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
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
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
How the Vikings learned to stop warring and love dragons.
Directors: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Best quote: “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”
Defining moment: Pint-size Viking Hiccup meets Toothless, the not-so-scary Night Fury dragon.
Odin almighty! Here’s a kids’ animated film with wit, charm and one-liners. The story is as old as a Nordic longboat: a coming-of-age yarn about a boy with daddy issues. Our hero is Viking pipsqueak Hiccup, raised in a proud nation of dragon slayers. All Hiccup wants is to please his warrior father, Stoick the Vast (who sums up the macho Viking philosophy nicely: “When I was a kid, my dad told me to bang my head against a rock—and I did it”). Hiccup’s trouble is that he is the geekiest, weediest Viking in the tribe. But (pay attention, kids) since the brain is mightier than brawn, he learns the ways of the dragons. The film climaxes with a spectacular aerial battle sequence. Meanwhile, Hiccup’s little dragon buddy Toothless is the cutest kitten-bat-lizard crossbreed you’re likely ever see onscreen.—Cath Clarke
Pixar pushes the boundaries (again) with a near-wordless tale of robot romance in a dystopian future.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Best quote: “Computer, define dancing.”
Defining moment: Wall-E’s increasingly frenzied, love-struck attempts to revive his comatose flame are heartbreaking.
Fourteen years in development and costing a reported $180 million, Wall-E was Pixar’s biggest risk since Toy Story. It plays on the traditions of silent cinema to present the politically charged story of a lonely robot cleaning up a devastated, trash-covered Earth and falling in love with the first sentient being he meets. Despite its futuristic setting, nothing feels modern: There are no recognizable characters, no sweeping ballads, no crafty in-jokes. In fact, for the first 45 minutes, there’s no dialogue at all. The result is a delirious dream in film: romantic but technological, funny but sad, smart but goofy, slushy but sharp, familiar but entirely unique. The second half does veer off into more standard fare (cue pratfalls and wisecracks), but for many, that opening act remains perhaps the peak of Pixar’s art.—Tom Huddleston
Aardman’s first feature applied their signature style to a tale of farmed chickens trying to break free.
Directors: Peter Lord and Nick Park
Best quote: “All my life flashed before my eyes.… It was really boring.”
Defining moment: When our feathered friends finally fly a homemade mechanical bird over the fence.
Britain’s Aardman Animations had been going since the early 1970s, and had won three Oscars for its short films “Creature Comforts,” “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” (the latter two featuring Wallace and Gromit), by the time that the company’s founder, Peter Lord, and his collaborator Nick Park codirected their first feature, Chicken Run, in 2000. A feathery spin on The Great Escape, the film showcased the same clay animation Aardman had employed to bring the much-loved Morph character to life on British TV in the 1970s and ’80s. Only now their budget was bigger, they were working with DreamWorks and Pathé, and the voices included Mel Gibson as an arrogant American chicken among an ensemble of winged prisoners in Yorkshire desperate to escape a vicious farm and its chicken-pie machine. The Aardman style—amusing, down-to-earth, homey dialogue coupled with simple, oversize features—survived the company’s first brush with Hollywood.—Dave Calhoun
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
Romance, music and comedy combine in a latter-day Disney milestone.
Directors: Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale
Best quote: “It’s no use. She’s so beautiful. And I’m…well, look at me!”
Defining moment: The camera sweeps through the ballroom as the couple hits the floor.
Disney had long been in the doldrums when The Little Mermaid showed it could entertain a new generation, but this adaptation of the classic fairy tale pushed the quality threshold to a new level, making it the first animated feature to be Oscar-nominated in the Best Picture category. The key was taking the emotional heart of the story entirely seriously, bolstered by a soaring, Broadway-on-steroids score from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. So while there are jaunty high jinks from the anthropomorphic fixtures in the Beast’s imposing castle, they never overshadow the tale’s pent-up yearning, as the hairy protagonist must find true love before the petals fall from a rose or remain forever in bestial form. Crucially, the visuals convey enough heft and scale to wow the grown-up audiences who truly appreciate the story’s romantic spell.—Trevor Johnston
Pixar scored a hat trick—in 3-D—with the third film of its signature franchise.
Director: Lee Unkrich
Best quote: “What are you going to do with these old toys?”
Defining moment: When the toys are threatened with a horrific end at the garbage dump.
It took 11 years for Pixar to make a third visit to the playroom. Getting there was a bumpy ride: Development for the final Toy Story film became caught up in the intricacies of the animation studio’s production deal with Disney, and at one point the Mouse House was planning to make the second sequel without Pixar’s involvement. That all changed when Disney bought the studio in 2006, and Pixar took charge of Disney Animation. Much of the original team—including John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, the latter of whom would now direct Toy Story 3 solo—went back to the drawing board and came up with a narrative that saw Andy, the toys’ owner, about to go college and the toys escaping the terrible fate of the attic and heading instead to a day-care center—which turns out to not be the paradise they’d hoped for. The mix of energy and emotion was as winning as ever.—Dave Calhoun
Pixar’s beloved shaggy-fish story hooked the box office.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Best quote: “Just keep swimming.”
Defining moment: Those toothy, Aussie “vegetarian” sharks really are terrifying.
Nowadays we take it as a given that half of the year’s biggest moneymakers are going to be cartoons: Even inferior animated sequels draw the kind of audiences once reserved for Schwarzenegger and Spielberg. Finding Nemo may not have managed to crack the top slot at the box office—it was up against The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—but its success both at the multiplex and on home video (it’s the biggest seller of all time, apparently) heralded a new age of animated blockbusters. And it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving film, the warmest, most universal of all the Pixar home-run hitters. Particularly notable: Finding Nemo eschews a big-name voice cast in favor of talented character actors like Albert Brooks and Allison Janney, a lesson that too many recent animated films have failed to learn.—Tom Huddleston