18. Jumping (1984, Osamu Tezuka)
The highlight of Tezuka’s 13 Experimental Films announces its intentions right from its opening credits, which bounce up and down on the frame and make us actively rethink the nature of a screen as a stagnant object. From there, this first person depiction of a boy jumping across the world with increasingly hefty lunges does nothing less than ask us to rework our understanding of motion and perspective on screen.
This is animation with tactility, feel, and weight, capturing the feeling of pseudo-flight better than any live action film yet made but with a guttural, punchy quality to the landing.
For those who are less aesthetically minded, there’s a thematic, even adverserial, undercurrent about escape and social distance, about the desire of a young child to escape their social surroundings and revel in imagination and detachment. This concoction of subtle implication and brash, bold art, real stinger of a conclusion included, is a mile-high treat through and through.
19. Street of Crocodiles (1986, The Brothers Quay)
The self-consciously disturbed, lost-and-found stop-motion look of “Street of Crocodiles” and the Brothers Quay more wholistically has suffered a severe bastardization over the ensuing thirty years of less talented artists fashioning it into a festering, rotted crutch to hold up their also-ran animation on; without character, theme, or much in the way of aesthetic adventure, they reduce The Brothers Quay to “those guys who made creepy looking stop-motion”.
They did make creepy looking stop-motion, and how creepy it is! But they do so much more. Part of the problem is that the ensuing years have seen an influx of short films using the style while trying to sacrifice the truly disconcerting non-narrative, or at least only vaguely narrative driven, tone of so many of their best features.
Placing a conventional narrative with dialogue and human features onto the probing alienation and discomfort of something like “Street of Crocodiles” misses the point, but thankfully the Brothers Quay themselves do not. If short animation at some level always tries to build a world, seldom has that world been as artistically sound yet as arcanely off-putting as the intentionally angular No Man’s Land that makes up “Street”.
20. The Man Who Planted Trees (1987, Frederick Back)
Unavoidable in the world of short animation, but the arguable masterpiece of the National Film Board of Canada fully deserves its reputation for boldly pursuing a line of impressionist animation seen seldom in the art form. The animation style of thin pencil sketches has a ghostly, pallid lack of physicality that somehow manages to be both more tactile and present while also exploring the story’s themes of loss and emptiness.
It’s the closet thing the animation world has achieved to the astoundingly thin film stock of Dreyer’s old classics like Vampyr, used here and there to explore a world that seems less fully present and perennial than perpetually transient and always trapped in the act of disappearing.
It’s the sort of feather light animation that seems like it could disappear at any moment, and nothing could be more perfect for a story about a man struggling to retain the idea of a forest from nothing, desperately planting and maintaining a flurry of trees out of an empty, arid land.
It all plays like a storybook, but a storybook in need of telling for the desperate reason that without continual sharing and re-sharing the story will be lost to time. This fear, that something will be lost forever and of never knowing certainty, is matched impeccably by animation that literally transforms this sickly hue and very sense of floating off into the grand ether into the very texture of the animation itself.
There is no more noble goal an animation can achieve than to develop ways to artistically render the content it has been matched to, and “The Man Who Planted Trees” could not possibly achieve it more formidably.
21. The Writer (1988, Paul Driessen)
Paul Driessen’s delicate, deliberately vague style and absurdist, light-as-a-feather brand of dry morbidity served him exceedingly well in the world of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film, one of the finest and most wondrous full length animated releases ever, but when he achieved a position on the much vaunted National Film Board of Canada he never wallowed in his past glories.
He constructed his own squiggly, hashed-out style of barely-there colors that he came to advance and perfect with his more famous works “The Killing of an Egg” and “Home on the Rails”, but his later period “The Writer” sees the artist in full command of his style and theme.
A dreary, caustically funny story about a writer who’s stories are so lively that Death itself comes to mess up his day, Driessen never found a more poetic use of his trademark dry curiosity about death and loneliness.
There is humor to be had here, but more than in his earlier shorts the sense of macabre sadness and weariness is elevated to a boiling point. His barely-there animation never fit a story of his better, the empty greys and often sickly yellows working in tandem with the disturbing squiggles of the characters and the half-filled animation to create a hopeless and torrid medieval world of depression and decay.
Heady, dark stuff for an animated lark, but Driessen’s brilliance was always that he could cram so much into such a deliberately malnourished animation style, something he never achieved better than here.
