Witnessing the endless parade of floating heads and nonsensical taglines can often make you forget that throughout film history, Hollywood has treated us to a parade of iconic, wall-deserving posters that would make even the pokiest of flats come instantly alive.
To celebrate the gods of poster design, we've assembled a list of the 40 coolest movie posters ever.
Anything we've missed? Let us know.
The earliest entrant on our list deserves its spot for showcasing the invention and complexity of poster design back in a time when Photoshop would have been understood as an actual shop full of photos. Themes of oppression and social hierarchy take precedence, giving the poster equal parts style and substance.
Sullivan's Travels (1941)
Taking one of the most desirable actresses of the 1940s and showcasing her sex appeal through a simplistic drawing is no mean feat. This poster for the satirical Preston Sturges comedy might not reveal much about the film (which focuses on a film director struggling to make a socially relevant drama) but it makes the most of Lake's first leading role. Plus the tagline sort of rhymes. Which we don't see enough of these days...
Famously riffed on in the poster for The Good German, the original is quite simply the best. Retaining the black and white simplicity of the film but adding a shot of colour in the title treatment, it manages to encapsulate the era and also seem cool no matter what the year.
The Third Man (1949)
It's all about the border on this one. Don't know what it is, we just love a damn border. Well, okay so there's also a lot of other great things going on in this poster for this classic 40s noir. From the striking colour scheme to the moody Vienna backdrop, it's an automatic attention-grabber. But then there's also that border. Man, what a border.
Anything James Dean touched has always been synonymous with cool but this poster would have remained cool with or without his involvement. The poster for Giant, one of his few theatrical movies, showcases a typically laid-back Dean, with the film's title bearing down in suitably large lettering. Even the exclusion of co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson can be forgiven.
Love In The Afternoon (1957)
Utilising a font that can only be described as "50s cool", this minimalist poster for the Billy Wilder rom-com perfectly symbolises why it was so damn cool back then. Despite featuring major stars like Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn, this Saul Bass artwork managed to remain completely free of any floating heads. Job well done.
Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)
Shamelessly riffed on in the poster for Spike Lee's Clockers, this still remains the original and the best. From the Rothko-esque use of colour to the fantastic lack of floating heads, despite the stellar cast, the poster for Otto Preminger's courtroom classic looks as fresh today as it must have looked in the late 50s.
The Endless Summer (1966)
Encapsulating the surf generation of the 60s, the poster for The Endless Summer combines a striking, t-shirt worthy image with a brave amount of descriptive text underneath. Sure, we're not necessarily focusing on the content of the text, but as a non-conformist movie poster it works outstandingly well.
Although it might now be seen as a predictable addition to a film student's first flat, there's a reason why it's become the most iconic Hitchcock poster out there. It's really really cool. It's the second Saul Bass designed poster on the list, after Anatomy of a Murder, and typifies why he was one of the undisputed greats. Bass helped to transform movie advertising into an artform and his work has been deservedly lauded ever since.
A suitably controversial poster for a suitably controversial film, this suggestive look at the titular character is right and wrong in equal measures. By posing the very question that fans, and detractors, of the book would have been asking at the time, it's a deliberately teasing look at Kubrick's masterpiece. Plus it made a lot of men feel instant guilt. Right?
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Luke may well have a cool hand, but this poster is rather hot. Just looking at all that orange and yellow can make you feel the heat of the Florida sun that beats down on Paul Newman and his fellow chain gangers. Those little guys with the dogs are cool, too – a unique touch that brings a bit of action to the poster.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
This one’s another very daring bit of promotion. With only four tiny words in white, this poster is anything but verbose, but who needs a synopsis when you’ve got such an evocative image? The silhouette of the pram superimposed over the haunting image of Mia Farrow’s sorrowful face encapsulates this sinister tale of the occult. There’s no mistaking this one for a rom-com.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Look at those four action shots. From just a short glance you know exactly what sort of film you’re getting – a Western that kicks your teeth in with its action scenes. Now take into account those long shadows and that poetic synopsis and you know that it’s going to make you think, too. A great work of graphic design.
Downhill Racer (1969)
At a first glance, this poster is dominated by some very cool photography – and often that’s all you need from movie artwork. But this one goes further. Look at it for a second more and you think, “hang on. Who’s that little fella? Is he skiing?” It’s intriguing. Sure, the typography is a bit dodgy, but it was the late Sixties – that sort of thing was cool at the time.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
“Rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven” – three powerful concepts that smack you in the face before you even get down to the imagery. That’s not a bad way to catch people’s attention, but Stanley Kubrick’s disturbing masterpiece deserves more from its poster. With an extremely cool illustration framed by sci-fi triangles and some awesome typography added into the mix, it totally does the dystopian classic justice.
