We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre. These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
This month I’m tackling the beloved genre of animation, and this decade’s offerings had a bigger impact on me than almost any other genre. Sure, there are always a fair share of clunkers aiming at the lowest common denominator, but there were also a number of films out this decade that didn’t go for the cheap laughs, but instead for the heartstrings.
That being said, a lot of the films on the list did make me laugh, some of them in large quantities, and there were also a large number of them that spoke to issues of class, age, and, in one case, history. In other words, a lot of animated films this decade that really worked for me were more than just an hour and a half (or longer) of cartoons that entertained an intended audience of children. All of these films, in one way or another, were meant for more than just the toddlers.
First, here are some honorable mentions.
The Secret World of Arrietty (2012) Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
You can never go wrong with Studio Ghibli. This lovely two-dimensional style adaptation of the Mary Norton Borrowers novel series is arguably the best yet, though I grew up with the live-action 1997 version starring John Goodman. While that film has some nostalgic place in my heart, Secret World of Arrietty is superior in every way, from its storytelling and plot to execution.
Frozen (2013) Directors: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
For Disney’s most successful animated film of the decade (if you don’t count the remake of The Lion King as animated), Frozen is far from a bad film to achieve that title. While I didn’t fall in love with any of the songs (even “Let it Go”), the story and characters made up for it, especially the non-traditional approach to your typical Disney love story and villain angles.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) Director: David Soren
Yes, I am really putting this on here. I was speaking earlier of nostalgia, something I also hold for the Dav Pikley kid books that were the inspiration for the film. The animation is solid, and feels like someone flipping the illustrations from the book really fast. While the humor is of the juvenile variety, I will openly admit that I laughed hard, and that’s all Soren was going for.
Toy Story 4 (2019) Director: Josh Cooley
While I was nervous about the idea of a fourth iteration in the Toy Story trilogy, this fourth chapter was nothing short of a fun time. The team at Pixar’s animation continues to amaze, and there’s an argument to be made of whether or not this is the funniest entry in the series (I argue the first one is, but to each their own). It’s also a tearjerker at multiple points, which isn’t anything new for the franchise for me, but I found myself a little bored by the beginning of the third act, which keeps this one off the list.
Now here are my top ten picks for the best animated movies of the 2010s.
Oh, you thought these would all be family films? Surprise, Sausage Party made the list. While it’s nowhere near a masterpiece, it sure made me laugh, and the animation is quite good. It would have been very easy for the animation style to lack here since that’s not really what it’s about, but the three-dimensional style really does bring Sausage Party to the next level.
Of course one of the standout elements of the film, too, is just how perfect the voice casting is. Virtually the entire rolodex of Judd Apatow lends a voice, from Seth Rogan to James Franco, Paul Rudd to Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader to Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson to Michael Cera. All of them, no matter how big or small their part, also helps to elevate the film’s comedy.
Now as far as the humor in the film, I did laugh quite hard at several sequences, from the musical piece that opens the film to the orgy-filled finale that has to be seen to be believed. Not every joke lands, but that’s comedy. As a complete package, it does represent, at the very least, the most individual, and I argue memorable, animated film of the decade.
9. Incredibles 2 (2018)
Director: Brad Bird
Virtually everyone was waiting with bated breath for this long awaited sequel, and while nobody I know calls this one better than the 2004 original, it’s hard to call it anything less than a great sequel. Pixar had let us down with the Cars sequel and for me Finding Dory was a let down as well, but follow ups to both Incredibles and Toy Story really have worked.
One of the strongest criticisms I hold against the film is that it’s basically the same plot as the original, save a gender-swap: now mom goes on secret missions while dad stays at home oblivious. I also found the final act to be a bit lackluster as well. That being said, I still found a lot of enjoyment with the story, and a few highlights really stick out.
For one, the Screenslaver is one of the most interesting looking villains of the Pixar library. Who’s really behind him, though, is a bit predictable, but the idea of it and the dialogue works. I also have to give a hand to the Jack-Jack vs. raccoon fight, which I love. It goes without saying that Pixar’s animation doesn’t let us down either. Incredibles 2 might not be a top five Pixar film, but it’s certainly one of the best of the last decade.
