Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Ten Best Animal Movies

In honor of my lovely fiancé, who suggested this top ten list, I decided to put together a list of my ten favorite “animal movies”. No animation, no talking animals were allowed, but other than that the only criteria was that an animal was one of the main characters in the movie. Not sure if she’ll agree with the list, but she can make her own if she so chooses. So, after much deliberation, here they are!

10. Old Yeller (1957)
Okay, so Old Yeller is kind of a cheesy movie. There really is no way of denying that, so I’m not even going to try. But just try watching that movie and not crying. It’s impossible. Young Travis grows to really love that old dog, and for much of the movie, the film is fun as we follow their adventures together. When Old Yeller gets rabies, and young Travis has to pick up a gun and kill his best friend, it is impossible for me not to cry like a little girl with a scraped knee. Yes, the recent Marley and Me made me cry as well, but I cry just thinking about this movie.

9. The Edge (1997)
Bart the Bear had a long career in Hollywood, playing “The Bear” in everything from The Clan of the Cave Bear to The Great Outdoors to White Fang to Legends of the Fall and many others. But his most memorable role is undoubtedly in one of his last films – The Edge. Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin play two men trapped in the wilderness. They hate each other, as Hopkins’ wife is sleeping with Baldwin, and they all know it, but when Bart the Bear starts tracking them through the wilderness, they have to rely on each other. Expertly written by David Mamet, and directed by Lee Tamahori, the film is a top notch thriller, made truly special by the performances of Hopkins, Baldwin and yes, Bart the Bear.

8. Best in Show (2000)
For my money, Best in Show is the best and funniest of Christopher Guest’s “mockumentaries” (and yes, I would include This is Spinal Tap as one of them). And while the movie is more about the insane people who own the dogs, then the dogs themselves (not to mention Fred Willard’s hilarious inept announcer who has no clue what is talking about), the animals themselves are also quite amusing. They are in fact the most sane characters in the movie.

7. The Birds (1963)
I am not quite the fan of Hitchcock’s The Birds that others are (it is a great film, but I can think of about 10 of Hitch’s films that are better), there is no denying that it is a great thriller, and that Hitchcock’s use of the birds themselves was amazing. No, he probably would not get away with tying birds to the backs of actors these days to get the effect he wanted, but then he wouldn’t have to. All the birds would be computer generated. But sometimes there is special effect that has the impact of the real thing, and this movie is momentally creepy.

6. White Dog (1982)
I only just recently watched Samuel Fuller’s forgotten 1982 film, but it easily deserves a spot on this list. The poor white German Shepherd in this movie has been trained since birth to be a racist – to attack and kill any black people he comes across. It is not his fault that he is evil, it has been ingrained in him. The movie follows a trainer’s effort to rehabilitate the dog, with tragic results. The dog in the movie is easily the most complex character – you grow to love the poor dog, and to root for him. Ignorance made him what he is – he is as much of a victim as any of the people he kills.

5. King Kong (2005)
Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake is much more of an animal than he was in the 1933 original (which is still a better film – see #3). He really is just a giant monkey in this film, trying to live his life in his natural habitat, when man comes in and takes him away from everything he has always known. He finds brief happiness and love with Ann (Naomi Watts), but the love is much more innocent, much less sexual than in the original. When Kong finally gives up at the top of the Empire State building and plunges to his death, it makes me cry every single time.

4. Harry and Tonto (1974)
Whenever people talk of people who didn’t deserve the Oscars they won, inevitably Art Carney’s role in Harry and Tonto comes up. And while I will admit that he should not have won over Al Pacino for The Godfather Part II or Jack Nicholson for Chinatown that year, his performance as Harry in this movie is brilliant, and never fails to break my heart. Harry is an old man whose one friend is Tonto, his cat. When Harry is forced out of his apartment, he and Tonto hit the road, where they meet an assortment of interesting, eccentric characters. When poor Tonto gets sick, and Harry goes to the back of the vet’s office to say goodbye, I defy anyone with a heart not to break down crying.

3. King Kong (1933)
The 1933 version of King Kong is better than the 2005 remake not because it is better technically, or even emotionally (it isn’t), but because it is a tighter, and yet somehow more complex film. Kong in this film is much more manlike in this film, and although he is treated much more as a villain, with an unhealthy sexual appetite for Ann (who unlike in subsequent versions, hates him), you still feel sorry for him. After all, he still never asked to be brought to New York to be a sideshow attraction. But because of his appearance, and his appetite for Ann, the film can also be read as an indictment of racism in America – with Kong as the scary black man coming for all the white women. It makes the film a little more fascinating, and complete, then the remakes.

2. Umberto D. (1952)
In some ways very similar to Harry and Tonto, Umberto D. tells the story of an old man whose one real friend is his dog Flike. He is having trouble maintaining his rent payments on his small pension, but is too proud to beg on the streets for more money. He tries to get Flike to do so, pathetically sitting there with a hat, but he cannot bring himself to do it. If he’s not willing to beg, then he shouldn’t ask his dog to either. Umberto decides his only choice is to kill himself, but he doesn’t want to leave Flike alone, so he tries to find a home from him. When that doesn’t work, he brings Flike to the park, and tells him to get lost. But Umberto cannot do that either. Flike is his best friend. He needs Umberto, and Umberto needs him.

1. Jaws (1975)
How could anything else be number 1? Since I first saw this movie as a child, the film has had a profound impact on me. I have been petrified of sharks every since, and my nightmares as a child dealt a lot with sharks coming after me in the water – no matter what body of water it was (I specifically recall a nightmare where a shark was in the pool at the Y coming after me!) Spielberg’s masterpiece remains one of the all time best horror films, one of the scariest, yet also one of the most complex and character driven. For all the talk of how Spielberg helped to kill the personal movie movement of the 1970s with the summer blockbuster Jaws, what people fail to admit is that Spielberg’s film is better than a lot of those films. The acting is superb (especially by Robert Shaw as the grizzled sea captain), the filmmaking impeccable, and all the shark moments are handled brilliantly – specifically because Spielberg refuses much of the shark until the late stages of the film. Quite simply, one of my favorite films ever.

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