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

Written by on June 16, 2016 

30. Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter)

Monsters Inc

Pixar’s first animation of this century is one of their most inventive, once again delivering a film that speaks to adults as well as children, all the while opening up our imagination with a powerful emotional foundation. From the buddy-comedy element (featuring perfect voice acting by John Goodman and Billy Crystal) to the unforgettable “door vault” sequence, the amount of creativity and energy on display here is awe-inspiring. Pete Docter‘s directorial debut isn’t as pristinely accomplished as what would follow from him (as the rest of this list attests), but, for our first glimpse at his talent for world-building and ability to induce tear-shedding, it’s an essential watch. – Jordan Raup

29. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson)

Anomalisa

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a motivational speaker in customer service who’s just arrived in Cincinnati for a conference. Seeing through Michael’s eyes, we realize that he has a psychological condition where he sees everyone as the same person with the same bland face and, courtesy Tom Noonan‘s perfectly dry performance, voice. Even the music on his iPod is performed in the same monotonous tone. That is, until he falls for Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a vulnerable woman whose face and voice miraculously break through Michael’s condition, if only briefly. For a character as self-centered as Michael, perhaps true emotional connection can only be a fleeting embrace, precarious and sadly temporary. A painfully human tale of a tragically flawed person, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson‘s Anomalisa would feel hopeless were it not so lovely. – Tony Hinds

28. Coraline (Henry Selick)

Coraline 2

Released the same year as Fantastic Mr. Fox, Henry Selick’s Coraline and Wes Anderson’s animated outlier established a gold standard for stop-motion animation. Based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, Coraline’s story of askew netherworlds and wish fulfillment is a steampunk gothic vision of surrealism inflected with nightmarish imagery of button eyes, corroded monsters, and hidden ugliness. Like the best animated films of the 21st century, it’s a film that appears to be about the allure of the fantastic, but understands that the real beauty lies in the mundane. – Michael Snydel

27. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Mamoru Hosoda)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

When you’re young, all stupid mistakes seem fixable, and Mamoru Hosoda crafts a warm high school fable all about this. Of course, the protagonist uses her time-traveling power to do endless karaoke rather than change history, right up until she gets some sharp lessons in unintended consequences. Hosoda has a keen eye for the mundane yet evocative details of life that matches the Ghibli masters at their peaks, and this movie marked him truly coming into his own as a director. – Daniel Schindel

26. Ernest & Celestine (Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar)

Ernest and Celestine

While a certain swan song you’ll see later on this list deserved the 2013 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature over Frozen — a film nowhere to be found here — we would have been just as delighted to see this quaint French-language animation take the cake.  It’s no surprise The Triplets of Belleville producer Didier Brunner was also behind this film, as the adaptation of Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent‘s books stunningly uses a watercolor effect to portray the unusual pairing of bear and mouse. It comments on prejudice and class divides more gracefully than Zootopia, and one will be instantly won over by the sheer whimsical nature — including mice that can’t speak without proper teeth alignment — as well as a music-video interlude featuring surrealist, rain drop-esque paintings come to life. – Jordan Raup

25. How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois)

How to Train Your Dragon

While they make their bread and butter on green ogres and fluffy pandas, How to Train Your Dragon set a new standard for DreamWorks Animation. Telling a fairly simple, but heartwarming story with soaring technical prowess, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois‘ is equal parts adorable, humorous, and daring. Aided greatly by the immersive cinematography (with consulting from the great Roger Deakins) and John Powell‘s rousing score, this exquisitely crafted tale of friendship has that special spark of pure delight previously relegated to its main Hollywood competitor. – Jordan Raup

24. Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (Shinichirō Watanabe)

Cowboy Bebop The Movie

Though it’s perfectly understandable even if you haven’t seen the TV series from which it spun off, fans will recognize how this distills the show’s effortless sense of style and completely immersive sci-fi world into two hours. Shinichiro Watanabe revels in deliberation, letting melancholy or tension simmer right up until its time to break out an exquisitely choreographed action scene. And, as always, Yoko Kanno‘s music is perfection. – Daniel Schindel

23. Waking Life (Richard Linklater)

Waking Life

The gorgeously rotoscoped Waking Life is a dream within a dream within a film. Its plotless narrative is told from the perspective of a nameless dreamer, an utterly passive protagonist (Wiley Wiggins from Dazed and Confused) who enters town on a train and proceeds to drift from conversation to conversation, experience to experience. Boasting uproarious performances from Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (both reprising their Before roles), and even nut-ball conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the film marks a return to a structure Linklater previously employed on his debut feature, Slacker. We follow one character for a while and then abandon them for another, a freeform stream-of-consciousness narrative that even ditches its own protagonist for multiple scenes at a time. One of the most memorable moments involves weirdo raconteur Steven Prince, of Taxi Driver fame, telling yet another harrowing true-life story as he did in Scorsese’s documentary, American Boy. As the mysterious Boat-Car Guy says, “The ride does not require an explanation — just occupants.” Likewise, Waking Life does not require an explanation — just an audience. – Tony Hinds

22. The Emperor’s New Groove (Mark Dindal)

Emperors New Groove

The name David Spade is not usually synonymous with “best,” but, even as a Joe Dirt apologist, The Emperor’s New Groove will certainly go down as his best film — pending some sort of Spadeaisance. Mark Dindal‘s animation went through so many changes that an entire documentary was dedicated to its troubles, but it’s proof that even the most contentious production can yield bountiful results. This madcap, joke-a-second adventure has so many non sequiturs and seemingly drug-fueled asides that it seems like a gem compared to most of the sanded-down studio output. It was released about a year before Chuck Jones died; we’re not sure if was able to see it, but he can rest proudly knowing both his animation style and strand of humor were greatly honored here. – Jordan Raup

21. Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon)

Tokyo Godfathers

Three homeless Tokyo citizens — two middle-aged (a deteriorating alcoholic and upbeat transsexual), one a runaway teen — are given a chance at stability with the discovery of an abandoned child on Christmas Eve. Read into that combination whatever religious or non-denominational possibility you like — as far as I can tell, Satoshi Kon backgrounds that in favor of chaos, comedy, shockingly traumatic backstories, and a color combination that melds our own world with flights of fantasy. And that doesn’t even account for the best “Ode to Joy” movies may have to offer. – Nick Newman

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