8. The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Director: Chris McKay
One of the highlights of the first LEGO Movie was Will Arnett’s vocal portrayal of Batman. The rest of the story worked fine, but once he was involved, it dialed the entertainment value up to an eleven. Given his own movie, though, I thought some of the magic may be lost. Boy was I wrong. This movie’s awesome.
Arnett comes back strong as Batman, and Zach Galifianakis is a fitting Joker, Michael Cera works as Robin, and Ralph Fiennes is an inspired vocal choice for Alfred. The nods this movie has to all these characters and the lengthy history and mythology of the Caped Crusader floored me. I had no idea Condiment King existed until this movie.
The comedy of The LEGO Batman Movie killed me. There were a number of times, whether they made fun of previous Batman iterations or just told really great jokes for their new story that I missed some the first time around. I was laughing that hard. The great 3D computer-animation style that brought The LEGO Movie to life works just as well here, and helps make this one of the best Batman movies, period.
Like most film fans out there, I was nervous about the idea of a computer-animated version of Charles Schulz’ beloved characters being brought to the big screen. I grew up with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, watching them every year on T.V. While I didn’t dive into the mythology as much as other die-hard fans, I would have preferred a traditional, 2D style, but that ended up not being the end of the world for this movie.
What really caught me off-guard was the pitch-perfect execution. This is 100% the characters I grew up with. Charlie Brown is Charlie Brown. Lucy is Lucy. Snoopy is Snoopy. While some argued that taking some stories from the original sketches and comic strips didn’t play well, I disagree. Coming from a point of view of someone who loved the characters in the specials, I wasn’t familiar with the stories of old, so I enjoyed the hell out of them.
Another strong element that really worked for me was the love story. The new girl in Charlie Brown’s class, whom Chuck naturally falls head-over-heels for, was less known, and seeing Charlie Brown go through the hoops to impress her was tremendous and extremely relatable.
The final scene, where her face is finally revealed to the audience, and where she tells Charlie what a great person he is, nearly brought a tear to my eye. The scene is coupled with a wonderful soundtrack from Christophe Beck, and it elevates the film from a great rendition of the Schulz classics to a film I’ll hold near and dear to me when the Peanuts are brought up.
6. Inside Out (2015)
Director: Pete Doctor
You know you’re in for an emotional ride when Pete Doctor is in the director’s chair, and Inside Out doesn’t fall short. While Inside Out doesn’t reach the dizzying emotional heights of Up, there’s a lot to be cherished here. This was Pixar’s best original film of the decade, though it had it pretty easy since a lot of the films were sequels.
Right off the bat, the concept of the film is ingenious. Five different emotions run around your head and help you get through your day. With Riley, the main character who’s going through a lot, the film creates a very relatable character, one we can all say personifies us at one point in time. We’ve all moved to different houses or gone to different schools, and the hell of being a tween is presented pretty well here.
Of course the emotions steal the show, as does the wonderful production design. With the five characters depicted, we have the perfect vocal actor pairings, from Bill Hader’s Fear to Amy Poehler’s Joy, but it’s Phyllis Smith who steals the show as Sadness. Talk about a pitch-perfect vocal performance. Never for one moment do we not look at the character of Sadness and not see Phyllis from the U.S. version of The Office, and for once, that’s a good thing.
Another strong element is the score from Michael Giacchino. The track that plays during Riley’s big crying scene at the end makes the tears flow, and they flow hard. It’s a crime that he wasn’t among the nominees that year for his compositions. I didn’t think it was a perfect movie (Bing-Bong kind of got on my nerves), but it’s definitely worthy of Pixar’s high mark of quality.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman
Not just one of the best animated films of the decade, but one of the best Spider-Man films ever to touch the silver screen, Into the Spider-Verse is nothing short of a miracle. So many story and character types are thrown into a massive blender, mixed in, and spat out, but somehow they all work. I was very doubtful that a Spider-Man movie with no less than seven Spider-Mans in it (nine if you count the post-credit scene), but Sony and co. didn’t disappoint.
While I fall on the opposite side of the fence as everyone on Spider-Ham (he was just okay), I loved every other depiction of Spider-Man. I’d like to highlight Spider-Noir and SP//dr (the 2099 version of Spider-Man) as great additions to the story, and this was a fabulous way for audiences, including myself, to get to know these characters. It didn’t hurt that Nicholas Cage crushed it as Spider-Noir and Kimiko Glenn did great as SP//dr.
