1. “Inside Out”: Pixar’s most adult, abstract movie remains the frontrunner, paying off creatively and commercially in spectacular fashion ($356 million, the third highest domestic gross so far in 2015 and number three in Pixar history). Pete Docter delves deep inside the cartoony mind of 11-year-old Riley, but it’s Joy’s story about attaining emotional maturity yet growing up with the spirit of innocence intact. Good thing he switched antagonists from Fear to Sadness because that’s where the darkest conflict resides. The elaborate candy-colored world of theme parks and islands is a remarkable achievement, as is Joy, who literally shines brightest as an effervescent light bulb, requiring her own special rig and geometric lighting model. And what a powerful message: It’s OK to be sad. That just makes the happiness more meaningful.
2. “The Peanuts Movie”: Speaking of uncharted territory, Blue Sky raised its game in recreating the pen line simplicity and grace of Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts gang as a unique hand-drawn/CG hybrid. No simple feat, since the aesthetic is antithetical to the computer and the facial features of Charlie Brown and his pals shift around from pose to pose. But Blue Sky reworked its methodology, in effect, becoming 2D animators, creating new rigs and using the computer to interpolate in an accurate yet dynamic way. And, not surprisingly, the precious Peanuts world remains as funny and timeless as when Schulz first introduced it 65 years ago.
3. “Anomalisa”: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson take stop-motion in a deeply personal, adult direction. Like all of Kaufman’s work, it’s about overcoming solipsism. Inspirational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis) has no inspiration in his life and can’t relate to anyone, until he meets homely Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who achingly sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” The animation achieves a delicate balance between the naturalistic and the artificial, with no attempt to hide the seams on the 3D-printed faces. It enhances their frailty, especially during the unforgettable sex sequence, which took six months alone to animate. Never has stop-motion been tapped so daringly to explore what it’s like to be trapped in our own bodies and realities.
4. “Shaun the Sheep Movie”: Meanwhile, Academy favorite Aardman achieves a new stop-motion plateau with the whimsical adaptation of its popular TV franchise. There’s no dialogue and therefore more opportunity for warmth and absurdity through pantomime. Summer boredom turns into a wild adventure from the farm to the Big City. It’s about good and bad parenting and not taking your life for granted. The farmer becomes a wildly successful hairdresser while the sheep wind up in a San Quentin-like animal shelter full of Hannibal Lecter riffs and silent movie tropes. And best of all, there’s plenty of adult appeal.
5. “Boy and the World”: No wonder GKIDS snapped this up at Annecy last year: The hand-drawn Brazilian festival fave from Alê Abreu unfolds like a sumptuous tapestry for a small stick figure of a boy, who experiences an exciting and devastating rite of passage. It’s a clash of personal and political opposites as he travels from the simple line drawings of his village to bushels of cotton-lined country roads to industrial landscapes filled with animal-machines, whirling carnival colors, exploding fireworks and flashing neon adverts. All of this accompanied by pan-flute, samba and Brazilian hip-hop. The visceral impact is startling.