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The time has come for confrontation! (Just Kidding) In all seriousness, I have wanted to write my opinions about the best films last year for awhile now. I made sure that I watched most of the film’s critics and fans deemed to be high-quality animated films released in the year 2014 before writing my post. 

Unluckily for me, I had to wait until a few days ago to watch Tomm Moore’s The Song of the Sea (2014). Every year people rally to judges at the Oscars and Golden Globes but I often wonder if the films that deserve the praise are overlooked by popular films. I promise not to get too sentimental. 

I will judge these films on execution, heart and originality. All the above mentioned films had to be made/released in American theaters in 2014 and eligible for an acclaimed award.  I will write on my top five with one special mention.

All the films I picked are beautiful and memorable in their own way. The top three films I believe to be animated masterpieces and placed them the way I did out of personal opinion/taste. I do believe that my number 1 pick is the best out of all these films, which I will illustrate when the time comes. I chose the three categories that I did because, to me, these are the three strengths of animation. 

I chose execution because animation is an art form and must showcase the high quality of preceding animation. I chose heart because some of the most beautiful and best remembered cinematic moments come from animation and, as a film, must speak to us aesthetically as all brilliant art does. Finally, I chose originality because the greatest animated films and shorts give to its audiences experiences unattainable through any other medium. If they copy previous film’s plots or fail to deliver memorable scenes the magic is lost. Shall we get started?

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5. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

First on my list is this rare and superior sequel. In all, it won the Golden Globe for best animated feature, six Annie awards, and was nominated for best animated film at the Oscars. Quite a feat if I do say so. I enjoyed this film and acknowledge the incredible imagery it brought to audiences world wide.

Execution 4.5/5

There are some very beautiful scenes in this film. Like its predecessor, it gave the audience an incredible glimpse into the joy of flight, showed breathtaking scenes depicting nature in its untainted glory, and showed scenes that could have been released from a child’s imagination. My favorite animated scene was actually not the the first flight scene with Toothless or the big battle. Rather, I liked the more subtle ambiance of the flying arrows hitting the funeral barge across the water and also Hiccup’s flight with his mother.

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The backgrounds and execution of the animation are absolutely brilliant, however, I can’t say the same about the characters. The dragons look (what is the word, ah!) CLUNKY. The only exceptions to this rule are Toothless, Valka’s dragon Cloudjumper, and the white ice dragon. The rest of them. . . well they look funny to me. As for the main characters, with the exception of some of the more adult characters like Hiccup, Astrid, and Valka they all look too cartoony and unfit for such mature and beautiful backgrounds. This does not necessarily reflect their personalities. Even the secondary characters have more personality than your common animated drivel film and overstep their stereotypes. Well, most of the time that is.

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Heart 5/5

Well, what can I say? There are some heart-wrenching moments in this movie: the death and burial of Stoic, Valda and Stoic’s reunion, and the meeting of Valda and her son Hiccup being some of the few. If I can say I am impressed with anything in this film, it is that they put a lot of thought into the relationships of the characters. They also weren’t afraid to break our hearts a little. That is always a good sign because it means that we were attached to a character, that they meant something to us.

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Another aspect of a film’s heart is its ability to take us somewhere spectacular, outside our everyday lives. Did this film succeed in that regard well? I would say so. The main advantage it has is that the creators allowed their characters to mature. They are no longer children. This is most noticeable in Hiccup who had come a long way from the skinny outcast in the previous film. All in all, this movie is a journey into the discovery of a mother and wife, the danger of power wrought by fear and hatred, the death of a father, the passage of a young man into a position of leadership and the enduring presence of love.

Originality 3.5/5

Now we come to the hard part. I have mixed feelings on this film at this point. I expected so much from this movie, but compared to the other films on my list it fell short. I appreciate its breadth and scope of animation as well as its musical score done by John Powell. However, the dragon rider’s world and the battle scenes in the movie have all been done before. The plot turns and climax fell flat for me for the same reason. I hate to say this, but unlike the next film, this is not a case where predictability should be expected or accepted. I wasn’t surprised when Stoic died, when Hiccup found his mother, or even when Toothless overpowered the big dragon. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did this film move me? Yes. However, this is a list judging artistic craftsmanship and sadly it fell short in this regard. I doubt I will remember it beyond this year. 

