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The Best Animated Films of the 21st Century Ranked, From ‘Anomalisa’ to ‘Spirited Away’

You've got a friend in these classic movies.

Best Animated Films

Pixar and Studio Ghibli tend to spring to mind first when discussing great animation, but there’s a world beyond those two giants. Animated films have grown ever more artful and affecting as more and more folks realize that it’s never just been a medium for kids, with studios and indies alike creating stop-motion marvels, hand-drawn standouts, and CGI spectacles.

The genre has grown so much since we entered the current century, in fact, that it can be easy to forget the Academy Awards didn’t even recognize animation until 2001. As few as three movies were nominated per year until 2010, but since then animation’s increased prominence has been reflected in the race’s competitiveness. Not every worthy movie could make the cut on either the awards circuit or this list, sadly, but rest assured that “The Red Turtle,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and “Ernest and Celestine,” to name just a few, are very honorable mentions.

20. “Sita Sings the Blues” (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues

Nina Paley’s “Sita Sings the Blues” is a visual feast and an extremely personal attempt to make sense of and contextualize one of the most important works of Indian literature. The film is simultaneously an adaptation of and a commentary on the Ramayana, the epic Indian poem that tells the story of the prince Rama as he rescues his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Paley splits the movie into three narratives, each individualized through different animated techniques. The more straightforward adaptation of the story is rendered in the style of Rajput paintings and includes a Greek chorus that interprets the poem’s meanings. Another storyline tells a similar narrative to the Ramayana but sets it in modern day, proving the text’s timelessness. The final story thread introduces a musical number by a more active Sita, who modifies the original text by making herself more self-reliant. By putting the power in Sita’s hands and making her more than a damsel in distress, Paley ultimately makes “Sita Sings the Blues” a radical redefinition of a sacred work. It’s as impressive as it is daring. —Zack Sharf

19. “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (2015)

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Who would have thought that a “Wallace & Gromit” spinoff would end up being just as good — and, according to some well-meaning heretics, better — than the original series? Aardman Animation outdid itself with this quietly daring corker, which has a simple premise (Shaun and his fellow sheep cause much mischief during a day away from the farm) and wildly entertaining set-pieces. There’s essentially no dialogue — or at least none that can be discerned, as the sheep bleat in much the same manner as their real-world counterparts and the humans speak not unlike the grownups on “Peanuts,” which only draws more attention to the madcap, almost Chaplinesque goings-on. At this point it almost sounds like faint praise to describe an animated film as being just as entertaining for adults as it is for children, but “Shaun the Sheep Movie” makes good on that promise as few others do. —Michael Nordine

18. “Anomalisa” (2015)

Anomalisa

“Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of the days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one.” Even with all the other pain and beauty in Charlie Kaufman’s foray into animation, this simple reminder stands out as one of his most profound musings. We may lose sight of ourselves and the object of our affection when we become infatuated with someone new — especially during a business trip in Cincinnati — but there’s a painful honesty to the way Kaufman portrays those swooning early moments. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh are both stellar in their voice-acting roles, but the decision to have literally every other character be voiced by Tom Noonan may be the film’s true stroke of genius — it makes it impossible not to see Lisa the way Michael does. The film itself is an anomaly, of course, one made all the more special by its rarity. Learn from Michael’s mistake and cherish it even after it’s over and you’ve returned to the mundanity of daily life. —MN

17. “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003)

The Triplets of Belleville

It is the rare silent film that achieves such international acclaim and popularity as Sylvain Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville.” Drawn in the style of French comics, the figures either pour languidly into frame or bounce jubilantly, depending on their moods. The original score was both bopping and haunting, earning “The Belleville Rendez-vous” an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song (the film itself was also nominated for Best Animated Feature). The driving story of a devoted mother who will stop at nothing to help her son is told with such heart, soul, and humor, that the movie waltzed right into its rightful place in the animated film canon. —Jude Dry

16. “The Lego Movie” (2014)

The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome, indeed, in Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s blockbuster hit. The directing duo who surprised everyone with the hilarious “21 Jump Street” reboot did it once again with a branded toy commercial that was never supposed to be as good as it is. Universally praised for its biting humor and colorful visual style, the film deconstructed the bloated blockbuster formula and rebuilt it one hilarious brick at a time. Chris Pratt is perfect as the lovable Lego oaf who must destroy the aptly named Evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell), and sassy punk Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is the sadly still rare capable and funny girl character. With inventive CGI mining the removable Lego appendages for laughs, “The Lego Movie” is one for the ages. —JD

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