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The 50 Best Animated Films of the 21st Century Thus Far

Written by on June 16, 2016 

40. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)

Sita Sings the Blues

While most features on this list are result of many, many hands at work, occasionally a sole voice can create something that stands toe-to-toe with the best offerings. Pouring in nearly 10,000 hours of work, Nina Paley proved Malcolm Gladwell correct: Sita Sings the Blues is a minor triumph with major charm. In adapting part of the epic Ramayana story — as well as dissecting it through both contemporary knowledge of events and providing a personal reflection — Paley weaves an affecting tale of heartbreak, backed by stunning musical sequences from recordings by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Best of all, it’s available for free — but make sure to throw Paley a donation while you are at it. Plus, what other animation — clocking in at around 80 minutes, no less — gives you an utterly delightful intermission break? – Jordan Raup

39. A Town Called Panic (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar)

A Town Called Panic

Stop-motion animation — being one step closer to reality than traditional animation — can be weird enough, but add the sense of humor gleaned from the Belgian directors Vincent Patar and Stephane Aubier adapting the French-language TV show of the same name, and A Town Called Panic makes for a pure delight. There isn’t much of a plot beyond the fact that Indian and Cowboy want to throw a surprise birthday for Horse but end up creating a slew of chaos when they accidentally order 50 million bricks instead of just 50. The film is audaciously outrageous, though it never really bends or warps the reality of these small toys and what you’d expect. At a brisk 75 minutes, it is the situations and frank humor that are the biggest charms. – Bill Graham

38. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly came and went rather quietly in 2006, an unsurprising fact given its experimental blend of “rotoscoping” animation (which Richard Linklater’s also tried in Waking Life) and sci-fi leanings. Yet it is an important work in Linklater’s filmography, and, in retrospect, stands out as one of the most visually inventive and cerebral animated films of the decade. Watching the movie, with its woozy animation, twisting music and off-kilter direction, you begin to feel like you’re experiencing a bad drug trip. From the very beginning, wherein Keanu Reeves’ character gives a police briefing while literally wearing the shifting faces of countless people, you know you’re in for an altogether unique ride. It also features a rollicking supporting turn from Robert Downey, Jr., whose career had not yet been resurrected with Iron Man and who steals every scene he appears in. – John Ulmer

37. Winnie the Pooh (Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall)

WINNIE THE POOH

While we set a self-imposed requirement of at least 60 minutes, the latest iteration of Winnie the Pooh comes dangerously close to (admittedly long) short territory, being 53 minutes before credits, but it’s the perfect fit for this quaint new rendition. With a literary touch honoring A. A. Milne — as well as live-action book-ends to show these characters’ imprint on our lives, quite literally — this 2011 release unfortunately disappointed in its theatrical run, but with its timid, wonderfully detailed style and simply lovely charm, it’s already standing the test of time. By the finale, when Winnie the Pooh is — spoilers! — gallantly swimming in his prized possession, a similar smile comes across our face, and we realize it’s been there since the start. – Jordan Raup

36. Chicken Run (Nick Park and Peter Lord)

Chicken Run

The feature film debut of claymation studio Aardman Animations (home of Wallace and Gromit), Chicken Run combines British slapstick with a rambunctious cast of anthropomorphic fowls to create a truly winning family film. Its action sequences, especially a trip through an industrial-grade chicken pot pie machine that seems to have influenced Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, set the bar for stop-motion animation with hilarious attention to detail and a charming chemistry between its action leads. Not afraid to be intelligent, nor rely on the buck-toothed grins of its star, Chicken Run nails its dual appeal to children and adults. – Jacob Oller

35. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)

Ponyo

The simplest of Hayao Miyazaki‘s tales is perhaps the most purely enjoyable, firmly adopting a child’s perspective — and the many signs of a dangerous world (including parental discord) that sometimes accompanies it — for a visually dizzying reimagining of The Little Mermaid. You shouldn’t worry about a spot-the-connection game, just as its firm entrenchment in Japanese culture isn’t a hindrance for westerners — they’re instead pathways towards a particular brand of myth-making, humor, adventure, and affection that should leave a smile on any willing viewer’s face. Just be sure to watch the subtitled version to avoid Disney’s tacked-on final song. – Nick Newman

34. Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa)

Mind Game

In praising Masaaki Yuasa‘s frenetic fever dream of a movie, it might be more economic to mention what isn’t seen in this animation. While a basic logline would be misleading to suggest this is something you might have seen before, the story concerns a manga artist whose unrequited affection for his childhood sweetheart causes his violent death — and that is just barely the first act. Bouncing from slapstick comedy to exuberant, dreamlike surrealism to downright perversion, Mind Game is proof that one’s desire for tonal balance is perhaps misguided when you are washed over with this much creativity in every scene. – Jordan Raup

33. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)

Finding Nemo

Unless you live under a rock in the sea, it’s conceivable most Pixar fans at least thought about popping in Andrew Stanton‘s original film before Finding Dory opens this weekend. Upon a rewatch, it didn’t hold up quite as inscrutably as first viewing well over a decade ago, but that doesn’t discount its indelible moments. Stanton and company genuinely convey the vastness of the sea, and our relatively small characters within. Whether its creatures (including of the human variety) peering behind our leads or the sense of sprawling journey, this Pixar feature nails the feel of an adventure. While it can feel narratively disjointed and emotional manipulative at times, Finding Nemo found the company jumping into a new playground for one of their most vivid creations yet. – Jordan Raup

32. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker)

Team America

I saw Team America: World Police in theaters back in 2004, and I laughed harder at the opening sequence alone than I have at most entire films. It wasn’t just the fact that these obscenely violent images on the screen involved marionette puppets — that was part of the initial humor, to be sure (especially when it comes to the infamous sex scene halfway through the movie) — but lesser comedians may have taken such a gag and run it into the ground, confusing a gimmicky premise as a 90-minute running joke. Instead, Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a film that brilliantly satirized both the Michael Bay-ified action genre and the era’s political climate, and used their marionette puppets as a venue rather than letting them be the punchline. The result is a film that’s aged exceptionally well, not least because its action tropes are still being recycled in blockbusters today, but also because the political commentary holds equal relevance. One can only imagine what Parker and Stone might do with a sequel in this current landscape. – John Ulmer

31. Paprika (Satoshi Kon)

Paprika

No other cinematic dreamscape can match the sheer scale and scope of Satoshi Kon‘s endless parade of anthropomorphic cultural oddities. Imagination literally becomes therapeutic here, where people’s fantasies and neuroses are brought to visceral life via future tech. Kon’s final completed film before his untimely death, it stands as a fitting apotheosis of all his creative obsessions. – Daniel Schindel

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