From Up on Poppy Hill (2011): 8/10
With Poppy Hill, Goro Miyazaki has redeemed himself (Tales from Earthsea was a such a dull effort), proving that he can, with the right material (and no doubt some help from his father, master animator Hayao Miyazaki), put out material truly worthy of the Studio Ghibli name. Ghibli seems to be in good hands for the moment--between the younger Miyazaki and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed the wonderful and charming 2010 film Arietty, the future of the legendary studio seems assured--not that the two founding directors (Miyazaki the Elder and Isao Takahata) are showing any signs of going anywhere--both are scheduled to be releasing films this year.
[Here is where I would talk about the plot--but it's late and I'm tired. :-P Read a quick summary online instead--just be sure to avoid spoilers.]
While the characters and plotting are arguably somewhat pedestrian, the fantastic English dub, period-appropriate Japanese pop soundtrack, and honest script and good-natured humor make up for the film's shortcomings elsewhere. On top of which the film is truly a visual marvel--its character designs are largely unimpressive, but everything else about the look of the film is completely gorgeous, with the true star (and lead character of the film) being the old school club-house affectionately referred to as the 'Latin Quarter.' What always sticks with me about Studio Ghibli's films on the whole is how powerfully they express the feeling of certain places. The house from My Neighbor Totoro, the forests of Princess Mononoke, and even Howl's fantastical walking castle from the aptly named Howl's Moving Castle and the massive bath house from Spirited Away all feel as real to me as the room in which I type this. From the mundane to the surreal, Ghibli films nearly always exhibit a powerful sense of place. It's as if each of Ghibli's best films crafts a new home for you to inhabit during the film's length, and returning to these homes, whether by watching the film itself or just by visiting them in my mind's eye, evokes powerful nostalgia and sensations that feel like memories generated by physical experience. It's unmatched by anything else I've encountered in animation, or even really in film, period. From Up on Poppy Hill, I'm happy to report, is a film I'm already thinking of warmly--and I just watched it mere hours ago.
If it shows up in a theatre near you, please check it out. Not that you Ghibli fans out there need any additional prodding--you're already familiar with the studio's singular brand of enchantment. The rest of you though--if you're not familiar with the studio's work, then this would make for a fine starting place. I would also highly recommend, in addition to the films mentioned above, Whisper of the Heart, Grave of the Fireflies, and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, though all for very different reasons.