“The Triplets of Belleville” (Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 masterpiece was an international co-production between France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Canada, and each culture gets its fair share of respect in this wonderfully textured adventure about an elderly women’s quest to find her kidnapped grandson with the help of his loyal dog and three music hall singers she meets in the surreal city of Belleville. Hijinks abound left and right as the film creates its own unique and universal language, substituting a majority of dialogue for music and pantomiming. The result is a buoyant animated adventure that owes much to the frenetic rhythm of Buster Keaton and the pathos of Charlie Chaplin, animated like a golden-hued Saturday morning cartoon by way of Ralph Steadman and E. C. Segar. No wonder it was a breakout at Cannes and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film.
“It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (Don Hertzfeld, 2012)
The brilliant animator Don Hertzfeld has made a career out of films built on a startling juxtaposition between form and content, and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” might as well be his magnum opus. A 62-minute feature built out of three award-winning short films Hertzfeld made between 2006 and 2011 — “Everything Will Be OK,” “I Am So Proud Of You” and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” — the movie uses basic drawings and stick figures, all animated on 35mm film using in-camera effects, to uncover weighty themes of memory and existentialism. The main character, Bill, is drolly going through the mundane motions of his life, and Hertzfeld takes us through his increasingly bleak existence with darkly comedic anecdotes and absurd visions. It’s certainly not one for the children, but adults will find much to think about in an animated film that fits right alongside the best of Charlie Kaufman.
“Shaun the Sheep Movie” (Richard Starzak and Mark Burton, 2015)
After starring in 130 episodes of his own television show, Shaun the Sheep made a successful and whipsmart leap to the big screen earlier this year, even if its box office gross didn’t end up matching the acclaimed heights of its critical reception. In this madcap adventure, Shaun and his herd head to the big city to rescue their beloved farmer, and Aardman Animation’s flair for visual storytelling has never been stronger. Making generous use of pop cultural references, including nods as varied as “Taxi Driver,” The Beatles and Hannibal Lecter, the film also benefits from the endlessly pliable faces of its characters and the inventive gags that continually play around with the landscape at hand (a bit featured in the film’s trailers, which sees the flock posing against and seemingly blending into a country-set ad, is one of the film’s best) to tell a terrifically cute tale. Clocking in at a slim 85 minutes, the movie pleasingly flies by; it’s a warm and funny feature that reasserts the value of high quality visuals and attention to detail.
“Chico & Rita” (Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando, 2011)
Few animated or live action films are as vibrant and spellbinding as “Chico & Rita,” a Spanish-American hybrid that finds a musical duo traveling the world in the late 1940s and early 1950s, from Havana to New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Paris. The film, told through flashback as a shoe-shiner remembers his life while listening to a song on the radio, chronicles the ups-and-downs of its eponymous characters, who fall in love in Cuba by forming a bond rooted in music. Their success brings them into contact with a handful of colorful characters and international music genres, though societal standards, political unrest and personal expectations slowly take their toll. Despite its gorgeous animation, “Chico & Rita” is engrained with a historical realism few films in the genre ever dare to touch. The music may catch the ear of little ones, but its political undertones speak directly to adults, making “Chico & Rita” a spiritual cousin to Studio Ghibli classics.
“Persepolis” (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2007)
Equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, “Persepolis” paints a memorable portrait of a strong, creative, independent woman in the face of repression. Based on Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, “Persepolis” is in many ways a traditional coming-of-age story, jarringly set against the extreme context of a socially and politically oppressive society. Satrapi’s spirited animated autobiography chronicles the life of her younger self growing up in Tehran during the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. While “Persepolis” is undoubtedly an explicitly political film, it is made accessible and lent heavy doses of humor through its clever and vivid graphic design. Seemingly as unfamiliar to this radical injustice as the viewer, Marjane becomes a proxy as she battles for her political, gender-based and artistic identity. Separated both from her family and her nation, the young Marjane stays fearless and outspoken throughout as she comes to terms with the political changes in Iran.
“Sita Sings the Blues” (Nina Paley, 2008)
A visual feast and philosophical reconciliation of music, dance and culture, “Sita Sings the Blues” finds American artist Nina Paley adapting and exploring the Ramayana, the epic Sanskrit poem that represents one of the two great works of Indian literature. Paley doesn’t just bring the story of the poem to life — she uses the style of Rajput paintings to recreate the journey of Rama, an exiled prince, and Sita, his abducted wife — he comments on it by incorporating three different story threads. One features a Greek chorus of sorts in the form of three sideshow puppets that discuss their impressions of the text, while another cements the story’s resonance by updating the events to a contemporary timeline and using modern Squigglevision computer graphics. The final thread uses animated vector graphics to create musical performances by Sita, which modify the original text by giving her more self-expression and self-reliance. By putting the power in Sita’s hands and providing her own rumination on the story, Paley turns “Sita Sings the Blues” into a radical redefinition of a sacred work. It’s as impressive as it is ingenious.
“Grave of the Fireflies” (Isao Takahata, 1988)
Since every Studio Ghibli films deserves recognition on this list, we thought we’d highlight one of their more overlooked titles here in the states. Directed by the company’s co-founder Isao Takahata, “Grave of the Fireflies” uses the studio’s dazzling animation style to explore a harrowing anti-war story that would prove far too bleak had it been live action. Told in flashback, the movie recounts the hardships of Setsuko and Seita in war-torn Japan. After their home city Kobe is bombed by American troops, the two are forced to move in with their aunt and struggle to make ends meet. Nothing comes easy for the two siblings, who continue to face increasing odds and slowly succumb to them. “Fireflies” is perhaps the most devastating animated film ever made, and it makes for a powerful statement on the ways in which war prevents countries from protecting their own citizens.
“The Painting” (Jean-François Laguionie, 2011)
Few films use the genre of animation itself for storytelling purposes as skillful as Jean-François Laguionie’s inventive “The Painting.” The movie is set in a society made up of three different classes, each stylized according to their economic and social status: The Allduns are a fully-realized and colorful population that live in a beautiful chateau palace, the Halfies live in the garden below and lack visual flair, and the Sketchies reside at the bottom, simply drawn outcasts who are hunted by the elite. After the almighty Painter leaves a young woman incompletely drawn, conflict erupts amongst the societies, causing three friends to head out on an epic quest to find the creator and get him to finish his work. Using animation to unmask themes of diversity, civil rights and spirituality, “The Painting” packs a heavy thematic punch through its sheer use of the medium, making it a masterpiece that lives and dies by its visual wonder.
“A Cat in Paris” (Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, 2010)
A dark French thriller disguised as a family-friendly animated caper, “A Cat in Paris” is a masterclass of tonal switches as it rides waves of danger and uproarious slapstick. The film centers on three characters: Nico, a jewel thief; Zoe, a young girl dealing with her father’s death; and Jeanne, Zoe’s mother and a police officer hunting for the man that murdered her husband. The eponymous feline connects them all over the course of the film, as the mother’s investigation ties into one of Nico’s recent thefts and Zoe accidentally puts herself in harm’s way. Not all live action movies handle multiple narratives as deftly as “A Cat in Paris”; as the strands of the story come together, the pacing becomes a ticking time clock with palpable suspense that even Hitchcock would fawn over.