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