This article was originally published on MUBI. For the Best Movie Posters of 2014 runners-up, see the original article.
Those of us who care about movie posters often complain about “big head” posters from Hollywood studios, but the design for Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank is the ne plus ultra of big head posters: a poster for a film about a big head. The head in question is the papier-mâché noggin worn by Michael Fassbender’s title character, which was inspired by the nearly identical prop worn by Chris Sievey, a.k.a. Frank Sidebottom, the nasal-voiced troubadour from Timperley, Manchester, who famously covered the Sex Pistols (“Anarchy in Timperley”) and had his moment of cult fame in the ’80s. The poster for Frank, designed by an as-yet uncredited designer at P+A studio (the anonymity seems apt) subverts the chief function of the big head poster by not showing us the film’s star. To me it’s a thing of beauty (my affection for Frank Sidebottom and for the film itself only increasing my appreciation of the design) both simple and striking and beautifully lettered: a poster that was arresting both in theater lobbies and one-inch tall in online film listings. If whoever designed this would like to come out from behind the mask and take a bow, I’d love to hear from you.
2. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets
It is purely a coincidence that my second favorite poster of the year also harks back to ’80s (and ’90s) Northern Britpop. The British quad for Florian Habicht’s documentary about Jarvis Cocker, his band and his hometown, designed by Elliot Cardona, is a wonderful photographic composite using what I assume is a Sheffield public housing estate as a backdrop. I love how the grid of the architecture complements the curves of the bodies (floppy hair, et al.) and how both are mirrored in the curves and parallel lines of the Pulp’s own logo (a readymade title treatment). And then there’s that rapturous color. For the US release, Oscilloscope decided, for some reason, to go in a completely different direction.
Another riveting photographic composite. Borgman had such a wide variety of international posters it was hard to tell what kind of film it was at all (and the title didn’t help). I don’t know if Brandon Schaefer’s gothic daguerrotype of a poster gives me a much better idea either, but it is something sinister for sure. There is so much going on in this design—stuff that seems somehow ancient and arcane—that the white Helvetica title is a refreshing and startling and necessary contrast.
Neil Kellerhouse’s ethereal design for my favorite film of the year is notably another big head poster, but also one in which the film’s star is again barely there. Which is more than apt for a film about identity and surface appearances. I also love Akiko Stehrenberger’s unused design for the film, which, while equally ethereal and mysterious, also hints at the film’s more corporeal interest in bodies and meat and blood.
In some ways Mara Diener’s shimmering watercolor forThe Strange Little Cat, used for both the German and US releases of the film, seems to miss the Tati-esque precision and jagged edges of Ramon Zürcher’s sublime parlor game of a movie. But on the other hand it captures the film’s sense of domestic intimacy and personal mystery beautifully.
The Mondo-style illustrated teaser poster for Birdman was good, but it was this set of city-themed designs released by Fox Searchlight in October that were the real gems. They didn’t have all that much to do with the film itself, besides bolstering the superhero mystique of Michael Keaton’s erstwhile onscreen alter-ego, and were maybe a strange choice for such a Manhattan-centric movie, but as a teaser collection they were a welcome respite from the glut of character posters that appear for every other film these days. And as a piece of design, harkening back to the golden age of travel posters, they were a knockout. No artist credited, as far as I know.
Despite my fondness for illustration, sometimes all you really need is a striking photograph and some judiciously placed type. It helps when your designer is also a terrific photographer and is on set with you. Designer Caspar Newbolt told BlackBook “I’d been invited to spend the last two weeks of the shoot on set. Stills camera in hand, I was invited to just be there and soak everything in. I didn’t know it yet but my candid photos were going to be the photos used in the posters for the film, not film stills or posed shots. What’s important about this is that my photos were often taken when the camera wasn’t rolling. I was there between takes, off book, capturing the actors just being in Memphis, dealing with the heat, figuring out the next scene and generally talking shit with the crew.”
Or sometimes all you need is a beautifully realized, intricate scale model to photograph. It’s when you see this poster in extreme close-up that it really comes to life, though the hotel signage is also one of my favorite title treatments of the year. And again you’ve got to love a poster for a star-studded film that contains no people at all (though they made up for that later).
Update, Dec. 15, 2014: Thanks to Sam Smith for pointing out that the designer of the poster (and of all the graphics throughout Grand Budapest Hotel) is Annie Atkins. Read a wonderful interview with her here.
Robert Greene’s hybrid documentary Actress is a film that is not always quite what it seems to be and its poster, painted by Laura Baran, perfectly captures that elusive sense of genre. Just as the film portrays/documents an actress who balances the glamor of the acting profession with the banality of smalltown life, the poster turns a moment of domestic mundanity into a moment of high drama. That could be Sophia Loren bending over the body of her dying lover instead of Brandy Burre picking up the pieces of a wine glass dropped while doing the washing up. The lettering by designer Theresa Berens is wonderful, too, and adds to its genre-bashing charm.
10. Red Army
And last but certainly not least is another stunning design from La Boca (the people who brought you the Black Swan teaser posters, now some of the most sought after limited edition movie poster art of the new century). Created for the Cannes premiere of Gabe Polsky’s hockey doc Red Army, and playing off Soviet-era propaganda design, it is, as always with La Boca, a superbly realized, flawless piece of work.