Honorable Mention: Kubo and the Two Strings, directed by Travis Knight

Top 10 Animated Movies of the Decade

This was a fascinating decade for animated movies. There was the (relative) decline of Pixar, the Disney Revival, Studio Ghibli closing, then reopening, and a wealth of talented new directors and studios. It was a great decade for animated features and ten is a weird arbitrary number of films to highlight; there were so many amazing films I could talk about. Still, top 10 lists impose limits that produce a more curated list and prevents me from going rogue and spending 5 paragraphs raving about Penguin Highway or something.

In chronological order (earliest to latest), these are my top 10 animated movies of the decade.

Toy Story 3, directed by Lee Unkrich

Toy Story 3

The moments that stick with you in Toy Story 3 are the dramatic moments. I think everyone cried at the trash yard scene. But what makes those moments work is that they are serious moments in what is at heart a really funny film. This movie is just goofy. There’s a lot of comedy that feels like it’s from an old cartoon. There’s off-the wall zaniness like Buzz Lightyear salsa dancing to “You Got a Friend in Me”, or the wacky way that Woody runs around, limbs flailing. There’s the thrill of the extended escape sequence. The movie is just really freaking entertaining. Plus, it has Hamm in it! Everybody loves Hamm.

This is also a movie that sensationally ends a series. The themes of growing up, of moving on, of finding meaning in life; those are universal themes and this movie nails them. It’s a tremendously satisfying end to the saga that wraps up all the loose ends. And then Pixar made a sequel, and the sequel is good but not great, and the ending is fine, I guess… But Toy Story 3 was Pixar at its apex, and re-watching it again to write this made me a little sad that it feels like Pixar rarely makes movies like this anymore. Movies that are emotional but also feel like everyone involved is had an absolute blast making them. Too often now movies, especially sequels, feel like they originate in a boardroom meeting rather than an artist’s imagination. Toy Story 3 feels like the product of people eager to tell this story and having fun expressing themselves, which is why I have so much fun watching it.

Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki (おおかみこどもの雨と雪), directed by Mamoru Hosoda (細田 守)

Wolf Children

Mamoru Hosoda’s movies consistently display remarkable narrative ambition. There’s the constant time-travel of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the gargantuan cast of Summer Wars, or the constant swapping between reality and imagination of Mirai. Yet Wolf Children is the movie where it actually works. Hosoda tells a story of a family spanning multiple decades. The daughter narrates and says that the story is about her mother’s life, but really the story is about the lives of all members of the family. While most family movies focus on either the parents or the children, Wolf Children remarkably manages to address both. All of the family members feel well-realized and they all have their own arcs and their relationships all evolve throughout the course of the movie! It is a remarkable juggling act that feels effortless thanks to brilliant directing by Hosoda. The movie manages to cram astonishing amounts of characterization and the passage of time through shots that don’t feel overstuffed or busy at all.

Not only does Wolf Children fully realize its ambitious goals of presenting a family dynamic where all members are real characters, it also manages to hit an enormous number of different emotions without feeling disorganized or schitzophrenic. The movie veers from spectacular exuberance to nail-biting suspense to total contentment to profound sadness. Some people consider this a sad movie, and I totally disagree. It’s an emotional movie, and the fact that so many different feelings and tones feel at harmony is another testament to how well this movie is put together. This is one of the best family movies ever.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫の物語), directed by Isao Takahata (高畑 勲)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The final movie by brilliant director Isao Takahata is also his best, and feels like a culmination of a life’s work. It’s his most beautiful movie, an absolutely jaw-dropping painted masterpiece. The linework changes from gentle pastels in the countryside to precise narrow strokes in the city. When Kaguya is upset the animation becomes jagged and scrawling to the point where you can see the pencil strokes. When I started watching the movie I found the animation odd and a bit off-putting, and by the end it was obvious that this was one of the most visually stunning movies I had ever seen. Not only does the movie look incredible, but it also features Joe Hisaishi’s best score ever. The soundtrack is incredibly evocative.

Kaguya is an phenomenally sympathetic protagonist and the emotional beats of this movie land HARD. I rarely cry at movies and there were times I was straight up sobbing at the film. It totally succeeds at making you care deeply about its protagonist and telling a powerful, captivating story.

Critics of Takahata’s movies often dislike their plodding pacing. Fortunately, this is… actually it has the worst pacing of any of them, somehow alternating between feeling boringly meandering and annoyingly rushed. Still, Takahata’s last movie was the archtypal example of his style and my favorite Studio Ghibli movie (yes you read that correctly). Despite some flaws it’s an absolute masterpiece.

The Lego Movie, directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

The Lego Movie

This movie shouldn’t be good.

The fact that The Lego Movie didn’t get nominated for best animated feature at the 2014 Oscars is perhaps the most ridiculous snub in the history of the category. I think voters could not believe that a two-hour toy commercial ended up being a completely amazing movie. The movie is absolutely hysterical. It barrages the audience with jokes and references ranging from Space Jam to Aristophanes. Even if only half of the jokes landed the movie would still be a riot, and far more than half land.

