Animation has sure come a long way since those early days of zoetropes— from merely attempting the illusion of motion to— in the best cases— evoking a wide range of emotions with consistently groundbreaking visuals. And yet, when exposed to human imagination, it can be at its most powerful when distilled to its simplest form.
Despite the world almost coming to an end— last year still delivered quite the interesting variety. In fact, perhaps for the first time in the last twenty years, it would seem that newer, more independent studios are giving the industry establishment a run for their money. Which is great, as it gives us a chance to experience a broader spectrum of styles and authentic stories.
So without further ado, here are my top ten animated films that came out in 2020
Obviously some of these are not for kids, so yeah don’t watch them with yer tots, unless your whole thing is like being a terrible parent and you want to traumatize them FOREVER like when my cousin made me watch The Exorcist when I was 7.
10. Over the Moon (China/US)
Unable to accept her mother’s passing, Fei-Fei decides to build her own rocket and fly to the moon— in order to prove the veracity of an ancient Chinese fairytale to her very down-to-earth family. It’s an interesting little paradox at the heart of this joint Chinese/American production. Admittedly, its visuals and general plot are very Pixar/Disney, but the family dynamics, as well as the folklore the story is based on do have an authentic feel to them. The main character is endearing and the music is quite enjoyable, if you’re into contemporary radio pop, although it does get a little too sappy in places for my taste.
9. The Willoughbys (Canada/US)
The Willoughby kids have the worst parents in the world. In fact, their parents are so bad, they might be the first children ever to attempt to self-orphan.
Based on Lois Lowry’s children’s novel, this whimsical tale balances macabre, Roald Dahl-esque undertones with sufficient eye-popping color and warmth, which can sometimes be a bit saccharine. But even when it does, it’s very self-aware.
I enjoyed its sharp comedic timing. It’s got gags-galore, and is not afraid to get completely ridiculous to elicit laughter. The third act feels a bit loosey-goosey, but it still manages to resolve the story in a satisfying way; teaching us about the importance of family— by way of WORST EXAMPLE POSSIBLE.
8. Lupin the Third: the First (Japan)
For those unfamiliar with Lupin the III’s history— and to avoid any confusion with the recent Netflix series— this is the very popular Japanese take on the grandson of the iconic French thief from the early 20th century. He first appeared as a manga in the late 60’s, and has had countless anime series and films since. This is the first 3DCG style animation, and I must say it’s an extremely successful transition to the medium. The characters are animated with the same fluidity and vivacity as in their traditional form. As far as the plot goes, it’s got roof-hopping heists, 70’s style big-band score, post-war Nazis and globe trotting treasure hunting a lá Indiana Jones. I mean— what more could you possibly want?
7. Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (UK/Germany)
The cheekiest sheep in all of the UK and his wooly mischievous friends are at it again. But this time, they get a little visit from the stars. The undisputed masters of claymation, Aardman, deliver yet another delightful, reliably funny semi-silent romp in the English countryside, while paying a charming homage to classic sci-fi. As Shaun and dog Bitzer help their new, otherworldly friend Lu-La evade a secret agency, the screen lights up with obvious nods to E.T., Close Encounters, X-Files, 2001; as well as some more obscure, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments referencing Contact, Arrival and some real-life U.F.O. conspiracy tidbits. The story itself is overly familiar, and some gags do feel a bit rehashed, but the movie wins you over with its slapstick silliness and giant interstellar heart.
6. Kill It and Leave this Town (Poland) *not for kids*
Based on writer-director Mariusz Wilczynski’s experience of losing both his parents in a short span of time, Kill It and Leave this Town is an oddly beautiful hellscape— one that draws you into a hypnotic reverie, but which is—at times— upsetting and difficult to watch. The intimately personal melds with subversive social commentary; the grotesquely surreal bleeds into the numbingly quotidian. One moment, you’re taking a sleepy tram through Krakow, witnessing a mother chide her infant son; the next, tiny naked men are being plucked out of a fish barrel, chopped and served up at a deli. Its simple, almost doodle-like drawings on what look like pages ripped off a notebook come alive with a spell-binding, creative use of light. It took me a couple of sittings to get through, but it was well worth it.
