With one of the best years in the history of animation coming to a close, it seems appropriate to open our coverage of the best of the about-to-end decade with what Brad Bird once told me should be considered a medium, not a genre. Looking back at a spectacular decade in animation displays the truth of that statement with excellent films from a variety of sources and telling stories that range from drama to comedy to, of course, the family film.
Future books about the cinema of the 2000s will be incomplete if they don't include an entire chapter on how Pixar injected life into the medium of animation, but the Pixar story is only one part of the story. The last decade further solidified that animation has its masters as much as the live-action film and that names like Brad Bird, Hayao Miyazaki, Henry Selick, and Andrew Stanton deserve mention in the discussion of great directors, period. Trimming the list down to twenty (a top ten and ten runner-ups) was surprisingly difficult, but these were the best.
A Personal Note: In case you think they were "forgotten," the Robert Zemeckis films were left off the list purposefully (none of them work, though Beowulf comes close) as were both the Shrek and Ice Age franchises. Success does not always mean quality although both of the first installments of those franchises would have been in the runner-ups were there twenty. It's not that they're bad, just that there were better.
Runner-Ups: Howl's Moving Castle, Monsters Inc., Paprika, Ponyo, A Scanner Darkly, The Simpsons Movie, Sita Sings the Blues, The Triplets of Belleville, Up, and Waking Life
Watching Marjane Satrapi's adaptation (along with co-director Vincent Paronnaud) of her own graphic novel makes one wonder why more producers don't take the chance on comic artists more often and allow them to bring their vision to life in animated form. Does every graphic novel have to be turned into live-action? Isn't it possible that the strength of the storytelling is tied to the use of a hand-drawn line? Imagine a graphic novel-esque film version of Watchmen. I'm not saying it would have definitely been better, but it's worth consideration, especially after watching something as remarkable and daring as Persepolis. Not every piece of animation needs a singing woodland creature, a voice part for a CW actor, or a 3D version. Persepolis tells the story of a girl going through the great changes that naturally come with growing from a child to an adolescent to a woman, but it's all against the backdrop of even bigger worldwide changes. It's about a little girl coming of age during the Shah's regime in Iran and the revolution that followed. Persepolis tells a semi-autobiographical story but connects because of its universal themes. And it's a visual wonder with notes of German expressionism mixed with the look of some of the best recent graphic novel artists.
Few films from the wonderful year of animation that was 2009 were as memorable as Henry Selick's amazing adaptation of the beloved Neil Gaiman book Coraline. Selick, the man who most people unjustly ignore in their memory of who made The Nightmare Before Christmas, created a remarkably well crafted and detailed world for this variation on Alice in Wonderland and, consequently, turned in one of the most memorable animated films of the decade. I've seen literally hundreds of films since I saw Coraline last but the imagery and the world of its young heroine and her "other mother" is immediately accessible in my mind's eye. When you think of the great movies, it's almost always an image that comes to mind first and Coraline has a way of searing itself into your memory like very few recent films. Continuously clever, surprisingly dark, and with the most striking use of 3D yet in the form, Coraline is the best mainstream animated film of the year. Yes, better than Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Ponyo, The Princess and the Frog, or Fantastic Mr. Fox – although that list alone reveals what an amazing twelve months its been for the form. All were good to great films and all were topped by Coraline.
The first claymation winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit feels much older than four years and I mean that as a compliment. There's always been a timelessness to the Aardman Animation brand of humor with a funny bone reminiscent of a bygone era of film comedy and that has helped the cheese-loving inventor and his wise pooch attain a status that makes them feel like classic characters. Having been a huge fan of their award-winning shorts – A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave – I admit to being nervous as to how Nick Park's creations would maintain the running of a feature film. After winning countless awards on its way to Oscar and introducing a worldwide audience to the genius of these characters and the people who bring them to life, that worry was completely unfounded. Now, my only concern is why we haven't seen them back on the big screen again. Since Were-Rabbit, they made a lukewarm-received short called A Matter of Loaf and Death and Aardman tried their hand at CGI with Flushed Away, but why fix what isn't broken? Head back to what worked about Were-Rabbit and play that classic comedy tune at least one more time.
Undoubtedly the least-seen film on this list, Mary and Max is a remarkably moving and poignant stop-motion film featuring voice work by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose work stands among the best voice performances in the history of film. Hoffman brings to vibrant life the tale of Max, an obese man in NYC who happens to have Asperger's Syndrome. Through a random series of events, Max becomes pen pals with a young Australian girl named Mary (Collette). The two characters share their confusion about life and forever impact one another. With a witty script, delightful visual cues, and some of the most well-rounded voice work ever, Mary and Max deserved a much wider release (playing only in small markets and On Demand earlier this year). It is the rare kind of film that I believe even the most heartless, live-action-only viewer could enjoy because it transcends its form to tell a relatable, beautiful, heartfelt story with universal appeal. Hopefully, the film will develop a word-of-mouth following when it's eventually released on DVD. Movies this good usually do.
The highest ranking film of the 2000s that would be deemed for "adults only" is also one of the hardest to capture in words. Ari Folman's semi-documentary is a daring use of two forms, using standard documentary techniques to tell a story that couldn't quite be captured with a normal camera. Waltz with Bashir is about how people (and a country) comes to terms with the sins of the past and that's not something that can be easily burned on celluloid. Recognizing this, Folman filmed standard interviews about the genocide at Sabra and Shatila in the early 1980s, and intertwined them with surreal visions of his own hazy dreams and memories. The fact is that film rarely accurately represents the way people cope with tragedy or their role in it. Denial is not just a dam that breaks and memories don't flood back like TV movies would have you believe. They slowly bubble and rise to the surface and Folman's recognition of that through animation makes for one of the most moving and memorable documentaries or animated films of the decade.
