The 100 best animated movies: the best foreign-language 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 foreign-language films explored in the project.
But how many have you seen? Take our poll to find out.
Moving is a drag for ten-year-old Chihiro, until she discovers she’s meant to work in a bathhouse for the spirit world.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “There must be some mistake: None of these pigs are my parents!”
Defining moment: Tea and cakes with the monstrous Yubaba and No-Face—a moment in the same surreal league as Lewis Carroll.
The apex of Japanese animation—to fans worldwide, all animation—is one of cinema’s finest tales of untrammeled imagination. It’s a movie that emboldens children to embrace weirdness and wonder, and adults to remember how they once did. The plot is a stew of essential anxieties: dislocation, separation from one’s parents, fear of disappearing forever. Even more thoroughly, Spirited Away is a compendium of ancient folklores—the secret lives of radishes and other gods, the sins we commit against nature, her punishments. But as brilliantly woven together by Hayao Miyazaki (at the peak of his creative gifts), the movie is basically a story about growing up. The world is strange; let’s not fool ourselves. But maybe we, as human beings, are stranger. Chihiro is constantly (and riotously) told that she reeks; she fumbles around and incites fury. The lesson here is humility in the face of immortal forces. Critics were wowed, sensing parallels with Japan’s busted economic bubble and polluted streams. Yet the content was—and is—strong enough to stand on its own, a palimpsest of psychology, dreams and fear brought to life by exquisite craft. No film on our list speaks more to the inner animal and anima; is it any wonder those words are so close to animation?—Joshua Rothkopf
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
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 oldster saves her kidnapped grandson with the help of three peculiar singers.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Best quote: “Swinging Belleville rendez-vous!”
Defining moment: The Triplets sing their signature tune to a down-and-out Madame Souza.
For his feature debut, French animator and graphic novelist Sylvain Chomet crafted a wondrous, touching homage to the work of the great physical comic Jacques Tati (Playtime). Madame Souza is a devoted grandmother to her cyclist grandson, Champion, whom she trains to compete in the Tour de France. During the race, he is kidnapped by the mob and taken to the city of Belleville for cryptic purposes. Souza follows and befriends three aging music-hall singers, the Triplets, who assist in her quest to save Champion. Dialogue is kept to a bare minimum; you could count the number of spoken sentences on one hand. This frees Chomet to concentrate on the stunning, sublimely grotesque visuals, which play delightfully with perspective and proportion. Two joined-at-the-shoulder henchmen look like a rectangular black block with legs. Champion’s dog, Bruno, is a galumphing blob of jowl and fur. And the Triplets—as good at making music with household appliances as they are at outwitting gun-toting gangsters—seem to expand and contract at will, as if their spines were Slinkys.—Keith Uhlich
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
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
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
Miyazaki’s first feature is an affectionate, fun-filled take on ’60s spy capers.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “My prize is a treasure locked away in a tower by an evil magician—please allow this humble thief to steal it.”
Defining moment: The dashing hero facing certain death entombed in the baddie’s catacombs.
Created by French writer Maurice Leblanc in 1905, gentleman thief Arsène Lupin later morphed into Rupan, the dashing antihero of a manga. It became a hit TV series and generated master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s very first feature. Fresh from another jewel robbery, Rupan finds himself in the tiny duchy of Cagliostro, hoping to rescue comely Clarisse from marriage to the scheming count who’s usurped the throne. What unfolds is a cavalcade of scrapes and gadgetry, indicating that Miyazaki knew his ’60s celluloid spy capers back to front. The result is undeniably lightweight yet breathlessly entertaining: Plotting is resourceful in its succession of twists and reversals, and the architectural hyperdetail of the castle itself is typical Miyazaki. It’s a delightful movie that sits at a slight remove from the rest of his work.—Trevor Johnston
Three Japanese vagabonds attempt to find the parents of an abandoned baby during Christmastime.
Directors: Satoshi Kon and Shogo Furuya
Best quote: “You peep pretty loud for a chick that can’t even find its own worms.”
Defining moment: The little bundle of joy, miraculously saved after a fall from a skyscraper, yawns in reply.