5. On-Gaku (Our Sound) (Japan)
Kenji, Ota and Asakura—three young delinquents— start a band because, apparently, they have nothing better to do. Beyond getting into fights with a gang of mohawked ruffians, that is. This quirky, uncompromisingly whimsical tale conveys to perfection that carefree jaunty feel of jamming aimlessly with your highschool friends on a lazy afternoon. You can tell this is a long-laboured passion project in every single one of its beautifully hand-drawn frames. It has the lo-fi sensibility of Taika Waitit’s early work, Eagle vs. Shark; the crass anarchy of Beavis and Butthead; as well as the ludicrous frivolity of One-Punch-Man. It is at times so deadpan, you’ll think you’ve tapped pause by accident. But when it kicks back to life, it does so in full gear, with a thumping drum beat, and a chunky bass line that’ll make you tap your foot and and smile until the credits roll.
4. Soul (US)
This existential tale about a jazz musician’s struggle to prove himself and a soul’s reluctance to start life has struck a chord with our zeitgeist. And as much as I like it, I just don’t think it’s top-tier Pixar.
I think the reason it’s so beloved is in part because of what the movie claims it’s about. In other words, it makes you believe that its thematic exploration of the significance of purpose is much more profound than what it actually is. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s admirable that they attempted to tackle such a complex existential issue, but it does so at the expense of more cohesive world building and narrative logic.
NEVERTHELESS, there are a lot of things I love about the film. Its score and overall use of music is perhaps my favorite of any Pixar movie. Its visual style is bold, at times making the film incredibly immersive. And there are two scenes— the one at the barber shop, but perhaps even more so the one at the tailor’s with the main character’s mother— that have some of the best dialogue of any animation movie in history. And of course, its overall message of learning to value yourself and life experiences beyond clearly defined goals and achievements is incredibly resonant, even if it’s expressed a bit clunkily.
3. The Wolf House (Chile) *not for kids*
Maria escapes the bizarre nazi cult, Colonia Dignidad, in southern Chile, and takes refuge in a small forest house with some unusual inhabitants.
Colonia Dignidad— just for some historical background— was a real life Menonite-style community founded by a nazi sympathizer who fled Germany in the 60s to escape charges of child abuse. Yeah not your average Pixar flick.
This is a disturbing animated fairy tale with elements of magical realism. Yet what is most impressive about it is its creative use of stop motion. The titular house comes to life with the dreams and nightmares of its residents, using a style of animation that would be at home in the darkest recesses of David Lynch’s mind. The mesmerizing visuals are accompanied by an unsettling and hypnotic sound design.
This is the kind of film you could argue belongs in a modern art exhibition. In fact, the filmmakers Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña painstakingly crafted their unique audio-visual experience while showing the sets they’d build for the movie in various art galleries around the world and inviting the visitors to participate in the process of animation.
It’s a haunting experience that stays with you long after its relatively short run time.
2. The World of Tomorrow Episode 3: The Absent Destination of David Prime (US) *not for kids*
This is the latest sequel in Don Hertzfeldt’s groundbreaking World of Tomorrow series, in which a time-traveling clone named Emily attempts to explain her future reality to the younger, original version of herself. In the off-chance that sentence didn’t make a whole lot of sense I’ll forgo trying to summarize what this third installment is about. Suffice it to say that it is the most narratively interesting one of the three, while at the same time expanding on the philosophical themes and mind bending sci-fi vision established in the first two.
Don’t be fooled by its deceptively simple drawing style. The sparse lines and circles that delineate World of Tomorrow’s protagonists manage to convey just as much feeling and characterization as a team of hundreds of animators with an unlimited budget are able to do. And as bleak the reality presented in this world may be, it is also heart-felt and extremely funny in a “life is meaningless but it might still be worth living” kind of way.
Like all the great works of science fiction, it says as much about how life will be in a distant future, as it does about how it is today.
1. Wolfwalkers (Ireland)
Based on Irish folklore, this is the story of an unlikely friendship between Robyn, a young apprentice hunter, and Mebh, a feisty girl who lives with wolves in the forest of Kilkenny, and turns into a wolf herself at night.
This is yet another phenomenal, hand-drawn, 2D animation from the Irish Studio, Cartoon Saloon. Every frame is bustling with life and inventiveness, making every moment in the film feel simultaneously like a work of art and an exciting piece of entertainment.
The voice work in it is superb, with the two main child actors delivering incredibly charming vocal performances.
The principal as well as supporting characters are well written, with strong, satisfying arcs and motivations that feel both believable and earned. And sure, there are aspects of the story that might feel somewhat familiar and predictable, as they have certainly been done before. Yet seldom with such brio, heart and narrative skill. It is by all means a simple story, but simple in the best of ways. That is to say that, while it feels simple, it manages to deal with complex, universal conflicts such as “man versus nature”, both on a personal level and within the grander context of human progress at odds with the preservation of the natural world.
Wolfwalkers is a singular triumph of storytelling and artistic expression.
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