40. “Sita Sings The Blues” (2008)
Most animated films require literally thousands upon thousands of people working for years and years, at the cost of millions and millions of dollars. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Animator Nina Paley made “Sita Sings The Blues” entirely on her own, and then released it online free, and the film became a word-of-mouth hit despite the lack of backing of a Disney or a DreamWorks. A deeply personal film that contrasts the break-up of Paley’s marriage with an adaptation of the story from the Ramayana, as Sita fights for her beloved Rama despite him continuing to doubt her, while the songs of jazz legend Annette Hanshaw score proceedings. You could perhaps raise questions about cultural appropriation over Paley’s approach, but there’s mostly a mix of respectfulness and irreverence that walks the line right, and the playfulness and personal force here is overwhelming. It feels at time like a sort of outsider art, in the best possible sense.
39. “Boy & The World” (2013)
It’s incredibly exciting to see great animation emerging not just from its traditional homes, but from new countries scattered around the world, and if the Brazilian pic “Boy & The World” is any indication, there’s some extraordinary work to be found from there in the near future. Initially premiering in 2013, getting a U.S. release last year, nominated for an Oscar earlier this year and hitting home video this very week, it’s the fable-like story of a young boy who’s swept away on an adventure when his father leaves to go and find work. Told without dialogue (any speech is delivered in a nonsense language), and without much in the way of narrative, it’s a blunt political allegory about industrialization, globalization and the exploitation of the worker. But lest it sound too much like everyone’s favorite Soviet “Itchy & Scratchy” substitute “Worker & Parasite,” it’s an utterly charming and gorgeously realized fantasy that doesn’t feel preachy in the least, and that marks director Alê Abreu as a serious talent to watch.
38. “April And The Extraordinary World” (2015)
Aside from “Heavy Metal” (and, actually, our next entry), the long, fine tradition of the European comic book/graphic novel hasn’t had much success in being translated to the screen, but the recent sleeper “April And The Extraordinary World” bodes well for the future. Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, it’s actually an original rather than an adaptation (though created by “Adele Blanc-Sec” writer Jacques Tardi), set in an alternate world where the French Empire continued to grow across the late 19th century and early 20th century, and sees young April (Marion Cotillard) embroiled in a hunt for her long-thought-dead parents, and a serum that could make people invulnerable. A simple but beautiful art style brings to life a thrillingly realized steampunk world, but the storytelling know-how is just as impressive, with a potentially convoluted story coming across effortlessly. It’s basically the film that Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” could and should have been, and worth seeking out once it hits home video.
37. “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011)
Speaking of Euro-comics, Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures Of Tintin” finally brought Hergé’s boy detective (a key influence on “April And The Extraordinary World”) to Hollywood. Or more accurately, to New Zealand — the film was brought to life, surprisingly, through performance-capture at Peter Jackson’s WETA. Spielberg’s first animated movie underwhelmed some at the time, but anyone who know’s what’s up knows that it’s something of a delight. The script (by the heavyweight trio of Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish) amalgamates three Tintin adventures into one and becomes a sort of origin story for the hero (Jamie Bell)’s friendship with Captain Haddock (a phenomenal Andy Serkis). The result was the most energized movie that Spielberg had made in years, the director palpably giddy with the possibilities of the medium, and turning out something that’s both a faithful homage to its source material, and at long last a great new “Indiana Jones” movie.
36. “Ponyo” (2008)
After the over-busy, and to our mind rather disappointing, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Hayao Miyazaki stripped things right back with the young-skewing, sweet “Ponyo.” A riff on the story of the Little Mermaid, it sees Brunhilde (Yuria Nara), a young fish/girl hybrid, become separated from her family and end up being found by a young boy named Sosuke (Hiroki Doi) and his mother (Tomoko Yamaguchi), who name her Ponyo. It’s a gentle film, one without much in the way of conflict, and surprisingly small in scope and scale after Miyazaki’s last few films got increasingly epic. And yet there’s still a huge amount to uncover here, particularly its utterly lovable lead character, who Miyazaki is careful to keep as something alien rather than a human with some more water-y elements. And the visual splendor when it comes, mostly at the behest of Ponyo’s father Fujimoto (George Tokoro), is stunning. It takes a lot to find a new way of telling this particular story; luckily, “Ponyo” was in the hands of a master.