Also, did it not seem that Stoic’s death served only to force Hiccup to accept his role as leader? The big thing to remember though is that they brilliantly executed these moments of predictability. That makes up for a lot, but not enough to have it accredited above the craftsmanship of masters.

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4. Big Hero 6 (2014)

The awards and nominations for Big Hero 6 aren’t nearly as impressive as the last film. The BAFTA and Golden Globes nominated it for best animated feature, it received several Annie nominations and won the Academy Award for best animated film. It is not a masterpiece to be sure, but I believe that even when compared to How To Train your Dragon 2, it is superior.

5/5 Execution

Now we come to the confrontation. Here is how I see this film. It is an adaption of a comic book by the same name. It follows the same plot lines of any super hero show or movie any of us have seen, but its execution was absolutely stunning. Disney animators and designers were able to do this because of their imaginative setting (based on San Francisco and Tokyo) and bright display of colors. Its story allows itself to progress and evolves without relying only on action scenes and confrontations. Unlike Frozen (2013) and Wreck it Ralph (2012), the plot wasn’t rushed and didn’t happen all at once. The characters had time to adjust to circumstances and Hiro’s growth was believable. This was most likely because, as I said in my review, the final destination wasn’t a place but a more peaceful state of mind.

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Its animation was bright and lively, living up to the image of such popular cities. My favorite animated scene is, again, not the flight scene (I do love it though not as much as the one in How To Train Your Dragon 2) but a scene farther to the end. It is when Hiro takes the health care chip from Baymax, who then storms into a fit of rage. I also love the galactic scene inside the portal with the spiraling clouds of unearthly color.

It also had better looking and deeper characters. Though they are not obviously real life people, they feel like they are. I said this before, but I think Disney through their last four or so films has given audiences memorable and identifiable characters. They aren’t gods, or overtly powerful beings. They achieve great things because they choose to do so, reminding us all that if they as ordinary people can do it so can we. 

My favorite character design is by far Baymax. I have NEVER seen anyone or anything like him before in films. His conception and design was witty and charming and I believe he is one of the most memorably designed characters to date. I think they excelled also in how they used the characters eyes to display powerful emotions. So much can be said in a single glance, but I have to wonder how long it took them to achieve that level of believable emotionalism.

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5/5 Heart

Unlike Hiccup, Hiro’s important changes came not through a meeting but a parting. Yes, Hiccup lost his father, but writers did not give him long to grieve and it was not the main driving point of the story. His journey was external rather than internal and he already had the fortitude and maturity to step away from his loss to become someone great. Hiro’s peaceful acceptance of his brother’s death came much later. Baymax is such an important character for this reason. Here is how I put it in my review.

Baymax is so important to this story. As I said before, he brings an imperative element into the movie because his sole purpose is to heal others. . .  The true evil in this movie was an intangible force and not a person. As such, Baymax helped Hiro overcome this great evil not through brute force and skill but through tenderness and companionship.

This idea is the center of this film. No, it is the heart and soul of it. That is what makes this movie so incredible. By the film’s end I felt a peace had settled and replaced the grief of previous events. 

The villain, like in many comics, was also very nontraditional and a diametric opposite yet parallel to the hero, in the sense that he was unable to overcome his grief and turned to violence and brute force. Again, he is not the driving point for the movie but an inevitable victim to life’s cruelties. (This happens often in comics and action hero shows).

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My favorite scene was the transition from Baymax’s rampage and Hiro’s reconciliation with his grief. It is at this point that he voices that cold truth which bound him: that Tadashi was dead. Luckily, Baymax provided the solution and answer to his sorrows, for Tadashi wasn’t really gone. This is a hard subject to breach in any type of film, but I believe animation has the means to show these kind of scenes in a way that is comforting and believable, like any of the other arts.

