A musing on the absence of animation from the Sight and Sound poll and a shameless attempt to shed light on a neglected gem from the genre.

The Sight and Sound poll is out and the dust has settled. A nun has sent Orson Welles plummeting from the top spot and a new film reigns supreme (Vertigo, not Sister Act). Almost everything that could be said has been said (Fall of Kane! Rise of Hitch! No Michael Bay?) but the poll was just as notable for it’s omissions as it was for the Top Ten.

Alongside the sharp pang I felt just above the left kidney when seeing the lack of Woody Allen in the top 50, another notable presence missing was that of animation. Just as Jim Emerson has noted the lack of funny in the list at his Scanners blog and Nick Goundry has used this very site to air his own grievances over a list devoid of both dinosaurs and Downey Jnrs, the missing animated genre does raise questions.

Does a list featuring no Pixar, Ghibli, Disney, or Anime suggest that animation remains a genre not taken seriously? Not quite. The list doesn’t leave animation in a state of crisis; neither does it show that film critics and directors don’t appreciate animation. All it proves, put simply, is that no one animation appeared on enough lists from enough people to make the cut. I’m almost certain that every critic asked by Sight and Sound would also sweat just as much over a poll of their Top Ten Animated films. Just like documentaries, comedies, Woody Allen films, mainstream movies and films released in my lifetime (1991- ), when it came to the combined critics list, they didn’t make the cut.

A definitive reason isn’t clear. A ‘the old ones are the best’ attitude seems to have prevailed and the ‘golden age’ of animation may more recent than a Top Ten Films of All Time list caters for. Kane has got decades on both Pixar and Ghibli and it could be argued that the golden age of Disney was in the 1990s, a decade that had only 4 entries in the Top 100.

Then there’s the recurring argument that film critics only like classics or, as Private Eye put it ‘Foreign films that no one has seen.’ As animation is often viewed as mainstream faire, critics shy away from it in the same way they are likely to melt into their shoes when exposed to the rays of Keith Lemon: The Film. These claims of snobbery are proved too general when the poll is dissected further. Although animation missed out on the top 50, when broken down into the most voted films from each decade, My Neighbour Totoro made it into a shared 10th place on the eighties list and both Spirited Away and WALL-E made the joint 8th position in the post-2000 category. Even with arguably more mainstream tendencies, HeyUGuys’ very own bloggers Top 10 saw no animated films break through.

But should we pay attention to list at all? Whilst its size and contributors make it an unquestionably definitive list, some see the list as yet another means of adding to the DVD collection, cementing a film buff status or finding out about hidden gems and therein lies the point of this particular piece. In my own list, I have an animated classic from only a few years ago that isn’t from any of the animation giants and whilst being a clay-animation, is not Aardman.

Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max landed in the UK in 2010 but left the eight cinemas it played in just as quickly as had arrived. Despite mostly positive review, the film was seen as ‘Miranda July does Play-Doh’ – destined to find success on the fringes of cultdom.

Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced in her youth by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette in adulthood) is a young girl living in Australia in the mid-70s with a birthmark on her face the colour of poo. One day, with a head full of questions, she finds a Manhattan phonebook and decides to write to a random name, hoping they have some answers. That random name is New Yorker Max Jerry Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely man who spends his days attending over-eaters anonymous meetings and having panic attacks. An unlikely friendship is born.

It’s a bittersweet masterpiece, and like Elliot’s Oscar winning short film ‘Harvie Krumpet’, manages to highlight just what it means to be alive, all in just 90 minutes. The film balances talk of birthmarks the colour of poo and homophobia (Mary’s term for her neighbour’s agoraphobia) with far darker issues and alongside an exploration of Asperger’s Syndrome, one scene in the film, played to a haunting rendition of ‘Que Sara Sara’, is simply of the most shocking moments ever carved in clay. (Admittedly, unless Aardman decide to tackle a remake of Martyrs, the list of dark moments in clay-animation looks set to remain as bare as Gromit’s wardrobe)

As we drift between the dusty sepia landscapes of Mary’s Oz and the monochrome shades of Max’s New York, Mary and Max evolves into a truly life-affirming picture about the beauty of friendship and the moment a four year old Mary decides to send Max a jar of her own tears after he confesses he cannot cry is sure to lump even the toughest of throats.

Whilst I’ve not seen as much Ghibli as I should have, I’m yet to sample Akira and my personal feeling is that Disney’s highpoint remains The Emperor’s New Groove, Mary and Max remains not only the greatest animated film I’ve ever seen but one seen by far too few people.

The poll is out. Arguments, debates and counter lists continue to be thrown around like confetti and it remains to be seen whether there exists an animation popular enough to knock or Vertigo off the top spot or loved enough to join the likes of Un Chien Andalou and The Seventh Seal in 50th place.

And whether in 2022’s poll or before, here’s hoping Elliot’s clay pen-pals find the admirers they deserve.