“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column (with a special year-end retrospective today) focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.

2016 wasn’t just a great year for films — the posters advertising them were quite fantastic too. That’s not to say we weren’t inundated at the multiplex with character sheets spanning Disney cartoon and photo-real superheroes to boring portraits on loud backgrounds, though. It was simply easier to ignore them.

I could put together a completely different list sorted by typography (The Alchemist Cookbook, La La Land, The Land, and Peter and the Farm) or illustration (Childhood of a Leader, Knight of Cups, Theo Who Lived) to include some of the other 60+ posters I shortlisted to choose from, but we’d be here forever. It’s a testament to the talent out there and the studios willing to take a chance on artistry above commodity.

The sheer number of worthy entries certainly made my job difficult this year, but that’s a wonderful problem to have. It was a joy going back to revisit so many of these selections as they will surely inspire future campaigns to come.

Honorable Mention:

#25 – Shut In (Switch); #24 – Justice League (Concept Arts); #23 – Operation Avalanche (Unknown); #22 – Money Monster (Manheim); #21 – The Neon Demon (LA); #20 – Sing Street (Leroy and Rose); #19 – The Girl on the Train (BOND); #18 – Tale of Tales (P+A); #17 – Nerve (LA); #16 – The Witch (Gravillis Inc.); #15 – The Birth of a Nation (Unknown); #14 – Valley of the Sasquatch (Jump Cut); #13 – Morris from America (Unknown); #12 – The Fits (Binalogue); #11 – Equals (InSync Plus).

Top Ten:

#10 – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (WORKS ADV)

Rarely does a wall art aesthetic transfer well to a movie poster — see this film’s follow-up campaign with too-perfect graffiti stenciling that distracts more than enhances — but WORKS ADV delivers one of the best examples ever with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The wrinkles look real. The rips look real. The removal of eyes erases humanity to see angry, determined scowls ready for war. I don’t know if the artists created these pieces in real world to photograph, but that level of authenticity will always trump digital manipulation talent. The movie may not deliver the fight of the century, but these sheets promise it.

#09 – Into the Forest (Gravillis Inc.)

Few posters this year epitomize a film’s tone as well as Gravillis Inc.’s Into the Forest. The dark tint of despair. The tears of fear touching hearts as the faintest red in Evan Rachel Woods’ lips shows signs of life to fight for survival and retain hope. I love the photo crop and the weird reflection of trees at bottom hinting at a window’s reflection separating the women from the harsh unknown of a post-apocalyptic world. The hash-marked demarcation of time doesn’t overpower and the text is small yet bold to ensure we read what’s necessary against the bright all-caps scrawl providing one more personal example of humanity’s perseverance.

#08 – The Greasy Strangler (Unknown)

Say what you will about The Greasy Strangler‘s quality, but don’t tell me it isn’t unforgettable. The same can be said about its poster juxtaposing an ornate, proper façade against an eccentrically wild underbelly of irreverent humor and grotesque visions of violent madness. Showing the titular monster would be too easy — acknowledging where that vomit-inducing thing comes from is far scarier. Are these two wholesomely warped, stoically monochrome figures victims or killers? Does the gorgeously spray-painted title expose their identity, mark them as prey, or perhaps toe the line between both? Curiosity is piqued with but a glance, its rabbit hole of extremes beckoning us closer for better or worse.

#07 – Right Now Wrong Then (Propaganda)

There’s a warmth to the melancholy of this bright magenta sheet for Right Now, Wrong Then. We can feel what I assume is the nervousness of a first date: her cautious restraint in mid-sentence and his complete focus. There’s a sad embarrassment to her expression as if she’s admitting some dark truth and yet the coloring and crop pushing our gaze down upon them adds a hope in how these two found each other within the world’s infinite expanse. We can more or less throw away the text box and laurels, absorb the word “genius”, and hone in on the green handwriting that both pops against and complements what’s underneath — the whole proving simultaneously delicate and bold.

#06 – Jackie (Unknown)

I adore Jackie‘s poster: its elegance and regality opposite this intelligent and determined woman’s ferocity finally revealed. It’s a portrait of her fashion sense and grace, her innocence with hands clasped from nerves and perceptiveness in a glance off-frame at something more important than our gawking at Camelot’s queen. The red on red is oppressively sumptuous, the typography carefully separating actor and director via color and size so the large loops of a signature hugging its subject can sear into our minds. The art direction places Jackie Kennedy on the page despite Natalie Portman looking nothing like her. Shift your focus away slightly and you’ll swear this was a real portrait from 1962.

#05 – Sword Master (Unknown)

I filed Sword Master‘s stunning one-sheet away as soon as I stumbled across it on Twitter knowing its place on this list was assured. Whether photography or painting, its overhead composition beautifully captures two warriors thrusting swords with a watery, supernatural force. The wardrobe flutters from previous movements as each ready-to-uncoil pose is separated by the bold, bloody title cutting across the page. It leaves enough distance between them to wonder if they’ve just sliced the other in half or simply face off-camera foes. Chinese characters’ ability to be read vertically sets this apart from domestic ads on its own, every line of text complementing the orientation better than ours ever could.

#04 – The Lobster (Vasilis Marmatakis)

Designer Vasilis Marmatakis outdoes himself on The Lobster after similarly minimalistic campaigns for Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth and Alps. The latter enlists a B&W photocopy aesthetic for texture whereas his latest utilizes it for the ability to intuitively merge negative space of background and object together. This is how Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz can simultaneously be in mid-embrace and yet completely alone. The imagery proves captivating and unsettling, the same dry wit of the film mirrored in print. We’re always longing yet always apart. Even when in physical contact with another, we remain forever on our own.

#03 – Cosmos (Adam Maida)

There’s a contemporary “wow” factor to Adam Maida’s Cosmos because it looks nothing like the movie posters gracing today’s theater walls. But there’s also a feeling of loving homage to the wildly illustrative work of Eastern European artists—namely Polish designers (seen here). It captures a look of pure artistic talent that shines a light on Maida as much as the film itself. We see his fingerprints in the non-conformity of its lettering and the combination of inverse-silhouette tree and Xerox face seemingly joined through analog methods with coloring applied by hand in post. It’s a shot of adrenaline to an often disappointingly stale medium.

#02 – Moonlight (InSync Plus)

A quick glance at InSync Plus’ Moonlight shows a portrait. A lengthy stay exposes the lines separating what’s actually three. This is its subtle brilliance since having a photo of each actor is meaningless when they don’t necessarily look anything like the others. It’s only through their performances (especially Trevante Rhodes’ uncanny hybridization of mannerisms) that we know them to be Chiron. This sheet strips each of their individuality to stand together as a single representation. They’re tinted “blue in the moonlight” to shine as a beacon of hope yet untouched by the struggles every life combats to cope, evolve, and survive.

#01 – The Handmaiden (Empire Design)

As meticulously ornate and austere as the film, Empire Design’s The Handmaiden is breathtaking. It’s reminiscent of paintings by the likes of Hokusai (whose The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is seen onscreen) — illustrative depictions of nightmarish beauty. The English version is given more freedom with its limp, hanging body and naked kissing; the Korean iteration more fluid and eye-catching with intertwined title and white-leaved tree. They’ve created a piece of art that can’t help but dwarf those by its side through shear ambition and skill. It’s a statement that lingers in one’s mind like posed actors in photograph never could.

What is your favorite poster of the year?

Follow our complete year-end coverage.

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