22. Feelings of Mountains and Waters (1988, Wei Te)
Perhaps the most famous animator to come out of mainland China, Wei Te was not a productive figure, but what he sacrificed in quantity he made up in the sheer specialization and specificity of every single frame of his work. His style owed a great deal to traditional Chinese watercolor, especially in his later releases such as his final released work, “Feelings of Mountains and Waters”.
Utilizing a calming technique of simple, forceful, bold brushstrokes filled in with the lonely softness of watercolor, “Feelings” has a certain lazy (in the best way) intimacy with nature and quiet sound design emphasizing silence and single instruments that always feel ready to reflect and recompose. A work of profound restraint, every movement across the largely abstract, white background transfixes the eye and stares into the soul.
It’s the intangibles that count most with Wei, like the almost spiritual humanism of nature he finds in his simple story of father and daughter at life in the everyday world, and the way his animation is impressionist without being of impressionism, owing its flavor to a far more Eastern sensibility of interconnectedness in the land itself.
It’s the sort of story that could be a hundred years old, or a hundred years more, and still feel as filled with life as a quiet afternoon laying back in the grass and simply existing.
23. The Cat Came Back (1988, Cordell Barker)
Cordell Barker’s “The Cat Came Back” is among the most famous works of Canadian National Film Board animation for justifiable reasons: it is one of the few modern animated shorts to justifiably earn the influence of classic Warner Bros animation, and one of the few to aim for the more hectic, zippy sort favored by some of the non-Chuck Jones animators in the company’s wheelhouse (Jones will forever be their elder statesman, but it’s not like he was the only person working for them).
“The Cat Came Back” doesn’t really have any depth (although its snarky horrors will be known to anyone who’s ever had a cat), but there’s enough of an elucidation of the naughtier qualities of the many light-on-their-feet Warner Bros shorts that the fluffy, manic story of person and cat can be both deceptively even accidentally, substantial and cheerfully insubstantial at once.
With just enough of a sly undercurrent, its candy-coated flippancy is notable primarily for just how much of a high it persists with, and how it elegantly refuses to look for any meaning whatsoever.
24. The Wrong Trousers (1993, Nick Park)
The fundamental appeal of a Wallace and Gromit short is that, for all its archly British dryness and lightly absurdist qualities reminiscent of classic silent comedy, it always fits like a comfortable glove you’d forgotten you could turn to in moments of bitter cold. They’re dependable but never stagnant, strong but dextrous and malleable, and fluffy without ever dipping into a cloyingly saccharine syrup.
There’s a prime rigidity to all of the shorts – of which “The Wrong Trousers” is the best but works at a fundamental level for the same reasons as the other entries in the fair weather franchise – that keeps them from ever getting too manic or overly hyper.
The animation is fluid and graceful but cheekily stagnant and stone-faced, at once addressing the ways that inventor Wallace is both complicit in his misery and all the more charming for the way he gallantly refuses to submit to it. The freshness of “The Wrong Trousers” upon first viewing is matched only by how homey and warm it is upon the hundredth.
25. Rejected (2000, Don Hertzfeldt)
Don Hertzfeldt is an adamant proponent of the Terrence Malick school of art as a personal explosion of thoughts on the nature of literally everything. Nothing is too big or small for a Hertzfeldt project, but the way he explores his mind, so nimbly and without pretension, is his own beast entirely.
Depicting the world and its perversions through an almost endless stream of pencil sketches that can be born and die in an instant, he gives us a series of creatures and people experiencing life in mere seconds and finds perplexing questions with answers that only befuddle more.
For him, life can be many things, including its multitudinous nature itself, but what is less important than his conclusion is his endless striving and refusal to give up. The humbling way he both trumpets his central questions as avenues for thoughts both grand and minute, while also wrapping this up in a package that serves as a short-hand critique of the abstract nature of his films in the first place, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Even if you take all of his musings out of the picture, the unremitting savagery and wit of the piece is enough on its own, especially when juxtaposed on top of the backdrop of the simple childlike scrawl of the animation.
Author Bio: Jake Walters is a recent graduate of Amherst College and an aspiring film-writer/ist. He shares his thoughts on film at his website, thelongtake.net and is particularly interested in film in relation to society, race, class, and gender, He writes frequently on horror films and looks to Werner Herzog, Michel Foucault, and John Shaft for life advice. You can find him on Twitter@long_take.