Most of the films below, in our survey of the top 10 environmental movies of all time, were made in the past 15 years. We don't know what that means, but if the alarm doesn't go off soon, and loud enough, we won't be having any more of these. Meanwhile, in no order whatsoever, here they are. Pass the popcorn, but hold the trans fat. (“Between your knees,” Jack Nicholson would say.)
An Inconvenient Truth (2006) Okay, this selection may seem rather de rigueur to lead off a piece on top 10 environmental movies. But why not? I mean, the aesthetic quibbles that determine what makes one movie eternally great and another merely timely may be lost on the polar bears picking their teeth with our bones after the last ice sheets disappear. Al Gore's cri du coeur (and don't we wish he hadn't cried louder in 2000?) is an apt summation of the problems now facing us—troubles, he told the Georgia Straight last summer, that will eventually “make Iraq look inconsequential”. Other docs about greedy bastards who ignore our planet for profit include The Corporation and Who Killed the Electric Car? And look for some of these themes to emerge in The Simpsons Movie, from Al's pal Matt Groening.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) This cold war–era disaster item is even more relevant than the other, better-known artifacts of A-bomb fear, from Godzilla to The Day the Earth Stood Still, mainly because human technology usually managed to right mistakes in a way that assuaged fears while exploiting them. Released in the U.S. just months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, this forgotten British gem by Val Guest starred Rumpole himself, Leo McKern, as a reporter trying to expose a government cover-up of two simultaneous nuclear tests (American and Soviet, of course) that send the Earth out of its orbit and toward the sun. Too much heat turns out to be a bad thing, and the film's indeterminate ending remains disturbing (as in The Incredible Shrinking Man), although the passages with rioting beatniks now look amusingly naive.
FernGully: The Last Rain forest (1992) I wonder how many now-teenage kiddies got their brains washed—I mean, illuminated—by this unusually effective animation. It followed a young logger suddenly shrunk by a (hot) forest fairy, who shows him how humans are screwing things up.
Baraka (1992) With this, the most environmental-minded of the abstract-Cuisinart approach to non-narrative globetrotting, director Ron Fricke (editor and cinematographer on the structurally similar Koyaanisqatsi) became a cult hero for his lyrical ode to the interconnected nature of Mother Earth.
Erin Brockovich (2000) In some ways, Steven Soderbergh's most popular movie is more lightweight than its obvious models, China Syndrome, Silkwood, and A Civil Action. And its tale of a legal assistant taking on a major polluter works even better as a call to individual action.
Whale Rider (2002) Plenty of films, particularly in the revisionist 1970s, embraced the aboriginal view of nature, with the human role greatly reduced. (Little Big Man, Grey Owl, and Walkabout come to mind.) This breakout hit from New Zealand didn't indulge in noble-savage tropes but opened the discussion to the concept that more holistic societies, in order to survive modern pressures, really need to allow everyone, including women and children, a crack at leading our human tribes into the future.
Dersu Uzala (1975) Japanese master Akira Kurosawa covered a lot of territory in his four-decade-long career, but he never went further afield, nor quietly deeper, than in this small-scaled, Russian-language epic shot in Siberia about an old aboriginal man who feels cursed after killing a rare tiger.
Never Cry Wolf (1983) Not exactly Kurosawa, but Black Stallion maker Carroll Ballard's Canadian-shot take on Farley Mowat (played by Charles Martin Smith) was a turning point in terms of debunking negative myths about wolves and other wilderness creatures. Also see Grizzly Man and The Grizzly Project for idiosyncratic views of wild predators and the men who love them too much.
Winged Migration (2001) Much less anthropomorphic than the more popular March of the Penguins, more accessible than Microcosmos, and less of a downer than the browbeating Darwin's Nightmare, this French doc makes you identify with the avian creatures that circumnavigate the planet.
Safe (1995) So how do people live with all these growing and often invisible environmental pressures? In Todd Haynes's disturbing and little-seen essay on modern malaise, Julianne Moore plays a wealthy suburbanite who becomes increasingly allergic to the toxins of a deteriorating social order. Hey, it's getting dangerous enough to turn an accountant into a rioting beatnik.