered in October for a film that hasn’t been released yet: Todd Haynes’ upcoming Apple TV documentary The Velvet Underground. Designed by the studio LA (about whom I know nothing), this is as extraordinary a poster as I’ve seen in years though again it’s a fairly simple idea: a printer’s screen print screen that has everything in negative and in reverse. Whether this is merely a teaser for a final poster that will actually be screen printed, only time will tell, but I’m hoping it’s the thing itself: a radical concept befitting its iconoclastic subject (and also nodding to the band’s former manager and mentor Andy Warhol who turned the screen print into fine art). It also has a stunning title treatment: all the text on the poster is in a rudimentary condensed sans serif except for that very ’60s inspired “Velvet” which is a swoon of concentric curves.
I’d like to think that Todd Haynes himself had a hand in this poster; having worked at Zeitgeist Films, I know that he designed the poster for his breakthrough film Poison in 1990 and I remember him visiting our office a few years later to ask our opinion on the comps for Safe. We held onto the mechanicals for the Poison poster for decades and they are now on sale at Posteritati. In their raw, unfinished form they actually share a kindred spirit with the Velvet Underground poster.
3. There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse
Nicolás Zukerfeld’s hour-long experimental film There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways of Showing a Man Getting on a Horse played in the Currents section of the mostly online New York Film Festival this year: a super-cut of Raoul Walsh movies followed by an investigation, down a rabbit hole of 50 years of film journals, into the oft mis-quoted line of Walsh’s which is the film’s title. The exquisite poster by Argentinian designer Marcelo Granero is as conceptual and quirky as Zukerfeld’s film and was one of the most popular posts on my Instagram feed this year, notable for a film that almost no-one had heard of. There is a Spanish-language version of it too.
The poster for Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor may seem more commercial than most of my favorites and I may have resisted it at first amid a slew of horror movie posters this year, but it has slowly seared itself into my brain. There was initially a red teaser version of the poster , also created by Legion Creative Group, that, while equally creepy, did not quite have the power or style of the yellow variant which upped the ante by adding even more distortion to that distorted face and by fine-tuning the layout. I love the title treatment which plays on the word’s near-palindromic quality, all centered on the master stroke of that truncated E. Truly nightmarish and utterly gorgeous.
5. The French Dispatch
“Coming Soon” this poster said when it was premiered in February to great acclaim. Ten months later and there is still no sign of Wes Anderson’s new film and so all we have for now is this wonderful primer illustrated by Javi Aznaraz channeling, to my mind, the great children’s author Richard Scarry. Crammed with as much incident, detail and character as one of Scarry’s Big Word Books the poster is charmingly cinematic in itself.
6. City Hall
In a 1976 poll of architects, historians and critics in the American Institute of Architects Journal, Boston’s City Hall (built in 1968) was voted one of the ten “Proudest Achievements of American Architecture in the Nation’s First 200 Years.” But a 2017 article in Current Affairs magazine entitled “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture and if you don’t, why you should…” says “Boston’s City Hall is a hideous concrete edifice of mind-bogglingly inscrutable shape, like an ominous component found left over after you’ve painstakingly assembled a complicated household appliance. In the 1960s, before the first batch of concrete had even dried in the mold, people were already begging preemptively for the damn thing to be torn down.” The building, a prime example of Brutalist architecture, is often shown but never mentioned in Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary City Hall, but it looms large in Casey Moore’s poster, perhaps the best poster ever made for a Wiseman film. I’m not sure how deliberate the Jaws homage is (City Hall in the film is portrayed as a mostly beneficent organization) but I love the way the corner of the building noses up between the two words of the title against that clear blue sky.
7. The Booksellers
If ever there was a poster I wanted to step inside it would be Frost Foundry’s design for The Booksellers which creates a delightful sense of three dimensions. At first glance it may look like a fairly simple photograph of a book store, but knowing Matt Frost’s work as I do I had no doubt that it is actually a complex composite of images (Matt is an absolute master of Photoshop). It’s actually constructed from three different stores that Matt photographed on State Street in his former hometown of Madison, Wisconsin (though the film centers on New York book dealers). There are some lovely details added by Matt: a sleeping dog, a Tiffany lamp (because, as Matt told me, “there always is one”), a poster for the antiquarian book fair featured in the documentary, and even product placement in the form of mini-posters for two other Greenwich releases: Deerskin (another Frost Foundry design) and Ferrante Fever. He added the snow on the windowsill “because I wanted the store to feel like a warm, inviting shelter.” And he even “changed a lot of the outward-facing books to expensive antique first editions even though you can’t really read them.” And then there’s the icing on the cake: that beautifully rendered gold-leaf title on the window.
8. John Lewis: Good Trouble
Yet another winner by Akiko Stehrenberger. She had a number of standout posters this year: one of the best posters for Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a chilling alternative poster for Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, and even an alternate design for Possessor. But it was her straightforward portraiture for John Lewis: Good Trouble that I loved the best: an entrancing painted image of the late, great Congressman... in custody but brimming with patient defiance.
9. First Cow
A teaser poster for one of the best films of the year that was happily never supplanted by a more conventional release poster. Designed by BLT Communications it is a design as uncomplicated and as serene and as gently mysterious as the film it is advertising. Though the loud yellow lettering is a bold choice, it’s also what makes the design sing. And talking of singing...
10. Jazz on a Summer’s Day
For obvious reasons I try to avoid ranking work I’ve been involved with, but Tony Stella and Midnight Marauder (who work together as Alphaville) have had such a stellar year that I had to include one of their works, and I can’t escape the fact that my favorite of all their 2020 designs was this Kino Lorber re-release poster they did for Jazz on a Summer’s Day. (They also created terrific posters this year for Vitalina Varela, Francisca, Mayor, Bacurau, and the Criterion cover for Claudine, some of which can be seen among the runners-up below). Tony’s illustration work is instantly recognizable and his speed and dexterity is exceptional. Anyone who follows him on Twitter or Instagram knows that the man never seems to stop painting or drawing. I love the dynamism of his composition for Bert Stern’s seminal concert movie and the night/day contrast between the hot reds and pale blues. I also love that a movie that had previously been advertised with white faces was now promoted with the faces of its legendary Black artists: Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington and Thelonius Monk. Credit definitely also has to be given to Midnight Marauder’s typography on Jazz on a Summer’s Day: another remarkable title treatment in a year of excellent title work.
20 Runners-up (in no particular order beyond an aesthetic one)
Runner-up posters above designed or illustrated, where known, by Juan Gatti (The Human Voice), Outer Arc (Vivarium), Brandon Schaefer (Spaceship Earth and The Devil All the Time), Yuko Higuchi (Midsommar), Empire Design (both Saint Mauds), Tony Stella with Midnight Marauder aka Alphaville (Vitalina Varela and Bacurau), Sam Smith (Epicentro), Mark McGillivray (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), Brian Hung (Liberté), Midnight Marauder (Absent Now the Dead and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, left column), Akiko Stehrenberger (I’m Thinking of Ending Things, right column), and Gravillis (both Da 5 Bloods, bottom right version with art by Akiko Stehrenberger). If anyone knows who designed the others please let me know in the comments below.
You can see my all previous Best of the Year posts here: 2019; 2018; 2017, 2016; 2015; 2014; 2013; 2012; 2011; 2010; 2009. And if you’re new to this site, do check out my regular (if not always weekly) Movie Poster of the Week posts on Notebook, and my daily Movie Poster of the Day posts on Instagram. You can also follow me on Twitter.