For his third animated project, the late, great Satoshi Kon moved away from the trippy stylings of Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress (2001) to tell a straightforward, though no less inventive, Christmas story. The loose inspiration is John Ford’s Western 3 Godfathers, in which a John Wayne–led trio of outlaws shepherd a baby to safety. Here the setting is an initially oppressive modern-day Tokyo (full of imposing neon skyscrapers), while the three leads, all homeless, are a comically mismatched crew: a middle-aged male alcoholic, a trans woman and a runaway teen girl. Kon has lots of fun putting the group in crazy, slapstick-heavy situations, including a car chase, a clash with gun-toting yakuza and an assassination attempt. Yet he also creates a compelling portrait of Japan’s underclass and shows how this seeming miracle baby acts as a spiritual salve for hardened souls.—Keith Uhlich
This anime film is a searingly intense mash-up of styles, genres and narrative techniques.
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Best quote: “I was killed! Shot by that creep! Then I was sucked up to heaven.”
Defining moment: Nishi, the protagonist, is murdered and sent into limbo, where he encounters a shape-shifting god who’s preoccupied with grooming himself in front of a mirror.
This ambitious feature came out of nowhere in 2004 to rock the anime world, making stars of director Masaaki Yuasa and his Studio 4°C. The plot starts as typically convoluted gangster fare, before the main characters are plunged Pinocchio-style into the belly of a whale to embark on an utterly bonkers journey of self-discovery. Though little actually happens, the film somehow keeps up a blistering pace, propelled by a string of flashbacks, hallucinations, near-death experiences and other surreal flights of fancy. Throughout, the animation style shifts in accordance with the mood, even incorporating live actors at points. Disorienting on the first viewing, very funny on the second, and strangely moving on the third, this is bold, almost reckless filmmaking.—Alex Dudok De Wit
A bookish Tokyo schoolgirl ponders her future—and delicately comes of age.
Director: Yoshifumi Kondô
Best quote: “It looks like springtime has come for Shizuku at last.”
Defining moment: The heroine’s telling first visit to the creepy-yet-enticing antiques emporium.
Yoshifumi Kondo was admired enough to be Miyazaki’s anointed successor at Studio Ghibli, but he completed only this single remarkable feature before succumbing to an aneurysm at 47. Although Miyazaki’s screenplay allows a brief flourish of airborne fantasy, this is predominantly an intimately observed story on a canvas even more compact than Only Yesterday, spotlighting a book-loving high-school student whose fortunes change when she follows a stray cat into a mysterious antiques shop. As this chance encounter transforms her outlook on life, a delicate love story blossoms between two shyly hesitant youngsters, yet the key focus is really the adolescent flowering of the creative urge—the “whisper of the heart.” A shame it slightly loses its nerve in the end; otherwise, this is tender, wise and magical fare deserving much greater prominence in the esteemed Ghibli canon.—Trevor Johnston
An unfilmed Jacques Tati script is realized with gentle wit and piercing melancholy.
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Best quote: Not big on dialogue, but the tears of the broken-down clown in the gutter speak volumes.
Defining moment: When Tatischeff the magician is reduced to doing shopwindow demonstrations.
The lanky gait and eternally distracted air might be familiar to viewers of Mon Oncle and Playtime, though this animated version of a never-before-filmed Jacques Tati script presents its creator not in his familiar Monsieur Hulot screen persona but under his real name, as a music-hall artiste stuck in an era when magic was going out of style. Tagging along is a Scottish waif captivated by his trickery, but it’s not long before changing times will shatter her illusions and their tenuous bond, all the while affirming the audience’s need to invest in life-salving fantasy. A complex, ultimately affecting affair, the film has a mood of stoic resignation, exquisitely conveyed by Sylvain Chomet’s poignant visualization of early-’60s Edinburgh—all rundown boardinghouses and rain-swept streets, where Tatischeff makes his last stand.—Trevor Johnston
An animation giant plunders classic kids’ lit for this tale of a resourceful young witch.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “You’d think they’d never seen a girl and a cat on a broom before.”
Defining moment: The airship disaster is one of the most thrilling sequences in the Ghibli catalog.
