As you trawl the foyer of your local theatre, the posters that line its walls aren’t mere decoration, but invitations, while the great one-sheets aren’t just memorabilia, but monuments to the allure of cinema. Surveying the year that was, TIM WONG selects the ten best poster designs of 2006.

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However abhorrent Lions Gate’s Saw franchise might be, let us not ignore their marketing campaign’s twisted sense of humour. 2005’s Halloween saw the second installment in the torture series cross-promote with an actual ‘blood drive’. “Give ‘til it hurts,” the poster read. This year, the same filthy grunge aesthetic poked away at the nerve-endings of human dental phobia; the notion of unimaginable pain amplified by the likes of previous molar extractions in Marathon Man and Old Boy. It’s a horrid image indicative of the film’s baseless violence, yet pleads the viewer not to take it too seriously with a rather amusing, strategically placed tagline. Silent Hill’s tonal decay applies the same Seven-esque dread to proceedings, albeit with moodier results. Radha Mitchell sprawled across the ground, smothered in darkness, paralysed by something ahead, recalls the night terror of Time of the Wolf’s pitch black sequences, and if the film succeeds in one area, it does so in visualising the fear of abandonment via its ghost town from hell. By isolating Mitchell at the foot of the frame with little else in the way of colour or light, the film’s poster evokes an undisclosed fear. Incidentally, this version, along with four others, formed part of a Sony Pictures online vote for the best Silent Hill poster. The worst design went to print.

There’s something to be said for poise in such accelerated times as these. As the perfect correlation of a film’s thematic and aesthetic content with its two-dimensional form, Clean’s poster distinguishes itself as the best of the year. If the distilled, purified aura of the design speaks directly of the film’s dramatic core – the story of a washed-up indie musician who wrestles with responsibility and life after heroin – its stark white modesty and inverted axis assures us of Olivier Assayas’ direction in making the antithetical drugs movie. And just as Clean is anchored by the superb Maggie Cheung, so too is the gravity of the composition, which visually posits what it’s like to come out on the other side of ‘high’. The Notorious Bettie Page announces herself with a bold simplicity without being obnoxious or unnecessarily loud – and similarly, shows restraint. Compared to more revealing posters in the series, this one knows the meaning of ‘Varietease’ – where the scandal of Bettie Page is relayed through shocking tabloid typography, keeping the pin-up queen’s assets tantalizingly out of reach.

Increasingly, posters out of Korea promoting forthcoming attractions have a funny way of describing the subject at hand: art directors in that country have a particular fondness, it seems, for warm group shots plastered with big, cheesy smiles. While it makes sense to have the cast of Welcome to Dongmakgol pull faces for the camera, less explicit is the reasoning behind similarly jovial promotional stills for the likes of A Bloody Aria and Old Boy (although the irony of Choi Min-shik and Yu Ji-tae in a cuddly state is not lost on me). It’s with savage pleasure then that the barely contained smirks of Baek Yun-shik and Han Suk-kyu on the poster of The President’s Last Bang actually mean something. They tip-off the scathing satire that lies ahead: the two play CIA stooges in cahoots to silence South Korean President Park Chung-hee. Smiling assassins, indeed. In a clandestine huddle, plotting Park’s demise in the back of a limonene, the poster’s opaqueness also declares with no uncertainly that this is a black, black comedy. Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a darkly humorous vision too, though you won’t catch Lee Young-ae smiling. She’s far too glacial for that. Here, the design adds a splash of colour to Lee’s polka dot chic, where vengeance takes on the fashionable demure of an Olivia Hussey or Jackie O. The poster’s modish take on revenge crucially subdues Lee’s beaming, heavenly persona as Jewel in the Palace’s Jang-geum – and puts her in good company with reigning Angels of Vengeance Zoë Tamerlis and Meiko Kaji.

Watching Lucky McKee’s The Woods recently reminded me of cinema’s continued fascination with the bush. Two films this year crystallised the mystique of nature’s canopy, and were complimented by a pair of arresting one-sheets. The late Fabián Bielinsky’s The Aura lingered with an air of surrealism and detachment, manifested in terrain both luscious and decayed. The poster’s ghostly cathedral of trees at once recalls ‘el aura’, as it does the limbo of the film’s spellbound protagonist – a fantasist disoriented somewhere between heaven and earth, make-believe and reality. Forests similarly backdrop the fable mythology of Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s weird and wonderful Innocence, which tells with ominous uncertainty the pre-pubescence of a school of girls hidden deep in the lush overgrowth of an anonymous countryside. While the image recalls in spirit Hans Christian Anderson and Red Riding Hood, its vagueness also beguiles with a mixture of ripe, organic, fertile purity, and something far more troubling, if not unknown. Its coy, sexual ambiguity certainly invites curiosity, and like the film, never reveals itself entirely.

Two posters for two films I have yet to see this year, but can admire nevertheless: Bubble’s hollowed-out core revealing hollowed doll’s heads is a striking and obscure attention grabber, rounded off by what is Steven Soderbergh’s attempt at either dry modesty, or dry humour. The Motel’s graphic novelisation of the movie poster is likewise, immediately eye catching, with the Daniel Clowes aesthetic having become a sort of signpost for Sundance cool. Ironically, it's the rather listless poster for his Art School Confidential that could learn a thing or two from The Motel's quirky one-sheet.

When not editing The Lumière Reader, Tim Wong is a freelance graphic designer.

See also:
» In Praise Of... Ten Actors and Filmmakers in 2006
» One-Sheet Wonders: The Best Movie Posters of 2004