The 100 best animated movies: the best cult movies
World-famous animators pick the best animated movies ever, including Disney and Pixar movies, cult movies, kids movies, stop-motion, anime and more
Wed Apr 16 2014
Now we know which are the 100 best animation movies of all time. But which are the best Disney movies and which are the best Pixar or Studio Ghibli films? Which are best for kids and families and which are strictly arty, political or edgy?
We’ve applied 26 handy labels to the 100 great animations in our list. Here you’ll find all the films deserving of the label “cult.”
But how many have you seen? Take our poll to find out.
Miyazaki proves he has the heart of a child, the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “Trees and people used to be good friends.”
Defining moment: The first appearance of the roving cat-bus will have viewers of all ages gasping in delight.
Some filmmakers build their great artworks with blood, sweat and toil. Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki seems to sprout his from seeds, planting them in good earth and patiently watering them until they burst into bloom. My Neighbor Totoro is the gentlest, most unassuming film on this list, a tale of inquisitive children, mischievous dust fairies, magical trees and shy sylvan creatures. But in its own quietly remarkable way, it’s also one of the richest and most overwhelming.
This is a story whose roots go deep: into Japanese tradition and culture, into its creator’s personal past, into a collective childhood filled with tales of mystery and a love of all things that grow. There is darkness at the film’s heart—the fear of losing a parent, the loneliness and frustration of childhood—but its touch is gossamer-light, delighting in simple pleasures like raindrops on an umbrella, dust motes drifting in the sun and midnight dances in the garden. The visual style is unmistakably Japanese (unadorned and artful) and the theme song is so sugary-chirrupy-sweet that it’s impossible to dislodge once heard. But the cumulative effect is unique and utterly all-encompassing, returning us to a world we have all, at one time, lived in—and perhaps will again.—Tom Huddleston
The Ted Hughes novel came to Hollywood in a studio movie that broke technical and storytelling boundaries—if not box-office records.
Director: Brad Bird
Best quote: “I am not a gun.”
Defining moment: The giant carries Hogarth in his hand, high above the treetops below.
Before directing The Incredibles and Rataouille, animator Brad Bird made his feature debut with this charming, intelligent adaptation of the late 1960s Ted Hughes children’s story The Iron Man. Best known at the time for his work on The Simpsons, Bird moved the tale from Britain to 1950s Maine, lending it distinct Cold War flavor. A young boy, Hogarth (given the surname Hughes in honor of the poet, who died in 1998, a year before the film’s release), discovers a metallic giant in his hometown and fights to protect it from being pulverized by the military—while simultaneously teaching it how to live in peace on earth. The widescreen film has a streak of smart humor as well as a winning, harmonious worldview, and mixes computer animation and more traditional techniques: The CGI was mostly invested in rendering the giant as convincingly as possible, while traditional hand-drawn techniques were reserved for the humans. Visually, the film offers stunning moments without sacrificing a pleasingly old-fashioned air. It wasn’t a success at the box office, although it was hailed as a rare example of a family movie with heart and brains. Thankfully, Pixar gave Bird a chance to fly again.—Dave Calhoun
The film that made Christmas creepy.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “Jack, you make wounds ooze and flesh crawl!” (It’s a compliment.)
Defining moment: The opening song, gloriously and ghoulishly upbeat.
It all started in 1982, with a poem written by Tim Burton, then a humble animator at Disney. A year later, Burton pitched A Nightmare Before Christmas to his bosses as a TV special. But the powers that be thought the idea “too weird,” and the project went on the back burner until Beetlejuice and Batman made Burton a hot property.
Too weird? Not a bit. Burton’s graveyard fairy tale is a good old-fashioned musical, with song-and-dance numbers that would get Gene Kelly tapping his feet. It’s the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who discovers a portal to Christmas Town and likes what he sees—children throwing snowballs instead of heads. No one is dead. Jack crafts a plan to kidnap Father Christmas, or Sandy Claws, as he calls him.
Directed by stop-motion maestro Henry Selick from Burton’s story, the movie took 15 animators almost three years to make. Working with more than 227 puppets, they completed just one minute of the film a week. That translates into mind-boggling detail, right down to the mayor’s spider tie. The dialogue is deliciously macabre, the storytelling dizzyingly inventive and the characters touchingly sweet. A twisted delight.—Cath Clarke
An idiosyncratic auteur gets animated with this stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel.
Director: Wes Anderson
Best quote: “Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”
Defining moment: Fox and friends come face-to-face with a mysterious black wolf.
It’s tough being a wild animal. Not that the witty, snappily dressed Mr. Fox (George Clooney) likes to complain about his days making life hell for his human nemeses, farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean). It’s in his nature, after all. But when Fox’s wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), informs him that they have a pup on the way, our vulpine protagonist realizes he has to tame the beast within. Good luck.
