Polar Bear from the 2009 documentary Earth (Greenlight Media, BBC Worldwide)

A polar bear, from 2009’s epic documentary
Earth. Did it make Tom’s list of best animal
documentaries? (Greenlight Media, BBC Worldwide)

Last week’s post about the ACE award for animal-friendly documentaries got me thinking about my favorite nonfiction films about our furry and feathered friends.

I’m most interested in docs that have had a theatrical release, and you’ll see by my ranking that I’m most enamored by films that are about far more than the cute factor. These documentaries tell great stories that help redefine the relationship between people and animals (and a few insects too).

10. Winged Migration (2001)

Because I’m on record as having said Winged Migrationwas just a dumb movie about birds,” it might seem inappropriate to put it on this list, but hear me out. I was under the influence of too-high expectations! If you recall, this film had a word-of-mouth buzz that was off the charts. In truth, it really is a magical experience getting up close with the birds’ and experiencing their POV.

9. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005)

Another bit of revisionism here. Last year, I reviewed this documentary and said that I could not recommend it. But there’s something about the softening of time… I’ve thought about how this film creates a strong sense of place (in San Francisco), but more than that, it depicts a bond between man and birds that continues to resonate with me.

8. Earth (2009)

The feature-length version of the fantastic TV series Planet Earth is just that: a big screen version of one of the best nature series ever. The crisp shot of an enormous, leaping great white shark is one of the greatest images ever seen on the big screen. The photography of polar bears and whales is breathtaking, but I was particularly fond of the little chicks flinging themselves from their nests.

7. Oceans (2010)

The Disneynature series, which began with Earth, continues here under the sea, and I’d place it a notch above its predecessor because of the better narration and the fact that these films are all about the Wow! factor of nature getting captured by the latest in film technology. That’s what we get to see here — at its best. Creatures and colors that perhaps were never meant to be seen by the human eye are revealed in a manner that ought to make James Cameron blush. I’m looking forward to Disneynature’s Chimpanzee next year.

6. The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003)

As much a story about a remote Mongolian family as it is about the camels they depend on, this documentary depicts a vital bond with great camera work and a poignant depth that nearly had me weeping myself.

5. March of the Penguins (2005)

Originally a French film, this documentary was adapted for the United States, where it became a box-office phenomenon, raking in $77 million. (The French have nearly cornered the market on this subject.) March of the Penguins creates the perfect balance between wonder and cuteness and it clearly struck a chord with audiences.

4. Microcosmos (1996)

Winged Migration and Oceans director Jacques Perrin has a way with animals and with invoking the awe with which we should view Earth’s creatures. This film isn’t about animals, but as a producer on Microcosmos, Perrin kick-started the current-day genre of nonfiction filmmaking about critters great and small. Microcosmos shows insects at their most beautiful, accompanied by an elegiac score.

3. Project Nim (2011)

Full disclosure: I knew Nim Chimpsky when I was a boy, having had a teacher who took care of the chimp, the subject of this sad film by top-notch director James Marsh (Man on Wire). Project Nim is an incisive tale about an experiment on a chimp, told through excellent archival footage, great access and incredible interviews. It’s a documentary that reveals much about human behavior.

2. The Cove (2009)

The Oscar winner had a very interesting creation story. It was initially a straight-forward advocacy film about mercury accumulation and poisoning from dolphin meat. But then Hollywood producers helped spin it into a dolphin-massacre spy thriller. The horror at its core is the butchery of these exquisite creatures, and the heroes were the filmmakers, scientists and animal lovers trying to expose a travesty. When Bourne meets Oceans, that’s a good thing.

1. Grizzly Man (2005)

Director Werner Herzog, whom I adore, has a way of making his films both deeply poetic and absurdly hilarious at the same time. Here, the story of a man who’s love for grizzly bears eventually kills him, has both elements for sure. I always get a kick out of Herzog, but what makes Grizzly Man incredible is its subject, Timothy Treadwell, and the raw, sometimes awful, sometimes beautiful, footage he left behind.

What would go at the top of your list of recommended animal-themed documentaries? Vote for your favorite below and let me know in the comments…

This poll is now closed.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen