Hayao Miyazaki can't stop dreaming. Despite a half-century of work, 11 feature films under his belt, an Oscar on his shelf (Miyazaki became the only non-American to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature when Spirited Away picked up the honor in 2003), and a formal retirement announcement in the books, the Japanese animator is, reportedly, in production on his next anime movie. We can only hope our gears crank like Miyazaki's when we're 76.
In honor of a lifetime of vibrant, imaginative, and transcendent films, and the upcoming 20th anniversary of Princess Mononoke, the action movie that catapulted him to worldwide stardom, we've ranked the filmmaker's movies from "breezy fun" to "certifiable masterpiece." Really, there's no "worst" when we talk about Hayao Miyazaki's anime, which ensure that we'll never stop dreaming, either.
'Captain Marvel' Is Smashing the Box Office
11. Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
With flowing landscapes and exquisite compositions, Miyazaki's adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones' novel proves that even the master's least-great film is a spectacle to behold. Howl's Moving Castle strings antiwar themes through the classic tale of boy meets girl, girl becomes old woman, boy becomes... a giant bird.
Miyazaki's script prioritizes visuals over coherent plot, and doesn't quite earn the romantic payoff between Howl and Sophie, the transformed woman. Still, it's worth watching the English dub to hear Billy Crystal's endearing work as the fire demon Calcifer, not to mention Christian Bale's pseudo-Dark Knight moments playing Howl. -- Gianni Jaccoma
10. The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
Miyazaki gambled on his first feature-length film. The original Japanese franchise Lupin III follows the adventures of a James Bond-like gentleman thief who isn't above con jobs or lewd sex acts to feed his vices. Miyazaki dramatically altered the character, softening the story of a rakish dastard into a fast-paced, gorgeously animated romp filled with energy and humor that also gives its women a fair amount of agency. A Fiat drives up a cliff, ninjas cause mayhem, a big wet secret gets revealed, and so much shit gets stolen in this intricate caper. Not bad for a debut. -- Eric Vilas-Boas
9. Ponyo (2008)
Miyazaki's take on The Little Mermaid is his bubbliest film -- figuratively and literally. The apex of his fascination with elements, Ponyo's beauty is in every crashing wave, every droplet plopping down from a spigot, every fish cutting through a volume of wall-to-wall water.
The story is exceedingly cute; when the globular daughter of a sea-dwelling scientist washes ashore, the young son of a fisherman scoops her up, thinking he's found a new pet goldfish. A smooch turns her into a full-grown girl with the powers of Aquaman, which she uses to save the boy's cliffside town. Aside from one of the most infectious credit songs of all time ("PONYO, PONYO, PONYO, FISHY BY THE SEA!!"), Miyazaki's first true "kids movie" is like a cynicism cleanse -- and we all need one. --Matt Patches
8. Castle in the Sky (1986)
We revere Miyazaki for his animation, but overlook his work as a master remixer of fantasy and lore. Set in an alternate version of the 1900s, Castle in the Sky is an epic of Tolkienian proportions, woven together from Gulliver's Travels, world religions, and Miyazaki's own industrial obsessions. Together, Sheeta, princess of the flying city of Laputa, and Pazu, a diligent, earthbound boy, outrun pirates and government thugs in airships to return the fallen highness to her place in the sky. Miyazaki's conjured world is robust, yet granular -- Laputa is more alive when each laid brick and fastened bolt appears weathered by time -- and moves like the dogfights in Star Wars. The mythology is nutty, and in lesser hands, would be another explosive anime to pair with Yu-Gi-Oh. Miyazaki is too obsessed with the melancholy motion of robots and the way a glowing amulet can externalize love for Castle in the Sky to stumble. - MP
7. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)
Kiki's Delivery Service will make you believe a girl can fly. The buoyant tale of a young witch with a chatty cat wastes zero time on explanation. Kiki simply exists in a world where everything is positive, villains don't exist, and the blockade between success and failure is a person's self-worth. The heroine's struggle to keep her life together -- and the film's crushingly quiet climactic sequence where a massive dirigible crashes in a city, endangering hundreds of people, and Kiki tries desperately to save her friend on a ratty borrowed broom -- will take your breath away. - EVB
6. Porco Rosso (1992)