There’s nothing docile about Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation. Anderson’s dioramic visuals and pithy plotting translate perfectly to a cartoon world. You’re captivated right from the first gorgeously autumnal shot of Mr. Fox leaning against a tree, an image accompanied, in a very Andersonian touch, by the Wellingtons’ 1954 tune “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
As with all of the director’s films, potent emotions underlie the comic-strip surface: Both Fox and his sullen son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), must come to terms with their instinctual ambitions, which tend to clash with their everyday responsibilities. (The heart breaks when Felicity claws her husband’s furry face in frustration at his blithely destructive impulses.) As the foxes find their way of life increasingly threatened, the question arises: How do you use your nature to your advantage? The answers aren’t easy, but it should be clear that Anderson isn’t out to cater to anyone except the audience he knows so well.—Keith Uhlich
The cartoon Beatles rampage through a psychedelic Pop Art dreamscape.
Director: George Dunning
Best quote: “Nothing is Beatleproof!”
Defining moment: The gorgeously downbeat “Eleanor Rigby” sequence, utilizing monochrome photos of Liverpool.
This may prove to be the most divisive film on our list: Hardened Beatlemaniacs will tell you that Yellow Submarine is a travesty, employing fake (and not especially convincing) Liverpudlian accents to tell a nonsensical tale steeped in late-’60s acid-fried sentiment, never mind that the Fab Four pop up in person at the end to give their blessing. Art maniacs, meanwhile, will tell you it’s a dazzling work of the imagination, harnessing every animation technique available at the time to create an eye-frazzling, insanely inventive trip. To be fair, they’re probably both right: The script is silly, the story is cringeworthy, and the Beatle characterizations are a bit soft. But visually it’s breathtaking, one of the few genuinely hallucinatory cinema experiences, and fully deserving of its high placement here.—Tom Huddleston
This Lewis Carroll adaptation, from a brilliant Czech surrealist, is too wild and wonderful for kids.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “Alice thought to herself, Now you will see a film…made for children…perhaps.”
Defining moment: The Mad Hatter’s tea party: hilarious, anarchic and a fabulous example of Svankmajer’s ability to make the impossible seem absolutely real.
Jan Svankmajer’s first feature is a characteristically inventive but rigorous account of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, faithful in spirit to the original while remaining conspicuously true to his own highly distinctive brand of surrealism. Blending live action (Kristyna Kohoutová, who plays the heroine, is the only human in the film) with various forms of stop-motion animation, Svankmajer creates a wonderland notable for its bizarre dreamlike logic and its grotesque beauty: Skeletal creatures scuttle and steaks crawl while Alice, no stranger to thoughts of cruel whimsy, changes size and becomes her own doll. It’s brilliantly imaginative, bitingly witty and fittingly Freudian. This is no saccharine celebration of innocence, but a foray into the darker recesses of childhood fears and desires. And therefore, perhaps not a film for children.—Geoff Andrew
A biker teen unleashes a psychic with apocalyptic powers—oh, and it’s 2019.
Director: Katsuhiro Ohtomo
Best quote: “The future is not a straight line. It is filled with many crossroads.”
Defining moment: Motorcycle gangs tear through the night destroying all in their wake—a scene that would give Mad Max chills.
Anime’s breakout moment, this supercharged sci-fi thriller turned a niche subgenre into a global phenomenon: Western teens started using the term cyberpunk in casual geek-speak, while Japan’s printed manga suddenly flew off the shelves. To the nonfan dragged along for the ride, the movie felt a lot like Blade Runner and Brazil, featuring incredibly vivid details and attention paid to urban decay. But Akira was also a watershed moment for sci-fi in a larger sense, popularizing ideas of citywide ruination, futuristic rebirth and a distinctly Asian notion of psionic powers that would influence everything from The Matrix to Inception. The mutable setting of Neo-Tokyo anticipated the larger playground of the Internet, still years off but somehow of a piece with these youthful speed racers.—Joshua Rothkopf
This unflinching war story proves that, in animation, anything is possible.
Director: Isao Takahata
Best quote: “September 21, 1945…that was the night I died.”
Defining moment: We don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but it features one of the most heart-wrenching character deaths in movie history.
The year 1988 saw Studio Ghibli at the peak of its powers, releasing a pair of richly personal tributes to youthful resilience that proved the breadth and brilliance of their work. My Neighbor Totoro (coming up!) was studio founder Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, a work of wondrous beauty and grace. But it’s matched—some would say surpassed—by Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps the bleakest and least forgiving film in our top 100. Set in the midst of WWII, the story follows two children, Setsuko and Seita, as they lose their mother in an American bombing raid and are forced to fend for themselves. At first it’s all a game, but as sickness and starvation begin to intrude, the film deepens and darkens, ultimately reaching a place of complete emotional exhaustion and absolute, devastating grief. This is not a movie to be taken lightly.—Tom Huddleston
A live-action gumshoe must prove that a cartoon rabbit has been wrongly accused of murder.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Best quote: “I’m not bad—I’m just drawn that way.”