When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were first unleashed on an unsuspecting public, cries of familiarity were rampant. And it’s true, the books were inspired by everything from the Worst Witch literary series to Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. But Rowling was hardly the first kids’ writer to raid the past for inspiration, a point proved by Kiki’s Delivery Service, Hayao Miyazaki’s adaptation of the sweet, charming but hardly groundbreaking novel by Japanese author Eiko Kadono. A tale of a teenage witch, her bad-tempered pet cat and a sleepy city by the sea, the film is a grab bag of kid-lit tropes. But it’s not so much the story as how you tell it, and that’s Miyazaki’s genius: In the hands of a great director, this cozy little coming-of-age tale becomes something altogether more strange, beautiful and affecting than its outline would suggest.—Tom Huddleston
The best film Mikio Naruse never made.
Director: Isao Takahata
Best quote: “So many memories playing in my head like a movie, almost overpowering me.”
Defining moment: A ’60s Tokyo family tucking into a whole pineapple becomes a metaphor for life’s promises and disappointments.
A story about a 27-year-old remembering her school days while working on a farm in the country sounds like truly unlikely animated material. Trust the instincts of Studio Ghibli mainstay Isao Takahata, however, who reckoned that when we see recognizable life animated, it acquires a kind of solidity that makes us look anew at the everyday. Here’s a drama that aims to understand the present by reexamining the past, yet it’s not doused in nostalgia. Instead the film explores with uncanny insight and accuracy the sundry minor high-school setbacks that have inhibited protagonist Taeko’s subsequent romantic fortunes. Better days may lie ahead, though, as the story works toward a final-reel emotional release that feels truthful and earned—something rare in any kind of cinema, and arguably unique in the annals of animation. It’s Ghibli’s secret classic.—Trevor Johnston
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
This thunderous Ghibli romp—part satire, part family adventure, part war “documentary”—is one of the weirdest movies ever made.
Director: Isao Takahata
Best quote: “I have no face!”
Defining moment: The scene in which a raccoon transforms his scrotum into a giant sailing ship bound for nirvana. (We know you’re curious.)
If you’ve seen Spirited Away, with its ancient ghost demons, and Porco Rosso, with its farmyard flying ace, you’ll know that those Ghibli guys can get a little weird sometimes. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer, mind-melting oddness of Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata’s chronicle of the Great Raccoon War. Structured in pseudodocumentary style, complete with constant voiceover and regular time leaps, it tells the tale of a group of shape-shifting raccoons who take up arms against the human beings destroying their woodland. But cozy critters this lot ain’t: Not only do they kill several people over the course of their campaign—and throw a huge party to celebrate—they also use their testicular pouches as everything from hot-air balloons to welcome mats, employ their transformative powers to infiltrate human society and argue constantly (and often viciously) with each other. Sweet, satirical, savage, sad, silly and quite spectacularly strange, Pom Poko stands utterly alone.—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 gizmo that records people’s dreams goes missing, resulting in chaos.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “Isn’t it wonderful to see inside a friend’s dream as if it were your own?”
Defining moment: The opening scene moves from a surreal chase sequence to playback of the same dream images now stored on computer.
It’s called the DC Mini, a flimsy headset that records our dreams as video files. There’s consternation at the research unit when one of the prototypes goes missing. Soon the very fabric of reality tears when the addled psyches of the scientific team and investigating cop take physical form. The last completed feature of the ill-fated Kon (lost to cancer at 46) exemplifies his uniqueness and his foibles, since the supernova of weirdness bursting from the characters’ imaginations is something to behold: fridges on the march, giant robots at large, a psycho-cutie Japanese doll. While the plot itself makes very little sense, Kon’s depiction of flexible reality inside others’ dreams parallels Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and his mind-fuck cavalcade truly has to be seen to be believed.—Trevor Johnston
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
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
Thrilling adventure, as an archetypal Miyazaki heroine seeks a mythic lost city somewhere above the clouds.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “The crystal should remind us that we come from the earth and to the earth we must return.”
Defining moment: The destructive power of a giant robot signals the ominous threat of Laputan technology.
For the very first Studio Ghibli production, writer-director Miyazaki stepped forward boldly with fleets of lovingly realized vintage flying machines. The film traces the story of a young girl wondering whether the glowing crystal passed to her as a family heirloom will lead her to the legendary flying city of Laputa. If the tale then proceeds along expected lines, the exhilaration of the myriad chase sequences and aerial dogfights remains a marvel (not least given the rudimentary technology available to the Ghibli animators at the time). Also, a strong, ecologically aware undertow adds ballast to otherwise slightly two-dimensional villains. As such, it’s not as thematically rich as Miyazaki’s best (those titles are coming up), but the sheer imagination on view as the camera navigates the richly thought-out Laputa cityscape is obviously the product of a true visionary.—Trevor Johnston
The world’s first feature-length stop-motion animation…and one of the greatest.
