Posterized Propaganda January 2022: The Top 10 Movie Posters of 2021


“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.


If my shortlist for this piece is any indication, Hollywood adjusted to COVID just fine. I’ve put aside an average of 60-70 posters every year since I’ve been doing Posterized until barely hitting 40 in 2020. It wasn’t a dearth of quality work, but the fact that there were so many fewer releases to choose from. And since I base these columns on current-year US runs rather than when one-sheets start making their rounds, my pool of candidates was greatly reduced.

So either 2021 work was off-the-charts or the hybrid theatrical-streaming schedule found itself whole once again, because I was back to around 65. It helps too when you get new players on the scene, alt-posters too good to dismiss, and social-media controversy courtesy the collision of nudity and art that put more international designs into our American consciousness.

There are a couple below where the domestic marketing team decided to stick with what worked overseas besides minimal text changes. Some show the lengths bold clients are willing to go to tease new films devoid of IP. And others reveal a wonderful desire to play with typography as more than a superimposition above the pretty faces contractually obligated for inclusion. Together they remind us that the one-sheet is more than mere branding. It’s a complementary sibling that enhances the cinematic experience without relinquishing its existence as its own work of art.


Honorable Mention:

#25 – All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) (Dan Forkin); #24 – Little Fish (MOCEAN); #23 – Shiva Baby (High Council); #22 – John and the Hole (Unknown); #21 – Moxie (Mark McGillivray for Empire Design); #20 – The Amusement Park (Aleksander Walijewski); #19 – Scenes from an Empty Church (Sister Hyde Design); #18 – Into the Darkness (Have Kommunikation); #17 – The Witches of the Orient (Unknown); #16 – Last Night in Soho (Eileen Steinbach); #15 – River (Pablo Iranzo Duque); #14 – Slalom (Gallien Guibert); #13 – The Meaning of Hitler (Intermission Film); #12 – Ailey (Neon); #11 – Wolf (Desi Moore)


Top Ten:

#10 – Night Raiders (Phantom City Creative)

Despite the full credit block, this initial poster for Night Raiders by Phantom City Creative never became its main sheet. Not for its Canadian release. Not for its American release. Which is a real shame—it distills the film down to its core, a sci-fi-manifested government oppressor ripping apart an indigenous mother and daughter. I love the choice to use the slant of the robot’s beam as the main axis and the trompe l’oeil rip of the page peeling upwards to reveal the white beneath as both void and light—reality and metaphor co-existing together. The artists show that having a ready-made still doesn’t mean you must always use it as it’s supplied. There’s always an inventive way to give it new life if you’re willing (and allowed) to find it.

#09 – Benedetta (Intermission Film)

Intermission Film goes above and beyond with their poster for Benedetta. Rather than find a way to crop or shift Virginie Efira’s portrait and free up enough space for the credits and critic quotes, they decide to go the text-on-face route with a twist. Enter the outlined crucifix as barrier, expertly placed to augment the actor’s features with eyes serving as horizontal beam opposite the straight vertical from forehead to mouth. It’s elegantly drawn with its thinly serifed typeface and provocative with its ruddy internal glow upon Efira’s distant stare. Add buzzwords like “Violence,” “Sex,” and “Wild” to the mix and the juxtaposition necessary to anticipate what’s coming is implicit with zero nipples needed. Is this Sister a vision of piety marked by the cross? Or has it been positioned as our protection from her sins?

#08 – Funny Face (Caspar Newbolt / (version_industries))

Caspar Newbolt and (version_industries) traverse an inspired path to give frequent collaborator Tim Sutton’s film Funny Face a printed counterpart. The subject is a revenge-seeking man who serendipitously discovers a plastic mask, donned more as a talisman of confidence than means of anonymity. Was its appearance fate? Has this surreal shield served others before him? Newbolt looks to amplify that potential by delving back through history to discover another artistic work with empowered figures perfectly suited to become this character’s progenitors. His selection of Caravaggio’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist proves a magnificent partner both thematically and tonally. You want to laugh, but it’s all too sinister to risk the ensuing wrath. For all you know, that face might just find you next… already affixed to another’s head.

#07 – Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Arnold Estefan, based on an idea taken from Radu Jude)

Devoid of context, it’s just a black triangle. A geometric shape with a Romanian title squeezed at the top. Maybe we’re viewing a hole in the ground from above. Or a martini glass sans stem. Or as the English translation Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn reveals itself, we wonder if we’re not looking at something a bit more NSFW. And that’s the beauty of what’s been done here. The textured flesh tone. The triangle’s point alluding to the merging of legs. The Berlinale bear serving as navel. Less becomes so much more once the composition’s minimalist brilliance comes into focus to provide the best embarrassed double-take your prudish friends will ever muster while walking innocently through the theater with popcorn in-hand.