Defining moment: Roger falls for the ol’ shave-and-a-haircut trick.
Live action and animation have been mixed multiple times, but never quite as brilliantly as in Robert Zemeckis’s blockbuster film noir parody. The setting is postwar Los Angeles, where characters like Bugs Bunny, Dumbo and Mickey Mouse are actual Hollywood contract players as opposed to artists’ caprices. A bowtied-and-overalled hare named Roger (voiced with sputtering glee by Charles Fleischer) is accused of murdering the human founder of Acme products for having slept with his comely spouse, Jessica (smokily realized by Kathleen Turner). Only alcoholic private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) can clear this poor bunny’s name and save him from the death-dealing hands of the conniving Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). Zemeckis and chief animator Richard Williams (whose Academy Award–winning work here was part of a deal to complete his long-gestating opus The Thief and the Cobbler) keep the eye-popping sights coming. Highlights are the many classic cameos, including a hilarious piano duel between Daffy and Donald Duck; a careering car chase involving a Bronx-accented cab named Benny; and Eddie’s own “dark night” in the ominously cheery Toontown, where even Droopy Dog is out to get him.—Keith Uhlich
Surreal social commentary in a Gallic animated sci-fi milestone.
Director: René Laloux
Best quote: “I was only a tiny toy, but on occasion a toy who dared to rebel.”
Defining moment: A mother runs in terror cradling her child, only to be picked up and flung to the ground by a giant blue hand.
Take the big’uns-versus-little’uns conflict from Gulliver’s Travels, sprinkle with the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine, add a political allegory as forceful as Orwell’s 1984 and you’re beginning to grasp this unique combination of Gallic creativity and Czech production expertise. No other animated feature looks like this, since planet Ygam and its weirdly wonderful inhabitants are drawn in a deliberately antique fashion, like some illustrated bestiary from before Columbus set sail. The tiny Homs (think hommes, French for “men”) are kept as pets by their otherworldly conquerors, the giant Draags (perhaps drogues, French for “drugs”), but they have the spirit and ingenuity to turn the tables on their technologically advanced yet dangerously self-absorbed masters. This definitely prefigures the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicäa, even if it lacks his robust storytelling and crisp action. It’s a ’70s landmark all the same.—Trevor Johnston
An Iranian expat remembers her tumultuous childhood during the Islamic revolution.
Directors: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Best quote: “Shut up, you bitches! Yes, I’m Iranian, and I’m proud of it!”
Defining moment: Young Marjane talks her way out of a tough spot after buying an Iron Maiden bootleg.
Between 2000 and 2003, French-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi published a well-received autobiographical comic detailing her coming-of-age during and after the Islamic revolution. When the opportunity arose to make a film, Satrapi took on the task herself, with the aid of comics colleague Vincent Paronnaud and an all-star voice cast featuring Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux, among others. Aside from a framing section in color, the film mimics the high-contrast black-and-white inking of Satrapi’s four-volume graphic novel. The simplicity of the visuals helps universalize the story, which is filled with plenty of the usual travails of growing up (troubles with boys, clandestine parties, etc.), though always viewed in pointedly thumb-nosing contrast with the oppressive regime that wants to keep the populace—especially its women—in check. Persepolis is infused with its creator’s ingratiating rebelliousness, as well as her melancholy for a homeland torn apart by still-rampant social and political divides.—Keith Uhlich
Freed from the constraints of network TV, prepubescent paper-cut terrors go on the rampage.
Director: Trey Parker
Best quote: “That movie has warped my fragile little mind.”
Defining moment: “Uncle Fucka,” the foulmouthiest jolly little musical number in animation history.
The Broadway-conquering, Tony-sweeping success of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s stage musical, The Book of Mormon, took many by surprise—but only the sort of people who wouldn’t have touched the South Park movie with a conductor’s baton. If they had, those audiences would have known that the Coloradans were not merely purveyors of taste-baiting trash for sniggering schoolboys, but the slyest, smartest and (yes) most tuneful satirists America had produced since, well, ever. And South Park Bigger Longer & Uncut remains their defining statement, a work combining epic scale (a land war with Canada, a trip to the depths of Hades, a daylight raid on the Baldwin compound) with intimate character comedy (Satan’s grief over his lover Saddam Hussein’s infidelity is genuinely touching), wrapped in a biting commentary on censorship and topped off with belting show tunes worthy of West Side Story.—Tom Huddleston
Nothing is child’s play in this vivid, gutsy adaptation of Richard Adams’s novel about a colony of rabbits seeking a new warren.
Director: Martin Rosen
Best quote: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you.”
Defining moment: The harrowing apocalyptic vision of young Fiver, which sets the story—and decidedly mature tone—in motion.