Directors: Irene Starewicz and Wladyslaw Starewicz
Best quote: “Sir, I demand compensation for a cold, a nervous breakdown and some stolen hams.”
Defining moment: The silver-tongued, rascally fox talks his way out of the hangman’s noose.
Wes Anderson acknowledged The Tale of the Fox as the biggest single influence on the look of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Watching the 1930 French film today (you can see it in full on YouTube), it’s astonishing how fresh and modern it is. Codirector Wladyslaw Starewicz pioneered stop-motion animation, creating the elegant world of The Tale of Fox with his daughter Irene. Fast, funny and anarchic, The Tale of the Fox is as giddily inventive as Pixar, and as charming as Wallace and Gromit. But no film today could get away with being this deliciously and subversively cynical. In another kids’ film, the crafty, cunning fox would get his comeuppance. Not here. After a string of dastardly crimes, Monsieur Fox is hauled in front of the king of beasts, a chin-stroking lion, only to cheat his way to freedom. Bravo.—Cath Clarke
A French children’s publishing phenomenon is brought to handmade life in this story of friendship across species.
Directors: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner
Best quote: “If you don’t eat me, I’ll give you whatever you most want in the world.”
Defining moment: Parallel court cases above and below ground, as Ernest and Celestine try their best to end bear-mouse apartheid.
Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar came to prominence with the deliciously absurd, aptly titled A Town Called Panic, to which this more conventionally visualized heart-warmer seems positively Disneyesque by comparison—if Disney made off-kilter political allegories involving bohemian bears and tooth-collecting mice on the fringes of society, all rendered in delicate watercolor tones. A dark-horse Oscar nominee in 2014, this adorable oddity was big in France, but has yet to find the English-speaking audience it deserves; perhaps a new Forest Whitaker–featuring dub will make the difference. In its current form, however, it’s as pretty and as quintessentially Gallic as a plate of pastel-colored macarons, though with a sharper bite than you might expect.—Guy Lodge
A West African village folktale pits a plucky tot against a fearsome magician.
Director: Michel Ocelot
Best quote: “Why are you mean and evil?”
Defining moment: Any time Kirikou’s tiny legs scamper across the savannah.
French director Michel Ocelot, whose deliberately simple visual style celebrates the power of the silhouette, grew up in Guinea, and manages the rare feat (for a Western filmmaker) of telling a rural African tale without patronizing his subject matter. Instead, the action proceeds with the patience and confidence of a fable, as plucky Kirikou wisely refuses to accept the rule of fear exerted by the stern sorceress Karaba over his home village. Adults will pick up on the political analogy with the continent’s dictatorial rulers, but younger viewers are more likely to be mesmerized by the courage and resilience of the pint-size protagonist. Yes, there’s realistic and entirely nonsexual nudity in the imagery here, but it would be a shame to let Anglo-Saxon prudery stop this delightful film from becoming a much-loved family classic.—Trevor Johnston
A cosmic journey through time, space and spirituality. With cats.
Directors: Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky
Best quote: “I’m going to be just like that scorpion…”
Defining moment: An old woman sings “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in the most cracked and haunting voice imaginable.
Kenji Miyazawa’s 1927 novel is a standard text for Japanese schoolchildren but remains virtually unknown elsewhere. Combining eerie Christian mysticism, awestruck pseudoscience and bleak realism, the book follows two put-upon schoolboys, Giovanni and Campanella, as they board the titular train to the stars and beyond. Anime directors Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky made one major change when they adapted Miyazawa’s work for the screen: They replaced all the central human characters with cute anthropomorphized kittens. But if their intention was to make the story more appealing to youngsters, they were way off. With its meditative pace, unstructured plotting, and rambling, often incomprehensible discourses on morality and mortality, this is about as kid-friendly as a morning in church. For those with patience, however, it is a beautiful, frequently enlightening trip.—Tom Huddleston
A couple’s desire for a child inspires a tree stump to come to life—and take over their lives—in this funny absurdist yarn.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “He’s our child and we have to stick by him through thick and thin.”
Defining moment: When the baby devours his own father: Svankmajer never lets Freud get the better of him.