Originality 4.5/5

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The only flaw I can see to this film is its predictable plot. This hinders the originality of the film, but not overtly so. Everything about this movie was bright, fresh and unseen before. I think its creators were wise when they chose a modeling comic not many knew and could be tweaked and given the needed depth and imagery. The plot elements had been done before, but it is in its imagery that this film succeeds.

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Honorable mention: The Book of Life (2014)

I didn’t put this film on the list, but I wanted to mention it before I proceed to my final three picks. I have never seen a film like this before. Really. I haven’t. If it was graded solely on the originality of its animation it would certainly have beaten How To Train Your Dragon 2. But here is the thing, I did not like the characters as much. I loved their design but as for their personalities they were predicable if not a little dry. The only exceptions were La Muerte and Xibalba, who by all accounts should have been enemies but were husband and wife instead. 

This film excels in its incredible and original imagery. Somehow, I wish it could somehow receive recognition, however there are better films that were released in 2014. I hope Reel FX Creative Studios producing more films like this one.

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This next film, and the two that come after it, I won’t bother grading. All three are masterpieces in my opinion. From this moment, I believe it is just a matter of my opinion. All three are phenomenal films and I whole-heartedly recommend that you watch them.

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3. かぐや姫の物語 Kaguya-hime no Monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) (2013)

This is the last film directed by Japanese animation legend Isao Takahata based on Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. I am not an adamant fan of his work, but I do acknowledge his hand in animation and his own innovative genius. His style tends to be more crass than his colleague Hayao Miyazaki, however, his films also have a subtle beauty to them.

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I watched this film, not sure what to expect. I was already familiar with the original story and knew it would end sadly. However, I also knew, being the master he is, Takahata couldn’t possibly fail. The film’s beauty lies in its animation to be sure but its genius is in its execution. It unfolds like a traditional Japanese story scroll seamlessly, with a flow that is somewhat heart breaking. 

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Each moment of the film, whether it was in the forest of her first home or the mansion she lived in, shown brightly, moving gracefully like it was being slowly turned by the hand of a master storyteller. This is not something I can adequately explain. If I did it would ruin the experience of this gorgeous film. I could tell you the ending, but it would make no difference. (It is just like the movie Lincoln (2012) where, obviously, I knew that Booth would assassinate Lincoln in the theater. However, the journey Lincoln set me on through its plot and characters made me forget the sadness of its ending till it was too late. It was after I grew attached to Lincoln the man, that he died at his cue.) That is what it is like in Princess Kaguya. When it ended, I felt such grief for her, her lost memories and those she was leaving behind, having forgotten the ending was coming.

At its surface, there doesn’t seem to be a lot that can be exploited emotionally from such a well-known, and short story. This is not so. Princess Kaguya is a fascinating subject to watch and examine. Her emotions are sometimes as subtle as shifting leaves. Other times it is like a title wave, as the horrible sadness of her situation engulfs her or sends her into flying rebellion. 

My favorite scene in the film is by no means the happiest. It happens at a celebration commemorating her naming, which lasted several days (I would die from boredom personally. Why do woman’s lives in such times and cultures and to be so dull and decorative?). After a foolish man questions her father’s attempts to turn a her from plain peasant into a princess she flees. The scene is somewhat otherworldly as she casts off her many kimonos and seeks refuge in her old home and forest. She moved with unearthly speed and finally, after her strength was spent, she fell into the snow and woke again at her party. This is an incredible scene because it portrayed such palpable sorrow and hopelessness with only images.

(Watch clip here——> CLIP)

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This film is an artistic wonder, and I wish that more critics and judges recognized it at the Academy Awards. I think the Oscar board should have recognized Takahata for his contributions to film like Hayao Miyazaki. It was nominated as the best Japanese film of the year as well as the Best Animated Feature at the 2014 Academy Awards, but as a foreign film it wasn’t recognized or seriously considered. Those who judge animated films are ignorant to the art and mastery of animation. It is truly sad to me. I doubt many even know of this film or have taken the time to watch it. Such a shame.