Not quite children’s adventure, not quite grown-up epic, rich with classical allusions and biblical allegory, Richard Adams’s unexpectedly popular novel posed something of a challenge to animators: How do you make a creature feature that’s not too cute for adults, and a story of death and displacement that’s not too grim for families? Martin Rosen’s solemn, urgent and exquisitely rendered film strikes just that balance. There are sequences in this riveting survival tale to terrify viewers of any age, many involving General Woundwort, the face that launched a thousand childhood nightmares. But there’s comforting, compassionate sweetness, too (exemplified by Art Garfunkel’s sentimental theme song, “Bright Eyes”), all folded into powerful, traditional storytelling. Nobody would dare make anything like it today.—Guy Lodge
Ancient forests mark the battleground for mankind’s future in this mythical drama set in medieval Japan.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “My goal is to see with eyes unclouded by hate.”
Defining moment: The first sight of the Deer God, antlers glowing as we glimpse him through the trees.
Like Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, this Miyazaki epic puts ecological concerns at the center of a human power struggle—but a decade on from those earlier films, the director’s worldview had become much more complex. The nascent technology of iron smelting allows for the development of firearms, but also means that forests are felled to fuel the process—forests where the ancient gods still live. Half-human, half-spirit Mononoke embodies the contradictions of change, vowing to protect the woods yet drawn to youthful warrior-tribesman Ashitaka, who’s seeking his own destiny at the heart of this threatened landscape. Unlike the Disney universe, there are no simplistic heroes or villains here, just the steady realization that our bid to master nature will have profound consequences: both our making and our undoing. Muscular, troubling, uncompromising storytelling on a grand scale.—Trevor Johnston
Handcrafted silhouettes captivate in the first-ever animated feature.
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Best quote: It’s silent, so you’ll have to provide your own dialogue.
Defining moment: The good witch takes on the evil sorcerer in a shape-shifting smackdown.
Given the immense visual sophistication of today’s computer-aided animation, is there still any point in watching a silent film where paper cutouts move across illuminated sheets of glass? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes, since this fairy-tale adventure from Germany’s Lotte Reiniger is no fusty historical artifact, but a mesmerizing viewing experience, precisely because (unlike modern animation) we can see the handiwork involved in creating the exquisite silhouettes peopling this classic Arabian Nights tale. There’s a flying horse, a dashing prince, an evil sorcerer, a damsel in serious distress, and even a special appearance by Aladdin and his “wunderlampe.” It’s all rendered in filigree detail that brings the time-honored story to life. There’s not quite the seamless movement we’ve come to expect these days, but when Reiniger fills the screen with spiky winged demons, the sheer craft on display is genuinely breathtaking.—Trevor Johnston
Conversations swirl in a treatise on the need to stay curious.
Director: Richard Linklater
Best quote: “Are you a dreamer? I haven’t seen too many around lately.”
Defining moment: Floppy-haired Wiley Wiggins floats high above his suburban neighborhood, a black shape against the blue sky.
Trippiness of a highly verbal nature wasn’t unexpected from the director of Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Still, Richard Linklater’s hypnotic plunge into rotoscoping proved a litmus test even for his fans: You either let the flow of cosmic ideas sweep you up in a stimulating rush or you checked out somewhere. In either case, the filmmaker’s creativity was undeniable. Friends morph into banks of fluffy, chatting clouds; flirters launch words like love into earholes. Amateur philosophizing was never so well-supported or flattered by its form. Fans of Before Sunrise noticed Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke lounging in bed (a hint of two sequels yet to come). Yet for the most part, all footholds evaporated. Waking Life was—and still is—a surreal invitation to cut loose.—Joshua Rothkopf
An elderly British couple thinks it can survive a nuclear attack with Blitz-era gumption.
Director: Jimmy T. Murakami
Best quote: “There’s no need to forget your manners just because there’s a war on.”
Defining moment: Surveying their destroyed kitchen, the couple brews a cup of tea and baffles over their silenced TV.
A sick joke on paper, this devastating domestic drama today feels like one of the more honest works of the anti-nuke movement. It’s a complete and utter downer, making a larger point subtly through the employment of animation itself: Such an adorably hand-drawn universe is too precious to last in a world of mutually assured destruction. We’re all living in a cartoon if we actually believe survival is possible when the radiation headaches mount and your hair starts failing out in tufts. (Heartbreakingly, the husband assures his wife that women don’t go bald—a “scientific fact.”) Big-name pop stars lent their music to the cause, including Roger Waters, Squeeze and David Bowie, who crooned the soulful, undanceable title track. If you haven’t seen this one, that’s totally understandable; it makes The Day After look like a gentle summer shower.—Joshua Rothkopf
Threatened farm animals seek the help of super-smart experimental rodents from a lab.
Director: Don Bluth
Best quote: “We can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”
Defining moment: The fearsome, golden-eyed Great Owl smashes a spider, chomps on a moth—and offers some sage advice.
