The 40 Best Posters in Film History (Part 2 of 2)

I continue my trip through cinema’s greatest posters across the decades! These are the best of the best, representing the greatest art in posters.

Some of these are classics of the genre, representing milestones that other posters have tried to emulate. Others are new or more obscure entries into the field, but wonderful nonetheless. In either case, these posters represent the awe-inspiring heights  that poster art can reach. Whether they are hand drawn, painted, or photoshopped, these posters represent the many different artistic qualities of cinema and the arts associated with the medium.

Once again, this list in not based on the quality of the movies these represent, but the beauty of the art and how they successfully marketed their films. Wanting these on my wall may play a small part as well.

Click here to read Part 1, where I count down numbers 40-21!

20. The Wolverine

Artist: BLT Communications

What Makes It Great: Easily the best poster in recent years, The Wolverine art says everything you need to know about the character and the story that lands him in Japan. Creating the silhouette of Wolverine in the style of Japanese Kanji boils the character down to his essential visual qualities and gives the art a real texture. Leaving it rough and faded adds so much more character than a polished photo could ever create. As evidence by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles posters ripping it off, this image is already a classic!

19. Tron: Legacy

Artist: BLT Communications

What Makes It Great: The world director Joseph Kosinski created in Tron: Legacy is beautiful, vibrant, and alive. So why not put it on display in the poster? The poster keeps the leads front and center, but the most important factor is the world around them. The striking glowing blue world with streaks of light and cloudy sky are wondrous. Throw in the blinding column of light and the heroes striking a pose calling back the poster for the original Tron, and this is everything you want from an advertisement for the sequel. While this is actually part of a triptych, the image is most powerful when focused on this centerpiece.

18. Jurassic Park

Artist: John Alvin

What Makes It Great: In the same vein as the 1989 Batman poster, Alvin’s Jurassic Park is built on the back of simplicity and negative space. It also helps that the iconic image was already popularized by author Michael Crichton’s smash hit novel. The giant, fearsome image of the T-Rex fossil brings to mind many different ideas for audiences and is just tantalizing enough to spark interest in the film. Despite so many iconic images that could have been taken from the film, leaving them unrevealed makes the excitement stronger.

17. Gone with the Wind

Artist: Howard Terpning

What Makes It Great: Romance! Passion! Love! Danger! Gable! Leigh! It’s all here in the form of a poster that should grace the cover of a romance paperback novel. Those bright orange and yellow flames pop off the poster and help wreath the two stars in a way that accentuates their passion. Since this was created for the 1969 reissue of the already classic movie, all that was needed was to put the stars and title front and center. Plus, this feels like a piece of art that could have been released at the time the movie was first in theaters, surely helping to separate it from other posters at the time.

16. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Artist: Drew Struzan

What Makes It Great: After his foray into dark territory with Temple of Doom, Struzan returned to the layout of Raiders of the Lost Ark with his poster for The Last Crusade. Except this is all bright desert colors and giant heads in comparison to the dark browns and smaller scale of the first. But who wouldn’t want to see a film where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery are the stars? The way the two stars’ busts frame the dynamic chase create a fantastic balance in the center of the poster. Struzan’s meticulous detail make this a poster worthy of an in-depth look.

15. Halloween

Artist: Randy Moore

What Makes It Great: What’s more terrifying, that jack-o-lantern or that giant butcher’s knife? And who exactly is “He?” While choosing the elements to include in this poster was surely a no-brainer – it’s a serial killer, put a knife in, it takes place during Halloween, show a jack-o-lantern – the strength of the art is because of the simplicity of its parts. Making the pumpkin pieces take the shape of the knife add needed menace, while only showing the hand of Michael Myers puts a sense of mystery up front.

14. The Rocketeer

What Makes It Great: Director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer is a throwback to old movie serials like the Indiana Jones trilogy or Johnston’s later film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So it’s only fitting that the movie’s poster is steeped in art deco style. There’s a fantastic balance between making the poster a cohesive whole thanks to the consistent use of 45 degree lines and making The Rocketeer himself standout thanks to the colors used. This would feel right at home in a classic movie theaters in the 1920’s.

13. Fargo

Artist: Creative Partnership and Optic Nerve

What Makes It Great: What’s more American than needlepoint and cold-blooded murder? The dichotomy created by this visual representation of “a homespun murder story” is a great complement for the film itself. While the image of a dead body in a red coat laying face down in white snow is a striking image on its own, it becomes truly memorable because of the needlepoint design. There is a strangeness present that is attractive and repulsive at the same time, making this an unforgettable piece of art.

12. Anatomy of a Murder

Artist: Saul Bass

What Makes It Great: No one other than Saul Bass can be responsible for creating a poster as simple yet complex as the one for Anatomy of a Murder. He has a style all his own. Segmenting the body into seven parts immediately gives a sense of mystery and violence, while his perfectly sloppy lines give an organic feel to the poster as a whole. The bright and happy colors of yellow and orange juxtaposed against a dead body play against what is typically expected from a murder movie poster. It’s fantastic and utterly unique.

11. The Empire Strikes Back

Artist: Roger Kastel

What Makes It Great: Like the film itself, the poster for The Empire Strikes Back is equal parts romantic and sinister. Taking a cue from the Gone With the Wind poster, Kastel puts the romance between Han and Leah in the center of it all. But they’re surrounded by the dark abyss of space, the cruel ice of Hoth, and the looming visage of Darth Vader. The way all the various pieces blend together with streaks of light and dark give the poster a much more organic feel than the other Star Wars posters. It sets it apart in the trilogy and likens it to the works of classic artists like John William Waterhouse.

