In a year full of on-screen animals, The Artist’s life-saving, scene-stealing Uggie The Dog has garnered more attention than the combined menagerie of We Bought A Zoo, with Movieline’s S.T. Van Airsdale mounting a straightfaced award campaign on his behalf, prompting a derisive counter-appraisal of Uggie’s skills by Slate’s Forrest Wickman. The raging controversy threatens to obscure the many fine contributions of the animal world to this year’s films. Here’s ten great animal performances from the past year, featuring not one but two dogs superior to Uggie.
1) Vuk the dog, Le Quattro Volte
The comic highlight of the mostly po-faced Le Quattro Volte is a nearly 8-minute tour de force starring Vuk the dog running around the winding hills of a small Italian town. Roman centurions march down the hill preparing to enact the passion; amiable border collie Vuk chases after them, runs back into town, disappears from the screen for considerable periods and eventually unleashes total chaos by releasing all the goats from their pen and sending a truck rolling backwards down the street. The dog hits all of its marks with amazing precision, but Vuk was merely the runner-up in last year’s Palm Dog awards, a sad injustice.
2. Albino alligators, Cave of Forgotten Dreams
In the epilogue of Werner Herzog’s otherwise straightforward record of the cave paintings of Chauvet, he indulges his sole eccentric indulgence, showing a group of albino alligators he claims are the mutated products of water from a nearby nuclear power plant — a landscape landmark that couldn’t be more different from the cave containing the oldest paintings in the world just down the stream. It’s all a lie, unsurprisingly: the alligators were imported Louisiana natives who’d been that color before they ever got to France and that water from nuclear power plants doesn’t carry radioactivity. Nonetheless, an arrestingly original metaphor for the future of humankind.
3. Pig + bat (aka Meat Is Murder), Contagion
Most of Contagion is shot from a dispassionate distance as a riveting procedural series of tableaux of death. But the film’s end — the beginning of the timeline — shows the virus’ origins in horror-movie visuals: a terrifying close-up of a bat, a pig’s disgusting munching of the animal with its feed, queasy close-ups of Gwyneth Paltrow’s pork entree, with Cliff Martinez’s ominous score standing in for dialogue.
A 2008 documentary that only saw a small release this year, Lads & Jockeys is an impressionistic, refreshingly non-linear portrait of apprentice jockeys; in some of the most exhilarating scenes, the camera tracks amazingly fast right to left, keeping up in parallel with the galloping horses. Normally everything’s fine, but in one scene a nervous young boy loses control of his animal, which takes off galloping at alarming speed. All ends well, but it’s an almost unethically compelling moment of physical danger.
5) Polar bear, How I Ended This Summer
At a remote Siberian weather station, an older man who’s always messing with his younger colleague warns him to never go out alone unprotected: there are polar bears out there waiting to eat him. Sure enough, at a crucial and entirely unpredictable moment, one emerges, instantly spiking viewer’s adrenaline rates. The polar bears were real, and really were out-of-control. “Every time we went out of our cabin he ambushed us,” director Alexei Popogrebsky told the Daily Telegraph. “We had to light torches to drive him away. I put many of these things in the film.”
One of the many mysteries of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme: what’s that llama (and its companion, a less charismatic donkey) doing hanging out at the gas station that grounds the film’s second movement? “The truth is that they were in the field next to the petrol station in Switzerland where we shot the sequence,” Godard told the Taipei Times. “Voila. No mystery. I use what I find.”
7) Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Andy Serkis is the first (and so far only) star of the motion-capture age: first Gollum in Lord of the Rings, then an insanely expressive King Kong, and now Caesar, the simian revolutionary heralding the end of the human race. Some reviewers complained that Serkis’ facial expressions were too recognizably a human acting underneath a very sophisticated digital mask. But it’s an impressively physical, largely mute performance; a sudden burst into articulate speech is a spine-chilling minor Attica. (Respect is also due to actress Karin Konoval for her motion-capture portrayal of skeptical second-in-command Maurice the orangutan.)
8 ) Laika the dog, Le Havre
Laika was runner-up to Uggie in this year’s Palm Dog Awards, a successor to the many lovable family dogs Aki Kaurismaki puts in his films. There was a dog named Laika in 1992’s La Vie de Boheme as well; Le Havre brings back Andre Wilms’s Marcel for a reprise, now with the pointed surname “Marx,” so it’s only fitting that the communist standard-bearer should have a dog named after a pioneering Soviet canine astronaut. Kaurismaki’s the rare filmmaker who films dogs endearing without being cutesy; Laika’s a typically dignified player whose reaction shots are never just mugging.
9) Oxen, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
In all but one respect, the opening of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest resembles his previous works: a forest setting, an unwillingness to plunge directly into the narrative, a slow immersion in natural ambient sound. But the sunniness of previous films is gone: the late evening visuals are a deep inky blue. An oxen gets loose and runs away from its owners; despite its bulk, the animal is in no way threatening. It could be one of uncle Boonmee’s past lives, or maybe just a memorable bit player for his own sake. Either way, it’s the most dramatic opening of Joe’s career so far. (PS: the catfish is overrated.)
10) Dinosaur, The Tree of Life
The most discussed dinosaurs since Jurassic Park in a pastoral that could only come from a filmmaker as determined to dig transcendence out of the unlikeliest moments as Terrence Malick: his vision of compassion, comparable to the luminous Jessica Chastain, is a velociraptor-looking dinosaur (technically omnivorous) that decides not to eat a bleeding, fresh-meat herbivorous dinosaur; instead, he places his clawed foot on his head in benediction and wanders away.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.