Call it the work of a rebel: In 1979, Disney animator Don Bluth left the cost-cutting studio in frustration (along with several other colleagues) to start up a company that still valued old-school craft. Their first feature was this remarkably sophisticated adventure, about a field mouse seeking solutions to the problems of an ailing son, an aggressive farmer and the potential destruction of her community. Enter the heroic rats of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), who apply their artificially boosted levels of intelligence to the calamities at hand. The style of the animation is hand-painted and traditionally sumptuous, requiring thousands of hours of work, but the real beauty here is in the making of entertainment targeted at kids who enjoy using their minds.—Joshua Rothkopf
The madness and futility of war…in animation.
Director: Ari Folman
Best quote: “Memory fills the holes with things that never happened.”
Defining moment: The acid-trip opener: An ex-soldier describes a recurring dream of being chased by a pack of 26 ferocious dogs.
Israeli soldier-turned-filmmaker Ari Folman described making his autobiographical antiwar documentary as being like therapy. It began when he left the army (after serving for more than 20 years, full-time and as a reservist). Folman had never talked about his experiences fighting in Lebanon in 1982 at age 19 until he went to see an army therapist, a condition of his discharge. During the conflict, Lebanese Christian militia massacred up to 3,000 Palestinians in refugee camps—possibly under the eyes of Israeli forces. Folman was there, but his memories of the conflict were fuzzily vague. We see him as he sets out to interview the men he fought alongside, the story unfolding in flashbacks, strikingly told with graphic artist David Polonsky’s hallucinatory drawings. The result is an antiwar film in the league of Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line. Compelling and original.—Cath Clarke
Animation meets classical music in an Italian-style Fantasia.
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Best quote: “Someone called Disney has already made this?”
Defining moment: Humanity’s evolution scored to Ravel’s Bolero is a magnificent set piece.
Of course, Disney’s Fantasia is the acknowledged reference point for Italian mischief maker Bruno Bozzetto’s animated collection of classical pops, interwoven with boisterous live-action interludes in which a hard-pressed animator battles an egomaniac conductor, his shifty producer and an unlikely orchestra of geriatric ladies let out of their cages (no, really) to play the score. There’s definitely a Monty Python–style antiestablishment surrealism in both elements of the movie, not least the musical sections, in which we see humanity evolve from the sludge at the bottom of a Coke bottle, the serpent in the garden of Eden tormented by the sheer variety of the sins he’s about to introduce into the world, and the absurdity of materialism represented by the urge to erect higher and higher buildings. Certainly, it’s uneven, and some of the humor feels dated, but there’s not a hint of classical-music snobbery here.—Trevor Johnston
Hard to be a collegian feline in the city? Not really, especially when there’s so much sex and pot to be had.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “I’ve fought many a good man, and laid many a good woman.”
Defining moment: Fritz gets handsy in a bathtub with at least three other animals.
It’s not an overstatement to divide the whole of animated cinema into two eras: Before Fritz and After Fritz. Aside from becoming a global sensation (and outgrossing most Disney films up to that point), Ralph Bakshi’s libidinous Greenwich Village romp was a slap in the face to purists who hoped to keep cartoons safe for kids. Notoriously, the film received an X rating (and includes a fair amount of bare-assed rutting), but that pejorative label might have also been due to its director’s overall vision, inspired by Robert Crumb’s countercultural characters and filled with Vietnam War–era surliness. Bakshi cut his teeth at Paramount Pictures and in advertising for clients like Coca-Cola; he was no fool to the realities of commerce. Still, it took someone familiar with the game to break the rules so completely. His triumph is animation’s puberty.—Joshua Rothkopf
A landmark work of British animation, terrifying to kids, and some adults.
Directors: John Halas and Joy Batchelor
Best quote: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Defining moment: Utterly corrupted by greed and selfishness, the pigs send Boxer the cart horse to the glue factory (an allegory of Stalin’s betrayal of the proletariat?).
It’s safe to assume that Animal Farm is the only film in this list to be partly funded by the CIA. A propaganda unit in the agency bought the film rights to George Orwell’s allegory of the failures of the Russian revolution from the writer’s widow. One slight problem: The ending of the book saw the pigs and humans join forces. That needed to change to fit the CIA’s anti-Soviet aims, so it was replaced by a scene in which the animals revolt against the pigs. Animation historians doubt that the film’s animator-directors, the British husband-and-wife team John Halas and Joy Batchelor, knew how their film was funded. Released in 1954, Animal Farm is the first feature-length British animated film, its kitchen-sink craft bold and striking. At the time, one critic dubbed it “Disney-turned-serious.” As anyone made to watch it at school in the 1980s will tell you, it’s not suitable for young children.—Cath Clarke
This mythical adventure provides the ultimate showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-frame animation.
Director: Don Chaffey
Best quote: “The gods are cruel! In time, men will learn to live without them.”
Defining moment: Sword-wielding skeletons rise from the turf to attack our band of brothers.
