The 100 best animated movies: the best grown-up 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 that are most suitable for adults, not kids.
But how many have you seen? Take our poll to find out.
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 one-man masterpiece.
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Best quote: “Someone sits on the shore and tells him how the waves have been there long before Bill existed, and that they’ll still be there long after he’s gone. Bill looks out at the water and thinks of all the wonderful things he will do with his life.”
Defining moment: In the epic finale, a stick hero is reborn into an ageless existence and learns all the secrets of the universe.
How satisfying it is to find Don Hertzfeldt’s self-made saga of schizophrenia and self-loss nestling comfortably in the higher reaches of our rankings. Written, directed, produced, animated, photographed, voiced and distributed entirely by Hertzfeldt himself (he admits to getting a little help with the editing), It’s Such a Beautiful Day is the tale of a young everyman, Bill, who finds his mind and his world unexpectedly going to pieces. Hertzfeldt’s style may have started off simple, with stick figures and basic line drawings, but by the time of this feature, it had broadened to include a dizzying array of in-camera, nondigital visual effects. The result is one of the great outsider artworks of the modern era, at once sympathetic and shocking, beautiful and horrifying, angry and hilarious, uplifting and almost unbearably sad. Seek it out.—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 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
A one-man, multidiscipline labor of love.
Director: Chris Sullivan
Best quote: “I do not suggest using ashes as fertilizer—these bitter urns of charred memories soak into the soil and leave a blackened taste on the lips.”
Defining moment: A scratchy, pencil-sketch scene of loss, as the authorities come to take away little Lydia and Victor Blue.
Surely the most obscure film on our list, Consuming Spirits is the result of more than a decade’s work for writer, director, animator, musician and voice artist Chris Sullivan and his small team. Running 136 minutes and encompassing more than 230,000 individual frames, this epic achievement combines cutout, stop-frame and pencil sketches and a beautiful soundtrack steeped in mountain folk. But as with any great animated movie, it’s the emotional content that’s most rewarding. Set in a small Pennsylvania town, this is a poetic, downbeat tale of three characters united by disappointment, alcohol and a haunted past. Thanks to an extremely limited U.S. release, Consuming Spirits is little known even within the animation community, but almost everyone who voted for it here made it their number-one choice.—Tom Huddleston
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
A wise, funny Claymation tale of lives lived on the edge of society.
Director: Adam Elliot
Best quote: “Butts are bad because they wash out to sea, and fish smoke them and become nicotine-dependent.”
Defining moment: Max wins the lottery and uses his prize money to buy a lifetime supply of chocolate.
This big-kids-and-adults-only bleak comedy is the only feature to date from Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot, who previously made well-regarded short films, including 2003’s “Harvie Krumpet.” Set in the 1970s and subverting Claymations usual cuddliness, it tells of an unhappy suburban child, Mary, who, after leafing through the phone book, inappropriately (or so it seems) becomes pen pals with Max, a depressed New Yorker with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s almost entirely in black and white—or at least black, white and beige—although there’s the odd flash of color, like the crude lipstick worn by Mary’s grotesque, unloving mother. A celebration of outsiders, this offers comedy as well as tears, as we track Mary and Max over the decades; ultimately, it manages to be both rude and strangely endearing. The voices couldn’t be more appropriate: Barry Humphries narrates, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is Max and Toni Collette is Mary as a grown-up.—Dave Calhoun
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
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 modern woman’s breakup is paralleled with a musical retelling of the Ramayana.
Director: Nina Paley
Best quote: “Assemble the monkey warriors!”
Defining moment: Sita wonders, “Whooooooooo’s that knockin’ at my door?” in an energetic battle-scene-cum-musical-number.
Fiction, somehow, helps us deal with fact: Reeling from a divorce, animator Nina Paley found solace in the Hindu epic the Ramayana, specifically the section dealing concerning Sita, a woman fought over by two of the tale’s male protagonists. For this eye-popping DIY feature, almost entirely animated by Paley herself, the symbolically pure and virtuous Sita becomes the narrative focus. Paley adheres to the basic outline of the Ramayana—with its multiheadeded gods, monkey armies and heroic warriors—adding her own distinctive touches. The most delightful of these is giving Sita the voice of Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw, whose cheery musical stylings (especially during the literally earth-shattering climax) add a defiant layer to a story normally defined by paternalism and machismo.—Keith Uhlich
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
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
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
Wonderfully madcap early-1960s experimental piece.
Director: Harry Smith
Best quote: This is all about the imagery. Words are too pedestrian, man.
Defining moment: A machine that allows you to play a game of tennis with a baby.
Uncompromisingly experimental, U.S. filmmaker Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic existed in various versions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before settling down into this final 1962 cut. Scrappy and fiercely DIY in its aesthetic and produced under the auspices of Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives, this black-and-white film uses stop-motion animation techniques to tell stories with roughly cutout photographs. In terms of story, maybe Smith himself best characterizes his avant-garde, surrealist approach: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Got that? The film’s audio consists only of sound effects, and it’s become a popular choice for screenings with a live score.—Dave Calhoun
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 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 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
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
Part art piece, part gross-out comedy, part apocalyptic epic, all indescribable.
Director: Phil Mulloy
Best quote: “That villain’s penis is huge!”
Defining moment: When our hero Mr. Christie accidentally kills God. Well, He was disguised as a spider.
How’s this for a plot synopsis? After being seduced by a studly French sailor, straitlaced upper-middle-class father, husband and unwitting reality-TV star Mr. Christie goes insane and decides to dig a hole to Australia in the garden. Emerging in the Tokyo subway system by mistake, Mr. Christie inadvertently murders God and is exiled to the land of the dead, where he meets Adolf Hitler, Jesus and Dracula. Sadly, just as he’s starting to get a handle on things, the local parish priest decides to rape Mrs. Christie, leading to the destruction of the universe. Part of artist and animator Phil Mulloy’s ongoing Christie series (which has so far consisted of 12 shorts and two features, with another in the pipeline), Goodbye Mr. Christie utilizes ultraminimalist animation, computer-modulated deadpan voices and a dry, mordant wit to create something that is at once enlightening, aggravating, strangely moving and extremely funny.—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
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.