This movie shouldn’t be moving either, but it somehow pulls that off as well. The Lego Movie takes major narrative risks that pay off handsomely (although some people don’t like the turn the movie takes; that’s fine). It’s another in a long line of “chosen one” stories. The movie makes fun of all the tropes of these sorts of stories without being obnoxious about it, while at the same time serving as an exemplar of how to do a “chosen one” story right.

I love Legos, and played with them a ton as a kid. I was extremely skeptical that the movie would be good but the trailer looked surprisingly funny and Lord and Miller are excellent directors, so I dragged a friend to go see it. Afterwards I spent more than a month raving to everyone who would listen about how amazing this movie was. I also saw more Facebook discussion about this movie than any other I can think of. It might just be a reflection of the type of people I hang out with (or the fact that I’m on Facebook much, much less often than I was in 2014), but there was status after status from friends raving about the movie and promising that yes, it was actually that great. Lego Batman was fun and the sequel was pretty good, but this movie was the masterpiece. If you have not seen The Lego Movie because it looks like a toy commercial… well, it is a toy commercial. But it’s also — as that annoyingly catchy song says — awesome.

Song of the Sea (Amhrán na Mara), directed by Tomm Moore

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is everything that I hope for in a promising director’s sophomore project. Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells blew people away in 2009 with it’s gorgeous, original art style, interesting characters, and atypical plot. I like the movie a lot, but to me it felt a bit rough around the edges. Sometimes the art seemed like it was weird for the sake of being weird, and I think the unconventional story ends with a somewhat unsatisfying ending.

Song of the Sea is the result of taking the elements that worked in the previous movie and removing some of the stranger aspects that didn’t. The art looks incredible and unique without being distracting. The movie’s departures from typical family fare are well thought out and executed. For example, when tragedy hits characters the trauma continues to linger with them — contrast that to the Disney formula where for example in Frozen Anna and Elsa’s parents die horribly and then the sisters never mention them again. Some people have complained about the characters in Song of the Sea not being likable enough, but I think they behave more realistically than characters in many other family movies.

Speaking of realism, the setting is one of the best parts of the movie. All the voice actors are Irish, the soundtrack (by Bruno Coulais, crushing it as usual) features music by Irish folk group Kíla, and much of the text is in Gaelic. I watched the movie when I was living in Wisconsin and it made me miss the ocean because the setting is so evocative of 1980s Ireland. Overall, Tomm Moore is the director I am most excited about and I can’t wait to see what he does next — Wolfwalkers looks sickkkkk.

Inside Out, directed by Phil Doctor

Inside Out

After releasing Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, Pixar’s once impeccable reputation had taken a hit. Inside Out served as a remind of how amazing the studio could be when it was creating fresh and innovative films. Yes, it’s another “two characters who don’t get along have to go on a journey and along the way come to appreciate each other” plot. This has been done over and over in animated movies since Toy Story, but it works well here because Joy and Sadness interacting ties to the central theme of the movie. It’s not super innovative, but it certainly doesn’t feel rote or uninspired.

On the other hand, the setting is brilliant and feels imaginative and new. The abstraction of a movie set inside a person’s mind means that the entire film is a playground for the animators to have fun. I love the sequence where Joy, Sadness, and Bingbong take a “shortcut” and the art style keeps changing. Clearly the writers were having fun too, as the movie is consistently hilarious. The “Tripledent Gum” joke in particular is amazing.

Not only is the movie fun and funny, but the serious moments are terrific. Some serious moments in animated movies are impactful, but contained to the characters in the movie. The serious moments of Inside Out are so moving because they reflect universal experiences and emotions. This is one of those movies that as far as I can tell everyone loved. You can’t not love this movie.

OK and also, has anyone else noticed how comically similar this movie is to Coraline? They’re both about a young girl from the midwest who moves to California to a crappy house and they have difficulties adapting to their new environment, the characters designs are similar too.

Zootopia, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Zootopia

Oh boy, it’s yet another “two characters who don’t get along have to go on a journey and along the way come to appreciate each other” plot. This rather generic setup doesn’t work as well for me in Zootopia as it did in Inside Out. In fact, Zootopia has a lot of tropes that by the end of the decade felt horribly overused, most notably an awful twist-villain (please Disney, no more terrible twist-villains!) who is defeated when the movie acts like the protagonist died (ugh) but they were actually recording when the villain ranted about their evil plan (ugghhhh).

So ok, some of the clichés really don’t work. But some of them actually do. Especially noteworthy is the time when protagonist Judy Hopps faces a major setback. Protagonists in Disney movies, and movies more generally, frequently face setbacks at the beginning of their story’s third act. In many animated films this setback is perfunctorily resolved to start the big finale. In Zootopia, Hopps’ struggle carries real weight; she’s depressed and upset at herself. Her failure is also interesting and relates to the movie’s central message of acceptance, as opposed to many third-act setbacks that seem tacked on.