10. Star Wars

Artist: Tom Jung

What Makes It Great: A true staple of film posters, Jung’s Star Wars is recognized the world over for its design. The iconic poses – Luke’s lightsaber to the sky, Leah’s feminine pose, the face of Darth Vader lurking in the background – have all been copied and parodied in the decades since countless times. It all boils down to the essential idea of good vs. evil. Luke’s cross-like lightsaber illuminates the encroaching darkness as the droids look on and a fleet of X-Wings engage the Death Star. While it’s far more dramatic than the film itself, this is how you get the idea of groundbreaking film across to audiences.

9. The Thing

Artist: Drew Struzan

What Makes It Great: Creepy in a way unlike any other poster, Struzan’s art for The Thing draws you in like no other. Most other artists would have gone with darkness or something more sinister emanating from the face of the creature. Here, Struzan makes an unconventional choice with blinding light. It suggests that the terror within that shrouded figure is beyond comprehension. Since the creature itseld would be far too off-putting to include in the poster, it’s also a smart choice to remain tasteful. But surrounded by towering ice and whirling snow, it’s obvious that this is an inhospitable world of horror where death awaits.

8. Superman

Artist: Bob Peak

What Makes It Great: Who in their right mind would not put The Man of Steel front and center in the poster for his own movie? But like the posters for Batman and Jurassic Park, the symbol for Superman is more powerful than any actor dressed up as the hero. Even Christopher Reeve. But this is more complex than either of those posters. Peak’s luscious paints create a beautiful cloudscape that is equal parts stormy and clear. With the rainbow-like swoosh of colors cutting through the frame and clouds, it’s clear that Superman will be beyond anything seen on screen before. Which ties in just right with the tagline.

7. Alien

Artist: Bill Gold

What Makes It Great: What is in that egg and what is it going to do once it gets out? The tagline, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream” is also a classic, giving an even more terrifying nature to the poster. Yes, the design for the Xenomorph egg does not follow the rules and design in the film, but getting that glowing green light emanating from the crack is well worth it. Since audiences had not seen the concept in the film before, giving them a more recognizable idea helps it be comprehensible in order to put the terror front and center. So simple. That’s why it’s so effective. Love that title font, too.

6. Back to the Future

Artist: Drew Struzan

What Makes It Great: The look on Marty’s face and the eye-popping flaming skid marks say so much about the idea of Back to the Future with so little. The white light emanating from the inside of the DeLorean (which strangely isn’t in view more) adds some mystery and shows the power of the vehicle. The second and third parts’ posters are just as strong as this one, but they piggyback on this design, making the first Back to the Future poster the strongest. It’s filled with beautiful color choices as well, with soft oranges, purples, and blues playing well off Marty’s clothes and making the art feel exciting yet friendly.

5. Jaws

Artist: Roger Kastel

What Makes It Great: This is a poster that will live in infamy. The carefree nature of the swimmer above, done in the style of old beach party movies, juxtaposed with the ravenous humungous beast below creates a powerful feeling of terror. This is just as responsible for a worldwide fear of sharks as the movie itself. While Jaws is a great movie because of the actors and the wonderful characters involved, it’s the shark that is the reason for it existing. Seeing only a portion, yet enough to know the beast is enormous, is scary yet enticing at the same time. It’s also a highly unconventional angle for the beast, which has become synonymous with the film series.

4. The Dark Knight

Artist: BLT Communications

What Makes It Great: Leading up to the film, Heath Ledger’s Joker was somewhat obscure in marketing materials, allowing for a surprise concerning his appearance. Keeping him fuzzy here helps maintain the suspense and mystery while still keeping his iconic features intact. Add in The Joker’s seminal line written in blood, and it’s obvious that the creators of the poster knew that Heath Ledger’s performance was going to be a lightning rod for the movie. In addition, giving the impression that the villain is scrawling on the glass of the poster case itself creates an even great sense of immediate dread.

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Artist: Drew Struzan

What Makes It Great: While it’s difficult to pick the peak of Struzan’s artistic output, his poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark is the one that comes closest to perfection. Perfect for a film in the style of old movie serials, Struzan’s poster has the hallmarks of old school posters, with all the principle players lining the sides and highlights from the film represented throughout. And putting Ford front and center as Indy is a no-brainer. He is the draw after all. But this is everything that Indiana Jones is all about. Bathed in browns, tans, and a hint of gold, the stark white border helps the colors pop even more.

2. Apocalypse Now

Artist: Bob Peak

What Makes It Great: Dripping with the sweat of the jungle and bathed in a blood red hue, Peak’s Apocalypse Now poster is everything that can be possible in movie poster art. Brando’s strange dripping face and Sheen’s shadowed visage are clear as day, even though it seems as if the paint is leaking out of the poster. Paired with the silhouettes of helicopters against a bloody sun and the bright, hypnotic lights of a bridge, this is a psychedelic vision of war and death. This is a poster that will live on through the ages.

1. Vertigo

Artist: Saul Bass

What Makes It Great: A man and a woman falling down ever deeper into a dizzying spiral. Bass’s simplistic idea is easy to understand yet almost incomprehensible. Like Hitchcock’s masterpiece (it’s true, not just the claim made by the marketing team), the Vertigo poster struggles against audiences’ understanding. The clarity of vision, complexity created through simplicity, bold idea, and sheer individuality of Bass’s Vertigo poster make it the greatest among a field of amazing pieces of artwork.

What do you think of the choices? Have personal favorites that didn’t make the list? Let me know in the comment section below!
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One thought on “The 40 Best Posters in Film History (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: The 40 Best Posters in Film History (Part 1 of 2) – Crisis on Infinite Thoughts

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