Movie posters are like the pictures on a restaurant menu. They entice, tell you just a little bit about what you're about to experience, and, if they're bad, can turn you off completely. Posters can also be works of art - too often now, studios go cheap with Photoshop and misplaced (and sized) pictures of the stars plastered over a generic background. When posters are done right, though, they really capture the magic of the movies and make you feel like a little kid again. Here are the 50 best movie posters in film history.
50. Superman: The Movie
The ground-breaking, first-of-its-kind Superman: The Movie birthed superhero films as we know them, the current box office goliaths that stomp through theaters every few months and make billions of dollars in the process. "You'll believe a man can fly" is the tag line, and it turned out it applied to the next four decades of movies. The image is simple but powerful, the Superman shield with the iconic blue, yellow, and red streaking through the clouds. No floating heads, no bad Photoshop, just the wide-open sky and oodles of anticipation.
49. The Tree of Life
Speaking of blockbusters, Terrence Malick's movies are pretty much the opposite. His films tend to be small, sometimes impenetrable, but beautiful and transforming. You don't watch his movies for the intricate plots, you watch them to be transported to somewhere more wondrous then here. The Tree of Life is no different, telling a multi-generational yarn of family through a glossy, soft, gorgeous lens. The tiny baby foot wrapped in its mother's hands couldn't be more perfect.
48. The Legend of Boggy Creek
The movie is terrible, so let's just get that out of the way. It's too bad, because this poster is the real legend. The misshapen creature, trudging its way toward the shore and, undoubtedly, victims, is set against a beautiful sunset with whisps of clouds visible just over the treeline. I just love this one for the look - no deep meanings here, just beauty. One cool thing, though - look closely under the title. See where is says "A True Story?" That may just have gotten me into the theater.
47. The Rocketeer
The Rocketeer was released in the wake of 1989's cultural leviathan Batman, when studios were still trying to figure out what to do with all their comic book properties. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dick Tracy had done well in 1990, so in 1991 Disney released this throw-back, art deco adventure film, and the business just wasn't there. It has, however, become a beloved cult film in fanboy circles, and this poster is indicative of the chances Disney took with this flick. It was sort of the anti-Batman: colorful, innocent, and adventurous. Maybe it's time to revisit this one.
46. Watership Down
Darkness, on the other hand, pervades Watership Down, an adaptation of the classic book. Watching this and The Secret of NIMH back to back would surely cure you of any dreams you had of being an adorable mammal of the field. Anyway, this poster shows the striking black silhouette of John Hurt's character Hazel (yes, they got John Hurt to voice a rabbit) while the sky is dominated by a quite frightening tag line. Your average children's movie, this is not.
45. High Plains Drifter
Clint Eastwood is here to kick some ass. OK, sold, where do I buy my ticket? The low angle as Clint towers over the town, the tavern sign with his name and the movie title, the flaming sky as a backdrop: this thing is genius. Even if you're not a fan of westerns, this poster screams action movie extravaganza, and you need to see it. High Plains Drifter is Clint Eastwood at his legendary best.
44. The Conjuring
The Conjuring shoved horror movies back into the mainstream, a well-made, critically acclaimed scarer that again made stars of the Warrens and launched a huge franchise (5 movies and counting). This poster takes all the familiar horror movie beats and polishes them up for the masses. Haunted house? Check! Fog-soaked brier? Uh huh! Stormy skies? Yup, right there! Creepy twisted tree with an effin' noose hanging from it? Hells yeah! And all wrapped up in one of the moodiest pieces of poster art around. By the way, how many of you just now noticed the shadow of the noose's victim?
43. Straw Dogs
A straightforward, black and white image of normalcy shattered by violence, and a man setting his jaw to take care of his own. Straw Dogs was controversial at release, and it's easy to see why. Domestic bliss shredded for no reason, and a normal man pushed past his limits caused people to dig deep into themselves and wonder, "would I be capable of such things?" There is power in simplicity.
42. Hard Candy
"Hi, I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC. Can I ask you a couple questions?" By now, we should all know that sometimes a victim isn't a victim at all. This modern retelling of the Little Red Riding hood story (with quite a twist) is an enthralling film, and the poster's metaphor, while obvious, is a striking image. The girl in red on a field of white, the trap baited. Love this poster.
