20. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)
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
Buy on Amazon.
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
Stream on Hulu via Starz; stream on Starz; rent or buy on Amazon.
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
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.
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
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16.“The Mitchells vs. The Machines”
Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe’s story of a family road trip interrupted by a robot apocalypse is one of the best non-Disney animated films in recent memory. The film combines delightfully cartoony animation and sharp humor with a surprisingly nuanced message about the way technology can unite and divide us at the same time. Phil Lord and Chris Miller have created their own brand of animation that allows them to jump around between intellectual properties while maintaining their distinct sense of humor, and their fingerprints as executive producers are all over this modern classic. 2021’s endless “Encanto” discourse kept “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” from getting the attention it deserves, but its timely subject matter means it will always be worth revisiting.—CZ
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
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14. “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016)
A Kurosawa-inspired epic about the supreme power of storytelling, Studio Laika’s most ambitious stop-motion masterpiece blends peerlessly expressive puppetry with artful digital effects in order to craft a rare adventure that can resonate with audiences of all ages. “Kubo and the Two Strings” tells the story of a plucky but somber 11-year-old shamisen player (well-voiced by Art Parkinson, nevertheless typifying an unfortunately white-centric cast) who only knows his warrior father through the stories that his mother has passed down. When the boy is spirited away by the evil Moon King and sent on a quest to retrieve some magical armor alongside a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and a forgetful beetle (Matthew McConaughey), our young hero becomes more closely acquainted with his dad’s memory than he ever imagined possible. Few films have spoken so eloquently to the role that parents can play in our lives; how they shape us before we got here and stay with us after they’re gone. Even fewer have used floating demon aunts voiced by Rooney Mara to do so. —DE
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13. “WALL•E” (2008)
Define dancing. Andrew Stanton’s 2008 Pixar masterpiece works on multiple levels, seamlessly, all at the same time, while also paying heed to flat-out artistry and an emotional story that’s always earned. Alone for 700 years, waste-collecting robot WALL-E has thanklessly toiled to clean up a mangled splotch of Earth that, quite frankly, still looks worse for the wear. But while WALL-E has been alone for decades, his curiosity and humanity have only grown, and he happily engages with culture (musicals, obviously) and the few other creatures around him with a gentleness that’s so sweet it actually hurts. The only thing that WALL-E needs is someone to share it all with, but when EVE unexpectedly appears, it still sets into motion one of modern cinema’s most surprising — and rewarding — love stories.
But that’s not all it has to offer, as Stanton’s film lays out a cultural critique that’s still as relevant as ever, introducing WALL-E and EVE to a marooned human population who have let slip their own personhood in pursuit of cozy hover chairs and a “buy and large” sensibility that keeps them consuming but never connecting. That two robots can feel something in a universe devoid of emotion is a basic enough premise, but that “WALL-E” actually uses that inspire genuine feelings is the real trick. Illuminated by some of Pixar’s most stirring animation yet — 10 years later, and this thing still looks fresh out of the box — and a score from Thomas Newman that adds majesty and magic to every frame, the film hasn’t lost a step in a decade, it just keeps dancing. —KE
Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.
12. “The Congress” (2013)
Robin Wright stars as many versions of herself in Ari Folman’s half-animated fantasy “The Congress,” which employs all sorts of visual derring-do to imagine a world where moviegoers and content seekers are no longer mere eyeballs — they’re drug addicts. Here, Robin Wright is convinced by her agent (Harvey Keitel) to hand over her likeness to Danny Huston’s “Miramount” producer. Her mind, body, and soul will be digitally scanned and preserved to be recast and reused ad infinitum in box-office schlock. The caveat is that the real, flesh-and-blood Robin can never act again.
Flashing forward a couple of decades, the film’s second half becomes a gloomy rabbit hole of grand animation of the likes of Mark Ryden or Hieronymous Bosch on acid, as Robin heads to a remote convention where all participants consume a drink that turns them and their world into whatever they want to be. “The Congress” opens up the possibilities of filmmaking, and it’s as pro-cinema as it is anti-Hollywood. —RL
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11. “World of Tomorrow” (2015)
Yes, this Don Hertzfeldt film is an animated short, but it also packs more ideas and emotional complexity into 17 minutes than most films do in two hours (including some on this list). It centers on a girl named Emily who is invited on a tour of the future by her adult clone. The juxtaposition of the purity of Emily’s childlike innocence and the bleak look at what the world becomes creates a crushing layer of drama, as she’s too young to understand what we do. Meanwhile, Hertzfeld’s deceptively rudimentary animation style is an array of colorful emotions pulsing with life. It’s impossible not to well with emotions watching this masterpiece, which tells a deeply philosophical tale that’s remarkable for its simplicity. It will be held up against Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” as one the greatest short films in the history of movies. —CO
Stream on Vimeo.