10. Raya and the Last Dragon
In one glance, Raya and the Last Dragon feels like every Disney movie you’ve ever seen and like none you’ve ever experienced. Blending mythology and design from multiple Asian cultures, the movie spreads across a gloriously inviting canvas. You’ll want to tramp around on your own. Maybe you’ll find frustration that you’re stuck on a typical heroic quest, but if you don’t resist that track, you might also discover glee in the familiar.
The playfully antagonistic relationship between Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and Sisu (Awkwafina) is a tad rote to start, but it cracks your cynical walls as it progresses. By the movie’s climax, when good prevails over evil — or deadly mistrust — their bond has pulled you in as well.
Luca is another Pixar hug. The movie is buoyant, warm, and carrying a touch of bittersweetness. As a kid’s film, it supplies ample silliness and adventure, but underneath, the adults in the crowd absorb the heartache pulsating through everything.
The titular Luca wants nothing more than to escape his underwater home and experience the bright, dry land above. When he encounters Alberto, he discovers someone like himself who has already achieved that fantasy. Together they run wildly through the human world, succeeding and failing with equal abandon, and in the process, uncovering who they are, what they want to be, and how to get there.
His audience might not have immediate access to the Italian coastline, but director Enrico Casarosa paints a marvelous vacation spot for tomorrow’s travel plans. At the very least, Luca‘s vistas can be your screensaver today.
8. Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth
Included as a bonus feature to Justice Society: World War II, Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth is a rapidly paced but long-lasting action-adventure.
Set in Jack Kirby’s future where animals have evolved beyond humans (think Planet of the Apes but with a little more variety), this DC Showcase short witnesses humanity’s last hope fall into the hands of a Gorilla Cult. The titular Kamnidi partners with Prince Tuftan of the Tiger Kingdom and challenges their beliefs while accidentally revealing a magnificent connection to the greater DC Comics continuity.
Director Matt Peters co-directed last year’s excellent Justice League: Apokolips War (#13 in 2020’s ranking) but delivers an even nerdier and more heartfelt narrative here. While Kirby maniacs were well fed this year in Eternals, Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth is the purest re-creation of the artist’s aesthetic. As a short film, it works as a delicious appetizer, hopefully preceding a gargantuan cinematic feast in the future.
7. Songs To Sing in the Dark
Songs to Sing in the Dark is the second Short Circuit entry on the list. Director Riannon Delanoy imagines a pitch-black, underground reality where two blind critters wage war against each other using a form of echolocation armor. Their chirps and screams manifest into these titanic sound soldiers, smashing into each other, wreaking havoc. The sight is so spectacular that they can’t help but recognize each other’s skills, and a surprising partnership is reached.
Songs to Sing in the Dark is an unbelievably impressive and highly original burst of animation. The way these two animals express their emotions audibly and, in return, visually creates a ‘toon unlike anything else we saw this year. Throw all the money you have at Delanoy; I want this as a feature asap.
6. The Duel
With the Skywalker Saga behind us (well, for now), Lucasfilm is finally starting to embrace the eclectic mad potential of its franchise. Star Wars: Visions is the most exciting proposition we’ve gotten yet, where the kingdom keepers opened their gates to the world’s greatest anime studios and let them muck about with their toys. There was not a dull short in the bunch, but The Duel, from production house Kamikaze Douga and director Takanobu Mizuno, was easily the most thrilling.
Here, the sci-fi trappings are pulled back a layer or two, fully exposing the Samurai influences that initially served as inspiration for George Lucas. The grainy, black-and-white animation drips with Akira Kurosawa, and the ronin at the center of the story might as well be played by Toshiro Mifune. The action is top-tier, surpassing most if not all of the lightsaber battles we’ve witnessed in the live-action arena. If this is Star Wars‘ future, we are approaching franchise nirvana.
Related Topics: 2021 Rewind