41. National Lampoon's Vacation
Comedies often having boring, uninspired posters. Since funny movies are often sold on the funny people in them, we often see the stars making funny faces, usually on a white background with fat red lettering. Look them up, you'll see what I mean. National Lampoon's Vacation is not one of those comedies. The artist for this one sheet took a Frank Frazetta-like approach, putting our heroes in poses right out of a Conan the Barbarian comic book, and made a classic. Instead of a sword, Clark Griswold holds high sporting equipment. The family wagon sits off to the side like a sweating steed in the desert. If the poster is this funny, you know the movie must be great.
As of this writing, I've never actually seen Sorcerer, but it's on my list. I am just transfixed by the image on this poster - the truck, obviously too heavy for the bridge and threatening to tip over the side, and the man in the foreground, struggling to hold on while the wind blows and the rain pours down. It tells me the movie is an anxiety filled tale of man vs. nature, and nature vs. our inner demons. Seeing how this is from the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, I'm sold!
39. The Truman Show
While photomosaics are popular today (and are probably a bit out of style already), when The Truman Show was released in 1998, this was a groundbreaking look. It is also an effect that captures perfectly the meaning of the film. Truman is beaming, always with a smile on his face, the sky blue and full of puffy clouds. In truth, though, his life is made up only of images created for and captured for the camera, and everything is a facade, catching him unknowingly in its trap. The Truman Show was a prescient film, predicting our culture obsessed with reality shows and instant celebrity. I think it's probably true that many of our Instagram stars are made up of nothing but the pictures they post.
38. John Wick
John Wick came from nowhere and became the best action movie we'd seen in quite a while, setting up a new franchise and shoving Keanu Reeves back into superstardom. There were a lot of great posters for this film, but this one is the most dramatic. The gun in your face, the tight tagline, with Keanu looming in the background, just out of focus. The gun is where the focus lies.
Don't kill a man's dog.
37. Let Me In
Innocent and angelic - an angel of death, that is. Let Me In is the American version of the book Let the Right One In, and it's a horrifying story of a child vampire and her new friend. The peace of this image at first blush is nice - obviously a child making snow angels. Look closer, though, and you see bare feet in the snow, and bloody trails in the angel. This film stuck with me for a long time after I saw it, and this poster is just as haunting.
The fear of the unknown. What is hiding under those waves, watching us splash around? The ocean hides many secrets, and this poster captures that uncertainty perfectly. The innocent victim swimming long, the huge jagged maw speeding toward her. The shark, ridiculously oversized, symbolizing the overwhelming dread of being eaten alive. This poster, and the amazing movie it advertised, drove an entire generation out of the water.
35. The Lion King
There's a majesty in this one, with the spirit of Mufasa appearing over the savanna like a god, the bolts of light lancing down, and Simba roaring to the heavens. All the prey animals seem stoked, too, for some reason (never understood that part of this story). The Lion King was Disney's latest hit in a string of successes, including Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, and they were hitting on all cylinders.
The aggressive machismo from High Plains Drifter is gone, replaced with something contemplative, quiet, but just as intimidating. Clint Eastwood's deconstruction of westerns (and his own screen persona) is a masterpiece, and the one sheet evokes the same tired sadness of the film. Eastwood's William Munny is bathed in light from the front, looking away from the darkness behind him. "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he's got and all he's gonna have." Thankfully for us, we still have this striking poster.
33. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Ah, 1980s horror...a little bit of sex and a whole lot of violence. Why is Nancy sleeping naked? Um, 'cause it's awesome, that's why. Freddy's now-legendary glove spreads over her hair like a bladed crown, and the lens flare brings it all home. I also love the superimposed skull above the glove, the eyes staring right through you. The staring eyes show up in most of the Elm Street posters throughout the series. 80s horror is a treasure trove of beautiful, creepy art - also check out House and Fright Night for other examples. It seems they had budget for high-end painted posters, but not so much for their thread-bare films.
