Miyazaki proves he has the heart of a child, the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “Trees and people used to be good friends.”
Defining moment: The first appearance of the roving cat-bus will have viewers of all ages gasping in delight.
Some filmmakers build their great artworks with blood, sweat and toil. Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki seems to sprout his from seeds, planting them in good earth and patiently watering them until they burst into bloom. My Neighbor Totoro is the gentlest, most unassuming film on this list, a tale of inquisitive children, mischievous dust fairies, magical trees and shy sylvan creatures. But in its own quietly remarkable way, it’s also one of the richest and most overwhelming.
This is a story whose roots go deep: into Japanese tradition and culture, into its creator’s personal past, into a collective childhood filled with tales of mystery and a love of all things that grow. There is darkness at the film’s heart—the fear of losing a parent, the loneliness and frustration of childhood—but its touch is gossamer-light, delighting in simple pleasures like raindrops on an umbrella, dust motes drifting in the sun and midnight dances in the garden. The visual style is unmistakably Japanese (unadorned and artful) and the theme song is so sugary-chirrupy-sweet that it’s impossible to dislodge once heard. But the cumulative effect is unique and utterly all-encompassing, returning us to a world we have all, at one time, lived in—and perhaps will again.—Tom Huddleston
The 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
In Disney’s extravaganza, eight fantastical vignettes are scored to music by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Director: No less than 11 directors slaved on individual sequences, many without credit.
Best quote: “Mr. Stokowski! Mr. Stokowski!”
Defining moment: Sorcerer’s apprentice Mickey Mouse finds himself on the wrong end of the broomsticks.
By the end of the 1930s, Mickey Mouse, the bedrock character of a growing empire, had declined in popularity. So Walt Disney commissioned the elaborate short “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Accompanied by the highly hummable Paul Dukas composition of the same name, it follows the red-robed rodent as he magically brings an army of broomsticks to life. While in postproduction on the short, Disney decided to surround it with similar vignettes scored to other classical compositions, and Fantasia was born. Aside from some interstitial material narrated by Deems Taylor (during which Mickey himself greets star conductor Leopold Stokowski), the music dictates Fantasia’s visual-aural flow. Abstract color patterns rise and fall to Bach, life-size mushrooms dance to Tchaikovksy, a hippo and an alligator do a slapstick Ponchielli ballet, and the devil himself summons dark spirits to Modest Mussorgsky’s churning Night on Bald Mountain. Silly and sublime in equal measure—as well as a film that served to introduce generations of kids to the joys of classical music—this is one of the Mouse House’s finest.—Keith Uhlich
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
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
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
Animation meets classical music in an Italian-style Fantasia.
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Best quote: “Someone called Disney has already made this?”
Defining moment: Humanity’s evolution scored to Ravel’s Bolero is a magnificent set piece.
Of course, Disney’s Fantasia is the acknowledged reference point for Italian mischief maker Bruno Bozzetto’s animated collection of classical pops, interwoven with boisterous live-action interludes in which a hard-pressed animator battles an egomaniac conductor, his shifty producer and an unlikely orchestra of geriatric ladies let out of their cages (no, really) to play the score. There’s definitely a Monty Python–style antiestablishment surrealism in both elements of the movie, not least the musical sections, in which we see humanity evolve from the sludge at the bottom of a Coke bottle, the serpent in the garden of Eden tormented by the sheer variety of the sins he’s about to introduce into the world, and the absurdity of materialism represented by the urge to erect higher and higher buildings. Certainly, it’s uneven, and some of the humor feels dated, but there’s not a hint of classical-music snobbery here.—Trevor Johnston
Hard to be a collegian feline in the city? Not really, especially when there’s so much sex and pot to be had.
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Best quote: “I’ve fought many a good man, and laid many a good woman.”
Defining moment: Fritz gets handsy in a bathtub with at least three other animals.
It’s not an overstatement to divide the whole of animated cinema into two eras: Before Fritz and After Fritz. Aside from becoming a global sensation (and outgrossing most Disney films up to that point), Ralph Bakshi’s libidinous Greenwich Village romp was a slap in the face to purists who hoped to keep cartoons safe for kids. Notoriously, the film received an X rating (and includes a fair amount of bare-assed rutting), but that pejorative label might have also been due to its director’s overall vision, inspired by Robert Crumb’s countercultural characters and filled with Vietnam War–era surliness. Bakshi cut his teeth at Paramount Pictures and in advertising for clients like Coca-Cola; he was no fool to the realities of commerce. Still, it took someone familiar with the game to break the rules so completely. His triumph is animation’s puberty.—Joshua Rothkopf
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