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
Pixar’s saddest, sweetest, strangest film.
Directors: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Best quote: “Adventure is out there!”
Defining moment: An obvious one—the heartbreaking opening sequence tracking Carl and Ellie through their life together.
Even after Ratatouille, even after The Incredibles, even after Wall-E, we weren’t expecting this. Up is Pixar at its most profound and risk-taking, opening with a devastating eight-minute montage of love and loss before proceeding with the tale of a grouchy elderly man who makes the decision to fly his entire house to South America using helium balloons. It was, of course, a massive hit. That three-hankie opening is the sequence most viewers remember, and it is astonishing. But the rest of the movie is just as magnificent, flitting from stoner humor (“I do not like the cone of shame,” a dog woefully says) and soaring 3-D action to genuinely affecting age-gap bonding. The result falls somewhere between Werner Herzog and Winnie the Pooh: a tale of adventure, determination, grief, friendship and talking canines. Squirrel!—Tom Huddleston
The film that makes little kids (and grown adults) cry.
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Norman Wright
Best quote: “Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don’t look back! Keep running! Keep running!”
Defining moment: Bambi and his mother graze peacefully in a clearing. Her ears prick up. Something’s not right. A gunshot rings out. They run for their lives.
For lots of us, Bambi is so many firsts: the first time we cried in the theater, when…you know when; the first time we realized that really bad things happen to adorably cute deer. In 1942, Walt Disney described Bambi as “the best picture I have ever made, and the best ever to come out of Hollywood.” Today, it still has friends in high places. Toy Story director John Lasseter and the Pixar crew are huge fans, arguing that, from boy to buckhood, Bambi contains some of Disney’s most charming animation (Walt set up a small zoo at the studio for his team to study the animals). And in the roll call of Disney supporting actors, Thumper the rabbit is an all-time great. Despite its reputation for being sentimental, the film’s closing scene—Bambi abandons his mate and newborn twin fawns to join his father in the forest—is as un-Disney as it gets.—Cath Clarke
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
Nothing is child’s play in this vivid, gutsy adaptation of Richard Adams’s novel about a colony of rabbits seeking a new warren.
Director: Martin Rosen
Best quote: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you.”
Defining moment: The harrowing apocalyptic vision of young Fiver, which sets the story—and decidedly mature tone—in motion.
Not quite children’s adventure, not quite grown-up epic, rich with classical allusions and biblical allegory, Richard Adams’s unexpectedly popular novel posed something of a challenge to animators: How do you make a creature feature that’s not too cute for adults, and a story of death and displacement that’s not too grim for families? Martin Rosen’s solemn, urgent and exquisitely rendered film strikes just that balance. There are sequences in this riveting survival tale to terrify viewers of any age, many involving General Woundwort, the face that launched a thousand childhood nightmares. But there’s comforting, compassionate sweetness, too (exemplified by Art Garfunkel’s sentimental theme song, “Bright Eyes”), all folded into powerful, traditional storytelling. Nobody would dare make anything like it today.—Guy Lodge
It’s an emotional reunion as Pixar gets the old gang back together.
Directors: John Lasseter, with Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich
Best quote: “You never forget kids like Emily or Andy, but they forget you.”
Defining moment: Jessie’s song, in which the cast-off cowgirl tells of the day her beloved owner left her behind.
It was meant to be a straight-to-DVD project, a way for Disney to squeeze a few more bucks out of an unexpected hit. Then Pixar head honcho John Lasseter got involved, and Toy Story 2 was transformed into that Holy Grail for all franchise seekers, a sequel that enriches—and some would say improves upon—the original. While the first film addressed kid-friendly ideas of friendship and trust, this time the themes are far more grown-up: It’s all about self-worth, beautifully and simply expressed through the concept of “collectability” and what that word means both for the owner and his possessions. The fact that Toy Story 2 is also filled with memorable characters, witty asides, geeky spoofs (the whole “Buzz Lightyear, I am your father” riff is hilarious) and zippy action sequences doesn’t hurt a bit either.—Tom Huddleston
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 to 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
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
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