32. Apocalypse Now
The image of Marlon Brando as an angry god, water streaming down his face as if he's melting, frightens and excites. The blood moon separates Martin Sheen from Brando and his glittering compound, predicting the film's climax. And that title font? Maybe the best ever. This poster just groans like a hallucination, and you can't look away. Every corner of this things has gifts - the tiny helicopters like gnats to Brando, the streaks of light like acid trips. Amazing to look at.
Has any poster ever just nailed the essence of a movie better? Horrific violence in the homiest place you can imagine. Although the needlepoint of death was later stolen by The Visit, we all know the original. This poster takes the shocking murder of an innocent passerby, their car overturned nearby, and places it front and center. You can almost see Margie shaking her head in sadness, questioning her suspect on the way to the police department: "There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don't you know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it."
30. Anatomy of a Murder
Saul Bass, the most famous one sheet designed ever, designed this poster and the film's credit sequence from which it's derived. It's minimalist, striking, and unforgettable. He used bold colors, big ideas, and open space. I read that he broke down the films to their essence, telling the audiences everything they needed to know in the simplest way possible. You still see version of his work today, often in limited edition versions of today's films. A true trailblazer.
29. Casino Royale
One image swept away all the silliness that had come before and announced a new, dark direction for the franchise. James Bond is a bad man, and you'd know why soon enough. The tuxedo, the gun, the gambling chips - all the old standbys are there, but there is a cold steeliness in Daniel Craig's expression that was never seen on Pierce Brosnan. Forget what came before (especially Die Another Day [shudder]), because this is Bond for the 21st century.
28. Blade Runner
An impeccable mix of sci-fi and noir, this poster is Blade Runner in a nutshell. The gorgeous cityscape has spawned dozens of imitators, and it is given top billing here. Harrison Ford, the coolest dude to ever hunt Replicants, plays a pulp detective by way of William Gibson, and Sean Young is the femme fatale. Wonder what would happen if they ever settled down together, started a family? Oops, spoiler alert! You don't get any better than this (well, I mean, other than the 27 posters I ranked higher than this one).
27. The Terminator
The making of a superstar. This poster sold Schwarzenegger, a gun, a leather jacket, and those shades. In the process, a legend was born. Yes, the laser beams in the background and the code on his glasses give a little bit of a hint to the story, but make no mistake, this movie was sold on Arnold. This is the film that propelled him from the biggest bodybuilder in the universe to the biggest movie actor in the world, and the simplicity of the poster told you all you needed to know.
26. American Beauty
"Look closer," the poster tells us, and we do. I mean, don't look TOO closely at Kevin Spacey (if you know what I mean), but this film tells you to take another look at the world around you. Is your suburban life all you think it is, or are there terrible and wonderful secrets hiding around every corner? The stark image of the rose on a woman's bare belly tells of beauty and decadence, and has become one of the most famous movie images of the last 30 years. Uncluttered, elegant, and layered, just like the film it advertises.
25. The Ten Commandments
The wrath of an angry God boils through this poster. The Red Sea parts behind Charlton Heston's Moses, and lightning strikes the tablets holding God's word. The painting is dramatic, calling back to great religious paintings of the past. The only things that knocks this one down a few spots are the needless head shots of the lillywhite cast that litter the bottom. Overdone? A bit, maybe, but Cecil B. DeMille's biblical saga requires nothing less. After all, it is the self-proclaimed "Greatest Epic of All!"
The cigarette smoke curling through the top of this one sheet, doubling as Faye Dunaway's hair, is quintessential noir if I've ever seen it. The font give the whole thing an exotic flair, and I still laugh when I see quotation marks around titles. This is a fabulous poster, for a movie that's just about perfect. Jack Nicholson's hard-boiled detective Jake Gittes has met his match in this dame. If you haven't seen Chinatown, do yourself a favor and give it a spin. It's a marvel.
23. Raiders of the Lost Art
This re-release poster perfectly captures the adventure and spirit of the 1920s serials that were used as a model for the Indiana Jones films. I remember it as the cover of the VHS, which we rented every chance we got. Can you imagine Tom Selleck holding that whip instead of Harrison Ford? It almost happened! Thankfully, the role went to our favorite Han Solo, and history was made. Raiders of the Lost Ark is just about the perfect movie, and the franchise has been chasing that perfect formula ever since. There is fifth film coming in 2020, so we'll see how an 75 year old Indy can handle the 1960s.
