***To celebrate Awards Circuit’s 10 Year Anniversary, a new series is born. “Circuit 10” is a brand new column that will run every week (oftentimes more than once) until May 2019. Any articles or listings will only cover film or television within the last 10-year time frame and can also tie into that week’s respective releases.***
Since Awards Circuit came into existence, Disney and Pixar have run wild in the Best Animated Feature category. Nine of the last ten Oscars for Best Animated Feature have gone to the animation powerhouse, including wins for “Toy Story 3,” “Frozen” and last year’s “Coco.” What might be even crazier about this dominance is that the genre might be stronger than ever. There are legitimately three to four contenders every year with a right to claim the crown. Yet the only one to do so, “Rango,” left almost no imprint on the world after it won its Oscar. It also benefited from the fact that Pixar’s big release of the year was “Cars 2.”
With the upcoming release of “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation” we got to wondering about which non-Disney or Pixar animated features are the best we’ve seen in the Awards Circuit era. Note: for the purposes of the article, “The Wind Rises” and other Studio Ghibli films released by Touchstone were not included. However, the author would like to note that “The Wind Rises” would take the 1st place position in his mind otherwise.
10. “My Life as a Zucchini” (2016) – Dir. Claude Barras
There is something about animating tragedy that the French seem to craft better than other countries. “My Life as a Zucchini” is one of those touching and moving tales. The story follows a young boy named Zucchini after his mother passes away. He is brought to an orphanage and begins to meet other children with similar tragic backstories. He befriends his bully Simon, as well as a new girl Camille. They also befriend Officer Raymond, who begins to protect Zucchini and his friends. The story is told through stop-motion animation, yet the way that Barras and his team use the medium makes the images glorious. To tell a story with so much tragedy through animation was unusual this decade, but “My Life as a Zucchini” balances the wonder of childhood with this story to create something masterful.
9. “ParaNorman” (2012) – Dir. Chris Butler and Sam Fell
Most of the past decade will be known for the jump into nostalgia driven storytelling. However, “ParaNorman” released before much of this phenomenon had begun. The story of Norman and a ragtag group is as funny as it is reverential to B-movie and horror classics. The group must save their town from a centuries-old curse put on the town by a witch, hell-bent on destroying it. The film calls back to the childhood action movies like “The Goonies” or “Gremlins” while the group escapes “Night of the Living Dead” inspired zombies. The all-star cast that surrounds Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) features voice talents like Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, and Leslie Mann. The movie remains one of the funniest features of the decade and paved the way for Laika to become one of the best animation studios in Hollywood.
8. “Mary and Max” (2009) – Dir. Adam Elliot
It is always exciting to see something new and different in a genre. Animation sometimes leads to strange places. None may be more touching, nor stranger, than the story of a young girl named Mary (Toni Collette/Bethany Whitmore) and her friend named Max (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The film follows Mary as she tries to make her first friend in Australia. She does so by writing a stranger in New York. Max is an atheist and finds it extremely difficult to bond with people. Their story spans decades and is one of the most heartwarming tales you’ll ever find. Like “Zucchini” it is tragic beyond belief. Yet the story of how one friend can change your life is among the most life-affirming tales you’ll ever watch.
7. “The Lego Movie” (2014) – Dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
The idea of making an animated film on a pre-existing IP seemed like a joke to many. When the film was in development, many mocked the premise of making a film based on Legos. However, anyone who had played one of the dozen video games released by the company knew the storytelling potential was there. Even then, this one took us by surprise. The story of Emmett (Chris Pratt) and his friends was an emotional journey none expected.
The creativity brought to the screen by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller was breathtaking. The blending of dozens of IPs, as well as the generic LEGO characters, was masterful and made the film one of the most irreverent comedies in years. The cast is loaded with Elizabeth Banks providing the voice for the badass Wyldstyle, Will Ferrell crushing it as the evil Lord/President Business, and a Batman (Will Arnett) so popular, we got a spinoff film (“The Lego Batman Movie”). This is one of the worst snubs from the Academy in the past decade.
