The Best Movie Animal Performances of 2014

Deputy Kovacs' Cat From The Grand Budapest Hotel

Deputy Kovacs’ Cat From The Grand Budapest Hotel

tumblr_n2ckiaweyt1rp1voro2_250In , attorney Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) is tasked with managing the contested estate of the late Mme. C. V. Desgoffe und Taxis (Tilda Swinton). His his diligence frustrates the surviving children who want nothing but to inherit the fortune. Dmitri (Adrien Brody) threatens Kovac into ruling quickly in their favor but when the attorney refuses, Dmitri’s henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) throws Kovacs’s cat out of his open window. Kovacs was stunned, “Did he just throw my cat out the window?” he asks, before peering out the window seeing his dead Persian cat laying in the street below. Later we see Kovacs carrying his dead cat in a plastic bag as he is being chased by Jopling.

The New Yorker wrote an article titled “Does Wes Anderson Hate Cats?” which chronicles the filmmaker’s history of killing pets in his films. But despite this extensive film history, Anderson says he doesn’t hate animals, telling the Toronto Star:

“Every now and then it’s nice to bring some animals into the equation, I guess. I don’t own a cat but I don’t have any negative feelings.”

The New Yorker sums up Anderson’s “rigorously unsentimental view of pets”:

They are vitally important to people’s lives, but also—as anyone who has ever flushed a goldfish, or buried a cat in the backyard, only to move on rather blithely knows—weirdly and unnervingly disposable. But, in the end, men and women are disposable, too. Anderson’s movies have always been death-haunted. Now they are becoming increasingly gruesome, as if to prove ridiculous those who mistake his visual exuberance for a kind of twee, Pollyannaish world view. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is packed with frivolity, but, throughout, it is a story of bodily injury (a scene with some fingers was a macabre shocker) and, ultimately, of loss. Death awaits everyone—even the cat.

John Wick's Beagle

Daisy from John Wick

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Daisy, played by the beagle Andy, is quite literally the propulsive emotional force for this Keanu Reeves action film. Reeves plays the title character, a once-unstoppable hit man who has retired to quiet married life. Illness takes his wife, and Wick is lost.

Then one last connection to his ideal world arrives in the form of Daisy, a gift Wick’s wife arranged to be delivered to him after her death. The distraught guy barely knows what to do with the dog, but out of respect for his wife he starts to figure it out. Caring for Daisy is his first step in rebuilding his life, and it’s a clear hook on which the audience can hang our own attachment to the story. Honestly, if this movie was just about Keanu Reeves learning to be friends with this dog, we’d be in.

Then John Wick has a run-in with a douchebag gangster who wants Wick’s car. Pretty soon the guy just tries to take the car, killing Daisy in the process. That lights Wick’s fuse. (It’s right on the poster! It’s even on a fan poster, sourced here, seen at right.) Soon he’s totally disassociated from the life he tried to make, and is off on a mission of revenge — nominally not for his wife, or his life, but for his dog. (Which of course symbolizes his wife and their life, and therefor the entirety of his loss.) And we’re right there with him, because how horrible does a gangster have to be to kill this dog? Even the other bad guys in the film shake their head at him.

Here’s an exchange between two characters, a the film’s gangster boss, and an auto chop shop owner, which sums up the understanding of the importance of the dog, and the effect it will have on Wick.

“I heard you struck my son. May I ask why?”
“Because he stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.”
“Oh.”

Producer David Leitch sums up the approach, as they sought to cast “the cutest dog in the world.”

John Wick started living life with this dog. And immediately that chance of being the person his wife wanted him to be was ripped from him. After that, he becomes the monster he was before, the anti-hero we like to watch in these kinds of movies. We set up the empathy for John Wick by going all out.

Ceasar and Koba from Dawn of the a Planet of the Apes

Ceasar and Koba, the apes from Dawn of the a Planet of the Apes

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I think this one needs almost no explanation. Ceasar and Koba were performed using motion capture performances by Andy Serkis and To0by Kebbell. As you can see in the animated gif image above, their mocaptured performances were seamlessly converted to almost photo-real computer animated characters by the wizards at WETA. Ty Burr says it best in his Boston Globe article:

I hereby propose that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences create a new category: best motion capture performance, a.k.a. best actor in digital clothing, a.k.a. best performance by a man or woman covered in zillions of electronic Post-its. The first winner — and, really, it’s long overdue — would be Andy Serkis, … who, in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” provides the most regal performance of the year to date as Caesar, leader of the hyper-intelligent mutant simians who are poised to take over what’s left of Earth. In bearing, speech, and agonized expressiveness, Serkis’s Caesar conveys the conflicts of a king with almost Shakespearean grandeur. His thoughts and passions seem to will themselves past the megapixels onto our sensibilities. Is this art? Technology? Some devilish mixture of the two? When Caesar is onscreen, it’s a moot point. We’re simply watching a great performance.

These two award caliber performances generating controversy in the awards circles, as awards voters continue todebate where the performance ends and digital effects begin.

Serkis has often expressed complete ownership of his motion capture performances, and has expressed frustration at how misunderstood performance-capture is. He once told The Daily Telegraph “Ten years down the line, people say, ‘Oh, so you did the voice of Gollum?’ Or people go, ‘You did the movements for Kong?’ It’s frustrating, because I play Gollum and I play Kong. It is acting.”

One comment in particular was the focus of a lot of scrutiny. Serkis claimed that what WETA “are doing is painting digital makeup onto actors’ performances” which some in the animation and tech fields felt dismissed the artistry and world involved in generating the characters from the performance capture. But as it turns out, the phrase “digital make-up” was something coined by WETA artists, and director Matt Reeves has been leading the charge when it comes to Serkis’ performance getting its due desserts.

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