"Spirited Away" (2001)
To Western eyes at least, none of Hayao Miyazaki's work is exactly straight-forward: plots for Studio Ghibli pictures include children who befriend forest spirits in post-war Japan, a witch who starts a courier service, and an anti-fascist bi-plane pilot who's transformed into a pig. But easily his most oblique work, "Spirited Away" was, happily, also his most acclaimed (winning the Golden Bear and a Best Animated Feature Oscar) and most commercially successful. Beginning, albeit briefly, in the real world, ten-year-old Chihiro comes across an abandoned amusement park, and sees her parents transformed into pigs in front of her eyes. Her name is then stolen by a witch, she befriends a boy who's actually a dragon, saving him from paper birds, and makes him cough up a slug. And that's just the first half. The imagery's truly extraordinary (we've barely scratched the surface), but it's all working to a purpose -- one of the most truly moving coming-of-age tales since "Alice in Wonderland," and possibly even trippier than Lewis Carroll's tale.
“Fantastic Planet” (1973)
Now here's a film that kisses the idea of outlandish cult films on the mouth. Director René Laloux and artist Roland Topor team up for this short & strange sci-fi, demanding both attention and interpretation as they revel in their (never forced) bat-shit ways. On an alien planet, humans (known as Ohms) are cultivated by an alien race known as Draags, which are giant spiritual beings who either keep Ohms as pets or ban them from their civilization with an occasional extermination cycle. The narrative follows pet Ohm Terr who ends up learning the Draag culture and escaping to the wild, spreading his wisdom to an unwilling and religious tribe. Laloux, like a pro, keeps dialogue to a minimum and allows the weirdness to speak for itself (instead of the now-too-common "newbie" character, who must have everything explained to them ala Ellen Page in "Inception"), focusing on the two societies' rituals and relationships with each other and the wildlife. There's some ardent metaphors here, definitely, but if that's not your cup of tea, it contains probably the greatest soundtrack ever. Plus, dude, you can totally get baked to it.
“Heavy Metal” (1981)
Rewatching "Heavy Metal," which recently made its way to the glorious Blu-ray high-definition format, what becomes very apparent is the influence that the second story in the loose, tits-and-blood anthology (based on the cult sci-fi magazine of the same time), had on Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element." It, like "Element," centers around a gruff, unspeakably jaded New York City taxi cab driver (Richard Romanus) who stumbles across a beautiful girl with a secret, and unwittingly becomes her ally. The rest of the movie remains pretty cool (it's nifty to see artwork by icons like Richard Corben, up on screen, moving around), but the herky-jerky animation style is often times too sketchy to be fully enjoyed. Part of this is due to the movie's cheapness, another part due to the often rotoscoped images (sort of an early motion capture), but a lot of it has to do with the attitude of "Heavy Metal" – the source material was definitely 100% "fuck you," why should the movie be any different?