Beyond bringing anthropomorphized animals and talking toys to life, animated films have far more powers if you look beyond Pixar. These are my top ten ingenious films of the decade from 2007-2017 based on narrative depth, clever storytelling, and deft animation.
1. Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013)
This criminally underseen feature is from Isao Takahata, the co-founder of Studio Ghibli. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a series of watercolor images brought to life – a bamboo cutter’s daughter is confined by misguided intentions and superficial trappings of life. Through this, she also discovers the bittersweet joy of mortality. The plot employs clever storytelling where the drawing gradually evolves as the narrative goes deeper, delivering a complex animated movie. Serving as both a folklore and commentary on the plight of Japanese women in history, this unconventional Studio Ghibli offering is essential viewing.
2. Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) (2016)
When you combine the talents of a renowned Dutch animator, French screenplay writer, and anime film producer, the result is no less than sublime. The Red Turtle is a fantasy drama about a man shipwrecked on an island. In its simple narrative, you get a poetic study about the patterns of life. Combining charcoal drawings on paper, digital 2D animation and wisely utilized CGI, you have a wonderful movie for those who have a long attention span and don’t settle for empty action.
3. Waltz with Bashir (2008)
It’s not fiction, but it is an animated film nonetheless. Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary film that will probably break your faith in humanity and it should, as we all need to be reminded that no one wins at war and the cycle of violence perpetrates itself. Through a man’s journey in recovering his missing memories as a soldier we learn the harrowing truth about the Sabra and Shatila massacre and the real life footage ending is a stab in the gut. And yes, the soundtrack and imagery is as haunting as its story.
4. Window Horses (2016)
Race is not usually tackled by mainstream animated movies unless they’re an allegory, lest keyboard warriors come out of the woodwork and complain SJW propaganda ruining children’s movies. Luckily, other people better suited to tell these stories do. Window Horses is a poignant coming-of-age tale and family drama that tackles cultural identity and immigration without being preachy. The simple truths here are so on point I see it in real life myself – people romanticize other culture while ignoring their own, getting lost in an ideal that may not even be true. The distinct animation style and poetry is an added bonus.
5. Shape of Voice (2016)
It’s saddled by the volume of its source material but it’s still affecting nonetheless. Shape of Voice is an honest teen drama with rare psychological depth. Told from the perspective of a loner who was once a bully, it tackles bullying, isolation, suicide, and teen relationships, all without resorting to high school cliches of sex and romance. It’s incidental framing, sound design, and overlapping narratives tell us the value of communication in human connections.
6. Mary and Max (2009)
Dramedy is a tricky genre mash-up to pull, but when done right the result is both funny yet deeply moving experience. Mary and Max is a stop motion animated tale about two pen pals. Throughout their correspondence the movie tackles plenty of adult issues including friendship, alcoholism, isolation, mental illness, autism, depression, suicide, and obesity, all told with a sardonic tone and laced with dry wit. With authentic characters and remarkable honesty, this is a must see for every adult.
7. Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
Sometimes you don’t need expensive CGI to tell a great story. Sita Sings the Blues is a modernist tale that parallels pieces of an artist’s life with the Ramayana. More than just a story about relationship woes, the animated film also has a funny discourse on the mythological tale revealing a subtle subversive undercurrent in the film. Three narrators get confused yet dare not challenge the stories they tell and unwittingly reveal the sexism in it – Sita endlessly professes her undying devotion that she goes under trial by fire twice and gets swallowed by mother earth yet gets banished, blamed, and in the end told that it’s her fault for loving a douche. Using Rajput style of brush painting, Indian shadow puppets, striking vector animation, and squigglevision technique to complement the narrative, it’s a feat all done by one artist – Nina Paley. Best of all, its FREE.
8. Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (2017)
Pixar’s trademark is expertly staged sad moments, but it has never really taken a bold plunge into darkness. Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is a picture book of nightmares yet its unsettling and strikingly original allegory of funny animals stuck in a post-apocalyptic landscape makes it a memorable experience. I don’t blame Pixar for sticking to the lighter side because Birdboy is nightmare fuel (of which I’d rather not explain in words because it’s better seen), but that is exactly where this mind-bending fantasy get its powers from.
9. The Breadwinner (2017)
Angeline Jolie is one of the executive producers of this film, so we all know what that means. In fairness, The Breadwinner does have noble intentions. The gorgeously animated tale brings the culture and landscape of Kabul to life and boldly tackles the violence girls and women face under extreme patriarchy. Told through the tale of a girl who pretends to be a boy to support her family, it confronts real life issues of growing up under a Taliban rule. The film is made by the creators of Book of Kells and even though its adopted from a YA novel, this is no ordinary animated film for young adults.
10. Inside Out (2015)
While the concept is not exactly original, Pixar still outdid itself through an allegory about emotional maturity. Inside Out is groundbreaking for its thematic storytelling and worldbuilding that appeals to both kids and adults. Through the story of four personified emotions helping a child adjust through a difficult phase in her life, we learn that you don’t have to be a fucking ray of sunshine everyday. In a world where optimism is The Secret to success, we all need to be reminded that sadness is a natural part of coping and fooling ourselves to be happy and feel okay only makes it worse.