Generations of younger viewers remain convinced that Ray Harryhausen possessed the magical power to bring model figurines to life, simply on the strength of this ancient-Greek adventure pic he himself regarded as his finest achievement. No one really remembers the plot, which involves Todd Armstrong’s frankly wooden Jason and his brawny crew taking to the seas to bring back the fabled Golden Fleece and thus ascend the throne of Thessaly. But the stop-frame-animation highlights are unforgettable—from fierce winged harpies to the bronze giant Talos and the snapping seven-headed Hydra. Best of all, though, is a battle with sword-swinging skeletons, raised from the earth to take on our heroes. The human and animated elements are uncannily integrated in a way that CGI never quite makes so tactile. They’re alive!—Trevor Johnston
Stop-motion animatronics meet live action in this still-thrilling adventure story.
Directors: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Best quote: “It was beauty killed the beast.”
Defining moment: When a T. Rex pauses to scratch his nose, these plasticine monsters really do come to life.
A central idea with this list was to leave the definition of an animated movie entirely in the hands of our contributors, with the result that a number of left-field choices managed to sneak in. For example, this classic live-action adventure story, which uses stop-motion figures to represent its title character, a romantically inclined giant ape, and his dinosaur adversaries. The number of filmmakers King Kong has inspired is legion and legendary, from Ray Harryhausen—who sought the advice of animator Willis O’Brien while still a movie-mad teenager—to Peter Jackson—who famously (and rather pointlesssly) remade the film in 2005. What makes King Kong remarkable is its attention to detail: The world had never seen such convincing animated figures moving so fluidly within a real-world environment. The effect remains poetic and bewitching.—Tom Huddleston
The seminal anime series comes to a close with an apocalyptic bang.
Directors: Kazuya Tsurumaki and Hideaki Anno
Best quote: Our protagonist laments, “I’m so fucked up.”
Defining moment: This is the way the world ends…to a pop song.
Fans were mightily displeased with the cerebral, action-free conclusion of Hideaki Anno’s anime TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–96), in which humans fight otherworldly “angels” with giant robots. So he went back to the drawing board and came up with this immensely satisfying, theatrically released alternate ending, which increases the orgiastic machine-on-monster violence tenfold while doubling down on the heady philosophical and spiritual allusions. This is a movie that begins with our weak-willed adolescent hero, Shinji, masturbating over the comatose body of his colleague, and climaxes with an end-times free-for-all that mixes Christian symbology, Jewish mysticism, sexual paranoia and teenage angst into a searing apocalyptic stew. In between are sights and sounds you’ll never forget—from Shinji’s horrifying descent into insanity to a live-action sequence that provocatively implicates the audience itself in the madness.—Keith Uhlich
A tribute to classic Hollywood, aviation and the unlimited possibilities of cinema.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.”
Defining moment: The climactic duel between Porco and his archnemesis, American air ace Curtis.
The most impressive thing about writer-director-producer and Studio Ghibli chief Hayao Miyazaki is not his imagination (which is vast), nor his compassion (which is bottomless), but his extraordinary confidence: It takes a remarkable man to come up with a tale of a magical pig who flies planes in pre-WWII Italy. But it takes balls of brass to believe that such a story was worth spending three years and who knows how many million yen to bring to the screen. Thank God he did. It takes some arguing to not see Porco Rosso as Miyazaki’s crowning achievement, crammed with charm, empathy, historical irony and dry, brilliantly idiosyncratic wit. But most of all it stands as a testament to the power of film itself, presenting a world both inspired by cinema—from Errol Flynn to Humphrey Bogart via the Pagot brothers—and filled with it, from the movie magazines read by our crumpled porcine hero to the cat-and-mouse cartoons he loves to watch.—Tom Huddleston
A spooky sequel descends even deeper into virtual reality’s underworld.
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Best quote: “When dialogue fails, it’s time for violence.”
Defining moment: Our heroes get trapped in an M.C. Escher–like time loop.
Mamoru Oshii’s futuristic thriller Ghost in the Shell (1995)—about a law-enforcement cyborg searching for the meaning of her existence—is one of the most highly regarded anime features ever made. This sequel, made nine years later, expands on the original’s heady philosophical conceits with a no-less-striking visual palette. The presumed-dead Major’s former colleagues Batô and Togusa are the leads, tasked with investigating a series of deaths caused by malfunctioning sex robots called gynoids. Of course, there’s much more to the mystery, which takes Batô and Togusa everywhere from a ratty yakuza den (site of an ecstatically bloody shoot-out) to the topsy-turvy mansion of a doll-obsessed hacker. Oshii lets his imagination run wild: A gorgeously rendered parade sequence (which itself took more than a year to complete) could stand on its own as an immersive mini masterpiece. The endlessly imaginative visual play complements the film’s stimulating inquiry into the fine line separating man and machine.—Keith Uhlich
A grubby New York City, a murderous cast of characters and plenty of off-color jokes—Walt would not approve.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “Now listen here, boy: As long as Carole’s got this here good thing [Slaps own butt] and this here left [Taps head], she don’t need anything else unless she wants it—and child, I don’t want it!”