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2. Song of the Sea (2014)

It is strange. I can usually tell the quality of a film from its movie trailers. When I first heard about this film and saw its promo trailer I was overcome by the intricacy of its animation and beauty of its story. 

Its director, writer and producer Tomm Moore also directed the acclaimed animated film The Secret of Kells (2009) and unlike any of the other directors of the other films, works independently, disconnected from any big movie companies. I have no doubt that after Moore and his animators released this film, Disney and Dreamworks wish that he did. The Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells are two of the brightest, creative and soulful films I have ever seen, truly a visual feast. Their animation and design are incredible and original, and unlike anything that has been released before.

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Let’s focus solely on Song of the Sea. The characters are lifelike, but truly act as people entwined in the delicacy of a well-known tale. They are free from the pulsing of popular culture, and live within the lovely world of dreams and fairy tales. In particular, they carry a sadness that originates in Celtic myths, specifically Irish folktales.

For example, a selkie is a creature torn between two worlds, their life as a seal in the sea and as a human being on land. In some of these stories, they are forced to wed clever fisherman who steal their skins. Then there are others, where they happily marry on land but are forced to return to the sea, away from their spouse and children.

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This film is a call for us to remember old tales, and their sad messages. But it also tell us that there is hope found in the innocent, the pure and the unassuming. I watch my students daily and I see the joy and beauty of childhood forced out of them through their filthy music, violent shows and addiction to technology. As I saw this movie, I wondered how they would react to the innocence of this tale. In the back of my mind, I knew they would probably laugh or complain that this movie is for children. 

I assure you that this is not the case. We NEED movies like this one. Its imagery is stunning, its message far reaching, and overpowering. This story shows many characters imprisoned by and burdened by the changing world and the loss of family. It provides release from these feelings, through the powerful warmth and sincerity of a child’s song, one who belongs to both worlds.

I read an interview online between an editor from the site Cartoonbrew.com and Tomm Moore explained his film thus:

I see my son growing up immersed in technology that was just arriving as I was growing up, and I see how it shapes how we look at the world. But as storytellers, we have opportunities to broaden the way people think about the world, and while we may not change anyone’s mind, we may hopefully be a part of the slow chipping away at indifference. . . I actually think making movies for kids is more important, because they shape you. I watch so many movies as an adult and forget about most of them instantly, but those I saw as a kid left a deep impression. So we have a huge responsibility when we make movies aimed at kids to say something they need to know, instead of just distracting them with fart jokes and talking animals.

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The work put into this movie is incredible given that it is not supported by a far-reaching company. It was funded by SIXTEEN production companies, had a very small budget but still shown just as or more brightly than its competitors in the United States. The fact that it made it here, to the United States is nothing short of miraculous. Of course that doesn’t mean it actually made it to the box offices. Moore intended this film for children, but I think that all should see it. Just because a film is animated does not mean that it is childish. (I think this should be my montra) There is beauty and virtue within it forgotten by too many who are now entertained by vulgarity and violence. This film is a testament for what animation is: ART IN MOTION. I am grateful that this is a hand drawn film as well. I don’t want 2D animation to die. It is too beautiful an art form to be forgotten.

It has not won many awards, despite its obvious genius and complexity. It was nominated for an Academy Award, multiple Annies and a Cesar Award and has won best animated picture at 19th Satellite Awards and Festival International des Voix du Cinéma d’Animation. Let me say this. I think it should have won the Academy Award. It was innovative, creative and visually spectacular. Unfortunately, winning big time American film awards is a gamble. Hopefully, many will see this film for the masterpiece it is in time. I look forward to Moore’s future productions.

