Back to IndieWire

The Best Animal Movie Characters of the 21st Century, From Black Phillip to Bunzo

Chaos reigns when you live deliciously.

Best Animal Characters of the 21st Century

We here at IndieWire care deeply about animals. So much so, in fact, that we racked our brains, debated among ourselves, and got into shouting matches over the relative merits of our favorite four-legged movie characters (okay, maybe not that last part).

A few ground rules came into play when whittling down our selections. Live-action animals made the cut, as did CGI creations in live-action films; fully animated productions, however, did not (sorry, Dante from “Coco”). We’ve been blessed with many great cinematic creatures in recent years, some of whom are no longer with us. Lucky, then, that their work is immortalized onscreen.

20. Marvin, “Paterson”

Marvin Paterson

There are many reasons why Jim Jarmusch’s remarkable “Paterson” shouldn’t have worked, but principal among them is its heavy reliance on an actual performance from an English Bulldog. The story of a bus-driving poet (Adam Driver) from New Jersey, the film follows the soulful rhythms and artistic pursuits of his regimented daily routine. A huge part of that routine involves his dog Marvin (Nellie, pulling off the gender switch with ease), whose deadpan comedic timing is pure Jarmusch, as the way she reacts, emotes and plays off an uber-sincere Driver is pure gold. As Paterson (Driver) is thrown off his routine the film’s heart lives in the subtle shifts, many of which are perfectly punctuated by Nellie, in a performance that fully earned its Palm Dog at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. —Chris O’Falt

19. The horse, “The Turin Horse”

The Turin Horse

This elegant two-hour 26-minute black-and-white movie starts with the first of about 30 very long takes. A huge old workhorse doggedly pulls a man and a heavy cart along a rough road in a howling gale. His muscles strain. He plows forward. He’s tired but he keeps going, eventually pulling into a barn where the driver (János Derzsi) and his middle-aged daughter (Erika Bók) unhitch and settle him. The decrepit animal eventually refuses to eat as the winds continue to rage in the bleakest of landscapes. When the horse gives up, it means the end for the farmer and the woman, who are subsisting on a shot of plum brandy and a boiled potato a day as their well runs dry. At age 56 in 2011, Hungarian Tarr declared that this black-and-white tone poem to despair would be his last. (He directed documentary short “Muhamed” in 2017.) —Anne Thompson

18. The spider, “Enemy”

Enemy ending spider

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered” is the epigraph that opens Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy,” not that it’s much help with what’s surely the most bizarre penultimate shot of any movie in recent memory: Jake Gyllenhaal walks into his bedroom and discovers that his wife has transformed into a giant, cowering tarantula. Fin. Images of spiders recur throughout the film, providing just enough thematic breadcrumbs to be confident that this eight-legged metaphor has a perfectly good reason for being there. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less terrifying to find the massive arachnid curled up into the corner like it’s just been caught in a lie. For arachnophobes, this will probably be the most traumatizing thing they’ve seen on screen since “Arachnophobia” (and at least that movie was gracious enough to warn us with its title). But even those viewers who aren’t scared of spiders are likely to be jolted by Villeneuve’s cheeky kiss-off, which leverages a familiar fear in order to access a number of much deeper ones. —Michael Nordine

17. The goats, “Manakamana”

Manakamana goats

Aside from being one of the purest, unadulterated modern views of humanity, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s masterpiece of a documentary has an air of mystery to it. Every time the cable car emerges from the darkness of the platform and out into the sunshine high above the Himalayan valley, it’s a surprise who the next companions will be on this ride. Some of the most memorable passengers on this cinematic journey are a group of goats. We never know their names, where they’re going, or what their eventual fate is. Just seeing them taking up this small space, climbing over each other and bleating in the direction of something off-screen cements this as a celebration of the rhythms of living things, not just humans. It’s a snapshot in time, on film, and the fact that they’re largely oblivious about what’s happening makes it all the more sweeter a segment. —Steve Greene

16. Seabiscuit, “Seabiscuit”

Seabiscuit

The namesake thoroughbred in “Seabiscuit” was composited from 10 equine actors, among them Popcorn Deelites and I TwoStep Too. Together, their sprinting, eye contact, and whip-endurance helped the adaptation of Lauren Hillenbrand’s bestseller pick up seven Oscar nominations. Writer-director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “The Hunger Games”) paired Tobey Maguire — as sullen, semi-blind jockey Red Pollard, long ago abandoned by his parents — with a cantankerous stable-occupant deemed too old small to win big. Both rider and racer sustained career-threatening injuries, yet they still triumphed over the fearsome, Triple Crown winner War Admiral. That 1938 contest, considered one of the high points in American sports history, was welcome entertainment for a nation emerging from the Great Depression, bracing for World War II. —Jenna Marotta

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film and tagged , , ,