• WALL-E

This weekend, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as part of their ongoing “CSO at the Movies” series, performed the scores from select Pixar movies. Films made by the venerable animation studio have a distinct musical style, making them ideal fodder for “CSO at the Movies”—previous installments featured music from the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Metropolis. Despite a recent run of awful films, Pixar still holds tremendous currency with moviegoers, no doubt fueled by the studio’s string of megahits in the mid-2000s. In total, Pixar has grossed more than $8 billion in ticket sales worldwide, a truly staggering number that probably doesn’t even touch the dollars made in auxiliary merchandising. Despite being products of a commercial juggernaut, the best Pixar films represent some of the finest mainstream moviemaking of this generation. You can catch my five favorite after the jump.

5. Finding Nemo (dir. Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, 2003) Simply a gorgeous film, the first time Pixar seemed to actively explore the spatial and aesthetic possibilities of computer animation. Ambitious use of light, movement, and color deepen a story of self-discovery and the wondrous unknown.

4. The Incredibles (dir. Brad Bird, 2004) One of the few Pixar films to acknowledge the possibilities of peril and death in life, this is easily the most sympathetic of 21st-century superhero films, a testament to Brad Bird’s ability to mine pathos and humanism from decidedly fantastical circumstances. (More on that below.) The narrative, though, is often dull and simplistic, portending the misses (Monsters University, Cars) to come.

3. Toy Story (dir. John Lasseter, 1995) The first Pixar feature, and every bit the equal to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in terms of technical significance. Believe it or not, it’s nearly 20 years old, but its endlessly emanating spirit—no doubt a product of the filmmakers’ confidence in the project—is just as evident today as it was in ’95.

2. WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008) Pixar’s most psychologically probing film, it doesn’t let the cogent and incredibly blunt social commentary diminish the mythological charms of the narrative. WALL-E‘s first half, a mostly wordless love story between two robots, represents some of the most ambitious storytelling of any children’s film, but the second half, which settles into a fairly conventional adventure tale, has tremendous momentum.

1. Ratatouille (dir. Brad Bird, 2007) Animated films, specifically the big-budget, computer-generated variety, are so often the product of multiple corporate hands that it’s difficult to view them with an auteurist lens, but this spirited comedy is undoubtedly Bird’s vision. Like The Incredibles and his pre-Pixar masterpiece The Iron Giant, Ratatouille is about the ambition and spirit of the downtrodden and ostracized, brimming with deep moral consequences and audience-respecting intelligence. It’s a great film about artists, and a great piece of art itself.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.