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

Written by on June 16, 2016 

20. Inside Out (Pete Docter)


Inside Out’s reimagining of the human brain ranks among Pixar’s most delightful inventions. The theme-park-like headspace of an adolescent girl is shown to contain orbs of memory that are literally colored by the personified Emotions they touch, various “islands” of personality that identify pillars of the girl’s personal identity, and a realm of Abstract Thought that turns all entrants into none other than abstract art. For most of its runtime, Inside Out works quite simply because it’s absurdly fun and imaginative, but once the third act hits, this film’s roller-coaster story settles into a lovely meditation on the role disappointment plays in emotional growth. As wondrous as it is wise, this film reaffirms Pixar’s position of leadership in modern animation. – Jonah Jeng 

19. Mary and Max (Adam Elliot)

Mary and Max

One of the most uplifting and hopeful entries on this list follows Mary, a lonely Australian child who strikes up a long-distance friendship with Max, a socially fragile, obese, middle-aged New Yorker. Written and directed by Harvie Krumet creator Adam Elliot, the film may not be entirely appropriate for kids, due to some mild language and sexual innuendos, but, thematically, it’s perhaps the most essential movie on this list for an impressionable young viewer. The life of a social outcast is handled with remarkable tenderness and realism, despite the oddly disjointed world they inhabit. Victims of teasing and bullying by peers because of their looks or social standing, these occasionally pitiful characters carry on in spite of their pain and solitude. Complete with nearly unrecognizable vocal performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette, Mary and Max is an utterly unexpected, life-affirming stop-motion classic. – Tony Hinds

18. Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)

Howls Moving Castle

Is this Hayao Miyazaki‘s best film? For my money, it’s the one that, with its near-exhausting barrage of action and mythology, most effectively encapsulates his preoccupations as a storyteller; it’s about as visually opulent a work with his name on it, perhaps only bested by the films between it, Spirited Away and Ponyo; and, in avoiding both complicated mythologies and many narrative twists and turns, is more efficient than I’d otherwise expect. In other words: it’s everything Miyazaki does well done best. – Nick Newman

17. The Illusionist (Sylvain Chomet)

The Illusionist

French animator Sylvain Chomet followed up to his wonderfully strange work Triplets of Belleville with the comparatively more subdued story of an aging magician and his Scottish teen charge. Set against gorgeously rendered scenes of 1959 Europe, the 80-minute-long, nearly dialogue-free gem proves both humorous and utterly heartbreaking as it depicts a struggling artist whose tricks no longer draw crowds. Based on an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, the film also functions as a tribute to the comic genius, as the main character embodies his Monsieur Hulot in appearance, movement, and speech — or lack thereof. – Amanda Waltz

16. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)


When the lights came on at the end of Toy Story 3, I distinctly recall looking around the seats of my crowded theater and noticing barely a dry eye in the house, and what struck me was that all the people wiping away tears were the parents who had taken their kids — perhaps rather unsuspectingly — to see the film. Though the earlier Toy Story entries had moments of emotional resonance — indeed, this is partly what elevated them to the pinnacle of ‘90s animations — Toy Story 3 dug a little deeper and hit a little harder. And, as a college student at the time, I totally related to the storyline and realized I had essentially grown up in sync with the character of Andy, which is an utterly bizarre thing to say about a CG creation. The last 20 minutes or so are equal parts terrifying, thrilling, sad, happy, funny, bittersweet, and tender. The fact that Pixar managed to package this all within the context of a “children’s film” is just a testament to how good they are at what they do, and it sets the bar impossibly high for Toy Story 4. – John Ulmer

15. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)


In an era where the aesthetics of animation uphold the crafting of a stunning amount of detail into the image, one of the most genuine pleasures to be found in The Tale of Princess Kaguya — the first film by Studio Ghibli auteur Isao Takahata in fourteen years, and likely his last — is not that each frame bursts with multitudes of details, but with barely the minimum. It is often as if the colors of the background are unfinished, every shot like a brief sketch than something meticulously worked over. In an era where anime films seem to blend into each other aesthetically, Takahata’s impressions seems marvelously alive — its modesty in images makes them feel as if they’re being created before our very eyes. – Peter Labuza

14. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Richard Starzak and Mark Burton)

shaun the sheep

Animation allows for exaggerated forms of action and expression that mean more can be said with complete silence than a traditional live action film can say in a whole monologue. The first animations were silent shorts, and Shaun the Sheep Movie embraces that tradition to create a moving, hilarious tale that plays just as clever and heartwarmingly to both children and adults. The tactile nature of the stop-motion lends the whole affair a warmth that most CGI can’t touch, and the care and time put into the designs of these characters alone deserve careful study from future animators. – Brian Roan

13. Ratatouille (Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava)


Arguably Pixar Animation’s most mature work (other than perhaps Inside Out) Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava‘s Ratatouille is a sumptuous celebration of creative zeal and gastronomical delight against all odds. Playfully toying with the perverse notion of a rat in the kitchen, Remy (Patton Oswalt) is a one-of-a-kind rodent, an autodidact culinary artist who finds himself in the Paris restaurant of legendary Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett). After befriending Linguini (Lou Romano) a clumsy garbage boy who may be the rightful heir to the Gusteau dynasty, Remy must join forces with this hapless human in order to bring to life his unlikely dream of becoming a great chef. Produced during a time when Pixar’s affiliation with Disney temporarily lay on the verge of expiration, Ratatouille‘s stylishly sophisticated aesthetics remain a singularly unique and razor-sharp entry in the outfit’s lofty catalogue. The film is also a fleeting, but ambitious glimpse of the creative feast that could have been if Pixar managed to detach itself from that towering, mouse-eared monolith. – Tony Hinds

12. Boy & the World (Alê Abreu)


Crayon-like scribblings and simple geometric patterns meticulously complicate themselves like a fractal over the course of this child’s-eye odyssey through the global struggle between humankind and the forces that oppress it. Kaleidoscopic visuals use repetition to explore the communal nature of both work and celebration. This film continually pulls back to show the larger picture of society, its visuals becoming more complex in kind, before it reduces to a more intimate view in a supremely bittersweet rendition of Campbell’s heroic return. – Daniel Schindel

11. The Incredibles (Brad Bird)

The Incredibles

The marriage of comic book narrative with animated feature filmmaking is so obviously a good idea that it’s a surprise that it hasn’t been done before. It’s especially surprising given how The Incredibles proves how effectively the form of the latter captures the spirit of the former. From kinetic and physics-defying action scenes that still sustain character and internal realism to exaggerated aesthetic choices that create a truly singular world for these actions beats to take place in, animation serves our heroes better than live action ever can. Pixar has done a lot of impressive things, but creating a super hero film so perfect that most people don’t even place it in the genre with the output of DC or Marvel might be their most subversively amazing feat yet. – Brian Roan

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