Another reason that moment works is the incredible performance by Ginnifer Goodwin as Hopps. Jason Bateman as Nick Wilde gives an excellent performance as well, but Goodwin does some of the best voice acting work of the decade here. She sells every important moment in the well-written script. During the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, Disney produced excellent although often formulaic animated films. Despite their clichés, some particularly great films have aged extremely well. In the modern Disney Revival, I’m beginning to feel the same fatigue from a new generation of overused tropes. But I think Zootopia will be one of the films that endures because it shows why the tropes work in the first place. It will be remembered as more Beauty and the Beast than Pocahontas.

Tower, directed by Keith Maitland

Tower

In the United States, too often animation is pigeonholed into being a medium for entertaining movies for kids. Tower is a great example of understanding the power of animation to tell stories that would not be possible in live action. The documentary is a nearly real-time depiction of the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas. Although the movie is stressful and terrifying, the fact that it is animated provides enough distance and unreality to make it watchable. If the exact same movie had been done in life action it would too excruciating to appreciate, but in animation one can appreciate it without becoming too overwhelmed.

Aside from how smart the decision to use animation is, it’s a terrific documentary. One of the most fascinating parts is that the movie uses a number of narrators to depict different characters and perspectives on the shooting. At times it looks through the eyes of victims, police, reporters, townspeople, students who risked their lives to help classmates, and most fascinatingly bystanders who did nothing despite having a chance to save lives. The film is thought-provoking, moving, and surprising.

Your Name (君の名は。), directed by Makoto Shinkai (新海 誠)

Your Name

When Your Name came out I watched it in the sadly now closed Sunshine Cinema. They were only playing it for a week and I had heard good things, so spur of the moment I bought a ticket for one of the last showings and watched it by myself. I left the theater pumping my fist like holy shit I can’t believe the movie was that good. The theater was packed and the audience was totally invested in the story, gasping and cheering. Apparently the movie was a huge hit, because Sunshine extended the run another week, then another, then another. It was crazy; whenever I went on the site’s website they were still showing the movie!

I think that’s a testament to how crowd-pleasing this movie is. It has a lot of anime tropes that are often grating, but executes them astonishingly well. The soundtrack is blaring J-pop but the songs are actually fun and enjoyable. The movie opens with a recurring boob-groping joke that is funnier every time it occurs. The bratty younger sister character steals every scene she’s in. Unbelievably, all the tropes that often irritate actually work.

Parts of this movie are cheesy and ridiculous, but it makes you buy in so those moments cause tears instead of eyerolls. Your Name doesn’t feel like some crazy bolt from the blue, but instead an incredibly well-executed movie. After seeing it I wanted Makoto Shinkai to try something new, because this is the best version of this kind of movie. Your Name is the best anime highschool romance movie, ever, and I don’t think it’s close¹.

Since it made a gazillion dollars, other movies have unsuccessfully tried to copy it. I’ve been pretty disappointed that Fireworks was basically panned as “Your Name but not as good”, early reviews for Weathering with You make it sound like “Your Name but not as good”, and J.J. Abrams is apparently producing a live-action version directed by Marc Webb, which sounds like “Your Name but complete ass”. This isn’t a movie that needs refinement or re-imagining. It’s already incredibly well-done.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, directed Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

This is another movie that I was so happy I saw on the big screen. The visuals are eye-popping and thrilling. The movie was so obviously a labor of love. From the opening corporate logos, the best corporate logos I’ve ever seen in a movie, every single aspect looks astonishing. The ending credits look astonishing (let alone the hysterical after credits scene). The music that plays over the end credits includes an original parody song as well. I’m talking about all the parts of the movie that are sort of throwaway because it shows how much effort has been put into even the most mundane parts of the movie.

Ok, now that the requisite gushing about the animation is out of the way — this movie is great. Characters, comedy, action, all of it. The soundtrack is more than just that one Post Malone song; there’s lots of great tracks. I’ve talked about how other movies on the list nail emotional moments — man, if you weren’t pumping your fist at the “what’s up danger” scene I’m assuming you don’t have arms or something.

I’m not a huge fan of the MCU — I’m not hostile to it, but I’ve never been as enthralled as many other people, although I respect and am deeply impressed that Marvel has managed to construct a coherent narrative across so many movies. That quippy popcorn movie feel stands in contrast to the brooding Wagnerian drama of the Nolan Batman trilogy (and whatever Zack Snyder thought he was doing). Watching Spiderverse made me feel like Hollywood has been doing comic book movies wrong for the past decade. They should be these trippy, wild stories that leap from page to screen. This was the best superhero movie of 2018 — a year with Infinity War, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther!

[1] Yes I have seen A Silent Voice

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store