There’s something inherently remarkable about the field of animation: that, with just a paper and pen, one can use infinite imagination to create a world unbound by physical restrictions. Of course, in today’s age it goes far beyond those simple tools of creation, but it remains the rare patience-requisite medium in which a director’s vision can be perfected over years until applying that final, necessary touch.
With Pixar’s 17th feature arriving in theaters, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium thus far in animation and those films that have most excelled. In picking our 50 favorite titles, we looked to all corners of the world, from teams as big as thousands down to a sole animator. The result is a wide-ranging selection, proving that even if some animation styles aren’t as prevalent, the best examples find their way to the top.
To note: we only stuck with feature-length animations of 60 minutes or longer — sorry, World of Tomorrow, and even Pixar’s stunning Piper — and to make room for a few more titles, our definition of “the 21st century” stretched to include 2000. We also stuck with films that don’t feature any live-action (for the most part) and that have been released in the U.S. thus far, so The Red Turtle and Phantom Boy will get their due on a later date.
Check out our top 50 below and let us know your favorites in the comments. We’ve also put the list on Letterboxd to keep track of how many you’ve seen.
50. The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)
Admit it: When The LEGO Movie was announced, you did not expect it to wind up any best-of-the-year lists. But, against all odds, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s first smash hit of 2014 is an unadulterated pleasure. This bold, original film has a wildly clever script (by the directors) with a message of creativity that made it a glorious surprise. It is also well-cast: LEGO is the first movie to fully make use of Chris Pratt’s essential sweetness, and offered Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, and Morgan Freeman their freshest parts in years. It is not often that a “kids” film entertains adults as much as their children, but The LEGO Movie is far more than a piece of entertainment for the young ones. What could have been a headache-inducing, cynical creation is instead a pop treat. Everything is, indeed, awesome. – Christopher Schobert
49. 5 Centimetres per Second (Makoto Shinkai)
Makoto Shinkai’s emotional tour de force is the embodiment of the Japanese term “mono no aware,” which describes a wistful awareness of life’s transience. In the way its characters are haunted by bygone moments in the face of a vast and shapeless future, 5 Centimetres per Second could function as a spiritual companion to the oeuvre of Wong Kar-wai, but whereas Wong’s lovelorn protagonists are stuck in the past, Shinkai’s move forward, steadily, in a state of melancholic acceptance. Time is itself a character here, a fact brought to our attention by shots of clocks, the evolution of technology alongside the characters’ aging, and scenes where narrative stakes ensure that the passing of each second is palpably felt. And yet it is precisely the ephemerality of these seconds that lends them elevated significance —fittingly, the film’s animation is breathtakingly detailed and tactile, allowing us to identify with the characters by having us inhabit each, vivid moment before it vanishes. – Jonah Jeng
48. The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to eke more thrills out of an animated feature than most directors could with every live-action tool at their disposal. The Adventures of Tintin is colored and paced like a child’s fantastical imagining of how Hergé’s comics might play in motion, and the extent to which viewers buy it depends largely on their willingness to give themselves over to narrative and technical flights of fancy. Me? Four-and-a-half years later, I’m still waiting for a follow-up with bated breath. – Nick Newman
47. Titan A.E. (Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and Art Vitello)
It’s the movie that took down Don Bluth, netted Fox a $100 million loss, and starred the young voices of Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore. From a script by Joss Whedon, John August, and Ben Edlund, Titan A.E. is a swashbuckle-y tale with stirring visuals and moments of sheer originality that now feels like a more-accomplished precursor to something such as Guardians of the Galaxy. If you’re going to go down, this is an impressive picture to sink with. – Dan Mecca
46. Metropolis (Rintaro)
Metropolis has more than a little in common with the apocalyptic orgy of violence of 1988 anime touchstone Akira, as the story follows the tragic inevitability of mans’ relationship with overwhelming power. But Rintaro’s Metropolis — which is based on Osama Tezuka’s manga and Fritz Lang’s canonical film — is also a story of overwhelming kindness in its central relationship between Kenichi, a well-intentioned and naïve child, and Tima, a cyborg capable of immense destruction. Distinguished by its washed-out watercolor character designs and its inventive cast of characters, Metropolis is a distinctly lighter take on the characteristically dreary dystopia genre. – Michael Snydel
45. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore)
Animation has never shied away from grief. It’s the bedrock of everything from Grave of the Fireflies to the majority of Pixar’s filmography, but it’s rarely been as unbearably beautiful as in 2014’s unfairly overlooked Song of the Sea. Animated with a mythic tableau style, steeped in Celtic folklore, and filled with a cast of characters worthy of Hayao Miyazaki, Tomm Moore’s work is the rare heartwarming family film that knows it doesn’t need to compromise genuine emotion with fake-outs or Hollywood endings. – Michael Snydel
44. The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
While much of Studio Ghibli’s popularity focuses on the adored writer-director Hayao Miyazaki, some works from other directors deserve equal praise. One of them — which, yes, cheats a bit because Miyazaki scripted it — is The Secret World of Arrietty by first-time helmer Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The film follows a little boy’s fascination with the Borrowers — small humans that live in our world — and weaves the story of him and his family with Arrietty, one of the Borrowers. There are intensely dramatic moments as the Borrowers are constantly striving to survive amidst this world of luxury and easy life that the larger humans enjoy. Much like some of the best of Ghibli’s work, the film works on multiple levels and layers and thus becomes one of the studio’s most beautiful, enjoyable, and enduring works. – Bill Graham
43. ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell)
A story of bullies and the bullied, Laika Studios’ second stop-motion film, ParaNorman, was unfortunately overshadowed by their astounding previous effort, Coraline. But time has been kind, and ParaNorman feels ahead of its time in both the exploration of darker themes (witch hunts, child murder, bigotry) and its juxtaposition of a Puritan New England ghost story and a vividly supernatural present. Buoyed by Jon Brion’s characteristically thoughtful score and an inventive reconfiguration of horror movie iconography, ParaNorman is a coming-of-age story that recognizes that even the “bad guys” have their reasons. – Michael Snydel
42. Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box)
Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit, Aardman Animation’s second feature collaboration with DreamWorks, brings Nick Park‘s brilliant claymation series about an absentminded inventor and his mute canine companion to the big screen. Working as humane pest removal specialists, Wallace and Gromit have hatched a plan to brainwash every hungry rabbit in town to dislike vegetables, preventing Gromit’s prized melon from being ruthlessly devoured. But the experiment backfires and the Were-Rabbit, a monstrous beast with an unquenchable appetite for veggies, is unleashed on the lush gardens of Tottington Holl. On par with the most uproarious shorts of Park’s career (working this time out with co-director Steve Box), the film slyly evokes fond memories of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in never treating its goofy leads as seriously as its surprisingly effective scares. It’s a shame that Park has announced the titular duo are likely retired, due to the failing health of voice actor Peter Sallis. Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit is a light-hearted and whimsically clever gem that also works as a charming introduction to the horror genre for young cinema-lovers. – Tony Hinds
41. Lilo & Stitch (Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois)
What other film can pull off starting with an all-out sci-fi adventure and transition into a heartful ode to culture and family? Before they delivered an even more impactful variation on a similar sort of creature-human bond with How to Train Your Dragon, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois created this touching tale. Featuring a return to watercolor-painted backgrounds for Disney, as well as a reliance on 2D animation, it’s one of the company’s last in this era to have that long-missed tangibility. As often repeated in the film, “Family means nobody gets left behind,” and, by the end credits, you’ll feel like you’ve added a few new members to your own. – Jordan Raup
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