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The 20 Best Animated Films of the Last 20 Years

The 20 Best Animated Films of the Last 20 Years


Director Gore Verbinski’s first animated film was also the first venture into the genre for Industrial Light & Magic, the legendary special effects company created by George Lucas. Given the director’s penchant for surprises (hello, “Mousehunt”) and the cinematic history behind its backers (hello, “Harry and the Hendersons”), no one should have been as surprised as many of us were when “Rango” came packed with enticing easter eggs any film fan would adore. Nods to classic Westerns like “True Grit” are craftily matched by historic allusions to “Wild” Bill Hickok, modern genre staples like “Deadwood” (hello, Timothy Olyphant) and even delightful meta references to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Chinatown” and Clint Eastwood. Yet with so much going on under the surface, “Rango” still functions as a markedly great story bolstered by performances captured in a revolutionary format (actors interacted and improvised rather than separately reading in sound booths). For such a towering achievement on the first go-round, it’s a shock and a shame neither Verbinski or ILM have made an animated movie since. – BT

It’s Such a Beautiful Day

Not a feature so much as it is a sandwich of three short films that happen to star the same character, Don Hertzfeldt’s mordantly hilarious “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” leaves such a mark during its 62 minutes that its brevity might be the only thing that keeps it from breaking you. Almost singlehandedly assembled by Hertzfeldt, this bruising and bittersweet triptych follows a stick figure named Bill as he bounces from one Kafkaesque experience to another, confronting mortality at every turn. Gnarly one second and profound the next, the film is the culmination of everything Hertzfeldt had done to that point, and paved the way for the creation of 2015’s landmark, life-altering short “World of Tomorrow.” – DE

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The final film from Isao Takahata, who along with Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, is one of the most achingly beautiful films ever drawn. Discovered by a bamboo cutter in the shoot of a tree, a miniature girl is brought home to be raised by an older man and his wife. The girl is already assumed to be magical, but when she rapidly grows and the trees where she was found produces gold, the bamboo cutter decides to interrupt his new daughter’s idyllic life — frolicking with the other children in an impossibly beautiful setting — to take her to the capital where she can meet her destiny of becoming a princess. From this point on the film switches gears, alternating between satire and heartbreaking drama that builds to operatic finale. The delicate, almost ephemeral use of water colors brings an emotional resonance to this film that will stay with you for a long time. – CO

The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki cemented his legacy as cinema’s greatest animator with this ineffably beautiful swan song, the “My Neighbor Totoro” director taking a hard left turn into historical melodrama for this story about “Zero” plane engineer Jiro Horikoshi (voiced with perfect flatness by “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Hideaki Anno). Everything about this film was highly unusual, least of all the fact that animated biopics are few and far between, let alone those about controversial World War II figures who went to their grave feeling vaguely responsible for millions of deaths; imagine if Brad Bird’s last movie was a Pixar toon about J. Robert Oppenheimer. Overcoming the misguided controversy that accompanied this film’s release, “The Wind Rises” endures as a peerlessly haunting ode to the creative process and the tortured life of our most beautiful dreams. – DE


Dear anyone who thinks that animation is just for kids: First of all, animation is a medium and not a genre and hi, have you watched “Anomalisa” yet? You should. Charlie Kaufman’s latest story of a knocked-down, dragged-out man and his quest to feel something – god, anything, anything – seamlessly uses some very striking stop-motion animation to tell the kind of story that wouldn’t look out of place in a live-action version that debuted at Sundance. Yet, by adding animation into the equation, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson are all but begging their audience to pay attention to every single movement, every word, every interaction, all in service to a story that hits like a hammer. It’s impossible to turn away from “Anomalisa” (even when the film veers into one of the most uniquely human sex scenes ever put to film), and the film hits enough emotional highs (and plenty of lows) to leave its audience nearly wounded, wondering, “Geez, I didn’t know animation could do that.” – KE
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