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

Written by on June 16, 2016 

10. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)


The crown jewel of Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography — yes, better than My Neighbor Totoro — and the culmination of his pet themes of the struggles between purity and darkness, Spirited Away is almost a Yasujiro Ozu film, if Ozu ever made a film about an inn for ghosts, witches, and mystical spirits. That’s a slight jump, but Miyazaki shows a devout appreciation for the day-to-day processes of an inn — such as in a stunning sequence involving a hot bath — and an equally empathetic eye for how characters talk to each other, supernatural or otherwise. – Michael Snydel

9. Up (Pete Docter)


The married-life montage in Up is a self-contained masterpiece, a distillation of a lifetime’s worth of love and loss into a wordless four minutes. Stop the film there and you’ll have experienced more fulfillment than most movies can offer in their entireties. But continuing to watch brings greater joys still, as this early scene expands into an exuberantly old-fashioned yet novelty-filled adventure story and a tender portrait of the grieving process. Supplemented by impeccable animation (Carl Frederickson’s balloon-levitated house remains one of the wonders of modern CG artistry), Up is Pixar at its finest. It sends you into the clouds in more ways than one. – Jonah Jeng

8. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)


The critically acclaimed Persepolis is a young girl’s sincere coming-of-age story set against the violent backdrop of the Iranian revolution. It’s heartbreaking yet warmly funny, based on Marjane Satrapi‘s autobiographical graphic novel, which beautifully portrays the life of a woman grappling with the struggles of cultural identity. Rendered in a charming black-and-white color pallete, we see Marjane navigating the universal pitfalls of teenage life as she finds herself a terrified witness to the horrors of the ensuing revolution. It isn’t long before her home becomes too dangerous and her parents send her away to live a better life in Vienna. All the while, the guilt builds inside Marjane, who was spared a terrible and torturous fate that her family must still endure. Sobering and insightful, Persepolis is heartfelt proof that, as Marjane says, freedom has its price. – Tony Hinds

7. The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet)

Triples of Belleville

In an era when the bulk of CG-heavy output can carry an unfortunate dose of bland sameness, Sylvain Chomet crafts a strange, beautiful world with his masterfully clever debut The Triplets of Belleville. Mostly absent of dialogue, its in his opulently grotesque character designs where Chomet opens up the gateway to a much more eccentric story than your standard rescue mission. From one of cinema’s most iconic dogs to the Oscar-nominated song “Belleville Rendez-vous,” The Triplets of Belleville is brimming with memorable elements. While some may refer to it as a work of minimalism, I can’t name many more richly detailed creations in animation. – Jordan Raup

6. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon)

Millenium Actress

Cinematic history and personal memory merge in this tragicomic memoir of a lovelorn actress whose multiple roles stand as cyranoids of the many identities any person will cycle through over the course of their life. At the same time, the movie functions as a both a probe into the role of the female across various parts of Japanese filmmaking and as a loving homage to the industry. – Daniel Schindel

5. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton)

Wall E

Going into Wall-E, I was informed that there would be very little words spoken through the beginning, but I didn’t know what to expect beyond that. What I wasn’t expecting was to fall in love with two robots because they were given a humanity that was enduring and a love story that stands among the best cinema has to offer. At its core, Wall-E is about finding a person or reason to live. You develop that over time, and hopefully it becomes more than just a single thing, but imagining it from the perspective of a singularly driven robot that breaks its protocol to follow its dreams? Transformative. This is peak Pixar and I’ll always adore the fact that they worked in geekery like Hal-2000, Sigourney Weaver’s voice (something to be repeated if you head to the theater this weekend), and the Apple Mac wake sound amidst a story of consumerism run rampant. It’s one of the best films to showcase both our awe-inspiring destructiveness in an effort to produce things while also creating technology that makes you gawk. Thank you, Andrew Stanton. – Bill Graham

4. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)

The Wind Rises

Hayao Miyazaki‘s final feature is also his most affecting work. With The Wind Rises, the director, aside from a few dream sequences, loses the fantastical elements his career has been built upon, and the result is an emotional connection I’ve rarely felt from animation. In tracking the life passions of Jirō Horikoshi, a man best known for designing the Zero Fighter plane used in bombing Pearl Harbor, it deals with obsession, guilt, and loss more effectively than any live-action film from its respective year. Although it’s only a few years old, I’m confident The Wind Rises will go down as one of cinema’s most graceful swan songs and a complex grappling with a difficult past. – Jordan Raup

3. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

waltz with bashir

Realism falls painfully short of reality in cases of trauma, where the meaning of objective, real-world events is shaped dramatically by the violence of subjective experience. In his novel The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien made a case for the telling of “story truth” in such instances, i.e. the implementation of artful distortions that ultimately convey the emotional reality of a past event more accurately than a direct retelling would. The quest for “story truth” underpins the groundbreaking aesthetic of Waltz With Bashir, a documentary composed almost entirely of animation. Here, the association between documentary and verisimilitude seems, at first glance, to have been unforgivably violated, but as dream, memory, and present-tense life converge around director Ari Folman’s attempts at salvaging truth from trauma, the film transcends many of its vérité counterparts in the reality it reaches. – Jonah Jeng

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)

Fantastic Mr. Fox

A perfect transition between artist and medium; a work existing between very perceptible reality and perfectly realized imagination; a constant generator of nostalgia and melancholy that doesn’t wallow, but moves forward towards something new without ever losing its feeling; and the oh-so-rare instance wherein Hollywood actors put their voice to film without stepping in the way of illusion. To put it in reductive terms: a cussing magical thing. – Nick Newman

1. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt)

Its Such a Beautiful Day

Animated films get called “adult-friendly” as a means of both assuring adults the movie isn’t pitched too young and to let them know that some of the jokes will be over their children’s heads. If that is “adult-friendly,” then what should someone call It’s Such A Beautiful Day? Here is an avant-garde, mix-media animation that revolves around a man who is dying from some kind of degenerative brain condition. It follows him as he realizes the mundanity of the life he will leave, remembers the facts of his tragic existence, and comes to terms with what death holds. This isn’t adult-friendly — it is decidedly adult-oriented — but still not the type of things that most adults would want to see. It’s a profound, beautiful statement on mortality, and it is not friendly. Maybe we should call it “adult-antagonizing.” I am a proud champion of this genre, as well as its finest entry. – Brian Roan

Honorable mentions: A number of animations also nearly made the cut. We included Tomm Moore‘s latest film, but his previous The Secret of Kells is also worth seeking out, as well as the latest from Laika, The BoxTrolls. On the anime side, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, Wolf Children, and Tekkonkinkreet are all recommended as are Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There and From Up on Poppy Hill. On the Hollywood side, we were impressed by Rango, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and Tangled, but couldn’t find room for them here. Lastly, Hiroyuki Okiura‘s A Letter to Momo, the stop-motion oddity Toys in the Attic, and the Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita will fill your animation fix.

What are your favorite animated films of the 21st century thus far?

See AlsoThe 50 Best Sci-Fi Films of the 21st Century Thus Far


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