If ghettoizing was a concern with our Best Documentaries of the Decade list, you can be sure it's an even bigger one here. With the controversy surrounding the immensely patronizing Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars (initiated in 2001), the notion of how to appraise animated films has become an issue of major debate among critics. Thanks in no small part to the astonishing critical success of Pixar, the marco polo effect of Hayao Miyazaki, and a generally widening reception to animated features from overseas. A wider audience is finally beginning to notice that animated films are capable of handling the same subjects as live action, with the same level of sophistication, and can perhaps thus be judged on the same scale. In other words, it was in this decade that we finally began to realize that animation is (and has always been) a medium, not a genre.
And yet we have the gall to make a list like this? Well, the bottom line is that of the many great animated films we saw this decade, we just wanted you to know which 10 were our favorite. You may recognize one or two of our pics as runners up in the best of the decade list (be assured, there were fights for their inclusion), but in the end, if we happen to be undermining our own stance on this issue in order to give them their due, so be it.
10. "A Scanner Darkly" (2006)
Defining painstaking — 6 weeks of principle photography and fifteen months of animating the captured images using the rotoscope method - the process by which the animators turned spaced out Keanu Reeves and company into frantic, skitzing druggies in a bleak, but all-too-real dystopia was a long one. But who needs CGI? The stunning animation allows believable execution of the sci-fi effects needed for the film's mythology, such as shape-shifting disguises, space-cocaine, and the titular “scanners." The effects enter the world seamlessly, and the animation draws more emotion out of Keanu than we’ve seen elsewhere. The characters and environment are rendered beautifully, and the story is perfect Philip K. Dick dystopian scifi. It sits by “Blade Runner" on my DVD shelf. Oh, and has Robert Downey Jr. ever been more perfectly cast?
9."Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009)
When it was announced that Wes Anderson would be tackling a stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's book, it seemed like an odd fit for a director who painstakingly crafted unique and highly personal worlds for each of his previous films. Leading up to the release of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," comments from the animation team who worked with Anderson seemed to indicate that Anderson's exacting commitment to his vision ruffled feathers, but in the end, the result is what counts. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is an enjoyable, refreshingly alive film that manages to reboot Anderson's familiar themes of father/son dysfunction, misguided ambitions and elaborate revenge. Exquisitely designed and impeccably framed (there are some shots you just want to freeze so you can take in all the detail), there is no mistake that this is an Anderson picture through and through. Buoyed by great voice performances, particularly by George Clooney, Jason Schwartzman and Meryl Streep, and charmingly old-school animation (particularly nice in this era of glossy digital works) "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is well, fantastic.
8. "Tekkonkinkreet" (2006)
A Japanese animated film for sure, "Tekkonkinkreet" is hyper-stylized, animated in Japan and based on a popular "manga" series, but also directed by a Westerner (American-born Michael Arias). The plot is little more than an excuse for some of the most arresting images we've seen in Anime this decade, as the lead characters Black and White, a pair of street urchins, try to impede the development of a theme park over the slum where they live. The zoom through the slums, in which sadness blurs by thanks to the kids' vivid imagination, was a precursor to similar sequences in Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire." Liberally mixing genuine melancholy with phantasmagoric flights of fancy (the yakuza sends some crazy hit men after the kids), all set to a wondrous score by British electronic duo Plaid, the film is a wild mishmash that ultimately works.
7. "Ratatouille" (2007)
There is nothing particularly deep about this film - its all follow-your-dreams material - but in usual Pixar fashion, its brilliance lies in finely crafted story. Remy is a rat, who unlike the rest of his brood, prefers good food with fresh ingredients versus garbage. After being separated from his family, he takes up residence in a fancy Paris restaurant where he secretly helps Linguini, an aspiring and inept chef, lift the stodgy Gusteau's restaurant into new culinary territory. Their villain? The wonderfully wicked Anton Ego, a food critic who can make or break a restaurant with a pen stroke. They even accomplish the feat of making animated food on screen look good enough to eat (you may need a bib watching this one). Funny and charming, "Ratatouille" is one of Pixar's most original, satisfying and finger-licking good films.
6. "Up" (2009)
The first ten minutes of “Up” was like nothing else from the studio — hardened critics found themselves thanking their lucky stars the film was in 3D, if only to hide their tear-stained eyes behind the glasses. Told silently, with the quiet triumphs and crushing defeats of an entire life displayed with perfect economy, it’s an extraordinary example of storytelling, but it’s only very slightly better than the rest of the movie. Some critics (including some team members here at The Playlist) don't wholeheartedly love the second half, when the action ramps up, and Christopher Plummer’s villain enters as the movie’s weak link, but unlike most big action/adventures, the spectacular visuals and sequences (and they are spectacular) are driven totally by character. And yet it still manages to be consistently funny, and yet totally heartbreaking (the photo album moment near the end had us bawling like tiny, tiny children. Again.)
