Terry Gilliam knows something about animation. For years, he produced wonderful animations for Monty Python (watch his cutout animation primer here) , creating the opening credits and distinctive buffers that linked together the offbeat comedy sketches. Given these bona fides, you don’t want to miss Gilliam’s list, The 10 Best Animated Films of All Time.
It was published in The Guardian back in 2001, before the advent of YouTube, which makes things feel a little spare. So, today, we’re reviving Gilliam’s list and adding some videos to the mix. Above, we start with The Mascot, a 1934 film by the Russian animator Wladyslaw Starewicz. The film pioneered a number of stop animation techniques, making it a seminal film in the history of animation. About Starewicz’s film, Gilliam wrote:
His work is absolutely breathtaking, surreal, inventive and extraordinary, encompassing everything that Jan Svankmajer, Walerian Borowczyk and the Quay Brothers [see below] would do subsequently…. It is important, before you journey through all these mind-bending worlds, to remember that it was all done years ago, by someone most of us have forgotten about now. This is where it all began.
Tex Avery produced cartoons during the Golden Age of Hollywood animation, mostly for Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, and created some memorable characters along the way — Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Droopy dog and the rest. In 1943, Avery animated Red Hot Riding Hood, which amounted to a rebellious retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood tale. 50 years later, animators ranked it 7th on their list of The 50 Greatest Cartoons. According to Gilliam, Avery’s work delivers this:
The magic of Tex Avery’s animation is the sheer extremity of it all. The classic Avery image is of someone’s mouth falling open down to their feet, wham, their eyes whooping out and their tongue unrolling for about half a mile: that is the most wonderfully liberating spectacle…. There is also a childlike sense of immortality and indestructibility in his work; people get squashed, mashed, bashed, bent out of shape, whatever, and they bounce back. In essence, it is like the myth of eternal life.
During the mid-1950s, Stan Vanderbeek began shooting surrealist collage films that, as NPR put it, “used clippings from magazines and newspapers to create whimsical but pointed commentary.” If you think this sounds familiar, you’re right. It’s precisely this approach that surfaces later in Gilliam’s own work. And if one film provided particular inspiration, it was Vanderbeek’s 1963 film Breathdeath (right above).
Borowczyk was a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness. He started out making extraordinary animations, graduated to directing classics such as Goto, Island of Love and La B te… Les Jeux des Anges was my first experience of animation that was utterly impressionistic. It didn’t show me anything specific, just sound and movement from which you create a world of your own.
Jan Svankmajer is a surrealist Czech animator whose work has influenced Tim Burton, The Brothers Quay, and Terry Gilliam himself. In his Guardian list, Gilliam points us to one film, Svankmajer’s stunning 1982 claymation short, Dimensions of Dialogue, in part because the film “has moments that evoke the nightmarish spectre of seeing commonplace things coming unexpectedly to life.”
Based on a short novel written by Bruno Schulz, Street of Crocodiles is a 1986 stop-motion animation directed by the Brothers Quay, two American brothers who migrated to England in 1969, shortly after Gilliam, also American born, became a British citizen. In 2002, critic Jonathan Romney called Street of Crocodiles one of the ten best films of all time — surely enough to make you give it a view.
Other films mentioned in Gilliam’s list, The 10 Best animated Films of All Time, include:
Out of the Inkwell by Dave Fleischer (1938)
Pinocchio by Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen (1940)
Knick Knack by John Lasseter (1989)
South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut by Trey Parker (1999)
Some films listed above will appear in the Animation section of our big collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.
If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.
If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!