Every anime I have ever watched (and still remember), split into tiers—which I have found more stable and representative than strict rankings. Some caveats:

Tier 0: Peerless

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Tier 1: Outstanding

Neon Genesis Evangelion Serial Experiments Lain

Tier 2: Very Good

Bakemonogatari Ergo Proxy Fate/Zero Future Diary Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Legend of the Galactic Heroes Kill la Kill Parasyte Psycho-Pass Samurai Champloo Shirobako

Tier 3: Good

Axis Powers Hetalia Baccano! Claymore Code Geass Cowboy Bebop Darker than Black Durarara Eureka Seven Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Mobile Suit Gundam 00 Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Nichijou Nisekoi Nisemonogatari One Punch Man Ouran High School Host Club ReLife Spice and Wolf Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Tier 4: Watchable

Attack on Titan Darker than Black: Gemini of the Meteor Deadman Wonderland Death Note Eden of the East Elfen Lied Eureka Seven: AO Fate/kaleid liner Prisma☆Illya Ghost in the Shell: 2nd GIG Girls und Panzer No Game No Life School-Live! Soul Eater Steins;Gate The World God Only Knows Welcome to the NHK

Tier 5: Bad

A Certain Magical Index Angel Beats! Black☆Rock Shooter Blue Gender Clannad Clannad: After Story Full Metal Panic! Guilty Crown Hellsing Highschool of the Dead Love Hina Macross Frontier Ōkami-san & her Seven Companions ReZero Tokyo Ghoul

Tier 6: Garbage

Dragon Ball Z Fate/Stay Night (2006) Sword Art Online I & II

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

It should go without saying that what follows is my personal opinion, and that your personal experience may differ.

That being said, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not only the greatest anime of all time, but perhaps the greatest thing ever shown on a screen. It transcends its medium in a way no other animated work has. I would rank it just short of the greatest works of literature.

The status of film as subordinate to literature deserves note here. Text has as the great advantage of ambiguity: by leaving most details to our imagination we can fill a story with ourselves. Generally this advantage is overwhelming; few intellectual heavyweights would claim to be as affected by film as any of their top ten books. Madoka Magica overcomes this with a courser-grained approach to storytelling, presenting only the scaffolding of a story and letting us fill the rest in. On the other hand, film has the ability to deliver so much more information to us. Normally this is squandered on giving us a self-insertion fantasy. But Madoka Magica has realized the potential of this capacity: by giving us the richness of image, it can convey tone in a way text cannot; by exploiting the visual nature, it can use smash cuts to tell several intertwined stories at once.

Madoka Magica is both a good anime and a great one. The distinction is important—in my view, a "good" anime is one that entertains and enthralls us, while a great one changes us. For example, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was a good anime, but not a great one. Conversely, Neon Genesis Evangelion started off as a good anime, but by the end had lost all its good elements—the art, the pacing, the action—but became something great. Certainly goodness can contribute to greatness, drawing us in and making us sympathize with the characters, but it is not necessary. What makes any work of art good is generally relatively easy to articulate; the key aspects are well-known, even if incorporating them can be challenging. Greatness is necessarily more difficult to describe, as if it were obvious what aspects of a work make it great, its greatness would be easily replicable and would thus vanish.

A myriad of factors make Madoka good:

The last point deserves special attention. Challenging the viewers is one of the features of a good show that is perhaps necessary for greatness, and Madoka does it better than any other show I've seen. A common technique among great works is to obfuscate certain key elements, forcing us to put considerable thought into the work just to know the plot, and hopefully as a side effect come to understand the work on a deeper level. While effective, this technique is unsatisfying. It makes us feel that the authors do not trust us, and that we have been forced to undo some of the authors' work—a waste of time for all involved. Madoka, on the other hand, does not obfuscate any key element. Instead it presents only the outlines of its story, requiring us to think about and infer the rest. It successfully builds a world reasonable enough for us to do so, and shows us exactly what we need to know. As a result, the viewer has the much more satisfying experience of adding to what the authors created, rather than undoing their work. In place of obfuscation, the authors found a brilliant way to signal that a deeper analysis of the work is necessary: putting coded messages in the background. This doesn't qualify as obfuscation, as the content of the messages are tasty tidbits but ultimately unimportant, but did an excellent job of signaling to the fanbase that the show requires serious analysis.

It is considerably harder to articulate what makes Madoka great. Madoka presents several questions central to our lives, and makes the case for various positions while not forcing any of them on us. It is hard to describe these questions or the positions it presents in mere words. Language relies entirely shared experience, and language alone cannot pierce the most central aspects of our being because they are too personal. This is were great art comes into its own—it somehow reaches these aspects that we cannot describe objectively.