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1. The Wind Rises (2013)

If you read my review for this film, you knew this was coming. It won more awards when Studio Ghibli first released it then later. The reason? Political controversy. That was also the reason why Disney released it under Touchstone rather then Disney and it reached hardly any theaters in the United States. The Wind Rises received thirteen nominations and seventeen awards for “Best Animated Feature” including a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes and Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Those at the oscars also officially recognized and awarded Miyazaki for his immeasurable contributions to the fields of animation and film.  (Trailor ——> CLICK HERE For an interview with Joseph Gordon Levitt ——-> CLICK HERE)

I absolutely love this animated film. I waited anxiously for Disney to release it into theaters and was so disappointed when it never came within 400 miles from where I lived. On its surface, it does not look like much. In fact, that is probably why judges at the Oscars viewed it the way they did. They never actually saw it. Never judge a book by its cover, nor a hero by his appearance.

The Wind Rises is the epitome of Hayao Miyazaki’s genius. It represents the breadth of his imagination and his introspective view of politics and, again, appearances. The hero of this film, Jiro Hirokoshi, is not a dragon rider, a teenage crime fighter, a bull fighter or anything of that sort. He is a man with a dream to design air planes, in a time where his talent was doomed to be exploited.

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Miyazak-san never simply creates characters. (He designed his characters and the storyboards, wrote the story, directed the film and was actively involved in drawing throughout). He has a way of slipping past the stereotypes set by society and giving life to characters with the same depth and complexity as real people. This means they are flawed. This means they are susceptible. This means that they can and do change. As I said in my review, they, especially Jiro, remind us, as an audience, what it means to be human.

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At the center of this story is a young man led by his ambitions, but not oblivious to the suffering around him. I put it this way:

The story centers on dreams to be sure, but it also focuses on living: living through a time of tragedy, living for a loved one, and living for a dream doomed to be exploited. Watching Jiro as he grew from a boy to a young man I marveled at his genuine love for others and kind demeanor. At a glance he is no one extraordinary, yet for me, he was one of the most inspiring heroes and men I have ever seen in film. The Wind Rises is about this man and how he lived his life to its fullest potential. He loved like no one, he cried like no one, he dreamed like no one and yet for all his kindness and passion he lost everything to the times he lived in. . . or so it seemed. This film teaches us that we must live, though there will be war, famine, grief, loss, hatred, death, violence, illness and pain.

Miyazaki addresses many issues from Japan’s Interwar Period: the terrifying Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that decimated Tokyo, the stock crash in the 1920’s, Japan’s dependence on Germany economically and politically, its economy struggling to catch up to other world powers and (perhaps the hardest) those who couldn’t help but become part of the devastating World War II’s axis powers. Because of this underlaying theme and background, this film is controversial. 

Jiro designed a war plane, one that would kill many. None of them returned. Many believe that this makes him a horrible and offensive hero. People are infinitely more complex then we can possibly imagine. How can we pass judgment on such things? This film allows us to see Jiro as the man he was, rather than the work piece manipulated by powerful men.

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The love story is heart achingly beautiful, but simple in its implementation. It never screams at you, but presents audiences with a sorrowful truth. Naoko, Jiro’s wife for only a few months, died of tuberculosis, common at those times because of the coal that people used for fuel and the filthy condition of the cities. But this is not a sappy, forgetful Nicholas Sparks film. (Sorry fans of his films). It is one of the most powerful testaments of true love I have ever seen. It implanted itself in my heart. Not only that, but Jiro was an honorable, respectable, and kindhearted man, a true gentleman and not anything like the heroes of today’s films. We need more men like him in this world.

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This film competed with Frozen at the Oscars. To me, there was no comparison. I believe that this is the best film of this year because it embodies everything the other films sought to become. Some of them had many traits this film did, as I showed in my previous slots. However, they did not achieve the brilliance or the ambiance of this film’s creative genius. I can tell you this repeatedly, but it would make no difference. You need to see it for yourself. It doesn’t try to copy action films or rely on cheap tricks to keep its audience entertained. It tells a story, original, captivating and thought-provoking in its execution, of a plane designer Jiro who fought for his dream and fell in love but in the end lost them both to the times he lived in. Miyazaki-san stated:

I wanted to create something that is realistic, 

        fantastic, 

            at times caricatured, 

                  but as a whole, a beautiful film.

If only all film directors could create films with such a mind set.

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