Unique among Miyazaki protagonists, Porco Rosso is both middle-aged and quite literally "just a pig." His womanizing, drinking, fighting, law-breaking, slothing, and grumbling remind us of that over and over and over. But Porco is also an ace seaplane pilot in the Adriatic Sea during the Great Depression, and the contours of his morality grow as he dogfights his way through a protracted rivalry with another mercenary pilot. Other films tackle fascism, sexism, and the stories of traumatized soldiers, but Miyazaki's examines the meaty themes with high-flying, highly choreographed aerial battles. Just like Spielberg's Indiana Jones series, Miyazaki throws back to early 20th-century action serials with a hyper-personal touch. - EVB
5. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Movie historians cite Miyazaki's seventh film (and the first to feature computer-generated animation) as his breakthrough to American audiences, thanks to star-studded English dub cast that included Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith. The movie, about a young prince who gets caught up in a war between civilization and nature, sends a strong environmentalist message that gets complicated by the greedy-but-sensible antagonist Lady Eboshi, the leader of the technologically driven "Irontown." The presence of likable characters on both sides of the conflict constantly shifts the viewer's loyalties, while Miyazaki's overt violence dizzies the situation. Each bullet, arrow, and wolf bite feels like necessary evil when the fate of the world is on the line. - GJ
4. The Wind Rises (2013)
Miyazaki can find beauty in absolute tragedy. The Wind Rises fictionalizes with an impressionistic touch the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed Japan's fighter jets during World War II. Miyazaki's Jiro is an artist who loses himself to blueprints and holds court with Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista Caproni in his dreams. He sees God in the contrails of his creations, and we do too, thanks to Miyazaki's own vision. But Jiro's successes come with horrors: On his way to aeronautical school, an earthquake ravages a small Japanese village like one of Miyazkai's monsters. His first love suffers tuberculosis. And his planes eventually leave blood on his hands. Miyazaki, confident and unflinching, wrestles with Jiro's conflicts. The result is a truly meditative masterpiece. - MP
3. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
As effortlessly as gliding on wind, Nausicaä balls up an imminent environmental threat, amoral fascist leaders armed with a weapon of mass destruction, and factions of warring tribes into an alarmingly effective two-hour adventure. Nausicaä is a human princess who, against all odds and protestations, rides the sky and befriends the forces of nature that rush to destroy mankind. Depending on whether you watch the Japanese or English version, her actions come off either animistic or Christ-like. Either way, her badassery makes her one of Miyazaki's most confident, self-assured heroines. Her legacy reigns on to this day, most recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which introduced its heroine Rey, almost scene for scene, in the same way we meet Nausicaä, down to her face mask. It also bumps with an '80s electronic score by Joe Hisaishi that could easily have gone into Escape from New York. - EVB
2. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
By framing this creature feature from the perspectives of 11-year-old Satsuki and 4-year-old Mei, Miyazaki turns the monstrous Totoro -- a giant forest spirit with humongous teeth and a menacing roar who flies by night and appears only to children -- into one of the most lovable, imaginative creations in movie history. Satsuki and Mei play, fight, run around, get messy, trip on rocks, and explore a ripe world foreign to most adults. By the end, even as their mother battles illness, and the melancholy of WWII lingers in every corner, the sisters still see the world with eyes wide open. So much of Western animation -- especially the legacy of Disney Princesses -- is obsessed with the finality of growing up and marrying Prince Charming. My Neighbor Totoro ends before Satsuki and Mei leave childhood behind, instead basking in larger-than-life trees, playtime in midair under a moonlit sky, and a (very literal) bus in the form of a gigantic cat. - EVB
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Many of Miyazaki's films bend down to see the world from a child's eyes and capture a moment of fresh-faced adulthood. Spirited Away does so with absolute majesty. Chihiro is your average unfocused, video-game-playing, along-for-the-ride 10-year-old when her family wanders through an overgrown tunnel. The world she enters -- rich with magic, pastoral vistas, and a menagerie of creatures ripped from notebook margin doodles -- demands her attention. To save her parents, transformed into gluttonous pigs by some enchanted sausages, Chihiro braves the working world of a bathhouse run by a wicked witch, guides a faceless spirit through limbo, and opens her mind to memory to free the spirit of the river. A sophisticated and lush Alice in Wonderland for modern times, Miyazaki's hyper-detailed art elevates Spirited Away's simple lessons into a masterwork. As deserving of a spot on a museum wall as a screen in your local multiplex. - MP
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.