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The 20 Best Animated Films of the Last 20 Years

The 20 Best Animated Films of the Last 20 Years

Waking Life


The rotoscoped “Waking Life” found director Richard Linklater pushing his sensibilities into surrealist territory. The movie’s narrative is one continuously looping dream: An unnamed protagonist wakes up, washes his face, walks outside and engages in philosophical conversations, then wakes up and repeats these actions in another dream. Following the patterns of dreams themselves, the narrative is illogical and scatterbrained, sometimes featuring the protagonist in sequences and elsewhere ignoring him altogether in favor of other characters. And yet the film’s story never stops mirroring the dreams of our main character, a projection of his very subconscious. It’s confusing, yes, but it makes for a stimulating puzzle of who the protagonist really is. After all, what are dreams but the manifestation of our deepest thoughts and desires? There is a real life somewhere in the jumbled mind of “Waking Life,” and its humor, humility, and curiosity is a world Linklater makes you get lost in. – Zack Sharf

Finding Nemo


The opening act of “WALL-E” is probably at the top of the Pixar pantheon, but it’s Andrew Stanton’s first feature that might be the studio’s best top-to-bottom output. Even though the film keeps its momentum outside of the water (the dentist’s office fish tank and the dock encounter with the “Mine!” gulls are still tons of fun), this film really delights in its beneath-the-waves rainbow of colors. Along the way, Marlin’s search for his missing son pulls in a bevy of characters that could (and in a few weeks hopefully will) carry a spinoff of their own. Each of them distinct without feeling like caricatures, this revolving door of supporting players helps give this movie its expansive scope. It’s hard to tackle an Odyssey story in a feature-length animated movie with talking fish, much less keep it self-contained. But even if “Finding Nemo” never got a sequel, it would be one of Pixar’s most complete stories. – SG

The Triplets of Belleville


Sylvain Chomet’s indelible debut exists at the intersection between quirky and visionary, the French filmmaker’s nearly wordless breakthrough paying tribute to previous generations of animators while also staking its own strange new claim. The story follows a young orphan named Champion as he grows up to become a competitor in the Tour de France. Alas, our silent hero is kidnapped by the mafia soon after he starts the race, so naturally it’s up to his frail grandmother (along with Champion’s loyal dog) to save him. Of course, anyone can predict what comes next: The grandmother joins a trio of elderly improv musicians. Unfolding with the logic of an immaculate dream, Chomet’s delirious and vaguely sinister film is a singular tale of familial love and the weird eccentricities of the world that make life worth living. – David Ehrlich

Paprika


Since the great Japanese animator Satoshi Kon died in 2010 at age 46, his legacy and the appreciation for his body of work has grown tremendously. “Paprika” tells the story of what happens when a machine, used by therapists to enter patients’ dreams, is stolen. Kon’s innovative approach to story and editing blurred the lines between dreams and reality (beautifully analyzed in this edition of “Every Frame a Painting”) and has been credited for having inspired a number of modern day directors, including Christopher Nolan (especially “Inception”) and Darren Aronofsky — who wrote an eulogy for Kon, optioned the live action rights to Kon’s “Perfect Blue,” and has not shied away from the fact that “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream” borrowed from Kon’s work. – Chris O’Falt

Persepolis


Radiating with humor and heartbreak, “Persepolis” paints a memorable portrait of an independent woman in the face of societal 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 a socially and politically oppressive society (something visually represented by the film’s use of black and white). 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 an explicitly political film, it’s made accessible and lent heavy doses of humor through its clever and vivid graphic depiction. Seemingly as unfamiliar to this radical injustice as the viewer, Marjane becomes a proxy as she battles for her political and artistic identity. – ZS

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