7. Balthazar (orig. Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson, 1966)
Bresson throws at us one of his dissolved plots and amateur actors and actresses to tell the wistful story of a donkey named Balthazar. The poor devil, like several thousands of donkeys in the real world, is born already into the condition of a labour beast, and mistreatment is present since early in his life.
During the telling of this story, the film glances at the peripheral lives of various people somehow involved with the animal. Scenes of beating and humiliation are common, and once more in his career, Bresson attempts to charm through the use of apathetic expressions and mannerisms from the actors and a slow-paced editing, showing us, in multiple layers of depth inside the frame, the hardship endured by the donkey.
Balthazar is depicted growing up and serves families only until they realise that keeping him shall be either their misery, or utter boredom, or simply a routine nuisance. That way, one sees little of natural and instinctive existence for the animal, always prone to the capricious wantonness of wild lads and bitter old men.
There are many human universes in the narrative, and in each one we get a glimpse of the beaten down donkey carrying some random load and unknowingly following roads laid out in front of him by human hands. It is the story of a beast being used as workforce, and the sheer heaviness of its integral life playing that part.
8. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)
Charlton Heston is the big name in this film, but his humanly figure is hardly what picked the interest of the moviegoers from back when this classic hit the theatres.
The picturesque ape costumes were a novelty in terms of realism and mystique, and imagining a mythos in which an interstellar journey resulted in space crew members coming back to Earth, only in a parallel dimension, was also innovative. In this new dimension, the social stigmas had changed, the planet had gone back to a more unscathed state, and our neighbouring species of chimpanzees were ruling over humankind.
The crew leader George Taylor is brave enough, a true personification of the epic hero in an almost lonely quest to have a voice, and escape from the claws of oppression; but a more political subtext lies humbly behind the shots. Roles are turned round, predator becomes prey, and the other side of the primate world shows – shockingly for the time – the social order and existential judgments of speciesism coming back at humans.
The adamant dialogues expose the drama of the central characters whose hopes are almost gone, and the colossal landscape of the ending serves to symbolise how effectively ages can vanquish our dominance over Earth.
9. A Boy and His Dog (L. Q. Jones, 1975)
There are many ways through which to arouse public attention with a film about animals, or with a little element of bestiality in it. A Boy and his Dog chooses to run with the post-apocalyptic fiction branch to depict the troubled but sturdy companionship between Vic (the boy) and Blood (the dog). The two live in a ravaged United States, scavenging the barren sandy lands for food and other supplies, and for women.
The slightly chauvinistic perspective that the film pushed – especially towards the last dialogues – displeased even the author of the short story that inspired it, Harlan Ellison. The woman is seen as mere object, which is not something hard to believe in a progressive state of social decay, when urban horrors arise stronger than ever.
What is particularly subjective is the relation between the two protagonists. Vic, relatively ignorant as he is, always pushes Blood to the limit in their incessant search. As Vic enters the bourgeois underground city of Topeka after his chaotic “sweetheart” Quilla June, leaving Blood behind, he realises that he does not have much advantage in that devastated world without his companion.
In that way, A Boy and his Dog is a very interesting portrait of the animal intelligence prevailing under circumstances of crude survival, when the literate and rationalistic human mind is subdued by instinctual grit (here satirically depicted as educated and prudent).
10. The Seasons (orig. Vremena Goda, Artavazd Peleshian, 1975)
If one is to discuss Armenian directorship, especially when it comes to documentaries, there are no more appraised names than Artavazd Peleshian and Mikhail Vartanov. The two had a considerable history of co-authorship, and The Seasons is the last piece on which they worked together.
Beautified by the harmonies of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the film is an earthly visage on the peaceful, albeit sometimes disturbed, life in the countryside. Villagers carry hay, shepherds tend to their animals, other farmers cross tempestuous streams on horseback, while some others are still astonished by the presence of a film crew. Vartanov’s cinematography has a great touching potential.
In the film, sequences are carried by the very impact of the rural people’s routines, as we are left to wonder at the amazingly simple lives of those who dwell where civilisation would only predate. The pace is slow, as is the rhythm of the villagers and shepherds’ labour, perfectly aware of the place of those beasts in their lives and in the wild.
11. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
This is a gigantic cult classic. One that gives life to a gigantic rendition of a Great White Shark. Much can be said about Jaws, but I shall restrict myself to a look into its animal depiction.
It is hard to pin down when Great White Sharks became a public concern to such an extent that places on the seaside that were far from their oceanic areas of presence absorbed the sheer horror of a simple imagination of it. However, it is not so hard to imagine that the Spielberg’s high-grossing production helped build that superstitious imaginary.
After Jaws, the breed of thrillers with real-world animal antagonists that evoked extreme fear gained another tone. The shark kills for no apparent reason, and the fury directed against it is implacable, unable to leave room for questioning regarding the circumstances of its environment that led it to killing. Of course, that is not the focus of the film.
Instead, there are constant reminders of how nicely put the editing was in order to favour suspense, and how the action scenes were actually far ahead of the film’s time, granting it numerous awards and critical acclaim. Through its effective objectivity and its no-nonsense suspense orientation, this film is a notable part of cinema’s history, of the “human-predating beast” subgenre, and of the New Hollywood Cinema.
12. The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard, 1979)
An Arabian stallion has to be rescued by a father and son as the ship on board of which all of them were sinks. A tough but brief moment of survival in the dry sands reveals a proximity between the boy, named Alec Ramsey, and the beautiful horse. A friendship flourishes, and the return home is filled with anxiety about whether or not Alec will actually be able to keep the animal. Upon arrival, the adults start noticing the potential that it has to compete in horse races.
This is a touching story, not only for its trivial exploration of the relationship between a person and a – often viewed as – sport animal. It is touching also because of the thought, which is almost impossible to sway, that the stallion has had his life utterly fragmented. The little lad is his keeper, but also his relief; the races are some sort of prison, but also a reminder of his occasional perk to run freely, although reminiscing life in the wild would be too much for such a domesticated animal.
13. Hachiko (orig. Hachikō Monogatari, Seijiro Koyama, 1987)
Remember those online stories about a dog that habitually goes to a certain place where its master is, only to find one day that its master will never return; although it keeps going there? Well, Hachiko was the name of the dog that started it all. The potential for a moving storytelling that such an event has is immense, and although films have tried to work with the theme here and there, few have done it like this one.
Shujiro Ueno lives in the small ward of Shibuya, Tokyo. He is an agriculture university professor, and has to take the train every day to reach his workplace. Upon receiving an unexpected gift, a little Akita pup, he grows more and more attached to the dog, to the point in which his whole daily routine at home is dedicated to the animal.
One day, Ueno passes away. Being used to waiting for him at the train station, Hachiko keeps going there without fail, only to find that his beloved master is always absent. Grief and pity befall the people who work around the station, and they start taking care of the dog, but they can only go so far. The sweet soundtrack and beautiful editing sets the perfect pace for an emotional film that reaches the dog-friend inside of us. Hachiko and the train station are one, and professor Ueno has never died for him.