One way to appreciate a movie is to appreciate its movie poster. These one-sheet ads have long been a marketing tactic to promote movies, as all you need is a tagline, a marquee of cast members, a credits lineup, the MPAA rating, and the official movie logo.
But just as there's a spectrum of movies from terrible to iconic, and just as there's a spectrum of quality in movie trailers, the design of a great movie poster goes beyond mere marketing.
A legendary movie poster can be a work of art, becoming so recognizable and historically important that it becomes a pop culture icon itself. These are the kinds of movie posters worth hanging up in your room or office.
Here are our picks for the greatest movie posters of all time, why they're so great, and the designers behind them.
19. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
Drama, Mystery, War (2h 27m)
Apocalypse Now is a bleak portrait of the Vietnam War and the entire film is summed up by this mesmerizing poster.
Of all the standout elements in this movie poster—the bleeding moon, the helicopter silhouettes, the engulfing fire—the most remarkable is the head of Marlon Brando's Colonel Walter Kurtz hovering over the war scenery (with Martin Sheen lurking behind).
Designer Bob Peak knows how to highlight the most relevant aspects of the film. The prominence of Brando's face subtly asks you to pay attention to his character as the rogue colonel Kurtz who embodied the madness of war.
18. Airplane! (1980)
Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker
Starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen
Comedy (1h 28m)
It only makes sense that a groundbreaking parody of disaster movies would also have a groundbreaking twist (literally!) in its marketing.
Airplane! seizes an opportunity with its iconic image of a commercial plane tied in a knot, implying all the twists and turns that this spoof has in store. Illustrator Robert Grossman even snuck in an in-joke by calling the tied plane a "knot's landing".
Plus, the taglines are equally hilarious. ("Thank God it's only a motion picture!") Only a movie that executes so brilliantly on its sudden fourth-wall breaks could pull off a movie poster like this one.
17. Superman (1978)
Directed by Richard Donner
Starring Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 23m)
Illustrator Bob Peak specialized in retro posters that highlighted a given movie's most recognizable emblem.
For his take on Superman, he prominently depicted a colorful swoosh up in the clouds with Superman's famous "S" logo over it. No need for the presence of Christopher Reeve's Superman—a swoosh and a logo were all that were needed to make audiences believe a man could fly.
Just look at the tagline. Those words evoke the mythos of Superman, and it was impactful for its time when people had yet to see the potential of superhero movies. This poster truly defined Superman.
16. The Breakfast Club (1985)
Directed by John Hughes
Starring Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald
Comedy, Drama (1h 37m)
Annie Leibovitz is one of the most prominent photographers of her time, known for her famous celebrity portraits (like that of Yoko Ono and a bare John Lennon).
Leibovitz was the perfect artist needed to bring the poster for The Breakfast Club to life—and it became truly iconic.
Just from their poses alone, you can tell which character archetypes each of the five teens are meant to be. Authenticity is a key theme in The Breakfast Club, and that's highlighted here by them looking directly at the camera, making them feel relatable.
Place them over a pale pink backdrop with a memorable tagline and you've got one of the most iconic movie posters of all time.
15. The Thing (1982)
Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi (1h 49m)
Drew Struzan is an icon of movie poster design. Having illustrated more than 150 movie posters, he's had his hand on many recognizable posters, including Blade Runner, ET the Extra-Terrestrial, the Indiana Jones movies, and the Star Wars films.
One of his most underrated works is the movie poster for John Carpenter's The Thing. Two elements stand out: the tagline and the dark-hooded figure with its face emitting light beams.
"The ultimate in alien terror" sets the tone for what type of horror to expect, and the mysterious figure gives you a vague and mysterious idea about what "the thing" could be.
14. Jurassic Park (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi (2h 7m)
In perhaps the simplest design on this list, Jurassic Park's movie poster gives just enough information as to what to expect in what would go on to become one of Steven Spielberg's biggest blockbusters.
First, there's the logo, which is so iconic and popular that it's been used on its own for many years, particularly the T-rex skeleton head iconography that teases the dinosaur threats of the movie.
There's also the caption: "An adventure 65 million years in the making." It's a clever hint at the adventure that awaits when you're finally face-to-face with creatures from 65 million years ago. It's simple but effective, and later movies in the Jurassic Park franchise followed suit.
13. The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair
Horror (2h 2m)
To promote one of the scariest movies of all time, its movie poster needs to evoke subtle hints of suspense beneath its dark exterior. That's the impression you get from the poster for The Exorcist.
Designed by Bill Gold, this poster send all kinds of chills down your spine. The tagline may offer some information, but the shadowy imagery of Max von Sydow's Father Lankester looking at the lit MacNeil house is more than enough to give you an idea of the horror waiting.
12. The Social Network (2010)
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake
Biography, Drama (2h)
The movie poster for The Social Network hits you over the head with its enlarged tagline overlaid on Mark Zuckerberg's face: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." It sums up the bleak depiction of Facebook's rocky beginnings.
This poster was designed by Neil Kellerhouse, who worked for David Fincher in Gone Girl and Mindhunter. He incorporated the aesthetics of an Internet browser, like the tab bar and Facebook's notification bar. It makes for one great movie poster that other biopics have tried to copy.
11. Chinatown (1974)
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (2h 10m)
The neo-noir film Chinatown oozes with mystery, and that secrecy is front and center in its magnificent movie poster.
Created by Jim Pearsall, this poster is inspired by the 1890s billboards for JOB cigarette rolling papers. The green smoke coming from Jake Gittes' cigarette is the highlight that catches your attention.
The poster also has an eye-catching typeface that's a cross between Westerner and old noir. It adds to the allure for a movie that has no-holds-barred violence and stirring tragedy.