However, I have to say that even the wonderful rendition of Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), our main Spider-Man, was outmatched by Spider-Gwen, voiced by Hailee Steinfeld. While I knew of the live-action depictions of Gwen Stacy, seeing her in the suit and learning her backstory actually drew me away from Miles’ origins, which were also fascinating. I have to say that I am eagerly anticipating the proposed spin-off featuring her character.
As far as the animation style itself, I am of two minds about it. While I thoroughly enjoyed the thought bubbles that came up when the characters’ inner-monologues were spouting away, the distorted backgrounds that went for the physical comic-book look were distracting, and oftentimes made me feel that the projectionist had fallen over and messed up or something. While I have my quips with the actual animation, the story, humor, and heart more than make up for the complaints I had.
Honestly, the trailers and other advertisements for this film pushed me away from seeing it at first. It was only after I saw the near perfect scores from critics and a strong recommendation from my sister that I sat down to watch Zootopia, and I was so glad I did. This is more than just an entertaining family film from Disney.
For the most part, the animation in the film is some of the best of Disney’s work this decade. Sure, it may be hard to distinguish that since virtually every 3D computer animated film from the studio this decade looks great, but there was something special here: the animals. Since almost every other major Disney animated film this decade focused on humans, there’s always the uncanny valley conversation to be had, but I think this animation style always works better with non-human subjects.
I have to give a lot of props to Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin as the leading duo of Nick and Judy. Both of them are strong protagonists, both characters look great, and both actors give it their all to make the characters come off the screen, and succeed.
I was also surprised to see all of the political commentary in the film. From class depictions and superiority issues to the animal kingdom equivalents of race, and other big issues like prejudice and stereotyping, there’s a lot of ground to cover here, and it’s all done in a tasteful manner.
My favorite example is seeing Judy and Nick work together. Here you have two opposite ideologies: follow the law (Judy) and follow street law (Nick). Both can be substitutes for a variety of oppositions that have to work together, but as depicted in the film, we see two people who share a common goal and who compromise and work together to achieve it. I feel that’s a great moral for the family, and Zootopia should be celebrated for it.
3. The Wind Rises (2014)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
For Miyazaki’s supposed last film, The Wind Rises was a hell of a high note to end your career on. While we know now that he has at least one more film (How Do You Live?) coming down the pike, that doesn’t take anything away from the beautiful, heartfelt achievement that is The Wind Rises, so even if it’s not his last film, it has all of the emotional impact and storytelling that’s befitting of the honor.
As for why this film is so high on the list, well, it’s the most recent film I’ve seen, but it left a large impact. Days after watching it, I remember the way certain characters would speak or look at each other. I love the story, which is set both before and after WWII in Japan, and the main character, Jiro, who is always reaching for the stars with his aeronautic engineering plans, but not necessarily wanting to create a plane that will murder the masses of the enemy.
This is a profound example of 2D animation still working wonders, and that it is not an obsolete animation style. Of course, coming from Studio Ghibli, this is no surprise, but with this story, these characters, this time period, and this style, everything works beautifully. I also love the score by Joe Hisaishi, which gives a perfect emotional accent to all of the scenes of wonder, discovery, and sadness.
In my college days, I took a course called Directors Studies, and one of the directors we researched, read about, and watched films of was Miyazaki, so it was no surprise to see a lot of his tropes here: environment versus urban development, family versus career, and certainly vehicles of the sky and how creative we can be with them. While there was a real life Jiro, I can’t help but see Miyazaki himself as the character.
As I mentioned, there are a lot of emotions through the film. There are humorous passages, especially with Jiro’s boss Kurokawa, and then there are extremely heart-wrenching moments, primarily around the doomed romance Jiro forms with Nahoko. All of the dream sequences where Jiro sees his inspiration, Caproni, are also highlights, and it all comes together to be a wonderful film. The Wind Rises is another masterpiece on Miyazaki’s long list of masterpieces.
2. The LEGO Movie (2014)
Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
It’s quite an achievement to have an hour and a half long movie that have been nothing but a commercial for Legos make such an impact. Lord and Miller made names for themselves with the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatball films, then struck a goldmine with their reinvention of 21 Jump Street, but their crowning achievement came with The LEGO Movie.