22. The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption was a disaster in theaters. Not many people saw this movie about a dude sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. It made $28 million in its entire run - to put that in perspective, the new Halloween movie made $33 million in its first day. But then, something funny happened. EVERYONE saw it on home video, and everyone loved it. The Shawshank Redemption is currently the #1 movie EVER according to IMDb. This movie poster was, of course, the cover of the VHS, so it must have done something right. The hope that courses through this image is positively breathtaking (which is actually a good thing, because the character at this point is covered in human waste after crawling through sewage). The power of the human spirit has rarely been portrayed better.
21. Back to the Future
Ah, the 1980s, when entire paragraphs of copy were added to movie posters because the public apparently needed to be spoon fed information. In this case, that info wasn't needed. You've got the DeLorean and fiery tire tracks, and that's enough for me. Back to the Future is an all-time great movie, and this poster is amazing. He's even checking his watch, because he's a time traveler. See? Drew Struzan, artist on many of your favorites, painted this one, they used the same pose for Parts II and III, and they worked just as well. I miss posters like this, they capture such wonder.
This poster just looks cool, that's all. The swords, the knights, the damsels in distress, the evil-looking guy right in the middle - this one is like Dungeons and Dragons brought to life. If this was the cover to a book, I would buy 4 copies for no good reason. Excalibur the film isn't quite as colorful and is a bit stagey in a BBC sort of way, but it's still a ton of fun and has loads of imagination. They need to update this, and do it well (not looking at you, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, because you sucked).
19. Rosemary's Baby
Mood, mood, and more mood. Oh look, there's some mood over there! This one sheet for Rosemary's Baby doesn't overtly tell you anything that you couldn't glean from the title. There's Rosemary, and there's her baby. Cool. Cool cool. Step back a bit, though, and things seem a bit off, just like it goes in the movie. Nothing crazy gruesome or graphic just slowly building, primal terror. This poster is the perfect complement to the suspense of this classic flick.
18. Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick himself apparently designed this poster, with dark contrasting font and the classic helmet from the film on a field of white with a tagline for the ages. Kubrick loved the idea of negative space, I think, seeing as how the first act of 2001: A Space Odyssey is as white as an Apple Store. Who knows, maybe this white is a close-up of Private Pyle's boxer shorts that make such a statement in the first act of the film. I find Full Metal Jacket to be a bit over-rated, but this is an A+ poster.
17. Sunset Boulevard
Look at huge Norma eyeballing poor, doomed Joe and his ladyfriend (it's the pictures that got small). Look at the film strip tied in a knot around the whole lot of them. Read the subtitle "A Hollywood Story," a shot across the bow at the industry that made overnight studio stars and then disposed of them just as easily. Gaze at the blood red drenched across the entirety on the poster, denoting the violence that mars the characters' lives. Marvel at the artistry of it all. It's ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.
16. King Kong
While pretty damn racist if you think about it, King Kong, white panic and all, is about the primal fear of the other, of going out of your safe place, and of prejudging those others. While we can deconstruct this seminal monster movie today with the wisdom of 90 years of history, at the time this was just a balls to the wall terrorshow, as this poster plainly portrays. Kong holds on to Fay Wray while swatting biplanes and summiting art deco skyscrapers. You know, now I want to do a breakdown of King Kong, discussing all the ways it hasn't aged well balanced against the impact it made in film. Plus, look at that look on Kong's face. Bad ass.
15. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
There are two famous E.T. posters, this version and one spotlighting the joining of E.T. and Elliott's fingers above Earth, but I prefer the iconography and color of this one. This may be the most famous image in all of film, and it fills us with a wonder we usually don't get except from Steven Spielberg at the height of his power. As a little boy, this one checked all the boxes - biking away from the adults who don't understand you, your friend the monster in tow, and flying over the treetops toward the night sky. Oh, and all of this goes down on Halloween, of all days. THIS is the magic of movies.