The Brad Bird one-two punch starts with Ratatouille, although I could be convinced to swap the two on any given day. Regardless of the order (and with a shout-out to the brilliant Bird-directed The Iron Giant from 1999), it's clear that Mr. Bird is a pioneer of his medium, a man who knows how to tell a story in animated form like the masters of live-action cinema do in theirs. What most distinguishes Bird's work is just that – his storytelling ability. Take Ratatouille, a film that, on paper, shouldn't work and would have fallen apart into another generic summer kid’s movie in most filmmaker's hands. A rat who teaches a struggling chef about the glory of food? It could have been absolutely disastrous. But the genius of Brad Bird is that he takes the archetypal or the generic and makes it genuine. So many animators go in the other direction, taking their concepts and trying to appeal to the widest audience. Ratatouille was the first Pixar film that was arguably for the parents more than the children they brought to it. The kids certainly loved the striking visuals and just the concept of a talking rat in general, but did they appreciate the way Bird beautifully captures Paris, the way his voice actors disappear into their characters, the story of finding what you love and defending it to the bitter end? I bet you did.
Is there any genre that will define the 2000s more than the superhero movie? From Spider-Man to Iron Man to The Dark Knight, men in tights have dominated popular culture for the last ten years like they never have before. How appropriate that one of the best animated works of the decade sticks a pin in the balloon of superhero culture and turns the extraordinary into something relatable and ordinary. A family tale disguised as an action movie, The Incredibles works on every single level – as comedy, eye candy, family movie, and even superhero flick. Once again, Bird takes a generic concept – the domestication of the superhero – and makes it remarkable by finding the humanity in his superhuman characters. And the left turn from Finding Nemo – the two films are so different in tone – while losing none of the quality announced to the world that Pixar was going to be an unpredictable voice for years to come. Many people point to the Best Picture snub last year of WALL-E as the reason that the category has expanded to ten this season. They miss the fact that if there had been ten nominees all decade, Beauty and The Beast wouldn’t be the last animated film nominated for the big category before WALL-E. The Incredibles or Ratatouille would have been.
I love the Toy Story films as much as the next guy (maybe even more so), but Finding Nemo was the moment I think most of us realized that Pixar was going to be a truly driving force in the medium. As landmark as they were, the Toy Story movies were something of a slam-dunk, especially given the involvement of mega-stars like Tim Allen and Tom Hanks, and A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. are good films for sure, but they're no Nemo. Writer Andrew Stanton moved from the staff of all Pixar films to date to direct a gorgeously rendered and truly heartwarming tale about letting your children grow up. As he would again on an even better animated film this decade, Stanton made a piece of work with different resonating chords for different age groups. The young members of the family can't help but be entertained by Dory's behavior and the journey of Nemo towards his own independence, but the parents saw a lot of themselves in Marlin, the overprotective dad who wasn't quite ready to let his son go off into a dangerous world. The best animation and nearly all of Pixar's work is inspired not by product placement or gimmicks but by timeless human emotion. Finding Nemo features themes that play in any language and will play for the rest of time. Parents will always dread the day they push their little ones out of the nest and kids will always count those until it comes. And, for decades to come, we will watch Finding Nemo.
Master Hayao Miyazaki's most gorgeously conceived and rendered film of the decade is his remarkable take on Alice in Wonderland, a film with some of the most striking imagery of the last ten years, animated or live-action. I can't not smile when I think about Spirited Away, a film that should (and probably is) required viewing for any animator trying to conceive or execute their own fantasy world. The bare-bones plot is deceptively simple – a young girl learns a lesson about independence and her own value on a trip to another world. As with most of his films, it's not the plot description that thrills but what Miyazaki and his team do within their usually simple constructs. More successful in its home country than Titanic, the originally-titled Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi is a modern, miraculous variation on a classic archetype of animation – the journey to a fantasy world as metaphor for the journey from child to adult – but Miyazaki breathes beautiful, unique life into it, making the tried-and-true structure his own. When I think of the concept of "magical animation," Spirited Away is usually one of the first films to come to mind. It’s a film that we’ll be watching for decades to come.
One of the most ambitious films of the 2000s, WALL-E is a game-changer, the kind of film that forever alters your perception of what comes after it. Think about it. Can you ever see an animated sci-fi film again and not think of it? Even junk like Planet 51 or Battle for Terra has had to live in the shadow of the little robot that could. Great films become immediate reference points. When you see something like Star Wars or Alien for the first time, any future film that hits similar beats is likely to bring those classics back to the forefront of your memory. WALL-E will be a film like that for this generation and future ones to come. Emotionally resonant, visually striking, and a master course in storytelling without words, WALL-E is the bar for future CGI films. The proliferation of 3D CGI films this year almost felt like a reaction to the success of WALL-E. "Well, we're not going to top that. We might as well move on to 3D." WALL-E tops the list for two reasons. One, it was a gigantic swing for the fences in concept alone, a film with no dialogue for nearly its first third and no fluffy talking animals to sell at the Disney store. Ambition must be rewarded when it pays off. As Anton Ego says in Ratatouille, "The new needs friends." And WALL-E was strikingly new, even for a company that attempts to break new ground with nearly every film it releases. Two, more than any other animated film this decade, WALL-E is a "something different for different generations" piece of work. I've seen kids stare wide-eyed at the gorgeous visuals and get thrilled as WALL-E and Eve chase each other around the universe and I've seen parents take something completely different away from the film. It is a work that will resonant for different reasons when you're ten, thirty, or sixty. There's a word for films like that – timeless.