There’s no mistaking it: the animation medium absolutely exploded in the 2010s, with films in all mediums, from everywhere in the world, and for every possible audience achieving incredible artistic heights throughout the decade. Narrowing the best animated movies of the 2010s down to a mere 10 choices was practically a fool’s errand, and led to a great many sacrifices of funny, poignant, thrilling and utterly unique motion pictures that — on any other day, or in any other decade — could have easily comprised this entire list instead. But these 10 animated features are undeniably worthy of celebration and acclaim, and seem destined to enthrall audiences of the future as much as they did the audiences of today.
Runners-Up (alphabetically): “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “The Illusionist,” “My Life as a Zucchini,” “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” “Rango,” “Song of the Sea,” “The Wind Rises,” “Wolf Children,” “Your Name”
10. “Frozen” (2013)
Disney’s loose, loose, loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” is so overwhelmingly popular that it’s easy to forget just how much it genuinely deserves the acclaim. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s CG-animated film tells the story of royal sisters, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), who are torn apart by the revelation of Elsa’s secret frost powers, which have kept the eldest sister living in fear and isolation since childhood. An engrossing saga of family love, which playfully subverts conventional Disney-princess tropes while reinvigorating the genre for a new generation. The songs are all clever and catchy (OK, maybe not so much the troll one), but the outsider’s power anthem “Let It Go” goes above and beyond, sending “Frozen” soaring directly into instant-classic territory.
9. “ParaNorman” (2012)
It’s been delightful to watch LAIKA make a name for itself by catering to weird kids and all the adults who never abandoned their weirdness. “ParaNorman” is the studio’s best film of the decade — no small feat — and tells a spooky story about an ostracized child, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who sees ghosts and who stumbles across an age-old tragedy that brings nightmarish creatures back to life in his judgmental hometown. Lovingly bizarre animation, unforgettable characters, and a genuine affection for all things horrifying combine in a sharp, emotionally mature motion picture for all ages.
8. “Arthur Christmas” (2011)
A new holiday classic was born in “Arthur Christmas,” a thigh-slapping and heartwarming delight from Aardman Animation. Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) is retiring, and about to leave the whole North Pole operation to his eldest son, the overachieving and business-minded Steve (Hugh Laurie). But when Steve accidentally leaves one present undelivered, Santa’s youngest, Arthur (James McAvoy), takes it upon himself to travel the whole world at the very last minute and prove that every child matters. Lovable to the nth degree, undeniably exciting, and darn near perfect.
7. “Coco” (2017)
Pixar has never been a studio to shy away from big adult concepts in a family movie, and their Oscar-winning blockbuster about death and plagiarism is no exception. “Coco” tells the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), whose family has banned music from their lives, but who wants to be a singer so badly that he travels to the Land of the Dead to get help from his musician great-great-grandfather. A gorgeously realized motion picture, as transportive as any animated movie this decade, “Coco” invites you into an incredible world and then breaks your heart with every new, transformational rendition of its Oscar-winning song “Remember Me,” which changes its meaning and the whole storyline every time it’s performed.
6. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018)
As studios struggle to capture, possess and hold every superhero franchise under lock and key, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” dares to argue that every version of every classic character is equally important and valid. Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, the film stars Shameik Moore as Miles Morales, who takes on the Spider-Man mantle when his predecessor dies and, in the process, accidentally opens an interdimensional portal and pulls multiple other Spider-Persons into Miles’ reality. Quick-witted and thrilling, and as emotionally overwhelming as any superhero hero film yet made, “Into the Spider-Verse” also employs innovative storytelling techniques that convey Miles’ heroic journey through everything from evolving voice-overs to increasing frame rates. An astounding animated achievement on every level.
5. “Toy Story 3” (2010)
The “Toy Story” saga concluded — for a while, anyway — with a complex and absorbing animated sequel about end-of-life care, abandonment and, mercifully, new beginnings. Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen) and the few toys that survived into their owner’s teen years are given away to a day-care center when Andy goes off to college, only to find that bitterness has consumed their brethren. They struggle to find a way to survive in new, horrifying surroundings and ultimately come to terms in an absolutely devastating moment with their own collective mortality. And yet, it’s also funny! Few films combine the grim and the sublime as beautifully as “Toy Story 3.”
4. “The Breadwinner” (2017)
Nora Twomey’s frank, wrenching and inspiring “The Breadwinner” takes place at the intersection of brutal truth and fantastical fiction. Parvana (Saara Chaudry) is a young girl living in Afghanistan, where the oppression of women is systemic, corruption runs rampant, and a family without a patriarch or even a male child is left completely helpless. When her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah) is arrested, neither she nor her sisters or her mother is permitted even to buy food, so she cuts her hair and tries to earn money to feed her family and release her loved one from persecution. And through it all, she tells stories that mirror, encourage and celebrate her struggle. Fantastically animated and incredibly masterful, powerful filmmaking.
3. “Inside Out” (2015)
Pixar’s greatest film of the decade is the story of a little girl who is sad. Externally it doesn’t seem harrowing, but most of “Inside Out” takes place inside of the mind of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), as her most powerful emotions — Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) — struggle to accommodate new, complex feelings that could either lead Riley to maturity or send her spiraling into mental illness. The bizarre machinations of the human mind are brought to vivid life in weird, funny and sometimes completely abstract ways, and the path forward is fraught with self-analysis and grief. And yes, it’s also extremely funny. “Inside Out” is the kind of wildly inventive story that seems, in retrospect, like it should have been told forever ago. It’s an all-timer.
2. “Summer Wars” (2010)
There may be no filmmaker, in any medium, who consistently produced as many masterworks as Mamoru Hosoda this decade. “Wolf Children,” “The Boy and the Beast” and “Mirai” are all magical films about the pains and joys of family connections, but “Summer Wars” — released in 2009 overseas, in 2010 in the U.S. — is his masterpiece. A young math whiz is invited to a family reunion to pretend to be a young woman’s boyfriend, but when he accidentally cracks a seemingly innocuous math code, he unleashes a self-aware virus into the futuristic internet that threatens all life on the planet. “Summer Wars” imagines the interconnected world of the future as a mere extension of a spiral-shaped family unit, as full of anger as it is of compassion, in which the biggest possible stories are told in microcosm and the smallest family squabbles have seemingly infinite consequences. “Summer Wars” is one of the few sci-fi films that offers hard-earned hope, making a convincing case for the entire future of the human race.
1. “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” (2012)
Don Hertzfeldt invites you inside a crumbling, astounding, tragic mind in his masterwork “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.” The film, composed in three installments — beginning in 2006, and finally completed six years later — is the story of Bill, whose eccentric everyday observations and foibles gradually unfold to the major revelation that he is living with a potentially fatal brain condition that’s causing him to lose his sanity. Hertzfeldt himself narrates, sympathetically and with poignance, the little moments that make up Bill’s heartbreaking life, while the animator uses his trademark stick-figure style to lure the audience into false security. “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” breaks down so suddenly and randomly that the only option the viewer has is to get completely sucked into its hypnotic, hallucinogenic nightmare state. It’s a harrowing tale, it’s profoundly humane, and it’s as close as any feature film this decade has come to genuine poetry.