From the 90s to now, the state of animation couldn't be more different. The wave of computer animation has almost entirely drawn out traditional hand drawn efforts and largely at the expense of quality - quality both in storytelling and in that of the animation itself. Both matter of course, something which Pixar and Studio Ghibli seem to grasp, but most other animation studios struggle with. Yet despite the sheer volume of mind-numbingly worthless entries into the animation yearbook - Shark Tale, The Wild, Robots, I might even toss in Cars - there's been a whole lotta fascinating films popping up as well. This I credit to some newfound tie between auteurship and animation - which admittedly has been around forever, just ask Hayao Miyzaki, Ralph Bakshi, Chuck Jones or Jan Svankmajer - but these past few years have seen the best results come from the imaginations of higher profile directors. Miyazaki remains at the top of his game, and Brad Bird and Satoshi Kon have only built on the promise they first showed in the 90s. Add to that a handful of directors from a non-animation background drawn into the craft with tremendous results - Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson for instance. And of course there's Nick Park, Henry Selick, Sylvain Chomet, Andrew Stanton and I suppose I'll call that good enough for now.
The point is, animation is still thriving. Consider Disney's decision to at last return to 2D projects as evidenced by The Princess and the Frog. In fact, I couldn't proceed with this top 10 without a healthy list of honorable mentions. Waking Life, Ratatouille, Coraline, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were Rabbit, and Howl's Moving Castle all would have made excellent entries. Alas, they all fall short of the Top 10 Animated Films of the Decade.
10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
How seamlessly the world of Wes Anderson translates to animation. The Fantastic Mr. Fox was in heated battle with the other two stop-motion animation films in the honorable mentions section for this final spot. It gets the honors because of Anderson's thorough commitment to the finer details, not to mention his absolutely unique approach to the craft. The eerie children's chorus playing over the final chase is pretty swell too.
9. Persepolis (dir. Vincent Parronnaud & Marjane Satrapi)
A deeply personal account of growing up in Iran, beautifully illustrated in the style of the graphic novel that came before it. Livened up by the music of the era, it's he perfect picture of one culture boxing out the rest of the world, and the inner unrest that's bound to cause. An effectively told and highly enlightening animated experience.
8. Paprika (dir. Satoshi Kon)
It feels like what might happen should David Lynch try his hand at animation. Dreams and reality collide after a highly experimental computer program goes awry. There's perhaps no satisfying explanation for how things proceed from there, but the results are sensational. Even better since I saw it first on Blue Ray.
7. Wall-E (dir. Andrew Stanton)
Everyone else's pick for best animated film of the decade may only clock in a #7 for me, but that's more to the credit of the competition than the detriment of Wall-E. In fact, the first half is as fine a piece of film as anything made these last few years and it's only in the less-focused (if more ambitious) second half that it loses its footing, if only slightly. For Wall-E and Eve, I'll even make an exception from my usual rant against non-human love stories. After all, he did watch Hello Dolly one to many times, which as a kid, I did as well.
6. The Triplets of Belleville (dir. Sylvain Chomet)
I had the pleasure of rewatching this just the other day, and I was pleased to see that my admiration for it hasn't waned. With nearly no dialogue to speak of (pun most definitely intended) Sylvain Chomet carries us through his fantastical world of misshapen people as we follow a whistle-blowing granny's quest to track down his kidnapped cyclist grandson and his mysterious abductors. It's a visually arresting film with a swingin' soundtrack (inspired in part by Django Reinhardt) and oh so worth the brief time you'll spend watching it.
5. The Incredibles (dir. Brad Bird)
Pixar continues to keep by dislike for computer animation at bay, and they've never been better than when they first focused on the actual human dynamic (fine, superhuman dynamic) of this family of comic heroes in the making (Up, for all my misgivings with it, continues in the right direction with actual people as characters). The Incredibles nails the family dynamic, all while carrying them through one thrilling action set-piece after another. It's still the best superhero movie made to date, and easily among the best animated films of the decade.
4. Ponyo (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
Ponyo is somehow as grand in scope as Hayao Miyazaki's most revered films (Princess Mononoke & Spirited Away) yet built with the simplicity that makes My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service equal delights. Chalk it up to all the quieter moments which lend a human element to the over-arching environmentalist narrative. Miyazaki has a better understanding of children than any director living or dead - which isn't to say the film is only for children, far from it - and for all the stunning animation, it's the character interactions that are the real marvel here. Sadly, I see this one being underrated in years to come, but that's probably Miyazaki's own fault for setting the bar so high (stay tuned for more on that).
3. The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (dir. Anthony Lucas)
It clocks in at under 30 minutes, but I decided it would be only fair to show a little love to one of the great short films of the decade, and yes, it's great enough to land at the #3 spot. As you can see above, the animation is shadow puppets meets steam punk, and we follow our hero, Jasper Morello, on an adventure to find a cure for a pestilence hanging over the metropolis of Gothia. It's a remarkable film, entirely available on youtube if I'm not mistaken, and given its length, there's really no excuse for not checking it out.
2. Millennium Actress (dir. Satoshi Kon)
The scope of Millennium Actress is perhaps unparalleled in animation. Satoshi Kon, by way of a proxy director and cameraman, takes us through the rich life of a legendary actress at the twilight of her career, exploring her rise to stardom, the height of her success and the love of her life in a rapid-fire rush from one memory to the next. It's a gorgeous, thrilling and tragic film that's a much a feat of cinema itself as it is of animation.
1. Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
It's impossible to put to words the experience of seeing Spirited Away for the first time, but ten times later, I'm not sure I can do any better job. Suffice it to say that it's a work of unbridled imagination that is equal parts wondrous, horrific and heartwarming. The bathhouse may just be the most vividly realized location in film, its occupants and unexplained magics making it a living, breathing entity in itself. We see it all with the same wide-eyed wonder as Chihiro and as it changes her, so it changes us. Neither before nor since has an animated film reached the high watermark set by Spirited Away, and I sincerely hope that cinephiles of the future will look back on this not merely as on of the animated greats of this generation, but as one of its greatest films.