10. Back to the Future (1985)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Adventure, Comedy, Sci-Fi (1h 56m)
Drew Struzan's movie posters make for great movie theater memorabilia no matter the era. His take on Back to the Future is no exception. Simple as it is, it places its iconic elements as the focus for its marketing.
First, there's Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly as the character to keep an eye on. Second, there's the iconic DeLorean after its fiery skid from time travel. Finally, there's the sleek and inventive logo.
All elements combined, we get a simple but timeless blockbuster ad that remains one of the best movie posters of all time.
9. Scarface (1983)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer
Crime, Drama (2h 50m)
Not everyone knows the name Tony Montana nor his colorful life. That's why Scarface's movie poster speaks it all for us.
Where to start on this dorm room-worthy decoration? How about the meaty caption that shares the premise of the movie, plus the tagline "He loved the American Dream. With a vengeance."? Or the striking black-and-white halves imposed over Al Pacino and his iconic white suit?
This movie poster is so cool that the Todd Philips comedy War Dogs even parodied it for one of their own official movie posters.
8. Metropolis (1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
Drama, Sci-Fi (2h 33m)
Metropolis is one of the landmark movies of the sci-fi genre. You might not get that sense just from its movie poster, but the grand scale of the movie is fully apparent.
Designed by Heinz Schulz-Neudamm, Metropolis' movie poster seizes the gold-plated style of its time to depict the film's dystopian city setting. The eye-catching text, the tall buildings, and the Machine Man below with its ominous eyes all leave a lasting impression.
These elements from this German expressionist science-fiction silent film are just as intriguing to this day. It's no surprise that Schulz-Neudamm's art piece has been regarded as "the world's highest-value poster."
7. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Starring Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn
Crime, Drama, Thriller (1h 58m)
The movie poster for The Silence of the Lambs requires a vagueness that leaves a haunting impression. On its surface, Jodie Foster's mouth being covered by a moth—specifically, a Death's Head hawkmoth—gives you that impression. But there's more to it than meets the eye.
Notice the skull-like pattern on the moth and examine it closely. You can see the bodies of seven women, referring to the victims in the film. Designer Dawn Baillie took director Jonathan Demme's suggestion to use a Salvador Dali photograph to create the image on the moth.
6. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Directed by Otto Preminger
Starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara
Drama, Mystery (2h 41m)
Saul Bass is an icon for movie poster design. He did the title sequences for movies like The Man With the Golden Arm, North by Northwest, Psycho, as well as the logos for Hanna Barbera and AT&T. If you aren't familiar with his work, soak in the poster for Anatomy of a Murder.
To shed hints on this courtroom drama, Bass uses block shapes of a dissected corpse both as a pun on the title and as a glimpse of the film's moral themes. Not the flashiest of its time, but it started a trend of minimalist movie posters with deeper meanings. All hail Saul Bass!
5. Vertigo (1958)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes
Mystery, Romance, Thriller (2h 8m)
Another from Saul Bass, this one's his most notable movie poster. Alfred Hitchcock's widely-celebrated thriller Vertigo involves a detective lead (played by James Stewart) who has acrophobia and vertigo. Bass alludes to that in the title sequence and the movie poster.
Since spirals are a motif in the film, the white spirals give off a mesmerizing but uneasy feeling. The red-orange background draws you in. The silhouetted figure of Stewart's Scottie falling towards the spirals gives the impression of the film's "psychological vortex."
4. Alien (1979)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt
Horror, Sci-Fi (1h 57m)
Alien is a landmark of science-fiction horror, and the marketing made it clear that that's what they wanted you to know about it.
Starting with its iconicly haunting movie poster, we immediately get a sense of the movie's dark saga and chilling notions. The cracked egg glowing green and the mysterious gridded landscape show how otherworldly the movie is while leaving you wondering.
But the iconic tagline sums up the entire thing: "In space, no one can hear you scream." It's proof of the power that vague-yet-intriguing movie posters can have for horror films: keep the best horror elements a surprise and entice without giving anything away.
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson
Crime, Drama (2h 34m)
Quentin Tarantino's magnum opus is an homage to pulp magazines of his time—and the movie poster proudly shows it.
Designed by Quito-based James Verdesoto, the poster for Pulp Fiction shows Uma Thurman's Mia Wallace on a bed with a pocketbook and a Red Apple Cigarette on her hands.
Mia's suspicious look gives off the vibe of a rebellious femme fatale. The 10-cent magazine style is a clever touch, along with the side creases. And the stuff on Mia's bed foreshadows the film's plotlines.
2. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Directed by George Lucas
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Action, Adventure, Fantasy (2h 1m)
There have been many iconic movie posters in the Star Wars franchise. While the ones by Struzan stand out, nothing beats the original movie poster for the first Star Wars by the very hands of artist Tom Jung (who designed the posters for Doctor Zhivago and Plan 9 From Outer Space).
With as many elements as were in the first Star Wars, Jung successfully placed them on a single sheet. From the droids to the Rebel fleet, from the mask of Darth Vader to the beam from Luke's lightsaber, it's all epically displayed in scale.
Even the old Star Wars logo catches the eye! To this day, this is one of the most famous movie posters ever made.
1. Jaws (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Adventure, Mystery, Thriller (2h 4m)
The most recognizable movie poster of all time belongs to the very first truest movie blockbuster. Jaws blew the minds of moviegoers of its time, and that impact started with its most iconic poster.
The poster for Jaws is clearly inspired by the cover of Peter Benchley's original novel, and that immediately imparted a sense of terror for readers familiar with the story.
For everyone else, it conveyed everything it needed to say using three effective gimmicks: the simple red-font title; the image of a lady swimming on open waters evoking the feeling of summer; the great white shark with its extremely sharp teeth and striking position.
All of these make Roger Kastel's poster a quick sell and chief among all the best movie posters of all time.