#06 – I Care A Lot (Mark McGillivray for Empire Design)

I described Mark McGillivray and Empire Design’s one-sheet for I Care A Lot as “Andy Warhol meets Barbara Kruger” back in February and I stand by it. This bold, ultra-saturated portrait screams its title with the sort of sarcasm you can imagine the words would be dripping in as they leave Rosamund Pike’s bright smile. Each one is punctuated with measured care, none leaving their full justified framing as our eyes are led one-by-one from top to bottom as if to say, “Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain.” It’s cool and simple. Brazen in its meticulousness. And it possesses zero clutter thanks to its teaser sensibilities—an underrated feature when it comes to many Netflix products (see Mark’s work on Moxie above).

#05 – Parallel Mothers (Javier Jaén)

It’s the most-talked-about poster of 2021: Javier Jaén’s eyeball / nipple surrounded by blinding red. Twitter banned it for a little while. Apologies were made. Conversations about art were had. It was a whole to-do. And I think the ingenuity of this piece got lost in the hullabaloo as a result. This is an undeniably fantastic image, both as a means to describe the film and as the sort of clean, precise, bold messaging you see wallpapered on every big-city street corner. Image and title sear to your brain with nothing but a quick glance.

To follow it with another outstanding sheet just as iconic in its optical illusion of movement is not to be undersold. Here we finally see the two mothers connected by parallel lines in yet another graphic / symbolic representation of the title. Image and color merge, three-dimensional photography and flat geometry dance to simultaneously destroy and augment its schizophrenic depth of field. Jaén is working on a level all his own with what appears to be full creative license to provoke, entrance, and ensure nobody forgets his subject’s name.

#04 – The Velvet Underground (LA)

As someone whose first graphic-design job out of college was a print shop, I cannot gaze upon LA’s niche design for The Velvet Underground without smiling. Not only do they strip away the polish Adobe provides for a vintage-like gig advert, but they also embrace the screen-printing process itself to deliver one of the year’s singular posters via inverted plate. The mirrored tease doesn’t ultimately create the finished black ink on pink stock result, but the pair are close enough to appreciate the effort of sticking to the theme. Like the film, this duo supplies the sort of nostalgia bomb ripped from the annals of rock history that gets people who “know” salivating at the chance to travel back in time. Technical artistry meets lo-fi vibes as Reed and Cale provide the music, Warhol the serigraphy.

#03 – Pig (Empire Design)

His name serves as the only words beyond Neon’s logo at the bottom, but Nicolas Cage is nowhere to be found. He’s the draw when you consider Pig is helmed by a first-time director with a plot about a truffle hunter confronting his mysterious past. To not put his face at the center of the teaser seems outrageous as a result. I wouldn’t be surprised if Empire Design sent this to the studio with no ambition of it seeing the light of day. But Neon understood its enigmatic presence—the high-resolution hair and skin with visible ribcage adorned by a metallic icon to represent the title. And they knew their own brand was enough to sell their product alone. Give audiences this semi-grotesque, alluring image with confidence and get them to demand more. That’s a job well done.

#02 – Monday (MOCEAN)

MOCEAN’s one-sheet for Monday has stuck with me since it was released. The easy thing would have been placing the title at the top of the page to let the image of Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough speak for itself. And it could have, with its dramatic shadows created by a bright sun illuminating half of their contented faces in the middle of this unexpected whirlwind romance. So to integrate the word into the photograph isn’t a simple feat. You need to understand the visual language you hope to create by seeing the zig-zag of space and lines that a staggered, seemingly arbitrary layout can provide. Every piece must be in concert with the rest, every isolated detail astutely balancing out another. The resulting road is winding and bumpy, but also beautifully alive.

#01 – Spencer (Time Tomorrow for Empire Design)

No poster from 2021, however, comes close to the profound emotional effect of Time Tomorrow and Empire Design’s Spencer. It took the internet by storm for totally different reasons than Parallel Mothers, its subtlety speaking to the masses who understand its palpable pain. The delicately ornate dress becomes a whirlpool of dread and anxiety that provides Kristen Stewart’s Diana zero respite from the black void of fear and depression above. Is she crying? Cowering? Pleading for escape? The joke is to reveal the truth of the scene this image is taken from, but doing so only undercuts the impact of how the artist repurposed that moment into something so intensely distinct from it. They gave voice to the struggle captured onscreen with the same empathy and grace as the filmmakers. A marvel to behold.

What is your favorite poster of the year?

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