For our latest top ten, James Oliver ventures into high-brow territory. These are our 10 favourite art house films starring animals. 

Be warned, these films are distinctly light on cute ickle fwuffy kittens. If you want something more substantial than Disney flicks however, you will find much to appreciate.

 

The Life of Pi

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Those who read it reckoned Yann Martel's (Man Booker prize winning) novel was unfilmable. Those people reckoned without Ang Lee. Along with his army of CGI wizards, Lee managed to bring the novel's all-important man-eating tiger to vivid life.

That tiger (who goes by the name of 'Richard Parker') is one of two survivors of a shipwreck. The other is a young chap called Pi (short for Piscine Patel) and they find themselves together on a raft.

In real life, of course, man-eating tigers make notoriously poor shipmates but this movie makes the journey seem magical.

 

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man
Image via Duncan Cowles

The only documentary on our list, Grizzly Man tells the story of a chap called Timothy Treadwell. Now, forgive the phrasing here but Treadwell seems to have been a colossal silly billy.

He spent his summers in Alaska palling around with bears (of the extremely dangerous variety) until they eventually killed and ate him.

Werner Herzog's film is both an attempt to understand this strange man and a useful refresher about the wisdom of staying as far away from bears as is humanly possible.

 

White God

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While Ang Lee used CGI to animate his tiger in The Life of Pi, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó eschewed such an easy approach. All the dogs in White God —and there are a lot of dogs in White God —were real. 

It is the story of a mongrel who falls in with a pack of dogs who rise up against humans. No doubt Mundruczó would prefer us to see it as a metaphor, but it's as interesting to think about how they wrangled all those dogs as it is to think what they all mean.

 

White Dog

White Dog
Image via Zimbo Films
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...and from White God to White Dog. (Did you see what I did there? You did? Oh.) This is a story of racism. The white dog of the title was raised by a white supremacist to attack black people.

Rescued by a new owner, an African-American dog trainer is recruited to help break its vile conditioning. Director Sam Fuller was one of the most ferocious critic of American's social ills. This film finds his attack-dog instincts on top form.

 

The Eel

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The Eel was the work of one of Japan's greatest directors, Imamura Shohei. It won him the Palme d'Or at Cannes and has been acclaimed as 'beautiful' and 'compassionate'.

None of that alters the fact that—well, if you thought that the films we've encountered so far were 'a bit odd', then I'm afraid I've got some bad news. The Eel is very odd indeed.

It concerns an introverted ex-con whose best friend, and the only person he can communicate with, is an eel. Warned you! (Although, as he stresses, 'it is a very special eel'. Does that make it any better?)

It's a masterpiece, of course, neatly fitting into Immamura's long-standing concern with—wait! Where are you going?

 

Le Quattro Volte

Le Quattro Volte
Image via Fact
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You have to feel a bit sorry for goats. They're never afforded the same affection that other, cuter, animals enjoy (it's the horns, isn't it?).

Still, poor hard-done-by goats can at least console themselves that in Le Quattro Volte, goat life becomes the most important thing in the universe.

This virtually wordless film is set in Calabria, where Pythagorus had his school. It explores some of the philosopher's notions about the soul through the life of a goatherd, his charges and those around them.

It is a beautiful, meditative piece about the universe and those of us who live there. It is, though, rather closer to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky than it is to Shaun the Sheep.

 

The Turin Horse

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Inspired, in part, by Nietzsche (the title refers to an unfortunate animal whose plight set the philosopher's moustache a-twitching with pity), The Turin Horse is an apocalypse movie like no other.

Across the course of seven days—and cynics might claim director Bela Tarr's glacial pacing makes the film feel that long—a one-armed farmer, his daughter and  their horse find the world going dark around them.

You will already have guessed that this is not a film for everyone. The clip above gives a fair idea of what the entire film is like. If you can accept his method and his vision, then Tarr's films are some of the most rewarding of our century so far.

 

Bombon El Perro

Bombon El Perro
Image via Independent Cinema Office
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This list is admittedly a bit on the grim side, but here's something to lift your spirits. Indeed, it's one of the most purely lovely art-house films there is. It's set in Patagonia, where a down-on-his-luck man is given a pedigree dog and enjoys a change of fortune.

A film full with kindness, you feel better for watching it. If only there were more movies like it.

 

Kes

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One of the greatest films ever made in Britain, Kes is, for many people, Ken Loach's finest achievement. It's a film fired by his tremendous compassion and his clear-sighted vision of the world.

Adapted from Barry Hines' novel, this is one of the greatest heartbreakers in cinema. No matter how much we want Billy Caspar to be as free as the kestrel he adopts, such things only happen in Hollywood—and this is South Yorkshire.

 

Au Hasard Balthazar

Au Hasard Balthazar
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Jean-Luc Godard didn't half say some silly things over the years but when it came to Au Hasard Balthasar, the critic-turned-filmmaker was absolutely spot on. Of Robert Bresson's film was, he said, “everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished because this film is really the world in an hour and a half”. 

Balthazar is a donkey, and since this isn't Shrek, he doesn't have much of a personality. As we follow him,from infancy to death, we see him less as a brute beast but as a citizen of a cruel world a world where people are treated just as badly as animals.

A harsh, tragic masterpiece and absolutely one of the best films ever made.

 

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