Right off the bat, we have a lot of compassion for the story and characters. The plot draws elements from The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, you name it, but still feels fresh. It also helps that we have such unique characters like Wyldstyle, Lord Business, Unikitty, Metal Beard, and Vitruvius to follow around. All of these roles are archetypes of your traditional hero’s journey cast of characters, but even in this film, they all come across as the equivalent of people we’d want to know and hang out with, or fight against in the case of Lord Business.
Of course, a lot of credit also goes to Chris Pratt, whose vocal performance of Emmet really makes his character shine. Also, hands down the hardest I laughed in the movie was around Liam Neeson’s Good Cop/Bad Cop character. A classic that I’ll never get tired of. I’ve already mentioned how strong Will Arnett was as Batman in his LEGO movie, so it goes without saying that he is just as strong here.
Since the film is stuffed with comic bits, there was a large trapdoor of silliness that had to be navigated, and with the help of the talented folks who brought all these characters to life, the film doesn’t come off as too silly, nor too serious. It’s a perfect blend.
As for the animation style itself, the 3D computer animation was phenomenal, and made me feel like I was watching one of the popular LEGO video games play out on the big screen. All of the brick structures and objects felt legitimate, and I was also very impressed with how the water looked. Normally that’s something you wouldn’t comment on, but I was fascinated by it.
I also very much appreciated the heart this film has. Like I said, there are a lot of big laughs in the film, but the overall message of being yourself is well-played here. And the final act, which shows what’s really happening, was a genuine surprise in the theater, and a welcome one. It also supported a strong message of how toys were meant to be played with, and a bond can form between two people when that happens. That’s a lot to come out of a 100 minute “commercial” for Legos.
At the beginning of the decade, Pixar released one of their strongest films ever, and set a very high bar for animated films that followed. Well, no film passed it, and it’s no mystery why that was the case. Toy Story 3 is a film experience that is hard to replicate. There’s an old expression, “For every laugh there should be a tear”, and no film I have ever seen has fulfilled those words more than this one.
Coming off of two near-perfect films, Toy Story 3 had its work cut out for itself. How do you top two of the greatest animated films ever, or even make a third entry that’s worthy of the title? Well, how about showing what happens at the end of a toy’s life, so to speak? Show what happens when the owner of the toys grows up and leaves for college. Naturally, this is an emotional journey, both for us as an audience and for the characters.
It is difficult to top great villains like Stinky Pete the Prospector and Sid, but Lotso Huggin Bear, the antagonist of Toy Story 3, is the best in the series. Not only does he have the most relatable backstory, but he has the legendary voice of Ned Beatty behind him, and as much as we all like (or love) Kelsey Grammar, that’s a tough combination to beat. While I wasn’t over the moon with Lotso’s comeuppance, every other trait we look for in villains we love to hate is present here.
The voice cast slips right back into their roles, despite the decade-plus gap between Toy Story’s 2 and 3. It was a pleasure to hear Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in these roles again, and with the new story, I’m sure it was a hard job. The technology behind 3D animation, of course, took a large leap between 1999 and 2010, and it shows. Even with Toy Story 4 out now, I still feel like Woody and Buzz and the rest of Andy’s toys never looked better than they did in Toy Story 3.
As I hinted at earlier with Toy Story 4, I am a very involved fan with this series. My parents will often tell stories about how much I loved the first two films in the series, how the first Toy Story was the first film I fell in love with, and how they used to torture me by rewinding the sad scenes over and over again just to see me cry. So you can imagine just how much of an emotional wreck I was while watching the film.
That’s part of the reason why I value this film so highly. It catches you off guard with how many laughs it provides, like the playtime sequence at the daycare or the prison-escape third act, which is very inventive and clever. But still, it’s all undermined by the sadness behind the story. There are a number of tear-stained sequences that are hard for me to get through in rewatches, like the short montage in the beginning showing Andy growing up, and the heartbreaker of Andy’s mom’s reaction to seeing her son’s room blank and empty.
But I have to give this film the championship belt for most tear-filled finale of the decade because of the last five minutes. Nine years later, even thinking about the scene, or of how it was beautifully matched with Randy Newman’s piano score, brings the waterworks. Seeing Andy pass his toys, some of his most treasured possessions, down to a new child is nothing short of the most emotional film moment of the decade. And it’s all topped off by a final pan up to a blue sky blanketed with puffy clouds, the same image the first film opened on, signifying how much of a circle story this trilogy was, and that these toys’ story will never end.
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