Whether referring to an A.I.-driven animation demo as “an insult to life itself,” walking out of a movie directed by his own son (“It feels like I was sitting there for about three hours”), or insisting to anyone who will listen that “filmmaking only brings suffering,” legendary director and living meme factory Hayao Miyazaki has long provided the likes of David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott with serious competition as modern cinema’s most reliable crank. And yet, in spite of Miyazaki’s curmudgeonly demeanor and his work’s consistent emphasis on the toxic effects of human civilization in a world cursed by our very existence, there may not be any other auteur whose movies have brought more joy to more people over the last 45 years, or are so widely beloved by children.

It’s a contradiction that’s hard to explain, even if evidence of the magic behind it abounds in every one of Miyazaki’s painstakingly hand-drawn frames. From the post-apocalyptic plea of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” to the high-flying hauntedness of “Porco Rosso” and the free-associative reverie of “The Boy and the Heron” (the latest and most convincing in a long series of “last” films), Miyazaki’s films have never shied away from the suffering that shadows our dreams; even a family classic as cuddly and light on conflict as “My Neighbor Totoro” is clouded by a very real threat of loss.

And yet, the raw honesty of these movies has a way of making their imagination burn that much brighter, just as their imagination invariably feeds into the heartache and despair that Miyazaki couldn’t hope to express in any other way. If each of his films asks “how do you live?” with singular directness, Miyazaki is the greatest animator the cinema has ever known because his movies — “The Boy and the Heron” perhaps most of all — recognize the agony that begs that question, and the ecstasy that comes from a work of art that inspires audiences to answer it for themselves.

All of Miyazaki’s films have done that to one degree or another (“worst” remains a relative term, as even the least resonant of these movies is still a unique and towering achievement), but arranging them into some kind of order for SEO-related purposes is still a potentially helpful way of illuminating the breadth of their genius and/or contextualizing how the scope of Miyazaki’s vision expanded over the years — even as it turned inwards at the same time.

In celebration of what really, truly, could maybe actually be Miyazaki’s final movie, here are all 12 of his features ranked… let’s just say “in order of preference.”

This article features additional reporting by Steve Greene. 

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