Defining moment: A Mafia boss slurps up a forkful of pasta, out of which tiny, helpless figures fall, shaken from the strands.
“It’s animated, but it’s not a cartoon,” promised the trailer, yet the movie that followed, in scummy NYC theaters in August 1973, didn’t fulfill that pledge. Ralph Bakshi’s passion project, a swirling java of urban stereotypes (the overbearing Jewish mother, the Italian mobster, the sassy black girlfriend, etc.), is overstated in a garish, ethnically broad way, very much a cartoon. No matter: There was nothing like it at the time. It’s worth noting that potential viewers had to actively be told that animation could deal with adult subjects like crime, violence and poverty. The style is hand-drawn, superimposed over grainy photographs of Brooklyn’s decay. Though much of Heavy Traffic has since dated poorly, it’s closer to the vibe of early Scorsese than any other movie on this list—and it still represents an avenue that’s gone largely unexplored.—Joshua Rothkopf
A gleefully bizarre twist on the Faust story that blends live-action with puppetry, stop-motion animation and more.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “How comes it then that thou art now out of hell with me?”
Defining moment: The scene showing a baby’s rapid journey through childhood and adulthood to death is Svankmajer’s Claymation at its best.
Svankmajer’s second feature reimagines the Faust story with reference to Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod, Freud, folk legend—and his own extremely fertile invention. A nondescript everyman (Petr Cepek) emerging from a crowded Prague subway is handed a map with a spot marked X; the next day he visits the place, a dressing room in an abandoned theater, where he unthinkingly transforms himself into Faust and sinks into a sinister realm of arcane spells, alchemy and tricky negotiations with Lucifer. The man’s seemingly inexorable descent toward annihilation is conveyed by an expertly executed blend of live action, puppetry, Claymation and other forms of filmic trickery. As ever with Svankmajer’s work, the underlying pessimism of the story and characterization are balanced by the director’s mischievously witty delight in the absurd.—Geoff Andrew
A mockingbird conspires to bring down a despotic king in this seminal futuristic fairy tale.
Director: Paul Grimault
Best quote: “Attention: A charming shepherdess and a worthless little chimney sweep are being hunted by His Majesty the King’s police.”
Defining moment: A giant robot under the mockingbird’s control frees a young chicken from its cage, before smashing said cage with its fist.
If you chucked Disney characters into a sci-fi setting and sprinkled in a dose of French lyricism, you might end up with something like Le Roi et L’Oiseau. The film, scripted by poet Jacques Prévert and loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale, tells the story of a detestable king brought down by arrogance and the machinations of his own paintings (trust us, it makes sense when you watch it). Ostensibly a kids’ flick, it doubles as a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism—the king’s absurdly ornate palace brings to mind the Bavarian castles beloved of the Nazis, whose regime had barely collapsed when Prévert and Paul Grimault began scripting it in 1948. But above all, it’s a great yarn, at once warm and sharply satirical, all 32 tortuous years of its production visible in the glorious attention to detail.—Alex Dudok De Wit
Peter Jackson was only 17 when a brave filmmaker tackled Tolkien.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “My precious…”
Defining moment: The attack at the ford by Rotoscoped Black Riders is truly unnerving.
First, let’s get the standard complaints out of the way: Yes, it can be a bit goofy, and some of the voices are way off (whose bright idea was it to cast C-3PO Anthony Daniels as Legolas?). And yes, it unexpectedly stops halfway through, with Frodo and Sam still lost in the wild and the Riders of Rohan beating back the orc army at Helm’s Deep (a conclusion was actually shot for TV, without Bakshi’s involvement, but the less said about that the better). But please, let’s focus on the positives, and there are many. The characterization is simple but effective: We’d say that Sam Gamgee is more wholesomely Tolkienish here than in the Jackson version. The action scenes are genuinely gripping, especially the climactic battle. And most of all, the visual style is just glorious, from the ornate, convincingly twisted woods of Fangorn to those utterly unique Rotoscoped Ringwraiths.—Tom Huddleston
Anime’s international breakthrough, probing the dystopia of an all-engulfing network.
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Best quote: “I am a living, thinking entity who was created in the sea of information.”
Defining moment: Our security-agent heroine pulls the connectors from her neck and we realize she’s a cyborg.
Among the first Japanese anime features to be released theatrically in the West, this remarkable vision of the networked future arrived when most of us were barely aware of the Internet. As an elite cybercrime squad hunts down a dangerous hacker known as the Puppetmaster (who’s active online yet elusive in the real world), the story is also an opportunity to wonder if a character is still human when its body is a patchwork of cyborg limbs, and its memories a catalog of information open to manipulation. It’s more a think piece than a thriller, and you can certainly see the roots of the Matrix trilogy here. A Blade Runner–like noir atmosphere still compels, meshing beautifully with Kenji Kawai’s electro-organic score to convey the aching melancholy of being connected to everything, yet remaining utterly alone.—Trevor Johnston
A controversial satire on race relations from ’70s animation outlaw Bakshi.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “Harlem. Yeah! The pot of smack at the end of the rainbow. No more happy-actin’, back-bustin’. Harlem!”