6. “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) – Dir. Ari Folman
The concept of making a documentary through animation felt unrealistic. Yet, “Waltz with Bashir” provided one of the most captivating breakthroughs of form and style of the decade. The Cannes bound film rocketed out of Sundance and instantly felt revolutionary. Up until Oscar morning, there was a very real chance the film would get nominated for Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature, and Best Foreign Language film. Ultimately, it would only take the last nomination, where it lost to “Departures.” However, Ari Folman’s self-examination of his time in war left an undeniable mark. The experimentalism on display blended well with the animation style, and the film continues to pop years later. This was an experiment done right, and “Waltz” remains one of the most underrated films in the genre.
5. “Your Name.” (2016) Dir. Makota Shinkai
For most fans of Japanese animation films, the name Miyazaki looms large over the industry. Most audiences couldn’t name you a film by a non-Miyazaki director. Yet that began to change when “Your Name.” landed in 2016. “Your Name.” draws from gorgeous animation and a twisty story to bring together a complete tale. The story of two strangers connected across time and distance set up one of the craziest body swap movies ever made. Yet the story brings in high elements of fantasy and sci-fi to make the film stand out in spectacular fashion. The LAFCA winner for Best Animated Feature is one of the most gorgeous features ever animated. The stills of the comet could be hung in a museum gallery and shines a light on a subgenre that’s been mostly relegated to a single director.
4. “Anomalisa” (2015) Dir. Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
Emotion courses throughout “Anomalisa” making it an obvious choice for the list. The film hit home with many critics, especially those going through the pain of a divorce. It was the style in which Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman delivered the finished product that surprised so many. The stop-motion was strong, and the choice to have Tom Noonan voice all but two characters were brilliant.
It was an adult film through and through, and would easily fit on stage the same way it fit on the big screen. David Thewlis delivered a masterful vocal performance that made many jump for joy, but it was Jennifer Jason Leigh that audiences called for Oscar. The two actors dominate the film on many levels and make for a compelling couple. The end is heartbreaking and displays the selfishness of Thewlis’ Michael. This might be Kaufman’s most emotional story and remains a must-watch for fans of the genre.
3. “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016) Dir. Travis Knight
The blending of cultures is tough to do in any medium. Just ask Wes Anderson, who has struggled with the issue with “Isle of Dogs” this year. However, some features so thoroughly embrace the culture they wish to dive into, they become something more. “Kubo and the Two Strings” is one of those films. “Kubo” took what should have been a fairly basic story, and brought the full power of Laika Studios to reach its artistic peak.
Director Travis Knight took audiences to a world of legends and fairy tales to tell the story of a boy named Kubo. His father was killed years before, and his mother struggles to keep him safe. After he accidentally stays out too late one day, his evil aunts show up to destroy him. This forces Kubo on an epic journey with a Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle Warrior (Matthew McConaughey) on a story about the legacy of family. “Kubo” took a nomination for Best Visual Effects, and received a serious push for score, costumes, and production design. “Kubo” was one of the most complete animated films outside of the Pixar machine, and deserves to be regarded as such.
2. “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010) Dir. Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders/”How to Train Your Dragon 2” (2014) Dir. Dean Deblois
This is cheating, yes, but it was impossible to only pick one. Both of the “How to Train Your Dragon” films have been the best work Dreamworks has put out since “Shrek” in 2003, and its not even close. Few films can make you genuinely believe you are flying through the sky, but the “Dragons” films absolutely accomplish that sensation.
The story of a boy named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless has been an emotional ride worthy of taking. Hiccup spent the first film fighting against tradition and his father, featuring a tale of outcasts. It also portrayed positive examples of disability that continue to be sorely lacking. The 2nd film improved on these themes and added Roger Deakins to craft the imagery. The actual cinematography of the 2nd film is astounding and might feature the best ever in an animated movie. Either of these films individually could have taken this spot, and with the trilogy concluding in 2019, color us excited.
1. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) – Dir. Wes Anderson
The choice of an aesthetically minded director like Wes Anderson to make a film based on a Roald Dahl novel was too perfect from the word go. This is a capital A adaptation of the novel as Anderson drastically altered the story of a fox who just can’t help but embrace his nature. Anderson had reached one of the lower points in his career before this film, coming off of the divisive “Darjeeling Limited” just a couple years earlier. However, “Fox” might be his best work period. Combining his weirdness and dioramic style was perfect for the story. Add in a superstar cast led by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Jason Schwartzman and you got yourself a winner. The feature remains charming years later, and the Bogus, Bunce, and Bean theme will never leave my head.