These days, when I watch a western TV show all I can think is "What happened?!". It seems we are satisfied when a show is good, and have forgotten our appetite for greatness. Have we simply given up on the screen as a medium? Take, for instance, the almost universally-acclaimed drama "The Wire". In 65 hours, it presents a compelling look at the lives of people caught up in the drug trade in Baltimore, reminding us that crime is a complex phenomenon that pulls people in from different directions for a variety of sociological, political and economic reasons, and that many of these factors are a result of the advantages enjoyed by the same people who vilify criminals. This is an important lesson, but one that anyone with a brain and a basic knowledge of the world should be able to deduce in ten minutes of thought. We have been reminded of something important, yes, but the series makes no original or difficult claim.

Anime, in contrast, is not always so safe. Neon Genesis Evangelion seeks to tell us something novel about human nature and the meaning of life—even if it's not completely clear what it's saying. Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt is deeply subversive, criticizing the Japanese culture of propriety and a focus on appearances in ways that if not original, are at least fringe and very risky. Kill la Kill makes similarly difficult if unoriginal claims, arguing that human nature and freedom are ultimately incompatible. Fate/Zero shows us that war is hell, but that the worst sin of all is heroism: you cannot make the world a better place, and the harder you try the more you will end up destroying. And in only 4 hours, Madoka does more than all of these combined.

The myriad of lesser issues Madoka addresses might alone make it great, while remaining within my power to describe. These include:

In my view, there are two more serious issues addressed by Madoka. One of these is the nature of love. The show examines and contrasts various kinds and ideas of love: paternal, platonic, possessive, protective, selfless, selfish. It forces us to consider what these entail, and whether they are compatible. The doting mother, forced to reconcile the conflicting emotions of concern and trust. The lovestruck Sayaka, who realizes too late that she never intended a selfless wish. Madoka, torn between her fear and her concern for her best friend. And Homura, whose wish is not that Madoka be saved, but that she would be the one to protect Madoka; who fell deeply in love with Madoka, but only after caring about Madoka became her only recourse from despair.

"If someone says it's wrong to hope, I will tell them that they're wrong every time." - Kaname Madoka

First and foremost, however, Madoka Magica is a descent from cynicism. It is the antithesis to Gen Urobuchi's previous show, Fate/Zero. Against a backdrop of a cruel and horrid world, it defends a notion of hope so earnest and idealistic that in any other show it would be saccharine. Even this, Madoka argues, cynicism cannot dismiss; that even if we live in a cruel world, even if we do not have the luxury of hope ourselves, such a view is still Good, still valid, and we must treasure it nonetheless. This is in a way usual Magical Girl territory, although most shows do not articulate the notion to the point where they could be called a defense. The key difference is that Madoka does so successfully.

The Rebellion Story

Many fans took the "happy" ending of Madoka and tried to make it into something it wasn't. The Rebellion story is the pendulum swinging back. It reminds us that our victory against cynicism was a small and costly one, that the world is still a cruel place. That even our triumphs, like Madoka's love for Homura, have their dark sides. But in reminding us how hard the battle against cynicism is, it also underscores the brilliance of the show in overcoming it. Even in the end, Rebellion concedes that Madoka's hope and selflessness have a power that goes beyond what their cost to Homura can taint.

Sword Art Online I & II

Sword Art Online is a special kind of bad. It is a well-polished turd, but somehow all the polish only serves to highlight that we are, in fact, looking at excrement. The writers confuse cardboard cutouts with people, random deus-ex-machinas with storytelling, stupidity with bravery, and their main character with their shallow dream-selves. The writing even achieves a certain grandeur; one cannot help but wonder at how such phenomenally bad writers could churn out two seasons of high-budget anime. To list all the fatal flaws in SAO would require more time than either you or I should devote to the matter.

Of all its flaws, the issue of sexism deserves special attention, because it is somehow subtle and incredibly blatant at the same time. I suspect that the writers would be genuinely surprised that anyone would think their work sexist, yet it is almost worse than the most degrading smut. In the first season, the female lead (Asuna) is supposedly an exceptionally powerful swordswoman who we see tear monsters apart left and right. That is, until the male lead (Kirito) shows up, at which point Asuna always forgets any degree of competence or agency and needs him to save her from "threats" which are obviously not even dangerous to her. This shortcoming is not just limited to her; none of the female characters in the first season display any agency. When I saw the first season, this was one of my main criticisms. One of the few improvements in the second season was to include a female main character thereby forcing at least some female agency. Yet the result is no less offensive, as the characters are so monumentally stupid that they are automatically caricatures. To round things off, they made Kirito faux-transgendered so they could offend another demographic.

If there is one thing I have learned from SAO, it is that Japan must be the safest country on Earth, otherwise the writers would have died from their stupidity long ago. For example, in an (apparently serious) scene intended to illustrate personal growth, the female lead explains the first law of gun safety: never point a gun at someone unless you intend to shoot them. As she does so, she somehow forgets the zeroth law of gun safety, one which usually goes without saying: do not give a loaded gun to someone who just tried to shoot you. Doing so is not personal growth, it is terminal stupidity. It is a wonder the writers are still alive, much less employed.