My Top 10 Favorite Non-Mainstream Animation Films
I consider myself a gigantic fan of animation. Many of my favourite movies and shows have come from the medium of animation, and to this day I’m continuously enthralled by animated media. For years I thought I had seen everything animated films had to offer. I had seen Pixar and Dreamworks push the boundary of computer graphics and storytelling, I had seen the whimsicality of Aardman and the playful malice of Laika, and in the past few years I had been introduced to the wondrous worlds of Ghibli. I truly thought I had seen basically everything worthwhile animation had to offer... oh how wrong I was.
I knew nothing of the incredibly rich and expansive world of animation. The Criterion Channel recently added a collection titled “Arthouse Animation” and I’ve never enjoyed exploring new films as much as I have with this collection of eclectic projects. I’ve discovered a slew of new favourites and everything I’ve thought animation can accomplish is being rocked to the core. So I’m taking this opportunity to list some of the best ones I’ve discovered during my deep dive. Each one is completely unique in the entire realm of film and I cannot recommend them enough. So without further ado, here are 10 of my favourite Arthouse/unknown animated movies.
#10: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) dir. Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch
The oldest movie on this list by a solid 42 years is also the oldest surviving animated feature, not to mention one of the most visually interesting of all time. It’s incredibly simplistic story wise, not necessarily delving into deep themes or ideas, which works in its favour. It gives director Lottie Reigner free reign to flex her visual talents. She uses the unique medium of paper cutouts to create the visual style of shadow puppets, something I haven’t seen properly replicated in any other movie. It’s a classic story bursting with creativity and effort, a truly timeless classic.
#9: Alice (1988) dir. Jan Švankmajer
Alice might just be the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen my fair share of weird movies. Alice is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland set in a grimy setting that uses a combination of live action and stop motion. The whimsy of Lewis Carroll’s world is replaced with the downright bizarre, with the cartoonish personalities of Wonderland replaced with taxidermy fish and animal bones. There’s almost no dialogue, relying completely on the outlandish visuals to convey story and atmosphere. Alice is beyond strange and no matter what I say, nothing encapsulates quite exactly what Alice accomplishes.
#8: Fantastic Planet (1973) dir. René Laloux
Created in France but animated in Czechoslovakia, Fantastic Planet is a just over an hour of pure imagination. Despite feeling grounded with a very tight and linear plot about revolution and freedom, Fantastic Planet never lets up with the craziness. Since the plot is so straightforward, Rene Laloux is able to add his own creativity without distracting from the themes and ideas. The creature designs and landscape are in a league of their own and the animation style is reminiscent of an old storybook, albeit with more violence and nudity than your average Roald Dahl. Fantastic Planet is a classic for a reason and it serves as a phenomenal introduction into the world of arthouse animation.
#7: Paprika (2006) dir. Satoshi Kon
Paprika might be the most well-known film on this list, mostly due to its very clear influences on Inception and the director, Satoshi Kon, considered a juggernaut in anime, largely due to his biggest film Perfect Blue. But whether or not it counts as arthouse, Paprika is undeniably a spectacular film. An absolutely bonkers story is supplemented with equally zany visuals. Paprika is a hell of a trip that will absolutely melt your mind with an experience akin to a very long and somewhat terrifying dream. A tightly wound, polished explosion of calculated surrealism, Paprika might just be the pinnacle of adult anime.
#6: Consuming Spirits (2012) dir. Chris Sullivan
Consuming Spirits is a criminally under looked masterpiece from Chris Sullivan. More a straight drama than anything else on this list, Consuming Spirits feels like a darker and more hypnotic cousin to The Last Picture Show. A transfixing combo of hand drawn animation, paper cutouts and stop motion lend Consuming Spirits an intentionally bold visual style. The eerily naturalistic voice acting and incredibly haunting soundtrack cement it as a genuine drama and not another run of the mill animated project. Almost 15 years in the making, Sullivan’s masterwork is a thoughtful and intelligent drama about past mistakes returning with a vengeance, and it packs as much as an emotional punch as any live action film.
#5: It's Such A Beautiful Day (2012) dir. Don Hertzfeldt
A recurring theme you may notice in all these movies is a single director taking on majority of the tasks involved in order to completely fulfill their own unique vision. I feel as though that type of creative fulfillment is something that can only be accomplished in the realm of animation, and no film better exhibits that than Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Incredibly minimalistic to staggering effect, It’s Such a Beautiful Day examines mental illness and existentialism with astonishing beauty and gravitas. It’s another film that’s hard to encapsulate with words as it’s simply unparalleled in its creativity. It’s a difficult watch thematically as it never shies away from the unforgiving nature of mental illness. It’s more than unforgettable, it’s achingly beautiful beyond description, and all accomplished with the central character being a stickman in a hat.
#4: A Town Called Panic (2009) dir. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
While Consuming Spirits and It’s Such a Beautiful Day showcase how animation can provide thought-provoking commentary on the nature of the human condition, A Town Called Panic demonstrates how animation can be a tool to bring the most zany, absurd, and hilarious stories to life. A Town Called Panic moves at a breakneck speed, constantly whipping from one ridiculous set piece to another. The stop motion animation using nearly static figures makes the movie stand out in the normally fluid world of stop motion. It’s incredibly hilarious and over the top, doing as much as it possibly can with animation and never dialing the insanity below 200%.
#3: The Wolf House (2018) dir. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña
This was the first animated horror film I’ve seen and there really isn’t anything else like it. Providing political commentary by acting like a propaganda piece disguised as a warped fairytale, The Wolf House is inspired by Colonia Dignidad, a Chilean Nazi death cult. In case that brief synopsis wasn’t enough to convey the malice that seeps throughout this movie, let me tell you about the visuals. Filmed within a few rooms, The Wolf House uses the most avant-garde animation on this list. Painting new environments onto the walls and having characters constructed from paper materialize from thin air, The Wolf House uses its unorthodox style to create some seriously horrific visuals. It’s incredibly eerie and every new setting or character that comes to life makes the experience more oppressive and terrifying. It’s an unforgettable horror experience whose technical elements are just as impressive as the macabre storytelling.
#2: Son of the White Mare (1981) dir. Marcel Jankovics
Son of the White Mare is an enthralling psychedelic epic with some of the most stellar animation put to film. With perfect pacing and lively characters, Son of the White Mare brings the story and atmosphere of ancient Hungarian legends to life. Vibrant colors and kaleidoscopic visuals inject ancient legends with a modern flair of adventure and experimentation. A passion project like no other with mind-boggling visuals, Son of the White Mare may have a story that feels 100 years old, but the experience is light years ahead.
#1: Mary and Max (2009) dir. Adam Elliot
Adam Elliot’s feature film debut Mary and Max is one of the most delicate and intelligent tour de forces in all of animation. Despite the terrific voice talents of Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mary and Max never received a proper wide theatrical release, which is why I’m including it on this list. Following a pen pal relationship between a lonely 8-year-old Australian girl named Mary and a 44 year old New Yorker with Aspergers named Max, Mary and Max delves into themes of loneliness, autism, friendship and the ugliness of the world. It’s deceptively simple, but the straightforward narrative packs an incredible emotional punch. The animation is exceptionally strange, making the world of the story reflect the headspace of the characters. Including a touching narrative, beautiful music, authentic voice acting, and of course, stellar animation, Mary and Max truly is one of the greatest films of all time, animated or otherwise.