21. “Ratatouille” (2007)
With “Ratatouille,” Brad Bird salvaged a problem project and set a new standard for Pixar. Ostensibly a buddy comedy pairing a French rat (Patton Oswalt) with culinary talent and a wannabe chef (artist Lou Romano), the film was transformed into a loving tribute to cooking, art, and innocence by Bird. When cranky, cynical food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) takes one bite of the rodent’s eponymous dish, he’s transported back to childhood in sublime fashion. The Oscar winner, fortunately, has aged very well. It’s as deliciously absurd as a French farce, and animation wise, offers expressive rodents, exquisite Parisian eye candy, and mouth-watering cuisine. Restaurants and rats might not go together in real life, but, thanks to Bird and Pixar, they thrived “on the mother’s milk of caricature.” —BD
20. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)
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Winning the Oscar for “Spirited Away” was a bittersweet pill for the pacifist Hayao Miyazaki, who was filled with anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As a response, he channeled his energy into this beautiful, sorrowful, and complex anti-war film that proves life is worth living and that old age is hardly a curse. Set in a magical kingdom during a time of war, it centers on a bored hat-shop girl named Sophie who gets swept up in the excitement of Howl the wizard, only to be turned into 90-year-old woman by the spiteful Witch of Waste.
What begins as a journey to reverse the curse draws Sophie into becoming part of the resistance. The meaningless war, kept in the background, doesn’t lead to a story of good and evil, but a tragedy in which no one is to blame and all suffer. The animation itself is some of Miyazaki’s most complex, with stunning set pieces that feature a depth that’s part of the most technically demanding work of the master’s career. —CO
19. “Coraline” (2009)
Animator Henry Selick perfected his stop-motion technique on such films as Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” filming puppets in multiple miniature environments, one frame at a time, with flexible still-camera-size digital medical cameras. His masterwork, magical gothic fairy tale “Coraline,” goes way beyond anything done before with stop-motion. Miserably lonely in her family’s ramshackle new house in the country and neglected by her workaholic parents, 11-year-old Coraline seeks refuge in a parallel universe where another set of fantasy parents play and cook and cultivate a fabulous garden. That set-piece was impeccably hand-crafted by artists over months of painstaking production with hand-made manipulated puppets and thousands of paper flowers.
The puppets are built on a delicate metal skeleton armature; they have plastic silicon skin and hand-made costumes and replaceable heads stored in trays with a range of expressions: scowls, smiles, pouty lips. Because Coraline was in almost every shot, the production went through 20 Coraline puppets. On a good day during three and a half years of filming on 50 or so black-curtained one-fourth-scale miniature sets at the gigantic Laika warehouse in Portland, Oregon, an animator would shoot ten seconds of footage. Selick’s team of artists, riggers, electricians, lighters, costumers, makeup artists, voice actors and animators crafted all the elements of the scene, from the 7-inch Coraline puppet and the smaller black cat to miniature trees, leaves and blades of grass and glowing black lights. Selick makes this world feel alive. —AT
18. “Up” (2009)
It has just two letters in its title, but “Up” is a big film about resurrecting childhood dreams, forging unlikely friendships, idolizing unworthy heroes, and never-ending grief. Released in 2009, the two-time Oscar-winner starring Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer features cinema’s most-indelible heaven-bound house since “The Wizard of Oz.” When crotchety Carl (Asner) is condemned to a retirement home, the former balloon salesman comes up with a grand plan to float away from his gentrifying neighborhood. He succeeds, bringing along an unintended passenger and foil, a chipper boy scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai).
The movie’s adorably-smooshed-looking characters and Crayola color palette make the opening sequence even more crushing, as pre-adventure Carl remembers his childhood sweetheart-turned-late-wife, Ellie. Watching them learn that they’ve suffered a miscarriage is sadder than the death of not just Mufasa and Bambi’s mother, but every animated, Disney-backed plot point to date. —JM
17. “Paprika” (2006)
Satoshi Kon isn’t widely known, so many cinephiles may not realize that the animator’s 2010 death (from cancer, at 47) represented a profound loss. Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky have been inspired by his cinematic inventiveness; the roots of “Inception” can be found in Kon’s final film, “Paprika,” about a device that permits therapists to help patients by entering their dreams. But where Nolan needed to take pause in order to let his audience catch up with dialogue-driven exposition, Kon’s film effortlessly slips through levels of consciousness by creating his own totally understandable sense of time, space, dreams, and reality. If you’re unfamiliar with exactly how next-level Kon was as filmmaker, Tony Zhou’s video essay about his cutting patterns is extremely well done. —CO
16. “Toy Story 3” (2010)
Even before that scene, “Toy Story 3” is one of the most moving animated films ever made. Once Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang not only face what appears to be certain doom but accept their collective fate, it becomes impossibly wrenching — and that’s coming from someone who never cries during the first 15 minutes of “Up.” Pixar’s semi-recent sequel overload may not inspire much confidence, but anyone who doubts their capacity for occasional greatness (like this writer) need only remember that the studio’s best movie was the third installment in a series that didn’t appear to need one in the first place. The next few “Cars” movies may leave us cold, but at least we’ll always have a friend in “Toy Story.” —MN
15. “Waltz With Bashir” (2008)
Ari Folman’s tortured masterpiece is a difficult thing to classify, and not just because an animated documentary sounds like such a contradiction of terms. No, “Waltz with Bashir” is such a strange bird because it exists on the highly contested border between reality and imagination — it doesn’t belong to fact or fiction, but rather the hazy middle ground of memory. First and foremost a performative act of remembering, the film follows Folman as he thinks back on his time as a 19-year-old soldier on the Israeli side of the 1982 Lebanon War and tries to shine some light into the voids that have since formed in the darkest recesses of his mind. Visiting his old war buddies, shooting their conversations on HD video, and then layering those encounters in a dream-like skin of Flash animation, Folman transforms a guilt-stained memoir into a singular portrait of history and all the ways in which it haunts us. Any number of films have been called “unforgettable,” but “Waltz with Bashir” examines what that distinction really means, and in doing so becomes one of the few films to genuinely earn it. —DE