Why you should care
Since walking with the animals and talking with the animals is out, the next best thing — watching them — has got to be in.
This year’s slate of winter movie releases is light on films starring characters from the animal kingdom — unless you count those movies that digitally anthropomorphize them into grotesquely adorable little monsters, which we do not. It’s too bad, too, because animals are innately cinematic. They move in mysterious ways. Whether we see them as true companions, or beasts of burden, or food, or the unknowable fellow inhabitants of a crowded and complicated planet, animals are very much worth looking at. Each of the films in our list bravely addresses that mystery — and it goes without saying that each of them also reveals much about the human animal.
The list includes recent films, art house gems and forgotten classics, and nearly all are available on streaming services. Watch the trailers below.
In Denis Côté’s wordless, non-narrative 2012 documentary, mundanity becomes profundity. All this beautifully shot movie really does is sit and look at animals in an outdoor zoo. And that’s all it needs to do. Available on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
The Big Animal
Directing a script by the late, great Krzysztof Kieślowski, in whose films he was a frequent player, actor Jerzy Stuhr plays a simple man who adopts a camel that’s been abandoned by a traveling circus. Not surprisingly, this results in a deeply humane, gently ironic fable. Available on DVD.
Bringing Up Baby
A Howard Hawks staple from 1938, starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, this may or may not be the ultimate screwball comedy. It absolutely is the ultimate screwball comedy involving a leopard. Available on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
It was a decisive turning point in the career of director Werner Herzog, who almost became a household name with this disturbing yet mesmerizing 2005 found-footage documentary portrait of a man who lived with bears until being eaten by one. Available on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
Au Hasard Balthazar
Rightly revered by cinephiles for his exquisitely austere style, Robert Bresson had the decency not to anthropomorphize the allegorically rich subject of his 1966 masterpiece, a long-suffering donkey, which makes a deceptively brief appearance in this trailer. Improbably, perhaps, this is a story of great dignity. Available on Hulu Plus.
In this 1969 groundbreaker from director Ken Loach, a troubled mining-town kid takes in a baby falcon. Full of grit, devoid of sentimentalism, it remains a radical epitome of British social realism. Available on Amazon and iTunes.
The Private Life of a Cat
Avant-garde luminaries Alexander Hammid and Maya Deren made this 22-minute silent documentary in 1947. Correctly if clickbait-ishly described by The Atlantic as “the best experimental film about cats ever made,” it chronicles the having of kittens, and is marvelous. Watch the entire film via YouTube, here.
Le Quattro Volte
Goats steal the show in Michelangelo Frammartino’s deliberative and delightful 2010 docu-essay on the transmigration of a rural Italian soul. How agilely they roam, how wisely they ruminate! Available on Fandor.
Year of the Dog
Mike White’s 2007 indie comedy-drama shows great sensitivity to the direct expression of feeling that pets allow from us when we don’t allow it from each other. It has superb performances by Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Josh Pais, Peter Sarsgaard, Laura Dern and a special beagle. Available on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
A Zed & Two Noughts
A swan-intensive car crash at the Rotterdam Zoo. A morbidly obsessive pair of grieving twin zoologists. A film equally attuned to composition and, um, decomposition. Peter Greenaway’s artful oddity from 1985 isn’t for everyone, but it is easily the weirdest movie on this list. Available on Fandor and Amazon.