The Top 5 Animated Features of 2009

For reasons that escape me as of this writing, I have consumed an abnormally large number of animated films this year. Oddly enough, the vast majority of these pictures are among some of the best movies I’ve encountered over the course of 2009. A warning, of sorts: My taste in film differs greatly from the so-called masses, so be fully prepared to unleash your nerd rage upon this list if I have omitted a feature that you hold dearly to your misshapen heart. Sadly, there just isn’t enough room at the top of pile for everyone, especially limp-wristed sequels to movies that never needed a follow-up in the first place. “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” I’m looking squarely at you. Don’t act like you didn’t know.

#5. The Haunted World of El Superbeasto

After experiencing the cinematic abominations known as “Halloween” and “Halloween 2,” I lost every ounce of faith I had in musician-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie. To be fair, it’s not like I’d invested that much faith in the first place. However, his 2009 animated feature “The Haunted World of El Superbeasto” is all sorts of grotesque fun. Inappropriate jokes, graphic violence, and Ralph Bakshi-inspired insanity abound, punctuated by a handful of notable performances from Tom Papa, Laraine Newman, Harland Williams, and April Winchell. It’s warped in just about every way imaginable, and although my initial reaction to the film wasn’t exactly positive, it has grown on me after subsequent viewings. A demented diamond in the rough? You bet.

#4. Up

The first 15 minutes of Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s 2009 Pixar feature “Up” made me weep like a newborn baby, a rare accomplishment for an animated picture. The story — a simple tale of one man’s desire to fulfill his dearly departed wife’s dream of owning a house beside a picturesque waterfall — also manages to capture the essence cinematic adventure in ways I haven’t experienced since witnessing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for the very first time. However, buried beneath the countless action set pieces and silly kid-friendly comedy is an inherent sadness that only adults will truly appreciate. If you pegged “Up” as something that would only appeal to children and psychotic Pixar enthusiasts, you’re sorely mistaken.

#3. 9

Most people foolishly dismissed Shane Acker’s post-apocalyptic animated epic “9” as style over substance, and the film’s box office numbers suffered as a result. However, those who were brave enough to venture into darkened theaters last September were treated to a phenomenal action picture powered by the voices of Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau, and Christopher Plummer. Sure, the plot boils down to beanie babies saving what’s left of the world from a malicious machine hellbent on destroying the planet, but Acker’s impressive visuals and his depressing vision of our inevitable future elevates this strange little story to a much higher level. If you skipped it, shame on you.

#2. Coraline

Based on the popular novel by award-winning author Neil Gaiman, director Henry Selick’s 2009 fantasy adventure “Coraline” is only inches away from claiming the top spot. It’s as close to cinematic perfection as one can fine in the animated genre, and it solidifies Selick as one of our generation’s most imaginative filmmakers. There are several hauntingly beautiful moments in the film, not to mention the creepiest imagery I’ve seen in mainstream American cineplexes since “Jacob’s Ladder.” Dakota Fanning’s turn as the mischievous Coraline is intelligent and endearing, a surprise given how obnoxious preteen girls are portrayed these days. Simply put, it’s fantastic. The icing on the cake: “Other Father Song” by They Might Be Giants.

#1. Mary and Max

Writer/director Adam Elliot’s impossibly heartwarming 2009 comedy “Mary and Max” isn’t an animated feature — it’s a work of art. The film chronicles the lives of two unlikely pen pals — namely, the adolescent Mary and the autistic Max — over the course of their twenty year friendship. Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman are simply outstanding in their respective roles, breathing an unbelievable amount of life into a pair of characters who need each other more than they’re ever willing to admit. Elliot’s direction is sharp, concise, and always engaging, a fine compliment to his witty, razor-sharp script. “Mary and Max” embodies everything I love about cinema, and ranks as one of my absolute favorites. Make sure you see it.