Best Animated Films, 21st Century

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Surprisingly, of all the many, many names we were called over our ranking of The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far, "anti-animation, hegemonic live-action crypto-fascists" wasn't one, despite the fact we didn't feature any animated movies on that list. We were a touch disappointed, to be honest, as we had a snappy comeback at the ready: we were already in the planning stages of an all-animation feature, so we felt justified in separating the live action picks from their hand-drawn, computer generated, stop motion and claymation brethren. So here is that list: the time frame is extended this time to include any animated film in any style (bar rotoscoping, which we excluded because of its reliance on live-action filming first) from 2000 till now.

The last fifteen years have seen the animation industry undergo huge upheavals, from the titanic union of old-school giant Disney with beloved game-changer Pixar, to the rise to international and Oscar-winning glory of the extraordinary Studio Ghibli (and its imminent dissolution), to the massive leap in quality made by the likes of DreamWorks and other up-and-comers. All these factors combine to provide a mainstream and arthouse filmmaking landscape that's friendlier toward a more diverse range of animation styles and subjects than ever before. The sheer breadth of choice we have, and the extremely subjective nature of the beast (one viewer's pretty is another viewer's twee) means that we're fully confident that this ranking will inspire its fair share of rage/accusations of bias as well. But like many of the films listed below have taught us, we're going to be brave, follow our dreams and find inner reserves of strength and goodness to face whatever life and the commenters throw at us, as we take you on this trip through our 25 favorite animated features of the 21st century. And if you want more of the best films since 2000, you can check out our feature on the best horror movies of the 21st century here.

Lilo & Stitch

25. “Lilo & Stitch” (2002)
The late '90s and early '00s were a bleak time for Disney animation: that pre-“Frozen” era paid almost nothing off at the box office, in large part because films like “Brother Bear” and “Home On The Range” were extremely poor. But the major shining light (along with “The Emperor’s New Groove,” which is admirably Chuck Jones-esque) was “Lilo & Stitch.” It’s a riff on “E.T.” on the surface —eccentric young girl befriends intergalactic runaway— but directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (who’d go on to make “How To Train Your Dragon”) make it sing through specificity: the delirious mischief of the adorably psychotic Stitch, the gorgeously realized Hawaiian setting, and the surprising pathos of Lilo and her older sister, who are being investigated by social services. It perhaps doesn’t stand with the early '90s late golden age of Disney, but it’s a wonderfully weird and enormously satisfying film.

Winnie The Pooh

24. "Winnie the Pooh" (2011)
Every generation feels a sense that the children of today are missing out on some vital part of childhood due to the technological advancements of modern life (right back to the first Neolithic Dad who shook his head sadly at his son's use of those new-fangled bronze tools). But Disney's hand-animated "Winnie the Pooh" from directors Don Hall and Stephen J Anderson evokes simpler times with charm and wit and even —gasp!— suggests the pleasures of reading, with the characters interacting with text on the page in a continually inventive way. It's admittedly for very young children, and some adults who grew up with previous Disney Pooh films were apparently disappointed that this wasn't quite as, well, Disneyfied. But this is a short, calm, gently screwy homage to one of the sweetest and best-loved children's characters of all time that respects Pooh's original source material —AA Milne's wonderful books.  

Rango Depp

23. “Rango” (2011)
Even when the original “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies weren’t working, they were still admirably weird. So it’s unsurprising in retrospect than when director Gore Verbinski and star Johnny Depp reteamed for an animated picture, they produced one of the odder animated movies ever made by a studio. Melding “Chinatown” with any one of a number of classic Westerns, but with animals and a slightly deranged high-on-peyote vibe, it sees Depp’s Hunter Thompson-ish chameleon become mistaken for a hero by a town suffering from drought. Rehearsed with the actors in costume (an absolute rarity in the animation world) before being brought to stunning life by Industrial Light & Magic, the VFX company’s sole animated feature to date, it’s a reminder of the oddball vision that Verbinski could bring without blockbuster bloat, and while it barely even qualifies as a kids’ movie, it still proves an enormously entertaining trip.

A Town Called Panic

22. "A Town Called Panic" (2009)
Based on a gently surreal French-language TV show and bearing the distinction of being the first stop-motion animation ever to be shown in Cannes, "A Town Called Panic" from Belgians Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar is the absurd story of Cowboy (a plastic toy cowboy), Indian (a plastic toy Indian) and Horse (a plastic toy you get the idea) who live together in a house in the country and get into inexplicable scrapes. An attempt to celebrate Horse's birthday goes awry when an internet order for 50 bricks accidentally is mistaken for 50 million bricks, and so they build big walls which are stolen by malicious sea creatures, so they go track them down through a terrains snowy, airborne, subterranean and forested… the plot makes zero sense and the story can feel as jerky as the charmingly crude animation. But it's also invested with a totally lunatic energy that's less about grand narrative arcs than the momentary interactions and weirdnesses that cram every single bonkers scene.

Millennium Actress

21. “Millennium Actress” (2001)
Though he directed only four complete features and sadly passed away in 2010 aged only 46, Satoshi Kon established himself as one of anime’s most important and original filmmakers. We could have easily (and nearly did) include “Tokyo Godfathers” or “Paprika” (the latter said by many to have inspired Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”), but we’d say that his masterpiece was his second feature, 2001’s “Millennium Actress.” Far more mature than most animated features, whether Japanese or American, this film has a fascinating concept, as an elderly retired movie star brings a documentary crew through her memories, switching genres and form as she tells her story through her cinematic roles. Fans of clear-cut narrative are likely to be left disappointed, but there’s a fascinating and rich puzzle box to untangle, grappling successfully with Kon’s favorite themes of the nature of reality and the power of art.