14. The Crow
Believe in Angels. I know I have a (maybe) outsized obsession with this movie, but I love this poster. Eric Draven, the light of his life snuffed out, returning from the dead to embrace the darkness, and setting the wrong things right. There is a strangeness to it, his body wrapped in black, seemingly held together with tape and twine, and his face painted a shadow smile. This movie helped cement my love of film as an 18 year old, and this image didn't hurt. Brandon Lee would have been a star, I think, but this is a worthy memorial.
13. The Exorcist
This one is interesting - this is a still from the film, capturing the moment when the old priest, Father Merrin, arrives to battle the beast stuck inside a little girl. The light from the girl's bedroom catches the priest as if in a spotlight, and is one of the most famous shots in history. The moment is so pure, so perfect, that they made one of the most famous posters out of it, too. The Exorcist shocked when it arrived, and became a counter-culture phenomenon, as well. This poster has graced many a rebellious teenager's wall.
12. The Godfather
What a nice poster! A kindly old man, sporting a rose (maybe it's a wedding!), and a cartoon hand playing with a marionette of the title! Awww, how cute! Wait, um, why is the poster so dour, so black. Maybe that hand isn't playing with anything, maybe it belongs to the puppet master. Maybe the rose is the color of blood. WHY DOES HIS SHIRT COME TO A KNIFE POINT!?! This pleasant old man isn't what he seems, is he?
Art deco, futurism, and a C-3PO forebearer dominate this German impressionist poster, and movie makers have been copying those elements ever since. The robot is actually Machinenmensch, a female robot played by an actress, which was a major step forward in 1927. Hell, white men played every part back then, I think. Metropolis is one of the landmark films ever made, a movie made with such imagination and artistry that it's been referenced in almost every sci-fi or dystopian film ever since.
10. Gone with the Wind
This re-release image is maybe the classic movie poster, and a pose we'll see again higher on the list (no peeking!). Taking a well-worn romance novel-like image and imbuing it with burning passion (and burning buildings), along with a burning arrogance ("The most magnificent picture ever!"), this poster gives us a good look at Clark Gables's lack of buttons, Vivien Leigh's, um, heaving bosom, and some hot Civil War action. In all serious, though, this is one amazing painting, and is as epic as can be.
The egg on the poster may look nothing like the xenomorph egg in the actual film, but no matter - this is one sheet-making at its finest. The sparse title on the black background, the alien glow from the egg, and H.R. Giger's biomechanical floor are all awesome, but seriously, that is the best tag line in movie history: "In space, no one can hear you scream." Damn, I want to go watch this movie again RIGHT NOW.
8. Batman Returns
Wind-blown snow across the famous bat symbol is the sole image on this poster for the only good sequel to Batman. Batman Returns takes place at Christmas, and the weather is a major factor in the film, as well as making for a sexy poster. There is actually a cool series of Batposters (they used them on the Blu-ray covers) featuring on this one, the original Batman symbol poster, as well as one sheets for Batman Forever (with The Riddler's question mark) and Batman & Robin (with Robin's symbol). Those latter two movies suck, but the Batman iconography doesn't suffer.
What else do you need? When your logo is so well done, you just drop it on a black background and call it a day. Ask Jurassic Park and Batman, it worked for them, too! I smile whenever I see this poster. The film is filled with nostalgia for me, I remember driving home after seeing it with my family (I was 8) and just repeating the lines over and over and laughing just as hard every time. Ghostbusters was a perfect confluence of talents and zeitgeist and is just as highly thought of today as it was upon initial release. The logo is still ubiquitous even now, and for that, it gets number 7 on my list.
6. The Silence of the Lambs
The bursts of color, only Clarice's red eyes and the death's head moth covering her mouth, are the first thing you notice about this one sheet. The death that she sees, the monsters she meets, the silence she craves. The moth, of course, shows up during the course of the film, but the artist's rendition is a little different. The skull pattern here isn't what's on the real moth, but is actually "In Voluptas Mors," a Salvador Dali photograph of 7 nude women formed into the shape of a skull. 7 women, 7 victims of Buffalo Bill (a little Easter egg for y'all). The Silence of the Lambs is considered one of the best movies ever made, and it swept the Oscars in 1991. This poster is right up there with it.
