10. “The Wind Rises” (2013)
Hayao Miyazaki has retired before (he’d suggested he was done with filmmaking as early as a decade ago), but with Studio Ghibli supposedly winding down, “The Wind Rises” definitely seems like it could be the anime master’s swan song. The film certainly seems like a defining statement: a (mostly) fantasy-free melodrama about real-life airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi, it’s a moving portrait of the end of an era in Japan, an examination of way that progress, technology, and even art can be corrupted, a love-letter to the director’s beloved aviation, and more than anything else an autobiographical portrait of the artist as an obsessed young man. Anyone dismissing this as a cartoon doesn’t have their head screwed on properly. As gorgeous as anything the director ever made, it also, despite being relatively realistic, could only ever have worked as animation. If it truly is Miyazaki’s last film, he’ll be painfully missed.
9. “Waltz With Bashir” (2008)
A strong case for just how dexterous animation can be, Ari Folman‘s film masterfully hybridizes personal essay, documentary and hallucinatory imagery, all in service of a bold examination of one soldier’s experience of the 1982 Lebanon War that’s just the right amount of stylized cool to hook you into its harrowing insights. Human rights and issue films are unfortunately a dime a dozen these days, so it’s no small feat that Folman was able to transcend those narrow confines by making ‘Waltz’ utterly cinematic. The animation — a mix of Adobe Flash cutouts with classic animation — adds to the surreal nature of Folman’s manifested memories of a traumatic time in his young life. Max Richter’s haunting score and a mix of era-appropriate songs (PiL’s “This is Not a Love Song” is a highlight) also add to its overall power. It’s effective, educational and emotive because it’s entertaining.
8. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)
Stop motion animation and Wes Anderson proved to be a peanut-butter-and-jelly-like combination in this sweet yet acidic adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s book. We wouldn’t argue it’s the auteur’s best film, but in many ways it’s most representative of his reputation as a capital A “artist.” After all, aren’t all his hyper controlled cinematic dioramas a form of live action animation? Beyond just appreciating its place in Anderson’s legacy, ‘Fox’ is beautiful to look at and one of his funniest films to date. Adapting a children’s story allows for his more broad, even goofy humor to rise to the surface in pleasing ways (the highlight comes when the antagonistic farmers are introduced in snappy vignette cutaways). The visuals harken back to Rankin/Bass, proving that old fashioned methods can feel new when done well. We love this film most because it’s for everyone, but still has rough edges and consequences.
7. “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya” (2013)
It didn’t get as much attention as “The Wind Rises,” but “The Tale Of Princess Kaguya,” the swansong for Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli co-founder and “Grave Of The Fireflies” director Isao Takahata, is an even more elegiac, beautifully bittersweet goodbye from one of the medium’s masters. A fable based loosely on the traditional tale of the Bamboo Cutter and animated in a stunning, painterly fashion, the film sees the discovery of the title character inside a bamboo shoot by her humble parents. She’s elevated to wealth and courted by endless suitors, but nothing can change the sense that her time on Earth will be brief. Simple in both expression and story but yet still incredibly rich (there are strong feminist and environmental themes at work along with the meditations on mortality), it’s a delicate, pastoral film that serves as both a definitive summing up of Takahata’s career and a deeply poignant goodbye.
6. “Inside Out” (2015)
The last few sequel-heavy years aside, Pixar has built up such a reputation for brilliance that when the studio makes a film deemed only ‘pretty good,’ as with the recent “The Good Dinosaur” or even “Finding Dory,” you can feel disproportionately disappointed. But that certainly wasn’t the reaction to “Inside Out,”, because it’s certainly Pixar’s most ambitious film and easily one of its best. Set inside the head of young Riley, whose emotional turmoil after moving to San Francisco sends the personifications of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) into the deepest recesses of her mind, it’s a remarkably mature yet accessible look at what makes us tick and which grapples with an elusive truth — sadness isn’t just unavoidable, it’s necessary — that so-called grown-up movies would cross the street to avoid. But this being from Pixar, and in particular from “Up” director Pete Docter, it’s also a total, well, joy — bright, exciting, funny (was anything funnier this year than the film’s closing credits? Or the gum commercial? Or the ‘abstract thought’ section? or (repeats ad infinitum)…). “Inside Out” is fast moving, light of touch, beautifully voiced and impossibly touching. The bar was raised once again.