Straw Dogs (1971)
There’s nothing fancy about this poster – no intricate border, bright colours or jazzy fonts – but sometimes all you need is an arresting photograph with a white border. This close-up of Dustin Hoffman with his smashed spectacles is certainly that – definitely enough to illustrate the poignancy of this unflinching and controversial exploration of violence.
Vanishing Point (1971)
You can’t miss the image of that car – it’s right in the middle and it looks like it’s going fast. But Vanishing Point is about more than a car driving fast (while we don’t contest that that’s a great subject for a film); it’s also the sort of existential journey that just had to be made in the early 1970s. The hippy sense of the freedom of the road comes through in the rest of the poster, too. And you’ve got to love that cheesy tagline.
Terrence Malick’s debut feature is an astonishing thriller with the disturbing subject matter of a couple who go on a killing spree in Dakota. And its poster is equally show-stopping. With an unnerving, fairy-tale style blurb accompanying a striking photo of the silhouetted pair, you are left in no doubt about what sort of film it is. That last line hits you like a sledgehammer.
Mean Streets (1973)
There aren’t many images more striking than a smoking gun, and if you had made a gritty drama focusing on the minutiae of daily life on the mob-run streets of Little Italy, you’d probably put one on your poster, too. Paired with the stylised blocks of flats surrounding it, the message is clear – life in this city is dangerous. The design is clean, crisp and striking, loyally serving Scorsese’s realist classic.
This is one stylised movie poster, but one that expertly communicates the feel of Roman Polanski’s psychological drama. The shadowed face of Jack Nicholson, the pinstripe suit and that hat, the pervasive smoke – all the imagery goes towards creating that dark, mysterious sense of film noir. Faye Dunaway’s face is ghostly and disembodied. It’s rich and enticing, just like the film tradition Polanski worships in this movie.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Robert De Niro looks cool in this poster – that’s kind of a given, considering Travis Bickle is one of the coolest characters in any film, ever – but he doesn’t look comfortable. There’s something very intriguing about this shot that mirrors the enigmatic nature of the taxi driver himself. Of course, you’ve got the iconic, beaten-up taxi behind him and the yellow and red colour scheme too. All in all, it’s just really cool.
The Driver (1978)
Forget about the illustration for a second – that is some nice typography: a simple look that conveys speed and exhilaration. It’s a simple name, too, and it looks great. The illustration does the job brilliantly as well: Two men looking thoughtful, one holding a pistol, and a beautiful woman looking mysterious – it can only be a neo-noir. But that car bursts through all this, assuring us that there will be also be some high-speed action in Walter Hill’s stripped-down thriller.
Rock 'N' Roll High School (1979)
Sure, it kind of copied the American Graffiti poster from six years previous but we prefer the mania of this little-known cult hit's artwork. The movie went for the familiar kids-versus-adults plot in the spirit of the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Pop and this poster reflects the anarchic fun of the punk-rock teen movie that worships the band.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The artwork for Francis Ford Coppola’s trippy adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness doesn’t give much away. But then imagine how awful this poster would have been if they’d put a synopsis on there. Just like the film, this poster isn’t about the plot – it’s about the general feeling of the journey up the jungle river. It’s a feverish, sinister enigma and you can really feel that heat.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Stanley Kubrick’s first film since he released, and subsequently banned, A Clockwork Orange, this 18th Century cautionary tale had a tough act to follow. That wasn’t a problem for the beautiful film though – as the poster says, it won four Oscars. The artwork is stripped-down, yet elegant enough to do justice to this artful adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel.
There’s a whole lot of white space on this poster, but the Oscar-winning romantic comedy has the cast list to pull it off. Definitely in the running as Woody Allen’s best film, the excellent actors and actresses that lend the film its magic are given the space they deserve. Combined with a captivating urban photograph and that instantly recognisable lettering, this artwork is a monochrome classic.