5. "WALL*E" (2008)
Everyone sings the praises of "Wall*E's" nearly silent first half, in which our sad-eyed, garbage-collecting robot is alone on an uninhabited earth, and rightfully so - these stark images (assisted by the extraordinary Roger Deakins and enhanced by trips to the set of David Fincher's "Zodiac") are evocative and strange and the closest Pixar has ever gotten to photo-realism. But don't discount the second half, in which WALL*E and his paramour EVE scuttle about the giant, cruise ship-like spacecraft Axiom, which is alive with whirligig robots that exist to serve humanity's every want. But what they need is a reboot, and WALL*E can supply that too. In the deafening critical applause, it's easy to forget what a profoundly weird movie "WALL*E" is - incorporating live action actors (Fred Willard), bits of "Hello, Dolly" (both movie and score), and a satirical futuristic view of humanity as nothing more than gelatinous blobs. Only Pixar can turn bold experimentalism into box office gold.
4. "Triplets of Belleville" (2003)
Anyone bored of celebrity voices and pop-culture gags in their animated movies (and who isn't?) needs to check out the extraordinary "The Triplets of Belleville." The first feature from comics writer and short filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, it starts with a Betty-Boop flavored story of a grandmother, who tries to rescue her grandson, a competitor in the Tour de France, who has been kidnapped by the mafia. When she reaches the mysterious city of Belleville, she falls in with three sisters, faded music hall stars, and enlists them to her aid. It looks like nothing you've ever seen, from the squashed caricatures of the characters, (the angular cyclist, the perfectly round dog and the rectangular mobsters being particular favorites), to the steampunk-flavored cityscapes. The music’s amazing too — the song “Belleville Rendez-Vous” was deservedly Oscar-nominated. The only problem? We’re still, six years on, awaiting “The Illusionist,” Chomet’s follow-up, based on an unproduced Jacques Tati script.
3. "Persepolis" (2007)
Adapted from the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi and co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, this is one of the rare animated films explicitly not made for children and it greatly benefits from not having to pander in any way (which yes, even Pixar does in minor ways). It's a coming-of-age tale about a child (Satrapi), that lived through the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath, including, love, loss, revolution and rebellion. It wasn't an easy sell to the masses that's for sure, but it's a charming, heartfelt, funny and wonderful story that won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for good reason. Voiced by Catherine Deneueve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni (fathered by Italian screen idol Marcello Mastroianni), the film explores themes of tyranny, oppression, alienation, xenophobia abroad, and universal ideas about growing up female in a male-centric world — not to mention the difficulties of loving punk-rock under the regime of the Shah. Sublime.
2. "The Incredibles" (2004)
Where else can you see a PG-rated movie, aimed directly at kids, where a central plot thread is the husband/father (a former big shot superhero, reduced to living life in domestic bliss after an imposed government mandate) dealing with his feelings of sexual inadequacy? (He gets his mojo back via a series of dangerous freelance missions.) Where else can you see a little kid named Dash, zooming at improbable speeds, killing countless villainous goons? Or a scene where the mother of the Incredibles brood imparts a feminist life lesson on her daughter in the face of death? Writer-director Brad Bird's masterpiece of super-heroics is a lot of things - comic book history lesson (it alludes to everything from "The Spirit" to "Watchmen"), critique on the American family and kick-ass action movie - but its chief asset may be that it maneuvers through such potentially problematic waters with grace, wit and a seemingly boundless energy. Rarely has a film's title been so apt.
1. "Spirited Away" (2001)
Though the Japanese animated film "Spirited Away" was distributed by Walt Disney, it couldn't be further from a so-called Disney movie. Turnip spirits, vicious paper cuts, and dancing, disembodied heads are just some of the weird wonders of Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece that sparks the imagination of adults and children alike. "Spirited Away" takes the time-tested trope of average girl lost in a fantasy world (see "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz") and adds Miyazaki's strange genius, his recurring themes of the power of love and environmentalism, and gorgeous, hand-drawn visuals to create something entirely new. Though Disney has rightfully dominated the stateside animation scene for decades, this film from the Japanese auteur earned Oscar's first Best Animated Feature award, beating out both "Lilo & Stitch" and "Treasure Planet" for the prize.
We know it's cool to hate on Disney movies, but "Lilo and Stitch" should be mentioned, for its wonderful character design, for its water color painted backdrops, for its superb use of Elvis songs, for its renegade attitude (since it was wholly developed and animated away from the corporate eyes, in central Florida) and its general weird-ass-ed-ness (One of its co-directors Dean DeBlois directed that fabulous Sigur Ros movie, "Heima" from 2007); in "Wallace and Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit" the duo's leap to the big screen, they lampooned Hammer horror movies while fighting stateside studio DreamWorks, who felt the movie was "too British." It's still pretty "British" if you mean it brims with witty sight gags, wordplay and is enormously enjoyable; "Fear(s) of the Dark" a French produced black-and-white horror anthology was stylish and eerie and in a rarity for an anthology film, the separate pieces worked to form a cohesive whole; "Monster House" is the rare motion capture film in which photo-realism wasn't a chief goal. Set in a world that seems to be a combination of the 1950's and '80's, it felt like a lost "Steven Spielberg Presents..." movie (he did produce this) or maybe an episode of "Amazing Stories." Good fun; "Corpse Bride" was an awkward marriage of a German folk tale with a very English aesthetic but it mostly worked, thanks to spooky visuals and some good Danny Elfman tunes; "Paprika" the Japanese animated movie by anime icon Satoshi Kon about the power of dreams, didn't make a whole lot of sense but it was stunning to look at.
-Kimber Myers, Jace Brittain, Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Gabe Toro, Kevin Jagernauth & RP