Defining moment: A naked obese preacher who claims he’s the black Jesus shoots holes in photos of John Wayne, Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley.
After introducing drug use, salty street talk and working genitalia into his scandalous first feature, Fritz the Cat, Ralph Bakshi really caused a stir with this caustic look at race relations, featuring three animated brothers in conflict with both phony revolutionaries and the New York Mafia. Notwithstanding the white and gay characters (just as caricatured as the black ones), racial-equality groups were appalled and the film was barely released, later emerging on DVD under the more benign title Street Fight. Viewed in retrospect—and putting aside the Tarantino argument of whether a white writer-director has the right to use the n-word so liberally—it’s possible to see Bakshi attempting a strong statement about the subjugation of African-Americans, but undermining himself by using the worst stereotypes of preachers, pimps and whores to make his point.—Trevor Johnston
This compilation of classic Looney Tunes cartoons deserves to be far better known.
Directors: Chuck Jones and Phil Monroe
Best quote: “Duck season! Wabbit season! Duck season! Wabbit season!”
Defining moment: Too many to choose from, but the Wagner-inspired “What’s Opera, Doc?” will make your jaw drop.
The only conceivable reason why this roundup of the best Warner Bros. shorts isn’t higher on this list is because so few are aware of its existence. Released briefly into theaters in 1979, the film opens with Bugs Bunny in scholarly mode, looking back over the history of the chase movie from the earliest silents to the present day. Cue a cavalcade of some of the most insanely inventive, vigorously intelligent, wildly subversive and mind-bendingly bizarre skits and spoofs ever seen on film. The highlights are now part of our culture: Elmer Fudd going toe-to-toe with Bugs in “Rabbit Fire”; Daffy Duck berating his own animator in the dizzying “Duck Amuck”; the surly appearance of Marvin the Martian in “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century.” But where else can you find them all in one place? We don’t use the word genius lightly, but this qualifies.—Tom Huddleston
Jonathan Swift is adapted in the first feature from Disney’s closest rivals.
Director: Dave Fleischer
Best quote: “There’s a g-g-giant on the b-b-beach!”
Defining moment: Lilliputian ingenuity and effort transport their new arrival back to the royal castle.
The achievements of the Fleischer brothers (director Dave and producer Max) have long been overshadowed by Walt Disney, yet they invented many key animation techniques, brought sound to the medium, and found wide audiences for their Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman shorts. Still, Disney’s 1937 Snow White was a game-changer, and the Fleischers responded with their own animated feature, which took the more family-friendly elements from Swift’s caustic original and delivered an upbeat story in which shipwrecked sailor Gulliver intervenes in the senseless conflict between tiny rival nations over the music at a forthcoming royal wedding. The operetta-influenced warbling hasn’t worn especially well, and the knockabout comedy lacks subtlety, yet the thought-through detail with which the Fleischers imagine Lilliput’s micro fixtures and fittings still impresses. A worthwhile reminder that Disney didn’t have it all its way.—Trevor Johnston
This richly imagined postapocalyptic fantasy is Miyazaki’s first masterpiece.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “Man and insect cannot live together!”
Defining moment: The glow of the rampaging insects’ hate-filled red eyes lines the horizon.
Miyazaki’s first film based on his own original material is a major statement of intent. The man doesn’t just tell stories; he creates entire worlds. That sense of total immersion pays dividends here. It’s truly shocking when the eponymous heroine’s peaceful agrarian community comes under attack from a warmongering nation whose aggressive expansion plans could completely unbalance the postapocalyptic environment, where deadly giant insects lurk in the so-called Sea of Decay. Just as Star Wars did before it, the film thrillingly shows how one individual’s distinctive perceptions can affect events on a cosmic scale, yet the triumph here is the insistence on endeavoring to resolve mankind’s fate rather than deploy more destruction. Looking to discover early Miyazaki? Start with this epic saga of conflict and compassion.—Trevor Johnston
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- Rated as: 5/5
- Critics choice
Mike Leigh delivers a naturalistic, stunningly shot biopic about the working life of J.M.W. Turner. Timothy Spall plays the legendary painter with brave and captivating restraint.
- Rated as: 4/5
- Critics choice
In the unlikely event that this subversive Seth Rogen comedy proves to be Sony’s downfall, at least they'll go out with a bang—the jokes are wonderfully lowbrow.
- Rated as: 4/5
- Critics choice
This year’s winner of the Palme d’Or is a nearly four-hour drama about a curmudgeon who lives in Turkey's remote mountains. Despite that, it’s pretty great.