35. “The Illusionist” (2010)
From “Steamboat Willy” and Looney Tunes through to Pixar shorts and “Shaun The Sheep,” silent comedy has long been a major influence on animation, but rarely as directly as on the work of director Sylvain Chomet. And with the utterly lovely 2010 film “The Illusionist,” he paid tribute to one of his heroes, adapting an unproduced script by Gallic legend Jacques Tati. The film sees a Tati-like magician move from Paris to Scotland, where he befriends a young girl named Alice. The film was supposedly written as an apology and plea for reconciliation by Tati to his estranged daughter, and Chomet never lets that melancholy slide away, with the film’s misty, muted tones and mid-century style evoking a deep sadness and longing. But Tati’s spirit is also thoroughly present in the physical comedy, the immaculate framing, the subtle details, that Chomet includes. It’s an utterly fitting tribute to a figure who isn’t talked about enough today.
34. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (2006)
With Satoshi Kon passing, and Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata retiring, Japanese animation’s been in serious need of some new blood, and the most promising name to emerge in the last decade is Mamoru Hosoda, who first found fame with his nominal feature debut “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.” Based loosely on, and technically sequelizing, a 1967 novel, the film focuses on Makoto (Riisa Naka), a Tokyo teenager who discovers that she’s able to travel back in time, albeit only for a limited number of times. More teen movie than science-fiction, it proves witty and inventive in its early stages, neatly capturing a take on adolescent life that not many animated movies would dare to try, before tipping into melodrama (slightly less successfully) in its second half. Hosoda would make more visually resplendent films in the years to come (see the recent “The Boy & The Bear”), but few as assured as this one.
33. “Ernest & Celestine” (2012)
The directors of the wonderful “A Town Called Panic” (see below), Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, took a major left-turn for their follow-up, leaving behind the stop-motion, mash-up vibe for a more classical, children’s-picture-book feel. But the results were just as impressive. Co-directed with Benjamin Renner and based on a series of books by Gabrielle Vincent, it follows the friendship between a brave young mouse (Pauline Brunner) who wants to do something other than be a dentist (which is what all mice become, obviously), and a homeless bear (Lambert Wilson) who turned his back on being a lawyer to become an entertainer. It’s as eccentric as it sounds, but spun around a lovely, universal story of friendship overcoming suspicion, and told in some striking hand-painted animation, across a spry, 80-minute running time that doesn’t come close to outlasting its welcome. It’s also rare in that the dubbed version, which features Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall and Paul Giamatti, is almost as good as the French-language one.
32. “Wolf Children” (2012)
After the headier, more impenetrable fantasy of “Summer Wars,” Mamoru Hosada returned to the grounded genre of “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” with the beautiful “Wolf Children,” a film that somehow finds something new to add to the played-out werewolf myth. It follows two children, Yuki (Haru Kuroki) and Ame (Yukito Nishii), born to a werewolf father (Takao Osawa) and human mother (Aoi Miyazaki), but who lost their father at a young age. As they get older and their transitioning between wolf and human forms become less manageable, their mother moves them to the countryside, but the siblings soon start to take differing approaches to their particular way of life. It’s a rather low-key film, a blend of “Twilight” and Hirokazu Kore-eda, but all the more effective for its emotionally authentic approach, one that makes the puberty/werewolf comparison feel fresh all over again. Hosada’s first masterpiece.
31. “The Secret Of Kells” (2009)
The animation world has brought few surprises quite as stunning in recent years as “The Secret Of Kells” — Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey and Cartoon Saloon seemed to arrive fully formed with an utterly assured and completely unique film that will serve as a calling card forever. Drawing on Celtic myth and history, it sees a young boy Brendan (Evan McGuire) and a forest spirit, Aisling (Christen Mooney) form a friendship against the creation of the Book Of Kells (a famous 9th-century illumination of the Gospels created in Ireland) and the attempts to protect it from Vikings and mythical beasties. It’s more stylized, eccentric and experimental than “Song Of The Sea,” and less concerned with narrative, but that just makes it feel all the more special, an ornate work of art that feel at once utterly and urgently new, and as old as time itself. Its Oscar nomination was the making of the Irish company, and both Moore and Twomey have new films due in the next couple of years, which is hugely exciting.