Humans are overrated. There were many great performances in the movies this year, but less covered have been the performances by non-humans, be they animal or animated. Here are 10 performances that got to us — despite not being one of us. 1. BB-8, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ 2. Shaun the Sheep, ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ 3. Ava, ‘Ex Machina’ 4. Arlo the Apatosaurus, ‘The Good Dinosaur’ 5. Lolabelle, ‘Heart of a Dog’ 6. Bunzo, ‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’ 7. Sadness, ‘Inside Out’ 8. Paddington, ‘Paddington’ 9. Hagen, ‘White God' 10. The Banker Bros, ‘The Big Short'
For the prequels, George Lucas made “Star Wars” digital, and anything that wasn’t an actual human was created in a computer. “The Force Awakens” goes back to basics, not only shooting on actual film but actually hand-making certain characters. Amongst those is its own mini-R2D2: a little guy or girl who’s two balls excitably rolling about, bleep-blooping up a storm. The new “Star Wars” has its problems, but BB-8 is, in Internet-speak, everything.
The English stop-motion animation house Aardman can always be counted on to design incredible creatures with big eyes, bigger teeth and a killer sense of timing. Shaun, the sheep from the TV show and movie spinoff named after him, follows in the footsteps of their greatest creation, Gromit (of “Wallace and,” obvs), communicating loads without ever saying a word. He’s grumpy ball of equal parts wonder and irritation, friendly for screengrabs to denote a variety of moods, most of them gloomy.
She’s played by a human, and she looks human (partially), and she even seems human (sometimes). But Ava, the A.I. humanoid in this brainy chunk of sci-fi, is not human. Alicia Vikander’s superbly delicate performance walks the line between fake and real so well even we, like the mousy programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) tasked with testing her, can come to see her as flesh and bone, even if the only things that look real about her are her face and hands.
Like Aardman, Pixar knows how to do good non-human. They had a good year (see Sadness from "Inside Out," a little lower down), and even though “The Good Dinosaur” is looking like it will be the studio’s lowest ever grosser, we’d like to make a case for its star. Arlo is a runt of a dino and a real scaredy-cat. And though his arc is stock zero-to-semi-hero, he’s so well designed and voiced that he makes us feel his perpetual anxiety on a gut level, not just a theoretical one. He seems like a real, frightened kid, in part because he’s voiced by a real, frightened-sounding kid: Raymond Ochoa. And annoying as anthropomorphizing can be, his facial expressions are second to Shaun the Sheep (see above).
We’re all for cats, but dogs — bundles of energy, emotionally binary — are a little more film-friendly. Especially the rat terrier seen in Laurie Anderson’s semi-experimental doc. The film is partly about Lolabelle’s passing, but her memory, and many adorbs dog videos, lives on in Anderson’s film, including images of her scampering about, even playing the piano.
Admittedly Bunzo, the tan-colored rabbit in this unusual indie, doesn’t do much. He’s the very self-reliant pet of the movie’s very self-reliant hero, Tokyo loner Kumiko (Rinko Kichuchi), who is so cut off from her fellow humans that when she happens upon a beat-up VHS copy of “Fargo,” she thinks its tale of buried treasure is real. Before she heads off for a foolish trip to America to find the booty, she has to get rid of her only friend, which means putting Bunzo on a subway and watching as it pulls out of the station. Poor Bunzo.
Pixar again! It’s tempting to go with Bing Bong, the tragic imaginary friend in their pretty gutting peek inside the mind of a little girl undergoing a brutal adolescence. But as with “The Good Dinosaur,” we’re a little more in league with the character voiced by “The Office”’s Phyllis Smith, the embodiment of one of her four chief emotions. She’s frustrating but necessary, just like real sadness.
Colin Firth originally voiced Michael Bond’s beloved sentient stuffed bear, but the film just didn’t work. And so the makers got Ben Whishaw. That did it. It’s a fit as smooth as a good jar of marmalade.
We’re not a fan of this keyed-up Hungarian drama about a dog who shuffles between various abusive owners and captors. But we are totally about its canine lead. We’d love to even vote his two actors, Bodie and Luke, in end-of-year acting polls. It’s not easy getting strong dog performances, especially in a film so mean to its non-human star. Bonus: Bodie and Luke have hilarious IMDb trivia pages, both of which simply read “Is a dog.”
Arguably the scariest scene in “The Big Short” finds our good banker heroes encountering some bad bankers — specifically two giggly bros (Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen) who can’t wait to tell them about all the poor people and immigrants to whom they knowingly sold bad loans, fully aware they wouldn’t be able to make their payments. “They’re not confessing,” points out one of our protagonists. “They’re bragging.” Luckily no flesh-and-blood human being would screw over not only innocent people but the world economy as well.
Humans are overrated. There were many great performances in the movies this year, but less covered have been the performances by non-humans, be they animal or animated. Here are 10 performances that got to us — despite not being one of us.
1. BB-8, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
2. Shaun the Sheep, ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’
3. Ava, ‘Ex Machina’
4. Arlo the Apatosaurus, ‘The Good Dinosaur’
5. Lolabelle, ‘Heart of a Dog’
6. Bunzo, ‘Kumiko the Treasure Hunter’
7. Sadness, ‘Inside Out’
8. Paddington, ‘Paddington’
9. Hagen, ‘White God'
10. The Banker Bros, ‘The Big Short'