Adapted from a Czech folktale, Svankmajer’s gleefully wicked satire depicts how far a childless couple go to satisfy their parental impulses. After the husband finds a tree stump shaped a little like a human baby, he cleans it up and presents it to his wife, but she soon comes to believe it’s actually their child. Such is her devotion that it somehow brings the thing to life, and its increasingly insatiable appetite has to be dealt with—by any means necessary. With his customary mix of live action and stop-motion animation, Svankmajer explores the more lethally destructive aspects of familial affection and loyalty; at once nightmarish, grotesque and genuinely subversive, the film is also savagely funny as the solipsistic monster grows and grows.—Geoff Andrew
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
A former J-pop idol’s move into acting triggers psychological meltdown.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “The Internet? That’s popular at the moment. What is it?”
Defining moment: The sight of Mima’s alter ego skipping in midair from lamppost to lamppost would freak anyone out.
The pressures of career choices and the threat of a murderously obsessive fan loosen former pop star Mima’s grasp on reality, in a story that explores the dehumanizing effects of the entertainment industry. Perfect Blue also shows how that same industry makes vulnerable women complicit in their own sexual exploitation. This startling first feature reminds us of the immense talent the anime universe lost when director Satoshi Kon succumbed to cancer at 46. No one else would even have thought of doing this intense psychodrama as an animated feature—the source material’s not dissimilar to Black Swan—and surely only Kon had the visual skills to transfer the disturbingly fragmented mise en scène of a Polanski or an Argento into animated form. The outcome is dark, mesmerizing, but also controlled and coherent in a way the hyperimaginative Kon never quite managed again.—Trevor Johnston
Hungarian folktales go psychedelic…and then some.
Director: Marcell Jankovics
Best quote: “Tell your mother to breast-feed you for another seven years, then you’ll be able to pull out the tree single-handed.”
Defining moment: When an animated film starts with a hallucinogenic birthing scene, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Any director who has written 15 books on folklore takes his ancient legends seriously, and in Magyar maestro Marcell Jankovics’s full-on fable, three princes ignore the king’s warning about “the lock which must not be opened.” All hell (literally) breaks loose, and a white mare goddess spawns three human sons—who subsequently take the fight back to the underworld. An archetypal saga involving daunting trials of endurance, it unfolds in a Day-Glo visual style suggesting Kandinsky’s colorful curves, Matisse’s cutouts and way too many prog-rock album covers. It is unlike anything else in the world, ever, which makes this a must-see, though the sheer brutality with which Treeshaker, Stonecrumbler and Ironrubber press through the pit of Hell and back may make this just a bit too heavy-duty for sensitive younger viewers.—Trevor Johnston
A career-spanning interview of an elderly film star traces a romantic odyssey fusing life and art.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “It’s the key to the most important thing in life.”
Defining moment: When we first realize Chiyoko’s memories and movies are blurred into one.
A fictional reclusive screen legend recalls how she embarked upon a lifelong romantic quest to track down the rebel artist who captured her young girl’s heart. Was she hopelessly deluded, or in the throes of a grand passion many of us will never be fortunate enough to experience? So strong are her memories that her devoted interviewer (and his nonplussed cameraman) find themselves sucked into her past, where personal travails and melodramatic film roles intermingle via Perfect Blue auteur Kon’s dizzying narrative transitions. The sheer single-mindedness of Chiyoko’s journey almost traps the movie in a groove, yet Kon saves the day with some thought-provoking final-reel reveals, by which point the sheer audacity of his fluidly imaginative direction and loving re-creation of Japanese screen history—from samurai swashbucklers to modern sci-fi epics—has long since cast their spell.—Trevor Johnston
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- Rated as: 5/5
- Critics choice
Among the many masterpieces of the French New Wave, Alain Resnais’s 1959 memory drama is easily the most passionate: a cross-cultural romance tinged by shame and regret.
- Rated as: 5/5
- Critics choice
A washed-up Hollywood celebrity (Michael Keaton, bravely playing off his own iconography) seeks redemption in a backstage Broadway drama that takes glorious flight.
- Rated as: 4/5
- Critics choice
The effortlessly self-absorbed Jason Schwartzman portrays a young literary lion, full of himself and close to insufferable in Alex Ross Perry’s smart spin on man-of-letters ambition.