Maybe it’s just because I got a cat this year — the first living, breathing creature I’ve owned since I failed to keep a hamster alive circa 1995 — but I couldn’t help noticing that the films of 2011 featured some damn great animals. Some were the stars of their films, like Rango (Johnny Depp) in Rango, while others played second fiddle to less interesting, or at least less adorable, human stars, like Rosie (Tai) in Water for Elephants, but all deserve special mention in my book.

And yeah, okay, the fact that they also serve as a convenient excuse to post cute animal photos during a slow news week happens to a nice little bonus as well. Read on after the jump.

Honorable Mention: Beaver (Mel Gibson), The Beaver — Technically, the beaver in The Beaver wasn’t actually an animal at all, but a ratty puppet controlled by sad-sack exec Walter (Mel Gibson). Still, it takes a very special creature to make me forget all the crazy, hateful shit Gibson has said and done over the past several years, and for 90 minutes this mangy creature managed to somehow do just that.

10. Cat (Unknown), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Thank God for the stray kitty in this grim thriller, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings and gives bland Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) something to do before he joins forces with the other, more interesting lead character (Rooney Mara).

9. Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), Rio — As it turns out, even in bright blue CGI bird form, a Jesse Eisenberg character is still very much a Jesse Eisenberg character: Fussy, neurotic, almost painfully awkward around the females of his species, and endlessly endearing.

8. Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rise of the Planet of the Apes — Yes, yes, Andy Serkis‘ performance as lead ape Caesar is going to change cinema, et cetera, and he deserves every bit of praise he gets. But this isn’t a list of the most groundbreaking animal characters of the year, it’s a list of my favorites — and that’s why I’m going with the charming yet badass orangutan who inspired this summer’s short-lived but entertaining meme “Why Cookie Rocket.” Why indeed, Maurice. Why indeed.

7. Paw-Paw (Miranda July), The Future — Paw-Paw started off as a cutesy conceit, but wound up being the most sympathetic character in the movie. She’d rank much higher, though, if we got to see more of her more often.

6. Animal (Eric Jacobson), The Muppets — Obviously, there’s no way I could list my top 10 movie animals of the year without listing Animal from The Muppets. Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) and his Moopets can keep Dave Grohl — I’d take gleeful, uncontrollable Animal any day.

5. Rosie (Tai), Water for Elephants — Ostensible leads Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon have no personality and less chemistry in this dull romance, but Tai pulls off the mean feat of conveying both majestic elegance and profound vulnerability. She’s basically the pachyderm world’s answer to Helen Mirren.

4. Rango (Johnny Depp), Rango — Most of the animals on this list got here for being cute, but Rango isn’t really cute so much as he is so ugly he comes all the way back around to being cute. Not to mention wild, witty, and unapologetically weird.

3. Snowy (N/A), The Adventures of Tintin — Tintin (Jamie Bell) gets all the credit for his enterprising spirit, but he’d be nowhere without his faithful terrier Snowy to save his ass or patiently point him in the right direction from time to time. Plus, Snowy appreciates a good Scotch. My kind of dog.

2. Arthur (Cosmo), Beginners — I’ll be honest: Cosmo ranks #2 mostly based on cuteness. If that seems superficial, I can only assume you haven’t seen the movie and therefore don’t understand exactly how cute he is. There’s little more to him than that, though: He’s also wise in the ways of the heart, and surprisingly eloquent for a dog.

1. Dog (Uggie), The Artist — Cosmo may have relied on subtitles to make himself understood, but Uggie not only didn’t need text, he didn’t even need sound to express himself just as well as his human co-stars. He also happens to be the true hero of the movie, what with actually saving someone’s life and all. There’s a reason there’s an entire Oscar campaign behind this one.

[Images via Sacred Scrolls and Mouth Taped Shut]

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