5. Star Wars
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...came the poster that changed movies and popular culture forever. The release of Star Wars was nothing short of a cultural revolution, bringing to an end the hard-boiled auteur age of the '70s and, along with Jaws, forever launching the age of the blockbuster. Star Wars did business like nothing before it, and this incredible poster had to have helped. This story of a boy, a girl, and an Empire is sold here as fantasy before sci-fi, with Luke holding aloft a sword as if he was King Arthur, and Princess Leia striking the classic female lead pose. While maybe not exactly faithful to the film (Mark Hamill only wishes he was built like that), it marked a new era of film and spawned dozens of sequels, television shows, book, and everything else you can think of. You really can't underestimate the impact of this little fantasy film.
4. Bram Stoker's Dracula
In doing research for this piece, no one mentioned this poster among the greats. I don't get it. Maybe it's just forgotten, as there have been dozens of takes on the Dracula legend. This one, though, is different, as it efforted to capture the grandeur and breadth of the original novel while bringing in elements of its real historical roots. The one sheet for Bram Stoker's Dracula is an extraordinary image - the gargoyle-like carving of the wolves and the vampire on a wall of stone, with the bloody "Dracula" logo beneath and "Love Never Dies" above. A classy look dripping with dread.
3. The Dark Knight
This one was iconic the moment it was hung in the first theater lobby. The Dark Knight swept through popular culture like the original Batman did in 1989, this time with Heath Ledger's posthumous Oscar-winning portrayal of The Joker at its epicenter. He became an immediately legendary figure in film, his place in history made more permanent by his tragic death before The Dark Knight even hit theaters. He was an agent of chaos, the yin to Batman's yang, and a terrible force of nature. Not only is the film the best-regarded comic book movie ever, The Joker is in the discussion for best villain to ever grace the big screen.
2. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
I'm looking at this beauty right now as I write, as it hangs over my desk where I work. This one was aaaaaaalmost the top poster on the list, but that doesn't mean it isn't my personal favorite. The Gone with the Wind call back perfectly captures the romance and adventure of the first Star Wars sequel (which is also my favorite film ever), and it manages to weave in all the major players in a manner that screams "art" and not "advertising." Dark Vader looms over the whole scene (while Luke watches his sister make out with his best friend), and the cool blue is shades of both Hoth from the start of the film and Bespin from the end. Pure eye candy.
1. Pulp Fiction
The ragged edges of this "pulp fiction" book, the price tag, Uma's come-hither look like a black widow of hard-boiled detective novels - all announcing the new king's arrival. Quentin Tarantino had directed Reservoir Dogs before Pulp Fiction, and he had written True Romance, among other projects, but nothing could have prepared the world for this tornado of creativity. Pulp Fiction set the direction of cinema for the next 5 years, spinning off dozens of imitators trying to find the same mix of characters, jumbled timelines, and quirky dialogue. None came close. This is the most revered and influential film of the '90s, and the best movie poster ever.
So there you have it. I tried not to repeat too many tropes (I mean, I could probably do a top 50 of Star Wars posters alone) but sometimes repetition was necessary. Before we shut off the lights and call it a night, check out a few more of my favorites that juuuuuust missed the list.
Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Write a comment
Dave Eiben (Saturday, 27 October 2018 21:46)
Loved the movie poster list....except for #8. Boring, unoriginal, not creative, and doean’t compare. But I had a really fun time guessing what might be next!
Matthew Herring (Saturday, 27 October 2018 21:59)
Dave, it's OK to be wrong. The Batman Returns poster is awesome. :)
Michael Logan (Sunday, 17 March 2019 11:58)
Some great posters here, no doubt. But over 100 years of movie posters, and this list only shows seven from before 1970--what a shame. So many great images missed.
Also, The Legend of Boggy Creek is not terrible. Not everyone's cup of tea, for sure. But it's an atmospheric, beautifully-shot, no-budget Southern indie that directly influenced movies like The Blair Witch Project. It's currently undergoing a 4K restoration by the George Eastman Museum, so should get a nice HD release sometime this year.