Llewyn Is the Cat: The 10 Best Animal Performances of 2013

Never work with children or animals, W.C. Fields admonished, but no one in the film industry listened. Kids are commended for being able to act at all and/or avoiding revolting cuteness, but animal performers are more inscrutable: sometimes executing limited acts on trained command, sometimes captured in their non-anthropomorphized actuality, sometimes dragooned into being clumsy symbols. Without further ado, a look at 10 of 2013’s most memorable animal appearances.

Ulysses, “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Ulysses the cat is the only animal on this list to be granted the dignity of a name, fitting for a character whose fame will linger long after vulgar inhuman would-be icons like “The Artist”’s Uggie the dog have faded from memory. The three cats playing Ulysses were trained by Dawn Barkan, whose notable credits include coaching the toilet-flushing cat from “Meet The Parents”; this is a far better use of her talents. For all the elaborate theories about What The Cat Means (check out this elaborate, quasi-convincing reading), what sticks is a shot of Ulysses staring in wide-eyed wonder out the subway window at passing stations, a house cat registering for the first time how big and exciting the world can be; it’s a rare (therefore more moving) moment of optimistic excitement in the Coens’ typically grim world.

Cats, “Computer Chess”

An inexplicable herd of puffy-haired cats — unseen during the day, omnipresent at night — haunt the cheap hotel at which early ‘80s computer chess programmers gather. Perched ominously and disapprovingly on washing machines, occupying entire rooms or noiselessly perching the hallways, their presence is inexplicable and unexpected enough to be a out-of-nowhere punch line the first time around, one that gets funnier with repetition. Why are they there? “You can’t make an avant-garde film without one silly color sequence and cats,” shruggingly explained director Andrew Bujalski. Alternate explanation? In his review, British critic Anton Bitel reminds us that the animals are a “staple of today’s internet,” as if the cats had traveled back to the early ‘80s to let all those earnest engineers know what the ultimate fruit of their labors would be.

Lion, “The Wolf Of Wall Street”

The wolf’s metaphorical, though perhaps if Martin Scorsese had cut between Leonardo DiCaprio and a slavering predator at regular 15-minute intervals we wouldn’t have to have all these stupid arguments about whether this movie celebrates its criminal protagonist. There is, however, a lion in the opening commercial for brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, an easy metaphor for the reputation they’re selling: dominant masters of the financial jungle, striding calmly to bring home the meat. (The real lion is named Handsome, and yes he is.) The animal’s inherent/anthropomorphized semblance of dignity is totally at odds with what we’re about to see, which is a joke; the movie’s not celebrating Leo as king of the jungle.

Vervet monkey, “Paradise: Love”

Ulrich Seidl’s typically appalling look at European women on Kenyan sex tourism holiday has some sympathy for Teresa’s (Margarathe Tiesel) inability to simply exchange money for intercourse. She won’t settle for less than genuine affection from her beach boys: an impossible request, but one that’s potentially empathizable. But Seidl’s got zero patience for the tourist’s instinct to turn every sanitized resort encounter into a brush with “local color,” preferably one to capture in a ludicrously posed photo. When Teresa spies a vervet monkey on her resort room’s balcony, she offers it a banana; after the animal accepts, she tries to photograph it. The monkey’s not having it: no matter how tempted it is by fruit, it won’t stay still long enough to be snapped, scampering off as fast as it appeared. Lesson learned: stop taking photos! And stop going on package tours while you’re at it.

[Note: I’m not a simian expert. A few people who’ve seen the movie temporarily ID’d the monkey as a Vervet but if it’s a capuchin or something I regret the error.]

Cows, “Post Tenebras Lux”

Slow, seemingly shiftless, sunk deep in cud-chewing reveries and swathed in a general air of dumb unresponsiveness, cows aren’t the most naturally lovable animals. It takes a small child to make them seem magical, or at least capable of inspiring spontaneous affection. In the opening of Carlos Reygadas’ film, his real daughter runs through a field at sunset, flexing her nascent linguistic muscles by naming the animals she encounters. “Dogs”? Everyone likes dogs. “Donkeys”? Two ways to love them, as noble laboring beasts and/or funny-looking. “Cows”? With her delighted cry, a child’s guileless enthusiasm re-enchants the bovine world (though it also helps that the Spanish word for the animals, “vacas,” sounds way peppier and enthused).

Water bird, “Leviathan”

We don’t know where the bird came from or what it’s called; we only know it abruptly appears on-board the ceaselessly monstrous, overwhelming commercial fishing boat that’s the center of “Leviathan”’s nightmare world. The bird waddles, in search of some fish to consume, painfully pushing itself up over a wooden border that hems in their discarded corpses. Finally, its efforts for naught, it slides right back into the water from which it came — presumably not to instant death, but who knows? Indomitable perseverance, meet life’s utter futility.

Chicken, “Memories Look At Me”

In actress Fang Song’s documentary-ish family trip home, she and her mother have to kill a chicken brought for their eating pleasure from the countryside. The actress initially doesn’t want to touch the chicken at all, fearing its thrashing beak and claws, but when the moment of execution comes the bird’s too tired to even put up a good fight. “Pitiful,” Fang sighs, now feeling bad for the fowl she’s about to eat. In a movie where an unhealthy majority of the conversations are about aging, death and obsolescence, it’s fitting that even the poultry is worn out and ready to be consumed.

Leopard, “The Counselor” 

What do the leopards in “The Counselor” represent? First introduced as the property of Javier Bardem’s Reiner, they seem like the usual accoutrements of a Bond villain type; later, his mistress Malkina (Cameron Diaz) delivers an ode to the beauty of watching them hunt in action, and we learn they represent pure killer instinct. Still later, we watch the leopards turn on Rainer, the kind of dinos-run-amuck moment that seemed pretty inevitable; if you show a big cat in the first act, it must go off in the third. But finally, as Malkina talks about identifying the leopard, we realize that women are predators and finally we know what the felines stand for: misogyny.

Giraffe, “The Great Beauty”

Zoos and circuses excepted, giraffes are confined to Africa, limiting their cinematic opportunities. Tall and cumbersome, giraffes also aren’t ideal for indoor magic shows, but in “The Great Beauty” we have the most memorable use of the animals since “I’m Not There,” when they were part of the deliberately “8 1/2”-aping literal circus surrounding one of that movie’s Bob Dylans.

In the also “8 ½”-aping “The Great Beauty,” our hero-by-default (he’s floating in the socially inconsequential void like everyone else around him, but at least he wrote a book once) Jep (Toni Servillo) comes across a magician and his giraffe in the moonlight. “This is my main effect of tomorrow night,” the magician says, “the disappearance of the giraffe.” Why, then, can’t you make me disappear too, Jep asks? “If you really could make someone disappear, would I still be here, at my age, to do these silly things?” the magician says. “It’s just a trick.” The funny-looking giraffe represents the impossibility of escaping one’s essential/idiosyncratic nature, which can be hidden but never disappeared into a new form? That makes more sense than the magical flamingos that show up later.

Deer, “Grown Ups 2”

The opening scene has Adam Sandler and Salma Hayek waking up to discover a gigantic deer has gotten into their stupidly big New England house and is standing over their bed. Sandler tries to get his wife to wake up and calmly move away, but when she sees the horned animal she understandably freaks, at which point the deer — now transparently a shoddy CGI creature — rears up on its hind legs and sprays a big jet of urine at the couple before running through the house. A woman can’t keep her damn mouth shut and look what results, an opener very much setting the tone for what’s to come.