The Fan (1981)
Okay so no-one you know has probably seen the film (which tells of a crazed stalker obsessed with a movie star played by Lauren Bacall) but the poster is a work of design genius. Taking a relatively generic subgenre and lifting it out of the gutter, this stark, brutal image might well be the best part of the film. Okay so we haven't seen it but we're pretty sure about this.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter's ultra-violent remake of the unintentionally hilarious 50s sci-fi film updated everything to the far crueller 80s, adding in blood, guts and head-spiders where there was originally a vegetable-like man in a suit. The one retro touch was this old school poster that combines an art deco style with a chilling image, suggesting that no-one can be trusted.
Blade Runner (1982)
Striking just the right balance between the enigmatic aesthetics of neo-noir and the futurist elements of science fiction, the poster reflects the film perfectly. As Deckard, Harrison Ford looks just about as cool as ever with his pistol raised and Sean Young’s cigarette provides the obligatory smoke to give this poster its mystique. Also, you can't beat a flying car.
Befitting Al Pacino’s most definitive role since The Godfather, this movie artwork puts his name in big letters – red, to signify the blood the film delivers by the bucket load. And then you have that image of the man himself, which instantly became a pop culture classic and has adorned the T-shirts of film buffs ever since. We’re not sure whether it’s the stark monochrome styling or the sheer malevolence that Pacino exudes here, but it’s definitely an image that sticks in your mind.
If a jetpack really had been developed in the 1930s, the helmet issued with it almost certainly would not have looked as cool at this one. The space-bug stylings of the rocketeer outfit came from Dave Stevens, the creator of the original graphic novel the film was based upon. They go towards making this a great poster in no small way. The notion of speed encapsulated in the image is awesome, too. Very striking.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Considering it’s a promotion for the tale of a young man’s tumultuous rise through the adult film industry, this poster is pretty tame, keeping any reference to the porn business to a minimum. The decade it’s set in couldn’t be much clearer though – disco is generously slathered onto this poster, from the film’s title to the shameful Seventies haircuts on display.
Out Of Sight (1998)
A great image of Jennifer Lopez aiming a shotgun superimposed onto George Clooney’s penetrating gaze, all in a highly-stylised colour palette of reds and yellows – a decidedly cool poster, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what sort of film this is. But when you're Steven Soderbergh, you can get away with keeping your cards close to your chest.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Taking a rather simple concept (extended family portrait) and turning it into a hipster masterpiece, it’s the little details in this photograph that reveal the film’s nuanced sense of humour. It’s an effortlessly funny poster, from the bizarre presence of a hawk to those phenomenal tracksuits, and the tagline gives an accurate impression of the film’s dry, pessimistic wit.
Perfectly setting up the tired ‘sexy-secretary’ stereotype that Maggie Gyllenhaal goes on to subvert in this twisted romantic comedy, this image almost makes you feel guilty for looking. It’s not exactly subtle, but that unnatural looking pose and the sleazy tagline suggest the power struggles that are the basis for a romantic comedy with something to say.
The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)
As with the suggestive poster for Secretary, this teaser for the pin-up girl biopic shows rather little but does rather a lot with it. Gretchen Mol's tour de force turn as Bettie Page is hinted with just a glimpse of the star while the dual taglines manage to be provocative and rhyming. Quite an achievement.
Black Snake Moan (2007)
A hark back to 70s blaxploitation films, this stylised poster pushes the film's controversial premise right to the forefront, wearing it proudly. Yes, it's a film where Samuel L Jackson chains up a sex-obsessed Christina Ricci. While it might not reveal that the film is actually a rather touching update on My Fair Lady, it more than makes up for its slight dishonesty with gallons of cool.
David Fincher's cruelly underrated thriller, which garnered zero Oscar nominations, started its campaign with this beautifully sinister poster, which marries a stunningly creepy image with a brilliant tagline (There's more then one way to lose your life to a killer). While the eventual poster might have been a bit 'floating heads' for our liking, this first offering was the most haunting.
The Dark Knight (2008)
When it comes to the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight, pretty much every element was perfectly planned. From the intricate viral network of a fake online Gotham to a selection of awe-inspiring posters, Nolan's superhero epic was as classy as they come. This one-sheet was a true breath-taker, with the caped cruasder looking out onto the city he aims to protect, all beautifully coloured with a neo-noir palette.
Duncan Jones's breakout sci-fi film boasted a poster that was just as coolly realised as the movie it was advertising. Sam Rockwell's tragic astronaut is trapped in a mind-melting cymbal-like shape that might give you a slight headache the deeper you stare. Coupled with the retro title treatment, it's a visual treat and one of the few contemporary posters that will age gracefully.