The Animatrix (2003)
Released between the one-two disappointment combo of Reloaded and Revolutions, this direct-to-video prequel omnibus is a refreshing antidote to the sequels’ overscaled gobbledygook. Like most anthology films, the shorts vary in quality, but by enlisting the talented likes of Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop), Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), and Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll), the Wachowskis proved they knew how to pick their collaborators well.
Heavy Traffic (1973)
Ralph Bakshi’s whole career is a big, messy middle finger to people who say cartoons are only for kids. His movies aren’t pretty — in fact, they’re usually the opposite — but that’s kind of the point, and his bawdy, brawling patchwork of inner-city life exemplifies that. It was his second X-rated feature, and while it usually gets overshadowed by its predecessor Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic was really the place where Bakshi got to express himself in all his ugly glory.
If you think Tim Burton is weird, you ain’t seen nothing yet. To put it into Lewis Carroll terms: Where Burton’s Wonderland is curious, Czech stop-motion animator Jan Svankmajer’s creepy, taxidermied vision is much, much curiouser. Watching this adaptation, packed with a panoply of rusted and threadbare creatures, is like experiencing a drug nightmare in an antique collector’s attic. But in a good way.
Animal Farm (1954)
Sure, I know what you’re thinking: If there’s one thing kids like more than talking pigs (Babe, anyone?), it’s an extensive allegorical critique of Stalinist Russia. Some animated films are more equal than others, and this British adaptation of Orwell’s classic novella, despite an unfortunate changed ending, is easily one of the most equal.
Waltz With Bashir (2008)
A sobering, painful rumination on the vagaries of war and memory — particularly the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the memories of writer-director Ari Folman — that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. If anyone still had doubts that the medium could take on serious issues with respect and emotional resonance, this film helped dispel them.
Perfect Blue (1998)
Satoshi Kon’s relatively short cinema career was cut even shorter by his unfortunate passing last August, but his output is exquisite. His films are fluttering, frequently unnerving visions that are often ahead of their time: While his dream-hopping Paprika presaged last year’s Inception, his brilliant debut about a Japanese pop idol who descends into a violent spiral of fantasy and self-deception is like an even-more-manic first draft of Black Swan. It’s the kind of movie that takes a long, long time to get out of your head.
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Sure, this Aardman Animations concoction has all the chase sequences and anthropomorphism usually suitable for children’s entertainment, but adults are the ones who can fully appreciate the Claymation romp’s endless wordplay, its spoofing of the snooty upper-crust, and all the British humor that’s drier than a chunk of Wensleydale left out on the counter for weeks.
Waking Life (2001)
Like some of Richard Linklater’s other work, particularly Slacker and Before Sunrise/set, the rotoscoped Waking Life is a talky, stream-of-consciousness tour through a heaping spoonful of dorm-room philosophy topics. Those who find that kind of thing insufferable probably won’t change their mind because of the film’s dazzling free-form animation, but for the rest of us, it’s a perfect melding of ideas and images.
When the Wind Blows (1986)
Director Jimmy Murakami contributed to the brash and noisy animation classic Heavy Metal, but his greatest works are much quieter, like the seasonal classic The Snowman or this humane and heartrending feature about an elderly British husband and wife who slowly die of radiation sickness a nuclear attack on the U.K.
The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
Sylvain Chomet’s jaunty, endlessly Gallic confection is set in a world in which Tour de France competitors are kidnapped, the Statue of Liberty is overweight, and people play vacuums and refrigerators as musical instruments. Like Jacques Tati — whose unproduced script he made into The Illusionist in 2010 — Chomet has perfected a comedic style of understatement and social commentary, near-wordless silliness with a purpose.
Watership Down (1978)/The Plague Dogs (1982)
These two adaptations of Richard Adams books make you want to immediately go out and donate to the ASPCA. By rendering the warren of preyed-upon rabbits and the pair of tortured lab dogs in a natural, un-anthropomorphized style, director Martin Rosen somehow makes their travails all the more tragic and, paradoxically, relatable.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
The dividing line between animation directors and live-action directors has blurred in recent years: Zack Snyder and Gore Verbinski have both churned out animated movies, while Brad Bird is currently off filming the next Mission: Impossible. In 2009, Wes Anderson made the switch with the most success, adapting Roald Dahl’s book via stop-motion, but retaining all of his wry, dioramic idiosyncrasies.
The Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
You may have mourned Bambi’s mom or teared up at the full-circle coda of Toy Story 3, but you haven’t really cried until you’ve seen Isao Takahata’s heartbreaking story of an orphaned boy and his sister fighting poverty and starvation in WWII-era Japan. Have the Kleenex on standby.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Disney released Tim Burton’s typically twisted holiday tale under its Touchstone banner because the studio thought the ‘toon was too dark for the kiddies. Over the years, the film has attained cult status — and not just among Hot Topic customers, mind you — for its imaginative premise, Henry Selick’s wonderful animation, and a soundtrack of prime Danny Elfman tunes. By now, it’s practically a holiday staple, like a dark cousin of Rankin/Bass.
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical coming-of-age graphic novel about listening to Kim Wilde in Iran worked great on the page and even better on the screen. Animation brought Satrapi’s black-and-white style to life — the chador-clad women who chastise her on the street swoop and morph like phantoms — while simultaneously illustrating cultural shades of gray that often get lost in the politics.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
This is the allegorical sci-fi film set on a planet with a viciously complex ecosystem and giant blue people that James Cameron didn’t direct. René Laloux, responsible for the similarly visual Time Masters, combined surreal imagery with social commentary to create something that was genuinely haunting and hypnotic.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut (1999)
Anyone who has found themselves accidentally singing ”Uncle F—a” aloud in a public place can testify to the sublime catchiness of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s musical masterpiece. Freed from the (relatively) limited censoring of Comedy Central, the boys from the quiet little redneck mountain town go whole hog and end up with the most smartly scatological animated musical ever put to film. If you can appeal to both immature 12-year-olds and Stephen Sondheim, then you know you have something special.
When most people think of anime, they are probably thinking of something akin to Akira: neon dystopias, biker gangs, old children, giant teddy bears leaking milk, and an enormous metastasizing blob of WTF? It’s the consummate representation of the genre, adapted from the consummate manga, but it’s also a great movie in its own right. We should all just try to enjoy it before that remake Hollywood keeps threatening finally happens and they give Kaneda a love interest and a sassy talking monkey.
Yellow Submarine (1968)
If you don’t love the Beatles’ colorful, psychedelic animated musical, you must be a Blue Meanie. Featuring John, Paul, George, Ringo, Lucy, Eleanor, and Sgt. Pepper, among many others, it’s a catchy, delirious, wonderfully absurd trip that is practically mind-altering in and of itself.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
We picked Princess Mononoke because it is probably the most adult-oriented of his films, but really this spot belongs to the entire life’s work of animation deity, and Pixar idol, Hayao Miyazaki. From Nausicaä to Totoro, Spirited Away to Ponyo, Miyazaki draws from sources as diverse as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Shintoism, and Hans Christian Andersen to form them into wonderful stories, then illustrates those stories with breathtaking hand-drawn animation. They’re not just for kids, but they’re also not just for adults: Miyazaki’s films exemplify the word ”universal.”