5. “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003)
Seventy-eight minutes of pure French bliss. Sylvain Chomet’s script (with hardly any audible dialogue) is made up of seemingly random left turns that not only keep you guessing but miraculously gel into a magical, unique whole. The labor-intensive, beautifully old school, painterly animation is a marvel to behold, bringing to life this bizarre story of an adorable task-mistress mother whose cyclist son is kidnapped by the mafia and used for nefarious gambling schemes. She joins up with the titular singing triplets who aid her in the rescue, adding to the overall infectious musical joy infused in the entire film. It’s a totally original narrative, directed by Chomet with a perfect grasp on the material. While it’s still a cult item (despite being up for 2 Oscars in 2003), the film is more than accessible for any audience.
4. “It’s Such A Beautiful Day” (2012)
He’s far from a household name (though recently contributing one of the best couch sequences to “The Simpsons” in the show’s 25-year-history has helped), but animation fans have long been singing the praises of Austin’s Don Hertzfeldt, particularly after “It’s Such A Beautiful Day.” Combining the 2011 film of the same name with two earlier shorts “Everything Will Be Ok” and “I Am So Proud Of You,” it’s a haunting, ultimately strangely life-affirming trilogy in Hertzfeldt’s trademark stick-figure, line-drawing style (though embellished with an increasingly heady collection of effects) that take in satire, ultraviolence, and in the staggering final segment mental illness and identity. Oblique and strangely accessible, bleak and transcendent, simple and endlessly re-watchable, it’s a stone-cold masterpiece that confirms that Hertzfeldt is a major filmmaker.
3. “Up” (2009)
So are we giving third place to “Up” in its entirety, or are we granting that spot thanks to that 4-minute montage of Carl & Ellie’s married life that reduces us to emotional rubble? Does it even matter? Taking a helicopter or flying-house view, “Up” is not the most satisfying narrative that Pixar has ever created, but it is the apotheosis of the studio’s alchemical ability with character creation and relationships. With this film, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson gave us simply one of the greatest grief movies ever made hidden within a tale full of whimsy, colored balloons, lisping boy scouts and hilarious talking dogs. So while it has as much to say about the generation gap as the average Ozu film, and the fact that it begins with the most affecting animated death since the demise of Bambi’s mother, by its conclusion “Up” is nothing less than a joyous affirmation of life at any age and at any height above sea level.
2. “The Incredibles” (2004)
Director Brad Bird’s best film to date is a blistering amalgam of imagined comic book mythology, family melodrama and gorgeous computer generated animation. It came at the very end of Pixar’s first great wave of titles, right before the studio misstepped with “Cars” and then got back on track with “Ratatouille” (thanks to Bird again, natch). In fact, this still feels like the animation juggernaut’s finest hour and probably its most complete film, full of legitimately thrilling action set pieces and easily relatable character drama (good for adults and kids), and tapping incisively into the culture’s superhero obsession before it got watered down to its current level of ubiquity. Masterfully designed (check the ’50s-style suburban conformity of the home and office locations), cleverly scripted so that A and B storylines constantly complement and enhance each other, and boasting a valuable anti-cape message, “The Incredibles” is not just an all-time great animated film, but is an all-time great superhero movie, period.
1. “Spirited Away” (2001)
If the great strength of animation is its facility for total immersion in worlds only bounded by the limits of a filmmaker’s imagination, there’s really no other choice for our number one spot than the dazzling “Spirited Away” from Hayao Miyazaki, curator of one of the most comprehensive and beautiful cinematic imaginations in existence. Starting out as a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale as a young girl ventures excitedly into a magical realm after her parents are turned into pigs, the film becomes more peculiar, more fanciful and more ambiguous as it goes on, becoming the polar opposite of the kind of patronising simplification and moral black-and-whites that mar the family film genre elsewhere. Grotesque, scary, thrilling, beautiful and very alien to anyone raised on Western animation, “Spirited Away” is, due to its Oscar success and wider U.S. promotion, for many people the first Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli film they saw, and so should occupy a very special place in our hearts as the shining portal into the fantastical, beyond-ken world of Ghibli. Make that multitudes of worlds.
That covers most, but not all of the bases. While we might not love them, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “The Boxtrolls,” “ParaNorman,” “Frozen,” “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Big Hero 6” all have their fans, as do “Shrek,” “Dead Leaves,” “Evangelion: You Are Not Alone” and a few other notables. We’d also point to “The Good Dinosaur,” “The Little Prince,” “Finding Dory,” “The Book Of Life,” “When Marnie Was There,” “Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence,” “Surf’s Up,” “The Corpse Bride,” “The Princess & The Frog,” “The Cat Returns,” “Steamboy” and “Metropolis” as ones to enjoy once you’ve finished with the 50 above.
And to clarify, we considered “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” but ultimately decided that the films’ rotoscoping techniques put them in a category of not quite being animation, but not quite being live-action. Either way, they’re both great and you should watch them ASAP. Anything else you think we left out? Let us know in the comments.